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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Boundaries on the Move

Boundaries on the Move

Aug 2, 2019 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

Every week, we read a parashah from the Torah during our Shabbat morning service, and then the beginning of the next parashah during our Shabbat afternoon service. The result of reading from two parashiyot on a single day can be surprising. This week, as we read first from Masei, the last parashah of Numbers, and then from Devarim, the first from Deuteronomy, we can hear an ancient debate about an issue that remains deeply contested: where to draw the line.

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How to Approach God

How to Approach God

Apr 5, 2019 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Tazria

There are probably no Torah readings as widely misunderstood as the Torah readings for this week and next week, Parashat Tazria and Parashat Metzora. These parshiyot are devoted entirely to the subject of ritual purity. They discuss what causes people to become ritually impure, how they can become ritually pure again, and what the effects of this state are. For many modern readers, this topic is off-putting. It seems primitive and far removed from the real concerns of an ethical and monotheistic religion.

And yet to the authors of the Bible, these laws were of paramount importance. They were seamlessly intertwined with the idea of monotheism.

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Would Our Mother Forget Us?

Would Our Mother Forget Us?

Aug 3, 2018 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Eikev

This Shabbat is the second of the seven Shabbatot of consolation that follow Tishah Be’av, and, as on all these Shabbatot, its haftarah comes from the last part of the book of Isaiah. These are highly appropriate passages to console us after we commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem, because they were written by a prophet who lived in exile roughly a generation after the Babylonian empire demolished the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed the Judean state, and exiled much of its population. 

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Upgrading the Torah—and the World

Upgrading the Torah—and the World

Jul 21, 2017 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

Is God’s law perfect? Most of us would assume that anything created by an omniscient and omnipotent being must have no flaws. But a story in today’s parashah suggests otherwise—in a manner that shows a surprising similarity to a key concept of Jewish mysticism.

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Where Is Authority Found?

Where Is Authority Found?

May 6, 2016 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Aharei Mot

People familiar with the dietary laws of Judaism know that meat from an animal that died a natural death or was torn apart by wild beasts is not kosher. This is stated explicitly in the Torah. Exodus 22:30 reads, “You shall be my holy people: you may not eat meat torn by beasts in the field; you should throw it to dogs.” (The Hebrew word for “torn by beasts”—terefah—refers specifically to torn flesh in biblical Hebrew.)

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Who Wrote The Ten Commandments?

Who Wrote The Ten Commandments?

Feb 26, 2016 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Ki Tissa

Where does our Torah come from? Did all the words of the Torah come from heaven, so that the Torah is a perfect divine work? If that is the case, then the tradition the Torah inaugurates is one that human beings should accept in its entirety without introducing any changes. Or is the Torah itself the result of human-divine collaboration? If that is the case, the tradition the Torah inaugurates may allow some change, at least by those Jews of each generation who accept the Torah and live by its commandments.

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An Anthology of Beginnings

An Anthology of Beginnings

Oct 9, 2015 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Bereishit

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” These opening words of the Torah in most translations are clear, straightforward, and well known. But they don’t render the Hebrew original correctly. As Rashi already pointed out, the first verse of the Torah is not, by itself, a grammatical sentence. Instead, it is part of a longer sentence that continues through the end of verse three. 

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Mortals and Immortals

Mortals and Immortals

Oct 17, 2014 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Bereishit

We human beings tend not to see something that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions, including when we read the Torah.

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Where Does Holiness Come From?

Where Does Holiness Come From?

Jun 5, 2013 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Korah

Parashat Korah can be challenging for a modern Jew. There is a good guy in this parashah—it’s Moses—and there is a bad guy—Korah. Modern readers, however, often find themselves sympathizing with the bad guy.

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The True Story of Hanukkah

The True Story of Hanukkah

Dec 4, 2010 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Hanukkah

What is Hanukkah really about? There are several answers to a question like this, since the meaning of a holiday or ritual develops and grows over time. I’d like to point out a fascinating tension between two understandings of Hanukkah that becomes clear from examining two popular songs many of us sing after lighting the candles.

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The Dangers of Sacred Space

The Dangers of Sacred Space

Mar 5, 2010 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Ki Tissa

For more than a month during this time of year, we read about the mishkan, the Tabernacle, also called the ohel mo’ed, or Tent of Meeting. Parashiyot T’rumah and T’tzavveh, which we read the past two weeks, contain what amount to blueprints in prose format. These readings describe exactly how the Children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai should construct the mishkan.

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What God Wants From Us

What God Wants From Us

Apr 7, 2009 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Tetzavveh

What is the book of Exodus about? At first glance, the answer seems easy. As the English title states, it tells the story of the exodus from Egypt, the story of how God rescued the Israelites from slavery by defeating Pharaoh and his armies. A second glance, however, shows that this answer cannot be right.

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