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At the Threshold
Jun 9, 2023 By Gordon Tucker | Commentary | Beha'alotekha
The ninth chapter of Numbers tells a tale that results in a rule and an institution. The first anniversary of the Exodus (on the 14th of the first month of Nisan) was approaching for the recently freed Israelites, and they were reminded that the Paschal sacrificial rites were meant to be annual observances. They were instructed by Moses to make the necessary preparations. But there were people who had recently contracted ritual impurity [tumah] by contact with the dead, perhaps because they had buried deceased relatives. And they knew that this impurity, which was beyond their control, precluded them from participating in a rite that was, in effect, an annual renewal of membership in the community of Israel. Their plaint was brought to Moses, who understood the predicament of these well-meaning Israelites, but did not know how to resolve it, and thus brought the case to God.Read More
The Power of a Blessing
Jun 2, 2023 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Naso
Anyone I know who grew up in a synagogue where the kohanim dukhened on the Yamim Tovim remembers this as one of the peak moments of their
synagogue experience. There are many reasons for this: the strange sight of men (and now women) standing with their hands extended and with their heads and upper faces covered by tallitot, the fact that we were in fact not to gaze upon this startling spectacle, and the sense of protection afforded to those of us whose parents covered them with their own tallitot during the rendering of the blessing in order to protect them from the potentially harmful effects of looking upon the kohanim.
How Should We Know God?
May 25, 2023 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Shavuot
t’s well known that Jewish tradition assigns specific readings from the Torah and the Prophets for all the holidays. Less well known are several traditions that assign holiday readings from the Book of Psalms. An Ashkenazic tradition associated with Rabbi Elijah, the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797), assigns Psalm 19 for recitation at the end of the Musaf service on the first day of Shavuot. This psalm deals with an appropriate question for the holiday of revelation: How do we come to know about God and God’s will?Read More
May 19, 2023 By Gordon Tucker | Commentary | Bemidbar
The fourth book of the Torah (“Bemidbar Sinai”) begins with a census of the (male) heads of clans among the Israelites in the second year of their freedom. And then, it lays out the pattern according to which the 12 tribes and the religious functionaries (levi’im and kohanim) are to set up camp in the wilderness. When you read it, you are struck by the attention to detail and good order, something which is rather typical in documents with a priestly source.Read More
Growing Into Torah
May 12, 2023 By Megan GoldMarche | Commentary | Behar | Behukkotai
For this week’s parashiyot, Behar-Behukkotai, I might ask: What is something that you took or borrowed from someone that you know it is time to return, perhaps because it is the right thing to do or because it will make you feel lighter? This can be a physical thing like a book or shirt, or something intangible like the hope or support you received from someone. If you are hosting shabbat dinner this week I encourage you to try it out, with a brief explanation of the ideas of Jubilee and returning land to its original owners that appears in this week’s parashah.Read More
The Problem of Embodied Perfection
May 4, 2023 By Lauren Tuchman | Commentary | Emor
Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21–24) opens with a passage describing limitations placed on individuals whom a kohen (priest) may mourn or marry, as well as limiting sacrificial service in the Mishkan to those who are able-bodied. We learn in Leviticus 21:17 that any kohen who has a mum—blemish or defect—is explicitly forbidden from “offering the food of his God” (21:17). Kohanim thus disqualified include those who are blind, lame, have a limb length discrepancy, are hunchbacked, have a broken limb, and many others. They are forbidden from ritual leadership throughout the ages; though not stripped of their priestly status and are permitted to eat sacrificial meat. They are not permitted to come behind the curtain or approach the altar. They mustn’t profane these places which God has sanctified (21:22–23).Read More
Making God Holy
Apr 28, 2023 By Amram Altzman | Commentary | Aharei Mot | Kedoshim
Parashat Kedoshim, the second of the two parashiyot that we read this week, ends just as it begins: with an imperative for us, the Children of Israel, to be holy. Our parashah opens with, “קדשים תהיו/You shall be holy,” and the penultimate verse tells us that, “והייתם לי קדשים/You shall be holy to Me, for I God am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (Lev. 20:26). Although almost identical, our parashahends with the idea that we are not just holy in general, but are specifically designed as holy to God. How, then, are we supposed to not just be holy, but holy to God?Read More
It Passes and We Stay
Apr 21, 2023 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Metzora | Tazria | Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
The double parashiyot of Tazria and Metzora are devoted in their entireties to the Biblical notion of tumah, usually translated as “impurity.” In them, we learn three of the major sources of tumah: childbirth (Lev. 12); a condition known as tzara’at, which can manifest on skin, clothing, or the walls of one’s house (Lev. 13–14); and bodily secretions (Lev. 15). The two other primary sources of tumah are touching or carrying the carcasses of certain animals (Lev. 11) and contact with a human corpse (Num. 19).
But what is the essential nature of tumah, and what does it have to do with Emily Dickinson’s poem?Read More
A Love That Transforms
Apr 14, 2023 By Leonard A. Sharzer | Commentary | Shemini
Commentaries through the ages have focused on the actions of Aaron’s eldest sons, asking whether being slain by God’s holy fire was, in fact, a punishment—and if so, what exactly it was that they being punished for. Most commentators conclude that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu were indeed punishment, but disagree as to the nature of their transgression: they were drunk when they entered the sanctuary; they were improperly clothed; they had not washed their hands and feet; they were unmarried; they had entered the holy place without authorization; or they had expounded the law before Moses, their teacher. What we can conclude from this plethora of possible explanations is that no one knows for sure why they were killed. Commentators are equally intrigued and perplexed by Moses’s statement to Aaron, and Aaron’s subsequent silence, in the face of this horrific tragedy.Read More
Leaving Egypt with Compassion and Justice
Apr 8, 2023 By Rabbi Ben Levy | Commentary | Pesah
The Torah reading for Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah (Exodus 33:12–34:26) describes the aftermath of the Golden Calf. How do we make sense of this choice?Read More
The Primacy of Questions
Mar 31, 2023 By Rabbi Joel Seltzer | Commentary | Tzav | Pesah | Shabbat Hagadol
The truth is, of all the Jewish holidays of the year, Pesah, requires the most forethought, the most planning, the most cleaning, and yes, the most questions! The Jewish tradition understands deeply that ritual does not simply “occur,” instead it is the result of painstaking preparation and “beginning with the end in mind.”Read More
Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder
Mar 31, 2023 By JTS Dayenu Circle | Commentary | Pesah
This year for Passover, JTS is proud to share Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder. Passover is an annual reminder that profound changes to our lived reality are possible, and now more than ever, we as a Jewish community need to pursue profound action to stop the climate crisis. This project is […]Read More
What Does It Mean to Be Called?
Mar 24, 2023 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Vayikra
This week we begin reading the middle book of the Five Books of Moses, Leviticus. Its position in the Torah scroll is not just coincidental; the laws of Leviticus are central to the earliest rabbis’ understanding of Judaism. The rules in the book are indicated by its name in English (Latin, actually): Leviticus. These are the detailed regulations for the tribe of Levi, particularly that branch of the clan known as the kohanim, the priesthood.Read More
Making Space for God’s Presence
Mar 17, 2023 By Rabbi Kara L. Tav | Commentary | Pekudei | Vayak-hel | Shabbat Hahodesh
Our rededication of the hospital’s ICU echoed for me the original Jewish sacred space described in the Book of Exodus. The double Torah reading for Vayak-hel and Pekudei provides God’s blueprint for a traveling sacred space that the Israelites would build during their journey through the wilderness. As they travelled, they would carry a place for the presence of God and for revelatory encounters between God and the high priests on behalf of the people. It would be a space for doing sacred work and for being with God.Read More
When Is Humility Not a Virtue?
Mar 10, 2023 By Walter Herzberg | Commentary | Ki Tissa | Shabbat Parah
Moses’s actions are puzzling and confront us with two related questions: On the one hand, why did Moses need to place the veil on his face? And on the other, why did Moses remove the veil when going before God and when relaying God’s words to the people—only to replace it as described above? Biblical commentators offer some fascinating insights.Read More
Gold and Incense: For Better and for Worse
Feb 24, 2023 By Stephen A. Geller | Commentary | Terumah
Parashat Terumah begins the long section of the Book of Exodus that deals with the Tabernacle, its furniture and vessels, and the garments of the high priest. The only interruption in this mass of cultic detail is the narrative of the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf and its aftermath in Exodus 32–34. The ritual details continue into Vayikra with the list of sacrifices in the cult.Read More
Why Does the Torah Care About Returning Lost Property?
Feb 17, 2023 By Yael Landman | Commentary | Mishpatim | Shabbat Shekalim
There is no obligation in the common law to retrieve someone’s lost property and return it. So why does the Torah make a point of establishing such a requirement? Why does the Torah specify that the owner of the lost animal is the finder’s enemy, and what is the scope of the finder’s responsibilities?Read More
How Do We Meet At Sinai?
Feb 10, 2023 By Amelia Wolf | Commentary | Yitro
At the moment God initiates a new covenant with the People of Israel, they must learn to demarcate the spaces of their new relationship. Some of these boundaries are lines drawn by God. Others are fences maintained by human beings. How can humanity and the Divine exist in the same space and time? And what can we learn about how humans can exist in relationship with each other from that encounter?Read More
How Do We Keep Our Hands Up?
Feb 3, 2023 By E. Noach Shapiro | Commentary | Beshallah
How, as a community, can we support the caregivers as they support the careseekers? What would it look like to, like Aaron and Hur, help hold their arms high? As a partial answer to that question, the Center for Pastoral Education will soon be launching two mental health/spiritual healing initiatives.Read More
How Does Moses Cope When Expectations Fall Short?
Jan 27, 2023 By Andy Weissfeld | Commentary | Bo
Imagine the disappointment or sadness one can feel when a much more important matter fails to go as hoped. Moses finds himself in this situation in this week’s parashah, as God’s promise to free the Israelites has yet to fully play out. How does Moses cope with the fact that his expectations have not yet been met? One especially challenging section of our parashah offers a clue.Read More
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