Mercy and Truth

Mercy and Truth

Dec 25, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayehi

My father’s synagogue in the small Pennsylvania town of Pottstown was known by the name “Congregation Mercy and Truth.” As an irreverent youngster, more interested in sports than in matters of the spirit, I always thought it an odd name for a synagogue. Learning Hebrew befuddled me still more, because the Hebrew name of Hesed shel Emet (a merciful act of truth) didn’t fully correspond to the English. It was only years later that I discovered that the Hebrew name was based on a sage bit of midrash on a phrase used by Jacob at the beginning of this week’s parasha.

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Not by Might

Not by Might

Dec 11, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Miketz | Hanukkah

It is a remarkable tribute to the genius of the Jewish calendar that parashat mikaytz always coincides with Shabbat Hanukkah. The contents of both, I shall argue, deserve to be linked.

But let me start off on a personal note. Hanukkah has always held a special meaning for me and my family. On November 3, 1938, I turned three. Six days later, on the infamous night of Kristallnacht, the Nazis unleashed their fury on the synagogues of Germany, including the magnificent Romanesque synagogue of my father in Hanover. Like thousands of other prominent Jews, he was carted off to a concentration camp, to be released only two weeks later when family in England secured a visa for us with the help of the Chief Rabbi, Joseph Hertz, known to you best as the editor of the Hertz Humash.

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Settled and Unsettled

Settled and Unsettled

Dec 4, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayeshev

The opening verse of our parasha conveys a degree of finality. “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan (Genesis 37:1).” His exile is over. The text depicts a man drained by unrelenting stress who has come home to die. The abuse heaped upon him by Laban, the prospect of facing Esau, the rampage of his sons against the inhabitants of Shehem, and the loss of his beloved Rachel in childbirth has left him groping for the solace and security of home. 

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An Infinity of Interpretation

An Infinity of Interpretation

Nov 27, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayishlah

There are ten passages in the Torah where dots appear above the letters of one or more words. The technique derives from the rabbis, who borrowed it from the early grammarians in Alexandria, and is intended to arrest the reader’s attention. In this week’s parasha, we meet an especially interesting example.

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Behind God’s Names

Behind God’s Names

Nov 20, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayetzei

Judaism is a wellspring that emits an endless profusion of names for God. The Bible contains some 70; rabbinic literature adds another 90 or more and no one as yet has bothered to tally the number added by Jewish mystics. As Gershom Scholem wrote more than a half-century ago: “In the last resort, the whole of the Torah [for the author of the Zohar] is nothing but the one great and holy Name of God.” The layers of names bespeak an unbroken dialogue driven by love and mystery.

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The Flaws of Our Ancestors

The Flaws of Our Ancestors

Nov 13, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Toledot

As Jews, we revere our ancestors not because they were perfect, but because they are ours. Neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob are portrayed by the Torah as men without flaws, or saints who could do no wrong. They exhibit the warts and weaknesses we recognize in ourselves. What sets them apart, rather, is the nobility and courage of their convictions as evinced in moments of luminous insight and supreme self-denial.

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Settling and Resettling the Land of Israel

Settling and Resettling the Land of Israel

Nov 6, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Hayyei Sarah

God willing, I shall be in Israel when you read my thoughts on this week’s parasha. I leave Sunday evening to attend the commencement of the Seminary’s Beit Midrash in Jerusalem on November 3, at which we will confer some twenty-five degrees to Israeli students who have completed their course of studies either as rabbis, teachers, or community center workers. These young Israelis, and those who preceded them and those who will follow them, will in due time mainstream Conservative Judaism in Israel, thereby creating the reality of a religious alternative to Orthodoxy.

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Submitting to a Higher Ideal

Submitting to a Higher Ideal

Oct 30, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayera

Circumcision is the oldest of Jewish rituals and still going strong. In his 90th year Abraham was instructed by God to “circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days (Gen. 17:11-12).” Accordingly, when Isaac was born ten years later, Abraham circumcised him on the eighth day (Gen. 21:4).

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Do Not Oppress the Stranger

Do Not Oppress the Stranger

Oct 23, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Lekh Lekha

As my bar-mitzva parasha, Lech Lecha has always carried a special measure of meaning for me. It marks the beginning of Jewish history with a story of exile. “The Lord said to Abram, `Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you'”(Gen. 12:1). And so did the Schorsch family, millennia later in December of 1938 from Nazi Germany. I even bear the name of Abraham’s son Isaac, born in this same parasha. Yitzhak is a joyous name filled with hope and affirmation. It means “he shall laugh.” For Abraham, Yitzhak signified the capacity of having a child in old age in a strange land. For my parents, Yitzhak bespoke an act of defiance in dark times. Faith has the power to shape reality, as it is said of Abraham in our parasha: “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit” (Gen. 15:6). In short, my bar-mitzva in 1948, some eight years after we arrived in America, linked my life forever with Lech Lecha.

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The Quest for Righteousness

The Quest for Righteousness

Oct 16, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Noah

How quickly does God’s joy in creation turn to regret! In the space of a single parasha, in a matter of ten generations, humanity taints the earth with violence, turning paradise into perdition. 

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Back to the Beginning

Back to the Beginning

Oct 9, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Bereishit

Back to the beginning! Without losing a step, we move from the death of Moses back to the story of creation. Israel circles the Torah much as the earth does the sun, with Simhat Torah to mark the moment when one cycle ends and the next begins. From its light we draw our wisdom, our identity, our cohesion as a people. To hear it read weekly in the synagogue is to keep the experience of Sinai alive. But we need to prepare ourselves or else the power of the event will elude us. Hence, the study of the parasha should be the religious curriculum of our week.

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