A Year Without Second Chances

A Year Without Second Chances

Oct 11, 2017 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Bereishit

One of the greatest gifts that Judaism offers its adherents is multiple opportunities for starting over. The first ten days of the New Year are devoted to teshuvah: repentance, renewal, return to one’s best self and to God. On Simhat Torah, the final day of the fall holiday season, we read the last words in the Torah and then without pause scroll back to the very first word, bereishit, “in the beginning.”

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Retelling the Story

Retelling the Story

Apr 7, 2017 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Pesah | Shabbat Hagadol

Here’s a fifth question to ask at the seder this year, in addition to the usual four—a question likely to provoke discussion about the meaning of Passover that is especially timely in April 2017.

Why on all other nights (and days too) do we recall the Exodus from Egypt, but on this night, which is dedicated to the telling of that story, the Haggadah says little about what actually happened at the Exodus, and how it happened?

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Wonderment and Order: A Path to the Heart

Wonderment and Order: A Path to the Heart

Mar 24, 2017 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Pekudei | Vayak-hel

The Baal Shem Tov posed a question about Parashat Pekudei that I too find most puzzling. Why are we told over and over again—10 times in the course of Exodus chapters 39–40, by my count, in addition to a declaration at the start of Parashat Vayak-hel (35:4)—that the Israelites did all they did for the Tabernacle, gave what they gave, built what they built, “as the Lord had commanded Moses.” Why not just tell us once, at the end of the account, that all they did was done in this way, for this purpose? 

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In Pharaoh’s Court

In Pharaoh’s Court

Jan 6, 2017 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Vayiggash

Our attention as readers of Vayiggash is naturally riveted by the dramatic events in the first half of the portion: Joseph’s self-revelation to his brothers; the family of Jacob coming to dwell in Egypt; and Jacob’s declaration that he “must go and see [Joseph] before I die” (Gen. 45:28). What happens later in Vayiggash, however, is to my mind of far greater significance for the future of the children of Israel and the people of Egypt alike. The second half of the portion bears truths about Jewish history and destiny as relevant now as ever before.

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Making Every Word Count

Making Every Word Count

Oct 14, 2016 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Ha'azinu

Ha’azinu is remarkable in two respects: what it says, and how it chooses to say it. My focus here will be the latter, but let’s note with regard to the former that in this, his final address to the Children of Israel before a set of farewell blessings, Moses reviews all of his people’s past, present, and future. He begins by calling on the God who had called Israel into being and called him to God’s service. He reminds Israel that God has chosen them and still cares for their well-being. He prophesies that despite all that God and Moses have said and done, Israel will abandon God, as they had in the past. God will punish them, as in the past, but never to the point of utter destruction. In the end, God and Israel will reconcile.

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The Art of Fly Fishing and Teshuvah

The Art of Fly Fishing and Teshuvah

Oct 11, 2016 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Yom Kippur

I went fly fishing this summer with my son and a very patient instructor, and came away with three lessons directly relevant to the work of teshuvah.

First, fly fishing is hard, very hard, and if my skill at casting that day is any indication, it’s unlikely I will ever be very good at it.

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The Blessing of Assimilation—Then and Now

The Blessing of Assimilation—Then and Now

Sep 20, 2016 By Arnold M. Eisen | Public Event video

Current JTS Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen revisits former JTS Chancellor Gerson D. Cohen’s landmark 1966 essay “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.” Chancellor Eisen discusses how the issues raised by Chancellor Cohen half a century ago continue to engage and challenge us today.

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A Summer of Discontent

A Summer of Discontent

Aug 5, 2016 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

The violent and disturbing events of this summer have given me new appreciation for the book of Numbers, and particularly for its conclusion. After chapter upon chapter of intrigue, rebellion, orgy, and mayhem, attention shifts in parashat Masei, the second part of this week’s double parashah, to a series of routine arrangements and details, elaborated at times in rhythmic repetition.

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Answering the Call to Holiness Together

Answering the Call to Holiness Together

May 8, 2016 By Arnold M. Eisen | Public Event video

A guest sermon at the Riverside Church of New York.

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Beyond the Exodus from Egypt

Beyond the Exodus from Egypt

Apr 15, 2016 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Pesah | Shabbat Hagadol

Most of us, at one time or another, have asked the question about the Passover seder that the Haggadah attributes to the “wicked son”: What is the point of all this? At such moments of skepticism, we probably understand why an annual family gathering is worthwhile, we perhaps remember fondly the seders of our youth, and we may even confess to being moved by the rituals reenacted at the seder table year after year: reciting the four questions, dripping wine from cup to plate at the recital of the ten plagues, singing Had Gadya. But really, we ask: Why is the event of Israelite slaves leaving Egypt over 3,000 years ago (if it ever happened in the first place) so important that an entire holiday is devoted to it (not to mention countless daily prayers)?

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Imagining Community, Then and Now

Imagining Community, Then and Now

Mar 4, 2016 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Vayak-hel

Anyone who has mounted a fund-raising campaign, or sought volunteers for an institution or organization, will immediately recognize the account of the Tabernacle’s construction in this week’s Torah portion as utopian in the extreme. “All the artisans . . . said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing more than is needed for the task entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.’ Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: ‘Let no man or woman make further efforts toward gifts for the sanctuary!’ Their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done” (Exod. 36:5–7).

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Joseph, Hanukkah, and the Dilemmas of Assimilation

Joseph, Hanukkah, and the Dilemmas of Assimilation

Dec 11, 2015 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Miketz | Hanukkah

Ruminations about assimilation come naturally to Jews in North America during the winter holiday season. How much should a parent insist that Hanukkah is part of public school celebrations that give students a heavy dose of Christmas? How often should one remind store clerks who innocently ask Jewish children which gifts they hope to receive from Santa this year that there are other faiths observed in our communities, and other holidays?

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Love in Hiding

Love in Hiding

Sep 11, 2015 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Vayeilekh

When I prepared to chant Parashat Vayeilekh at my Bar Mitzvah, I don’t think I paid much attention to the theological import of the announcement that God would “hide My countenance” from the children of Israel. Nor is it likely that I felt the pathos of Moses giving up the mantle of leadership, on the far side of the Jordan, as his life’s journey came to an end.

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Covenant and Cattle

Covenant and Cattle

Jul 17, 2015 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

As the Children of Israel prepare to enter the Promised Land, their backs to the wilderness after 40 years of wandering, the Torah, too, seems to change direction—and even tone. It trades instructions for the priests and narratives of Israelite disobedience for details of land distribution, inheritance and other laws that will regulate life inside the Land. It is as if the Torah wants to underline the transition about to occur—from wilderness to settlement, disorder to order—by changing the visual image before the reader’s eyes.

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God’s Earth: Between Blessing and Curse

God’s Earth: Between Blessing and Curse

May 15, 2015 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Behar | Behukkotai

Here is Leviticus—in many ways the most intimate of the Torah’s five books, because it usually meets us frail, mortal, human beings where we live, in our skins and with our families, in private spaces of home and tabernacle—instructing us as a society, as a species, that divine blessings of rain and sun will turn to curses if we do not do our part in stewarding God’s earth properly. The text insists that a fateful choice is in our hands. And it seems far from confident that we will make the choice wisely.

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The Four Parents

The Four Parents

Mar 27, 2015 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Pesah | Shabbat Hagadol

Let’s think for a moment, inspired by one of the seder’s most famous passages, about the four kinds of parents who are found around the seder table: wise, wicked, innocent, and not knowing how to ask.

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His Father’s Son

His Father’s Son

Dec 12, 2014 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Vayeshev

We stand in a very long line of children of Israel who have been fascinated with Joseph, the first person to have stood in that line. It’s hard in 2014 to see him, like the Rabbis, as a great tzadik, even if he did resist the temptation of betraying Potiphar by sleeping with his wife; brought his brothers to teshuvah (repentance) through an elaborate and risky ruse; forgave them for selling him into slavery; and apparently administered the entire wealth of Egypt without ever profiting personally from his position. Joseph seems too worldly for the role of tzadik, too complex, too much a man of action rather than reflection.

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Choose Life and Torah

Choose Life and Torah

Sep 19, 2014 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Nitzavim | Vayeilekh

The Torah wants to speak to Children of Israel in every time and place, in a way that leads them—leads us—to carry forward the project that Moses has directed. It succeeds in that effort: we too are stirred by Moses’s language, compelled by his vision, moved to undertake responsibility for his Torah. Four passages in Parashat Nitzavim seem to me especially crucial to Moses’s teaching and our response.

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Doing Violence for God

Doing Violence for God

Jul 11, 2014 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Pinehas

What are we to think about Pinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the high priest, after whom this week’s Torah portion is named?

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