The Values of a Jewish Home

The Values of a Jewish Home

Apr 16, 2021 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Metzora | Tazria | Yom Hazikaron-Yom Ha'atzma'ut

In the precious days “Before the Coronavirus Era” (B.C.E.), the parshiyot of Tazria-Metzora seemed wholly disconnected from our lives, presenting the perennial challenge of relevance (or irrelevance) to even the most talented darshan (sermonizer). How are we to connect leprous plagues attacking both body and abode to our daily lives? And to what extent does the experience of quarantine resonate with our modern reality? These are only two of the many questions that we would have posed in a pre-Covid world.

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Having It All

Having It All

Dec 4, 2020 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayishlah

After twenty years of estrangement, Jacob and Esau encounter one another yet again. Time has somewhat softened the bitterness and pain of the injustice done to Esau in Jacob’s theft of the blessing. And Esau has come to his senses, realizing that the murder of his brother will not right the wrong committed under the aegis of his scheming mother. Still, at the beginning of our parashah, Jacob is so uncertain and fearful of the encounter between him and his brother that he plans for the worst—dividing his family into two camps (lest one be destroyed, the other half will survive) and wrestling with the mysterious assailant (which portends his coming to terms with the misstep he committed so many years prior). Clearly, given what Jacob experienced in Laban’s home, the blessing received from Isaac has yet to come to fruition.

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The Courage to Not Know

The Courage to Not Know

Jul 10, 2020 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Pinehas

If there is a moment of heroism in Parashat Pinehas, it is when the daughters of Zelophahad stand before Moses. Living in the patriarchal world of biblical Israel, they arrive at a defining juncture. Their father, Zelophahad, dies, leaving no sons to inherit or perpetuate his name. While the daughters could have simply accepted the reality of patriarchal inheritance, they bravely choose another path. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah approach Moshe explaining, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no sons! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Num. 27:4). The reader of Torah cannot help but embrace this gesture with a sense of awe. What trepidation—and gumption—must have been involved in the decision to bring their case before the leader of the fledgling nation of Israel!

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Counting the Omer, Counting our Blessings

Counting the Omer, Counting our Blessings

Apr 23, 2020 By Matthew Berkowitz | Shavuot

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Counting the Omer, Counting our Blessings

Counting the Omer, Counting our Blessings

Apr 23, 2020 By Matthew Berkowitz | Shavuot

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Kollot Online Lectures, Spring / Summer 2020

Kollot Online Lectures, Spring / Summer 2020

Apr 6, 2020 By Matthew Berkowitz

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The Sound of the Bells

The Sound of the Bells

Mar 6, 2020 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Tetzavveh

At the core of Parashat Tetzavveh is a detailed description of the clothing worn by the officiants who will perform ritual service in the sacred space known as the Tent of Meeting (and later, the Temple). In the same way that holy space must be constructed differently from common space, so too must the priests and High Priest be “separate” from the common people. It is for this reason that Torah commands the fabrication of special clothing. Think of it as a holy uniform for holy ritual.

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Bezalel and Oholiav: Models Then, Models Now

Bezalel and Oholiav: Models Then, Models Now

Mar 1, 2019 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayak-hel

Parashat Vayak-hel is replete with the material details of the Tabernacle and its wares. This sacred building project becomes the focus of Israelite energy in the latter part of the Book of Exodus. But more than the project itself is the quality of the people behind it. Vayak-hel pointedly and poetically reintroduces us to Bezalel and Oholiav, the master artisans responsible for the construction of the Tabernacle and its appurtenances. What makes these two individuals worthy of this sacred task?

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The Life of a Hebrew Poet

The Life of a Hebrew Poet

Dec 29, 2017 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary

Born in 1873 in Zhitomir, Ukraine, Hayim Nahman Bialik went on to become the greatest Hebrew poet “since the time of Yehudah Halevi.” Holtzman identifies what made Bialik a national poet of the Jewish people: “a biography of epic, symbolic dimensions; a profound sense of involvement and identification with the national drama; and incontestable literary genius” (62). From humble beginnings in a family involved in the lumber trade, Bialik left at age 17 for the Volozhin yeshiva in Lithuania. There he immersed himself in yeshiva learning while simultaneously expanding his secular knowledge in preparation for academic studies in Berlin. 

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Israel’s Departure

Israel’s Departure

Feb 10, 2017 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Beshallah

Rabbi Judah said to Rabbi Meir: one tribe said, “I will not be the first to go into the sea”; and another tribe said, “I will not be the first to go into the sea.” While they were standing there deliberating, Nahshon the son of Aminadav of the tribe of Judah sprang forward and was the first to go down into the sea. Because it was Nahshon who came forward, Judah obtained royal dominion in Israel: “The sea saw him and fled” (Psalm 114:3). (Mekhilta Derabbi Yishmael, Beshallah, Mas. Devayehi 5)

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A Land of Promise

A Land of Promise

Nov 11, 2016 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Lekh Lekha

Abraham continually inspires us, his descendants, in his ability to place trust in the journey. God’s command to “[j]ourney forth from your country, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house” (Gen. 12:1) is striking: Leaving one’s country is doable. But to journey from one’s birthplace and familial connections is jarring—with the potential to transform one into an aimless wanderer. Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his roots for an indeterminate future—for the place that God will show him. A promise. And nothing more.

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Behukkotai’s Challenge to Us

Behukkotai’s Challenge to Us

Jun 4, 2016 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Behukkotai

Blessing comes to fruition through journey. The journey may be as simple as lighting Shabbat candles or it may be as complicated as leaving the comfort of one’s home to discover new worlds. Either way, that which is familiar is left behind, and a new reality challenges one to grow and thus to earn God’s blessing. Such is the challenge of this week’s parashah.

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Prophetess, Leader, Musician

Prophetess, Leader, Musician

Apr 29, 2016 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Pesah

Joy is the theme of the hour as God’s praises are sung during the completion of Hallel.  The image that bursts forth in our mind’s eye is that of Miriam the Prophetess and the women celebrating their newly found freedom on the banks of the Reed Sea. While the moment is solemn, it is also one of intense elation.

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The Values of a Jewish Home

The Values of a Jewish Home

Dec 5, 2015 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayeshev

A few weeks ago, Etgar Keret, an accomplished author on the Israeli literary scene, made a pilgrimage from his home in Tel Aviv to JTS’s Schocken Institute in Jerusalem to address a group of rabbinical students from JTS and HUC. Among the many thoughtful and reflective insights he shared, he spoke of the need for Israeli society to reflect the best of Jewish values. 

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Serving God

Serving God

Aug 14, 2015 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Re'eh

Demonstrating uncompromising devotion to God is the theme of this week’s parashah. Such devotion is expressed through belief, but more importantly, through avodah, meaningful service to God. For the biblical Israelite, service to God meant loyalty to God’s commandments and participation in the sacrificial cult. In Deuteronomy, avodah referred specifically to offering sacrifices to God at a central place of worship: “look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices. . .” (Deut. 12:5-6).

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The Rigors of Leadership

The Rigors of Leadership

May 8, 2015 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Emor

In the wake of violent religious extremism that plagues our world today, why are some religious leaders not expressing their opposition to bloodshed in the name of God? By turning a blind eye and silencing their voices, religious leaders tacitly give their approval to the violence—both tarnishing their reputation as leaders and diminishing God’s presence in this world. Leadership, especially religious leadership, demands scrupulousness and accountability.

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“We Were Slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”

“We Were Slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”

Jan 23, 2015 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Bo

Mount Sinai and a pyramid mirror each other, two halves of a whole. The pyramid is upside down, demonstrating that slavery is unnatural. Servitude distorts reality and ambition. This distortion comes not only from slavery to a human master, but also from when we become enslaved to our own drives—lacking the ability to envision an alternative or to hold fast to hope.

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