Facing Our Past and Looking Toward the Future

Facing Our Past and Looking Toward the Future

May 27, 2016 By Michal Raucher | Commentary | Behar

Recently, the US Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, on the $20 bill. Tubman was born as a slave around 1820, ran away in 1849, and returned south repeatedly to usher more than 300 slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Her selection for the $20 bill is exciting news, because Tubman will be the first African American and the first woman to appear on federal paper currency. Women and civil rights leaders will be added to the $5 and $10 bills in the coming years, as well. While these changes are long overdue, the question is whether this change is merely symbolic or a further step toward acknowledging our nation’s ugly history of slavery. 

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We Are All Borrowers

We Are All Borrowers

May 13, 2011 By Andrew Shugerman | Commentary | Text Study | Behar

I love discovering rabbinic texts like the one above that make such radical claims about Torah and God in general or about particular laws like tzedakah (righteous giving), one subject at the heart of this week’s Torah portion.

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Our Role in Creation and Revelation

Our Role in Creation and Revelation

May 20, 2006 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Behar | Behukkotai

Parashat Behar–Be–hukkotai opens curiously enough on Mount Sinai — curiously given the law promulgated at the beginning of the Torah reading. There, at the introduction to this parashah, we find the detailed laws related to sh’mitah, the sabbatical year, as well as the yovel, the jubilee year. While sh’mitah involves a seven–year cycle of letting the land lie fallow and the remission of loans, the yovel reflects a fifty–year cycle involving the emancipation of slaves and the return of property to their original owners.

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The Hardest Mitzvah?

The Hardest Mitzvah?

May 15, 2004 By Lewis Warshauer | Commentary | Behar

Which of the mitzvot of the Torah is the most difficult to observe? The prohibition on coveting? Or, perhaps, being forbidden to gossip? Each of those choices represents a never-ending challenge. One is supposed to avoid ever coveting or gossiping. When viewed in terms of frequency, the mitzvah that begins this week’s parashah could be seen as easier to perform. The sabbatical year, or shmittah, falls only once every seven years. Yet it could be the most difficult. During that year, farmers must not plant or harvest. Refraining from planting or harvesting for an entire year seems highly risky. If there is not enough reserve food from prior years, people will starve; surely the Torah does not want people to endanger their lives.

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What is a Slave?

What is a Slave?

May 4, 2002 By Lewis Warshauer | Commentary | Behar

We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt. This is the story at the heart of the Passover Haggadah. Some editions of the Haggadah suggest a song that begins with We were slaves and goes on to say: Now we are free people. However, this song is somewhat misleading. We are not completely free people. The Torah claims that the Jewish people are still slaves: of God.

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Freedom in Relationship

Freedom in Relationship

May 17, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Behar

Coercion is part of the essence of Judaism. Indeed, a well known midrash describes God coercing the Israelites into the acceptance of Torah. Sparked by the Hebrew phrase “the Israelites were rooted underthe mountain” (Exodus 19:17), (most translations read “the Israelites were at the foot of the mountain”), the rabbinic imagination conjures up a threatening portrait of God holding Mt. Sinai over the heads of the those assembled, declaring, “if you accept the Torah, well and good; but if not, this shall be your resting place” (BT Shabbat 88a). Coercion is indeed at the heart of this teaching and potentially at the heart of Judaism. Most observant Jews feel a sense of external motivation — observance is not simply a matter of personal choice, but a response to a God who has expectations.

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Mindfulness of God’s Image

Mindfulness of God’s Image

May 4, 2002 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Behar | Behukkotai

Though Judaism is distinguished by a this–worldly ethic, the acquisition of material possessions is not a high priority. The singular adage of Ben Zoma from the early days of rabbinic Judaism (second century), became normative: “Who may be deemed rich? Those content with their lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). We need far less than we want. To take comfort in what we have is to derive pleasure in values other than wealth.

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An Ancient Social Ethic

An Ancient Social Ethic

May 20, 1995 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Behar

One winter Friday evening after services, I happened to walk home in the company of a talkative Seminary student. As we made our way down Broadway, we passed a weary and emaciated man whispering for some spare change. On Shabbat I pay less heed to such heartrending pleas because I don’t have any money with me. Neither did my young companion. Yet he politely interrupted our animated conversation and asked the man whether he would like a sandwich. When he responded with evident joy that he would, the student pulled out a neatly wrapped sandwich from his plastic bag and gave it to him. Obviously, unlike me, the student did not allow Shabbat to prevent him from aiding the homeless who crowd the sidewalks of Broadway in the midst of the academic acropolis known as Morningside Heights. Though we met no more homeless before we parted company, for all I knew my companion still had another sandwich or two left in his bag to feed the hungry. His unobtrusive display of forethought and compassion stirred me deeply, as it filled me with pride.

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