Strangers to Ourselves

Strangers to Ourselves

Dec 18, 2020 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Miketz

The Joseph narrative contains a striking number of contranyms—words that simultaneously convey opposite meanings. Why?

Contranyms are a natural linguistic expression of the Torah’s insistence that a “both/and” perspective is essential to understanding deep truths, other people, and ourselves. The portrayal of Joseph is a prime example.

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Miracles of Today

Miracles of Today

Dec 11, 2020 By Shuly Rubin Schwartz | Commentary | Hanukkah

One of the things I love most about Jewish holiday observances is their evolution over time and space even as core rituals remain. Hanukkah exemplifies this phenomenon. Established by the Hasmoneans to commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus, Hanukkah in the Talmud (composed several centuries after these events) focuses on celebrating the miracle of the Temple oil lasting for eight days. With few prescribed mitzvot associated with the holiday, Hanukkah has long been ripe for creative interpretation: theological, sociological, culinary, musical, and artistic. The Hanukkiah itself illustrates its generativity, for it has been hewn from the humblest potato or the most ornate, intricately designed sterling silver; it can take the form of a tiny travel jigsaw puzzle or an enormous outdoor display.

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Having It All

Having It All

Dec 4, 2020 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayishlah

After twenty years of estrangement, Jacob and Esau encounter one another yet again. Time has somewhat softened the bitterness and pain of the injustice done to Esau in Jacob’s theft of the blessing. And Esau has come to his senses, realizing that the murder of his brother will not right the wrong committed under the aegis of his scheming mother. Still, at the beginning of our parashah, Jacob is so uncertain and fearful of the encounter between him and his brother that he plans for the worst—dividing his family into two camps (lest one be destroyed, the other half will survive) and wrestling with the mysterious assailant (which portends his coming to terms with the misstep he committed so many years prior). Clearly, given what Jacob experienced in Laban’s home, the blessing received from Isaac has yet to come to fruition.

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The World in God

The World in God

Nov 27, 2020 By Gordon Tucker | Commentary | Vayetzei

Our patriarch Jacob reaches a night camp on his way to Haran, a fugitive from the anger of his brother Esau. And then the text of Genesis 28:11 tells us: Vayifga bamakom. The New Jewish Version translation [JPS 1962] renders that phrase according to its straightforward, contextual meaning [peshat]: “He came upon a certain place”—a place that we learn was first called Luz, and later Bet-El. But while the peshat is the primary way of reading a biblical text, it is almost never the only way to do so. 

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Esau’s Primal Scream

Esau’s Primal Scream

Nov 20, 2020 By Amy Kalmanofsky | Commentary | Toledot

Sometimes words fail us. When they do, depending on the cause and our own propensities, we resort to song, dance, or other forms of wordless expression. And sometimes we scream. Primal screams that communicate an agony beyond verbal expression resound throughout the Torah.

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Lessons on Leadership from Abraham and Sarah

Lessons on Leadership from Abraham and Sarah

Nov 13, 2020 By Jonathan Milgram | Commentary | Hayyei Sarah

Sarah Imenu, matriarch of the Jewish people, is a rich and complex biblical character. As we read this week of her demise and her husband’s quest for her rightful resting place, it seems fitting to reflect on her extraordinary life, her role in the creation of the Jewish people, and the model of leadership she, together with Abraham, bequeathed to us as a legacy.

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Running Far, Drawing Near

Running Far, Drawing Near

Nov 6, 2020 By Naomi Kalish | Commentary | Vayera

“Shalom, shalom to the one who is far away and to the one who is close.” Drawn from the Yom Kippur haftarah, the editors of Mahzor Lev Shalem used these words to open the high holiday prayer book. This year the words held a special poignancy, as each of us was simultaneously “the one who is far away” and “the one who is close.”

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A Single Star: Sarah’s Journey

A Single Star: Sarah’s Journey

Oct 30, 2020 By Maya Zinkow | Commentary | Lekh Lekha

“I know this is not fun to hear on a Wednesday afternoon, but I would really look into getting fertility tests if I were you.” The harrowing text message from my sister came as I was waiting to hear back from her and my sister-in-law about their most recent cycle of egg retrieval and genetic testing. It was her way of telling me that once again, they received news that their journey to parenthood would not be a simple one. But it was also her way of reminding me that our expectations about our bodies, so deeply ingrained in us from a young age, often do not come to fruition in the ways we expect them to.

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Looking Beyond Our Arks

Looking Beyond Our Arks

Oct 23, 2020 By Yitz Landes | Commentary | Noah

It has never been easier to identify with Noah.

In a normal year, we would be reading this week’s parashah in an entirely different setting: after a summer of sun, camp, and trips, and following the long holiday season, we would be entering our homes and settling into the fall, saying goodbye to the physical togetherness that defines the summer and the holiday season, just as the day gets shorter and the month of Marheshvan commences. 

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Beginning, Rebuilding

Beginning, Rebuilding

Oct 16, 2020 By Daniel Nevins | Commentary | Bereishit

Like millions of American children in the 1970s, I tuned in weekly to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The opening sequence showed skiers gracefully racing down a mountain, and then spectacularly wiping out while the narrator promised viewers “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Something tragic and true was contained in this message. The possibility of calamity makes moments of triumph precious and worth pursuing.

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One Day More

One Day More

Oct 9, 2020 By Rachel Rosenthal | Commentary | Shemini Atzeret

Of all of the holidays in the month of Tishrei, Shemini Atzeret is the most puzzling. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the new year for the world, Yom Kippur focuses on atonement and forgiveness, Sukkot is about joy and vulnerability. Even Simhat Torah, which is not mentioned in the Bible, has a clear purpose and clear rituals. But if asked to explain the purpose of Shemini Atzeret, beyond having the opportunity to pray for rain for the coming season, most people would be hard pressed to articulate what, exactly, this eighth day does for us, for God, or for the world.

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We are All Sukkah-Dwellers

We are All Sukkah-Dwellers

Oct 2, 2020 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Sukkot

Since the accidental discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895 and the subsequent creation of X-ray machines, we have been able to view our bodies through two different lenses. The first is what we see in the mirror—a body of flesh, which takes various forms and distinguishes one individual from another. The second is not visible to the naked eye; it is the skeletal structure that supports the flesh and organs that surround it. Though both are necessary constituent elements of our physical being, we are generally much more conscious of our outer being than our inner one. And yet, our bones are more durable than our flesh. Long after we die and our flesh has wasted away, our skeletal structure continues to exist.

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The Poetics of Loss

The Poetics of Loss

Sep 25, 2020 By Ofra Backenroth | Commentary | Ha'azinu

Growing up, books were always present in our house, arranged by topic in large bookshelves. Arieli Press, an Israeli fine arts publishing company, was founded in 1922 by my grandfather, Yosef Arieli (z”l), a master printer and an author. My father, Ariel Arieli (z”l), and extended family were all involved in the printing business in some capacity. Printing has been regarded as a way to disseminate knowledge in a democratic way and it has been especially precious to the Jewish people who believed that spreading knowledge is Avodat Kodesh—holy work, akin to Moshe teaching Torah on Har Sinai.

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Tip the Scales

Tip the Scales

Sep 18, 2020 By Shuly Rubin Schwartz | Commentary | Rosh Hashanah | Yom Kippur

“—who will live and who will die . . . who will come to an untimely end . . . . who by plague . . . who will be brought low, and who will be raised up?” (U-netaneh Tokef, from the High Holiday liturgy)

In my earliest memory of this prayer, I am a young girl standing between my mother and grandmother in synagogue amidst hundreds of others. Both women are sobbing uncontrollably, as they recited these words. I was puzzled by their outward display of anguish but knew enough not to interrupt them to ask what caused it. They grasped in a way I had yet to comprehend just how tenuous life is; they understood that this one prayer more than any other captures the fragility of human life that the Days of Awe magnify.

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Democratizing Education: Lessons from this Week’s Parashah

Democratizing Education: Lessons from this Week’s Parashah

Sep 8, 2020 By Michal Raucher | Commentary | Nitzavim | Vayeilekh

Since the start of the stay-at-home orders in March, my eight-year-old son, Naftali, has studied Mishnah on Zoom in a “Mishnah Club” for kids, taught by Rabbi Ethan Tucker (KS ‘06) of Hadar Institute. While my spouse teaches Mishnah to middle school students and my own scholarship involves a healthy feminist critique of the talmudic Rabbis, Naftali had never encountered rabbinic literature. I feared that Naftali might get lost in the complexity, become overwhelmed with the details, or confused by the logic of rabbis from 2000 years ago. I was also curious as to whether he would actually see himself in this discourse.

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Joy Is a Radical Act

Joy Is a Radical Act

Sep 4, 2020 By Benjamin Freed | Commentary | Ki Tavo

“Art is a radical act. Joy is a radical act.”
—Rebecca Makkai, The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?

A few weeks ago, my fiancée and I re-watched the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out, where anthropomorphized emotions work together and compete to control the feelings and actions of an 11-year-old named Riley. One of the primary lessons is that unchecked “Joy” cannot by itself bring true happiness or properly prepare us for handling life’s more difficult moments. Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust all play a role in making us who we are, and we ignore those emotions at our own risk. As someone who strongly identifies with Amy Poehler’s peppy and unrelentingly optimistic “Joy” character, this message is both sobering and powerful.

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Who Are We?

Who Are We?

Aug 28, 2020 By Stephanie Ruskay | Commentary | Ki Tetzei

The Jewish master narrative hinges on retelling our own story of being enslaved and freed by God to become a holy people. We tell this story repeatedly, and it is meant to wash over our souls and permeate our brains. Enslavement should feel real, as should the taste of freedom.

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Appoint Judges and Officials

Appoint Judges and Officials

Aug 21, 2020 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Shofetim

The year was 1752, the place Copenhagen, and Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshutz, Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, Altona, and Wandsbeck, was on trial before the royal court of Denmark. King Frederick V himself was acting as the presiding judge. Altona was legally a province of Denmark, and the Altona City Council had turned to the king to resolve a controversy among the Jews that was breaking into violence in the streets. They had already tried placing Eybeshutz’s opponent in the matter, Rabbi Yaakov Emden, under house arrest. Emden’s escape to Amsterdam under cover of darkness made matters worse. The intensified presence of the city watch among the Jews only increased tensions. In desperation the burghers of Altona had turned to the king of Denmark.

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Gratitude During Challenging Times

Gratitude During Challenging Times

Aug 14, 2020 By Malka Strasberg Edinger | Commentary | Re'eh

This week’s parashah begins with the verseרְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה ׃ / “Behold, I set before you today blessings and curses” (Deut. 11:26). Within the context of the biblical narrative, this verse refers to a choice given to the Israelites upon entering the Promised Land: they could either choose to follow God’s commandments and reap rewards, or not to follow God’s commandments and suffer negative consequences. The blessings and curses set before the Israelites are enumerated in Deuteronomy 27–28, and were read publicly upon entering the Land, as recounted in Joshua 8:30–35. 

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A Moment That Is Always Present

A Moment That Is Always Present

Aug 7, 2020 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Eikev

Parashat Eikev is surrounded by matching bookends. The verse that ends the previous parashah, Va’et-ḥannan, and the verse that begins the subsequent parashah, Re’eh, both contain the word, hayyom, or “today.”

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