Listening to Anger

Listening to Anger

Mar 13, 2004 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Ki Tissa

Anger is a powerful emotion – propelling us toward constructive or destructive ends. The path to either of the latter however is chosen immediately in the aftermath of our fury. Will we simply be reactive in the moment and allow our wrath the power it seeks? Or will we rise above ourselves in an attempt to be self differentiated – to see the larger picture – and then act in a rational way? It is a moment pregnant with possibility. i.

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An Earthen Altar

An Earthen Altar

Feb 14, 2004 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Yitro

Revelation is a liminal moment for the Jewish people. It is a moment in which the nation crosses a threshold. Previously, they were dependent on God, just as they had been upon their slave-masters. Now they move toward a relationship based on mutual responsibilities between themselves and the God who cared enough to liberate them. Indeed, these newly freed slaves acquire not only a national but also a personal identity as God addresses them individually.

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A Search for Peace

A Search for Peace

Dec 20, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayeshev

Jacob’s life is a search for blessing and more importantly, a blessing that will culminate in peace. Knowing full well that his blessing was acquired through deception, Jacob seeks uncategorical recognition – a legitimacy that Esau grants him in last week’s parashah. Indeed, Jacob desires the fulfillment of blessing in his own life. Sadly though, his life proves to be just the opposite.

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Confronting God

Confronting God

Nov 15, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayera

The tension and ultimate destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah stand at the core of Parashat Vayera. God’s quality of justice is ironically put on trial. One midrash places the following words in the mouth of Abraham as he encourages God to think twice about the immanent destruction of these towns: “If You seek to have a world, strict justice cannot be exercised; and if You seek strict justice, there will be no world . . . You can have only one of the two. If you do not relent a little, the world will not endure” (Genesis Rabbah 39:6).

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Repairing Jonah’s Sukkah

Repairing Jonah’s Sukkah

Oct 11, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Sukkot | Yom Kippur

This coming Friday evening we herald in the first festival of the Jewish year, Sukkot. Between Motzei Yom Kippur (the evening concluding Yom Kippur) and Friday, sukkot (temporary booths) are built all around the Jewish world. It is an especially memorable event in Israel where cities and villages alike are transformed by the festival greenery. Special markets spring up across the country peddling the four species that are brought together as we celebrate the absolute joy of the holiday. The fragrance of the etrog embraces all as we enter the sukkah, declaring our faith in God’s protection. That said, the sukkah is not only at the essence of Sukkot; the sukkah, in all its beauty and symbolism provides a powerful bridge between the most sacred day of the year, Yom Kippur, and the harvest festival of Sukkot.

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Moments of Transition

Moments of Transition

Sep 13, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Liminal moments are often marked by meaningful ceremonies. A baby is welcomed into the covenant of the Jewish people through a simhat bat or brit milah ceremony. Children celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzvah by being called to the Torah. Marriage is marked by a ritual of kiddushin (sanctification) under the huppah. So too are such moments ritualized in the annual Jewish calendar. One need only think of the coming High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — to be reminded of the special rituals that transition us into the new year (the sounding of the shofar, tashlikh, and the ascetic laws in observance of Yom Kippur).

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Leaving Egypt

Leaving Egypt

Aug 30, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Shofetim

Several weeks ago, a book review in the New York Times caught my attention. Janet Maslin, reviewing The Known World by Edward Jones wrote: “Mr. Jones explores the unsettling, contradiction-prone world of a Virginia slaveholder who happens to be black.” (NYT, August 14, 2003).

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One Place, Many Prayers

One Place, Many Prayers

Aug 23, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Re'eh

Deuteronomy as a whole is focused on what scholars refer to as ‘the centralization of the sacrificial cult.’ Until this historical point, it would appear that the Israelites offered sacrifices at local altars called ‘bamot.’ With the Deuteronomic legislation however, such local devotional sites are obliterated. Even if Israelites in outlying areas could not be present at the Temple services in Jerusalem, worship at this focal point was supposed to represent and include them. What are the ramifications of such legislation and how can we place this teaching in a modern context?

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Refining Torah

Refining Torah

Aug 2, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Devarim

The Torah itself, Heschel explains, is a midrash on revelation. As such, the Torah or literally, “the Teaching” is a text that is dependent on reading and re-reading; on commentary and on super-commentary. With each successive reading, we uncover the many layers of meaning that Torah has to offer. This hermeneutical process traces its roots back to the Torah itself and quite explicitly to this week’s parashah, Parashat Devarim

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Words Are Sacred

Words Are Sacred

Jul 12, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Balak | Hukkat

Words are sacred. I remember the sanctity of words being inculcated in me as a high school student. My history teacher, Mr. Reilly, an admired, knowledgeable and articulate pedagogue (not to even mention his black belt in karate), instilled within us the fear of God with regard to proper attribution of words. His definition of plagiarism was ‘two or more words copied and unattributed.’ I remember being shocked by this Puritan definition, but it also instilled a respect for the written word. So valued are words that numerous violations, in addition to plagiarism, are attributed to their misuse. On occasions, words are distorted – in transmission, either knowingly or unknowingly; such distortion leads to the promulgation of lies and deception. And words are used to hurt – to curse, to destroy, and to instigate.

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Choosing a Different Jewish Path

Choosing a Different Jewish Path

Jun 14, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Naso

Two weeks ago, one of my students remarked that it is difficult to be a student of Torah. When he told a friend of his that he learns Torah on a regular basis, the friend responded in an astonishing and belittling way: “What are you, some kind of born-again Jew?” After hearing of this student’s experience, I conducted my own informal survey asking other students how friends and family have responded to their personal journeys of Jewish learning. Across the board, I was told that the perception was negative.

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Freedom in Relationship

Freedom in Relationship

May 17, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Behar

Coercion is part of the essence of Judaism. Indeed, a well known midrash describes God coercing the Israelites into the acceptance of Torah. Sparked by the Hebrew phrase “the Israelites were rooted underthe mountain” (Exodus 19:17), (most translations read “the Israelites were at the foot of the mountain”), the rabbinic imagination conjures up a threatening portrait of God holding Mt. Sinai over the heads of the those assembled, declaring, “if you accept the Torah, well and good; but if not, this shall be your resting place” (BT Shabbat 88a). Coercion is indeed at the heart of this teaching and potentially at the heart of Judaism. Most observant Jews feel a sense of external motivation — observance is not simply a matter of personal choice, but a response to a God who has expectations.

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For Whom Do We Dress?

For Whom Do We Dress?

Mar 22, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Tzav

Parashat Tsav raises the issue of clothing, and how our outer presentation can mirror, or even influence, our thoughts and behavior.

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Creation and Creativity

Creation and Creativity

Feb 22, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Ki Tissa

When you sit down to center a piece of clay on the wheel, the first thing you must do is ‘center’ yourself — take a deep breath, let go of all extraneous thoughts, surrender control. You cannot force the clay into position with your hands or arms; rather, the message must emanate from your intellectual and emotional faculties: be quiet, be centered, be calm. To this, the clay responds.

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Holy Encounters

Holy Encounters

Jan 25, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Yitro

Three years ago, my wife, Miriam, and I traveled to Italy. While the art of Florence, architecture of Sienna, and vistas of San Gimignano overwhelmed the imagination and tantalized the senses, our most meaningful experience of that trip occurred in Rome. With only one day to visit the sites of this ancient city, a very special shidukh was arranged between us and a Jesuit priest, Father John Navone (American by birth with deep family roots in Italy). As we quickly discovered, Father Navone knows every nook and cranny of this city that is so beloved to him and his family. He exuded not only a special affection for Italy but also a love for humanity.

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Legacy and Jewish Identity

Legacy and Jewish Identity

Dec 28, 2002 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Shemot

What is the greatest legacy we can leave to our children and grandchildren?

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Where It’s Least Expected

Where It’s Least Expected

Nov 30, 2002 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayeshev

God’s Presence in our world is truly in the eye of the beholder. While there are times we feel an acute absence of God in our lives, there are also times that we are keenly aware of God’s Presence. More often than not, it is in times of distress and tragedy that we turn to be discovered by God rather than in times of blessing. Our patriarch Jacob is the quintessential model of such relationship. When Jacob leaves home and again when he is about to confront his brother Esau after twenty years, Jacob prays to God — for protection and blessing. 

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Repeating the Past

Repeating the Past

Nov 2, 2002 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Hayyei Sarah

Ironically death pervades Parashat Hayyei Sarah, the parashah that is literally translated as “the lives of Sarah.” The Torah reading opens with the death of Sarah and closes with the death of Abraham. In between, we are privy to the negotiations between Abraham and Ephron over the Cave of Makhpelah (which would become the burial site for our ancestors) and the search for Isaac’s mate. Life is bracketed by death. Sadly, it is a fitting parashah given the circumstances confronting our brothers and sisters in Israel today. 

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Sight and Knowledge

Sight and Knowledge

Oct 5, 2002 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Bereishit

As a teacher for JTS Kollot: Voices of Learning, I hear many voices of Torah that open my eyes to creative ways of reading the texts of our sacred tradition.

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On New Beginnings

On New Beginnings

Oct 5, 2002 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Bereishit

As a teacher for JTS Kollot: Voices of Learning, I hear many voices of Torah that open my eyes to creative ways of reading the texts of our sacred tradition.

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