The Death of Miriam

The Death of Miriam

Jun 19, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Hukkat

Biblical narrative begs for reader participation. Time and again we come across a story short on context, background and human emotions, traces of an event barely recalled and crying out for elucidation. This week’s parasha contains a gem of an example.

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Our Journey in the Wilderness

Our Journey in the Wilderness

Jun 4, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Shelah Lekha

The history of Israel in the wilderness is a textbook of religious wisdom. Perhaps the most basic principle it teaches is that miracles don’t create believers. We are inclined to think that given what the people had witnessed in Egypt and at the Reed Sea and before Mt. Sinai, they would have acquired an unmovable faith in God. And that is precisely what the Torah asserts after God rescued Israel at the Reed Sea, in a passage that we still recite daily in our morning prayers.

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How We See God

How We See God

May 28, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Beha'alotekha

The choosing of an epitaph for someone we love is excruciatingly difficult. That is, in part, because our minds are no longer stocked with literary associations and, in part, because we are humbled by the task of identifying the essence of a human life. Mercifully, the unveiling of the tombstone is customarily delayed till the first Yahrzeit, which gives us time to choose wisely.

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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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Sanctification through Mitzvah

Sanctification through Mitzvah

Apr 23, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Kedoshim

What is the nature of holiness? I’m not sure that our noisy, frenetic, secular lives ever prompt us to raise the question. And yet it lies at the very heart of the Torah’s message to Israel. Just before Sinai God singles out Israel as God’s “treasured possession… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5–6).” Again this week God instructs Moses: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy (Lev. 19:1–2).”

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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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The Lesson of the Golden Calf

The Lesson of the Golden Calf

Feb 26, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Ki Tissa

One third of the book of Exodus is devoted to the construction of the tabernacle, God’s mobile dwelling in the wilderness. I suspect that we moderns find the devil, and not God, in the profusion and repetition of details. The Torah could mercifully have spared us its twice-told tale, first God’s instructions to Moses (Ex. 25-31) and then his execution of them (Ex. 35-40).

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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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Linking Narrative to Law

Linking Narrative to Law

Feb 5, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Mishpatim

With this week’s parasha, our landscape changes abruptly. We take leave of the hospitable realm of narrative history and enter the austere world of legal rules and cultic regulations, where we shall stay put, with but one brief excursion, till we reach chapter 11 of the book of Numbers. There can be no doubt that law is central to the Torah’s conception of religion. Boundaries create order and give shape to existence. Community springs from the limits placed on individual freedom.

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Judaism and Linear History

Judaism and Linear History

Jan 22, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Beshallah

Unlike most sabbaths of the year, this week’s bears a special name. It is called “Shabbat Shirah – the Sabbath of Song,” from “The Song at the Sea” which is recited to its own cantillation in this week’s parasha (Ex. 15:1-19). A specimen of archaic biblical poetry, the song recounts with gusto the deliverance of Israel, trapped between the Sea of Reeds and the Egyptian army, by yet another divine miracle. And thus in the middle of winter each year, the offspring of ancient Israel break forth in joyous song, as if the redemption had just occurred.

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The Significance of the Tenth

The Significance of the Tenth

Jan 15, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Bo

The tenth plague finally shatters Pharaoh’s resistance.

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Reverence for God

Reverence for God

Jan 8, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Va'era

When I was in high school, the name of Immanuel Velikovski was already well known to me. That is because my father took a deep interest in any scholar who tried to confirm the historical accounts of the Bible. And Velikovski did just that with a passion and independence that infuriated the scientific establishment. Like Freud, a psychoanalyst and humanist and also a Jew, Velikovski dared to explain the ten plagues in Egypt on the basis of a heavenly cataclysm.

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The Eternity of Judaism

The Eternity of Judaism

Jan 1, 1994 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Shemot

When Solomon Schechter assumed the presidency of the Seminary some 90 years ago, he chose for its motto and symbol a verse from this week’s parasha: “And the bush was not consumed (Exodus 3:2).” I believe he intended to convey thereby his conviction in the eternity of Judaism. It would not perish in the new world as it had not perished in the old, because its power derived not from numbers or wealth, but from the spirit. As a center of Torah, the Seminary would fortify that spirit with a large measure of truthful piety.

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Mercy and Truth

Mercy and Truth

Dec 25, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayehi

My father’s synagogue in the small Pennsylvania town of Pottstown was known by the name “Congregation Mercy and Truth.” As an irreverent youngster, more interested in sports than in matters of the spirit, I always thought it an odd name for a synagogue. Learning Hebrew befuddled me still more, because the Hebrew name of Hesed shel Emet (a merciful act of truth) didn’t fully correspond to the English. It was only years later that I discovered that the Hebrew name was based on a sage bit of midrash on a phrase used by Jacob at the beginning of this week’s parasha.

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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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Settled and Unsettled

Settled and Unsettled

Dec 4, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayeshev

The opening verse of our parasha conveys a degree of finality. “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan (Genesis 37:1).” His exile is over. The text depicts a man drained by unrelenting stress who has come home to die. The abuse heaped upon him by Laban, the prospect of facing Esau, the rampage of his sons against the inhabitants of Shehem, and the loss of his beloved Rachel in childbirth has left him groping for the solace and security of home. 

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An Infinity of Interpretation

An Infinity of Interpretation

Nov 27, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayishlah

There are ten passages in the Torah where dots appear above the letters of one or more words. The technique derives from the rabbis, who borrowed it from the early grammarians in Alexandria, and is intended to arrest the reader’s attention. In this week’s parasha, we meet an especially interesting example.

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Behind God’s Names

Behind God’s Names

Nov 20, 1993 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayetzei

Judaism is a wellspring that emits an endless profusion of names for God. The Bible contains some 70; rabbinic literature adds another 90 or more and no one as yet has bothered to tally the number added by Jewish mystics. As Gershom Scholem wrote more than a half-century ago: “In the last resort, the whole of the Torah [for the author of the Zohar] is nothing but the one great and holy Name of God.” The layers of names bespeak an unbroken dialogue driven by love and mystery.

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