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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Learning from God to Anticipate the Reactions of Others

Learning from God to Anticipate the Reactions of Others

Apr 2, 2021 By Walter Herzberg | Commentary | Pesah

Why do we eat matzah on Passover? According to the instructions that God conveyed to Israel prior to the Exodus we eat matzah because we are commanded: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread (matzot)” (Exod. 12:15). However, according to Exod. 12:39, where the narrative of the events is related, we eat matzah because the Israelites, having been driven out of Egypt, were unable to linger to allow time for the dough to rise: “And they baked unleavened cakes (matzot) . . . because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not tarry.” If so, why does the Torah present the mitzvah (the command) before the Exodus has actually taken place? 

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A Holiday of Contradictory Emotions

A Holiday of Contradictory Emotions

Mar 26, 2021 By Shuly Rubin Schwartz | Commentary | Pesah | Shabbat Hagadol

Preparing to celebrate our second Pesah under the grip of a global pandemic, our hearts are filled with both sadness and hope. No one has been untouched by COVID-19. We’re grieving a loved one, friend, or neighbor whose life was cut short. We’re experiencing its social and economic toll—overtaxed first responders, teachers, and food providers; overwhelming social isolation; devastating financial insecurity—all exacerbated by underlying inequities. Thankfully, millions have received the vaccine, though many have yet to receive it, and new variants temper our expectations.

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Standing at the Gates

Standing at the Gates

Mar 19, 2021 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Vayikra

In Kafka’s cryptic parable “Before the Law,” a man stands before a gate seeking entry into the Law. The gate is open, but at its side is a gatekeeper who refuses his request to enter. The man uses every stratagem that he can think of to gain the gatekeeper’s permission, but every attempt fails. This stalemate continues until the moment of death arrives. 

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Holy Bling

Holy Bling

Mar 12, 2021 By Amy Kalmanofsky | Commentary | Pekudei | Vayak-hel

I loved rummaging through my grandmother’s jewelry. To my child’s eye, her jewelry box was a treasure chest filled with sparkling gems, pearls, and gold. All “paste,” I learned, but to me they were the crown jewels.

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The Path to Justice

The Path to Justice

Mar 5, 2021 By Rachel Kahn-Troster | Commentary | Ki Tissa

I’ve been a human rights activist for more than a decade, beginning my work by organizing the Jewish community to speak out against torture. One of the first things I learned—a theme that resurfaces across many of the campaigns for human rights that I have been part of—is that when people act out of fear, when their sense of safety and security is challenged, they make unfortunate choices. 

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The Masks that We Wear

The Masks that We Wear

Feb 26, 2021 By Ofra Backenroth | Commentary | Tetzavveh | Purim

Growing up in Israel, Purim was a wonderful experience, full of fun and games. Dressing up, putting on masks, going to parties, and attending the Purim Parade in Tel Aviv—the Adloyada. This name is derived from a rabbinic saying in the Talmud that one should revel on Purim by drinking “until one no longer knows [how to distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai’]” (BT Megillah 7b). Attending the parade was great fun, but also had a mysterious aspect. Who are the people hiding behind the masks? What are they concealing and what are they trying to reveal? It was all very colorful and happy but, in equal measure, scary and confusing.

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Remembering Our Sacred Spaces

Remembering Our Sacred Spaces

Feb 19, 2021 By Julia Andelman | Commentary | Terumah | Shabbat Zakhor

On Shabbat Zakhor—the Shabbat of remembering—we recall the Amalekites’ vicious attack on the Israelites in the desert, in which they targeted not the fighters but the weaker members of the community (Deut. 25:17–19). This year, however, I suspect many of us will be focused instinctively on remembering something else: the anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic turning our lives upside down.

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God’s Currency

God’s Currency

Feb 12, 2021 By Gordon Tucker | Commentary | Mishpatim | Shabbat Shekalim

The arrival of Parashat Shekalim (plural of shekel) each year is what might be called the liturgical “rite of spring” in the Jewish tradition, signaling that Pesah is six–seven weeks away, and preparations (spiritual and physical) for the great festival are very soon to begin. This year, it will be observed on Rosh Hodesh Adar, when the weekly reading will be Parashat Mishpatim.

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Can God Prohibit an Emotion?

Can God Prohibit an Emotion?

Feb 5, 2021 By Sarah Wolf | Commentary | Yitro

Part of my current research focuses on how human emotions are discussed and legislated in the Talmud and other ancient rabbinic texts, and so the last of the Ten Commandments (as counted in the Jewish tradition) raises for me some fundamental questions.

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Speaking of Exodus: Beshallah

Speaking of Exodus: Beshallah

Jan 29, 2021 By David G. Roskies | Commentary | Beshallah

My mother, Vilna-born, spoke a very idiomatic Yiddish. When she wanted to convey how delicious something was she would say: “ketsa-PIKH-is bi-DVASH.” Although I studied Sefer Shemot in seventh grade, in a Yiddish day school, it wasn’t until my first year as a member of Havurat Shalom, where we read, translated, and subjected the weekly parashah to open debate, that I was able to identify the source of this delicious expression: “The house of Israel named it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers in honey” (Exod. 16:31).

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Sworn to Sacred Service

Sworn to Sacred Service

Jan 22, 2021 By Daniel Nevins | Commentary | Bo

The most powerful ritual in American life is the oath of office administered to our President. The text is prescribed by the Constitution, but its choreography is a matter of convention. Most Presidents have placed their left hand on a Bible as they raise their right and swear to execute their office faithfully, to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This ritual signals solemnity and anticipation for the work awaiting our new leader.

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To Destroy and to Overthrow, to Build and to Plant

To Destroy and to Overthrow, to Build and to Plant

Jan 15, 2021 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Va'era

For me, this is one of the most troubling passages in the Torah. First, God assigns Moses and Aaron the task of speaking to Pharaoh, explicitly calling Aaron a prophet. Presumably, a prophet tells people what could come to pass, so that they have the opportunity to repent their sins and turn toward God. 

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Guided by the Covenant

Guided by the Covenant

Jan 8, 2021 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Shemot

There is a wonderful midrash in Pesikta Derav Kahana that suggests a profound relationship between the arrival of the manna described in Parashat Beshallah and the giving of the Ten Commandments recounted in the following parashah, Yitro. Just as the manna tasted different to each and every Israelite, Rabbi Yosi teaches, so each was enabled according to his or her particular capacity to hear the Divine Word differently at Sinai (12:25).

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In Every Place

In Every Place

Jan 1, 2021 By Rafi Cohen | Commentary | Vayehi

Just about anyone who has moved homes will agree that sometimes one place will take on outsize influence in our lives. Indeed, even environments in which we’ve only briefly resided can have a resounding impact on our upbringing and outlook.

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A Song of Hope

A Song of Hope

Dec 25, 2020 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Vayiggash

In a curious foreshadowing of the book of Exodus, in this week’s Torah reading (Gen. 46:8) we read, “Ve’eleh shemot—These are the names of the children of Israel who came into Egypt . . .” This is verbatim the same report as the opening verse of the book of Exodus. But there, the names are limited only to Jacob’s actual sons, and the full enumeration of their own offspring is absent.

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