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Michael M. Cohen, a reconstructionist rabbi, teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.

His weekly commentaries can also be found in the Jerusalem Post. Click to open the publication:

Parashat Beshalach:

More than just manna

by Michael M. Cohen

Feb. 2, 2023


In this week’s parasha, Moses states, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need to eat. Take an omer [measurement] for each person you have in your tent’” (Ex. 16:16).

What did the people gather? Manna. As we are told: “When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, ‘Man hu/What is it?’ For they did not know what it was.... The people of Israel called it manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey” (Ex. 16:14-15, 31).

The midrash elaborates on its taste:

“Rabbi Jose ben Hanina says: ...the manna descended with a taste varying according to the needs of individual Israelites. The young, eating it as bread... the old, as wafers made with honey... to the babes, it tasted like the milk from their mothers’ breasts... to the sick, it was like fine flour mingled with honey” (Exodus Rabbah 5:9).

To this day we do not know exactly what manna was – this miraculous food that fed the Israelites on their 40-year trek throughout the desert. There is much speculation.

Vered Guttman considers: “The description of manna in the Bible matches what [Prof. of Botany Avinoam] Danin found in the Sinai Desert. He soon discovered that the white drops on the [Rimth/Haloxylon salicornicum] shrub’s stems were the digestive byproduct of insects that feed on the plant’s sap, known as honeydew. The secretion, formed at night, is loaded with sugar. The sweet liquid hardens to the form of white granules and is still collected from spring to early fall in many places in the Middle East today” (Moment, Winter 2019).

WHILE ALL this is of interest, we can glean important lessons from the instructions about collecting the manna. Moses told the people to “gather as much as they need to eat.” On face value that should be simple. We all know how much we should eat.

On the other hand, do we? And if we do, do we eat accordingly? Do we eat a balanced diet and the correct portion size? In addition, manna lying all over the place is like an all-you-can-eat buffet: the limitless options before us can make it hard to control what we take. So Moses advised us to take only what we need.

The result of that guidance?

“The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed” (Ex. 16:17-18).

There are a number of ways to read this passage. Some gathered more because they needed more manna since their tent had a larger number of dwellers, while others gathered less because they had fewer people in their tents. We can also interpret this passage as meaning that some gathered more than they needed, and others gathered less than they needed, but once they examined what they had, they discovered it was what they were supposed to have gathered – a miracle, according to Rashi (Ex. 16:17).

Distilling further, Rabbi Ellie Munk draws insight from Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed (3:12), as Munk writes:

“Rambam observes that in the ordinary course of life there is no real difference between those who have superfluous wealth and those who do not. A person whose garments are embroidered with gold has not obtained control over anything that could be an essential addition to his personality, but has only obtained something illusory or deceptive. And he who lacks these extra things is not of lesser stature. This is the lesson of the manna” (Munk, The Call of the Torah, Exodus (16:18), p. 210).

Munk is teaching the importance of knowing the difference between the essential and the superfluous. That food – in this case, manna – is the tool to teach this lesson should not be lost. Nourishment is a prerequisite for life and with it our strong basic drive to obtain food. If we can control our food consumption, on some level we can control our lives. This is one of the lessons of the fast of Yom Kippur. As we take stock we refrain from eating, which is life-affirming and life-essential: to remind ourselves that if we have discipline over such an indispensable drive for life, we can also show restraint in other aspects of our lives.

Munk and the Rambam are talking about not only food but also the material and the spiritual – the multidimensionality of life, the many layers that simultaneously exist. Related to the material, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, and Pope Francis I quotes him, “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act” (Pope Francis I, 'Laudato si', par. 206).

Woven through this discourse about manna is the realization that such a simple substance is more than solely about physical sustenance – it points to the material/economic and spiritual aspects of our lives. When Moses quoted God, saying, “Everyone is to gather as much as they need” (Ex. 16:16), its echo can be heard in the socialist phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The midrash quoted above, which says the taste of manna varied according to everyone’s distinctive needs and imagination, reflects that similar socialist outlook which recognizes the importance of singular diversity within the collective whole.

Rabbi Yaakov Culi (Me’am Loez) on Exodus 16:16 points out that the verse “contains the entire Hebrew alphabet,” so the gathering of manna can also be understood as creating time for the study and living of Torah in our day-to-day lives – our spiritual nourishment.

Parashat Bo:

The balancing of Genesis 1 & Exodus 12

by Michael M. Cohen

Jan. 26, 2023


The majority of the 20 mitzvot/commandments in parashat Bo concern Passover. Shortly before the freedom Exodus, God conveyed, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year” (Ex. 12:1).

This mitzvah is connected to the flight from slavery as well as a year-round commandment: the establishment of a calendar. Why did God command the institution of the calendar at that moment?

Slaves are not free to determine the use of their time. It is an instrument of free people. God introduced the calendar in anticipation of the fuller agency that would soon follow. With that, we note the paradox of replacing the constraints of slavery with the restraints of a system of 613 mitzvot.

“‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” sang Janis Joplin. Explaining those iconic lyrics of his, Kris Kristofferson elucidated, “It looked like I’d trashed my act. But there was something liberating about it. By not having to live up to people’s expectations, I was somehow free.”

Judaism presents a different conviction: Freedom comes with expectations situated within covenantal relationships between humans and God, and between humans and humans.

For many Jews the mitzvot give their lives meaning and purpose in profound and perceived holy ways, allowing their souls to sing through the course of everyday life. At the same time, for some, the power of the mitzvah system also comes, and in growing magnitude, with a blinding intolerant outlook toward those who live their lives differently.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer wrote, “Routinization is a very common disease. Anything that is done constantly, day in and day out, in a fixed manner, can become so much a part of human habit and pattern of action that it is done without thought. It leaves the realm of conscious action and becomes part of automatic functioning. Buber called this ‘the leprosy of fluency’... an outward performance with no inner meaning.”

Linked is the assumption that the more mitzvot one does makes that person a more authentic Jew. As a yardstick, there is a logic with that thinking, but it does not yield the fullest picture.

There are many Jews who are considered Orthodox, halachic-living Jews, and are rewarded by the State of Israel for that lifestyle. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are barely supported by the state, if at all, since they are not perceived as being authentic representations of Judaism but, rather, whittle down Judaism by picking and choosing which mitzvot to follow.

At the end of the day, all Jews winnow and select, even Halacha-following Jews.

A case in point: God’s magnificent holy creation is under tremendous strain and abuse from human-produced climate change, and so the care of this world, on loan to us and the rest of humanity from God, is paramount. Yet, with that imperative as outlined by Rambam, the Rav and other halachic authorities, there are too many observant Jews who ignore this vital Jewish precept but are still accorded the status of mitzvot-following Jews.
By the same token, there are too many non-Orthodox Jews who do not engage with the mitzvot. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan taught the halachic system should have “a voice but not a veto.” For too many non-Orthodox Jews, the veto automatically overrides even listening to that voice.

But to dismiss those Jews as not being authentic Jews misses the point; as stated above, all Jews cull from the Jewish tradition. In addition, Judaism has existed for over a millennium and has remained vital because it has developed. Talmudic scholar Rabbi Judith Hauptman points out Halacha has a long tradition of evolving in response to changing social and societal conditions.

With the breaking down of the ghetto walls, particularly in the 19th century, Judaism faced then, as it still faces today, what Rabbi Ira Eisenstein called “Judaism under freedom.” Being separate within the ghetto made it easier for the continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. The challenge since then is how to reconstruct a system in that new, freer reality – no easy task.

For some, in response, there has been a circling of the wagons – a rebuilding, if you will, of ghetto walls to separate from both other Jews and the world at large.

Which brings us to a crocheted kippah-wearing minister in the government of the Jewish state who describes himself as “a homophobe, racist, fascist.” I vehemently disagree with his views, based on the Jewish values I live by and cherish, gleaned from the Torah, the Talmud and Jewish thinkers throughout the centuries. But I need to also understand that he has staked his claims through the Jewish values he lives by.

So where does that leave us? This divide goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jew: a narrow focus versus a more open focus.
The former is oriented toward the 613 mitzvot, with the belief that the world is best understood through that system because that is how the world operates – a halachic framework of judgment realized through reward and punishment.

The other school of Jewish thought: treating the mitzvot as a means and not an end, seeing the primary Jewish vocation as repair and healing.

Both of these orientations provide direction, purpose, meaning and safety, for those who follow either. All are important qualities for a committed and meaningful life.

WHICH BRINGS us back to the mitzvah of creating a calendar.
Rashi (Gen. 1:1) raises the question that the Torah should have started with Exodus 12 and the calendar mitzvah and not with Genesis 1.

Answering his own question, Rashi states that the Torah begins with the Creation story to establish that the world created by God belongs to God, and so God was and is empowered to give the Land of Israel to the Jewish people.

That can be a reading of the text, but it is not the only one. We can also submit that the Creation story of Genesis 1 and the establishment of the calendar in Exodus 12 are representative of the two schools of Jewish thought presented above – a more open and a more circumscribed orientation. Genesis 1 presents a more universal understanding of our role and our place in the world, while Exodus 12 points to a narrower bearing and concern.
All human identities have both insular and cosmopolitan strains. In the concentric circles of identity and life, striking a balance is a great existential human challenge.

That debate is playing out today in many countries and societies around the world. The soul of the world in general, and the soul of the Jewish people and the Jewish nation in particular, hang in the balance between the two.

Within this parasha we read about many of the critical moments in our escape from slavery to freedom. The place we left is called Mitzrayim – “the narrow and constricting place.”
It is a chapter of our history we reference every day in the siddur/prayer book and which we highlight during Passover – reminding us that in the balance between the constricting and the more open, we should lean toward the latter.

Parashat Va'era:

From weakness to strength

by Michael M. Cohen

Jan. 19, 2023


A dejected Moses, having failed to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelite people go, asked God, at the end of last week’s parasha, “Why did you send me?” (Ex. 5:22).
In this week’s parasha, Va’era, God revealed His ineffable Name to Moses, in an attempt to fortify him to continue his task.

God then also told Moses about the five stages of redemption that would unfold, describing them using five specific phrases (Ex. 6:6-8). The first four became the basis of the multiple use of the number four during the Seder: four cups of wine, four questions, four children, four tellings. The fifth phrase is the source for Elijah’s cup.

There are those who follow a more recent tradition of also including “Miriam’s cup” on the Seder table. Rabbi Tamara Cohen explains that one of the proof texts for its use is a statement in the Talmud, “If it wasn’t for the righteousness of women of that generation, we would not have been redeemed from Egypt” (Sota 9b).

None of God’s reassurances convinced Moses that things would be different in future encounters with Pharaoh. Rather, Moses reiterated his original hesitation when he had first been approached by God at the burning bush: “Please, my Lord, no man of words am I, not from yesterday, not from the day before, not even since you have spoken to your servant, for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I!” (Ex. 4:10). In our parasha he reasserted that he was still “a man of impeded speech” (Ex. 6:12).

We all have limits, both perceived and real. Knowing them and knowing the difference between the two are key for self-knowledge. That awareness presents us with choices. Do we make peace with our limits and live accordingly, or do we try to prevail?

Moses, at that moment, was willing to live within the constraints of his “impeded speech.” However, 40 years later in the Book of Deuteronomy, we find that Moses’s speech was lofty prose and poetry. What happened? Unable to run away from the call of God, Moses was forced to use speech both in confronting Pharaoh and leading the people. Along the way, Moses forced himself to turn his weakness into his greatest asset.

With all of this we note that Moses is described in the Torah as “the most humble person on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). That humility allowed him to recognize his shortcomings as well as his stronger traits.

In addition, we see Moses as an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect whereby some people overestimate their abilities and knowledge, while others can underestimate their abilities and knowledge. In Moses we have an individual who at first underestimated his abilities but through the course of his life was able to lift his encumbered speech. His humility allowed for that development to unfold in a fashion so that he did not overestimate himself once he had achieved that new level.

CERTAIN ATTRIBUTES of ours may restrain us, and we may decide to stay in a lane, but if we choose to rise above them, and if we succeed, which is not guaranteed, great things can sometimes happen. Not an easy task for Moses or anyone.

At the Games of the 30th Olympiad in London in 2012, the American hurdler Aries Merritts increased his racing speed, running a then-personal best of 12.92 seconds, and won the Gold Medal in the 110-meter hurdles. Moreover, the following month he set a new world record for the 110-meter hurdles of 12.80. That record still stands to this day! How was he able to do all of that?

After winning the Gold Medal, he talked about how he had changed the foot he pushed off of when he raced. Some say that is like changing the hand we write with; and he made that change in eight months. When asked how he built power on his weaker side, he answered, “Diligence. It took me a long, long time.” Elaborating, he explained, “I focused so much on my weaker side, and it balanced things out so now I have equal power in both legs, so I am able to apply equal force, which at the end results in me running faster times.”

Like Moses, Aries took a weakness and turned it into a strength. We often try to avoid our own weaknesses; the classes we choose not to take, a skill we don’t feel we are good enough performing, etc. Sometimes, if we put energy into that perceived weakness, we may discover that, because of the added effort required, we are able to transform that which was weaker within us into something we are more competent and proficient in doing.

The Spanish Nobel laureate Vicente Aleixandre began his poem “Como Moises es el Viejo” (The Old Man is Like Moses) with the words: “Like Moses on top of the mountain. Every man can be like that.”

We may not get to the top of the mountain, but, as Merritt modeled for us, we all, if we so choose, can be like Moses and work on our own weaknesses, attempt to overcome the hurdles of life we try to avoid, and turn them into strengths.

By so doing, we work to affirm the hopes of another Olympic medalist, Vincent Matthews, who wrote in his Trackman’s Prayer, “Now I lay me down the blocks, I ask the Lord for socks and jocks, if I should die before the gun, I ask the Lord my race be won.”

Parashat Shemot:

Attitudes About Us

by Michael M. Cohen

Jan. 12, 2023

In the first nine lines of the book of Exodus/sefer sh’mot, we find the name b’nei yisrael utilized three times, the name Yosef/Joseph mentioned twice, as is the word am, meaning people. Meod, meaning very, is used twice in a row to show increased emphasis. These repetitions should cause the reader to take note. Let us begin with the use of b’nei yisrael.

In verse one, b’nei yisrael, “the children of Yisrael/Israel,” refers literally to the immediate descendants of Yisrael, also known as Jacob. They are noted in the genealogy near the end of the Book of Genesis. (Gen 46:8-27) When that term is next used in verse seven, Robert Alter points out that there is a new meaning to b’nei yisrael:

“Though the phrase is identical to the one used at the beginning of verse 1, historical time has been telescoped and so the meaning of the phrase has shifted: now it signifies not the actual sons of Israel/Jacob but Israelites, the members of the nation to which the first Israel gave his name.”
In the verse that follows we are told of a new king, also indicating the passage of time, and that the memory of Joseph had faded: “And a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” (Ex 1:8)

Then there is the extraordinary third usage of b’nei yisrael in verse nine, when the king says, “am b’nei yisrael.” Usually, we find either “b’nei yisrael,” the children of Israel/Jacob, or “am yisrael,” the people/nation of Yisrael. Here we have a conflation of the two designations. Alter notes:

“This oddly redundant phrase – it should be either ‘sons of Israel’ or ‘people of Israel’ – is explained by Pharaoh’s alarmed recognition that the sons, the literal descendants of Israel have swelled to a people.”

This recognition by the King/Pharaoh of the change in the descendants of Jacob and Leah, Bilhah, Rachel, and Zilpah, from a family clan to a people, came with a disquieting outlook. Wrapped up in his realization, the King made the point that this people was, “much too numerous than us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase, otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” (Ex 1:9-10)

Articulated at that moment was the classic fear of foreigners within a state’s borders. Embedded were the centuries-honored tropes exaggerating the number of aliens inside a country, along with the added alarm they would become a fifth column forging alliances with a nation’s enemies. It was the ultimate “othering” of a minority population that still continues, with voices singing its ugly melody in far too many societies around the world today. Jews, as our text reminds us, have been victims of this hateful phenomenon from our earliest histories, often with violent and deadly results.

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrestled with why the hatred of Jews is found in so many cultures and societies. He famously wrote, shortly after the Shoah, “If the Jew did not exist, the Antisemite would invent him.” Analyzing Sartre’s essay, “Réflexions sur la question juive,” Clementine Assayag notes:

Sartre establishes a distinction between the Jew and the concept of the Jew. Indeed, he explains that the notion of being a “Jew” is a social construct associating Jewish people with scapegoats, ones on which all mistakes or wrongdoings can be blamed on. In one of his examples, Sartre portrays a woman who explains her hatred towards Jews; she says that a Jewish furrier has stolen from her, and burnt the fur she gave him. Sartre quickly raises a question; why did the woman decide to hate all Jews specifically, and not all furriers instead? According to Sartre, this goes to show that people are more inclined and predisposed to rely on the antisemitic, social concept of the Jew on which to blame their wrongdoings rather than another figure.

IN OUR world today we note that last year the United Nations General Assembly passed resolutions against the Jewish nation fifteen times but only thirteen against the entire rest of the world combined! There are many dangers that come with these votes. For one, it only furthers the time-immemorial dangerous attitude toward Jews. But this creates another reality – messages the Jewish state may at times need to hear, but get shrugged off and discarded because of the malignant packaging they are wrapped in.

Tom Lehrer composed his satirical song (in 1965) “National Brotherhood Week,” which includes the stanza:

“Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.”

This is all very worrisome. Is there another narrative we can grasp? With the rise of anti-Jewish behavior around the world, we also need to pause and realize we are not alone as we have been in the past. We have allies and supporters – governments, institutions, individuals – who did not exist in previous chapters of our history. We must embrace that difference, even as we push back against pernicious anti-Jewish attitudes and actions. In the 1930s, US Patent number No. 2,026,077 was the “Kike Killer.” Today, local police and the FBI work to protect Jews and synagogues.

This commentary began with mention of the double use of Joseph at the beginning of this week’s parasha and book, Sh’mot/Exodus. Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen reminds us, “In October 1960, a delegation of 130 Jewish leaders met with Pope John XXIII. The pope welcomed his guests with words… “I am Joseph, your brother.” (Genesis 45:4) It was a powerful gesture, as the Pope used a passage of reconciliation from the Torah while speaking to this Jewish audience. It was even more personal as he referenced his birth name, Giuseppe/Joseph. Those words also spoke volumes about the importance and efforts Pope John XXIII put into changing Catholic attitudes towards Jews, creating the conditions for the groundbreaking documents of Vatican II.

For many Jews, anti-Judaism informs much of our Jewish identity, and colors and blinds how we understand the world. That scar on our people is all too painfully real, but we must do better at finding a balance, otherwise Hilter and his ilk win. At the same time, there are too many Jews, and non-Jews, who don’t see the reality and dangers of anti-Judaism when packaged in a woke culture.

Perhaps those early verses in the Book of Sh’mot/Exodus include the provocative and incendiary phrase “am b’nei yisrael,” along with the name Joseph, anticipating a Giuseppe/Joseph who would become Pope John XXIII and embrace us. We must push back against the treacherous tide of anti-Judaism, while at the same time grasp the hand of those who reach out and stand up for us.

Parashat Vayehi:

The continuum of endings and beginning

by Michael M. Cohen

Jan. 5, 2023

Two parshiot in Genesis have names about life, yet spotlight death. In parashat Hayei Sarah, “Sarah’s Life,” Sarah and Abraham die. While, in our parasha, Vayehi, “Lived,” Jacob and Joseph die. To make the point, the penultimate word of our parasha is, “in a coffin.” Why these two parshiot, with titles focused on life, filled with so much death? 


These titles and their content highlight the incongruousness of life and death. Are their names an attempt to argue finite life can supplant infinite death? Within Judaism the emphasis on memory, zikaron, is a way we abrogate death: saying kaddish and yizkor, naming our children after someone from a previous generation, the practice of quoting Rashi or Sforno, even though they lived centuries ago, in the present tense. In addition, there is the orientation of the Haggadah, as we recount events of thousands of years ago as if they were happening at that current moment. To say this in a secular key, we are still able to listen to the recording of an ailing Leonard Benstein conducting in 1990 the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in what became the final concert of his life.


Commenting on the beginning  of our parasha, Rashi asks, “Why is the passage ‘closed?’” (Gen 47:28) He is referencing the large space between one parasha and another, but there is a space of only one letter separating this week’s parasha from last week’s parasha. Many answers have been offered to this question. Bernstein once said, “In my end is my beginning.” Perhaps the visual calligraphy of the Torah this week reminds us endings and beginnings may not always be so separate.


Much of our parasha revolves around Jacob, on his deathbed, offering final words to his sons. Framing that scene, Aviva Zornberg writes:


“The problem is one of survival. A deathly darkness falls over Jacob as he confronts his family and their future. Egypt is quintessential exile: the first exile, the paradigm exile. The whole family, in search of bread, has ‘gone down’ into Egypt - an idiom not merely geographical, indicating a movement southward, but existential in resonance. Downward is deathward. If, to Hamlet, Denmark is a prison, then to Jacob, Egypt is a grave that threatens to swallow his family’s aspiration for a distinct destiny.”


Jacob is worried about the future of the Jewish people. In Midrash Rabbah (Genesis 96), Jacob said to his sons, “I beg of you, honor the Holy One blessed be God, as my fathers so honored, as it says ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk.’” (Gen 48:15) To assure their father not to worry, the Midrash continues, they said, “Sh'ma Y,is-ra-eil A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad.” (Deut 6: 4) This principal verse within Judaism can be understood as, Sh'ma Y,is-ra-eil: Listen, Israel ⏤ another name for Jacob, and so in this instance, Listen Abba/Father; A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu: that which we call A-do-nai (Lord) is E-lo-hei-ni, is our God as you have taught us; A-do-nai E-chad: and A-do-nai is E-chad, meaning we know A-do-nai is not only our God, but is the only one (E-chad) in the world and all these idols we see around us mean nothing. Jacob, relieved, responded, “Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed/Blessed be the name of the glory of God’s kingdom forever and ever.” 


Jacob is weak, near death, so he whispered those words. In many siddurim we see a similar choreography instructing us to say that line also in a whisper, except on Yom Kippur. In the Midrash we find two explanations why “Baruch Shem” follows the “Sh’ma,” and why the former is said silently. The reason an explanation is needed is because the “Sh’ma” is found in the Torah, but not “Baruch Shem” ⏤ it is not even found in the Bible. Its source is the Mishna (Yoma 6:2), where we learn on Yom Kippur after the High Priest conferred the sins of the people onto the scapegoat using the “Ineffable Name” of God, the people prostrated and replied, “Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.” Rabbi Reuven Hammer points out its words, “are an adaptation of Psalm 72:19.”


A midrash explains during the revelation at Sinai, after Moses heard God say “Sh’ma Yisrael” the people completed the sentence, “ A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad,” to which Moses replied, “Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.” (Midrash Rabbah Deuteronomy 2:31) Another midrash teaches, when Moses ascended to heaven he heard the ministering angels saying to God, “Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.” When Moses brought this phrase to earth,  an objection was raised about humans saying something so angelic. Therefore, during the year it is said in a whisper, but on Yom Kippur when we fast, like angels, we say it aloud. (Midrash Rabbah Deuteronomy 2: 36)


We see an ongoing pairing of “Sh’ma” and “Baruch Shem Kavod” throughout the tradition, including in the Midrash about Jacob and his sons, noted above. When it comes to its placement in the Siddur there is, as we have also seen, the complication of placing a phrase not from the Torah in the midst of a number of lines from the Book of Deuteronomy. The “Sh’ma” is Deuteronomy chapter six, verse four. It is followed in the Torah by the “V’ahvata/and you will love” paragraph, verses five through nine. However, in the Siddur the “Sh’ma” is followed by the “Baruch Shem Kavod” phrase. As we have also learned, borrowing from some Midrashim, it is often said in a low intonation throughout the year as a way to acknowledge it is not from the Torah.  


But there is another dynamic - which brings us back to that Midrash about Jacob and his sons. Everytime we say the “Sh’ma” we address multiple audiences. We say it to the patriarch Jacob. Additional, as we are using his other name Yisrael/Israel, we are also saying it to all the generations of “b’nei Yisrael,” after Jacob, and the four mothers of his generation ⏤ Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. Finally, if we understand Jacob’s children saying to him “Sh’ma Yisrael” as “listen Abba/Father” we are also addressing our parents and the more immediate generations which came before us. At that moment in the Siddur we are saying to Jacob and all the subsequent generations we know we are Jewish, and we are committed to the vibrancy and continuity of the Jewish people and Judaism.


Reaching out to those who came before us and will come after us touches on the life names of this week’s parasha, Vayehi, and the parasha from the other week, Hayei Sarah, and their confluence of life and death. As Bernstein finished conducting the rousing, emotional, and uplifting 7th symphony of Beethoven that summer Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood the crowd erupted in a passionate and loud applause, sensing Bernstein’s mortality as he had struggled at times to conduct. Within that crowd were my parents. Every time I listen to that recording I know I am also hearing my parents clapping ⏤ my father, of blessed memory and my mother, still going strong at 93 ⏤  and, like Jacob, I am comforted.

Parashat Vayigash:

The Power of Words

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 29, 2022

Four weeks ago, in Parashat Vayetze, we read about the birth of Judah and the connection of his name with todah, thanks. We noted the importance and power of thanking. In that commentary it was written:

“We shall see in a few weeks that Judah’s life is filled with moments when he stands up to others or is unafraid to face the truth. In all these incidents, he is able to draw part of his strength from living a life in a state of thanks: being aware of what he has and not focusing on what he lacks. It is from that place that he is able to act selflessly beyond himself.”

Two weeks ago, in Parashat Vayeshev, Judah was able to tap into his reserve of gratitude and face uncomfortable truths via the masterful guidance of Tamar. In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, strong and unafraid, Judah bravely stood above the asymmetry of power and confronted the viceroy of Egypt, his brother Joseph, whom he did not recognize. In that confrontation, all Judah had at his disposal were words. Let us examine how he intentionally used them.

What happened at their first meeting in last week’s parasha, Miketz:
“Then he [Joseph] said to them [his brothers], ‘Where do you come from?’ And they said, ‘From the land of Cana
an to buy food’” (Genesis 42:7).

Judah’s rephrasing as he recalled that first meeting:
“My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, who is young; his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him’” (44:19-20).

Judah did not mention why they came to Egypt but played up love and family, hoping to connect with Joseph – he used the word “father’’ 14 times throughout the discourse.

What happened:
“Then Joseph… said to them, ‘You are spies!’” (42:9).


Judah’s rephrasing:
Judah did not reference this charge to divert the conversation in a better light.


What happened:
The brothers said to Joseph, “Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and in fact, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more” (42:13).


Judah’s rephrasing:
“And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, who is young; his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him’” (44:20).


Judah added more details about their family, hoping for an emotional response from Joseph. He used the word “old’’ twice, and added “mother” and “children.” Finally, instead of “and one is no more” he used the more jarring word “dead.”

What happened:
“But Joseph said to them, ‘It is as I spoke to you, saying, “You are spies!” In this manner you shall be tested: By the life of Pharaoh, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here... the rest of you will be kept in prison’” (42:14-16).


Judah’s rephrasing:
“Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, so I may set my eyes on him’” (44: 21).


Judah did not engage the allegation of being spies or use the word “prison,” but simply recounted Joseph’s desire to see Benjamin.

What happened:
“Joseph said to them... ‘bring your youngest brother to me; so your words will be verified, and you shall not die.’ And they did so” (42:18-20).


Judah’s rephrasing:
“And we said to my lord, ‘The lad cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ But you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall see my face no more’” (44: 22-23).


Here Judah employed the word father thrice; and added the word “servants” which he used overall 12 times – wanting Joseph to see them as servants and not spies.

What happened:
“But he [Jacob] said, ‘My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is left alone. If any calamity should befall him along the way in which you go, then you would bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave’” (42: 38).


Judah’s rephrasing:
“Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons; and the one went out from me,’ and I said, ‘Surely he is torn to pieces, and I have not seen him since’” (44:27-28).


Repeatedly, he played up family connections and added that one of their brothers was “torn to pieces,” wishing to elicit an emotive reaction from Joseph.

What happened:

“I [Judah to Jacob] myself will be surety for him; from my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever” (43:9).


Judah’s rephrasing:
“For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father forever.’ Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me, lest perhaps I see the evil that would come upon my father?” (44:32-34).


Judah returned to the word servant, but added his willingness to be a slave. Finally, but with more intensity Judah spoke of the suffering their father would experience. It is at this moment that Joseph broke down and revealed himself to his brothers.

The Midrash compares the clash between Judah and Joseph to that between two strong kings, like a heavyweight boxing match, or a magnificent World Cup final. (Midrash Rabbah 93:2) Of that battle royal the Midrash comments:

“R. Jeremiah b. Shemaiah said: {Judah exclaimed}: ‘I will but utter a word (davar), and bring a plague (dever) upon them!’ R. Hanan said: When Judah was filled with anger, the hairs from his chest would pierce right through his clothes and force their way out, and he would put iron bars in his mouth and bring them out to ground to powder (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 93:6).

While hyperbolic, as the Midrash often can be, it does point to the power of words. And Judah used them so effectively. At the end of the day, they are all he had in this showdown with Joseph, who had the power of an empire behind him. In a masterful retelling of what took place at their first meeting, Judah, by carefully choosing his words, deflects and uses pathos and other means to make his case. In this week’s parasha, Judah gives a masterclass, teaching us that one of our greatest forms of agency is how we use our words.

Parashat Miketz:

Why Is a Minyan 10?

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 22, 2022

The 1990s TV show Northern Exposure centered around the character Dr. Joel Fleischman, played by the actor Rob Morrow. To pay off his student loan from the State of Alaska he was sent to the small town of Cicely – the epitome of living in the Diaspora. In one episode, “Kaddish, for Uncle Manny,” Fleischman had lost his Uncle Manny and was unable to go back to NYC for the funeral, so he tried to get a minyan together to say kaddish. At one point, Fleischman was asked why a minyan is 10. He answered, “I don’t know. A baseball team has nine people, while a minyan has 10 people.”

Fleischman is not alone in not knowing the answer to the question. Most Jews know the institution of the minyan as a pillar within Judaism, but few know why 10. While the answer is 10 people, the reason behind why 10 is varied. One place to begin the search for those explanations is a pasuk, a sentence, within this week’s parasha, Miketz. We read, “And b’nai Yisrael [children/sons of Israel] came to buy provisions among those who came, for there was a famine in the Land of Israel” (Genesis 42:5).

We might ask, What could this possibly have to do with explaining why a minyan is 10 people? In Orthodox communities, a minyan consists of 10 Jewish adult men, while in most non-Orthodox communities a minyan can include both adult women and men. As an aside, while we have explored the role of women in recent parshiot, Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild points out, based on the observation of Dr. Ruchama Weiss, “that sidra Miketz is the first in Torah that is devoid of any stories of women.”

How does this verse in our parasha explain why a minyan is 10? The relevant point with our pasuk in Genesis is that “b’nai Yisrael” refers to 10 people – Jacob’s 10 sons. To see how that becomes a justification for why a minyan is 10 people we follow the second of The Thirteen Hermeneutical Rules of Rabbi Ishmael (1st and 2nd century CE Israel) known as gezeira shava, whereby an inference is drawn from the similarity within one verse and another. In our case, we turn to the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem) Talmud:

“And it is written elsewhere, ‘And I will be sanctified among b’nai Yisrael’ (Leviticus 22:32) – Just as the ‘b’nai Yisrael’ mentioned here were 10, so the ‘b’nai Yisrael’ mentioned there are 10. From here it is to be derived that every prayer service requires at least 10 Jews” (Yerushalmi Berachot 7:3 as quoted in Torah Temimah on Genesis 42:5).

In the sentence from Leviticus, the phrase “sanctified” can mean certain prayers and it is attached to the words “b’nai Yisrael,” which is also found in the sentence in our parasha, the 10 “b’nai Yisrael.” So applying gezeira shava goes like this:

(A) Sanctified = prayer; (B) Sanctified is connected to “b’nai Yisrael;” and (C) “b’nai Yisrael = 10. Therefore A=B, B=C, and A=C, thus certain prayers require 10 people.

We find a related discussion in the Babylonian (Bavli) Talmud (Berachot 21b), where Rav Adda bar Ahava says the kedusha section of the Amidah prayer requires a minyan based on the verse, “And I will be sanctified among b’nai Yisrael” (Leviticus 22:32).

It is the same verse from the Yerushalmi Talmud used to determine a minyan is 10 people. However, in the Babylonian Talmud a different gezeira shava interpretation/analysis is applied.

In the Yerushalmi, the verse from Leviticus (22:32) is paired with the sentence from this week’s parasha (Genesis 42:5), based on the similar use of the phrase “b’nai Yisrael,” found in both sentences. Yet in the Bavli, that same sentence from Leviticus is connected instead with a sentence from the book of Numbers, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation” (Numbers 16:21), based on the use of “among” in both sentences.

The context of the sentence in Numbers is the incident of the rebellion of Korah against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. That sentence is in turn connected, by another gezeira shava, by using the word congregation found in Numbers 16:21 to the incident of to the 12 scouts who had been sent to do reconnaissance about the land of Canaan, and 10 of them came back with “a slanderous report” (Numbers 13:32) (while Joshua and Caleb returned with a more positive assessment). God is very angry with those 10 individuals, hence God’s outburst to Moses and Aaron, “How much longer shall that wicked congregation keep muttering against Me?” (Numbers 14:27). That congregation of 10 scouts, 10 people – another proof that a minyan is 10.

What is astounding is how the Bavli concludes a minyan is 10 people compared to the Yerushalmi. Both Talmuds use “And I will be sanctified among b’nai Yisrael” (Leviticus 22:32). In the Yerushalmi that sentence is connected to the verse from this week’s parasha, “And b’nai Yisrael came to buy provisions among those who came, for there was a famine in the Land of Israel.” (Genesis 42:5). The inferred context here is that participating in a minyan is like getting food – food for the soul, if you will.

On the other hand, the context of the Bavli’s prooftext for why a minyan is 10 people resides with the rebellion of Korah as well as the 10 individuals who brought back the slanderous report about Israel! What can we derive from that conclusion of why a minyan is 10 people? For an answer to that question we turn back to this week’s parasha. In a sentence shortly before the one we have looked at, we read, “And Jacob saw that there were provisions in Egypt” (Genesis 42:1).

Commenting on this verse, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler teaches, “Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (in his Me’or Eiynaym, ‘Enlightener of the Eyes’) notices that shever, which means ‘grain’ or ‘provisions,’ also means ‘brokenness’ or ‘breakage.’ He also notes Mitzrayim, which means ‘Egypt,’ also means ‘the narrow place’ or ‘constriction.’ Thus, he reads the verse ‘Va’yar Ya’akov ki yesh shever b’Mitzrayim’ as ‘And Jacob saw that there was brokenness in the Place of Constriction.’”

That is to say, we sometimes find ourselves in broken situations, either caused by our actions, the actions of others, or both. Kligler writes, “Father Jacob sees the light glimmering through the cracks of our shattered world... waiting to be released, and uplifted by our searching hearts and our righteous deeds.” With that orientation, we can discern according to the Bavli the explanation why a minyan is 10 people based on Korah’s rebellion and on the slanderous report of the scouts – every time we help make a minyan, we are given the opportunity, the agency, to correct, to repair (tikkun) those “broken” moments from our timeless history. Kligler reminds us, quoting Leonard Cohen from Cohen’s song “Anthem:”

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Parashat Miketz always falls during Hanukkah, the holiday when we bring in that salvatory light into our lives and the world.

Parashat Vayeshev:

Tamar: a mother of the Messiah

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 15, 2022

The Joseph cycle commencing with this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, extends through the end of Genesis – 14 chapters (37-50), including four parshiyot.

Near the beginning of this long narrative, an entire chapter devoted to Tamar and Judah is inserted. Within the arc of the Joseph chronicles, Judah ascends as the leader of his siblings, surpassing Reuben, the firstborn.

That dynamic of passing over the firstborn is a constant theme within the lives of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs – Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Judah over Reuben, Ephraim over Manasseh. The message, as Rabbi Annie Tucker points out, is that we “will ultimately be judged not on account of seniority or size, power or place in the family; we will ultimately be judged on the strength of our character and our deeds in this world.”

So what is it about Judah’s character, and why is the episode of Judah and Tamar placed within the Joseph cycle?

Commenting on the opening words of chapter 38, Rashi says Judah’s failure to prevent the sale of Joseph to merchants, at the end of the previous chapter, leading to Joseph’s servitude in Egypt, caused Judah’s rise as a leader to stumble. Tamar, as we will see, was the protagonist, testing Judah to see if he was fully ready to take on the leadership mantle.

In our chapter, Judah married and had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, but he died. As Robert Alter points out, the “widespread practice in the ancient Near East” was that “when a man died, leaving his wife childless, his closest brother in order of birth was obligated to become his proxy, ‘raising up seed’ for him by impregnating his widow.” This was known as levirate marriage. Therefore, Judah told Onan to have sexual relations with Tamar. He did, but knowing the child would not be his, he spilled his seed through coitus interruptus. God was angry; Onan is killed. Judah knew his last son, Shelah, should sleep with Tamar but delayed this, “Lest he, too, dies like his brothers.” (Gen. 38:11)

Time passed, and Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands. She learned Judah was on his way to visit a friend in Timnah. She stationed herself along the way, dressed as a whore, and covered her face. Judah saw her, not knowing she was his daughter-in-law, and said, “Let me come into you” (Gen. 38:16).

Tamar was no fool, knowing of the asymmetry in the balance of power between her – a woman, and one then identified as a whore – and Judah. Thereupon, she demanded collateral from Judah that could identify him: his seal, his cord and his staff.

Alter comments, “Tamar’s stipulated pledge, then, is an extravagant one: taking the instruments of Judah’s legal identity and social standing, something like taking a person’s driver’s license and credit cards in modern society.”

For her services rendered, she was to be paid “a goat kid from the flock” (Gen. 38: 17-18). Rachel Adelman points out the significance of the goat: “The promised payment – a kid (goat) (gedi izim) from the flock – evokes an association with the goat (se‘ir izim) (Gen. 37:31) slaughtered to stain the ornamented tunic in lieu of Joseph’s blood. Whereas the pledge here stands instead of the goat to reveal the truth, in the Joseph story, the goat’s blood serves to conceal the truth as a cover story” when Judah and his brothers deceived Jacob and told him Joseph was dead.

Per her wish, the encounter left Tamar pregnant. “After almost three New Moons” Tamar’s pregnancy became public (Gen. 38:24). Judah’s response? “Let her be burned” (Gen. 38:24).

As she was brought out for an agonizing and painful execution (first she would be stoned to death and then her body burned), Tamar remained calm, and sent Judah his collateral along with a message: “By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant. Pray recognize – whose seal and cords and staff are these?” (Gen. 38:25). Judah, checkmated, responded, “She is more right than I! After all, I did not give her Shelah, my son!” (Gen. 38:26).

WHAT AN extraordinary series of events with many insights and lessons.
We see, on one hand, Tamar reduced to the worst of misogynistic stereotypes – woman depicted and appreciated as vagina and womb; woman as harlot; and woman as master of deceit. On the other hand, within those parameters Tamar is a strong woman with agency and a moral code – remaining faithful to perpetuating the name of her deceased husband. With truth on her side, she did not confront Judah publicly to ridicule and embarrass him. Moreover, she did not accuse him of being the one who made her pregnant. Rather, she gave him the option to tell the truth; if not, the death sentence would have been carried out on her.

Recognizing this, the Talmud places Tamar on a pedestal: “It is more amenable for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace and not humiliate another in public. 'From where do we [derive this]?' From Tamar, as she preferred to face death rather than humiliate Judah” (Sotah 10b).

We can now understand Judah’s response to Tamar more fully. It is not that Tamar is more righteous than Judah merely because of the truth revealed, but that she chose the truth to surface without embarrassing him.

That moment sends us back to the Garden of Eden. When the serpent spoke with Eve, it let her know that if she ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, “your eyes will be opened” (Gen. 3:5). One facet of knowing the difference between good and bad is the responsibility we must take for our actions. Shortly after the conversation between the serpent and Eve, both Adam and Eve pushed off their responsibility to others. If there is a “sin” in the Garden of Eden story, that is it. In essence, one way to understand the main thrust of the Torah is to see it as a guide for taking ownership of our behavior.

This brings us back to this week’s parasha. When Tamar met Judah on the way to Timnah, the place was called petah einayim, “the opening of eyes.” This name connects us to that incident in the Garden and its timeless message of human answerability for our actions. And at the end of the matter, Judah answered for his conduct through the masterful guidance of Tamar.


Tamar’s reward for this? The Messiah will emerge from the descendants of one of her twins, Peretz.


These events are certainly not the backstory we would think about when it comes to the Messianic lineage. And perhaps that is the point: the Messiah will emerge from the messiness of being human.


That is reinforced generations later, when we are given further information on the genealogy of the Messiah through the story of Ruth and Boaz, a story that is also complicated, including a levirate marriage. When Boaz and Ruth marry, the citizens of Bethlehem blessed them: “May your house be like the house of Peretz whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12).


Tamar may not be a matriarch, but she is worthy of being a mother of the Messiah.

Parashat Vayishlach:

What's in a woman's name

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 8, 2022

The woman entered the narrative of the Book of Genesis unnamed, like many women in the Bible, including: Noah’s wife, Lot’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, Job’s wife, Yiftach’s daughter and Manoah’s wife.

The other week, in parashat Hayei Sarah, we were introduced to another woman, a nurse, without being told her name. “So they sent off their sister Rebekah and her nurse” (Gen. 24:59). However, unlike the women referenced above who remain nameless throughout the Bible, we are eventually, in this week’s parasha, told her name when we read, “Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-bacuth (Gen. 35:8).

All of this raises a number of questions. With women so often remaining nameless in the Bible, which reflects a patriarchal grounding within the text, why is Deborah named? And while she is named, it comes with scarce biographical information. All we are told is that she was Rebekah’s nurse who traveled with her from Nahor to meet Rebekah’s husband-to-be, Isaac, and that she eventually died near Bethel, and was buried under an oak tree. With that limited information we wonder what was it about her life that generated the revelation of her name?
Another interesting layer in this dynamic of women and names in the Bible is that a number of unnamed women are eventually given names through midrash.

Thus we are told Noah’s wife’s name: “And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Na’amah (Gen 4:22). Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said, ‘Na’amah was Noah’s wife. Why was she called Na’amah? Because all of her deeds were ne’imim, pleasant’” (Genesis Rabbah 23:3).

We also learn, through another Midrash (Tanhuma, Vayera 8), “This is Lot’s wife, Edit, of whom it is stated, ‘But his wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt’” (Gen. 19:26). Biblical scholar John T. Townsend comments, “The name Edit suggests the Hebrew ‘ed,’ which means ‘witness’; and indeed, as a pillar of salt, Edit did become a witness to all who saw her.”

In Leviticus Rabbah (1:3) we read about Pharaoh’s daughter. “In Chronicles it is written, ‘These were the sons of Batyah, daughter of Pharaoh.’ Rabbi Yehoshua taught in the name of Rabbi Levi that the Holy One said to Batyah (lit. daughter of God), the daughter of Pharaoh: Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you, too, though you are not My daughter, yet I will call you My Daughter. This is why it says, ‘These were the sons of Batyah, daughter of Pharaoh.’”

When it comes to Job’s wife, the Talmud (Bava Batra 15b) informs us, “And some say that Job lived in the days of Jacob and that he married Dinah, the daughter of Jacob.”

The suggested name for Yiftach’s daughter is found in Liber Antiquitatum, a Latin text preserving an anonymous Hebrew author (mid-first century CE and mid-second century CE) who said that her name was Seila.

From the Book of Judges we know Samson’s father is Manoah, but not his mother’s name. We learn his mother’s name only later in a Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 10:5): “And because she saw an angel [Judges 13:3, who informed her that she was pregnant with Samson], she was called Zlelponi, which signifies that she turned her face (poneh) to look at the angel.”

We will never know the exact reason for the need of the writers of midrashim to “discover” the names of these nameless women. The introduction of those names more than likely had more to do with connecting the dots of the messages within the holy text. As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught, “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it” (Avot 5:22).

For the rabbis, all knowledge is contained within the Bible, particularly the Torah; however, that knowledge is not always on the surface but must be discovered and revealed through various hermeneutical formulas. One of the most famous is the 13 hermeneutical rules of Rabbi Ishmael, which we find at the beginning of many siddurim. In the same way a microscope or telescope helps us see things that are there but we can’t see them, the process of midrash does the same when it comes to the biblical text. For the rabbis, a fuller understanding of the text, including unearthing names of the nameless, makes for a fuller perception and encounter with the words of the Bible as a way to discern what God wants from us.

WHEN IT comes to Deborah, even though we are told her name, but with very little biographical information, we want to know more about her.

One matter that stands out is that when she dies, she is traveling not with Rebekah but with Rebekah’s son Jacob, who is returning to the Land of Israel, having fled his brother Esau 20 years earlier. This raises the question: why was Deborah with Jacob at that time, far away from Rebekah? Rashi answers (Gen 35:8), “But the explanation is: because Rebekah had promised Jacob ‘then I will send and fetch thee from thence,’ (Gen. 27:45), she sent Deborah to him to Padan-aram to tell him to leave that place, and she died on the return journey. I learned this from a comment of R. Moses Hadarshan.”

In this light, Deborah is essential for the fulfillment of God’s promise that God made to Jacob 20 years earlier as he began his exile: “I will return you to this soil” (Gen 28:15). And let’s pause for a moment and realize that Deborah would have traveled some 724 km. (450 miles) from the Land of Israel to Haran, where Jacob was living, and then do the same on the return journey. More important, without Deborah making this long and difficult journey and telling Jacob to come home, the story of the Jewish people would have ceased. Deborah (Devorah in Hebrew) means bee. In essence, Deborah, like a bee which carries pollen from one flower to another, carried Jacob back to the Promised Land.

Mark Gerson adds a very important insight: “The significance of Deborah is suggested by more than the placement in the text of the description of her funeral. There are thousands of people mentioned in the Torah, but the funerals of only a few are recorded. There are four funerals where we are told that people wept. These are of Sarah, Moses, Aaron, and Deborah.” It is clear that Sarah, Moses, and Aaron played key and essential roles in the saga of the Jewish people. By including Deborah with them, Scripture tells us she was indispensable in the unfolding of the chronicles of the Jewish people.

One final note. The oak tree Deborah was buried under is called Allon-bacuth, meaning “oak of weeping.” That is to say, the mourning for her was so great because of the impact of Deborah’s life on the existence and continuum of the Jewish people.

Parashat Vayetze:

Giving Thanks

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 1, 2022

Three weeks ago in this space, we explored parashat Lech Lecha: “Who are we? The answer to that question is multilayered and multifaceted. Our names – how we identify to others and how we are identified by others – are one way that question is answered. Before we were Jews, we were Israelites, and before that, we were known as Hebrews.” The rest of the commentary for that parasha examined the name ivri, Hebrew.

This week we are introduced to the seed of the name Jew. Its source is the Hebrew name Yehuda, or Judah, the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. We discover in this week’s parasha, Vayetze: “She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son, she said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord.’ So she named him Judah” (Gen. 29:35). In this sentence, the Hebrew word for praise, odeh, illuminates that the core meaning of the name Yehuda has to do with praise and thanks – think of toda, the Hebrew word for thanks.

From this we gain the insight that one of the essential qualities of being Jewish is to live in a state of thanks. That aspect can help us cultivate a more positive perspective on how to live our lives and engage the world.

One question we need to ask ourselves is why did Leah choose the name Judah for her son?

The 12 sons of Jacob will become the 12 tribes of Israel. In the course of his life, Jacob will have relations with four women – Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. So simple math tells us that if each woman gave birth to three children, they could each claim equal partnership in the creation of the 12 tribes. However, once Leah gave birth to a fourth son, the possibility of that equality was lost, as she realized she had the opportunity to be the mother of more tribes than the other women, and so she thanked God for that probability by naming him Yehudah. In fact, she would be the mother of six tribes.

WE PAUSE here and remember that this all occurred in the patriarchal society of its era. For one, Leah also has a daughter, Dinah, but then the descendants of daughters did not count as tribes. In addition, it is mostly accepted that, of the four women, only Leah and Rachel are counted as Matriarchs (along with Sarah and Rebekah), while Bilhah and Zilpah, the lowly handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, are not usually given that status, even though in the Hebrew, when they are given to Jacob to produce children, it says “l’isha,” which means “for a wife” (Gen. 30:4, 9).

There is an interesting exception to this trope in the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 12:17): “Six corresponding to the Matriarchs, namely Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.” However, for the most part within Judaism, the two menial handmaidens, even though four tribes came from them (From Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali; from Zilpah: Gad and Asher), are not given their due.
We can be thankful in our age that these dynamics are getting a different look. In Lilith magazine (March 24, 1995), Rabbi Susan Schnur advocates for the inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah in the Amida, while Josephine Rosman, in the Jewish Women’s Archive (October 27, 2017), challenges us to reclaim these two women by elevating how they are seen.

THE HEBREW l’hodot, “to thank,” includes an orientation of acknowledgment. It recognizes, among a number of dynamics, that we do not live in a vacuum of existential solitude. It forces us out of a hole we sometimes step into. Saying something as simple as “thank you” produces a shower of recognition, appreciation, worth and affirmation of another person. Saying “thank you” forces us to recognize the other. When we say thank you, we are reminded we need each other.

Giving thanks is a spiral that feeds itself. Recognizing others means they not only are seen with our eyes but are seen in their eyes as well. On the deepest level, we all want and need to be recognized and acknowledged. We hold each other up when we say thank you.

We shall see in a few weeks that Judah’s life is filled with moments when he stands up to others or is unafraid to face the truth. In all these incidents, he is able to draw part of his strength from living a life in a state of thanks: being aware of what he has, and not focusing on what he lacks. It is from that place that he is able to act selflessly beyond himself.  

If we understand being thankful as a core value of being Jewish (and, for that matter, being human), it is not surprising to hear the rabbis say we should recite a minimum of 100 brachot, blessings, a day. In the Talmud we find:
“It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: A person is obligated to recite 100 blessings every day, as it is stated in the verse: ‘And now, Israel, what [ma] does the Lord your God require of you’ (Deuteronomy 10:12). Rabbi Meir interprets the verse as though it said mea [one hundred] rather than ma” (Menahot 43b).

Blessings are one way we allow ourselves to take in what we have. It is related, as Mark Koffman noted on a Shabbat morning in my shul, that in one of the morning blessings we thank God for our “needs” and not our “wants.”

We further learn, in the Midrash, about the Messianic Age: “Rabbi Pinhas, Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yohanan [said] in the name of Rabbi Menahem from Gallia: In the time to come, all sacrifices will be annulled, but the sacrifice of thanksgiving will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled” (Leviticus Rabbah 9:7).

May we all work to bring that age closer by living our lives as Jews, by living our lives like our namesake Judah – the one who is thankful.

Parashat Toldot

by Michael M. Cohen

Nov. 24, 2022

This week’s parasha, Toldot, opens, “Ve’ele toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham” (Gen. 25:19). Most of these words are simple to translate and understand.

“Ve’ele,” “and these,” connects us back to something immediately beforehand – to “Ve’ele toldot Yishmael” (Gen. 25:12). There, the “and” refers us back to the previous paragraph (Gen. 25:7-11), which talks about the life and death of Abraham, and how Isaac (Yitzhak) and Ishmael came together to bury their father.

The word that is not so clear is “toldot.” According to Rashi (1040-1105, France), it means “offspring” or “begettings,” as Edward Fox (b. 1947, US) translates it, and “lineage” as Robert Alter (b. 1935, US) states. Stephen Mitchell (b. 1943, US) reads toldot as “descendants. Ramban (1194-1268, Spain, Israel), more closely aligning with Rashi, Fox, and Alter, translates the sentence as, “And these are the children of Isaac,” with Hertz (1872-1946, England) in a similar vein translating toldot as “generations.” However, Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) says it means “his days gave birth to the history that follows.” Or to put it another way, this chronicles the history that follows the birth of the individual mentioned. Ellen Frankel (b. 1951, US) translates “ve’ele toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham” as “This is the story of Isaac the son of Abraham.”

In this Torah conversation across the generations, we note Rashi, Fox, Alter, Ramban, and Hertz are more focused on the individuals born – Ishmael and Isaac; while Sforno and Frankel are more concerned with their actions as well as those of their descendants. In some ways the former group of commentators/translators are more limited in their understanding of the word “toldot,” while Sforno and Frankel are more expansive.

In this discourse on the meaning of the word “toldot,” our default is applying it in anthropocentric terms. We find it used in a number of ways, in addition to what has been explored above, that affirm that assumption, including references to the descendants of Adam (Gen. 5:1), Noah (Gen. 6:9), Shem (Gen. 10:1; 11:10), Terah (Gen. 11:27), Esau (Gen. 36:1; 9), Jacob (Gen. 37:2), Aaron and Moses (Num. 3:1), and Levi (Ex. 6:16;19).

And yet, the very first mention of the word “toldot” in the Torah does not have to do with humans. We read in the second chapter of Genesis (2:4), “Ele toldot hashamayim veha’aretz,” “these are the products/tale/generations/begettings of the heaven and the earth.”


What an extraordinary opening this presents to shake our normal and accepted way of thinking by introducing the word “toldot” not in connection with humans but, rather, with the world and the universe – nudging us, if you will, to consider a biocentric and not an anthropocentric orientation in how we look at the world and our lives.


This is not the only biocentric message we find in the text. A few sentences earlier we are told, on the sixth day of Creation, after God surveyed the world following the creation of humans God called what God saw “tov meod,” “very good” (Gen. 1:31). This stands in contrast to the other days of Creation, when God says only “tov,” “good.” An anthropocentric reading of the text says the world was created for us, with humans as the pinnacle, causing God to describe what God saw then as “very good.” But there is another reading, which presents a different orientation. It says the world was not created for us; we just happened to be the last piece of the puzzle. The “very good” spoken by God is not directed to us but, rather, to the totality of Creation that does not distinguish between humans and the rest of Creation.

This is also upheld by the order in which the world was created. If certain elements created before humans were to disappear, so would we. In fact, in this case, the contradistinction of “good” and “very good” is not so great. The goodness of all that was created before us, a goodness that was used by God to describe what God saw, lets us know that all the parts of Creation assembled before humans have intrinsic value of goodness separate from how we might classify them.

That godly perspective finds a voice in Kabbalah, as Daniel Matt (b. 1950, US) reminds us in his book The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. He quotes Rav Kook (1865-1935, Russia, Israel):

“The essence of divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them; its existence exists in each existent. Do not attribute duality to God. Let God be solely God. If you suppose that Ein Sof [the endless aspect of God that permeates everything] emanates until a certain point, and that from that point on is outside of it, you have dualized. God forbid! Realize, rather, that Ein Sof exists in each existent. Do not say ‘This is a stone and not God.’ God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity.”

One of the many challenges of the climate crisis, an assault on God’s creation, is that too often we approach that task from an anthropocentric vista – a broader biocentric lodestar offers more embracing and divergent insights that can open doors to better solutions, and a greater sense of urgency.

We Began this exploration of the opening sentence of this week’s parasha by noting that “ve,” “and,” connects us to previous events. Rabbi Ellie Munk (1900-1981, France) observes, quoting R. Abahu (279-320, Israel), that in the sentence from the second chapter of Genesis there is no “ve, “and,” at the beginning of the sentence, which means it stands alone, even though we read about Creation in the first chapter of the book of Genesis.
Munk teaches further, drawing from R. Abahu in the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 30:1):

"God had previously created worlds which had fallen short of the ideal. He destroyed them and returned them to a state of chaos. However, the world we live in does meet the standards for the ideal, and so God says: 'These are the products....' This is a break with the previous worlds whose origins did not last, for they returned to a state of chaos."

Perhaps we find comfort from this Midrash stating that this world stands the test of standards. At the same time, we can also read it as a cautionary tale challenging human hubris. As we all write “the story of the generations,” let us pause, putting down our pen, and consider that our agency derives not solely from being human but from a deeper, fuller, more expansive perspective.

Parashat Hayei Sarah:

Keturah, Kibbutz Ketura, and the Arava Institute

by Michael M. Cohen

Nov. 17, 2022

In this week’s parasha, Hayei Sarah, we read that after the death of Sarah “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah” (Gen. 25:1).

The sentence, unremarkable on one level, states what appears on the surface to be a simple fact. However, as with many verses, we discover that looks can be deceiving.

As though trying to answer a Greek choir singing “Who is this Keturah, worthy enough to replace our first Matriarch Sarah?” commentators have wrestled with different answers to that question.

Ramban claims Keturah was a Canaanite concubine, based on her description in the Book of Chronicles: “And the sons of Keturah, Abraham’s concubine” (I Chron. 1:32). Savina J. Teubal, author of Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah, claims Keturah was not a concubine but “was the patriarch’s second wife,” as the verse in Genesis states. These two verses from the Bible point to an ambiguous understanding of Keturah’s identity.

It is not unusual within Tanach to have verses that contradict each other, as we find here. Those contradictions become the cornerstones for a choir of many voices of interpretation and drawn-out lessons.

Rashi recognizes Keturah’s worthiness by saying she was actually Hagar! He does not come up with this astounding answer himself but draws from the Midrash where Rabbi Yehuda says, commenting on Keturah, “This was Hagar” (Genesis Rabbah 61:4).

How does Rabbi Yehuda come up with this answer? One possible explanation is that “Keturah” is related to the word “ketoret,” incense, meaning this was someone who lit incense as part of her idolatrous worship. Who would Abraham have known who fit that description? Hagar. The name Keturah is also related to the word “katar,” meaning to tie. With this understanding Rabbi Nehemiah said to Rabbi Yehuda, “she tied (m’koteret) piety and nobility in herself.”

Centuries later the Zohar wove a variation on the narrative:


“Keturah was none other than Hagar. For we know by tradition that though Hagar, when she left Abraham, went astray after the idols of her ancestors, yet in time she again attached herself to a life of virtue. Hence her name Keturah (lit. attached). Abraham then sent for her and took her as a wife.


“From here we learn a change of name acts as an atonement for sin, since that was the reason that her name was changed.

“The term ‘vayosef’ [the first word in Gen 25:1], literally meaning ‘he added,’ indicates not that Abraham took another wife, but that he took again his former spouse [Hagar] whom he had driven out on account of Ishmael, and who had now abandoned her evil practices, and had made a change in her name [to Keturah] symbolic of her change of life” (Zohar 1:133b).

Behind all of this there appears to be a tremendous, albeit creative, reading of the text, to bring Hagar back into the fold. Her expulsion – for all intents and purposes to go and die in “the Wilderness of Beersheba” along with her son, Ishmael (lit. God has heard) – by Sarah and Abraham is one of the most difficult passages to read in the entire Torah. Hagar “thought, Let me not look on as the child dies. And sitting thus far off, she burst into tears” (Gen. 21:14, 16).

With our 21st-century sensibilities, we are moved by the pathos of this incident. What is interesting, as biblical scholar Rachel Adelman points out, is that the rabbis “seemed disturbed by the poor treatment of Hagar.” This reminds us that while we do see things differently than the generations before us, there are human sentiments that transcend centuries.

Following this thinking of wanting to bring Hagar back into Abraham’s tent, we find other sources that go so far as to say that Abraham, over the years, stayed in contact with Hagar. In Pirke deRabbi Eliezer we read that Abraham visited Ishmael twice:

“Again after three years Abraham went to see his son Ishmael, having sworn to Sarah as on the first occasion that he would not descend from the camel in the place where Ishmael dwelt. He came there at midday, and found Ishmael’s wife.... Abraham arose and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, for his son, and [thereupon] Ishmael’s house was filled with all good things of the various blessings. When Ishmael came [home] his wife told him what had happened, and Ishmael knew that his father’s love was still extended to him” (Pirke deRabbi Eliezer 30).

Midrash Tanhuma (Genesis 5.9) seems to suggest that Isaac also maintained a connection with Hagar and Ishmael. This is based on a number of verses that link Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac to a well called “Be’er-lahai-roi... between Kadesh and Bered” (Gen. 16:14). This is the well that saved Hagar, pregnant with Ishmael, the first time she was expelled. We are also told that Isaac spent time “in the vicinity of Be’er-lahai-roi” (Gen. 24:62), and after the death of his father, Abraham, he “settled near Be’er-lahai-roi” (Gen. 25:11). We note two verses earlier that Isaac and Ishmael had come together to bury their father Abraham in the Cave of Machpelah (Gen. 25:9).

While not explicit that Keturah is Hagar, a case is made in a number of traditional sources that they are one and the same – “Hagar and Keturah are the same person” (Tanhuma Genesis 5.9). In essence, the rabbis make a tikkun, a repair, of the text by reversing the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. The rabbis did not go through such great efforts as an exercise solely in hermeneutics, but, rather, to inform and guide our lives – even to this day.

FORTY-NINE YEARS ago this month, in November 1973, shortly after the Yom Kippur War, and the Shabbat following the reading of this week’s parasha with its mention of Keturah, a kibbutz was established in the southern Arava on the Jordanian border, 48 km. north of Eilat. It was founded by members of the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement and called Ketura.

That, in and of itself, is uneventful in relation to this week’s parasha, except for the sharing of the name Keturah. However, 23 years later, in the fall of 1996, Kibbutz Ketura established the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Its mission: “to advance cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict” by bringing together Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, Palestinians, Jordanians and others to realize that “nature knows no borders.”

In that shared capacity the institute works to repair the land and the relationships between the descendants of Sarah and Hagar. In this way the institute, located on Kibbutz Ketura – Kibbutz Hagar, if you will – is the living embodiment of the repair, the tikkun, the rabbis worked so hard to create.

Parashat Vayera:

Interpreting the Akeida

by Michael M. Cohen

Nov. 10, 2022

Through the course of the year, the akeida, the binding of Isaac, is read more than any other narrative in the Torah. It is read as part of this week’s parasha, Vayera, as well as on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In addition, it is read every day in a traditional siddur, as part of birkot hashahar (blessings of the dawn), the preliminary section of the daily morning service.


The question that needs to be asked is: Of all of the stories in the Bible, why is the akeida – God telling Abraham to slay his son – the story that receives the most prominence? A classic answer is offered by Rabbi David de Solo Pool in his siddur:

This biblical reading recalls Abraham’s unquestioning acceptance of God’s will. At the beginning of each day, the Jew would proclaim to the world the biblical lesson – taught to Abraham and, through him, to his people – that man’s devotion to God is to know no limit.

For many Jews this is a powerful understanding of their relationship with God. There are also Jews who find this unquestioning relationship with God, particularly when God demands the killing of a human being, and in this case one’s child, to be highly problematic. Is there a way this passage can be redeemed?

There are “shiv’im panim ba’Torah,” 70 faces/sides of Torah, the rabbis teach us (Numbers Rabbah 13). On this, the School of R. Ishmael expounds: “As a hammer shatters a rock” (Jeremiah 23:29) – “Just as a hammer subdivides into many different sparks, so does the biblical verse extend into many different interpretations” (Sanhedrin 34a).

The story of the binding of Isaac, the akeida, as we shall explore, is open to many interpretations. Rabbi Norman Cohen in his insightful book Self Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives, teaches:

We are all like Abraham; each of us is so involved in our outside worlds – our careers, interests, or our principles – that we do not or cannot see that it is our child, or spouse or parent that is bound on the altar. We are so adept at sacrificing that which is truly important to us on the altars we have erected that we may ask whether we are capable of hearing the cry of the angel before it is too late.

Reading this episode as unquestioning loyalty to God can make it a proof text for religious fanaticism and extremism.

And yet, there is a way to see this story in a completely different light. At that moment when Abraham has his arm raised, ready to kill in the name of God; in that moment of uber-religious fervor and fanaticism, Abraham is still able to hear the angel tell him this is not what God wants. This is the test that Abraham passes. He is rewarded not for being a religious fanatic, but, rather, because in the midst of that fanaticism he was open to hear a different voice, a path to a different way.

In this light, we can read the story as an anti-religious-extremism text. An important and timeless message for helping us grow – in our religions, in our societies, in our communities, in our personal relationships.

The story of the akeida is traditionally understood as God testing Abraham. Lippman Bodoff flips that reading of the story on its head. He points out the akeida is full of many details – something rare in a biblical story of only 19 verses. Bodoff asserts that these details slow down the unfolding of the events. That is to say, Abraham wanted to give God the opportunity to change God’s mind. A case in point is Abraham, who is more than 135 years old at the time, saddles his donkey, and does not have his servants do it. In this interpretation, it is not only God testing Abraham, but Abraham testing God, so he would know if he would want to follow God to begin a new religion.

The context of the akeida also needs to be placed within the ancient world where human sacrifice was practiced. To what extent remains a debate among scholars, but human sacrifice was considered by some cultures to be acceptable. In that light, when God approaches Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice it can be seen as speaking to him in a way he would understand: human sacrifice to a deity. And that is the punch line. At the end, God is saying: You might think I want human sacrifice, from what you may see around you, but that is not what I desire at all. In forming this new relationship with Abraham, God tries to meet him based on normative thinking and behavior, and then offers a radical way to say a relationship with God is going to be different. As Judith S. Antonelli points out, “the akeida represents its rejection (of human sacrifice) and replacement by animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice... predated human sacrifice and coexisted with it for quite awhile before eventually replacing it in most parts of the world. Some pagan traditions, such as Greek mythology, bear tales indicating such a transition.”

Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The real hero of the Issac story was the ram” challenges us to think in a different, broader perspective. In our anthropocentric reading of the text, we focus on the potential killing of a human, Isaac, Abraham’s son, and not the ram that in the end was offered up as the sacrifice. The poem closes:

The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had long gone before.

But the real hero of the Isaac story was the ram.

A different interpretation of the akeida developed in reaction to a political event in the United States over 50 years ago. On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops shot at students at Kent State University protesting the Vietnam War. Of the four killed, three were Jewish. Eight years later Kent State commissioned the sculptor George Segal to create a statue to commemorate the event. Segal chose the akeida.

As he explained, “Basically, the piece calls on older people who have the power of life and death over their children to exercise love, compassion and restraint.” In that light, the akeida can be depicted as a protest against war. Kent State rejected the statue, but it found a home on the campus of Princeton University, where it remains to this day.


In this short exegesis, we have seen vastly different ways the akeida can be understood – a reminder that Judaism stands upon its diversity. In the words of Rabbi Ishmael, the array of interpretations are like “many different sparks.” Those sparks can ignite new ways for us to understand not only the text, but our world and our lives. They challenge us to better grapple with the divergent thinking we encounter in the course of the day through the people we meet and the events of the day.

Parashat Lech Lecha:

Say Our Name

by Michael M. Cohen

Nov. 3, 2022

Every morning in the Siddur, we ask a number of profound questions that go to the heart of who we are and how we live our lives. These questions appeared first in the Neilah service of Yom Kippur (Yoma 87b) and later migrated into the daily liturgy. The first question, Mah anachnu? (what are we) is the ultimate existential question.

It is related to the question, who are we? The answer to that question is multilayered and multifaceted. Our names – how we identify to others and we are identified by others – is one way that question is answered. Before we were Jews, we were Israelites and before that, we were known as Hebrews.
That identity is introduced in this week’s parasha, Lech L’cha, when Abram is called ha’ivri (the Hebrew) (Gen 14:13). Why is he called and identified so? The shoresh (three-letter root) of ha’ivri is ayin-bet-reish. It means to cross over, to come from the other side. In the case of Abram, living at the time “at the terebinths of Mamre,” (Gen 14:13) near present-day Hebron, he was known as having come from the other side, beyond the Euphrates river. On this the Midrash expands:

Rabbi Judah said, “[ha’ivri signifies that] the whole world was on one side (eber) while he was on the other side (eber) [as Abram was the only true believer in the one true God]. Rabbi Nehemiah said, “[It denotes] that he was descended from Eber (Gen 11:10-26). The rabbis say, “It means that he came across the river [based on the verse, ‘And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river’ Joshua 24:3]; further, that he spoke in the language of the dwellers across the river. (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 42:8)

Dr. Albert Freidberg points out, “the multiplicity of the Sages’ answers speaks to the slippery nature of the term and its origins.” Rabbi Karyn Keder adds, “‘lech lecha’ means to embark on a journey of self-awareness and manifest your life’s purpose,” while Dr. Yitzhak Feder comments that Avraham was, “a pioneer who crossed cultural and religious boundaries in founding a new faith.” All of these remind us that Abraham carried a new, bold perspective. In that light, Abraham models the importance of fresh thinking.

There is a story from the classroom of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he taught homiletics for some 50 years and saw the study of the Torah as a lifelong moral education. On Mondays, students would come to class and present a sermon that would be critiqued by Kaplan. On Thursdays, students would return to the class and present the improved sermon based on what Kapan had told them.

ONE WEEK, a student came to class on Monday and presented his sermon, and Kaplan offered his critique. On Thursday, the student returned and gave the sermon incorporating all that Kaplan had said. Kaplan then added fresh criticism. The student was dumbfounded. In response, Kaplan pounded the table and said something along the lines of, “You presume between Monday and Thursday of this week I have not evolved and grown as a person and see things differently.”

To this, Rabbi Ray Artz, who studied with Kaplan at the Seminary comments, “True idealistic pragmatists are always looking to see things in a new way in order to address new problems of which they become aware. Both Kaplan and in his own way, Heschel, were struggling with their understanding of their own existential Jewish meaning. Therefore, they had to create dynamic rhetoric, each in his own way, in order for them to contend with their own doubts and hopes.”

An interesting dynamic of the name ivri is that within the Torah it is not used by Abraham and Sara’s descendants as an identity among themselves; rather, it is used as a way to identify with foreigners or used by foreigners to identify members of the Hebrew tribes. In relation to this, Jeremy Benstein points out in his fascinating book, Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World:

“Some even see this as a derogatory term from outside, an ethnic slur that others used, which the Israelites then appropriated for themselves. As biblical scholar Yitzhak Feder notes about the term ‘Hebrew,’ ‘the self-appropriation of the Other’s derogatory term serves as a subversive expression of self-empowerment, comparable to the use (albeit controversial) of [the N word] in hip-hop music.’”

One of the most direct uses of the term for self-identification is by Jonah, who when fleeing from God is confronted by sailors who ask him a number of questions including, “What is your country and of what people are you?” Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew.” (Jonah 1:8) Similar to Abraham, Jonah takes a journey. That is to say, the name expresses physical movement – one from the other side.

But there is another movement contained within the word ivri: an inner movement including spiritual growth and spiritual wrestling. Abraham not only leaves his birthplace and travels/moves to Israel, he also discovers within himself a radical new way of understanding God. While Jonah, although reluctantly, tries to come to terms with a God who prefers mercy and tshuvah (turning, changing one’s ways to more righteous living) over strict justice and punishment.

Ivri is not about stasis. Rabbi J. Leonard Levy wrote, “Variation is a characteristic of living things... because life and change are co-extensive... Our bodies change; our minds change; our hearts change; the muscles of our bodies change; the capillaries, the arteries – everything changes, and ultimately, we die; for life is made up of a series of progressive changes.”

Change is the constant of our lives (part of the appeal of ritual is it provides an anchor in the sea of those changes). Change affects us in a number of ways. How do we incorporate change into our lives? Are we willing to change when needed or do we put up resistance? How do we feel, how do we adapt to the pace of the many developments in the world – what Popes Francis I and Benedict XVI called “rapidification.”

In response to that constant of change in our lives and in our world, we inherit from Avram haivri, Abram the Hebrew, a reminder that the existential footprint of the journey of our lives is one of internal and external movement.


Parashat Noach:

Babel & Eden: An eternal cautionary tale

by Michael M. Cohen

October 28, 2022


Expelled last week from the tranquility and comfort of the Garden of Eden, humanity appears to find equanimity in this week’s parasha Noah, whose name means comfort. In addition, as Ellen Frankel adds, quoting Rabbi Abba bar Kahana, that Naamah, Noah’s wife name “refers to her pleasing – ne’imim – deeds.” (Gen. Rabbah 23:3) Nothing could be further from the truth in what transpires and the etymology of these two significant names to our parasha. God loses patience not once but twice (the Flood and the Tower of Babel) with humans whom God had created, as the Psalmist reminds us, “a little lower than the angels.” (Psalm 8:5) That lofty reference echoes the description, also in last week’s parasha, saying that were created “in God’s image.” (Gen 1:27)


And therein lies the connection between these two weeks’ Torah readings - a lesson taught in the Garden of Eden will need to be repeated. And what was that lesson? We are created in God’s image, but we are not God. And whenever we forget that important distinction, trouble ensues and there are consequences.


We read last week:


The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there God put the human whom God had formed. And out of the ground Adonai Elohim made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad…Then Adonai Elohin took the human and put them in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the human, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Gen 2:8-17)


Why are we allowed to eat from one tree, but not from both? Because their combination makes us Godlike. One tree gives us full knowledge and the other gives us immortality. In other words, when eaten together we become like God having complete knowledge and never dying. Once Eve and Adam ate from the tree of knowledge they were expelled from the Garden so they would not have the opportunity to eat from the tree of life and become immortal like God.


That brings us to this week's episode of the Tower of Babel where the people said to one another, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we make ourselves a name.” (Gen 11:4) On face value this desire and goal does not appear problematic but on closer examination other ramifications surface. We read in the Psalms, “The heavens belong to the Lord, but God has given the earth to all humanity.” (Psalm 115:16) That is to say, building a tower to heaven violates that division and lessens the difference between us and God. At the end of the sentence the citizens of Babel say building the tower will help them make a name for themselves. This might indicate creating a good reputation. But “a name” in the context of heaven means something else. Often God is simply referred to as Hashem, literally the name. There are many reasons for this, but on one level it is a word that can encompass all aspects of God, Who is beyond all names and descriptions. When the people of Babel say they want to create a name for themselves it can be inferred they want to be Godlike.


Related, Nehama Leibowitz teaches:


Man who has the power to reach these technical heights soon imagines that he is all-powerful…Gigantic buildings, pyramids, marble monuments, impressive squares have always served as the means by which a great dictator has wished to perpetuate and aggrandize his name, likening himself to a god.


Why does God, the Absolute Power of the Universe, need to remind us of that vast difference between image and agency? It was perhaps best said by Jacob Bronowski, while standing at Auschwitz during the filming of the BBC documentary based on his book, “The Ascent of Man:”


There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts — obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts. It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false — tragically false. Look for yourself.

This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas — it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods…We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.

Nestled next to the directive in chapter two not to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad,” we are also told, “to till and tend” (Gen 2:15) the Garden. This stands in stark contrast to, in the first chapter, when we are created “in the image of God,” and we are told in terminology, that is absolute, to act with  “dominion” over the environment. Therein lies our challenge, we can not escape the immense power we have over the environment and over people. Just as God needs to temper justice with mercy, (Genesis Rabbah 12:15) so we must diminish the absolute with the equivocal.

Too often when we have forgotten about the fine line between being created in God’s image and acting as though we are the Absolute Power or think we have absolute power, we act at our human worst. Created in God’s image  human beings have immense power, as Rabbi Joseph Polak reminds us, with the capacity not only to commit genocide, but also biocide. This critical lesson first taught in the Garden of Eden and so quickly forgotten by the time of the Tower of Babel is an eternal cautionary tale, that “the better angels of our nature” need to be continuously cultivated.


Parashat Bereshit:

Harmony and conflict in Genesis

Should the first words of the Torah be understood as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth”? 

By Michael M. Cohen

October 21, 2022

Was the world created out of nothing or from pre-existing matter?

Like the opening notes of a symphony, the first line of the Torah, “Be’resheet bara elohim et ha’shamayim ve’et ha’aretz,” creates a signature for the underlying tune that will compose the rest of the Torah.

Commenting on those words, Rabbi Art Green teaches: The “readers/hearers of Genesis 1... know of another account of creation [from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures], one of conflict, slaughter and victory, ‘the survival of the fittest’ among the gods. What is striking about this account is precisely the absence of those elements of conflict: Genesis 1 offers a purely harmonistic version of the origin of creatures, one where everything has its place as the willed creation of the single Deity and all conflict has mysteriously been forgotten.”

What a marvelous basis and start for our world – the Torah seems to say harmony without conflict is its cornerstone. And yet, those very first words of the Torah come with a disagreement. To put it simply, there is a dispute about what those first words of the Torah actually mean. Should they be understood as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth”?

The difference is subtle but vast in implications. The problem arises from a number of Hebrew grammatical rules that crash into each other, making a clear translation complicated. Those different translations in turn change our understanding of a key theological concept – was the world created ex nihilo/out of nothing or from pre-existing matter? The first translation, as understood by Rabban Gamliel, Saadya Gaon and Nahmanides, favors ex nihilo, while the latter, as understood by Philo, Ibn Ezra and Gersonides, favors from pre-existing matter. 

The question of ex nihilo goes to the heart of God’s relationship to the worldand, by extension, us. If God created the world ex nihilo, then it says God is “the cause of all that exists” (Maimonides’s “Thirteen Principles of Faith”) and has sovereignty over everything. The Kabbalists will extend that belief to say, “The essence of divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists. Since it causes everything to be, no thing can live by anything else” (Moses Cordovero, Shi’ur Qomah, 206b). 

While on the other hand, those who hold that the world was created from pre-existing matter elevate that matter and, by extension, human beings – allowing, for example, humanism to emerge as an existential understanding of who we are.  

It was perhaps best said by Rashi: “This verse says nothing, but darshani/clarify me!” (Genesis 1:1). That is to say, the opening line of the Torah is not clear, and it demands that we struggle to understand to the best of our abilities. That opening verse, by not being clear, sets the stage for our timeless wrestling with the text. 

Related, there is the question of why did the Torah start with the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and not alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are many answers to this question. Rabbi Danielle Stillman teaches, “Remembering that we read Hebrew from right to left, if you look at the bet, you will see that it is closed on the top, bottom, and right side, but the side that is facing left — toward the rest of the Torah text, is open. The interpretation of this visual effect is that one is moving forward with the words of the Torah.” And the way we move forward is by encountering a multiplicity of analysis and meaning – the minimum of multiplicity is two, as symbolized by the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The beginning of the Torah contains another profound conflict as well. The first and second chapters of the Book of Genesis present two vastly different creation stories side by side. They each contain different names of God, different orders of the creation story, different descriptions of God’s actions and the words used to describe how God creates, and diametrically distinctive explanations of the human relationship to the environment.

Some look at these differences and see four different authors throughout the Torah whose different versions were woven together by a redactor sometime in the fifth century BCE. Others, such as Rav Soloveitchik, who believe in the sole authorship by Moses of the Torah, see those differences but come to a different conclusion. For the Rav, those two accounts of creation can be understood as typologies of different aspects of what it means to be a human being – what he describes as homo actus and homo passum, aggressive and passive human, with far-reaching implications for self-understanding.

All of these conflicts within the text point to a paradox of self-contradictions expressing truth. The Latin roots “para” means “beyond,” and “dox” means “opinion” or “thought.” That is to say, paradox is something beyond opinion or thought, something that is beyond explanation. “Paradox” has the same ending as “orthodox.” “Ortho,” “correct,” combined with the suffix “dox” gives us the word “orthodox,” which means correct thought or the correct way to think about things. We usually associate the word “orthodox” with religion, such as an Orthodox Jew, a Jew who thinks in the correct way. This then implies that those Jews who are not Orthodox do not think in the correct way.

One could argue that we should not aspire to be Orthodox Jews or, for that matter, Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews but rather to be Paradox Jews. To be a Jew (or any religious person, for that matter) is to understand that we cannot explain everything. To be religious is in part to search for meaning and understanding while at the same time know that may not always be possible.

It is only when we have such an understanding that we can then embrace the paradox, the mysterious, by not relying on the immutable and not turn the tablets, the land, the nation, the mitzvot, denominations, into idols. As we have seen, the Torah opens with a contradiction of harmony and conflict. Conflict cannot be avoided in our lives and the world – our challenge is how do we address conflict. Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that in string and percussion instruments, the music arises out of the tension in the string and the drum. The opening of the Torah reminds us of the need, when possible, to harmonize the different voices of conflict. 


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