Making Torah Our Own

Making Torah Our Own

May 18, 2018 By Galeet Dardashti | Commentary | Text Study | Shavuot

The piyyut below was written by Rabbi Ya’akov Abihatzeira, an important religious figure in 19th-century Morocco. Sung in Moroccan communities primarily in honor of Shavuot, the piyyut portrays the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. It depicts God as the beloved bridegroom entering into a figurative marriage with Israel, the bride, and playfully riffs on the Ten Commandments.

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Overcoming Sleep

Overcoming Sleep

May 3, 2018 By Jeremy Tabick | Short Video | Shavuot

Why should we stay up all night on Shavuot?

featuring Leora Perkins (RS ’19)

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Is it Time to Rethink the Israel-Diaspora Relationship?

Is it Time to Rethink the Israel-Diaspora Relationship?

Apr 19, 2018 By Arnold M. Eisen | Public Event video | Video Lecture | Yom Hazikaron-Yom Ha'atzma'ut

A provocative discussion with Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen and Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson about how Israel and Diaspora Jewry influence each other—and how we can develop a new vision for working together.

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Freedom through Torah

Freedom through Torah

Apr 5, 2018 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Pesah

“The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets” (Exod. 32:17). Do not read, “incised,” (harut), rather [read] “freedom” (herut)—for no person is truly free except the one who labors in Torah. (Mishnah Avot 6:2)

Freedom in biblical and rabbinic Judaism is a highly complex idea. Consider the mishnah above. At first glance one might think the law, the Ten Commandments carved on the two tablets, would be limiting, constraining human freedom. Counterintuitively, the Sages argue that true freedom only comes from an engagement with Torah! How might “laboring in Torah” and living a life according to the demands of the Torah induce freedom?

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The Challenges of Change

The Challenges of Change

Mar 30, 2018 By Mona Fishbane | Commentary | Pesah

I love Pesah, the holiday of intergenerational narrative. When we used to host the seder, our parents, siblings, and young children would join us at the table as we passed on and renewed the tradition each year. My husband’s puppet show was a favorite—he would spin a story from his vivid imagination—including, in one memorable year, how the bad guys stuffed Matzah into the Omphalos, the center of the world, causing havoc and chaos, and how Moshe had to get it unstuck and open the pathways. Sesame Street meets Kabbalah.

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Four New Questions from the Four Children

Four New Questions from the Four Children

Mar 23, 2018 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Shabbat Hagadol

Here’s a challenge for the rising generations seated around the seder table this year: make sure your Four Questions address the ways in which things truly are different in 2018 from how they have been at Passovers in the past.

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Redeeming the Plagues

Redeeming the Plagues

Jan 12, 2018 By Miriam Liebman | Commentary | Va'era | Pesah

Every year at the Passover seder, there is a brief pause in the chaos when everyone dips a finger in their cup of wine and spills a single drop for each of the ten plagues. We are spilling wine to remind ourselves that although the plagues served as miracles for us, those miracles came at the expense of others.

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The Hanukkah Story I Need to Hear This Year

The Hanukkah Story I Need to Hear This Year

Dec 15, 2017 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Hanukkah

Stories have great power. We tell stories about ourselves and about our communities because they give our lives meaning, and they help us navigate between the past and the future. We use stories to help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Not far behind the seemingly innocent plots of many of the stories we tell about our community’s religious history lie profound cultural responses to our most pressing questions about what it means to be a human being and how to live life well.

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Lighting Up the Dark Days

Lighting Up the Dark Days

Dec 11, 2017 By Julia Andelman | Short Video | Hanukkah

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Yosef: A Light in the Darkness

Yosef: A Light in the Darkness

Dec 8, 2017 By Eitan Fishbane | Commentary | Vayeshev | Hanukkah

Parashat Vayeshev takes us deep into the pain and alienation of being human, of yearning from a low place of darkness and suffering. And yet the narrative also conveys the power of hope—a longing for God and redemption, for spiritual and moral healing in our human relationships.

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Our Very Life

Our Very Life

Oct 4, 2017 By Jason Rogoff | Commentary | Sukkot

One time it happened that a priest poured the libation on his feet, and all the people pelted him with their etrogim. (M. Sukkah 4:9)

The above Mishnah describes a scandalous episode set on the festival of Sukkot during the Second Temple period. The previous mishnah explains that on each day of the festival there was a ceremony where the priests would fill a golden flask with water from the Shiloah spring and bring it to the Temple to offer as a sacrifice on the altar. The special sacrifice of water was only offered on Sukkot. All other days of the year wine would be poured on the altar.

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A Sukkah Remembers

A Sukkah Remembers

Oct 4, 2017 By Ofra Backenroth | Commentary | Sukkot

In his poem “The Jews,” Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000) bestows on us a full typology of the Jewish people—from the standpoints of both Jews themselves and outsiders. Some of those images remain with us: the Jew wearing a Turkish turban in a Rembrandt painting, the Chagall Jew holding a violin as he flies over rooftops, and other vivid images. In the middle of the poem, Amichai mentions a sukkah—his grandfather’s sukkah, in particular. Amichai turns the memory of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert that the sukkah usually evokes on its head, and describes the sukkah as an object that itself remembers and reflects back to us the history of the Jews.

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Teshuvah / Repentance

Teshuvah / Repentance

Sep 29, 2017 By Joanna Katz | Commentary | Yom Kippur

“What you can change is looking at and approaching the things in your life differently.”
“This Elul, I have had an opportunity to examine and reexamine my life so I might do things differently.”
“All the teshuvah work we do is inner work; the system does not care about the work we have done.”
“I want to be a better person.”

—Remarks made to me by Jewish inmates during the month of Elul

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Living With the Fragility of Life

Living With the Fragility of Life

Sep 29, 2017 By Mychal Springer | Commentary | Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is one 25-hour day that is capable of entering and enriching every day of the year. On Yom Kippur, we peel back some of our denial and make space for the fragility of life. The rituals help us and the liturgy helps us. At the center of the High Holiday Amidah, the collection of prayers known as Tefillah (Prayer), stands U-netaneh Tokef. It begins, “Let us speak of the sacred power of this day—profound and awe-inspiring” (Mahzor Lev Shalem). The list of ways in which we can die included in the prayer certainly captures our attention, and can feel overwhelming.

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Justice and Ritual

Justice and Ritual

Sep 25, 2017 By Daniel Nevins | Short Video | Yom Kippur

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The Blessing of Curses: A Rosh Hashanah Puzzle

The Blessing of Curses: A Rosh Hashanah Puzzle

Sep 20, 2017 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Ki Tavo | Rosh Hashanah | Shabbat Shuvah

Here’s a puzzle for us to think about as we consider the spiritual work that we need to engage in over the remaining days until Yom Kippur: The Talmud tells us—in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar—that Ezra the Scribe decreed that, for all time, the Jewish people would read the blessings and curses in Leviticus (Parashat Behukkotai) prior to the holiday of Shavuot and those of Deuteronomy (Parashat Ki Tavo) before Rosh Hashanah (BT Megillah 31b). This decree is strange. Reading these graphic and threatening chapters, which detail the good that will come if we are faithful to God and the suffering that will be wrought if we forsake our relationship with God, is difficult at any time. Why insist that we read them publicly as we ready ourselves to celebrate these joyous holidays?

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An Oasis of Freedom and Justice

An Oasis of Freedom and Justice

Jul 28, 2017 By Daniel Nevins | Commentary | Tishah Be'av

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

After quoting Amos 5:24 about justice rolling like a mighty stream in his most famous speech, Dr. King, Jr., z”l, then belted out the soaring vision quoted above. 

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Leftover Scraps

Leftover Scraps

May 5, 2017 By Julia Andelman | Commentary | Aharei Mot | Kedoshim | Shavuot

The Torah exhorts us in this week’s parashah: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger” (Lev. 19:9-10). This mitzvah plays out in beautiful narrative form in the Book of Ruth, read on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. But Ruth is the exception; she is rescued from her destitute state by Boaz, the owner of the field where she gleans, who marries her. What of all those who remained gleaners—whose survival depended on the daily toil of gathering other people’s leftovers?

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A Scroll of The Song of Songs

A Scroll of The Song of Songs

Apr 14, 2017 By The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary | Commentary | Pesah

This decorated scroll of Shir Hashirim (which is read on the Shabbat of Pesah) is a product of the circle of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, dated to circa 1930, though the scribe and artist are unidentified. The artistic movement associated with this school was informed by the Zionist ideals of the society in which it was immersed.

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Another Passover Season

Another Passover Season

Apr 14, 2017 By Ruth Messinger | Commentary | Pesah

As we come, again, to the end of another Passover season, many of us are looking forward to moving beyond the matzah intensity. We are obliged, also, to ask ourselves what it means to have retold the story of our people’s quest for freedom, what new insights we might have gained, what the lessons are that we should take back into the world. I want to talk about our commitment to fight oppression as it manifests itself today in our lives and in the lives of others, and I want to make some observations about the roles there are to play in these struggles, about what we can learn about how to lead in these endeavors.

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