Strangers to Ourselves

Strangers to Ourselves

Dec 18, 2020 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Miketz

The Joseph narrative contains a striking number of contranyms—words that simultaneously convey opposite meanings. Why?

Contranyms are a natural linguistic expression of the Torah’s insistence that a “both/and” perspective is essential to understanding deep truths, other people, and ourselves. The portrayal of Joseph is a prime example.

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Kollot Rabbinic Literature, 2020-21

Kollot Rabbinic Literature, 2020-21

Nov 12, 2020 By Jan Uhrbach

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Faith, Forgiveness and Prayer: Finding Meaning in the Days of Awe

Faith, Forgiveness and Prayer: Finding Meaning in the Days of Awe

Aug 31, 2020 By Jan Uhrbach | Public Event video | Video Lecture | Rosh Hashanah | Yom Kippur

A series of online classes with JTS faculty and staff

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The Journey

The Journey

Jun 12, 2020 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Beha'alotekha

How do we progress toward our goals? Individually and societally, how do we know when to move forward, and which direction to go?

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Memory and the Exodus from Egypt

Memory and the Exodus from Egypt

Jan 11, 2019 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Bo

Zakhor—Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, from the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand Adonai brought you forth from this . . . (Exod. 13:3).

The Exodus from Egypt is the first of several things the Torah commands us to remember (zakhor). What does it mean to remember, and how do we accomplish it?

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Seventh haftarah of consolation

Seventh haftarah of consolation

Sep 7, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Ki Tetzei

We might expect that for the seventh and final haftarah of comfort, the Sages would have chosen a passage recounting complete redemption. Instead, we are given a vision of the removing of obstacles, and the building of a solid foundation, to permit a path forward. Two such obstacles—“rocks” to be removed—are highlighted.

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Sixth haftarah of consolation

Sixth haftarah of consolation

Aug 31, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Ki Tetzei

In the sixth haftarah of consolation, Isaiah draws heavily on the metaphor of light and darkness, and the repair and redemption is imagined as individuals’ and society’s embodiment of divine light. When God’s presence truly shines upon a person or nation, that person or nation is in turn able to bring light to others. This light—which may be understood as moral guidance and instruction, truth, compassion, justice, unification, love—is the true source of power and honor, the “wealth” of which the prophet speaks.

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Fifth haftarah of consolation

Fifth haftarah of consolation

Aug 24, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Ki Tetzei

This fifth haftarah of comfort describes a process of reconciliation. Now on the other side of the abyss, God’s anger and “hiding of the face” can be seen in retrospect as temporary, even momentary, and confidence on the reliability of love and kindness can be restored.

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Fourth haftarah of consolation

Fourth haftarah of consolation

Aug 17, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Shofetim

This fourth and middle haftarah of consolation and comfort begins with a challenge to the people: why do you allow a mere mortal, however seemingly powerful, to send you into a tailspin of fear and anxiety? Isaiah points out that the people are suffering not only from externally imposed oppression, but from their own internal response—dread, reeling like a drunkard, despair. This hopelessness that denies or ignores unforeseen possibility and unexpected redemption is called “forgetting God.”

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Third haftarah of consolation

Third haftarah of consolation

Aug 10, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Re'eh

This third haftarah of consolation and comfort contains a beautiful promise of a society established on righteousness, and consequently free of oppression and fear and safe from ruin. Most strikingly, it critiques the worldview that sees the accumulation of wealth and material possessions as the highest value, offering an alternative vision, in which that which truly satisfies is available “without money.”

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Second haftarah of consolation

Second haftarah of consolation

Aug 3, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Va'et-hannan

Underlying this second haftarah of comfort is a sense of near-despair: the people lament having been abandoned by God, and God responds to their unspoken fear that God is powerless to save them. As the honest grief of the heart and soul that knows what it has lost, such despair is necessary; without it, comfort and hope are false. But despair is dangerous too; it can lead to helplessness, disengagement, and resignation to injustice. It can also create an inability to embrace a redemptive message: while the people lament being abandoned by God, God is calling to them and being ignored.

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First haftarah of consolation (Shabbat Nahamu)

First haftarah of consolation (Shabbat Nahamu)

Jul 27, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Va'et-hannan

This special haftarah, which begins nahamu nahamu ami—“comfort, oh comfort, My people,” is the first of seven special haftarot of comfort (drawn from Isaiah 40–63). During these seven weeks, the relationship between the people and God—strained almost to breaking on Tishah Be’av—is slowly rebuilt, allowing us to stand before God once again on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

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Third Haftarah of Rebuke (Shabbat Hazon)

Third Haftarah of Rebuke (Shabbat Hazon)

Jul 20, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Devarim | Tishah Be'av

In this third haftarah of calamity or rebuke, the opening chapter of Isaiah, the once noble society has sunk to the level of Sodom and Gomorrah. Strikingly, there is no dearth of external piety (indeed, God is over-satiated to the point of disgust with the people’s offerings and prayers), nor is there any charge of sexual impropriety or impurity. Rather, the suffering of the people is caused by injustice, indifference to the cries of the vulnerable, oppression, systemic greed, and selfish and self-serving leadership.

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Unleashing the Haftarah

Unleashing the Haftarah

Jul 13, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Tishah Be'av

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Tanakh is its self-critical character. Like the narratives of the Torah, the “former” prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) feature only flawed heroes. The “latter” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the twelve minor prophets) raise the stakes. Soaring and searing, they rail against the injustices and failures of society, holding a mirror to structural inequities that create poverty and oppression. The prophets lay bare the systemic corruptions within even biblically-created institutions—the priesthood, monarchy, and nation—revealing hypocrisies, false pieties, and breaches of the public trust.

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First and second haftarot of rebuke

First and second haftarot of rebuke

Jul 6, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Masei | Mattot | Pinehas | Tishah Be'av

Chapters 1 and 2 of Jeremiah constitute the first two haftarot of “calamity” or rebuke. In them, the prophet anticipates disorienting but necessary societal upheaval; he is called “to uproot and pull down, destroy and overthrow,” and also “to build and to plant.” 

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It Passes and We Stay

It Passes and We Stay

Apr 20, 2018 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Metzora | Tazria

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period—
When March is scarcely here

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).

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The Antidote to Korah

The Antidote to Korah

Jun 23, 2017 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Korah

How to deal with a demagogue? Parashat Korah offers a case study in what works and what doesn’t.

The parashah begins with a dramatic confrontation. Korah gathers together with Datan, Aviram, On, and 250 community leaders, and hurls accusations at Moses and Aaron.

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Dreaming of Being Balaam

Dreaming of Being Balaam

Jul 22, 2016 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Balak

The story of the heathen prophet Balaam—hired by Moabite king Balak ben Tzippor to curse the people Israel—is altogether strange. It concerns events happening outside the Israelite camp and seemingly unknown to them, characters we’ve not yet met, and a talking donkey. Its tone ranges from burlesquely funny to surreal.

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Touch: Beyond the Mountain’s Edge

Touch: Beyond the Mountain’s Edge

Jun 6, 2016 By Jan Uhrbach | Short Video | Shavuot

From the 5776 Receiving Torah with All Our Senses series.

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Words Fail Me

Words Fail Me

Jan 8, 2016 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Va'era

This common idiom—so casually tossed off in a moment of surprise—expresses a deep truth. Words do indeed fail us, sometimes to tragic effect. 

That is the way the Zohar (the foundational text of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism) understands our exile in Egypt: as the exile of speech, a failure of words. In this reading, the breakdown of speech is both cause and effect of our enslavement, while healing and redeeming speech—finding our voice—is both the process and hallmark of redemption. 

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