Dreaming of Being Balaam

Dreaming of Being Balaam

Jun 30, 2023 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Balak | Hukkat

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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Did Korah Get a Bum Rap?

Did Korah Get a Bum Rap?

Jun 23, 2023 By Robert Harris | Commentary | Korah

The memory of Huey Long, and the continued concern over the role of demagoguery in American politics, comes to mind this week because we see a prime example of it in Parashat Korah—the figure of Korah himself. (The character of Dathan, played by Edgar G. Robinson, in The Ten Commandments, was essentially based on Korah). Korah was long vilified by the Rabbinic Sages, and of course the Torah itself condemns him as the paradigmatic rebel against the divinely sanctioned leadership of Moses and Aaron.

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Always Something There to Remind Me

Always Something There to Remind Me

Jun 16, 2023 By Abigail Uhrman | Commentary | Shelah Lekha

In the same way that the Yashar projects are physical reminders of camps’ inclusive values and powerfully shape camp culture, tzitzit function to remind B’nei Yisrael of their covenantal relationship with God and encourage them to fulfill the mitzvot that God has commanded. Like camps’ newly accessible spaces, tzitzit are ever-present symbols that, at their best, help B’nei Yisrael recall their most precious values and activate their capacity to realize these ideals. 

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At the Threshold

At the Threshold

Jun 9, 2023 By Gordon Tucker | Commentary | Beha'alotekha

The ninth chapter of Numbers tells a tale that results in a rule and an institution. The first anniversary of the Exodus (on the 14th of the first month of Nisan) was approaching for the recently freed Israelites, and they were reminded that the Paschal sacrificial rites were meant to be annual observances. They were instructed by Moses to make the necessary preparations. But there were people who had recently contracted ritual impurity [tumah] by contact with the dead, perhaps because they had buried deceased relatives. And they knew that this impurity, which was beyond their control, precluded them from participating in a rite that was, in effect, an annual renewal of membership in the community of Israel. Their plaint was brought to Moses, who understood the predicament of these well-meaning Israelites, but did not know how to resolve it, and thus brought the case to God.

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The Power of a Blessing

The Power of a Blessing

Jun 2, 2023 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Naso

Anyone I know who grew up in a synagogue where the kohanim dukhened on the Yamim Tovim remembers this as one of the peak moments of their
synagogue experience. There are many reasons for this: the strange sight of men (and now women) standing with their hands extended and with their heads and upper faces covered by tallitot, the fact that we were in fact not to gaze upon this startling spectacle, and the sense of protection afforded to those of us whose parents covered them with their own tallitot during the rendering of the blessing in order to protect them from the potentially harmful effects of looking upon the kohanim.

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How Should We Know God?

How Should We Know God?

May 25, 2023 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Shavuot

It’s well known that Jewish tradition assigns specific readings from the Torah and the Prophets for all the holidays. Less well known are several traditions that assign holiday readings from the Book of Psalms.[1] An Ashkenazic tradition associated with Rabbi Elijah, the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797), assigns Psalm 19 for recitation at the end of the Musaf service on the first day of Shavuot. This psalm deals with an appropriate question for the holiday of revelation: How do we come to know about God and God’s will?

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Reliving Revelation

Reliving Revelation

May 19, 2023 By Gordon Tucker | Commentary | Bemidbar

The fourth book of the Torah (“Bemidbar Sinai”) begins with a census of the (male) heads of clans among the Israelites in the second year of their freedom. And then, it lays out the pattern according to which the 12 tribes and the religious functionaries (levi’im and kohanim) are to set up camp in the wilderness. When you read it, you are struck by the attention to detail and good order, something which is rather typical in documents with a priestly source. 

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Growing Into Torah

Growing Into Torah

May 12, 2023 By Megan GoldMarche | Commentary | Behar | Behukkotai

For this week’s parashiyot, Behar-Behukkotai, I might ask: What is something that you took or borrowed from someone that you know it is time to return, perhaps because it is the right thing to do or because it will make you feel lighter? This can be a physical thing like a book or shirt, or something intangible like the hope or support you received from someone. If you are hosting shabbat dinner this week I encourage you to try it out, with a brief explanation of the ideas of Jubilee and returning land to its original owners that appears in this week’s parashah.

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The Problem of Embodied Perfection

The Problem of Embodied Perfection

May 4, 2023 By Lauren Tuchman | Commentary | Emor

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21–24) opens with a passage describing limitations placed on individuals whom a kohen (priest) may mourn or marry, as well as limiting sacrificial service in the Mishkan to those who are able-bodied. We learn in Leviticus 21:17 that any kohen who has a mum—blemish or defect—is explicitly forbidden from “offering the food of his God” (21:17). Kohanim thus disqualified include those who are blind, lame, have a limb length discrepancy, are hunchbacked, have a broken limb, and many others. They are forbidden from ritual leadership throughout the ages; though not stripped of their priestly status and are permitted to eat sacrificial meat. They are not permitted to come behind the curtain or approach the altar. They mustn’t profane these places which God has sanctified (21:22–23).

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Making God Holy

Making God Holy

Apr 28, 2023 By Amram Altzman | Commentary | Aharei Mot | Kedoshim

Parashat Kedoshim, the second of the two parashiyot that we read this week, ends just as it begins: with an imperative for us, the Children of Israel, to be holy. Our parashah opens with, “קדשים תהיו/You shall be holy,” and the penultimate verse tells us that, “והייתם לי קדשים/You shall be holy to Me, for I God am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (Lev. 20:26). Although almost identical, our parashahends with the idea that we are not just holy in general, but are specifically designed as holy to God. How, then, are we supposed to not just be holy, but holy to God?

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It Passes and We Stay

It Passes and We Stay

Apr 21, 2023 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Metzora | Shabbat Rosh Hodesh | Tazria

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).

But what is the essential nature of tumah, and what does it have to do with Emily Dickinson’s poem?

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A Love That Transforms

A Love That Transforms

Apr 14, 2023 By Leonard A. Sharzer | Commentary | Shemini

Commentaries through the ages have focused on the actions of Aaron’s eldest sons, asking whether being slain by God’s holy fire was, in fact, a punishment—and if so, what exactly it was that they being punished for. Most commentators conclude that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu were indeed punishment, but disagree as to the nature of their transgression: they were drunk when they entered the sanctuary; they were improperly clothed; they had not washed their hands and feet; they were unmarried; they had entered the holy place without authorization; or they had expounded the law before Moses, their teacher. What we can conclude from this plethora of possible explanations is that no one knows for sure why they were killed. Commentators are equally intrigued and perplexed by Moses’s statement to Aaron, and Aaron’s subsequent silence, in the face of this horrific tragedy.

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Leaving Egypt with Compassion and Justice

Leaving Egypt with Compassion and Justice

Apr 8, 2023 By Ben Levy | Commentary | Pesah

The Torah reading for Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah (Exodus 33:12–34:26) describes the aftermath of the Golden Calf. How do we make sense of this choice?

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The Primacy of Questions

The Primacy of Questions

Mar 31, 2023 By Joel Seltzer | Commentary | Shabbat Hagadol | Tzav | Pesah

The truth is, of all the Jewish holidays of the year, Pesah, requires the most forethought, the most planning, the most cleaning, and yes, the most questions! The Jewish tradition understands deeply that ritual does not simply “occur,” instead it is the result of painstaking preparation and “beginning with the end in mind.”

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Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder

Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder

Mar 31, 2023 By JTS Dayenu Circle | Commentary | Pesah

This year for Passover, JTS is proud to share Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder. Passover is an annual reminder that profound changes to our lived reality are possible, and now more than ever, we as a Jewish community need to pursue profound action to stop the climate crisis. This project is […]

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What Does It Mean to Be Called?

What Does It Mean to Be Called?

Mar 24, 2023 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Vayikra

This week we begin reading the middle book of the Five Books of Moses, Leviticus. Its position in the Torah scroll is not just coincidental; the laws of Leviticus are central to the earliest rabbis’ understanding of Judaism. The rules in the book are indicated by its name in English (Latin, actually): Leviticus. These are the detailed regulations for the tribe of Levi, particularly that branch of the clan known as the kohanim, the priesthood.

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Making Space for God’s Presence

Making Space for God’s Presence

Mar 17, 2023 By Kara Tav | Commentary | Pekudei | Shabbat Hahodesh | Vayak-hel

Our rededication of the hospital’s ICU echoed for me the original Jewish sacred space described in the Book of Exodus. The double Torah reading for Vayak-hel and Pekudei provides God’s blueprint for a traveling sacred space that the Israelites would build during their journey through the wilderness. As they travelled, they would carry a place for the presence of God and for revelatory encounters between God and the high priests on behalf of the people. It would be a space for doing sacred work and for being with God.

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When Is Humility Not a Virtue?

When Is Humility Not a Virtue?

Mar 10, 2023 By Walter Herzberg | Commentary | Ki Tissa | Shabbat Parah

Moses’s actions are puzzling and confront us with two related questions: On the one hand, why did Moses need to place the veil on his face? And on the other, why did Moses remove the veil when going before God and when relaying God’s words to the people—only to replace it as described above? Biblical commentators offer some fascinating insights.

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Gold and Incense: For Better and for Worse

Gold and Incense: For Better and for Worse

Feb 24, 2023 By Stephen A. Geller | Commentary | Terumah

Parashat Terumah begins the long section of the Book of Exodus that deals with the Tabernacle, its furniture and vessels, and the garments of the high priest. The only interruption in this mass of cultic detail is the narrative of the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf and its aftermath in Exodus 32–34. The ritual details continue into Vayikra with the list of sacrifices in the cult.

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Why Does the Torah Care About Returning Lost Property?

Why Does the Torah Care About Returning Lost Property?

Feb 17, 2023 By Yael Landman | Commentary | Mishpatim | Shabbat Shekalim

There is no obligation in the common law to retrieve someone’s lost property and return it. So why does the Torah make a point of establishing such a requirement? Why does the Torah specify that the owner of the lost animal is the finder’s enemy, and what is the scope of the finder’s responsibilities?

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