A Spiritual Caution for This Season

A Spiritual Caution for This Season

Apr 19, 2019 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Pesah

The Shulhan Arukh—the 16th-century law code that serves as the essential scaffolding for the Jewish legal system—introduces its discussion of the holiday of Passover with the Talmudic prescription:

We ask and inquire about the laws of Passover 30 days before the beginning of the Passover holiday. (OH 429:1, BT Pesahim 6a)

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1530-1572) immediately comments on this law:

It is a custom to buy wheat and distribute it to the poor for the needs of Passover.

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Why Religion?

Why Religion?

Nov 16, 2018 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Vayetzei

Big picture: What is religion trying to do in the world?

Maimonides claims that the aim of Torah is the creation of lives and communities that manifest “mercy, loving-kindness, and peace” (The Laws of Shabbat, 2:3). All of the commandments, the entirety of our wisdom tradition, seeks to create people who—through their actions—bring more love, sensitivity, and peace into the world.

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Freedom through Torah

Freedom through Torah

Apr 5, 2018 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Pesah

“The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets” (Exod. 32:17). Do not read, “incised,” (harut), rather [read] “freedom” (herut)—for no person is truly free except the one who labors in Torah. (Mishnah Avot 6:2)

Freedom in biblical and rabbinic Judaism is a highly complex idea. Consider the mishnah above. At first glance one might think the law, the Ten Commandments carved on the two tablets, would be limiting, constraining human freedom. Counterintuitively, the Sages argue that true freedom only comes from an engagement with Torah! How might “laboring in Torah” and living a life according to the demands of the Torah induce freedom?

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The Hanukkah Story I Need to Hear This Year

The Hanukkah Story I Need to Hear This Year

Dec 15, 2017 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Hanukkah

Stories have great power. We tell stories about ourselves and about our communities because they give our lives meaning, and they help us navigate between the past and the future. We use stories to help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Not far behind the seemingly innocent plots of many of the stories we tell about our community’s religious history lie profound cultural responses to our most pressing questions about what it means to be a human being and how to live life well.

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The Blessing of Curses: A Rosh Hashanah Puzzle

The Blessing of Curses: A Rosh Hashanah Puzzle

Sep 20, 2017 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Ki Tavo | Rosh Hashanah | Shabbat Shuvah

Here’s a puzzle for us to think about as we consider the spiritual work that we need to engage in over the remaining days until Yom Kippur: The Talmud tells us—in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar—that Ezra the Scribe decreed that, for all time, the Jewish people would read the blessings and curses in Leviticus (Parashat Behukkotai) prior to the holiday of Shavuot and those of Deuteronomy (Parashat Ki Tavo) before Rosh Hashanah (BT Megillah 31b). This decree is strange. Reading these graphic and threatening chapters, which detail the good that will come if we are faithful to God and the suffering that will be wrought if we forsake our relationship with God, is difficult at any time. Why insist that we read them publicly as we ready ourselves to celebrate these joyous holidays?

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Intermarriage and the Desert

Intermarriage and the Desert

Jun 16, 2017 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Shelah Lekha

In light of the recent work of colleagues and friends regarding the boundaries of the Jewish people and how that impacts the weddings that should or should not be performed, I cannot but help to read this Shabbat’s parashah in terms of boundaries.

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Expanding Our Understanding of the Religious Life

Expanding Our Understanding of the Religious Life

Feb 24, 2017 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Mishpatim

There is a strange—little spoken about—law that my mind, particularly over the last few months, keeps revisiting. The Talmud teaches that when one builds a synagogue or house of study the structure should preferably have windows (BT Berakhot 34b). Indeed, this idea is codified as law in the foundational legal code, the Shulhan Arukh (OH 90:2).

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Hanukkah Nights

Hanukkah Nights

Dec 24, 2016 By David Hoffman | Collected Resources | Text Study | Hanukkah

A text, insight, and discussion question for each night of Hanukkah.

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The Currencies of Justice

The Currencies of Justice

Aug 12, 2016 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Devarim

You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low [katan] and high [gadol] alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s. (Deut. 1:17)

Philo, the great 1st-century Alexandrian Jewish thinker, was engaged in a project that in many ways was deeply modern. He sought to “translate” Judaism for the Greek-speaking world of his day, and to demonstrate to a highly educated and urbane population that the Torah was a philosophically serious work. Not only could one be a Jew and be a Greek, but in many ways a pious Jew was the truest of Greeks.

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The Power of Paradox for the Religious Life

The Power of Paradox for the Religious Life

Jan 15, 2016 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Bo

There are a few texts that have helped me get through dark and difficult periods in my religious life, first amongst them being several paragraphs by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik buried in a footnote in his essay Halakhic Man. At another stage of my life long since gone, I yearned for a simple faith in God. I yearned for a transcendent framework that might help me feel closer to a God that too many times felt too far away. I had believed that a sense of wholeness and integration were possible goals for the religious life.

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The Ending That Wasn’t

The Ending That Wasn’t

Sep 25, 2015 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Ha'azinu

We Jews are not a religious lot. In fact, by a variety of metrics cited in the recent Pew report, Jews are less religious than any other religious group in America. For instance, only one quarter of Jews say religion is “very important” in their lives, compared with more than half of Americans overall. More to the point that I’d like to explore, a belief in God is much more common among the general non-Jewish public than among Jews.

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The Telling

The Telling

Apr 2, 2015 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Pesah

This Friday evening we will gather with family and friends. We will sit down to beautifully set tables, and each of us will open one of the most popular and well-known of Hebrew books—the Haggadah. The name of the book comes from the Hebrew verb lehagid (“to tell”), and if we were to translate “haggadah” into English, it would be “the telling.” Not surprisingly, the core of the Haggadah is the section called maggid, a word that also derives from the Hebrew root meaning “to tell.” Clearly these two forms of the verb lehagid communicate the centrality of the activity of “telling” on this night. But here things become less clear.

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Living into the Mission of Our Lives

Living into the Mission of Our Lives

Dec 5, 2014 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Vayishlah

What are our greatest fears?

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The Light of Passover

The Light of Passover

Mar 25, 2013 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Pesah

Why did the Rabbis use the word light when they intended darkness? The Hebrew word leila (לילה) would certainly have worked. Why did the Rabbis not say what they meant?

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Ultimate Questions

Ultimate Questions

Sep 20, 2012 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Rosh Hashanah | Shabbat Shuvah

There are some who expect religion to provide answers. The religious experience is thought to be a refuge from the messiness of life; a peaceful, ordered worldview that may help explain life’s daunting moments. In this way, faith offers the believer comfort that life is as it was meant to be, and that one’s spiritual work centers on acceptance and “finding” one’s path. Judaism turns these ideas on their head.

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Blessings From the Inside Out

Blessings From the Inside Out

May 19, 2012 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Behukkotai

One of the claims that seems to have been made at different moments in my Jewish education is that Judaism concerns itself with what a person does in the world, and not with what a person thinks. The Torah demands we pursue a life rightly lived over beliefs rightly held.

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Was Abe Lincoln Honest?

Was Abe Lincoln Honest?

Jan 7, 2012 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Vayehi

A well-known reading of our Torah portion for this Shabbat finds a source from the story of Joseph’s interactions with his brothers for the idea that the small fib—the white lie—is religiously justified in certain circumstances.

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Going Toward the Present

Going Toward the Present

Nov 11, 2011 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Vayera

Martin Buber, the great 20th-century Jewish theologian, observed a powerful literary connection between the beginning of Abraham’s life and the end. God first speaks to Abraham suddenly, seemingly without introduction, and commands: “Go forth (lekh lekha) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). With these few words, God introduces God’s Self to Abraham and it is with these words that their relationship is founded.

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The Perils of Leadership

The Perils of Leadership

Jul 2, 2011 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Hukkat

Great leadership is about successfully orchestrating change. Whether within organizations, communities, or other social systems, leadership involves developing a vision of the future and implementing strategies to achieve this vision. Exercising leadership means motivating and inspiring people to change habits, attitudes, and values that hold them back from reaching their goals. 

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Blessing From the Inside Out

Blessing From the Inside Out

May 21, 2011 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Behukkotai

One of the claims that seems to have been made at different moments in my Jewish education is that Judaism concerns itself with what a person does in the world and not with what a person thinks. The Torah demands we pursue a life rightly lived over beliefs rightly held. This argument underscores that the project of Torah is concerned with our behavior and not our internal life.

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