The Potential of Tiny Things

The Potential of Tiny Things

Dec 27, 1997 By Joseph Lukinsky (<em>z”l</em>) | Commentary | Miketz | Hanukkah

Every time you eat a latke or a sufganiah (jelly doughnut in Israel) during Hanukkah, you are reenacting the miracle of the cruse of oil that the Maccabees found when they struggled to rededicate the Temple. There was only enough oil for one day, but it lasted for eight! A little oil goes a long way!

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The Process of Repentance

The Process of Repentance

Oct 11, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Yom Kippur

A Palestinian preacher, Rabbi Alexandri, was wont to speak in the language of an evangelist: “Who desires life?” he would declaim, “Who desires life?” And quickly the crowds gathered, demanding, “Give us life!” At last, Rabbi Alexandri would begin by quoting two verses from Psalm 34: “Who is the person who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile (34:13-14).”

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Pluralism in Israel

Pluralism in Israel

Oct 2, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Rosh Hashanah

I have been asked often of late why I am spending so much time on the promotion of religious pluralism in Israel. Isn’t it a diversion from the continuity crisis in America, which is, after all, my main concern? The fact is that the two are linked. Israel is a large component of American Jewish identity. Were Israel to become irrelevant or off-putting for American Jews, our ability to withstand the forces of assimilation would be gravely impaired. As an unconditional Zionist, I would support Israel even if it became a benighted shtetl. But such a constricted and coercive state would hold little meaning for our grandchildren.

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The Spiritual Significance of the Sacrificial Cult

The Spiritual Significance of the Sacrificial Cult

Mar 29, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Tzav | Shabbat Parah

Our Hebrew Scripture is a library of books with many voices, a bracing diversity of literary genres and religious opinions. This is a good week to remind ourselves of that noteworthy fact as we struggle through a double dosage of cultic prescriptions. Our parasha stipulates the tasks incumbent on the priests in administering the sacrifices that ordinary Israelites might offer at the Tabernacle. On top of that, because this Shabbat is the third of the four special Shabbatot leading up to Passover, we are treated to an additional reading dealing with the potion prepared from the ashes of an unblemished red heifer for the purpose of ritual purification.

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4 Cups of Wine

4 Cups of Wine

Jan 11, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Va'era | Pesah

As envisioned by Rabbi Yehuda ben Tema at the end of the second century, the standard curriculum of a young Jew begins with the study of Bible at five, Mishna at ten and Talmud at fifteen. Age thirteen marks the transition to adulthood with the onset of obligatory adherence to the norms of Jewish life. Our parasha offers an instructive example of what this curriculum entailed, and a fleeting glimpse of the nature of rabbinic Judaism as a whole.

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The Fragility of a Nation’s Unity

The Fragility of a Nation’s Unity

Dec 7, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayeshev | Hanukkah

Jacob fathered twelve sons, but singled out Joseph for special favor, setting off the family dynamic which would eventually land Jacob’s clan in Egypt. The verbal flow of the text foreshadows the intimacy: as our narrative begins the name of Joseph appears directly after that of Jacob. No extraneous word is allowed to loosen the bond. “These are the begettings of Yaakov. Yosef, seventeen years old, used to tend the sheep along with his brothers (Genesis 37:2 in the translation by Everett Fox).” It is as if the history of Jacob comes down to the fate of Joseph.

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The Path Towards Perfection

The Path Towards Perfection

Sep 13, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Rosh Hashanah

When Louis Finkelstein was Chancellor of the Seminary and I was a rabbinical student, he would always start the opening breakfast of the year by reciting the verse from Second Isaiah (57:19): “Peace, peace unto those from afar and near.” consisting of but four words in Hebrew, the verse offered a ringing welcome to students new and old, those coming from abroad and those from nearby. Word was that the custom dated back to Solomon Schechter, whom Dr. Finkelstein revered.

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A Beacon for the Years that Lie Ahead

A Beacon for the Years that Lie Ahead

Mar 30, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Tzav | Tishah Be'av

The Talmud tells that at the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in the year 586 B.C.E., the following poignant scene unfolded: “Many clusters of young priests ascended to the roof of the sanctuary with its keys in their hands and said: Lord of the Universe, since we lacked the merit to be trustworthy caretakers, let these keys be returned to Your possession.’ They threw them in the air and half-a-hand, so it appeared, stretched forth to take them in. The young priests then jumped directly into the flames.

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Memory: Judaism’s Lifeblood

Memory: Judaism’s Lifeblood

Mar 2, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Purim

My father died 14 years ago. This week I will observe his Yahrzeit once again.

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The Power of Prayer

The Power of Prayer

Oct 3, 1995 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Yom Kippur

The High Holy Days don’t play to our strength. The extended services put a premium on prayer, an activity at which we are no longer very adept. Yom Kippur asks of us to spend an entire day in the synagogue immersed in prayer. But we find it easier to believe in God than to pray to God. It is this common state of discomfort that prompts me to share with you a few thoughts on the art of Jewish praying.

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The Pursuit of Peace

The Pursuit of Peace

Jul 2, 1995 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Pinehas | Sukkot

Experience often has a way of eroding our ideals. While the evidence for this sad fact abounds, I wish to illustrate it anew in the exegetical fate of a passage in this week’s parasha. The parasha concludes with a succinct statement of the sacrifices to be offered in the Tabernacle throughout the year.

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Biblical Espionage

Biblical Espionage

Jun 24, 1995 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Shelah Lekha | Tishah Be'av

The story of the twelve spies is well-known and straightforward. As Israel approaches the Promised Land from the south, God instructs Moses to assemble a band of spies, one prominent man from each tribe to measure the strength of its inhabitants: “Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell, good or bad? Are the towns they live in, open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land” (Numbers 13:18-20).

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The Sanctity of the Torah

The Sanctity of the Torah

Apr 1, 1995 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Tazria | Shabbat Hahodesh

It is not often that we read from three sifrei Torah on one Shabbat. But this week Shabbat displays a bit of the pageantry we associate with Simhat Torah because of the convergence of three sacred moments: the regular parasha for the week, Tazri·a; the first day of the new month of Nisan (Rosh Hodesh); and the fourth of the four special Sabbaths before Passover, Shabbat ha-Hodesh. So in addition to the sefer Torah forTazri·a, we take out two other scrolls for the readings from Numbers (28:9-15) and Exodus (12:1-20) appropriate for the occasions. To read from three books of the Torah out of the same scroll would be unwieldy and time-consuming (a lot of holy rolling!). Hence three scrolls, to avoid burdening the congregation with distracting delays.

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The Burden of Peoplehood

The Burden of Peoplehood

Dec 4, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Miketz | Hanukkah

Sold into slavery at the age of 17, Joseph attained the post of vizier of Egypt by the time he was 30. That would have been a remarkable feat by a native; for a foreigner, it simply boggles the mind. Only Pharaoh stood between him and absolute power. Joseph had deciphered Pharaoh’s premonition of catastrophe and urged decisive action on a national scale. And Pharaoh rewarded the messenger by appointing him to carry out his own counsel. He also bestowed upon him all the trappings of power, including an arranged marriage with the daughter of an Egyptian priest.

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Living Judaism As a Work of Art

Living Judaism As a Work of Art

May 14, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Bemidbar | Shavuot

When I was a youngster, Shavuot was the time for confirmation, a ceremony concocted in the nineteenth century along Protestant lines to replace bar-mitzvah and enhance synagogue attendance on the holiday, for Shavuot never enjoyed the popularity of Pesah. But a brief two days, it flits by without the elaborate ritual drama or stirring universal message of Pesah. The synagogue is its primary venue and there is little for us to do at home, except to enjoy the restful interlude with family and friends.

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The Sanctity of the Land

The Sanctity of the Land

Apr 30, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Emor | Pesah | Shavuot | Sukkot

At the new Jewish Museum one can feast on the panorama of Jewish history in a single spectacular, permanent exhibition, subtly conceived and brilliantly executed. It opens with a replica of an ancient agrarian calendar found in 1908 at Gezer, northwest of Jerusalem in the Shefela region. Written in good biblical Hebrew, the calendar seems to date from the 10th century B.C.E., coinciding with the reign of Solomon, when Gezer became part of the expanding monarchy of Israel. The calendar may not be anything more than a mnemonic ditty for children, and yet it is a cultural artifact of rich significance.

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Reconciling the Generations

Reconciling the Generations

Mar 26, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Tzav | Pesah | Shabbat Hagadol

My father died in 1982, some five weeks before Passover. Till then I had never conducted a seder, except for the two years I spent as an army chaplain at Fort Dix, New Jersey and Taigu, South Korea. The custom in the Schorsch family since time immemorial had been to celebrate the seders in the home of my parents. Each Passover my older sister and I, with spouses and children, would happily converge on that sacred space to hear our father sing, read, and talk his way through the Haggadah and to savor our mother’s delicious Passover menu. My mother died the following year and my sister and I, awash in memories, are now the older generation. Ten years later our families are larger and more widely dispersed and the rendezvous changes, but the tradition of an inclusive family seder has not unraveled. I have assumed my father’s mantle.

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Taming the Beast of Extremism

Taming the Beast of Extremism

Mar 12, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Pekudei | Purim | Shabbat Hahodesh

Bred in the hothouse of militant Orthodox Zionism, Dr. Baruch Goldstein knew the sacred texts of Judaism. His premeditated murder of dozens of Palestinian men kneeling in prayer in the Hebron mosque on the Friday of Purim was clearly triggered by the scriptural readings of the festival. On the sabbath before, Shabbat Zakhor, he had heard in the synagogue once again the ancient injunction never to forget what Amalek did to Israel in the wilderness (Deut. 25:17-19). The haftarah for the day (I Sam. 15) vividly recalls the failure of Saul, Israel’s first king, to follow up his victory over Amalek with total destruction. His indecision in the face of popular demand for the spoils of war cost him God’s confidence and eventually his throne. The imprecation of the prophet Samuel as he belatedly executed Agag, Amalek’s captured king, must have continued to ring in Goldstein’s ear: “As your sword has bereaved women, so shall your mother be bereaved among women (15:33).”

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Four Special Sabbaths

Four Special Sabbaths

Feb 19, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Tetzavveh | Pesah | Shabbat Zakhor

Judaism does not allow Passover to catch us by surprise. Long before its arrival, while the ground is still covered with snow, the Jewish calendar alerts us to its coming. A series of four special sabbaths prior to the month of Nisan (Passover begins on the full moon of the 15th of Nisan) picks up the liturgical pace of the synagogue service. After a long and largely monotonous winter, the pace quickens as we are brought to anticipate the renewal of nature and the redemption of Israel. In the words of our tradition, “With the coming of Adar (the month before Nisan), we indulge in more merrymaking.” The last month of the year (Nisan is the first) goes out in a flurry of festivity which transcends the celebration of Purim.

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Not by Might

Not by Might

Dec 11, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Miketz | Hanukkah

It is a remarkable tribute to the genius of the Jewish calendar that parashat mikaytz always coincides with Shabbat Hanukkah. The contents of both, I shall argue, deserve to be linked.

But let me start off on a personal note. Hanukkah has always held a special meaning for me and my family. On November 3, 1938, I turned three. Six days later, on the infamous night of Kristallnacht, the Nazis unleashed their fury on the synagogues of Germany, including the magnificent Romanesque synagogue of my father in Hanover. Like thousands of other prominent Jews, he was carted off to a concentration camp, to be released only two weeks later when family in England secured a visa for us with the help of the Chief Rabbi, Joseph Hertz, known to you best as the editor of the Hertz Humash.

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