Always Attaining Spiritual Maturity

Always Attaining Spiritual Maturity

Jul 13, 2018 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

The US Constitution provides that one must be 35, 30, or 25 years old to be president, senator, or representative, respectively, and the 26th Amendment provides that a US citizen gains the right to vote at 18. In the United States, the right to drink alcohol is established at age 21. One must stay in school and cannot give consent for sexual activity until age 16–18. For a driver’s license, one must generally be 16. So I grimace when we proudly proclaim 12-year-old girls and 13-year-old boys “Jewish adults.”

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Going to the Head of the Prayer Line

Going to the Head of the Prayer Line

May 25, 2018 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Naso

Sharp elbows at shul extend beyond the kiddush table line and back into the sanctuary. Prayer—or giving honor to God—can be a competitive business. There are lots of reasons why this is so, and some of them even have to do with loving God. But showing off how we love God can get us into trouble.

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Miracles of Biblical and Everyday Proportions

Miracles of Biblical and Everyday Proportions

Jan 19, 2018 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Bo

Last week, God pummeled Egypt unprecedentedly with hail:

The LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire streamed down to the ground, as the LORD rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. The hail was very heavy—fire flashing in the midst of the hail—such as had not fallen on the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. (Exod. 9:23–24)

On the combination of fire and ice, Ibn Ezra comments that this was “a wonder within a wonder.” 

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Fear, Truth, and a Donkey

Fear, Truth, and a Donkey

Jul 7, 2017 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Balak

Bilam, the highly paid but visionless prophet, sits high in his saddle on his donkey’s back as she swerves off the path. She’s strayed, it seems, for no reason; an angel standing with sword drawn is as yet unseen by him. He beats the donkey to drive her back onto the path. The next time she stops short she traps her rider’s leg against a stone wall. He winces in pain. I imagine him throwing one hand down toward his leg and perhaps grabbing his headdress, by now slipping off, with the other. He frantically beats his donkey again, flailing to regain control. Bilam is coming undone: a prophet made a fool by an ass (Num. 22:22–25).

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The Doing that Comes from Knowing

The Doing that Comes from Knowing

Jan 20, 2017 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Shemot

Among the undercurrents in our portion are the consequences of forgetting and remembering on rescue and liberation, and of seeing and knowing on oppression and death. The Israelites’ fortunes are transformed, and transformed again, so rapidly in our portion’s opening, it seems the Torah wants to signal the tenuousness of circumstances that seem secure. The Torah goes to the trouble of naming the eleven sons of Jacob who relocate to Egypt (Joseph already having been there) and reports that their entire generation passed away. In the space of 11 words—and seemingly no time at all—their 70-member extended family explodes in number and becomes an innumerable presence to be reckoned with in Egypt (Exod. 1:1-7).

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Wholly Jacob

Wholly Jacob

Dec 16, 2016 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Vayishlah

Among the thrills in superhero movies is seeing the good guy take a pummeling and then stand unscathed in the next scene, ready again for battle. “Nobody else could survive that punishment,” we gush. The indestructible superhero comes to mind while reading of Jacob’s return to Canaan after living under Laban’s thumb, then wrestling with a mysterious man, then encountering Esau—a man who’s had twenty years to stew in a fratricidal rage.

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Answer Me

Answer Me

Jun 17, 2016 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Naso

In a plaintive and anxious song by Israeli singer Ehud Banai called “Aneh Li” (“Answer Me”), the challenge of communicating with God is rendered as an increasingly panicked monologue by a man waiting for a voice he’s sure is on the other end of the phone line:

You’re breaking up—there’s background noise—it’s like the ocean.
I guess there’s no reception here—you’ve disappeared.
I’m still waiting on the line for my turn.
I’m holding the connection, in case you return . . .
Are you still with me?
Answer me.

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How Many Harvests

How Many Harvests

May 27, 2016 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Behar

In its radical reframing of our right to claim ownership of anything and anyone, Parashat Behar sets our mortality against God’s eternality, and our contingent lease to the Land against God’s permanent deed: “The Land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the Land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23).

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Blessings From Love

Blessings From Love

Dec 25, 2015 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Vayehi

Given all that’s come before in Genesis, the Torah’s notice that Israel’s days are nearing their end brings dread. This stems not from fear of death, but a dread of blessing. The passing of a patriarch means that a scene of generational blessing is imminent.

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God Wants Us Back

God Wants Us Back

Aug 31, 2015 By Joel Alter | Short Video | Rosh Hashanah | Yom Kippur

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Making Space for Life

Making Space for Life

Jul 10, 2015 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Pinehas

It’s not for nothing, this reputation God has for consuming anger. The Torah itself makes the case. Our parashah opens with yet another instance of God hovering at the brink. God is prepared to wipe us out in a rage over our incessant violations of the inviolable.

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If What Wasn’t Is; Those Who Were Are Not

If What Wasn’t Is; Those Who Were Are Not

Jun 19, 2015 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Korah

A Distillation of Numbers 16:28-34

By this you will know
that all I have done
I have not done
of my own devising
but at God’s bidding:

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I Can’t Stand My Neighbor, but His Ox Needs a Hand

I Can’t Stand My Neighbor, but His Ox Needs a Hand

Feb 13, 2015 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Mishpatim

A rabbi and an astronomer have the middle and window seats on a long-haul flight while the fellow on the aisle is a champion sleeper. As neither of our sophisticated travelers is taking a stroll anytime soon, the astronomer begins to talk: “Tell me, rabbi. What, essentially, is Judaism for?” The rabbi thinks a bit, casting about for a reasonable response. He offers a few broad strokes and believes he’s done about as well as might be expected. The traveler responds, “All these rules and teachings and traditions, rabbi! Can’t it all be boiled down to ‘Be Nice?’” The rabbi nods and says, “All these galaxies and black holes and neutrinos and supernovas . . . professor, can’t it all be boiled down to ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star?’”

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On This Very Day

On This Very Day

Sep 26, 2014 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Ha'azinu | Shabbat Shuvah | Yom Kippur

It’s difficult to overstate the pathos of Moshe’s last days. This man (and he is most assuredly a man, not a god, not a saint), who never wanted to be a leader—and after his first, impulsive attempt at leading was met with contempt from those he tried to save and condemnation from Pharaoh, his adoptive father (Exod. 2:11–15)—carried the burdens of prophetic leadership with fierce loyalty to both of his masters, God and the people.

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The Gift Of Community

The Gift Of Community

Sep 9, 2014 By Joel Alter | Short Video | Yom Kippur

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Call Them by Their Names

Call Them by Their Names

May 2, 2014 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Emor

When I’m at a hotel over Shabbat, I have a set Friday afternoon ritual.

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A Hand to Hold

A Hand to Hold

Oct 16, 2013 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Vayera

Her beautiful 16-year-old Ishmael lying whimpering nearby from mortal thirst and her own death close at hand, Hagar—in Genesis 21:15–18—is about as pitiable as one might imagine.

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Going to the Head of the Prayer Line

Going to the Head of the Prayer Line

May 14, 2013 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Naso

Sharp elbows at shul extend beyond the kiddush table line and back into the sanctuary. Prayer—or giving honor to God—can be a competitive business. There are lots of reasons why this is so, and some of them even have to do with loving God. But showing off how we love God can get us into trouble.

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