Behukkotai’s Challenge to Us

Behukkotai’s Challenge to Us

May 27, 2000 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 parasha.

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Purim Vs. Va-yikra: Order Vs. Chaos

Purim Vs. Va-yikra: Order Vs. Chaos

Mar 18, 2000 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayikra | Purim

This week we begin our reading of the book Va-yikra, Leviticus, which details the rites of the sacrificial cult, the dynamics of ritual pollution and purification, and the path toward priestly holiness. As a number of scholars have commented, Leviticus is essentially about order. For bible scholar, Everett Fox, Leviticus describes, “a realm of desired order and perfection, a realm in which wholeness is to reign, in which anomaly and undesired mixture are not permitted, and in which boundaries are zealously guarded” (Fox, The Five Books of Moses, 501). This sense of ordered perfection becomes all the more striking in light of our reading of Megillat Esther next Monday evening. At its core, the Scroll of Esther is about chaos and disorder – a world turned upside down. Which is more authentically Jewish? And how are we to understand the juxtaposition of these world views?

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A Circle of Obligation

A Circle of Obligation

Mar 3, 2000 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayak-hel

In last week’s parasha, Ki Tissa, we heard of the Israelites’ ultimate act of disloyalty – the creation and worship of a Golden Calf. In contrast, this week’s parasha, Va–Yakhel, paints a portrait of absolute devotion. Only three chapters after the Golden Calf episode, the Israelites are now engaged in one of the greatest acts of worship: building a tabernacle which will house the Presence of God. This week’s loyalty stands in stark contrast to last week’s disloyalty. These two episodes, however, not only puzzle the reader with their disparity but serve to shed light on each other.

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Suffering for the Sins of Others

Suffering for the Sins of Others

Jan 29, 2000 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Yitro

Parashat Yitro is known for the appearance of the Ten Commandments, aseret ha-dibrot, the ten revealed “words” of God. While the majority of demands are straightforward and theologically tenable, a qualification in the third commandment has left generations of Jews wrestling with its implications. God declares, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heaven above, or on the earth below… You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children (poked avon avot al banim), upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). How are we to understand this biblical concept of vicarious punishment? Why should seemingly innocent children and grandchildren suffer for the mistakes of their parents and grandparents? A number of brilliant voices from the tradition shed light on our query.

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Individual and Collective Formation of Nationhood

Individual and Collective Formation of Nationhood

Jan 22, 2000 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Beshallah

At the heart of Parashat Beshalah lies the triumphant poem, Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. Having successfully crossed the Reed Sea and witnessed the downfall of Pharaoh’s horsemen, Moses and the children of Israel burst out into an outpouring of praise for the God who freed them from the bonds of slavery. This biblical poem provides the historical transition from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule to God’s glorious kingship. In its biblical context, this song marks the emergence of a nation — from the mixed multitude that leaves Egypt to the people who encounter God at Sinai. 

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Joseph’s Three Encounters

Joseph’s Three Encounters

Dec 17, 1999 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayiggash

Parashat Va-Yiggash opens with the dramatic encounter between Joseph and his older brother, Judah. Judah, who years earlier had cooperated with his brothers to betray Joseph, seems to be on the verge of losing his father’s other favored son, Benjamin, as well. Judah makes an impassioned plea to Joseph, offering himself as a hostage in Benjamin’s stead. As it turns out, Judah’s altruism is more than Joseph can withstand. While he was able to hold back and hide his identity numerous times, letting his brothers squirm in discomfort before the strange Egyptian man, this time is different. Joseph reveals his identity. The moment is one of closeness, of reconciliation, and of Joseph’s recognition that it was not his brothers’ deeds but rather God’s plan that had guided the events of his latter years.

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Welcoming the Stranger

Welcoming the Stranger

Oct 30, 1999 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Vayera

Parashat Va-Yera opens with two seemingly unrelated narratives: first, ‘three men’ appear mysteriously to Abraham, bearing the news that his wife, Sarah, will soon conceive. Next we read of God’s destruction of the cities of S’dom and Amora for their immorality and corruption.

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Abraham’s Struggle to See

Abraham’s Struggle to See

Oct 23, 1999 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Lekh Lekha

Visual perception figures prominently in the week’s parasha, Parashat Lekh L’kha . Indeed, the verb ‘to see’, re’eh, repeats itself time and again – declaring its presence as the leitwort (‘leading word’ — a concept central to Martin Buber’s writings on the Bible) of the Abraham narrative. God commands Abraham to go forth “from your father’s house to the land that I will let you see” (Gen. 12:1); Abraham is concerned for his life “when the Egyptians see” Sarah (Gen. 12:12); and after the division of land between Lot and Abraham, God says to Abraham “Pray, lift up your eyes and see from the place where you are, to the north, to the Negev, to the east, and to the Sea” (Gen. 13:14). And although the Torah is silent on the particulars of God’s election of Abraham, many commentators credit Abraham’s keen sense of observation for pointing him in the ‘right’ direction. As will become evident through traditional and modern commentaries alike, this visual perception is at once Abraham’s greatest strength and most profound weakness.

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