Before Going Out to Fight, Look Inside

Before Going Out to Fight, Look Inside

Aug 20, 2021 By Jeffrey Kress | Commentary | Ki Tetzei

We know that every extra word in the Torah invites exploration to arrive at its deeper meaning. The opening words of Parashat Ki Tetzei require such consideration: “When you go out to war against your enemies . . .” Why mention enemies? Who else would one be going to war against? Rabbinic interpretations focus on the use of the plural (enemies) as signifying a distinction between categories of conflict, each requiring different rules of engagement. This helps explain why the rules of war that open the parashah differ from the closing instructions about how to fight Amalek. The Torah is talking about two different categories of conflict.

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Making Space for Community

Making Space for Community

Aug 13, 2021 By Rafi Cohen | Commentary | Shofetim

For two weeks this summer, I was a visiting educator at Ramah Sports Academy. My responsibilities were fairly typical for a visiting rabbi at camp: leading classes for campers and staff, supporting a particular edah (age group). But I also had an opportunity to assist the summer mashgiah in assessing and repairing the eruv before Shabbat. The camp’s eruv—a ritual legal enclosure fixed for the purpose of allowing activities such as carrying from one domain to another on Shabbat—was constructed using some of the natural boundaries around camp. To identify the sightline of the trees at the far end of a field or a stream of water that connects one part of camp to another as part of the created boundary, string and small wooden posts (lehim) were affixed along parts of the camp periphery.

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Can We Mourn Too Much?

Can We Mourn Too Much?

Aug 6, 2021 By Katja Vehlow | Commentary | Re'eh

When someone dies, this week’s parashah tells us, we should not ritually cut ourselves or our hair. In other words: we should not mourn excessively.

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A Legacy of Peace

A Legacy of Peace

Jul 30, 2021 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Eikev

Why do we still need kohanim? What purpose do hereditary priests—the descendants of Aaron—serve in a culture that appoints religious leaders based primarily on education? Whatever authority rabbis have stems mostly from their knowledge and individual personalities, but the kohanim inherit theirs. Leviticus 21 describes the kohanim as a holy caste who, due to nothing other than heredity, assume the religious leadership of B’nei Yisrael. Their heritage is not land, like the other clans of Israel; rather, their legacy is God, Sanctuary, and sacrifice alone.

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The Commandments We Need

The Commandments We Need

Jul 23, 2021 By Rachel Rosenthal | Commentary | Va'et-hannan

The act of retelling is, by virtue of necessity, an act of interpretation. Certain details sharpen and others fade as we place a past experience in the context of our needs and thoughts in the present moment. As Yosef Chayim Yerushalmi famously argued in his seminal book Zachor, there’s a difference between history and memory—both are deeply important, but they play different roles in our lives.

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Rebuilding the Temple Within

Rebuilding the Temple Within

Jul 16, 2021 By Eitan Fishbane | Commentary | Devarim | Tishah Be'av

With this parashah, we begin the book of Deuteronomy, the opening of a book of memory—a recalling of the forty years of desert wandering while simultaneously anticipating the entrance of the people into the Land of Israel.

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Who Gets the Last Word?

Who Gets the Last Word?

Jul 9, 2021 By Judith Hauptman | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

Mattot and Masei, the last two portions of the book of Numbers (30:2–36:18), are usually read one after the other on the same Sabbath. Are these portions linked by something other than the quirks of the Jewish calendar?

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In the Face of Violence, a Covenant of Peace

In the Face of Violence, a Covenant of Peace

Jul 2, 2021 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Pinehas

Karen Armstrong, the scholar of religion and popular author of such works as The History of God, relates that wherever she travels, she is often confronted by someone—a taxi driver, an Oxford academic, an American psychiatrist—who confidently expresses the view that “religion has caused more violence and wars than anything else.” This is quite a remarkable statement given that in the last century alone, tens of millions of people have been killed in two world wars, the communist purges in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and the Cambodian killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, none of which were caused by religious motivations.

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Greater than Moses?

Greater than Moses?

Jun 25, 2021 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Balak

Although this week’s Torah reading is named for the Moabite king Balak, who sought to curse the Israelites, the real star of the show is the gentile prophet Balaam ben Be`or—with a special comedy cameo by his talking ass. Three whole chapters of the Torah (Num. 22–24) are given over to the efforts of Balak and Balaam to curse the Jews. In the end, of course, God prevails, and on Friday nights in Schul we still sing Balaam’s blessing, “Mah tovu ohalekhah Yaakov—How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”

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Heroes and Humans

Heroes and Humans

Jun 18, 2021 By Amy Kalmanofsky | Commentary | Hukkat

One of the things I love most about the Bible is that it presents humans, not heroes. Even the Bible’s greatest figures have virtues and vices.

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Korah Had Options and So Do We

Korah Had Options and So Do We

Jun 11, 2021 By Stephanie Ruskay | Commentary | Korah

Korah is most famous for challenging Moses’s authority, framing rebellion in the guise of populism, and calling on Moses to share power and religious titles. The Rabbis understand Korah’s call for shared leadership and responsibility as a selfish desire to see himself awarded the role of the kohen gadol. He did not actually want “people” to have power; rather, he personally wanted authority and prestige and framed rebellion as something he was doing for the greater good.

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Contempt for God’s Word?

Contempt for God’s Word?

Jun 4, 2021 By Gordon Tucker | Commentary | Shelah Lekha

Numbers chapter 15, having set forth instructions for how to atone for unintentional sins, next turns its attention to deliberate transgressions (30–31):

But the person who transgresses with a high hand, whether native or sojourner—he reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from the midst of his people. For he has shown contempt for the word of the Lord [devar adonai bazah], and God’s commandment he has violated. That person shall surely be cut off, his crime is upon him.

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Help Wanted

Help Wanted

May 28, 2021 By Shira D. Epstein | Commentary | Beha'alotekha

In recent years, Jewish institutions have joined efforts to address issues of equity in the workforce, encouraging transparency in publicized pay scales, promotion criteria, and job requirements. This endeavor has been facilitated by pioneering organizations such as the Gender Equity in Hiring Project that did not exist when I negotiated salary for my first classroom teaching position. I reflect back on the hiring process, which felt at the time like a puzzle for which I was meant to know the solution but could not access; I now understand that these feelings of isolation were common, particularly when no formal pay scale existed. Today as an activist for workplace equity, I benefit from the wisdom of current advocacy; at the urging of some of our alumni, The William Davidson School weekly newsletters have recently begun to only post descriptions that include salary ranges. This seemingly small change enables a level playing field, putting employers and job candidates on more equitable negotiating grounds.  

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Parenting Lessons from the Priests

Parenting Lessons from the Priests

May 21, 2021 By Abigail Uhrman | Commentary | Naso

It is a beautiful moment in this week’s parashah: God asks Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to bless B’nei Yisrael on God’s behalf. Not only is the sentiment and poetry of the priestly blessing stirring in and of itself, but given its use in contemporary religious life, it carries even further resonance. In Jewish households across the world, parents offer this blessing to their children as part of their Friday night ritual. In my own experience, I have vivid memories of my grandparents and parents blessing me and my sisters with these words, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to do the same for my children each Shabbat. Those few precious moments—where my husband and I get to hold each of our kids, whisper these ancient verses, and kiss them “Shabbat shalom”—have become a sacred occasion in our home. I’ve repeated these phrases now over many weeks and years and, at times, with little thought to the meaning behind the words. A closer reading of the text, though, has affirmed for me some essential parenting lessons.

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Counting the Moments

Counting the Moments

May 14, 2021 By Shuly Rubin Schwartz | Commentary | Shavuot

Among the many ways that the pandemic has impacted us this past year has been our relationship to the passage of time. On the one hand, time felt like a blur, with one day bleeding into another. Save for Shabbat, each day looked like the day before and the day after. We wore the same clothes and interacted face-to-face with the same few people in our pods. We sharply curtailed, cancelled, or postponed the life-cycle celebrations, sporting events, live performances, and travel that would normally punctuate our year. Our lives constricted dramatically, as did our hopes and dreams, and even if we were fortunate enough not to suffer illness, death, or job loss, many of us experienced a sense of monotony or diminishment.

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Why Do Jews Still Adhere to the Torah’s Covenant?

Why Do Jews Still Adhere to the Torah’s Covenant?

May 7, 2021 By Jeremy Tabick | Commentary | Behar | Behukkotai

Why do we, as Jews, have fealty to the Torah? Why do many of us feel bound by the Torah’s laws?

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Struggling to Celebrate

Struggling to Celebrate

Apr 30, 2021 By Naomi Kalish | Commentary | Emor

While Parashat Emor contains one of the Torah’s discussions of holidays and instructions for their observances, rabbinic literature provides guidance for their observance in the context of the complexities of the participants’ lives, even those who might be struggling to celebrate.

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The Palace of Torah Expanded: 15 Years Later

The Palace of Torah Expanded: 15 Years Later

Apr 23, 2021 By Daniel Nevins | Commentary | Aharei Mot | Kedoshim

For many modern readers, engaging with Torah presents a paradox. Biblical and rabbinic voices reaching us from the distant past are like starlight emitted millennia ago—brilliant and often shockingly current, but also artifacts from light sources that may have dimmed or even expired. This paradox can be constructive, drawing modern readers out of our own cultural assumptions, challenging us to notice wonders that we might otherwise miss. The Torah’s poetry, its stirring demands for justice, and its vast system of devotional rites prime us for faith and sanctity. And when we encounter a Torah text that rings false or hurtful, we may use that encounter to clarify our own understanding, to articulate our community’s sacred values. 

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The Values of a Jewish Home

The Values of a Jewish Home

Apr 16, 2021 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Metzora | Tazria | Yom Hazikaron-Yom Ha'atzma'ut

In the precious days “Before the Coronavirus Era” (B.C.E.), the parshiyot of Tazria-Metzora seemed wholly disconnected from our lives, presenting the perennial challenge of relevance (or irrelevance) to even the most talented darshan (sermonizer). How are we to connect leprous plagues attacking both body and abode to our daily lives? And to what extent does the experience of quarantine resonate with our modern reality? These are only two of the many questions that we would have posed in a pre-Covid world.

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The Seed of the Rabbinic Revolution

The Seed of the Rabbinic Revolution

Apr 9, 2021 By Jason Rogoff | Commentary | Shemini

How important is intention in Jewish law? Do I need to be mentally present when performing commandments, or is it enough to go through the motions and get it done? How often does the Torah care about what I’m thinking? For many of us the answers to these questions would seem obvious: Of course, God demands active engagement with the commandments! Why are mitzvot worth doing if I’m not going to be mindful in their performance? In reality, these answers are a product of the revolutionary interpretations of the Torah by the early rabbinic sages.

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