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rabbi michael m cohen
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 Nitzavim-Vayeilech

Finite, yet far-reaching

 

Michael M. Cohen

September 8, 2023

This week’s double parasha, Nitzavim-Vayelech, opens:


“All of you are standing today in the presence of the Lord your God – your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water.


“You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.


“I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God, but also with those who are not here today” (Deut. 29:9-14).


The final paragraph refers to future generations, the generations that follow and our eternal responsibilities toward them. It is an orientation that oversteps time, like God’s name, which can be understood as “Is, was, will be” (the tetragrammaton, which is written in a combination of past, present, and future of the verb “to be”).


Having said that, we are more familiar with the past than with the unknown future.


James Baldwin adds, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” When we quote the rabbis of the past, we do it in the present tense – we say, “Rashi says,” even though he lived a thousand years ago. Like Doctor Who, who travels in the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) machine, we go back and forth in our history.


That sentiment is also expressed in the phrase “le’dor va’dor,” meaning “from generation to generation,” found in the Kedusha section of the Amida prayer. Rabbi Reuven Hammer explains, “The Kedusha concludes as it does on weekdays with the proclamation that Israel will speak of God’s holiness forever and will never cease stressing it.”


“Le’dor va’dor” also refers to the chain of connections between the generations, including the transmission of Jewish identity, history, values, ideas, customs, and practices.


That concept of transgenerational wiring is also found in the second parasha of this week, Vayelech, when we read, “Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors’” (Deut. 31:7).


Relatedly, there is the interesting phenomenon of our age with DNA testing to discover our ancestral past – race, ethnicity, geography. There is even a test to see if someone is a kohen, a descendant of the priestly family within the ancient tribe of Levi. This is based on a collection of genetic markers known as the Cohen Modal Hapoltype. This connection to the past, to forebears we have never known, seems to be a uniquely human quest.

SOCIOLOGIST ELISE Boulding adds an engaging perspective on our connection to the past. She talks about the “200-year present” as a way of saying that while we live in the present, we are directly connected to the past and future.


She calls it the 200-year present since most of us know someone who lived 100 years ago, or certainly we know someone who knows someone who lived then. We also know people who will be alive 100 years from now, or we know someone who will know someone who will be alive in 100 years. In Boulding’s eyes, making a human connection to the past and present should help give us a better understanding of the reach of our actions.


We often talk about the Second Temple period, of some 2,000 years ago – which can seem very far away. However, for the sake of argument, if we say a generation is 40 years, we are then talking of only 50 people between now and then, as 40 times 50 equals 2,000.


To take that idea a step further, we invoke our biblical ancestors at the beginning of the Amida. Let’s say they lived approximately 4,000 years ago – that would be 100 people. We can picture that. So next time you say the Amida, imagine your parents, grandparents, etc., 100 people, standing behind you all the way back to Sarah and Abraham. All of a sudden they don’t seem so far away.


Expanding our understanding of the past, present, and future is also about expanding what we feel is close.


Rabbi Joachim Prinz said at the March on Washington, in between folk singer Odetta singing the Gospel song “I’m On My Way,” and immediately before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, Prinz said, “‘Neighbor’ is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of human dignity and integrity.”


In that vein, Boulding also teaches about creating a “global civic community” where people are less defined by nation-states and more by transnational identities such as being a woman, a teenager, one’s religion, one’s work, etc. This, she believed, would help us overcome the walls and differences national identities can often create. At the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, we say “Nature knows no borders.”


Finally, in her expansive mode, Boulding says that in addition to the cognitive/analytic way of thinking, we need to use emotional/affective and intuitive/imaginative methods of thinking.


I will often ask my students to “write a paper” that is an original poem, rap, drawing, song, painting, or photograph, as a reflection on what we have studied together. Those responses repeatedly and powerfully go to the core of what we have learned in ways that transcend words.


The lesson of “but also with those who are not here today” (Deut 29:14) is not only that we should feel connected and concerned for the generations before and after us, but that our finite lives can be understood in more inclusive, far-reaching, and infinite ways.

Parashat Ki Tavo

A verse flowing with many meanings

 

Michael M. Cohen

September 1, 2023

“A land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:15) is the bountiful description of the Land of Israel utilized in numerous places throughout the Torah, including in this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo.


It appears six times in this final book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy (6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3; 31:20), as well as four times in the Book of Exodus (3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3) and four times in the Book of Numbers (13:27; 14:8; 16:13-14). It is also found once in the Book of Leviticus (20:24) and seven times in other books of the Bible (Josh. 5:6; Jer. 11:5; 32:22; Ezek. 20:6, 15).


Biblical scholar Jeffrey Tigay points out that milk and honey, “descriptions of plenty... were regarded as necessary and choice foods. They were offered to guests and given as gifts. In the Song of Songs they are used as metaphors for the sweetness of love” (The JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy, p. 437).


Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna adds that milk and honey symbolize “the land’s fertility... the combination of milk and honey implies that the land supports both agriculture (honey from dates) and pasture (milk from goats)... a plentiful supply presupposes an abundance of goats, which in turn points to ample pasturage and the prospect of plentiful meat, hide, and wool. Honey in the Bible is predominantly the thick sweet syrup (silan) produced from dates. The combination of milk and honey provides a highly nutritious diet” (Etz Hayim, pp. 328-329).


In other words, as tour guide and educator Bill Slott elucidates, “the phrase ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ means all your basic needs will be provided.”


That is why Joshua and Caleb used that description in their positive scouting report of the land (Num. 13:27; 14:8). Ironically, Korah, the demagogue, flipped those words on their head and used them to describe Egypt (Num. 16:13).


The first time the idiom is used in Deuteronomy is in the sentence (Deut. 6:3) immediately before the Shema (Deut. 6:4), the affirmation of a monotheistic understanding of God. Why?


Biblical theologian Melissa Spoelstra reminds us, “The Hebrew word ‘shad’ means ‘breast’ – specifically a woman’s breast. It is the root word for the name of God El Shaddai. His name reveals God as the pourer of life, nourishment, and blessings” (melissaspoelstra.com).


With that insight we can understand that the placement of “a land flowing with milk and honey” adjoining the Shema conveys the perception of God as the ultimate provider.

THE WORDING “a land flowing with milk and honey” is also a component of the First Fruits declaration, which we also learn about in this week’s parasha (Deut. 26:5-10). Rabbi Dalia Marx points out that in the Torah, the proclamation is one of only “two examples where individual, ordinary Israelites (presumably male) are required to recite a liturgical text” (www.thetorah.com). Its liturgy is a concise affirmation of Israelite history said after the first seasonal harvest from the soil.


That same declaration is further used in the Magid section of the Haggadah of Passover. However, there the final verse, which includes, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” is not found. While seemingly an oversight, it fits in with the overriding theme of traditional Haggadot that focus on the Exodus story, but not entry into the Promised Land. This is related to why the fifth cup is called Elijah’s cup and not the fifth cup.


The cups of the Seder are based on the promises found in these verses:


“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord” (Deut. 6:6-8).


There are five promises made here - God will free, deliver, redeem, take, and bring. The first four relate to the Exodus story, while the fifth is about going into the Land of Israel. This led to a debate on whether there should be four or five cups of wine. Four won out, but to hedge our bets, Elijah’s cup, the fifth cup if you will, is placed on the Seder table. Why? Because if a question cannot be answered, tradition has it that Elijah will let us know the correct answer. For the time being, we follow the tradition that the focus of the Seder is the Exodus story and not entrance into the Promised Land, and so the verse “a land flowing with milk and honey” is not included.


While the phrase “Eretz zavat halav u’devash” is often translated as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” a more accurate translation would use “gushing” or “oozing” for the verb. This is because the three-letter root of zavat is zayin-vav-vet, which means to flow, gush, or ooze. This root often refers to an issue from male or female genitals (Lev. 15), the source of potential life. With that insight we can understand our verse to also convey that the land will provide our needs for life.


We are reminded often, when we find the verse “a land gushing/oozing with milk and honey,” that this life-giving provision is conditional on whether we obey God’s commandments to treat the land well.


In the verse before the Shema, we are told: “Obey, O Israel, willingly and faithfully, that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly [in] a land gushing/oozing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, spoke to you” (Deut. 6:3).

Parashat Ki Teitzei

Listening to and learning from nature

 

Michael M. Cohen

August 25, 2023

In this week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei, we read:

 

“When you build a house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” (Deut 22:8)

It is a mitzvah/commandment important for safety - preventing someone from falling off the roof or hindering something from falling off the roof – but also because it models pro-active action and long term thinking. Too often, we engage in the lane of reactive responses and short-term reasoning. While such an approach may seem and feel more comfortable, it ofttimes results in problems and challenges that are harder and more expensive to address.

Maggidah Melisa Carpenter points out roofs in ancient times, “were usually flat and built to bear weight, so people could walk, sit, sleep, and work on them,” and, “the Hebrew Bible mentions using rooftops for private conversations, for sleeping, for storage, and for making sacrifices at altars for other gods. The Talmud also mentions keeping small lambs or goat kids on one’s roof.”

Unlike today, when roofs are often given little thought, during the Biblical period they were important for their multi-usage and so making them safe was essential.

According to Me’am Lo’ez, following the Talmud (Baba Batra 61a), a parapet should be a minimum of 10 handbreadths (about 30 inches/75 centimeters) high, and be strong enough to support a person should they lean on it (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach 11:3).

Rabbi Louis Jacobs adds:

“The Talmud (Baba Kama 15b) records that the second-century teacher, Rabbi Nathan, extended the law of the parapet to prohibit keeping a vicious dog or a precarious ladder in the home. Obviously, it would apply today to the need to keep away from children medicines that could cause them harm or the failure to repair faulty electrical appliances. Another instance would be failing to check the brakes of an automobile.”

In addition to this important directive about pro-active safety practices there is another dimension to our verse (Deut 22:8) that must be examined. While translated as, “if anyone should fall from it,” it literally means, “a fallen who will fall, will fall from it.” The Talmud, in commenting on our verse, states that such a person, “was destined to fall {from that roof} since the six days of Creation.” (Shabbat 32a) The Talmud adds, “the verse calls him fallen” even before he fell since it was predestined.

This all seems to fly in the face of free will. Yeshayahu Leibowitz offers a fascinating approach:

“And one may say that it is just in the formulation of our Sages: ‘this person deserves to fall from the creation” – that we have a hint at a possible explanation. What was determined in the creation? the laws of nature, the causality of nature.”  (Leibowitz, Notes and Remarks on the Weekly Parashah, p. 184)

What a remarkable theological insight. To put it another way, “In the beginning God created Science, and it was good.” That is to say, our world was created by a system of natural laws that we can observe to learn from and inform us how to live our lives. This is related to Daoism. Columbia University historian Irene Bloom taught:

“The basic idea of the Daoists was to enable people to realize that, since human life is really only a small part of a larger process of nature, the only human actions which ultimately make sense are those which are in accord with the flow of Nature — the Dao or the Way. Their sensitivity to the way of Nature prompted them to reject human ideas or standards which might lead to an overly assertive mode of behavior or too strong a commitment to the achievement of worldly goals. For Daoists, such unnatural assertiveness was the root cause of violence and aggression.” 

 

We note that we call Jewish law, halacha, which comes from the three letter root hay-lamed-chaf, meaning “walk.” Namely, Jewish law is translating the 613 mitzvot into action. There is a way, a path, which according to Leibowitz, follows nature.

This brings us back to last week’s commentary on the Climate Crisis and the mitzvah of “Ba’al Tashhit” which commands that undue destruction of the environment and/or products made from the environment (i.e. everything we use) violates the Torah.

We are told to say a minimum of 100 blessings a day (Talmud: Menachot 43b). Many siddurim/prayerbooks give options for those daily blessings – a large number of those blessings have to do with the natural world – oceans, rain, mountains, wonders of nature, beauties of nature, blossoming trees, storms, etc. We say them not only to appreciate them, but also to observe and learn from them --- nature speaks and reveals to us as part of God’s created world.

 

We find another critical lesson from this week’s parasha and verse. Maggidah Melisa Carpenter teaches:

“The Hassidic commentator Dov Baer Friedman interpreted Deuteronomy 22:8 by applying the metaphor of pride before a fall… ‘Make a railing for your upper storey.’ If the verse were referring to a literal house, it would have said: ‘for its upper storey.’  As it is, the upper storey is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride.”

If we have any chance to mitigate the effects of our climate changing which is rapidly becoming more dangerous and deadly for human life, we need to increase our understanding of the torah of the holy natural world we too are a part of. To do that, we need to lessen our human hubris and increase our humility.

Parashat Shoftim

Our home is on loan

 

Michael M. Cohen

August 18, 2023

Infused with messages of the essential importance of the environment, the Torah begins with celebrating diversity (Gen 1:1 – 2:25). The Shabbat commandment of rest (Ex 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15) is understood by the rabbis (Mishna Shabbat 7:2) to mean not to tamper with the environment one day, every week, throughout the year.

In this week’s parasha, Shoftim, we come across one of the most important commandments/mitzvot related to the environment.

“When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls.” (Deut 20:19-20)

“Do not destroy” is “Ba’al Tashhit” in Hebrew, is the name of the mitzvah stating undue destruction of the environment and/or products made from the environment (i.e. everything we use) violates the Torah. That this commandment appears in the context of warfare, when people are often behaving at their worst highlights, even more so, that during times of peace this mitzvah must be followed. Ba’al Tashhit is the Jewish basis of the Three Environmental R’s: Recycle, Reduce, Reuse.

As the Torah represents our finite human attempt to understand the Infinite, it also reflects the complexities of being human. As we have seen with other Torah verses, the Hebrew is open to interpretation. The verse, “Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?” can also be understood as, “for the tree of the field is a human life to employ them in the siege.”

The former interpretation, following Rashi, says since trees are not humans, they should not be impacted by us. The other interpretation, following Ibn Ezra, looks at trees as our food source, and that is why they should be saved. Rashi points to an intrinsic understanding of the value of nature, while Ibn Ezra, is more anthropocentric in orientation. These two viewpoints led to what Eilon Schwartz, Senior Faculty at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, calls maximalist and minimalist approaches to the environment.

Commenting on our verses Schwartz, offers this penetrating insight:

“Although it is clear that even in those sources which have been attributed to a maximalist position there is a strong sense of a hierarchy in which human needs override other considerations, nevertheless in the maximalist position there are other considerations which need to be weighed against the human…From its beginning, tension existed with regard to how to understand the prohibition: whether such a prohibition was to define the world in terms of human use, or whether such a prohibition demanded an evaluation of use that took into account more than human wants.” (Ari Elon, Naomi Hyman, Arthur Waskow, ed. Trees, Earth, and Torah, p. 101-102)

This complex approach echoes what we find in the Garden of Eden when humans were told to, “have dominion over,“ the environment (Gen 1:26), as well as “to cultivate and care for it.” (Gen 2:15) These contrasting attitudes reflect the human reality when it comes to the environment – we cannot escape the fact that all of what we do impacts the environment. Our challenge, our responsibility is to be aware of that footprint, and do whatever we can to limit and reduce it.

 

That commandment, particularly as we read it this summer, the hottest month in recorded history, should be a clarion call to action.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto taught:

“Before the world was created, God alone existed, one and eternal, beyond any boundary, without change or movement, concealed within Godself. When the thought arose in God to bring the world into being, God’s glory became visible. God began to trace the foundations of a world before Godself, and in this way God brought a heaven and earth into being. But when God looked at them, they were not pleasing in Gods sight, so God changed them back into emptiness and void. God split and rent and tore them apart with his two arms, and ruined whole worlds in one moment. One after another, God created a thousand worlds, which preceded this one. And all of them were swept away in the wink of an eye.

“God went on creating worlds and destroying worlds until God created this one and declared, ‘This one pleases me, those did not.’ That is how God created the heaven and the earth as we know it, as it is said, ‘For, behold! I am creating a new heaven and a new earth’” (Isa. 65:17).

We usually read these accounts of other worlds being created and destroyed, and God approving our world with a sense of satisfaction and safety. However, Shapira’s stark commentary, based on several earlier sources (see Zohar Hadash, ed. Daniel Matt, Parashat Be-Reshit, footnote 10,), written during the chaos, violence, and death of the Shoah can also be understood as a cautionary warning – catastrophes (what the word Shoah means) can happen; worlds can be destroyed.

While the world and the Jewish people recreated themselves after World War II, Shapira’s lesson read in the reality of our Climate Crisis should make us pause at this juncture in human history. We should not be so hubris to think God would not destroy this world, like God did with others.

The Climate Crisis is about the physical health and wellbeing of our planet. We correctly relate to this challenge through measurements of substance – the amount of carbon in the air, the temperature of the air, water, and soil, the quality of the air, etc. But there is another dimension to this crisis that we miss --- the Climate Crisis is also a Spiritual Crisis. We have forgotten the inherent holiness of our world; as we treat a house of worship with reverence and care so should we do the same when it comes to the earth. The Psalmist writes, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” (Ps 24:1) Implied within that orientation - our world is on loan from God. When we are given something on loan, we take special care of it; even more so when it comes to this world, on loan from God.

As with what the people did with the prophets of the Bible, we too refuse to listen to the messages conveyed over and over – just last week parts of a Hawaiian tropical island, Maui, burnt. That came on the heels of Canadian fires sending dangerous smoke to the United States, and a 100-year flood event in Vermont which happened again after only 12 years. 

In the tension of dominion over the environment, and its more limited minimalist orientation of Ba’al Tashhit, or the more cultivating and maximalist use of Ba’al Tashhit, it is clear that we need to shift the emphasis towards the latter. If not, we will become another world that will only be remembered in a midrash.

Parashat Re'eh

Nachshon was pushed!

 

Michael M. Cohen

August 11, 2023

Of all the holidays on the Jewish calendar, it is Passover that receives the most attention. We read about it in detail throughout the Book of Exodus (12:1-15; 16:6-8; 23:14-15; 34:18, 25), and there are references to it in Leviticus (23:4-8), Numbers (28:16-25), and in this week’s parasha, Re’eh (Deut. 16:1-8). By “Passover,” we mean the festival that commemorates the exodus from slavery, through the leadership of Moses, in tandem with the will of God.


Within the biblical accounts, we discover a number of elements of the holiday: to be observed in the spring (and therefore the need to establish a calendar to know when to celebrate it); the paschal lamb sacrifice to be roasted and eaten; other sacrificial offerings; the spreading of blood from the lamb on the door posts of one’s house; the eating of unleavened bread for seven days (matzah) and the consumption of bitter herbs with the first meal of the week; eating the meal quickly to escape from slavery; no work to be done on the first and seventh days of the holiday; and to be celebrated throughout the ages.


So important is its message of freedom, that we find references to it throughout the year. When we recite the Shabbat eve and festival Kiddush, we make mention “of the Exodus from Egypt.” This is based on the commandment to keep Shabbat: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deut. 5:15)


In the daily morning and evening liturgy, we reference the Exodus: In the third paragraph after the Shema, we say, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.”


Prior to the Amidah, we repeat the words that were sung by Moses and the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds: “Who is like You, Lord, among the mighty? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, doing wonders?” Parts of this Song of Moses were also chanted by the Levites during the additional mussaf offering on Shabbat while the Temple stood.


That song was sung as a song of thanks for deliverance from slavery once Moses and the Israelites had reached the other side of the Sea of Reeds. We are told, “Moses held out his arm over the sea, and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all the night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground” (Ex. 14:21-22).
 

The midrash (Sotah 37a) offers a different account of what happened when the Children of Israel stood on the shoreline of the Sea of Reeds. Then, no tribe was brave enough to enter into the sea first. Suddenly Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped into the water. Seeing this, Moses stopped praying and raised his staff to part the waters as God had commanded him.


We also know this interesting fact about Nachshon from earlier in the text: “Aaron took to wife Elisheva, daughter of Aminadav and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar” (Ex. 6:23).

THIS IS one version, and there are others (Sotah 36b, Bamidbar Raba 13:4). However, none explain how it happened that Nachshon took that bold step. Simply put, Nachshon was pushed! Picture it: The Children of Israel huddled on the shore, with Pharaoh and the Egyptians in hot pursuit. The people, frightened with nowhere left to go, trapped and sensing their doom, crowded as close as possible to the edge of the water as the Egyptians thundered closer and closer with their mighty chariots.


And then it happened: Nachshon was pushed into the water. It was no one’s fault, and we don’t know who pushed him in. Perhaps he wasn’t even pushed, but rather the force of the people pressing against the shoreline left him no more room, and into the water Nachshon fell.


At that moment, there were several possibilities: Nachshon could have begun to swim back to the shore, or he could have started swimming to the other side, or he could have floundered and begun to drown. One of two things happened. Either, as he began to drown, the people jumped in to save him and once in the water, they continued to the other side. Or Nachshon began to swim toward the other side and when the people saw him succeeding, they followed. In both cases, the sheer force of all the people in the water caused it to part.


We learn a number of lessons from this midrashic incident.


First, this paradigm reflects what sometimes happens in our lives. We are pushed into situations that we do not want to be in. This is what happened to Nachshon when he entered the water. Once we are in a situation not of our choosing, we face the question of what to do next.


The first scenario reminds us that when we find ourselves in circumstances where we feel like we are drowning, there are others who can help us. As we are told, “Israel will be redeemed only when it forms one single band: when all are united, they will receive the presence of the Shechina” (Midrash Tanchuma, Nitzavim).


The second scenario teaches that, even in difficult situations, if we don’t allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by what has happened, we can overcome obstacles or even take advantage of what has happened to us and go, in this case, swim forward.


Like Nachshon, we are the ones who cross over to the other side. Our name, Ivrim (Hebrews), comes from the three-letter root ayin-vet-resh, which means “to cross over.” It is both a name and an existential description of who we are – constantly reaching for new shores, new lands, new realities. But how we get from here to there can be difficult. With our past chasing us and our future on the other side, we sometimes find ourselves pushed into situations that we never imagined. We can get to the opposite shore either by seeking help from others or by digging within for strength and guidance. As it said, “Then the Lord said to Moses. ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward’” (Ex. 14:15). 

Parashat Eikev

True to the text, true to thyself

 

Michael M. Cohen

August 4, 2023

The Amidah opens with a description of God, “The great, mighty and awesome God.” That depiction is a direct quote (Deut 10:17) from this week’s parasha, Eikev. As with many biblical verses used in the siddur, their words are important for the message they convey, as well as the larger context from where they are found within the biblical text, which helps them transmit additional theological beliefs and values. 

 

Having said that, the context of our verse is:

 

“So circumcise the foreskin of your hearts, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God, is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and takes no bribes, providing justice for the orphan and widow, loving the sojourner residing among you, by giving them food and clothing. So you are to love those sojourners, for you yourselves were sojourners in Egypt.

(Deut 10: 16-19) 

 

The location of our verse within the Torah lets us know that we are talking about more than a description of God; we are also being reminded of our loyalty to God, and our responsibility to those with less power within our communities.The latter being one way we show our fidelity to God. Its placement at the beginning of the Amidah reminds us that when we approach God, we also need to be cognizant of our relationships and responsibility to those around us.

 

But there is another profound message and lesson that comes with our verse and why it is positioned at the opening of the Amidah. For that insight we need to turn to a Talmudic discussion:

 

“Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: “Why were they called the Men of the Great Assembly? Because they restored the crown of the divine attributes to its ancient completeness. Moses had come and said, ‘the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.’ (Deut. 10:17) Then Jeremiah came and said, ‘Aliens are carrying-on in God’s temple; where then are God’s awesome deeds?’ Hence [when he prayed, Jeremiah] omitted [the word] ‘awesome’ [saying only] ‘the great and mighty God.’” (Jeremiah 32:18)

(Yoma 69b)

 

Jeremiah changed the words of Moses because he had a different experience of God than Moses did. The Talmud continues with a similar example:

.

“Daniel came and said: ‘Aliens are enslaving God’s children; where are God’s mighty deeds?’ Hence [Daniel] omitted the word ‘mighty’ when he prayed, [saying only] ‘The great and awesome God.’” (Dan. 9:4) 

(Yoma 69b)

 

Like Jeremiah, the prophet Daniel also changed Moses’ words because his familiarity of God was not the same as Moses. Both of these examples model for us that simply mouthing the words of the tradition without believing them is not the correct path. Rather, we should believe what we say, especially to and about God.

 

Be that as it may, the Talmud then takes a different direction: 

 

“But [the Men of the Great Assembly] came and said: “On the contrary, therein lie God’s mighty deeds that God suppresses God’s wrath, that God extends long-suffering to the wicked.” 

(Yoma 69b)

 

They first address Daniel, and in so doing teach a very deep lesson. We usually associate might with the use of power, strength, and force. The rabbis, in this instance, say the opposite! Might can also be expressed by not utilizing one’s power, strength, and force. A baseball team will never win a game by everyone only  trying to hit home runs (long ball). Bunting, sarifices, etc. (small ball) must also be utilized. Having the wisdom to know when a situation calls for one and not the other is the best use of one’s might. The rabbis, knowing how easy it is want to resort to force, go so far as to say:

 

“Who is mighty? One who conquers their passions, as it is said (Prov 16:32): ‘One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and one who rules their spirit (is greater) than one who conquers a city.’” 

(Pirke Avot 4:1)

 

Returning to our Talmudic discussion the rabbis then turn to Jeremiah’s lack of feeling God’s awesomeness:

 

“Therein lie God’s awesome powers, for but for fear of God, how could our nation persist among the nations?’” 

(Yoma 69b)

 

Rabbi David Hartman explains the rabbis thinking of these passages:

 

“They were able to recognize the might and awesomeness of God in His ability to restrain Himself and not wrathfully strike down the oppressors of Israel… they saw their God now manifesting His power through ‘mighty’ patience and ‘awesome’ compassion. With this bold and ingenious reinterpretation, they shifted the focus of the notion of divine power from external victorious power to the inner power of God’s patience with human beings.”

(Hartman, A Living Covenant: The innovative spirit in traditional Judaism, pp.  216-217)

 

The rabbis allow themselves the freedom of, the power if you will, to expand the understanding of what words mean. As Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes, “In the final analysis, the difference between the two positions, that of Jeremiah and Daniel on the one hand and that of the Men of the Great Assembly on the other, comes down to the difference between the literalist and the non-literalist.”

 

Each confronts realities that crash into the words they have been given by Moses. For the literalists the elimination of certain words is how the text remains relevant and true, while for the non-literalists, audacious interpretation is the answer. While different in approaches, the two utilize sincerity and frankness.  Both these approaches, as we have seen, are found within the Tradition, and while the rabbis endorse the more open non-literal position and interpretation of the text they ask: 
 

“But how could sages [i.e. Jeremiah and Daniel] abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Eleazar said: ‘Since they knew that the Holy One, blessed be God, insists on truth, they would not ascribe false things to God.’”

(Yoma 69b)

 

In this closing of this Talmudic discussion, the final word on this matter, which often is the summing up message, the rabbis acknowledge that truth is found through integrity and honesty - the foundation stone of our theological quest. Gazing into the mirror of honesty is not always easy. As Gloria Steinem says, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off!”

 

The Amidah intentionally opens with the biblical verse, “The great, mighty and awesome God,” (Deut 10:17) knowing the full tapestry of biblical and rabbinic insights woven into its words. Wrapped in that tallis of discernment we are then ready to approach God. 

Parashat Va'etchanan

Swimming to our dreams

 

Michael M. Cohen

July 28, 2023

This week’s parasha, Va'etchanan, opens with a plea. Moses’ appeal to God to let him enter the Promised Land along with the Children of Israel. Earlier, after the incident when Moses hit instead of speaking to the rock, God had decreed that he and Aaron would not enter the Promised Land:

“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

(Num 20:12)
 

Aaron died on Mount Hur (Num 20:29) shortly after the incident at the Waters of Meribah, and as our parasha opens Moses and the Israelites were camped just across from the Promised Land near the Jordan River. We read:
 

“I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, ‘O Lord, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.’”

(Deut 3:23-28)
 

The three letter root for va'etchanan/I pleaded is chet-nun-nunsofit, meaning, to show favor, to be gracious towards another. It is related to the Tachanun/Supplication prayers said during the weekday morning and afternoon services. Traditionally, it is recited sitting with one’s head lowered, and face positioned in a bent forearm, as a sign of being overwhelmed by the combination of confession and request before God.

That posture, both literally and figuratively, stands in contrast to Moses. As philosopher and theologian, and the brother of the great Torah commentator Nechama Leibowitz, Yeshayahu Leibowitz points out:
 

“Moses is not aware of the fact that he has sinned, but regards the decree against him as not being justified. When he pleads to God here, he does not ask for forgiveness of his sin, but for the annulment of the decree. And this is depicted in a most dramatic form in many Midrashim, which deal with the great debate between Moses and God regarding God’s decree against him, and his demand that the decree - one which he regards as an injustice toward him - be annulled, and God’s refusal to accede to him.” 

(Y. Leibowitz, Notes and Remarks on the Weekly Parashah, pp. 167-168)
 

Having said that, is there a midrashic approach that can create a different outcome? For that, we turn towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy:
 

“Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: ‘I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the Lord has said to me, “You shall not go across this Jordan.”

(Deut 31:1-2)

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky asks, “Where did he go?” Kamenetsky elaborates, “If he, in fact, was telling the people that he can no longer come and go, then why open the portion with the words, ‘and Moshe [Moses] went?’ If not contradictory, they are superfluous.” In a discussion of this question Adam Koffman, the Director of Vermont.com said, “He snuck across the Jordan River to get a peek into the Promised Land.”
 

What a beautiful thought! Perhaps after crossing the Jordan by himself, Moses sat awhile in the shade of a huge willow trees along the riverbank: I picture him resting peacefully, quiet and satisfied. Maybe he strolled to the oasis of Jericho and plucked some delicious sweet dates from one of her palm trees before returning to the river bank to recline a little longer savoring the moment. A warm wind blew about, but the soft branches of the willow tree cooled the air. The river gurgled at his feet.
 

Could this have happened?
 

We know from the Book of Numbers (20:12) that God specifically told Moses, after he hit the rock at Meribah, that he could not lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land. Only a year after that incident was it likely that Moses would disobey God again? Consider when Moses first disobeyed God by striking the rock he did so in frustration and anger.  His furor at the people had gotten the best of him. But this time his action would be cold and calculated.
 

Let's take a closer look at just what God said to Moses about entering the land of Israel.
 

Immediately after Moses struck the rock God told him, “You shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Num 20:12) A year later, on the last day of Moses’ life when Moses and the children of Israel were camped on the East Bank of the Jordan River, God told Moses three times that he was not to enter the land. Examining these three messages we note important differences and nuances. The first time Moses quoted God as saying, “You are not to cross over this Jordan River!” (Deut 31:2)  God then reiterated the message with a different emphasis, “You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it.” Deut 32:52) Finally, later that same day, God restates, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.” (Deut 34:4)
 

A close examination of these texts reveals a shift in God's message. First he told Moses that he could not lead the people into the land. (Num 20:12) But God said nothing about whether Moses could cross the Jordan by himself. So we can imagine that is exactly what he did early in the morning on the last day of his life, “And Moses went.”(Deut 31:1)
 

How can we say this? Because in the very next line (Deut 31:2) God refined God’s words and told Moses specifically not to cross the Jordan River. In essence, God was saying, “Moses, you must not repeat what you just did.”
 

So we can picture Moses at the beginning of the last day of his life. The greatest of prophets, he knew his end was near. Standing on the east shore of the Jordan River he gazed at the opposite side and recalled God's command that he was not to lead the Israelites across the river. Longing to be able to cross over to the other side, he thought back to what God had said to him: God only spoke of not leading the people across the river, but nothing about Moses crossing the river by himself. With that, Moses swam across the Jordan River. Only when Moses returned, God told him not to cross the river (Deut 31:2) Later in the day God further honed his message telling Moses to not even approach the river bank. He must remain, “at a distance,” (Deut 32:52) so he would not be tempted to go back across the river.
 

God could have been clearer in his original message to Moses, but perhaps God intended this ambiguity, which left room both for Moses to cross the river, and for us to discover a way to imagine Moses crossing the river. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk teaches, “without imagination there is no hope.” And in the end, our imagination, our image, of Moses crossing the Jordan is an image of hope. Hope that our dreams may be fulfilled even in our last days. 

Parashat Devarim

How we approach the land and the other

 

Michael M. Cohen

July 21, 2023

The Book of Deuteronomy/Sefer Devarim is the last of the Five Books of Moses. It consists of a series of long speeches ⏤ sermons, if you will ⏤ by Moses as he recounts all he and the Israelites have experienced in the previous 40 years. His opening words from this week’s parasha, Devarim, speak of the eternal connection of the Israelites to the Promised Land. There he quotes God:
 

“See, I have given the land before you. Come and take hold of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their seed after them.”

(Deut 1:8)

Land and national identity are woven together through much of human history. Dr. Saira Yamin, the Ambassador Swanee Hunt Chair of Women, Peace, and Security at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote in her article,  Understanding Religious Identity and the Causes of Religious Violence:
 

“Groups represent safety, strength, harmony, and familiarity. They fulfill the needs for bonding, identity, cohesiveness, integrity, recognition and security.” 

That is to say: our identities, and we all have many, provide an essential anchor to our existential and human experience, including, as Yamin points out, creating a sense of safety. Which is why, when we feel an identity is challanged or being taken away from us, we naturally feel less secure and therefore threatened.
 

That positive aspect of identity, as a cornerstone for so many fundamental facets of our lives, is countered by a darker side, particularly when it comes to national identity. Referencing Vamik Volkan, the president of the International Dialogue Initiative, Yamin adds:

“Volkan suggests that identification with a large group (such as a religious, ethnic or national one) begins in childhood and each member’s core personal identity is intertwined with the large group identity. Elsewhere, Volkan refers to {Psychology theorist} Erikson’s theory of “pseudospeciation” which reinforces his understanding of large group identity and the development of a group’s sense of superiority over other groups…Erikson hypothesized that each group became convinced that it was the sole possessor of the true human identity. Thus each group became a pseudospecies, adopting an attitude of superiority over other groups.”
 

All nationalisms have that tendency within them. The challenge for all nationalisms is to cultivate an orientation that protects its people while, at the same time, not going overboard in how it treats minorities within its borders and other nations outside its borders. Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and Palestinian nationalism are not immune to such maximalist expressions. The recent events in Jenin remind us that Israelis and Palestinians are stuck in the success of failure, in part fueled by mutual maximalist nationalisms which feed off of each other. An off-ramp is desperately needed. I want to be very clear here. I am not saying that each action by each party is a moral equivalence. But we need to note that maximalist national voices in both camps are feeding from each other in a dance of mutual hopelessness.
 

Commenting on the pasuk above from this week’s parasha, environmental educator Matthew Mauser wrote in “Eco Bible”:
 

“If a person does not live in his or her homeland, if one has no concrete expectation that his or her descendants will be living on the same land, then what reason is there to treat the land properly, to live sustainably, and to ensure that the resources and health of the land will be there for future generations? Human beings are hard-wired with instincts to protect and feed their children. We should feel just as strongly about protecting our land and its health.”

(Eco Bible, ed: Neril & Dee, p. 125)

In many ways, “to protect and feed their children,” is one of the primary goals and functions of any nationalism. But Mauser ties that inclination to our shared environment, which can be a bridge across divides. We are learning that the world is heating up at a faster pace than originally thought when we started to take the Climate Crisis seriously. Three weeks ago in Vermont, air quality was at dangerous levels due to fires in Quebec; last week, devastating once-in-a-century floods returned after only 12 years. And Vermont is only one small spot on earth. We know the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean already faces, and will continue to face, greater and greater extreme environmental challenges. The Climate Crisis will not wait for Israelis and Palestinains to solve their differences.
 

When we look upon the land solely as a geo-political instrument, we see one of the major stumbling blocks to any reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. However, when we view the land from an environmental perspective — which does not know from political borders —  a new framework opens up, and we work with the other out of necessity.  This has been the working model of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) for more than a quarter of a century. At AIES Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Moroccans, and international college students and researchers study and work together on those shared environmental risks. Located on Kibbutz Ketura, the Arava Institute is directed by Dr. Tareq Abu-Hamed, a Palestinian.
 

In recent years it has become common in the United States to begin an event with the following statement:
 

“We would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the occupied/unceded/seized territory of the _________ People.”
 

That approach attempts to address a wrong done in the name of nationalism and prompts an important reckoning for any nationalism. However, it misses a very important point. It comes from a very anthropocentric perspective. If anything, the Global Climate Crisis reminds us that we need to broaden our sense of self and home when it comes both to nationalism and to the environment. At the Arava Institute we say, “Nature Knows No Borders.” This is not a panacea approach that makes political and national differences disappear, but it does allow for different human relationships to emerge, so that differences between all of us have a better chance of being resolved.

Parashat Matot-Masei

The power of daily learning

 

Michael M. Cohen

July 14, 2023

In our double portion this week, Matot-Masei, we find the Israelites near the end of their forty-year journey “in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan (river) near Jericho,” (Num 33:49) waiting to cross back into the Promised Land. The name of the second parasha, Masei, “journeys,” recounts in its opening, chapter 33,  the forty-two places they encamped along the way. (There is a tradition that some Torah scrolls have 42 lines in a column as a constant reminder of that). In both parshiot we are told of the request by the tribes of Reuben and Gad to remain and settle on the other side of the Jordan River in “the lands of Jazer and Gilead” because it “is cattle country and your servants have cattle…do not move us across the Jordan.” (Num 32: 1; 4-5) 

 

In their appeal “to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community” (Num 32:2) the Gadites and Reubenites list specific places in transjordan, “Atarot, Divon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nevo, and Beon.” (Num 32:3) This list is unremarkable on its own but is noted in an interesting discussion in the Talmud:

 

“Rav Huna bar Yehuda said Rabbi Ami said: A person should always complete his (Torah) portions with the congregation.”

(Berachot 8a)

 

The Gemara, the rabbinic discussion, then explains that every week that particular week’s parasha/portion should be studied twice in the original Hebrew as well as with a translation. Related to our verse/passuk from this week,”Atarot, Divon, etc.” (Num 32:3) we are told even that verse needs to be studied twice in the Hebrew as well as in the translation even though the names of the places are the same in both the Hebrew and the translation. The rabbis go onto say that one who follows this weekly practice will be rewarded in that their, “days and years will be extended.”  (Berachot 8a)

 

The 19th century Iraqi commentator Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad understands extended “days” in this case refers to the quality of one’s life, while “years” speaks about longevity.

For our purposes we note the emphasis and importance placed on the study of Torah every week in the home as preparation for hearing the Torah read in synagogue on Shabbat. The Torah, our holy text, has always been a public document of the Jewish people. While the Torah is understood to be from heaven, “It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’  No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deut 30: 12-14)

In fact, the study of Torah is one of the pillars of Judaism. Not only are we supposed to study the full parasha each week multiple times, but embedded within the siddur, the Jewish prayerbook, we find daily study of Torah as part of the daily liturgy.

Rav Soloveitchik comments on the blessing we find in the siddur for the study of Torah: “Barukh atah adonai eloheinu melekh ha’olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu la’asok b’dibrei torah/How full of blessing you are, ETERNAL ONE, our God, majesty of the Universe, who has consecrated us with Your commands, and commanded us to occupy ourselves with the study of Torah.” He notes that the work “to occupy/la’asok” is related to the work “esek” meaning business. That is to say, the words of our Torah study should not be limited to the walls of our homes or the synagogue but should influence and guide us throughout the day.

While there is a vigorous culture of daily study in a large segment of Orthodox Jewish communities, that unfortunately and tragically, cannot be said of most non-Orthodox Jewish communities and individuals. This reality is connected to the trend, as Susie Allen points out, quoting Yale’s Edieal J. Pinker, “50 years from now, the U.S. Jewish community is going to look totally different than you think of it today,” with Orthodox Judaism on the ascent.

This is due to many factors. One, is the strength of daily learning within the Orthodox community which both increases knowledge and reinforces Jewish identity. There are other causes as well when it comes to the diminution of the non-Orthodox Jewish communities: 1) the transference of Jewish life out of the home and into the synagogue {the synagogue was supposed to augment Jewish home life; not replace it}; 2) the non-observance of Shabbat {I do not mean a necessarily halachic Shabbat, but a day that is minimally and consciously a day set aside for the soul to renew itself; 3) the disregard of keeping kosher {it is a reminder throughout the day of one’s identity; as eating a vegan and vegetarian diet clearly is better for our planet, that becomes another way of “keeping kosher.” There are other influences as well, but let’s return to Jewish value of daily study.

There was a time when if one did not understand Hebrew or Yiddish, Jewish learning was limited. That is no longer the case. There are hundreds and hundreds of very accessible books on all aspects of Judaism, not to mention Jewish novels in English. This says nothing of Jewish websites and Jewish podcasts across the Jewish spectrum. Today it is a matter of choice. In the Orthodox world where being “commanded” through the mitzvah system an imperative is established to do mitzvot, including study. In the non-Orthodox Jewish world, we need to strengthen the sense of obligation (at the core what being commanded is about) if we want our non-Orthodox versions of Judaism to flourish going forward.

The goal of daily Jewish learning, it can range from minutes to hours, I present here is not to make everyone a halachic Jew or religious for that matter. Daily learning can also be a practice for secular Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. The goal is to be an informed and more learned Jew. There is joy and wonder through that endeavor. Torah understood as not only the Five Books of Moses and the commentaries on its words, but all Jewish learning – the Mishnah, the Talmud, Jewish philosophers, the paintings of Chagall, the songs of Leonard Cohen.

 

Our great existential motivation and challenge is trying to understand, make sense of, and find meaning and purpose in the world and in our lives. That is to say, the agenda for daily Jewish learning touches the core of what it means to be a Jew as well as a human being. In the finite act of study, we attempt to understand the Infinite. At the same time, we enter a Jewish conversation that began with our biblical ancestors, Abraham and Sarah and carries onto this moment. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, offers insight to this dynamic, “When I pray, I speak to God, when I study, God speaks to me.” 

We read in the Book of Proverbs (3:18) that the Torah, “is a tree of life to those who grasp her/Etz chaim hee l’machazikim bah.” It is a rich metaphor with many messages. One is this. Trees need water to live and survive; when it comes to Torah, she is only watered by our encounter with her – our thoughts, our questions, our insights of her, even our disagreements with her. And we the Jewish people are strengthened in our shared journey by that encounter; and as individuals our lives are enrichened and enlivened.

Parashat Pinchas

God’s and our redemption

 

Michael M. Cohen

July 7, 2023

In last week’s commentary/perush, we learned how the rabbis of the Mishnah, as well as Maimonides, challenged the belief that God created a world where supernatural events occur. Rather, they understood that miraculous supernatural events were pre-programmed within nature at the time of Creation.


With this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we see another commonly held assumption about Judaism challenged; this time by the rabbis of the Talmud. Its theological basis also begins with the first week of Creation. We read: “God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.” (Gen 1:16)


Commenting in the Talmud: “Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi pointed out a contradiction. It is written, ‘And God made the two great lights’ and also written, ‘The greater light... and the lesser light.’ (Chullin 60b)
“Ben Pazi, through a homiletic tool, Midrash, confronted this contradiction and came to an astounding conclusion about God. He continued: ‘When they were first created, the sun and the moon were equally bright. She [the moon] said to the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Master of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?’ He answered, ‘Go then and diminish yourself.’ She said to Him,‘Master of the Universe! Because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller?’ He replied: ‘As compensation, go and rule by day and by night.’” (Chullin 60b)


Talmud scholar Ilana Kurshan notes:


“God responds by trying to appease the moon and detract from the severity of her punishment. He tells her that she may rule not just at night, but also alongside the sun in the daytime – presumably in an attempt to restore some semblance of Egalitarianism.
“Unlike the sun, which never shines at night, the moon can be found in the sky at various hours of both night and day, depending on the time of the month. The moon is thus granted more ‘sky-time,’ in spite of her diminished size. But the moon remains disgruntled. As a lesser light, she will always be eclipsed by the sun’s radiance.”


The Talmud continues:


“She said to Him, ‘But what is the value of this? Of what use is a candle in broad daylight?’ He replied, ‘Go. Israel shall count the days and the years with you.’ [Jewish months are determined by the crescent new moon]. She said to Him,‘But it is impossible to do without the sun for the counting of the seasons [the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar, and also needs the sun to keep certain holidays at their correct season], as it is written, ‘And let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.’ (Gen 1:14)


“ He said to her, ‘Go. The righteous shall be named after you as we find, Ya’acov the Small (Amos 7:2), Shmuel the Small (Jewish scholar of the 1st Century CE), David the Small (I Shmuel 17:14).’”
On seeing that the moon would not be comforted, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.” (Chullin 60b)


We are taught, “As for God, God’s way is perfect: The Lord’s word is flawless.” (2 Samuel 22:31) Yet here we are told God desires atonement for doing something wrong! This is based on an interpretation of a sentence from this week’s parasha where la’donoi can be read “to the Lord,” or “for the Lord,” providing an opening for:


“Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish when he declared: ‘Why is it that the he-goat offered on the new moon is distinguished in that there is written concerning it ‘For the Lord’ (see Bamidbar 28:15)? Because the Holy One, blessed be God, said: ‘Let this he-goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.’” (Chullin 60b)


What do we do with this astounding understanding of God? Rabbi Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz suggest:


“Perhaps they were also attacking the philosophy of Dualism which was prevalent in the ancient world. Dualism held that there were two great equal forces in the universe, the power of light, or goodness, and the power of darkness, or evil…
“Consequently, the adherents of Dualism believed that conflict was at the heart of all existence and were never quite sure which power to turn to for help. The Rabbis rejected this notion. They believed that there was but one God, one King to wear the crown, one authority to go with our prayers. This meant that unity, not divisiveness, was the central principle of existence.” (Swimming in the Sea of Talmud, pp. 287-288)


We are reminded of this Rabbinic approach, at Barrechu, in the daily liturgy when we thank God, “who forms light and creates darkness, maker of peace and creating everything.”
This prayer is based on, “I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)

RABBI RON AIGEN in his insightful siddur Hadesh Yameinu (Renew Our Days), explains why we do not use these jarring words directly from Isaiah:


“The original appears to be an attack on the Zoroastrian belief in two godly powers, one of light and goodness, and the other darkness and evil. The rabbi who composed this prayer presumably no longer needed to combat that ancient Persian belief. The rabbis explain that they were uncomfortable in attributing to God the quality of evil, and therefore permitted themselves to quote Scripture euphemistically.” (Talmud, Berkhot 11b). (Hadesh Yameinu, p. 149)


Ilana Kurshan takes the theme of equality within the Midrash and expands it to the relationships between men and women:


“In the beginning, according to God’s original plan, there were two who ruled alongside one another. And someday this egalitarian ideal will be restored, as per Isaiah’s prophetic vision of a time when ‘the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun.’ (Isaiah 30:26).
“As we traditionally recite each month in the Kabbalistic prayer known as Kiddush Levana/Sanctification of the Moon, ‘May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my father, to readjust the deficiency of the moon, so it may no longer be reduced in size; may the light of the moon be again like the light of the sun.’”


Underscoring our Midrash is the strong monotheistic Jewish conviction against believing in two separate powers in the world – good and evil. That theology of interconnectedness becomes the cornerstone of a perception and orientation of responsibility toward this world, the people, and the planet. As we glance across the headlines – too many filled with hate, violence, debasement of the other, and the quick dismissal of those we may disagree with – it can appear as though there actually are two separate forces in the world; benevolent and malevolent.

 

Judaism and many theologies are correct in their understanding of, and their charge for us to see and experience God as the “All-Encompassing Life Force,” which permeates the world, and ideally, all our encounters. When we turn our backs on that reality, it often is encased in hearts that have hardened and necks that have become stiff, making it easy to appear as though two very different forces are at play. The implied message of the Midrash we have examined is that if God needs atonement, then even more, so do we. As Martin Buber teaches in his book, Good and Evil (p. 64), “The struggle must begin within one’s own soul.” Within that self-evaluation and self-examination is the imperative to increase our cultivation of what Congresswoman Becca Balint calls “courage and kindness.”

Parashat Balak

Does God perform supernatural acts?

 

Michael M. Cohen

June 29, 2023

We read in an extraordinary Mishnah (Pirke Avot 5:6) that 10 things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight: “the mouth of the earth, which swallowed up Korah and his followers (Num. 16:32); the mouth of the well that accompanied the Children of Israel in the desert known as Miriam’s Well (Num 20:1-2); the mouth of the donkey that spoke to Bilam in this week’s parasha (Num 22:22-35); the rainbow at the end of the Flood (Gen 9:13); the manna that fed the Children of Israel in the desert (Ex 16:15); the staff of Moses (Ex 4:17); the shamir – a stone-cutting worm used on the stones selected for building the Temple (Gittin 68a); the letters of the 10 Commandments and the tablets of the 10 Commandments (both in Ex 32:16); and the shape of those letters (Maimonides).


Remarkable for a number of reasons, the Mishnah in Pirke Avot (5:6) raises questions. Why were these items created at twilight at the end of the first workweek of Creation – why then and not at another time? Why these 10? Why are they presented in this particular order? Why reframe supernatural phenomena as natural?


According to this Mishnah, God created these 10 items during the very last possible moments before the first Shabbat. Were they created then because they were the most important – the pinnacle of Creation? Or were they created as an afterthought? Perhaps their last-minute creation reflects God’s own ambivalence with the concept of creating a world with supernatural elements and possibilities. Concerning revelation, we learn that, “Rabbi Aha said: ‘One can learn from God, when God was about to teach the Torah to Israel, God went over it four or five times before saying it to Israel,’” (Exodus Rabbah 40:1).
 

As any teacher knows, teaching methods frequently require tweaking how something is taught. When it comes to creating, adjusting is often also required. We can imagine God going back and forth saying, “Will this world I am creating have supernatural DNA or natural DNA?” At the last minute, according to the Mishna, God decided on natural DNA.


For Maimonides: “They do not believe that God’s will is renewed time after time, but at the very creation it was put into the nature of things to do all that they will do, whether it be a constant performance which is nature, or only rare occurrences which is a miracle and so they say it was put into the earth on the sixth day that it would split beneath Korach and his congregation…For example, on the second when the waters were divided, it was put into their nature that the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds) would split for Moshe… and so too all the other miracles, besides for these 10 which were put into nature at dusk.” (Perush HaMishnah Avot 5:6)


Rabbi Hyman Goldin summarizes by stating that this radical Mishna teaches that supernatural events or miracles “were really not supernatural. They were special creations made by God at the Creation, which were to take place at the time needed in the future and are therefore a part of the natural course of events.” (Goldin, Ethics of the Fathers, p. 77)


The order of the 10 items mentioned above is harder to understand; and groupings appear. The first three begin with the same word in Hebrew, pe (“mouth”) and follow the chronological order (Num 16:32; Num 20:1-2; Num 22:22-35) of three successive parshiot – Korah, Hukkat and this week’s Balak. The next two events have to do with preserving life and dealing with safety and food. The rainbow is placed in the sky as a sign, “so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh,” (Gen 9:15) and the manna is food, “God has given you to eat.” (Ex 16:15) The final five items mentioned have to do with Moses, the Temple and the 10 Commandments – the creation and establishment of the religion of Israel.
 

And why these 10 specifically? In his in depth analysis of our Mishnah, Asher Benzion Buchman suggests in his article, “Completing Creation,” in Hakirah: the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, Vol 11 (p. 114-115) that “The things created at dusk are not merely the ability for natural objects to depart from nature, but the ability for humans to change and to create change… their existence will enable the goal of Creation to be reached.” Some, he writes, “represent beliefs that it is necessary for Israel to accept and others are functions within nature that make Israel’s existence possible.”
 

Why at twilight? The term for twilight is bein hashmashot, literally meaning “between the two suns.” This refers to the time between when we experience the light of the sun (day time) and when we experience the sunlight reflecting off the moon (night time). For the rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 34b), twilight is “a period of uncertainty. It is uncertain whether it consists of both day and night, it is uncertain whether it is completely day, and it is uncertain whether it is completely night.”


Perhaps this period of the day that is hard to define, to understand exactly, reflects an aspect of the human encounter with the Divine. That is to say, an event can be understood as being supernatural by some, while natural by others. Rabbi Mordechi Kaplan’s book, Judaism Without Supernaturalism, certainly falls in with the latter school of thought. All of this begs the question of a core fundamental difference between “supernatural” and “natural” perceptions of events; the difference in believing whether or not the laws of nature can be suspended.


On another level, within that distinction lies the profound theological contrast of understanding our relationship with God as immanent or transcendent. Theologian Karen Armstrong teaches in her book Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World, that a belief “in a supernatural God” is a belief in a God “in the distant heavens,” rather than the nearer God as, “the mysterious, ineffable force that governs the natural world.” 


In that light we can see that the choice between a belief in a supernatural God or a God who does not change the laws of nature at God’s whim, contains within it the great theological question: Is God transcendent and far away or immanent and close by?


It is clear that the rabbis of our Mishna prefer a God who is more imminent, like a close friend. And so we find reference in the Book of Isaiah (41:8) of God speaking to the “seed of Abraham, My friend.”

Parashat Chukat

Erecting memories

 

Michael M. Cohen

June 22, 2023

In this week’s Parasha Chukat, Moses loses his two siblings, Miriam and Aaron: “In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.” (Num 20:1)


“Moses did as the Lord commanded: They went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses removed Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar. And Aaron died there on top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, and when the whole community learned that Aaron had died, all the Israelites mourned for him for thirty days.” (Num 20: 27-29)


Two differences are noted. Aaron’s death was anticipated and so we are given more information, while Miriam’s death appeared to be sudden and hence less information. In addition, there is a glaring difference between how the people reacted to their deaths. Miriam dies and is buried, while Aaron is mourned for 30 days.


Responding to those discrepancies, Cantor Kathryn Wolfe Sebo writes: 

 

“Why the extreme differences in mourning these two leaders? Did Moses regret not properly mourning Miriam’s death? Perhaps striking the rock was an expression of frustration and sadness at the death of his sister rather than a lack of faith in God. (Shortly after Miriam’s death is the incident of Moses’ striking the rock instead of talking to it as God had commanded him (Num 20:8)) Miriam, Moses and Aaron are partners in this epic journey of wandering and discovery.


“As Moses stands at the rock, ready to strike, perhaps he recalls the sister who guarded him as he drifted through the Nile and who co-led with him in the desert. The extensive mourning for Aaron may be an expression of regret by Moses for not publicly recognizing Miriam’s death. Like Moses, may we all continue to learn from those mistakes, which touch hearts most deeply.”


Rabbi Miriam Berger adds:

 

 “However, perhaps it’s the mourning of Miriam to which we should all aspire. Immediately her loss is expressed by her absence in people’s lives. Torah expresses it as ‘thirst’. She was a leader who nourished people and her absence made them feel lacking in life-giving waters. When we mourn, recognizing the legacy someone leaves and the absence felt in our lives is showing greater respect than all the public displays of grief ever could.”


Rabbi Berger is referencing the line immediately following the death of Miriam which states, “Now there was no water for the community.” (Num 20:2) Connecting those two moments, one right after the other, led to the idea of Miriam’s Well which accompanied the Children of Israel: “When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is stated: ‘And Miriam died there’ (Numbers 20:1), and it says thereafter: ‘And there was no water for the congregation (Numbers 20:2).” (Ta’anit 9a)


“The well of Miriam which traveled with the Israelites through the desert during all those years… became the Israelites’ constant companion at least until the death of Miriam.” (Rabbeinu Bahya, Exodus 17:6:1)


“It [the well] resembled a rock the size of a beehive, from which, as out of a narrow-necked jug, water coming out in a trickle shot high up in the air like a geyser. The well rolled up mountains with [the people of] Israel and went down into valleys with them. Indeed, whenever Israel encamped, the well rested close by on an elevated spot opposite the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (Tosefta Sukkah 3:11–13; Numbers Rabbah 1:2)

THE 30 DAYS of mourning for Aaron here and the 30 days of mourning for Moses (Deut 34:8) are the basis for shloshim, the first 30 days immediately after burial. During this period, certain mourning practices are observed, including the first week of mourning called shivah, which contains additional mourning etiquette. In Israel, the gravestone is usually dedicated on the 30th day.


Rabbi Yaakov Goldstein points out there are many customs surrounding when that is done: “Various customs exist regarding when the matzevah [headstone] is to be erected. Some hold it is to be done immediately after the completion of shiva. Others hold it is to be done at the completion of shloshim. Others hold it is to be done after the first 12 months. Practically, the Chabad custom is to erect the matzevah on the 8th day after the burial, which is the day after Shiva.”


We learn to erect a headstone/matzevah from this earlier passage in the Torah: “Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath – now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day.” (Gen 35:19-20)


At the end of the day, we gently cover a child with blankets as we tuck them in. At the end of a person’s life, the last act we do for them, the last act of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness) is to cover their coffin with the soil of Mother Earth.


Sometime in the night, we go back into the child’s room and check that all is in place as we rearrange their pillow and blankets. Sometime after a person has died, we return to their grave to unveil their tombstone – the pillow of their grave.


As at the funeral, memories about the person who has died are often shared as part of the unveiling ceremony. This passage from The Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe can be used as a guide giving us perspective:


“The words are the same as the Sunday School teacher might use, but the feeling behind them is different, and that makes the difference. Therefore they express what Dostoevsky wanted them to.


“Alyosha tells the children that we must love one another, and we believe him. He tells them never to forget their comrade who has died, to try to remember all the countless good and generous acts of his life, his love for his father, his courage and his devotion.


“Then Alyosha tells the children that the most important thing in life, the thing that will expiate our sins, pardon all our mistakes and errors, make our lives prevail, is to have a good memory of someone. And these simple words move us more than the most elaborate rhetoric could do, because suddenly we know we have been told something true and everlasting about life.”
 

Like a well located under the shade of palm trees in a desert oasis, our good memories of someone from our lives can be refreshing and life sustaining.

Parashat Korah

His children did not die

 

Michael M. Cohen

June 15, 2023


The opening of this week’s parasha, Korah, is stunning:


“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth  – descendants of Reuben – to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’” (Num. 16:1-3).


In the Torah no word or phrase is considered superfluous. Why are we given so much genealogical information about Korah and Dathan?


In this case, within the question lies the answer. We learn that Korah is a first cousin of Moses and Aaron; Kohath is their grandfather. We are also told that Dathan is from the tribe of Reuben, the firstborn of the patriarch Jacob and matriarch Leah. Reuben and his descendants, through primogeniture, should have been the leaders of the Children of Israel, but they were replaced by the tribe of Levi. (Later they will be pushed aside by the tribe of Judah when it comes to the monarchy; this is foreshadowed with Judah’s rise at the end of the Joseph cycle in the Book of Genesis.)


That is to say, both Korah and Dathan had very personal motives behind their objection to the power of Moses and Aaron. Rabbi Jonathan Kligler explains:


“As always, the demagogue mines a kernel of truth, which is what gives his argument momentum. Moses does possess great authority; Aaron does receive the best cuts of meat. They are privileged. But Korah also ignores the greater truth: Moses has never governed for his own enrichment. He carries the burden of leadership without fanfare, just as his brother, Aaron, carries the sins of the entire people on his shoulders when he seeks God’s forgiveness. Aaron and Moses serve a higher purpose and resist the aggrandizing temptations of power. But Korah, despite his compelling rhetoric and populist appeals, serves no one but himself” (rabbijonathankligler.com).


In the case of Korah and Dathan, as with many demagogues, they are eventually swallowed up by what they sow:


“The ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community” (Num. 16: 31-33).


Boston College political scientist Solomon Stevens writes:


“Demagogues are dangerous for the very reason that they draw their strength from the fears and passions of the very people they aspire to lead. Demagogues understand the psychic needs of the people and play on them for their own benefit, but the people... unwisely support demagogues, not seeing that they don’t really care about them at all” (https://insidesources.com).


Korah and Dathan played off the fears of the Israelites. It is not surprising that they attempted their coup shortly after the report of the spies. We read in last week’s parasha: “The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron” (Num. 14:1-2). That is to say, the conditions were ripe for Korah and Dathan to make their move.


Harvard University historian Cynthia Koch points out, “Much more alluring in times of uncertainty and despair, are the charms of the demagogue. He (and most of the time, but not always, a demagogue is a he) promises easy solutions to complicated problems using dubious methods. He stirs up people’s passions and fears with exaggerated rhetoric and scapegoating. Slogans, name-calling, and misrepresentation are his stock in trade” (fdrfoundation.org/publications/demagogues).


That hyperbolic oratory was exactly what Korah and Dathan used as they cloaked their real motivation and goal by claiming that if all of Israel was holy, how could Moses and Aaron “raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation” as leaders? (Num. 16:3).


Adding another layer, Yeshayahu Leibowitz perceptively understands the verse “The sons of Korah, however, did not die” when the ground swallowed them (Num. 26:11; 16:31) as a cautionary line, warning us that demagogues live in every generation, including our own.


University of Pennsylvania Prof. of Law and Human Rights Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, while speaking about present-day demagogues and populists, offers these insights which are also applicable to our biblical text:


“Populists use half-truths and oversimplification – the two scalpels of the arch propagandist.... Paint half a picture in the mind of an anxious individual.... Prop this picture up by some half-truth here and there and allow the natural prejudice of people to fill in the rest.... Add drama.... The formula is therefore simple: make people, already nervous, feel terrible. Inflame and quench, repeat many times over, until anxiety has been hardened into hatred” (www.ohchr.org).


Offering further observation, Polish historian Adam Aksnowicz, based on Ivan T. Berend’s A Century of Populist Demagogues: Eighteen European Portraits, 1918–2018, explains, “Even though many contemporary demagogues have come from places of personal privilege or have amassed great amounts of wealth, they present themselves as having a finger on the pulse of the common man and empathize with their struggles. This is unlike the established parties and politicians, they claim, who are alienated from ‘the people’”

THE INCIDENT of Korah elicits two comments in the Mishna:


“Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they: the mouth of the earth (that swallowed Korah and his followers), the mouth of the well, the mouth of the donkey, the rainbow, the manna, the staff [of Moses], the shamir, the letters, the writing, and the tablets. And some say: also the demons, the grave of Moses, and the ram of Abraham, our father. And some say: and also tongs, made with tongs” (Pirke Avot 5:6).


“Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure, but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation” (ibid. 5:17).


Is there a way to understand these two mishnayot as complementing each other? The first mishna is quite fascinating, challenging the supernatural aspect of events, saying they were not supernatural but, rather, natural. That is to say, they were naturally programmed during the first week of Creation, similar to how our baby teeth eventually fall out and are replaced by our adult teeth. It appears to be supernatural, but that phenomenon is programmed at conception. That first mishna speaks about something fronting as one thing, in this case supernatural, but that is actually something else, natural. In the same way Korah and all demagogues front as speaking for the people, but in reality are for their own personal gain and power. The second mishna reminds us that Korah and other demagogues “will not endure.”


Combining the two mishnayot, we learn a profound truth: At the end of the day, and sometimes it may be a very long day, demagogues are devoured by what they have cast.


Writing about demagogues, Boston University Prof. Loren J. Samons II reminds us, “As Shakespeare’s Cassius noted, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves....” (time.com).


For the sun to rise on that new day, we need to strengthen and frame our disputes “for the sake of heaven.”

Parashat Shelah

The many braids of challah

 

Michael M. Cohen

June 8, 2023

We associate challah as one of the key elements of Shabbat dinner and lunch. It is often braided, but there are traditions to bake it in different shapes for different holidays. In the Torah the word “challah” means “loaf,” as in one of the twelve loaves of bread baked for the sanctuary used as “bread of display” (Lev. 24:5/Ex. 25:30).


In this week’s parasha, Shelah, the word “challah” refers to a loaf set aside from “the first yield of your baking” to be presented to the priests “throughout your generations” (Num. 15:17-21).


A biblical description of this practice is found in the Book of Ezekiel: “You shall further give the first yield of your baking to the priest, that a blessing may rest upon your home” (Ezek. 44:30).


After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the priests no longer functioned as priests and therefore no longer received the first baking. However, since that mitzvah was to exist throughout the ages, the rabbis needed to create a way to continue the mitzvah, even though the Temple was no longer standing and the priests were no longer acting as priests. As the rabbis explain, so the “category of challah should not be forgotten” (Bechorot 27a).


In one of the earliest rabbinic discussions, we are told there are five types of grain considered: “The priest’s share of the dough, wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye” (Mishna Challah 1:1).


If one of those grains is used and the amount of flour is over a tenth of an ephah, one “is obligated in challah” (Eruvin 83b).


This is based on the understanding that an “omer is a tenth of an ephah” (Ex. 16:36). An omer was the amount of manna the Israelites collected daily in the desert. This was also the measure of grain offered in the Temple: “When you come into the land that I am about to give you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring a sheaf/omer, first of your harvest, to the priest” (Lev. 23:10).


It is understood that an omer is approximately 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg.). It is not surprising that these days we find a range of answers when it comes to when challah needs to be taken, as we are dealing with a ritual that has traveled from our distant past. That time has separated us from knowing exact age-old measurements. With that being said, we find a number of different opinions. Some say that challah does not have to be taken for less than 8 cups of unsifted flour, and if one is using between 8 to 12 cups of unsifted flour, challah is taken, but without a blessing. If one is using over 12 cups, around 3.3 pounds of unsifted flour (1.5 kg.), one separates challah with the blessing.

There are variations on these opinions.

 

A question that also needs to be asked is how much challah should be taken. In the Mishna there is a discussion with different answers based on the use of the bread. (Challah 2:6). As Jewish law evolved, the amount needed became kezayit, the size of an olive. Why that size? Rabbi Shlomo Brody explains: “For example, with regard to many commandments involving food, consumption was not considered ‘eating’ unless one ate the equivalent of the size of an olive (kezayit) within a specified period of time.”
 

The procedure today is after kneading the dough, take an olive-size piece of dough and, before detaching it, say: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to separate challah from the dough.” 

 

Then detach the piece of challah and say: “This is challah.”


There is also a tradition to add personal prayers for specific needs and requests at that moment. The piece of dough is then ready to be burned – often by wrapping it in aluminum foil and placing it on the bottom of a preheated oven. There is a minor opinion that says that a piece of dough can be disposed of by putting it in a compost container.


Why burn the piece of dough?


In the Talmud it states: “Rav said: ‘Just as there is a mitzva to burn consecrated items that became ritually impure, so too, there is a mitzva to burn truma/sacred contribution that became ritually impure...’” (Shabbat 25a).


Rabbi Chaim Yeshaya Freeman explains: “During the era of the Temple, and even after its destruction while Jews still observed the laws of ritual impurity and purity, the challah was given as a gift to the kohen, who would eat it in a state of ritual purity. Nowadays, this is not the case, since everyone is assumed to be in a state of ritual impurity. The challah is therefore not given to a kohen, but instead burned (Shulhan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 322:4).”

JUST AS the history of hafrashat (taking) challah has had different chapters in its long existence, we find the same with challah, the bread served on Shabbat. Culinary anthropology writer Lis Susman Karp explains: 

 

“In medieval times, challah was a plain, simple bread. According to Maggie Glezer in A Blessing of Bread, braiding it began in 15th-century Austria and Southern Germany, with Jewish housewives following their non-Jewish counterparts, who plaited the loaves they baked on Sundays. Braids also symbolized the Sabbath bride’s hair, says Prof. Hasia R. Diner, the Paul and Sylvia Steinberg professor of American Jewish history at New York University.... The word ‘challah’ is first mentioned in a 1488 Austrian book, Leket Yosher, but took hold in Poland. In America, berches, the German Ashkenazi potato bread, became known as challah with the additional influx of Eastern European immigrants.”


Renee Rousso Chernin, creator of the website TheKosherChannel.com, has an important insight: “It is interesting to note that the Hebrew root of the word ‘challah’ is ‘hol,’ which means ordinary.... Just as separating challah dough makes the bread edible,” she points out that to make the world holy “requires our involvement in it, and also our separation from it.”


When we take challah, we can be transported to, we touch, an earlier time in our history. We are also reminded that the task of bringing more holiness, to reveal the holiness, in the world and in our lives requires both active engagement and moments of quiet separation.


Baker Dina Bronson of Dina’s Bakery in Manchester, Vermont, who many say makes the best challah they have ever tasted, shares this insight:


“Each Friday, as I make challah, something happens. As I prepare the dough, prayers and Hebrew songs rise unbidden in my mind. I think about the people who will eat this challah. I think about my community. And as I braid each loaf, I count 18 twists in each braid – a little chai with your bread. And as the last loaf is finished, I say ‘Baruch haShem.’ How grateful I am that this act that pleases others helps remind me who I am.”

Parashat Beha'alotcha

‘Yedid Nefesh’: Unpackaging one verse

 

Michael M. Cohen

June 1, 2023

“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman” (Num 12:1).


They were jealous of their brother Moses because of his special relationship with God, as well as his position of leadership. If we thought we had left sibling jealousy behind in the Book of Genesis, it reappears here with its usual destructive force.


They cloaked their charge against Moses with the implication. How could he have his extraordinary rapport with God and be the political leader of the Israelites if he married someone who was not an Israelite? That is to say, they played the dual loyalty nativist card.


One opinion in the Talmud takes a more generous angle: “But is her name Cushite? Zipporah is her name. Rather, just as a Cushite is distinguished by their (dark) skin, so too, Zipporah was distinguished by her actions” (Moed Katan 16b).


Miriam and Aaron continued, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2).


It was well known that God did in fact speak with Miriam and Aaron. Miriam was called a prophetess (Ex 15:20 & Megillah 14a). God also spoke only with Aaron (Lev 10: 8; Num 18:1), and on many occasions God spoke with Aaron and Moses together (Ex 6:13; Lev 15:1; Numbers 20:12; etc.). It is also stated, “Furthermore, did I not assign to you three special tutors, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?” (Numbers Rabbah 2:1).


 “And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all people who were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:2-3).


Of all the moments in the life of Moses, why do we learn about his humility at this point? Why not at the burning bush when he stated he did not want the position of leadership? (Ex 3:11). Or after the incident of the Golden Calf, when Moses offered his life rather than allow God to wipe out the Israelites? (Ex 32:32).


Because in some ways, a personal insult/attack, and in this case by family members, is harder to let go of. In relation to this, we read in Avot deRabbi Natan (41:11), “Condition oneself to tolerate distress, and be forgiving of insults.”


To which the sages in the Talmud (Shabbat 88b) add, “Those who are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in affliction, Scripture says: ‘And they that love God are as the sun going forth in its might’” (Judges 5:31).

AND SUDDENLY the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.


And God said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him, I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Num 12:4-8).


That is to say, while God communicated with Miriam and Aaron, as well as the prophets, Moses was on a different level of contact, communication, and transmission. In the Talmud we are told, “All of the prophets observed through an obscure looking glass (aspaklaria). Moses our master observed through a clear looking glass.” (Yevamot 49b). Rabbi Ismar Schorsch adds to our understanding of this dynamic and connects it into the humility of Moses:


“The glass through which he peered was crystal clear while that of the others was simply not. Rashi’s gloss on the text brings out the paradox in their distinction. ‘The prophets thought they saw God, but really didn’t. Whereas Moses, who had the benefit of a clear glass, knew he never saw God face to face.’ Moses’s humility was a function of his greatness. Penetrating more deeply into the unfathomable mystery of things than anyone before or since, he was more acutely aware of his ignorance. As the Torah relates at Mt. Sinai: ‘Moses approached the thick cloud where God was (Ex 20:18).’”


“Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and God departed” (Num 12:8-9).

SIMILARLY, GOD’S anger would also ignite, in two parshiot from this week, against Korah, a distant relative of Moses also from the tribe of Levi, who, like Miriam and Aaron, was jealous of the position of Moses (Num 16:1-35).


“When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my Lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.’ And Moses cried to the Lord, ‘O God, please heal her – please’” (Num 12:10-13).


Why Miriam? Why leprosy? Why white? Rav Kook comments:


“In fact, the Sages taught that Aaron did not get off scot-free. They understood from the words, ‘God displayed anger against them,’ that Aaron was also disciplined. His punishment, though, was less severe than Miriam’s, since it was his older sister who instigated the verbal attack against Moses. (Miriam’s leading role in the incident is indicated by the fact that she is mentioned first: ‘Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses…’).”


Miriam’s comment that the wife of Moses was from Cush means on some level she was referring to Zipporah’s darker skin color. Miriam’s punishment is therefore about her skin, making her own skin color the opposite of what she had said about Zipporah.


The land of Cush played an important role in the history of ancient Israel. Jennifer Drummond of the Biblical Archaeological Society explains:


“The Kingdom of Cush, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, played an important role in biblical history despite being one of the lesser-known kingdoms. According to 2 Kings 19:9, “Tirhakah, King of Cush” came to the aid of Hezekiah against Sennacherib, king of Assyria, when his forces laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Without such aid, it is hard to imagine that the Kingdom of Judah would have survived. Judah would have likely gone the way of the Kingdom of Israel – spread to the four winds, never to return.”


Kabbalat Shabbat, Friday evening services, begins with the singing of “Yedid Nefesh” (You who love my soul). It was written by Rabbi Eleazar Azikri of the famous and influential Kabbalistic circle of 16th-century Safed.


It speaks of the human soul’s desire to cleave to God. It was placed at the start of the Shabbat liturgy as a reminder that our souls need the remedy of Shabbat so we can return to a healthier relationship with God and, by extension, ourselves and the people we come in contact with.
That is exactly why the words of Moses, the shortest prayer in the entire Bible, from this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha – “O God, please heal her – please/el na refa na lah,” are incorporated into “Yedid Nefesh.”


On one level, it says our souls are sick and need repairing from the pace of the work week. On another level, it is saying remember the context of when Moses said these words – the worst of family dynamics.


As Moses was able to rise above the moment and ask that God heal and not punish Miriam, we must – so we can enter the peace of Shabbat – let go of any acrimony we may have with any family members. In that way, we can have a Shabbat shalom and, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “call the Sabbath a delight/oneg” (Isa 58:13).  

Parashat Nasso

The Priestly Blessing’s many layers

 

Michael M. Cohen

May 25, 2023

‘It mounts by gradual stages from the petition for material blessing and protection to that for Divine favor as a spiritual blessing, and in beautiful climax culminates in the petition for God’s most consummate gift, shalom, peace, the welfare in which all material and spiritual well-being is comprehended.”


So Rabbi Joseph Hertz quotes biblical scholar Emil Kautzsch in describing the sublime words of Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:23-26), from this week’s parasha, Naso.


The simple three-line blessing in Hebrew expands in an ever embracing structure from three to five to seven words:


“May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn to you and give you peace.”


Its words are the oldest of the Torah ever found; Aharon Varady points out, also the earliest artifact of Jewish liturgy we have in physical form, some 500 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls. Israeli archeologist Gabriel Barkay discovered two silver amulets, with parts of the blessing on them, in a burial cave in Jerusalem just below St. Andrews Church and behind the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. There is an extensive explanation of the discovery and its significance at that site. The amulets can be viewed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They date from the late seventh or early sixth century BCE around the time of King Josiah.


Rabbi Reuven Hammer comments on the historical liturgical significance of the Birkat Kohanim:


“The practice of having kohanim recite the blessing in the synagogue is an ancient one. Originally the blessing was a part of the Temple service, but nothing in the Torah restricts it to the Temple site. The Mishna records that it was recited outside of the Temple as well, and tells of certain differences in such cases. In the Temple it was pronounced as one blessing; elsewhere, as three. In the Temple, the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter Name of God) was pronounced; elsewhere, the word ‘Adonai’ was substituted. In the Temple, the priests raised their hands above their heads; elsewhere, only as high as their shoulders. (See Sota 7:6)” (Hammer, Or Hadash, p. 177).


Significantly, this blessing is written in the second person singular – you – while most Jewish liturgy is framed in the first person plural – us. There is the communal concern when we pray as Jews for the larger community we live within, but in the case of blessings there is a shift to our individual needs and hopes. The individual blessings listed in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 are also in the second person singular.


Traditionally, only a male kohen can offer this blessing as part of the Amida section during certain synagogue services (there are different customs based on where in the world one might be, as well as per denomination). Regardless, it is one of the Amida blessings recited silently or in the prayer leader’s repetition of the morning and afternoon Amida (Birkat Kohanim was not pronounced in the evening in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem). In many non-Orthodox circles the Priestly Blessing solely offered by a male kohen is no longer practiced. In the Reconstructionist siddur, we find this alternate:


“Another way to enact the Priestly Blessing is for each congregant to turn to a neighbor and recite the first half of each blessing, while the neighbor responds with the second half of the blessing” (Kol Naneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim, p. 318).


When kohanim recite the blessing, they take their shoes off – an echo of when Moses encountered God at the burning bush: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). In addition, Levites wash the hands of the kohanim before they invoke Birkat Kohanim. This, too, is a reminder of earlier practices:


“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. And you shall put water in it, for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it” (Ex. 30:17-21).


We also read in the Mishna: “Rabbi Yehuda says: Even the high priest lifts his hands above the front plate, as it is stated: ‘And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them’ (Leviticus 9:22)” (Sota 7:6).


And so, after covering their heads with their tallitot, the kohanim raise their hands to bless the congregation. They also move their fingers so they look like the Hebrew letter shin, signifying one of God’s names, Shadai. That hand configuration was made famous by the Star Trek character Spock. Actor Leonard Nemoy explained:


“I still have a vivid memory of the first time I saw the use of the split-fingered hands being extended to the congregation in blessing. There were a group of five or six men facing the congregation and chanting in passionate shouts of a Hebrew benediction.... My dad said, ‘Don’t look.’ I learned later that it is believed that during this prayer the Shechina, the feminine aspect of God, comes into the temple to bless the congregation. The light from this Deity could be very damaging. So we are told to protect ourselves by closing our eyes. I peeked. And when I saw the split-fingered gesture of these men... I was entranced. I learned to do it simply because it seemed so magical. It was probably 25 years later that I introduced that gesture as a Vulcan greeting in Star Trek... It gives me great pleasure since it is, after all, a blessing.”


There is a custom, based on the Birkat Kohanim roles of the kohanim and the Levites, that in Jewish cemeteries an image of the hand symbol is carved on the gravestone of a kohen, and a pitcher on that of a Levi. According to the Talmud (Brachot 55b), if one had a dream and is uncertain about its meaning, then, while the Priestly Blessing is offered in the synagogue, a prayer should be said by the congregant. The Priestly Blessing is also incorporated into the home Friday night ritual. Parents recite its words to their children while placing their hands on their children’s heads. This usually takes place between the lighting of Shabbat candles and the singing of “Shalom Aleichem.” 

 

Rabbi Tamar Fox adds:


“Beyond the weekly blessing on Friday nights, many parents recite this blessing on special occasions, such as at a child’s brit milah or naming ceremony, bar or bat mitzvah, and wedding. Any important milestone in a child’s life, from the first day of school to birthdays, to the day they graduate high school or college, can be appropriately marked with this blessing.”


A shortened variation of Birkat Kohanim is found in Psalm 67: “May God grant us grace and bless us, may God’s face shine upon us” (Ps. 67:2).


We note that it is written in the first person plural, unlike Birkat Kohanim, which is composed in the second person singular. By combining the two sources, we are reminded: I can only be blessed if you are blessed, and you can only be blessed if I am blessed.

Parashat Bamidbar

Prayer sources

 

Michael M. Cohen

May 18, 2023

The second chapter of the Book of Numbers/Sefer Bamidbar opens:


“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying…”
(Num. 2:1)


The midrash comments on the pairing of Moses and Aaron in that sentence from this week’s parasha, Bamidbar:

 

“In 18 passages you find Moses and Aaron placed on an equal footing [when God spoke]. This is related to the 18 benedictions [of the weekday Amidah prayer section]... In 18 passages Moses and Aaron are conjoined; giving a hint for the 18 benedictions, which correspond to the 18 references to the Divine Name occurring in the Shema [Deut. 6:4-9; Deut. 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41] and in ‘A Psalm of David’ [Psalm 29]. The Three Patriarchs, then, introduced the custom of praying three times a day, while Moses and Aaron and from the above mentioned references to the Divine Name we infer 18 benedictions [in the weekday Amidah].”
(Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:1)


In this midrash, the rabbis are looking for a justification why the Amidah, the core prayer of every Jewish prayer service, has 18 parts. They also note we pray three times a day because of the Three Patriarchs. Since the 2nd century CE, after an additional benediction was added to the Amidah, bringing the total to 19 benedictions, the Amidah has continued to be called the “Shemoneh Esrei” (Mishna Berachot 4:3). (On Shabbat and holidays the Amidah has only seven sections.)

 

In another midrash we read:


“Rabbi Hanina said in the name of Rabbi Pinechas, ‘The Patriarchs are mentioned 18 times in the Torah [together], and accordingly the Sages [rabbis of the Mishna, 200 CE, and Talmud, 500 CE,] instituted 18 benedictions in the service.”
(Midrash Rabbah Genesis 69:4)


We find further discussions on this topic in the Talmud:


“Shimon HaPakuli arranged the 18 blessings before Rabban Gamliel in their order in Yavne. Rabbi Yohanan said, and some say that it was taught in a baraita [a teaching from the mishnaic period not included in the Mishna]: 120 elders [the Men of the Great Assembly (approx. 4th century BCE to 1st century CE)] and among them several prophets, established 18 blessings...”
(Megillah 17b)


We see in this overview a number of different answers to the source of the 18 benedictions of the Amidah. We find a question raised as to why we pray three times a day (with the Amidah and its 18 benedictions as its core). In the midrash quoted above we also discover:


“Abraham instituted morning prayer, as it is said, ‘And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood, etc.’ [Gen. 19: 27]... Isaac instituted afternoon prayer, as it is said, ‘And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at eventide’ [Gen. 24:63]... Jacob instituted evening prayer, as it is said, ‘And he came upon the place, etc.’ [Gen 28:11].”

(Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:1)


In this understanding, the Patriarchs are associated with why we pray three times a day. A very similar example of giving credit to Abraham Issac, and Jacob for thrice praying each day is found in Genesis Rabbah 68:9. There we find two additional reasons for the three daily times of prayer:


“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: [the three times we pray correspond to the] three times the day changes. In the evening, a person needs to say ‘may it be Your will, Lord my God, that you will bring me from darkness to light.’ In the morning one needs to say ‘I thank you Lord my God, that you brought me from darkness to light.’ In the afternoon a person needs to say ‘may it be Your will, Lord my God, that just as I merited to see the sun rise, may I merit to see the sun set.’ Another explanation... the rabbis say the prayers were fixed according to the [daily] Tamid sacrifices. The morning prayer according to the morning Tamid offering. The afternoon prayer according to the Tamid of the late afternoon. The evening prayer has no set moment, it was established according to the limbs and fat pieces that were consumed by the fire of the altar.”
(Genesis Rabbah 68:9)


Rabbi Shmuel ties praying three times a day to the natural cycle of the day, while the rabbis link them directly to the daily sacrifice in the Temple. In the discussion of why we pray three times a day we have seen answers that predate the Temple – the Patriarchs and the three natural time periods of the day. We also see an answer that connects the times of prayer to the actual Temple sacrifices themselves.


Returning to the 18 benedictions of the Amidah, there are voices within the tradition that claim the reasons predate the Second Temple, such as the 18 pairings of Moses and Aaron in the Torah (Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:1). There is also the belief that the Men of the Great Assembly “established the 18 blessings” (Megillah 17b) while the Second Temple stood. And there are those that place the answer after the destruction of the Temple by the Sages (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 69:4). What is fascinating is that while some of these explanations place the 18 benedictions originating while the Second Temple stood, there are those that give the answer before or after the Second Temple.

 

This despite the history as explained in Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Rabbi Ismar Elbogen:
“There can be no doubt that the nucleus of this [Amidah] prayer took shape as early as the Second Temple period; it seems likely that the number of benedictions was already eighteen, at least in the practice of most communities, before the ‘formulating’ of this prayer in Yavneh. This view is nearly universally accepted today.”
(Elbogen, p. 37)

 

One way to understand why there are explanations of why we pray three times a day, and why there are 18 benedictions in the Amidah that are not grounded in the Temple, is because once the Temple was destroyed it meant that any justifications associated with the Temple in regards to the daily prayers and the 18 benedictions of the Amidah were weakened. And so to expand the premise of praying three times a day and why there are 18 Amidah benedictions, thinking was broadened.


This is the strength of Judaism – for thousands of years we have confronted the need for adaptability in the face of new realities. One aspect of daily prayer is the renewal/hitchadeshut of the self as we experience the multitude of what the day brings us. Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild points out, “The Hebrew verb le’hitapallel, from which the word for prayer – tefillah – comes, means in essence to work on oneself and to judge oneself. So the language of prayer is reflexive... it is about stepping outside of the normal stream of time and busyness and looking at ourselves in order to decide for ourselves.”

 

Commenting, Dr. Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University writes, "'renewal' refers both to natural/cosmic preocesses and human ones related both to society and the individual, from daily, monthly, yearly, and seasonal cycles of human resilience and renewal."

 

Prayer can help us achieve this hitchadshut as a way to adjust and balance our lives through the course of the day as established by the tradition – evening, morning, and afternoon.

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Higher and higher

 

Michael M. Cohen

May 11, 2023


The two parshiyot we read this week take place on Mount Sinai. Fittingly, the beginning of the first parasha and the end of the second parasha make reference to that portentous location. The first parasha is called Behar, meaning “on the mountain,” while the second parasha, Behukotai, “my laws,” ends with the phrase “behar Sinai,” on Mount Sinai.


We do not know Mount Sinai’s exact location, just as in the case of Moses’s grave. In both cases the tradition downplays their locales so as not to turn them into places of veneration, veneration that could border on the idolatrous.


There are a number of mountains that are believed to possibly be the Mount Sinai we read about in the Torah. One of the most intriguing is Mount Karkom, which reaches a height of 847 meters (2,780 feet) above sea level, located in Israel near the Egyptian border in the southwest Negev Desert, with its ancient cultic sites signifying it has an ancient tradition of being a very holy mountain.


Archaeologist Emmanuel Anati says, “We can say that Mount Karkom has been a sacred mountain for millennia.... No other known sites of the Sinai Peninsula show such evident, intense and rich traces of cult activity.”


However, many people consider Jabal Musa (2,285 m. [7,497 ft.] high), in the southern Sinai Peninsula, to be Mount Sinai. At its base is St. Catherine’s Monastery, built in the sixth century CE, which encloses a bush thought to be the burning bush encountered by Moses. Cecil B. DeMille filmed the revelation scene for his 1956 movie The Ten Commandments there, with Charlton Heston playing the role of Moses.

NOTWITHSTANDING ITS mysterious whereabouts, Mount Sinai is a mountain. Why is that significant? In the spiritual quest, distance and space play their unique roles. Is our experience with God immanent or transcendent?


Dr. Amanda Jenkins explains, “The words ‘transcendent’ and ‘immanent’ often are seen together in theological language. The transcendence of God means that God is outside of humanity’s full experience, perception or grasp. The immanence of God means that he is knowable, perceivable or graspable.”


Mount Sinai can be seen as representing both immanence and transcendence. The top of the mountain is far away, and so in that sense is transcendent, but it is not as far as heaven, and so it is also immanent.


In his brilliant exploration of our relationship to, and role with, the environment, Evan Eisenberg adds insight to the importance of mountains and religious cultures. He writes:


“The two great worldviews I mentioned at the outset belonged to two kinds of civilizations: those of the hilly lands and those of the great river valleys. The first kind typified the Canaanites, the second the Mesopotamians... the hill peoples and the valley peoples had different world-poles. The world-pole is the axis on which the world turns. It is the heart of the world, the source of all life. Nearly every people has a world-pole, but they do not agree on its shape. For the Canaanites, the world-pole was the Mountain: the place sacred to the gods, the font of life-giving water. For the Mesopotamians, it was the Tower: the ziggurat that rose in the midst of the city” (The Ecology of Eden, p. 70).


We note that despite their different cultural orientations, they share the notion that the gods are found by reaching upward. That vertical theology is passed along to, and found in, Judaism from its earliest stages. This is not surprising, as Abraham and Sarah come from, and Jacob, along with Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, spent time in, Mesopotamia (Abraham from Ur [Gen 11:28], Jacob in Padan-aram [Gen 28:6]). In addition, ancient Israel was originally inhabited by the Canaanites (Gen 12:5 - 6).


Responding to this vertex theology, Rabbi Art Green teaches:


“But suppose for a moment that we allowed ourselves to be freed from this upper world-lower world way of thinking.... Some of our greatest philosophers and mystics surely understood that this way of seeing things could well be replaced by one that spoke in terms of ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ rather than ‘upper’ and ‘lower’.... This journey inward would be one that peels off layer after layer of externals, striving ever for the inward truth, rather than one that consists of climbing rung after rung, reaching ever higher and higher. Spiritual growth, in this metaphor, is a matter of uncovering new depths rather than attaining new heights” (Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology, p. 12).


Perhaps inner and outer can also be understood as an echo of immanent and transcendent, close and distant. In that case Mount Sinai as a metaphor can stand for the classic upper-lower worldview, with the peak of Mount Sinai perceived as far away, as well as the inner-outer orientation, since most of us never physically climb Mount Sinai; rather, we attempt to spiritually climb it within ourselves.

Parashat Emor

The many meanings of the Ner Tamid


Michael M. Cohen

May 4, 2023


One of the most recognizable Jewish symbols, used for over 2,000 years, is the menorah from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One of the earliest images we have of the menorah is from the reign of Antigonus II Mattathias, the last Hasmonean king of Judea, who minted coins (40-37 BCE) with images of the menorah. We also find the menorah in the Arch of Titus, built in Rome in 81 CE to celebrate the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the Roman victory over the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE).


In addition, many menorahs can be seen to this day at the Beit She’arim necropolis (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), dating from the second to fourth centuries CE. We also find menorahs used in the elaborate mosaic floors in the synagogues of Hamat Tiberias (fourth century CE), Susya (fifth-sixth century CE), Beth Alfa (sixth century CE) and Beit She’an (fifth-seventh centuries CE).


Utilized during the ensuing centuries in Jewish locations around the world, the menorah was incorporated into the official emblem of the modern State of Israel in 1949.


The menorah mentioned above is the seven-branched candelabrum. Why seven? One answer: seven represents a whole complete unit, like the first week of Creation. The hanukkiah of the holiday of Hanukkah is a nine-branched candelabrum, with its eight candle holders commemorating that eight-day holiday, and the middle holder, the shammash, functioning as a helper candle for lighting those eight candles.


We are first introduced to the menorah in the Book of Exodus (Ex. 25:31-40) as part of the accessories of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) used by the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert. The Mishkan was their sanctuary for the worship of God. It also acted as the blueprint for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.


We read in regard to the menorah in the Tabernacle: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Ex. 27:20).


The Hebrew word for regularly is “tamid.” We get clarification of what regularly means:
“Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Lord [to burn] regularly” (Lev. 24:3-4).


That is to say, regularly/tamid, when it comes to the menorah, means every evening. This raises a question. According to the Etz Hayim commentary (p. 503), Exodus 27:20, quoted above, is the proof text for the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, found above the ark in synagogues around the world. The Ner Tamid in the synagogue is lit all the time, 24/7, while the lights of the menorah in the ancient Temple (Ex. 27:20/Lev 24:2-4) were only lit at night!


How can this be reconciled?


We also learn: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual/tamid fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out” (Lev. 6:5-6).


In this instance, in reference to the fire on the altar, we see “tamid” utilized in the sense of all the time. That is to say, “tamid” has two meanings: it can be understood as perpetual, to never go out (Lev 6:5-6), and as regular, as in every night (Lev 24:2-4/Ex. 27:20).


“Tamid” therefore represents two important cadences: the persistent, nonending; and that which reoccurs. Our breathing comprises these two elements. We breathe our entire lives, but with a signature of inhalations and exhalations.


With this insight we can understand the Ner Tamid of the synagogue holding both of these elements of the word. The Ner Tamid can represent God, Judaism, our connection to the Jewish people as a constant, on the one hand, but on the other it recognizes those relationships can have their own pulse and oscillation.

AN ASTUTE observation on the complexities of the Ner Tamid is made by Hannah Sedletsky:


“The original Ner Tamid was an open flame, a visible pillar of fire, casting heat and light, the engine of combustion generating noise and smoke. The Ner Tamid in our synagogues today is distant from that sensory experience. It is a symbol of a symbol.”


This confusion surrounding the Ner Tamid is also found in Midrash Tanhuma, which relates that Moses had trouble following the instructions from God how to make the menorah:


“Moses still found difficulty with it, and when he came down, he forgot its construction. He went up and said: ‘Master of the Universe, I have forgotten [how to make it]!’ God said to him: ‘Look and make [it]’; God made its form out of fire and showed him its construction. Still, Moses found its construction difficult” (Tanhuma, Beha’alotecha 11, Buber ed.).


We find a similar idea in another midrash: “You see that Moses struggled with the design of the menorah more than with all the other vessels of the Mishkan, until the Holy One Who is Blessed showed him with a finger” (Numbers Rabbah 15:1).


Commenting on this, Rabbi Brad Artson writes: 

 

“Why were those details so impossible to retain? What is the Torah teaching us about human beings and about being human? After all, Moses is able to remember the entire Torah (according to one tradition of how the Torah was recorded), and according to Mishna Avot (1:1) he was able to remember the entire Oral Teaching as well! How could such a skilled and gifted mind have trouble remembering the details of the menorah?


“Perhaps the Torah is telling us that even the most gifted of minds is stronger in some areas and weaker in others. Moses was a great role model for our entire people, yet he, too, was imperfect. Bezalel (as the architect of the Mishkan), who made no great contribution to Jewish law or Jewish literature, was able to make a timeless contribution that was beyond Moses’s abilities.”


The multi-meanings of the word “tamid” – constantly there or a rhythmic pattern – mirrors that multifacetedness of being human. We are reminded of that layered human condition by Moses and Bezalel when it came to creating the menorah of the Mishkan and its command to kindle its “lamps regularly/ner tamid” (Ex. 27:20). The Ner Tamid of the synagogue represents that the vibrancy of the universe, as well as how we experience our lives, comes in an array of perceptions and colors.

Parashat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim
Why holiness matters to society

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 27, 2
023


The first part of our double parasha this week, Aharei Mot, begins by describing many of the rituals that constitute the core practices of Yom Kippur as found in the Torah. Later they were developed and adapted in the Mishna, Talmud, and eventually as the Avoda section of the Mussaf service found in the Mahzor prayer book for that most holy of days within the Jewish calendar.


In all its iterations, the order of expiation has been the individual, originally Aaron in his capacity as the high priest (Lev. 16:6) and then his family (Lev. 16:6), the Sanctuary (Lev. 16:16) and finally the entire community (Lev. 16:21).


That structure reminds us that to effectively change society, we must first begin with ourselves, then our families, followed by the institutions of society and finally the fullness of our body politic.


Woven within the atonements and restorations of the day is the rite of the Azazel – the sending off of a goat into the wilderness, “to carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region” (Lev. 16:22). Symbolically this goat took away the transgressions of the people.
We may ask, “Okay, they were taken away symbolically, but that is only a symbol, so what good was it? Moreover, what meaning can it have for us today?”


Decades ago a congregant knocked on my office door. They were distraught and feeling guilty for something that had happened. They were tangentially responsible at the most. It was close to Rosh Hashanah, when we would do tashlich by the Battenkill River behind the synagogue. I suggested to the congregant that they join us for tashlich, and that as they cast their pieces of bread into the river, they should symbolically imagine their guilt being carried away by the waters of the river. A few weeks later they once again knocked on my office door and informed me that since doing tashlich, they had felt so much better. There can be a profound power in symbols, often when tied to ritual.

AS PART of the Yom Kippur instructions, we are told: “And this shall be to you a law for all time... you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you. For on this day expiation shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord” (Lev. 16:29-30).


In the Mishna (Yoma 8:1), self-denial is defined as being forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on sandals, or to have sexual intercourse. This denial is not for punishment or to inflict suffering, but, rather, to show we have agency. These actions, which we do the rest of the year, affirm life, make our lives more comfortable, and can bring pleasure. In essence, they are all good and can enhance our lives. The latter can create life itself. The charge of Yom Kippur is to show that if we can control those activities for all their positive elements, then for the rest of the year we have the power to curb and overcome yearnings we would be better off avoiding.


Rabbi Dorothy Richman reminds us that self-denial should be limited in how and how often we practice it. Addressing some voices within the tradition that favorably express self-denial as a way of support when others suffer (Ta’anit 11a; Shulhan Aruch, Hilchot Ta’anit, 674:4), she writes (on myjewishlearning.com):


“A hassidic story describes a wealthy man who prides himself on his self-denial. He comes to his rabbi’s home and brags that he eats only bread with salt and drinks only water. The rabbi, horrified, orders the wealthy man to eat rich and nutritious meals and to drink wine. After the rich man leaves, the rabbi’s disciples are puzzled. The rabbi explains, ‘Not until he eats meat will he realize that the poor need bread. As long as he himself eats only bread, he will think the poor can live on stones.’


“It can be tempting to deprive ourselves of pleasure rather than face the challenge of repair. Yet self-denial for the sake of solidarity is a waste of privilege. It is imperative to use our gifts of wealth, education and influence to improve conditions for the poor and powerless.”

AT THE end of the day, the goal for Yom Kippur and every day is to live a holy life. In that light, it is logical that the parasha after Aharei Mot is Kedoshim (holy ones), our second parasha this Shabbat.


We are told at the beginning of the parasha, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). What does it mean to be holy?


Being holy is a state of mind. It is an awareness that floods the soul so that we see, so that we experience, not that everything is God (pantheism), but, rather, that everything, all existence, is within and is an extension of God (panentheism).


When it comes to explaining panentheism, Rav Hillel Rachmani (on etzion.org.il) makes the comparison of a leaf and a tree: the leaf is not the tree, but is a part of the tree.


That interrelated orientation of holiness places all things within a web of mutuality. That is the inner logic for the concentric circles of the Avoda service of Yom Kippur. It creates a dialogue and concern which radiates out and then back between the individual, the family, the structural institutions of society, and the body politic we live in. In the thinking and the words of the Torah, that is the path to living a holy life every day of the year.

Parashat Tazria-Metzora
The Value of Eight

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 20, 2023


We are in the midst of counting the Omer from the second night of Passover for seven full weeks. The first day of the eighth week will be the festival of Shavuot. Last week’s parasha is named Shmini, meaning eighth. In this week’s double parasha of Tazria and Metzora, we read the following:


“On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3).


“On the eighth day that person shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil” (Lev. 14:10).


“On the eighth day of purification, the person shall bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord” (Lev. 14:23).


“On the eighth day he shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and come before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and give them to the priest” (Lev. 15:14).


“On the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 15:28).


The number eight, or rather the “eighth day” during this period of time in the Jewish liturgical calendar, gets a lot of attention and invites us to investigate.


At its core, eight is seven plus one, seven expressing a whole finished period of time – think of the first seven days of Creation. That which follows, represented by the number eight, is the future.


In that light we can understand the reason a brit milah (circumcision) takes place on the eighth day of a young child’s life. During that ceremony we mark the part of the body through which future generations will emerge. In addition, as part of the brit milah ritual, the child is brought into the covenant (brit) of the Jewish people; his future identity and responsibilities are declared at that moment by his family and community.


That declaration parallels the holiday of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. There the Jewish people entered into the covenant with God:


“Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one saying, ‘All the Lord has spoken, we will do!’ And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord” (Ex. 19:7-8).


Shavuot, as mentioned above, is the first day of the eighth week after the counting of seven full weeks from the second night of Passover. That day marks when the people stood at the base of Mount Sinai and entered the covenant for themselves going forward, as well as for all future generations of the Jewish people. And so the symbolism of falling on that number eight, which represents the future, should not be lost on us.


The other verses noted from this week’s double parasha all spotlight a transition from one status to another, with eight highlighting that new future chapter in one’s life.

WHEN WE think of Judaism and the number eight, the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah is often what first comes to mind:


“Then Judas, his brothers, and the entire community of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at the same time each year, beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days” (I Maccabees 4:59).


“Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards and instituted these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name” (Shabbat 21b).


We are usually taught that Hanukkah is eight days because of the story of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days (Shabbat 21b). That, however, is an explanation given by the Rabbis centuries after the events in an attempt to lessen the role of the Maccabees. The Maccabees, known as the Hasmonean dynasty, were some of the most corrupt leaders in Jewish history, in large part because of their exploitation of power when they combined the priesthood and the kingship. They were descendants of Aaron, and so it was logical they became the priests, but they were not descended from the House of King David, and so they should not have also been the kings. That separation of powers is the Jewish version of Lord Acton’s statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” An important lesson then and today.


In fact, Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days as a late celebration of Sukkot. During the war to liberate Jerusalem, the Maccabees could not celebrate the pilgrimage holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem:


“They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot, they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So, carrying lulavim [palm branches]... they offered hymns of praise [perhaps Hallel] to God, who had brought to pass the purification of his own place” (II Maccabees 10:6-7).


In addition, the eight-day dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees parallels the earlier dedication by King Solomon of his Temple in Jerusalem. As Noam Zion points out:


“The connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah (as the Rabbis later called this holiday) goes beyond the accident of a postponed Sukkot celebration. Sukkot is the holiday commemorating not only the wandering of the Jews in the desert in makeshift huts but the end of that trek with the dedication of the First Temple (i.e., the permanent Bayit/Home of God in Jerusalem by King Solomon circa 1000 BCE).”


Zion then quotes from I Kings: “King Solomon gathered every person of Israel in the month of Eitanim (Tishrei) on the holiday (Sukkot) in the seventh month... for God had said, ‘I have built a House for my eternal residence’” (I Kings 8:2).


He concludes, “Thus the Maccabean rededication celebration is appropriately set for eight days in the Temple.” Here we once again see the use of the number eight connected with communal ceremonies setting the stage for the future – the dedication of Solomon’s Temple and the rededication by the Maccabees.


We are told that in the future, the harp of the Messiah will have eight strings:
“Rabbi Yehuda says: The harp in the Temple was of seven strings.... Rabbi Yehuda continues: And in the days of the Messiah, eight strings, as it is stated: ‘For the Leader, on the eighth: A Psalm of David’ (Psalms 12:1)” (Arachin 13b).


Over and over, we see in the Jewish tradition the connection of the number eight to the future. Rabbi Naamah Kelman adds a fascinating insight to this concept: “Knock the number eight (8) on its side and it is a symbol of infinity; eight is sanctified time, endless time.”

Parashat Shmini
Our most important partnership with God

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 13, 2023

 

“And it was on the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel,” opens this week’s parasha, Sh’mini. (Lev 9:1) The Talmud uses this line in a classic multifaceted Talmudic discussion about the word vayhi/and it was in an attempt to determine if the phrase portents woe or joy. After presenting a number of Biblical sentences from the Bible supporting the former, the Gemara, the rabbinic discussion within the Talmud, turns to Biblical sentences that understand vayhi in a more upbeat light. It is in that context we find our verse:

 

“But isn’t it written: ‘And it came to pass/vayhi on the eighth day’ (Leviticus 9:1), {after a week of ordination events for Aaron and his sons as priests; the eighth day marked the dedication of the Tabernacle} And it is taught: On that day {the eighth day} there was joy before the Holy One, Blessed be God, similar to {the joy on the} day on which the heavens and earth were created. {the Gemara then applies a hermeneutical analysis called gezerah shavah/an inference drawn from identical words in two passages to make its point.} It is written here, ‘And it came to pass/vayhi on the eighth day,’ (Leviticus 9:1) and it is written there, ‘And it was/vayhi {evening, and it was} morning, one day.” (Genesis 1:5)

 

(Megillah 10b)

 

Through this analysis the Talmud establishes that vayhi can also indicate joy. For our purposes the connection the Talmud makes between the construction of the Tabernacle, a human event, and the Creation of the Universe, a Godly event, is an association we want to further explore.

 

In her deep and far reaching commentary on the Torah Nehama Leibowitz also notes that similarity. In her close reading of the text she finds “seven parallels between the Creation and the Tabernacle:”

 

Made/make     Genesis 1:7;16;25         Exodus 25:8;10;23;31

Six days          Genesis 20:11                Exodus 24:16

Seventh day    Genesis 20:11                Exodus 24:16;18 

Finished          Genesis 2:1-2                Exodus 39:32; 40:33

Saw                “God saw,”                      “Moses saw”

                       Genesis 1:31                 Exodus 39:43

Behold             Genesis 1:31                 Exodus 39:43

Blessed           “God blessed”               “Moses blessed”

                       Genesis 2:3                    Exodus 39:43

 

Leibowitz then goes on to write:

 

“The Lord created the heaven and earth and all therein, for man to dwell in,

and created them in six days and rested on the seventh day. Similarly, 

Moses was summoned on the seventh day to the cloud to see the pattern

of the Tabernacle that it was his duty to erect, in order to provide a place on

earth for the Divine Presence. It is incumbent on man to imitate his Creator,

His ways and attributes and assume the role of being His partner in Creation.”

 

       (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p.481)

 

There are two profound lessons we can learn from Leibowitz's insight about imitating and being partners with God. This first is that we should see our work during the six days of the week as building a Tabernacle -  building space for God and godliness in our lives and our world. The second, which is brought out by the connection between Creation and the Tabernacle, is that we have been given the critical and deeply holy task to be partners with God in the unfolding and preservation of Creation. 

 

We read in the morning prayers, “You who in your mercy give light to the earth and its inhabitants, and in your goodness do perpetually renew each day Creation's wondrous work.” (Kol Haneshamah, Daily Siddur, p. 68) Living in the shadow of our human mistreatment and exploitation of the environment, divine renewal is not guaranteed because of our individual, communal, national, and global violations and abuse of the world’s climate. To put it another way, we have turned our backs on that partnership with God when it comes to Creation. Just last month United Nations General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador) told the world, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet…Eleven years is all we have ahead of us to change our direction.” 

 

We mentioned above that “Moses blessed,” the Israelites for fulfilling the task God had commanded them when it came to the building of the Tabernacle. (Ex 39:43)  Rashi says that Moses blessed them by saying, “and the work of our hands firmly found for us, and the work of our hands firmly found!” (Ps 90:17) Robert Alter comments that “firmly found” is “strategically important. It is a word used for keeping dynasties or buildings unshaken.”

 

That is our challenge, what we have been commanded to do, when it comes to this third rock from the Sun we all inhabit and call home - ensure it is firmly set so we, all the children of God, and other living creatures and this planet will endure with the viable conditions for life. Writing this month, Environmental prophet and activist Bill McKibben warned and confronted us:

 

“One the face of it, then, we’re still losing this fight. But there are a few new numbers - wild cards, really - that could yet rewrite the end of this story. They cut both ways: Some of this math deepens our predicament, and some of it points to a way out. They’re the new numbers of this past decade, and they’re big enough to stop and take notice.” (Rolling Stone, April 2023, p. 50)

 

As Moses and the Psalmist remind us, that way out lies in our hands.

Passover Shabbat
The freedom of many names

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 6, 2023


Within the special Shabbat morning Torah reading for Passover we read, “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Pessah remain until the morning” (Exodus 34:25). In this verse, the holiday is referred to as Pessah, based on the sentence, “I will pass (ufasachti) over you” (Exodus 12:13). In addition, “pessah” is the name of the lamb sacrificed on the holiday (Numbers 9:2). As with most Jewish holidays, it has more than one name. In this case three more:


• Chag Hamatzot/the Holiday of Unleavened Bread: The name of the flatbread we are commanded to eat during the holiday (Exodus 12:17; Deuteronomy 16:3).


• Chag Ha’aviv/the Spring Holiday: We are told Passover needs to be observed in the spring (Deuteronomy 16:1), though it appears that that specific name does not appear till much later in Jewish history. Spring, the season of rebirth, also parallels the rebirth of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom.


• Zeman Cheyruteinu/the Time of our Freedom: We celebrate the transformation from slavery to freedom (Exodus 13:9). Included within that name is the implication never to take freedom/democracy for granted.


Passover is not the only holiday in Judaism that is called by more than one name:

• Rosh Hashanah/the Head of the Year: There are actually four “new years” in Judaism (Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1). Rosh Hashanah is for the numbering of the years, which is why this year of 5783 began on the first of Tishri. The term, Rosh Hashanah, appears first in Ezekiel 40:1. It is also known as Yom Hadin/Day of Judgment, since we are judged that day by God (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
It is also known as Yom Hazikaron/Day of Remembrance, echoing the phrase from the liturgy, “Remember us for life.” None of these names appear in the Torah. Rather, in the Torah it is established as, “a reminder by (shofar/horn) blasts” (Leviticus 23:24), which leads to its other name, Yom Teruah/Day of Blasting.”


• Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement is derived from the sentence, “But on the 10th day of the seventh month it is the Day of Atonements/kippurim” (Leviticus 23:27). The plural, kippurim, mirrors our prayers, which we say in the plural since in Judaism our concerns are not only for ourselves, but always communal. Yom Kippur is also called a Shabbat Shabbaton (Leviticus 16:31), emphasizing the totality of refraining from work so that we can focus on atonement.


• Sukkot/Festival of the Booths is named for the booths we build for the holiday to commemorate the booths we lived in for the 40 years while in the desert, “in order that future generations may know I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42).


Karin Kloosterman, founder of Green Prophet website, points out that the booths, “came from when the farmers would dwell with their families and eat meals in them to be close to the harvest, in celebration of a job completed.” It is also known as Chag Ha’aseif/the Festival of the Ingathering (of the fall crops) (Exodus 26:16) as well as Chag Leshem/the Festival of God (Leviticus 23:39), or simply Hachag/the Festival (I Kings 8:2). Finally, it is also called, Zeman Simchateynu/the Time of our Joy, since we are told to, “rejoice before Adonai, your God, seven days” (Leviticus 23:40).


•Hanukkah/Dedication (Shabbat 21b) is so named since the Maccabees were able to rededicate the Temple after defeating the Greeks in 164 BCE (I Maccabees 4). It is also called the Festival of Lights (Josephus, Antiquities).


• Tu B’Shvat/literally the “15th of Shevat,” since it falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It is also called Rosh Hashanah Leilanot/New Year of the Trees, (Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1), as it marked the beginning of the fiscal year for trees.

• Shavuot/the Festival of Weeks is how the holiday is termed in Deuteronomy 16:9-12, connecting it to the seven weeks that are counted (known as counting the Omer) from Passover to Shavuot. It is also referred to as Chag Hakatzir/the Harvest Festival (Exodus 23:16) and Chag Habikurim/Festival of the First Fruits (Numbers 28:26), reflecting its agricultural nature.


Finally, it is also known as Zeman Matan Torateynu/the time of the Giving of the Torah, because the rabbis place the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. (Shabbat 86b; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 494:1) That is to say, there is food for the body, the harvest; and the food for the soul, the Torah.

WE HAVE examined seven Jewish holidays and discovered 24 names! Adding to this, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch reminds us, “Judaism is a wellspring that emits an endless profusion of names for God. The Bible contains some 70; rabbinic literature adds another 90 or more, and no one as yet has bothered to tally the number added by Jewish mystics.”


Those different names for God not only reflect God’s divergent qualities, but mirror the divergence of how we as individuals experience and understand God.


The different names for Passover exemplify the multidimensional aspect of the holiday. This reminds us that we are most free as individuals when we acknowledge and allow ourselves to live -- fully -- the different dimensions of who we are. This lesson of being multifaceted, as we have seen, is also carried by the many names of the other Jewish holidays.

Parashat Tzav
Reclaiming the Mitzvot

 

Michael M. Cohen
March
30, 2023

“Vayikra,” the book of the Torah we read during the spring, literally means, “called,” as in its opening verse, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him…” (Lev. 1:1). God’s spoken message throughout the Torah is often framed as a mitzvah, a commandment.
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, means “command.” Our parasha begins, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying...” (Lev. 6:1). It concludes, “And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord had commanded through Moses” (Lev. 8:36).


When most people are commanded, they follow orders. For example, in the army, a commander gives an order to his or her troops, or in baseball the manager sends a signal to the batter, telling her or him, whether to bunt or to hit away. In both cases, individuals usually do what they are told to do. Soldiers and ballplayers know and see who commanded them. They also understand that these authority figures can enforce their orders; if they are not followed, soldiers can be sent to military prison, and ballplayers can be benched, fined or thrown off the team.


But when it comes to the Torah, we do not see the Commander, and many do not connect the consequences of inactions when it comes to not doing mitzvot. This is a great challenge, in particular, for many non-Orthodox Jews. Is there a different framework for engaging with mitzvot?


A Talmudic discussion provides an interesting angle to that question. In the Midrash God held Mount Sinai over our ancestors’ heads and said, “If you accept the Torah, all is well; if not, this mountain will be your burial site” (Shabbat 88a). The Talmud does not lose sight of the coercive element:


“Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: ‘This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.’ Said Raba, ‘Yet even so, they reaccepted it in the days of Ahasuerus (the king from the Purim story in the book of Esther), for it is written, ‘[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon themselves…’ ( Esther 9:27), confirming what they had accepted long before” (Shabbat 88a).


This is a model we should not lose sight of today.


A core value of Judaism is the generational obligations of the generations. Moses said, as the people prepared to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land: “I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today” (Deut. 29:14-15).


Beginning with Joshua and his generation, who entered the Promised Land, the Jewish people felt the need to take on that obligation on their own:


“The people replied to Joshua, ‘No we will serve the Lord!’ And Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have by your own act chosen to serve the Lord.’ ‘Yes, we are witnesses,’ they responded” (Josh. 24:21-22).


However, for many Jews today that process is not so simple. The reconciling of liberty with service, as Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out, is the great question and challenge for a meaningful life. We who cherish freedom sometimes forget that one of the major lessons of the Exodus story is that freedom without responsibilities can lead to a shallower life, and can often develop into new forms of slavery and idolatry.

SO HOW do we, like our ancestors in the Book of Joshua, take on the Torah’s responsibilities?


At the core of being commanded is obligation – in this case, holy obligation. Obligation is the act of binding oneself through social, legal and moral ties. Until the Jewish encounter with modernity within the last two centuries, that sense of duty came from a belief that the Torah was the transmitted word of God. In our day, when many Jews do not share that traditional view of Torah, it becomes imperative to claim a renewed sense of duty and responsibility. In the mitzvah system, while being commanded lies at its heart, at its essence it is about the binding of oneself to that Call as recorded in the Torah and discussed in the Talmud and other Jewish halachic (legal) and philosophical conversations throughout the ages.


We have a vast sea of possibilities that our tradition lays before us. Sincerely examining and deciding, not a simplistic picking and choosing, what our tradition has to offer can be one approach to seriously engaging with the mitzvot – not from the sense of being commanded from above, but from a sense of filling and enhancing our lives through holy obligation.


Relatedly, it should not be lost that the halachic process has never remained static. Some mitzvot have fallen out of favor or have been circumvented through the centuries. For example, the death penalty and the sota ordeal. Other actions, while not commanded in the Torah, have been raised to the level of commandment, such as the lighting of candles for Shabbat and Hanukkah, when we say, “who has commanded us.”


When an action is claimed as a mitzvah, the question is no longer “should I do this?” but, rather, “now that I am bound, if you will, commanded to do it, how shall I do it?” In addition, with many mitzvot, the question, based on the concept of hidur, or adornment of the mitzvah, will also be, “how can I make this action – and in turn my life and the world we live in – more beautiful?”


Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, in his hassidic Torah commentary, Sfat Emet, teaches that when we take upon ourselves a mitzvah, it can be an innovative process, including one of self-transformation:


“Now you shall command” (Ex. 27:20) Bring the mitzvah into the souls of Israel so that they themselves become mitzvot!... it is the remaking (tikkun) of the person that takes place through mitzvot, forming a person into one dedicated to God.... That person... has become a mitzvah. This is the meaning of ‘asher kidshanu bemitzvotav (who has made us holy through God’s commandments) vetzivanu’ – and made us into mitzvot!” (Sfat Emet, Tetzave; The Language of Truth, translated by Arthur Green, p. 124).


Living a Jewish life is about living a life of commitment and service. It is about binding ourselves to certain ideals and actions. It is about leading a commanded life through our response to that Call as expressed in the words “asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu.” The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. talked about living “a committed life.”
For many non-Orthodox Jews, seeing the mitzvot not as literal commandments but as opportunities to take on personal holy obligation can be a way to reframe a deliberate commitment to Judaism, as well as build a deeper sense of purpose within a Jewish context.


The Sfat Emet reminds us that that process can be transformational. By doing so we remodel not only our actions, but also our lives and the people we come into contact with – our families, our communities, the Jewish people and our world.


Holy obligation can reorient the performance of mitzvot as a way to reclaim that profound responsibility that comes with the mitzvot – as well as convey a heightened awareness that we are all connected to and mirrored in the universe and in the Infinite.

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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 Shelah

The many braids of challah

 

Michael M. Cohen

June 8, 2023

We associate challah as one of the key elements of Shabbat dinner and lunch. It is often braided, but there are traditions to bake it in different shapes for different holidays. In the Torah the word “challah” means “loaf,” as in one of the twelve loaves of bread baked for the sanctuary used as “bread of display” (Lev. 24:5/Ex. 25:30).


In this week’s parasha, Shelah, the word “challah” refers to a loaf set aside from “the first yield of your baking” to be presented to the priests “throughout your generations” (Num. 15:17-21).


A biblical description of this practice is found in the Book of Ezekiel: “You shall further give the first yield of your baking to the priest, that a blessing may rest upon your home” (Ezek. 44:30).


After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the priests no longer functioned as priests and therefore no longer received the first baking. However, since that mitzvah was to exist throughout the ages, the rabbis needed to create a way to continue the mitzvah, even though the Temple was no longer standing and the priests were no longer acting as priests. As the rabbis explain, so the “category of challah should not be forgotten” (Bechorot 27a).


In one of the earliest rabbinic discussions, we are told there are five types of grain considered: “The priest’s share of the dough, wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye” (Mishna Challah 1:1).


If one of those grains is used and the amount of flour is over a tenth of an ephah, one “is obligated in challah” (Eruvin 83b).


This is based on the understanding that an “omer is a tenth of an ephah” (Ex. 16:36). An omer was the amount of manna the Israelites collected daily in the desert. This was also the measure of grain offered in the Temple: “When you come into the land that I am about to give you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring a sheaf/omer, first of your harvest, to the priest” (Lev. 23:10).


It is understood that an omer is approximately 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg.). It is not surprising that these days we find a range of answers when it comes to when challah needs to be taken, as we are dealing with a ritual that has traveled from our distant past. That time has separated us from knowing exact age-old measurements. With that being said, we find a number of different opinions. Some say that challah does not have to be taken for less than 8 cups of unsifted flour, and if one is using between 8 to 12 cups of unsifted flour, challah is taken, but without a blessing. If one is using over 12 cups, around 3.3 pounds of unsifted flour (1.5 kg.), one separates challah with the blessing.

There are variations on these opinions.

 

A question that also needs to be asked is how much challah should be taken. In the Mishna there is a discussion with different answers based on the use of the bread. (Challah 2:6). As Jewish law evolved, the amount needed became kezayit, the size of an olive. Why that size? Rabbi Shlomo Brody explains: “For example, with regard to many commandments involving food, consumption was not considered ‘eating’ unless one ate the equivalent of the size of an olive (kezayit) within a specified period of time.”
 

The procedure today is after kneading the dough, take an olive-size piece of dough and, before detaching it, say: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to separate challah from the dough.” 

 

Then detach the piece of challah and say: “This is challah.”


There is also a tradition to add personal prayers for specific needs and requests at that moment. The piece of dough is then ready to be burned – often by wrapping it in aluminum foil and placing it on the bottom of a preheated oven. There is a minor opinion that says that a piece of dough can be disposed of by putting it in a compost container.


Why burn the piece of dough?


In the Talmud it states: “Rav said: ‘Just as there is a mitzva to burn consecrated items that became ritually impure, so too, there is a mitzva to burn truma/sacred contribution that became ritually impure...’” (Shabbat 25a).


Rabbi Chaim Yeshaya Freeman explains: “During the era of the Temple, and even after its destruction while Jews still observed the laws of ritual impurity and purity, the challah was given as a gift to the kohen, who would eat it in a state of ritual purity. Nowadays, this is not the case, since everyone is assumed to be in a state of ritual impurity. The challah is therefore not given to a kohen, but instead burned (Shulhan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 322:4).”

JUST AS the history of hafrashat (taking) challah has had different chapters in its long existence, we find the same with challah, the bread served on Shabbat. Culinary anthropology writer Lis Susman Karp explains: 

 

“In medieval times, challah was a plain, simple bread. According to Maggie Glezer in A Blessing of Bread, braiding it began in 15th-century Austria and Southern Germany, with Jewish housewives following their non-Jewish counterparts, who plaited the loaves they baked on Sundays. Braids also symbolized the Sabbath bride’s hair, says Prof. Hasia R. Diner, the Paul and Sylvia Steinberg professor of American Jewish history at New York University.... The word ‘challah’ is first mentioned in a 1488 Austrian book, Leket Yosher, but took hold in Poland. In America, berches, the German Ashkenazi potato bread, became known as challah with the additional influx of Eastern European immigrants.”


Renee Rousso Chernin, creator of the website TheKosherChannel.com, has an important insight: “It is interesting to note that the Hebrew root of the word ‘challah’ is ‘hol,’ which means ordinary.... Just as separating challah dough makes the bread edible,” she points out that to make the world holy “requires our involvement in it, and also our separation from it.”


When we take challah, we can be transported to, we touch, an earlier time in our history. We are also reminded that the task of bringing more holiness, to reveal the holiness, in the world and in our lives requires both active engagement and moments of quiet separation.


Baker Dina Bronson of Dina’s Bakery in Manchester, Vermont, who many say makes the best challah they have ever tasted, shares this insight:


“Each Friday, as I make challah, something happens. As I prepare the dough, prayers and Hebrew songs rise unbidden in my mind. I think about the people who will eat this challah. I think about my community. And as I braid each loaf, I count 18 twists in each braid – a little chai with your bread. And as the last loaf is finished, I say ‘Baruch haShem.’ How grateful I am that this act that pleases others helps remind me who I am.”

Parashat Beha'alotcha

‘Yedid Nefesh’: Unpackaging one verse

 

Michael M. Cohen

June 1, 2023

“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman” (Num 12:1).


They were jealous of their brother Moses because of his special relationship with God, as well as his position of leadership. If we thought we had left sibling jealousy behind in the Book of Genesis, it reappears here with its usual destructive force.


They cloaked their charge against Moses with the implication. How could he have his extraordinary rapport with God and be the political leader of the Israelites if he married someone who was not an Israelite? That is to say, they played the dual loyalty nativist card.


One opinion in the Talmud takes a more generous angle: “But is her name Cushite? Zipporah is her name. Rather, just as a Cushite is distinguished by their (dark) skin, so too, Zipporah was distinguished by her actions” (Moed Katan 16b).


Miriam and Aaron continued, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2).


It was well known that God did in fact speak with Miriam and Aaron. Miriam was called a prophetess (Ex 15:20 & Megillah 14a). God also spoke only with Aaron (Lev 10: 8; Num 18:1), and on many occasions God spoke with Aaron and Moses together (Ex 6:13; Lev 15:1; Numbers 20:12; etc.). It is also stated, “Furthermore, did I not assign to you three special tutors, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?” (Numbers Rabbah 2:1).


 “And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all people who were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:2-3).


Of all the moments in the life of Moses, why do we learn about his humility at this point? Why not at the burning bush when he stated he did not want the position of leadership? (Ex 3:11). Or after the incident of the Golden Calf, when Moses offered his life rather than allow God to wipe out the Israelites? (Ex 32:32).


Because in some ways, a personal insult/attack, and in this case by family members, is harder to let go of. In relation to this, we read in Avot deRabbi Natan (41:11), “Condition oneself to tolerate distress, and be forgiving of insults.”


To which the sages in the Talmud (Shabbat 88b) add, “Those who are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in affliction, Scripture says: ‘And they that love God are as the sun going forth in its might’” (Judges 5:31).

AND SUDDENLY the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.


And God said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him, I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Num 12:4-8).


That is to say, while God communicated with Miriam and Aaron, as well as the prophets, Moses was on a different level of contact, communication, and transmission. In the Talmud we are told, “All of the prophets observed through an obscure looking glass (aspaklaria). Moses our master observed through a clear looking glass.” (Yevamot 49b). Rabbi Ismar Schorsch adds to our understanding of this dynamic and connects it into the humility of Moses:


“The glass through which he peered was crystal clear while that of the others was simply not. Rashi’s gloss on the text brings out the paradox in their distinction. ‘The prophets thought they saw God, but really didn’t. Whereas Moses, who had the benefit of a clear glass, knew he never saw God face to face.’ Moses’s humility was a function of his greatness. Penetrating more deeply into the unfathomable mystery of things than anyone before or since, he was more acutely aware of his ignorance. As the Torah relates at Mt. Sinai: ‘Moses approached the thick cloud where God was (Ex 20:18).’”


“Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and God departed” (Num 12:8-9).

SIMILARLY, GOD’S anger would also ignite, in two parshiot from this week, against Korah, a distant relative of Moses also from the tribe of Levi, who, like Miriam and Aaron, was jealous of the position of Moses (Num 16:1-35).


“When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my Lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.’ And Moses cried to the Lord, ‘O God, please heal her – please’” (Num 12:10-13).


Why Miriam? Why leprosy? Why white? Rav Kook comments:


“In fact, the Sages taught that Aaron did not get off scot-free. They understood from the words, ‘God displayed anger against them,’ that Aaron was also disciplined. His punishment, though, was less severe than Miriam’s, since it was his older sister who instigated the verbal attack against Moses. (Miriam’s leading role in the incident is indicated by the fact that she is mentioned first: ‘Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses…’).”


Miriam’s comment that the wife of Moses was from Cush means on some level she was referring to Zipporah’s darker skin color. Miriam’s punishment is therefore about her skin, making her own skin color the opposite of what she had said about Zipporah.


The land of Cush played an important role in the history of ancient Israel. Jennifer Drummond of the Biblical Archaeological Society explains:


“The Kingdom of Cush, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, played an important role in biblical history despite being one of the lesser-known kingdoms. According to 2 Kings 19:9, “Tirhakah, King of Cush” came to the aid of Hezekiah against Sennacherib, king of Assyria, when his forces laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Without such aid, it is hard to imagine that the Kingdom of Judah would have survived. Judah would have likely gone the way of the Kingdom of Israel – spread to the four winds, never to return.”


Kabbalat Shabbat, Friday evening services, begins with the singing of “Yedid Nefesh” (You who love my soul). It was written by Rabbi Eleazar Azikri of the famous and influential Kabbalistic circle of 16th-century Safed.


It speaks of the human soul’s desire to cleave to God. It was placed at the start of the Shabbat liturgy as a reminder that our souls need the remedy of Shabbat so we can return to a healthier relationship with God and, by extension, ourselves and the people we come in contact with.
That is exactly why the words of Moses, the shortest prayer in the entire Bible, from this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha – “O God, please heal her – please/el na refa na lah,” are incorporated into “Yedid Nefesh.”


On one level, it says our souls are sick and need repairing from the pace of the work week. On another level, it is saying remember the context of when Moses said these words – the worst of family dynamics.


As Moses was able to rise above the moment and ask that God heal and not punish Miriam, we must – so we can enter the peace of Shabbat – let go of any acrimony we may have with any family members. In that way, we can have a Shabbat shalom and, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “call the Sabbath a delight/oneg” (Isa 58:13).  

Parashat Nasso

The Priestly Blessing’s many layers

 

Michael M. Cohen

May 25, 2023

‘It mounts by gradual stages from the petition for material blessing and protection to that for Divine favor as a spiritual blessing, and in beautiful climax culminates in the petition for God’s most consummate gift, shalom, peace, the welfare in which all material and spiritual well-being is comprehended.”


So Rabbi Joseph Hertz quotes biblical scholar Emil Kautzsch in describing the sublime words of Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:23-26), from this week’s parasha, Naso.


The simple three-line blessing in Hebrew expands in an ever embracing structure from three to five to seven words:


“May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn to you and give you peace.”


Its words are the oldest of the Torah ever found; Aharon Varady points out, also the earliest artifact of Jewish liturgy we have in physical form, some 500 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls. Israeli archeologist Gabriel Barkay discovered two silver amulets, with parts of the blessing on them, in a burial cave in Jerusalem just below St. Andrews Church and behind the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. There is an extensive explanation of the discovery and its significance at that site. The amulets can be viewed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They date from the late seventh or early sixth century BCE around the time of King Josiah.


Rabbi Reuven Hammer comments on the historical liturgical significance of the Birkat Kohanim:


“The practice of having kohanim recite the blessing in the synagogue is an ancient one. Originally the blessing was a part of the Temple service, but nothing in the Torah restricts it to the Temple site. The Mishna records that it was recited outside of the Temple as well, and tells of certain differences in such cases. In the Temple it was pronounced as one blessing; elsewhere, as three. In the Temple, the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter Name of God) was pronounced; elsewhere, the word ‘Adonai’ was substituted. In the Temple, the priests raised their hands above their heads; elsewhere, only as high as their shoulders. (See Sota 7:6)” (Hammer, Or Hadash, p. 177).


Significantly, this blessing is written in the second person singular – you – while most Jewish liturgy is framed in the first person plural – us. There is the communal concern when we pray as Jews for the larger community we live within, but in the case of blessings there is a shift to our individual needs and hopes. The individual blessings listed in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 are also in the second person singular.


Traditionally, only a male kohen can offer this blessing as part of the Amida section during certain synagogue services (there are different customs based on where in the world one might be, as well as per denomination). Regardless, it is one of the Amida blessings recited silently or in the prayer leader’s repetition of the morning and afternoon Amida (Birkat Kohanim was not pronounced in the evening in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem). In many non-Orthodox circles the Priestly Blessing solely offered by a male kohen is no longer practiced. In the Reconstructionist siddur, we find this alternate:


“Another way to enact the Priestly Blessing is for each congregant to turn to a neighbor and recite the first half of each blessing, while the neighbor responds with the second half of the blessing” (Kol Naneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim, p. 318).


When kohanim recite the blessing, they take their shoes off – an echo of when Moses encountered God at the burning bush: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). In addition, Levites wash the hands of the kohanim before they invoke Birkat Kohanim. This, too, is a reminder of earlier practices:


“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. And you shall put water in it, for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it” (Ex. 30:17-21).


We also read in the Mishna: “Rabbi Yehuda says: Even the high priest lifts his hands above the front plate, as it is stated: ‘And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them’ (Leviticus 9:22)” (Sota 7:6).


And so, after covering their heads with their tallitot, the kohanim raise their hands to bless the congregation. They also move their fingers so they look like the Hebrew letter shin, signifying one of God’s names, Shadai. That hand configuration was made famous by the Star Trek character Spock. Actor Leonard Nemoy explained:


“I still have a vivid memory of the first time I saw the use of the split-fingered hands being extended to the congregation in blessing. There were a group of five or six men facing the congregation and chanting in passionate shouts of a Hebrew benediction.... My dad said, ‘Don’t look.’ I learned later that it is believed that during this prayer the Shechina, the feminine aspect of God, comes into the temple to bless the congregation. The light from this Deity could be very damaging. So we are told to protect ourselves by closing our eyes. I peeked. And when I saw the split-fingered gesture of these men... I was entranced. I learned to do it simply because it seemed so magical. It was probably 25 years later that I introduced that gesture as a Vulcan greeting in Star Trek... It gives me great pleasure since it is, after all, a blessing.”


There is a custom, based on the Birkat Kohanim roles of the kohanim and the Levites, that in Jewish cemeteries an image of the hand symbol is carved on the gravestone of a kohen, and a pitcher on that of a Levi. According to the Talmud (Brachot 55b), if one had a dream and is uncertain about its meaning, then, while the Priestly Blessing is offered in the synagogue, a prayer should be said by the congregant. The Priestly Blessing is also incorporated into the home Friday night ritual. Parents recite its words to their children while placing their hands on their children’s heads. This usually takes place between the lighting of Shabbat candles and the singing of “Shalom Aleichem.” 

 

Rabbi Tamar Fox adds:


“Beyond the weekly blessing on Friday nights, many parents recite this blessing on special occasions, such as at a child’s brit milah or naming ceremony, bar or bat mitzvah, and wedding. Any important milestone in a child’s life, from the first day of school to birthdays, to the day they graduate high school or college, can be appropriately marked with this blessing.”


A shortened variation of Birkat Kohanim is found in Psalm 67: “May God grant us grace and bless us, may God’s face shine upon us” (Ps. 67:2).


We note that it is written in the first person plural, unlike Birkat Kohanim, which is composed in the second person singular. By combining the two sources, we are reminded: I can only be blessed if you are blessed, and you can only be blessed if I am blessed.

Parashat Bamidbar

Prayer sources

 

Michael M. Cohen

May 18, 2023

The second chapter of the Book of Numbers/Sefer Bamidbar opens:


“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying…”
(Num. 2:1)


The midrash comments on the pairing of Moses and Aaron in that sentence from this week’s parasha, Bamidbar:

 

“In 18 passages you find Moses and Aaron placed on an equal footing [when God spoke]. This is related to the 18 benedictions [of the weekday Amidah prayer section]... In 18 passages Moses and Aaron are conjoined; giving a hint for the 18 benedictions, which correspond to the 18 references to the Divine Name occurring in the Shema [Deut. 6:4-9; Deut. 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41] and in ‘A Psalm of David’ [Psalm 29]. The Three Patriarchs, then, introduced the custom of praying three times a day, while Moses and Aaron and from the above mentioned references to the Divine Name we infer 18 benedictions [in the weekday Amidah].”
(Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:1)


In this midrash, the rabbis are looking for a justification why the Amidah, the core prayer of every Jewish prayer service, has 18 parts. They also note we pray three times a day because of the Three Patriarchs. Since the 2nd century CE, after an additional benediction was added to the Amidah, bringing the total to 19 benedictions, the Amidah has continued to be called the “Shemoneh Esrei” (Mishna Berachot 4:3). (On Shabbat and holidays the Amidah has only seven sections.)

 

In another midrash we read:


“Rabbi Hanina said in the name of Rabbi Pinechas, ‘The Patriarchs are mentioned 18 times in the Torah [together], and accordingly the Sages [rabbis of the Mishna, 200 CE, and Talmud, 500 CE,] instituted 18 benedictions in the service.”
(Midrash Rabbah Genesis 69:4)


We find further discussions on this topic in the Talmud:


“Shimon HaPakuli arranged the 18 blessings before Rabban Gamliel in their order in Yavne. Rabbi Yohanan said, and some say that it was taught in a baraita [a teaching from the mishnaic period not included in the Mishna]: 120 elders [the Men of the Great Assembly (approx. 4th century BCE to 1st century CE)] and among them several prophets, established 18 blessings...”
(Megillah 17b)


We see in this overview a number of different answers to the source of the 18 benedictions of the Amidah. We find a question raised as to why we pray three times a day (with the Amidah and its 18 benedictions as its core). In the midrash quoted above we also discover:


“Abraham instituted morning prayer, as it is said, ‘And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood, etc.’ [Gen. 19: 27]... Isaac instituted afternoon prayer, as it is said, ‘And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at eventide’ [Gen. 24:63]... Jacob instituted evening prayer, as it is said, ‘And he came upon the place, etc.’ [Gen 28:11].”

(Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:1)


In this understanding, the Patriarchs are associated with why we pray three times a day. A very similar example of giving credit to Abraham Issac, and Jacob for thrice praying each day is found in Genesis Rabbah 68:9. There we find two additional reasons for the three daily times of prayer:


“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: [the three times we pray correspond to the] three times the day changes. In the evening, a person needs to say ‘may it be Your will, Lord my God, that you will bring me from darkness to light.’ In the morning one needs to say ‘I thank you Lord my God, that you brought me from darkness to light.’ In the afternoon a person needs to say ‘may it be Your will, Lord my God, that just as I merited to see the sun rise, may I merit to see the sun set.’ Another explanation... the rabbis say the prayers were fixed according to the [daily] Tamid sacrifices. The morning prayer according to the morning Tamid offering. The afternoon prayer according to the Tamid of the late afternoon. The evening prayer has no set moment, it was established according to the limbs and fat pieces that were consumed by the fire of the altar.”
(Genesis Rabbah 68:9)


Rabbi Shmuel ties praying three times a day to the natural cycle of the day, while the rabbis link them directly to the daily sacrifice in the Temple. In the discussion of why we pray three times a day we have seen answers that predate the Temple – the Patriarchs and the three natural time periods of the day. We also see an answer that connects the times of prayer to the actual Temple sacrifices themselves.


Returning to the 18 benedictions of the Amidah, there are voices within the tradition that claim the reasons predate the Second Temple, such as the 18 pairings of Moses and Aaron in the Torah (Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:1). There is also the belief that the Men of the Great Assembly “established the 18 blessings” (Megillah 17b) while the Second Temple stood. And there are those that place the answer after the destruction of the Temple by the Sages (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 69:4). What is fascinating is that while some of these explanations place the 18 benedictions originating while the Second Temple stood, there are those that give the answer before or after the Second Temple.

 

This despite the history as explained in Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Rabbi Ismar Elbogen:
“There can be no doubt that the nucleus of this [Amidah] prayer took shape as early as the Second Temple period; it seems likely that the number of benedictions was already eighteen, at least in the practice of most communities, before the ‘formulating’ of this prayer in Yavneh. This view is nearly universally accepted today.”
(Elbogen, p. 37)

 

One way to understand why there are explanations of why we pray three times a day, and why there are 18 benedictions in the Amidah that are not grounded in the Temple, is because once the Temple was destroyed it meant that any justifications associated with the Temple in regards to the daily prayers and the 18 benedictions of the Amidah were weakened. And so to expand the premise of praying three times a day and why there are 18 Amidah benedictions, thinking was broadened.


This is the strength of Judaism – for thousands of years we have confronted the need for adaptability in the face of new realities. One aspect of daily prayer is the renewal/hitchadeshut of the self as we experience the multitude of what the day brings us. Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild points out, “The Hebrew verb le’hitapallel, from which the word for prayer – tefillah – comes, means in essence to work on oneself and to judge oneself. So the language of prayer is reflexive... it is about stepping outside of the normal stream of time and busyness and looking at ourselves in order to decide for ourselves.”

 

Commenting, Dr. Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University writes, "'renewal' refers both to natural/cosmic preocesses and human ones related both to society and the individual, from daily, monthly, yearly, and seasonal cycles of human resilience and renewal."

 

Prayer can help us achieve this hitchadshut as a way to adjust and balance our lives through the course of the day as established by the tradition – evening, morning, and afternoon.

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Higher and higher

 

Michael M. Cohen

May 11, 2023


The two parshiyot we read this week take place on Mount Sinai. Fittingly, the beginning of the first parasha and the end of the second parasha make reference to that portentous location. The first parasha is called Behar, meaning “on the mountain,” while the second parasha, Behukotai, “my laws,” ends with the phrase “behar Sinai,” on Mount Sinai.


We do not know Mount Sinai’s exact location, just as in the case of Moses’s grave. In both cases the tradition downplays their locales so as not to turn them into places of veneration, veneration that could border on the idolatrous.


There are a number of mountains that are believed to possibly be the Mount Sinai we read about in the Torah. One of the most intriguing is Mount Karkom, which reaches a height of 847 meters (2,780 feet) above sea level, located in Israel near the Egyptian border in the southwest Negev Desert, with its ancient cultic sites signifying it has an ancient tradition of being a very holy mountain.


Archaeologist Emmanuel Anati says, “We can say that Mount Karkom has been a sacred mountain for millennia.... No other known sites of the Sinai Peninsula show such evident, intense and rich traces of cult activity.”


However, many people consider Jabal Musa (2,285 m. [7,497 ft.] high), in the southern Sinai Peninsula, to be Mount Sinai. At its base is St. Catherine’s Monastery, built in the sixth century CE, which encloses a bush thought to be the burning bush encountered by Moses. Cecil B. DeMille filmed the revelation scene for his 1956 movie The Ten Commandments there, with Charlton Heston playing the role of Moses.

NOTWITHSTANDING ITS mysterious whereabouts, Mount Sinai is a mountain. Why is that significant? In the spiritual quest, distance and space play their unique roles. Is our experience with God immanent or transcendent?


Dr. Amanda Jenkins explains, “The words ‘transcendent’ and ‘immanent’ often are seen together in theological language. The transcendence of God means that God is outside of humanity’s full experience, perception or grasp. The immanence of God means that he is knowable, perceivable or graspable.”


Mount Sinai can be seen as representing both immanence and transcendence. The top of the mountain is far away, and so in that sense is transcendent, but it is not as far as heaven, and so it is also immanent.


In his brilliant exploration of our relationship to, and role with, the environment, Evan Eisenberg adds insight to the importance of mountains and religious cultures. He writes:


“The two great worldviews I mentioned at the outset belonged to two kinds of civilizations: those of the hilly lands and those of the great river valleys. The first kind typified the Canaanites, the second the Mesopotamians... the hill peoples and the valley peoples had different world-poles. The world-pole is the axis on which the world turns. It is the heart of the world, the source of all life. Nearly every people has a world-pole, but they do not agree on its shape. For the Canaanites, the world-pole was the Mountain: the place sacred to the gods, the font of life-giving water. For the Mesopotamians, it was the Tower: the ziggurat that rose in the midst of the city” (The Ecology of Eden, p. 70).


We note that despite their different cultural orientations, they share the notion that the gods are found by reaching upward. That vertical theology is passed along to, and found in, Judaism from its earliest stages. This is not surprising, as Abraham and Sarah come from, and Jacob, along with Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, spent time in, Mesopotamia (Abraham from Ur [Gen 11:28], Jacob in Padan-aram [Gen 28:6]). In addition, ancient Israel was originally inhabited by the Canaanites (Gen 12:5 - 6).


Responding to this vertex theology, Rabbi Art Green teaches:


“But suppose for a moment that we allowed ourselves to be freed from this upper world-lower world way of thinking.... Some of our greatest philosophers and mystics surely understood that this way of seeing things could well be replaced by one that spoke in terms of ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ rather than ‘upper’ and ‘lower’.... This journey inward would be one that peels off layer after layer of externals, striving ever for the inward truth, rather than one that consists of climbing rung after rung, reaching ever higher and higher. Spiritual growth, in this metaphor, is a matter of uncovering new depths rather than attaining new heights” (Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology, p. 12).


Perhaps inner and outer can also be understood as an echo of immanent and transcendent, close and distant. In that case Mount Sinai as a metaphor can stand for the classic upper-lower worldview, with the peak of Mount Sinai perceived as far away, as well as the inner-outer orientation, since most of us never physically climb Mount Sinai; rather, we attempt to spiritually climb it within ourselves.

Parashat Emor

The many meanings of the Ner Tamid


Michael M. Cohen

May 4, 2023


One of the most recognizable Jewish symbols, used for over 2,000 years, is the menorah from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One of the earliest images we have of the menorah is from the reign of Antigonus II Mattathias, the last Hasmonean king of Judea, who minted coins (40-37 BCE) with images of the menorah. We also find the menorah in the Arch of Titus, built in Rome in 81 CE to celebrate the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the Roman victory over the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE).


In addition, many menorahs can be seen to this day at the Beit She’arim necropolis (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), dating from the second to fourth centuries CE. We also find menorahs used in the elaborate mosaic floors in the synagogues of Hamat Tiberias (fourth century CE), Susya (fifth-sixth century CE), Beth Alfa (sixth century CE) and Beit She’an (fifth-seventh centuries CE).


Utilized during the ensuing centuries in Jewish locations around the world, the menorah was incorporated into the official emblem of the modern State of Israel in 1949.


The menorah mentioned above is the seven-branched candelabrum. Why seven? One answer: seven represents a whole complete unit, like the first week of Creation. The hanukkiah of the holiday of Hanukkah is a nine-branched candelabrum, with its eight candle holders commemorating that eight-day holiday, and the middle holder, the shammash, functioning as a helper candle for lighting those eight candles.


We are first introduced to the menorah in the Book of Exodus (Ex. 25:31-40) as part of the accessories of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) used by the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert. The Mishkan was their sanctuary for the worship of God. It also acted as the blueprint for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.


We read in regard to the menorah in the Tabernacle: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Ex. 27:20).


The Hebrew word for regularly is “tamid.” We get clarification of what regularly means:
“Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Lord [to burn] regularly” (Lev. 24:3-4).


That is to say, regularly/tamid, when it comes to the menorah, means every evening. This raises a question. According to the Etz Hayim commentary (p. 503), Exodus 27:20, quoted above, is the proof text for the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, found above the ark in synagogues around the world. The Ner Tamid in the synagogue is lit all the time, 24/7, while the lights of the menorah in the ancient Temple (Ex. 27:20/Lev 24:2-4) were only lit at night!


How can this be reconciled?


We also learn: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual/tamid fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out” (Lev. 6:5-6).


In this instance, in reference to the fire on the altar, we see “tamid” utilized in the sense of all the time. That is to say, “tamid” has two meanings: it can be understood as perpetual, to never go out (Lev 6:5-6), and as regular, as in every night (Lev 24:2-4/Ex. 27:20).


“Tamid” therefore represents two important cadences: the persistent, nonending; and that which reoccurs. Our breathing comprises these two elements. We breathe our entire lives, but with a signature of inhalations and exhalations.


With this insight we can understand the Ner Tamid of the synagogue holding both of these elements of the word. The Ner Tamid can represent God, Judaism, our connection to the Jewish people as a constant, on the one hand, but on the other it recognizes those relationships can have their own pulse and oscillation.

AN ASTUTE observation on the complexities of the Ner Tamid is made by Hannah Sedletsky:


“The original Ner Tamid was an open flame, a visible pillar of fire, casting heat and light, the engine of combustion generating noise and smoke. The Ner Tamid in our synagogues today is distant from that sensory experience. It is a symbol of a symbol.”


This confusion surrounding the Ner Tamid is also found in Midrash Tanhuma, which relates that Moses had trouble following the instructions from God how to make the menorah:


“Moses still found difficulty with it, and when he came down, he forgot its construction. He went up and said: ‘Master of the Universe, I have forgotten [how to make it]!’ God said to him: ‘Look and make [it]’; God made its form out of fire and showed him its construction. Still, Moses found its construction difficult” (Tanhuma, Beha’alotecha 11, Buber ed.).


We find a similar idea in another midrash: “You see that Moses struggled with the design of the menorah more than with all the other vessels of the Mishkan, until the Holy One Who is Blessed showed him with a finger” (Numbers Rabbah 15:1).


Commenting on this, Rabbi Brad Artson writes: 

 

“Why were those details so impossible to retain? What is the Torah teaching us about human beings and about being human? After all, Moses is able to remember the entire Torah (according to one tradition of how the Torah was recorded), and according to Mishna Avot (1:1) he was able to remember the entire Oral Teaching as well! How could such a skilled and gifted mind have trouble remembering the details of the menorah?


“Perhaps the Torah is telling us that even the most gifted of minds is stronger in some areas and weaker in others. Moses was a great role model for our entire people, yet he, too, was imperfect. Bezalel (as the architect of the Mishkan), who made no great contribution to Jewish law or Jewish literature, was able to make a timeless contribution that was beyond Moses’s abilities.”


The multi-meanings of the word “tamid” – constantly there or a rhythmic pattern – mirrors that multifacetedness of being human. We are reminded of that layered human condition by Moses and Bezalel when it came to creating the menorah of the Mishkan and its command to kindle its “lamps regularly/ner tamid” (Ex. 27:20). The Ner Tamid of the synagogue represents that the vibrancy of the universe, as well as how we experience our lives, comes in an array of perceptions and colors.

Parashat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim
Why holiness matters to society

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 27, 2
023


The first part of our double parasha this week, Aharei Mot, begins by describing many of the rituals that constitute the core practices of Yom Kippur as found in the Torah. Later they were developed and adapted in the Mishna, Talmud, and eventually as the Avoda section of the Mussaf service found in the Mahzor prayer book for that most holy of days within the Jewish calendar.


In all its iterations, the order of expiation has been the individual, originally Aaron in his capacity as the high priest (Lev. 16:6) and then his family (Lev. 16:6), the Sanctuary (Lev. 16:16) and finally the entire community (Lev. 16:21).


That structure reminds us that to effectively change society, we must first begin with ourselves, then our families, followed by the institutions of society and finally the fullness of our body politic.


Woven within the atonements and restorations of the day is the rite of the Azazel – the sending off of a goat into the wilderness, “to carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region” (Lev. 16:22). Symbolically this goat took away the transgressions of the people.
We may ask, “Okay, they were taken away symbolically, but that is only a symbol, so what good was it? Moreover, what meaning can it have for us today?”


Decades ago a congregant knocked on my office door. They were distraught and feeling guilty for something that had happened. They were tangentially responsible at the most. It was close to Rosh Hashanah, when we would do tashlich by the Battenkill River behind the synagogue. I suggested to the congregant that they join us for tashlich, and that as they cast their pieces of bread into the river, they should symbolically imagine their guilt being carried away by the waters of the river. A few weeks later they once again knocked on my office door and informed me that since doing tashlich, they had felt so much better. There can be a profound power in symbols, often when tied to ritual.

AS PART of the Yom Kippur instructions, we are told: “And this shall be to you a law for all time... you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you. For on this day expiation shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord” (Lev. 16:29-30).


In the Mishna (Yoma 8:1), self-denial is defined as being forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on sandals, or to have sexual intercourse. This denial is not for punishment or to inflict suffering, but, rather, to show we have agency. These actions, which we do the rest of the year, affirm life, make our lives more comfortable, and can bring pleasure. In essence, they are all good and can enhance our lives. The latter can create life itself. The charge of Yom Kippur is to show that if we can control those activities for all their positive elements, then for the rest of the year we have the power to curb and overcome yearnings we would be better off avoiding.


Rabbi Dorothy Richman reminds us that self-denial should be limited in how and how often we practice it. Addressing some voices within the tradition that favorably express self-denial as a way of support when others suffer (Ta’anit 11a; Shulhan Aruch, Hilchot Ta’anit, 674:4), she writes (on myjewishlearning.com):


“A hassidic story describes a wealthy man who prides himself on his self-denial. He comes to his rabbi’s home and brags that he eats only bread with salt and drinks only water. The rabbi, horrified, orders the wealthy man to eat rich and nutritious meals and to drink wine. After the rich man leaves, the rabbi’s disciples are puzzled. The rabbi explains, ‘Not until he eats meat will he realize that the poor need bread. As long as he himself eats only bread, he will think the poor can live on stones.’


“It can be tempting to deprive ourselves of pleasure rather than face the challenge of repair. Yet self-denial for the sake of solidarity is a waste of privilege. It is imperative to use our gifts of wealth, education and influence to improve conditions for the poor and powerless.”

AT THE end of the day, the goal for Yom Kippur and every day is to live a holy life. In that light, it is logical that the parasha after Aharei Mot is Kedoshim (holy ones), our second parasha this Shabbat.


We are told at the beginning of the parasha, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). What does it mean to be holy?


Being holy is a state of mind. It is an awareness that floods the soul so that we see, so that we experience, not that everything is God (pantheism), but, rather, that everything, all existence, is within and is an extension of God (panentheism).


When it comes to explaining panentheism, Rav Hillel Rachmani (on etzion.org.il) makes the comparison of a leaf and a tree: the leaf is not the tree, but is a part of the tree.


That interrelated orientation of holiness places all things within a web of mutuality. That is the inner logic for the concentric circles of the Avoda service of Yom Kippur. It creates a dialogue and concern which radiates out and then back between the individual, the family, the structural institutions of society, and the body politic we live in. In the thinking and the words of the Torah, that is the path to living a holy life every day of the year.

Parashat Tazria-Metzora
The Value of Eight

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 20, 2023


We are in the midst of counting the Omer from the second night of Passover for seven full weeks. The first day of the eighth week will be the festival of Shavuot. Last week’s parasha is named Shmini, meaning eighth. In this week’s double parasha of Tazria and Metzora, we read the following:


“On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3).


“On the eighth day that person shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil” (Lev. 14:10).


“On the eighth day of purification, the person shall bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord” (Lev. 14:23).


“On the eighth day he shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and come before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and give them to the priest” (Lev. 15:14).


“On the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 15:28).


The number eight, or rather the “eighth day” during this period of time in the Jewish liturgical calendar, gets a lot of attention and invites us to investigate.


At its core, eight is seven plus one, seven expressing a whole finished period of time – think of the first seven days of Creation. That which follows, represented by the number eight, is the future.


In that light we can understand the reason a brit milah (circumcision) takes place on the eighth day of a young child’s life. During that ceremony we mark the part of the body through which future generations will emerge. In addition, as part of the brit milah ritual, the child is brought into the covenant (brit) of the Jewish people; his future identity and responsibilities are declared at that moment by his family and community.


That declaration parallels the holiday of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. There the Jewish people entered into the covenant with God:


“Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one saying, ‘All the Lord has spoken, we will do!’ And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord” (Ex. 19:7-8).


Shavuot, as mentioned above, is the first day of the eighth week after the counting of seven full weeks from the second night of Passover. That day marks when the people stood at the base of Mount Sinai and entered the covenant for themselves going forward, as well as for all future generations of the Jewish people. And so the symbolism of falling on that number eight, which represents the future, should not be lost on us.


The other verses noted from this week’s double parasha all spotlight a transition from one status to another, with eight highlighting that new future chapter in one’s life.

WHEN WE think of Judaism and the number eight, the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah is often what first comes to mind:


“Then Judas, his brothers, and the entire community of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at the same time each year, beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days” (I Maccabees 4:59).


“Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards and instituted these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name” (Shabbat 21b).


We are usually taught that Hanukkah is eight days because of the story of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days (Shabbat 21b). That, however, is an explanation given by the Rabbis centuries after the events in an attempt to lessen the role of the Maccabees. The Maccabees, known as the Hasmonean dynasty, were some of the most corrupt leaders in Jewish history, in large part because of their exploitation of power when they combined the priesthood and the kingship. They were descendants of Aaron, and so it was logical they became the priests, but they were not descended from the House of King David, and so they should not have also been the kings. That separation of powers is the Jewish version of Lord Acton’s statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” An important lesson then and today.


In fact, Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days as a late celebration of Sukkot. During the war to liberate Jerusalem, the Maccabees could not celebrate the pilgrimage holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem:


“They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot, they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So, carrying lulavim [palm branches]... they offered hymns of praise [perhaps Hallel] to God, who had brought to pass the purification of his own place” (II Maccabees 10:6-7).


In addition, the eight-day dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees parallels the earlier dedication by King Solomon of his Temple in Jerusalem. As Noam Zion points out:


“The connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah (as the Rabbis later called this holiday) goes beyond the accident of a postponed Sukkot celebration. Sukkot is the holiday commemorating not only the wandering of the Jews in the desert in makeshift huts but the end of that trek with the dedication of the First Temple (i.e., the permanent Bayit/Home of God in Jerusalem by King Solomon circa 1000 BCE).”


Zion then quotes from I Kings: “King Solomon gathered every person of Israel in the month of Eitanim (Tishrei) on the holiday (Sukkot) in the seventh month... for God had said, ‘I have built a House for my eternal residence’” (I Kings 8:2).


He concludes, “Thus the Maccabean rededication celebration is appropriately set for eight days in the Temple.” Here we once again see the use of the number eight connected with communal ceremonies setting the stage for the future – the dedication of Solomon’s Temple and the rededication by the Maccabees.


We are told that in the future, the harp of the Messiah will have eight strings:
“Rabbi Yehuda says: The harp in the Temple was of seven strings.... Rabbi Yehuda continues: And in the days of the Messiah, eight strings, as it is stated: ‘For the Leader, on the eighth: A Psalm of David’ (Psalms 12:1)” (Arachin 13b).


Over and over, we see in the Jewish tradition the connection of the number eight to the future. Rabbi Naamah Kelman adds a fascinating insight to this concept: “Knock the number eight (8) on its side and it is a symbol of infinity; eight is sanctified time, endless time.”

Parashat Shmini
Our most important partnership with God

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 13, 2023

 

“And it was on the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel,” opens this week’s parasha, Sh’mini. (Lev 9:1) The Talmud uses this line in a classic multifaceted Talmudic discussion about the word vayhi/and it was in an attempt to determine if the phrase portents woe or joy. After presenting a number of Biblical sentences from the Bible supporting the former, the Gemara, the rabbinic discussion within the Talmud, turns to Biblical sentences that understand vayhi in a more upbeat light. It is in that context we find our verse:

 

“But isn’t it written: ‘And it came to pass/vayhi on the eighth day’ (Leviticus 9:1), {after a week of ordination events for Aaron and his sons as priests; the eighth day marked the dedication of the Tabernacle} And it is taught: On that day {the eighth day} there was joy before the Holy One, Blessed be God, similar to {the joy on the} day on which the heavens and earth were created. {the Gemara then applies a hermeneutical analysis called gezerah shavah/an inference drawn from identical words in two passages to make its point.} It is written here, ‘And it came to pass/vayhi on the eighth day,’ (Leviticus 9:1) and it is written there, ‘And it was/vayhi {evening, and it was} morning, one day.” (Genesis 1:5)

 

(Megillah 10b)

 

Through this analysis the Talmud establishes that vayhi can also indicate joy. For our purposes the connection the Talmud makes between the construction of the Tabernacle, a human event, and the Creation of the Universe, a Godly event, is an association we want to further explore.

 

In her deep and far reaching commentary on the Torah Nehama Leibowitz also notes that similarity. In her close reading of the text she finds “seven parallels between the Creation and the Tabernacle:”

 

Made/make     Genesis 1:7;16;25         Exodus 25:8;10;23;31

Six days          Genesis 20:11                Exodus 24:16

Seventh day    Genesis 20:11                Exodus 24:16;18 

Finished          Genesis 2:1-2                Exodus 39:32; 40:33

Saw                “God saw,”                      “Moses saw”

                       Genesis 1:31                 Exodus 39:43

Behold             Genesis 1:31                 Exodus 39:43

Blessed           “God blessed”               “Moses blessed”

                       Genesis 2:3                    Exodus 39:43

 

Leibowitz then goes on to write:

 

“The Lord created the heaven and earth and all therein, for man to dwell in,

and created them in six days and rested on the seventh day. Similarly, 

Moses was summoned on the seventh day to the cloud to see the pattern

of the Tabernacle that it was his duty to erect, in order to provide a place on

earth for the Divine Presence. It is incumbent on man to imitate his Creator,

His ways and attributes and assume the role of being His partner in Creation.”

 

       (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p.481)

 

There are two profound lessons we can learn from Leibowitz's insight about imitating and being partners with God. This first is that we should see our work during the six days of the week as building a Tabernacle -  building space for God and godliness in our lives and our world. The second, which is brought out by the connection between Creation and the Tabernacle, is that we have been given the critical and deeply holy task to be partners with God in the unfolding and preservation of Creation. 

 

We read in the morning prayers, “You who in your mercy give light to the earth and its inhabitants, and in your goodness do perpetually renew each day Creation's wondrous work.” (Kol Haneshamah, Daily Siddur, p. 68) Living in the shadow of our human mistreatment and exploitation of the environment, divine renewal is not guaranteed because of our individual, communal, national, and global violations and abuse of the world’s climate. To put it another way, we have turned our backs on that partnership with God when it comes to Creation. Just last month United Nations General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador) told the world, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet…Eleven years is all we have ahead of us to change our direction.” 

 

We mentioned above that “Moses blessed,” the Israelites for fulfilling the task God had commanded them when it came to the building of the Tabernacle. (Ex 39:43)  Rashi says that Moses blessed them by saying, “and the work of our hands firmly found for us, and the work of our hands firmly found!” (Ps 90:17) Robert Alter comments that “firmly found” is “strategically important. It is a word used for keeping dynasties or buildings unshaken.”

 

That is our challenge, what we have been commanded to do, when it comes to this third rock from the Sun we all inhabit and call home - ensure it is firmly set so we, all the children of God, and other living creatures and this planet will endure with the viable conditions for life. Writing this month, Environmental prophet and activist Bill McKibben warned and confronted us:

 

“One the face of it, then, we’re still losing this fight. But there are a few new numbers - wild cards, really - that could yet rewrite the end of this story. They cut both ways: Some of this math deepens our predicament, and some of it points to a way out. They’re the new numbers of this past decade, and they’re big enough to stop and take notice.” (Rolling Stone, April 2023, p. 50)

 

As Moses and the Psalmist remind us, that way out lies in our hands.

Passover Shabbat
The freedom of many names

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 6, 2023


Within the special Shabbat morning Torah reading for Passover we read, “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Pessah remain until the morning” (Exodus 34:25). In this verse, the holiday is referred to as Pessah, based on the sentence, “I will pass (ufasachti) over you” (Exodus 12:13). In addition, “pessah” is the name of the lamb sacrificed on the holiday (Numbers 9:2). As with most Jewish holidays, it has more than one name. In this case three more:


• Chag Hamatzot/the Holiday of Unleavened Bread: The name of the flatbread we are commanded to eat during the holiday (Exodus 12:17; Deuteronomy 16:3).


• Chag Ha’aviv/the Spring Holiday: We are told Passover needs to be observed in the spring (Deuteronomy 16:1), though it appears that that specific name does not appear till much later in Jewish history. Spring, the season of rebirth, also parallels the rebirth of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom.


• Zeman Cheyruteinu/the Time of our Freedom: We celebrate the transformation from slavery to freedom (Exodus 13:9). Included within that name is the implication never to take freedom/democracy for granted.


Passover is not the only holiday in Judaism that is called by more than one name:

• Rosh Hashanah/the Head of the Year: There are actually four “new years” in Judaism (Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1). Rosh Hashanah is for the numbering of the years, which is why this year of 5783 began on the first of Tishri. The term, Rosh Hashanah, appears first in Ezekiel 40:1. It is also known as Yom Hadin/Day of Judgment, since we are judged that day by God (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
It is also known as Yom Hazikaron/Day of Remembrance, echoing the phrase from the liturgy, “Remember us for life.” None of these names appear in the Torah. Rather, in the Torah it is established as, “a reminder by (shofar/horn) blasts” (Leviticus 23:24), which leads to its other name, Yom Teruah/Day of Blasting.”


• Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement is derived from the sentence, “But on the 10th day of the seventh month it is the Day of Atonements/kippurim” (Leviticus 23:27). The plural, kippurim, mirrors our prayers, which we say in the plural since in Judaism our concerns are not only for ourselves, but always communal. Yom Kippur is also called a Shabbat Shabbaton (Leviticus 16:31), emphasizing the totality of refraining from work so that we can focus on atonement.


• Sukkot/Festival of the Booths is named for the booths we build for the holiday to commemorate the booths we lived in for the 40 years while in the desert, “in order that future generations may know I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42).


Karin Kloosterman, founder of Green Prophet website, points out that the booths, “came from when the farmers would dwell with their families and eat meals in them to be close to the harvest, in celebration of a job completed.” It is also known as Chag Ha’aseif/the Festival of the Ingathering (of the fall crops) (Exodus 26:16) as well as Chag Leshem/the Festival of God (Leviticus 23:39), or simply Hachag/the Festival (I Kings 8:2). Finally, it is also called, Zeman Simchateynu/the Time of our Joy, since we are told to, “rejoice before Adonai, your God, seven days” (Leviticus 23:40).


•Hanukkah/Dedication (Shabbat 21b) is so named since the Maccabees were able to rededicate the Temple after defeating the Greeks in 164 BCE (I Maccabees 4). It is also called the Festival of Lights (Josephus, Antiquities).


• Tu B’Shvat/literally the “15th of Shevat,” since it falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It is also called Rosh Hashanah Leilanot/New Year of the Trees, (Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1), as it marked the beginning of the fiscal year for trees.

• Shavuot/the Festival of Weeks is how the holiday is termed in Deuteronomy 16:9-12, connecting it to the seven weeks that are counted (known as counting the Omer) from Passover to Shavuot. It is also referred to as Chag Hakatzir/the Harvest Festival (Exodus 23:16) and Chag Habikurim/Festival of the First Fruits (Numbers 28:26), reflecting its agricultural nature.


Finally, it is also known as Zeman Matan Torateynu/the time of the Giving of the Torah, because the rabbis place the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. (Shabbat 86b; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 494:1) That is to say, there is food for the body, the harvest; and the food for the soul, the Torah.

WE HAVE examined seven Jewish holidays and discovered 24 names! Adding to this, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch reminds us, “Judaism is a wellspring that emits an endless profusion of names for God. The Bible contains some 70; rabbinic literature adds another 90 or more, and no one as yet has bothered to tally the number added by Jewish mystics.”


Those different names for God not only reflect God’s divergent qualities, but mirror the divergence of how we as individuals experience and understand God.


The different names for Passover exemplify the multidimensional aspect of the holiday. This reminds us that we are most free as individuals when we acknowledge and allow ourselves to live -- fully -- the different dimensions of who we are. This lesson of being multifaceted, as we have seen, is also carried by the many names of the other Jewish holidays.

Parashat Tzav
Reclaiming the Mitzvot

 

Michael M. Cohen
March
30, 2023

“Vayikra,” the book of the Torah we read during the spring, literally means, “called,” as in its opening verse, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him…” (Lev. 1:1). God’s spoken message throughout the Torah is often framed as a mitzvah, a commandment.
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, means “command.” Our parasha begins, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying...” (Lev. 6:1). It concludes, “And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord had commanded through Moses” (Lev. 8:36).


When most people are commanded, they follow orders. For example, in the army, a commander gives an order to his or her troops, or in baseball the manager sends a signal to the batter, telling her or him, whether to bunt or to hit away. In both cases, individuals usually do what they are told to do. Soldiers and ballplayers know and see who commanded them. They also understand that these authority figures can enforce their orders; if they are not followed, soldiers can be sent to military prison, and ballplayers can be benched, fined or thrown off the team.


But when it comes to the Torah, we do not see the Commander, and many do not connect the consequences of inactions when it comes to not doing mitzvot. This is a great challenge, in particular, for many non-Orthodox Jews. Is there a different framework for engaging with mitzvot?


A Talmudic discussion provides an interesting angle to that question. In the Midrash God held Mount Sinai over our ancestors’ heads and said, “If you accept the Torah, all is well; if not, this mountain will be your burial site” (Shabbat 88a). The Talmud does not lose sight of the coercive element:


“Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: ‘This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.’ Said Raba, ‘Yet even so, they reaccepted it in the days of Ahasuerus (the king from the Purim story in the book of Esther), for it is written, ‘[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon themselves…’ ( Esther 9:27), confirming what they had accepted long before” (Shabbat 88a).


This is a model we should not lose sight of today.


A core value of Judaism is the generational obligations of the generations. Moses said, as the people prepared to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land: “I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today” (Deut. 29:14-15).


Beginning with Joshua and his generation, who entered the Promised Land, the Jewish people felt the need to take on that obligation on their own:


“The people replied to Joshua, ‘No we will serve the Lord!’ And Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have by your own act chosen to serve the Lord.’ ‘Yes, we are witnesses,’ they responded” (Josh. 24:21-22).


However, for many Jews today that process is not so simple. The reconciling of liberty with service, as Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out, is the great question and challenge for a meaningful life. We who cherish freedom sometimes forget that one of the major lessons of the Exodus story is that freedom without responsibilities can lead to a shallower life, and can often develop into new forms of slavery and idolatry.

SO HOW do we, like our ancestors in the Book of Joshua, take on the Torah’s responsibilities?


At the core of being commanded is obligation – in this case, holy obligation. Obligation is the act of binding oneself through social, legal and moral ties. Until the Jewish encounter with modernity within the last two centuries, that sense of duty came from a belief that the Torah was the transmitted word of God. In our day, when many Jews do not share that traditional view of Torah, it becomes imperative to claim a renewed sense of duty and responsibility. In the mitzvah system, while being commanded lies at its heart, at its essence it is about the binding of oneself to that Call as recorded in the Torah and discussed in the Talmud and other Jewish halachic (legal) and philosophical conversations throughout the ages.


We have a vast sea of possibilities that our tradition lays before us. Sincerely examining and deciding, not a simplistic picking and choosing, what our tradition has to offer can be one approach to seriously engaging with the mitzvot – not from the sense of being commanded from above, but from a sense of filling and enhancing our lives through holy obligation.


Relatedly, it should not be lost that the halachic process has never remained static. Some mitzvot have fallen out of favor or have been circumvented through the centuries. For example, the death penalty and the sota ordeal. Other actions, while not commanded in the Torah, have been raised to the level of commandment, such as the lighting of candles for Shabbat and Hanukkah, when we say, “who has commanded us.”


When an action is claimed as a mitzvah, the question is no longer “should I do this?” but, rather, “now that I am bound, if you will, commanded to do it, how shall I do it?” In addition, with many mitzvot, the question, based on the concept of hidur, or adornment of the mitzvah, will also be, “how can I make this action – and in turn my life and the world we live in – more beautiful?”


Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, in his hassidic Torah commentary, Sfat Emet, teaches that when we take upon ourselves a mitzvah, it can be an innovative process, including one of self-transformation:


“Now you shall command” (Ex. 27:20) Bring the mitzvah into the souls of Israel so that they themselves become mitzvot!... it is the remaking (tikkun) of the person that takes place through mitzvot, forming a person into one dedicated to God.... That person... has become a mitzvah. This is the meaning of ‘asher kidshanu bemitzvotav (who has made us holy through God’s commandments) vetzivanu’ – and made us into mitzvot!” (Sfat Emet, Tetzave; The Language of Truth, translated by Arthur Green, p. 124).


Living a Jewish life is about living a life of commitment and service. It is about binding ourselves to certain ideals and actions. It is about leading a commanded life through our response to that Call as expressed in the words “asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu.” The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. talked about living “a committed life.”
For many non-Orthodox Jews, seeing the mitzvot not as literal commandments but as opportunities to take on personal holy obligation can be a way to reframe a deliberate commitment to Judaism, as well as build a deeper sense of purpose within a Jewish context.


The Sfat Emet reminds us that that process can be transformational. By doing so we remodel not only our actions, but also our lives and the people we come into contact with – our families, our communities, the Jewish people and our world.


Holy obligation can reorient the performance of mitzvot as a way to reclaim that profound responsibility that comes with the mitzvot – as well as convey a heightened awareness that we are all connected to and mirrored in the universe and in the Infinite.

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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 Shelah

The many braids of challah

 

Michael M. Cohen

June 8, 2023

We associate challah as one of the key elements of Shabbat dinner and lunch. It is often braided, but there are traditions to bake it in different shapes for different holidays. In the Torah the word “challah” means “loaf,” as in one of the twelve loaves of bread baked for the sanctuary used as “bread of display” (Lev. 24:5/Ex. 25:30).


In this week’s parasha, Shelah, the word “challah” refers to a loaf set aside from “the first yield of your baking” to be presented to the priests “throughout your generations” (Num. 15:17-21).


A biblical description of this practice is found in the Book of Ezekiel: “You shall further give the first yield of your baking to the priest, that a blessing may rest upon your home” (Ezek. 44:30).


After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the priests no longer functioned as priests and therefore no longer received the first baking. However, since that mitzvah was to exist throughout the ages, the rabbis needed to create a way to continue the mitzvah, even though the Temple was no longer standing and the priests were no longer acting as priests. As the rabbis explain, so the “category of challah should not be forgotten” (Bechorot 27a).


In one of the earliest rabbinic discussions, we are told there are five types of grain considered: “The priest’s share of the dough, wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye” (Mishna Challah 1:1).


If one of those grains is used and the amount of flour is over a tenth of an ephah, one “is obligated in challah” (Eruvin 83b).


This is based on the understanding that an “omer is a tenth of an ephah” (Ex. 16:36). An omer was the amount of manna the Israelites collected daily in the desert. This was also the measure of grain offered in the Temple: “When you come into the land that I am about to give you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring a sheaf/omer, first of your harvest, to the priest” (Lev. 23:10).


It is understood that an omer is approximately 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg.). It is not surprising that these days we find a range of answers when it comes to when challah needs to be taken, as we are dealing with a ritual that has traveled from our distant past. That time has separated us from knowing exact age-old measurements. With that being said, we find a number of different opinions. Some say that challah does not have to be taken for less than 8 cups of unsifted flour, and if one is using between 8 to 12 cups of unsifted flour, challah is taken, but without a blessing. If one is using over 12 cups, around 3.3 pounds of unsifted flour (1.5 kg.), one separates challah with the blessing.

There are variations on these opinions.

 

A question that also needs to be asked is how much challah should be taken. In the Mishna there is a discussion with different answers based on the use of the bread. (Challah 2:6). As Jewish law evolved, the amount needed became kezayit, the size of an olive. Why that size? Rabbi Shlomo Brody explains: “For example, with regard to many commandments involving food, consumption was not considered ‘eating’ unless one ate the equivalent of the size of an olive (kezayit) within a specified period of time.”
 

The procedure today is after kneading the dough, take an olive-size piece of dough and, before detaching it, say: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to separate challah from the dough.” 

 

Then detach the piece of challah and say: “This is challah.”


There is also a tradition to add personal prayers for specific needs and requests at that moment. The piece of dough is then ready to be burned – often by wrapping it in aluminum foil and placing it on the bottom of a preheated oven. There is a minor opinion that says that a piece of dough can be disposed of by putting it in a compost container.


Why burn the piece of dough?


In the Talmud it states: “Rav said: ‘Just as there is a mitzva to burn consecrated items that became ritually impure, so too, there is a mitzva to burn truma/sacred contribution that became ritually impure...’” (Shabbat 25a).


Rabbi Chaim Yeshaya Freeman explains: “During the era of the Temple, and even after its destruction while Jews still observed the laws of ritual impurity and purity, the challah was given as a gift to the kohen, who would eat it in a state of ritual purity. Nowadays, this is not the case, since everyone is assumed to be in a state of ritual impurity. The challah is therefore not given to a kohen, but instead burned (Shulhan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 322:4).”

JUST AS the history of hafrashat (taking) challah has had different chapters in its long existence, we find the same with challah, the bread served on Shabbat. Culinary anthropology writer Lis Susman Karp explains: 

 

“In medieval times, challah was a plain, simple bread. According to Maggie Glezer in A Blessing of Bread, braiding it began in 15th-century Austria and Southern Germany, with Jewish housewives following their non-Jewish counterparts, who plaited the loaves they baked on Sundays. Braids also symbolized the Sabbath bride’s hair, says Prof. Hasia R. Diner, the Paul and Sylvia Steinberg professor of American Jewish history at New York University.... The word ‘challah’ is first mentioned in a 1488 Austrian book, Leket Yosher, but took hold in Poland. In America, berches, the German Ashkenazi potato bread, became known as challah with the additional influx of Eastern European immigrants.”


Renee Rousso Chernin, creator of the website TheKosherChannel.com, has an important insight: “It is interesting to note that the Hebrew root of the word ‘challah’ is ‘hol,’ which means ordinary.... Just as separating challah dough makes the bread edible,” she points out that to make the world holy “requires our involvement in it, and also our separation from it.”


When we take challah, we can be transported to, we touch, an earlier time in our history. We are also reminded that the task of bringing more holiness, to reveal the holiness, in the world and in our lives requires both active engagement and moments of quiet separation.


Baker Dina Bronson of Dina’s Bakery in Manchester, Vermont, who many say makes the best challah they have ever tasted, shares this insight:


“Each Friday, as I make challah, something happens. As I prepare the dough, prayers and Hebrew songs rise unbidden in my mind. I think about the people who will eat this challah. I think about my community. And as I braid each loaf, I count 18 twists in each braid – a little chai with your bread. And as the last loaf is finished, I say ‘Baruch haShem.’ How grateful I am that this act that pleases others helps remind me who I am.”

Parashat Beha'alotcha

‘Yedid Nefesh’: Unpackaging one verse

 

Michael M. Cohen

June 1, 2023

“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman” (Num 12:1).


They were jealous of their brother Moses because of his special relationship with God, as well as his position of leadership. If we thought we had left sibling jealousy behind in the Book of Genesis, it reappears here with its usual destructive force.


They cloaked their charge against Moses with the implication. How could he have his extraordinary rapport with God and be the political leader of the Israelites if he married someone who was not an Israelite? That is to say, they played the dual loyalty nativist card.


One opinion in the Talmud takes a more generous angle: “But is her name Cushite? Zipporah is her name. Rather, just as a Cushite is distinguished by their (dark) skin, so too, Zipporah was distinguished by her actions” (Moed Katan 16b).


Miriam and Aaron continued, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2).


It was well known that God did in fact speak with Miriam and Aaron. Miriam was called a prophetess (Ex 15:20 & Megillah 14a). God also spoke only with Aaron (Lev 10: 8; Num 18:1), and on many occasions God spoke with Aaron and Moses together (Ex 6:13; Lev 15:1; Numbers 20:12; etc.). It is also stated, “Furthermore, did I not assign to you three special tutors, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?” (Numbers Rabbah 2:1).


 “And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all people who were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:2-3).


Of all the moments in the life of Moses, why do we learn about his humility at this point? Why not at the burning bush when he stated he did not want the position of leadership? (Ex 3:11). Or after the incident of the Golden Calf, when Moses offered his life rather than allow God to wipe out the Israelites? (Ex 32:32).


Because in some ways, a personal insult/attack, and in this case by family members, is harder to let go of. In relation to this, we read in Avot deRabbi Natan (41:11), “Condition oneself to tolerate distress, and be forgiving of insults.”


To which the sages in the Talmud (Shabbat 88b) add, “Those who are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in affliction, Scripture says: ‘And they that love God are as the sun going forth in its might’” (Judges 5:31).

AND SUDDENLY the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.


And God said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him, I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Num 12:4-8).


That is to say, while God communicated with Miriam and Aaron, as well as the prophets, Moses was on a different level of contact, communication, and transmission. In the Talmud we are told, “All of the prophets observed through an obscure looking glass (aspaklaria). Moses our master observed through a clear looking glass.” (Yevamot 49b). Rabbi Ismar Schorsch adds to our understanding of this dynamic and connects it into the humility of Moses:


“The glass through which he peered was crystal clear while that of the others was simply not. Rashi’s gloss on the text brings out the paradox in their distinction. ‘The prophets thought they saw God, but really didn’t. Whereas Moses, who had the benefit of a clear glass, knew he never saw God face to face.’ Moses’s humility was a function of his greatness. Penetrating more deeply into the unfathomable mystery of things than anyone before or since, he was more acutely aware of his ignorance. As the Torah relates at Mt. Sinai: ‘Moses approached the thick cloud where God was (Ex 20:18).’”


“Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and God departed” (Num 12:8-9).

SIMILARLY, GOD’S anger would also ignite, in two parshiot from this week, against Korah, a distant relative of Moses also from the tribe of Levi, who, like Miriam and Aaron, was jealous of the position of Moses (Num 16:1-35).


“When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my Lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.’ And Moses cried to the Lord, ‘O God, please heal her – please’” (Num 12:10-13).


Why Miriam? Why leprosy? Why white? Rav Kook comments:


“In fact, the Sages taught that Aaron did not get off scot-free. They understood from the words, ‘God displayed anger against them,’ that Aaron was also disciplined. His punishment, though, was less severe than Miriam’s, since it was his older sister who instigated the verbal attack against Moses. (Miriam’s leading role in the incident is indicated by the fact that she is mentioned first: ‘Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses…’).”


Miriam’s comment that the wife of Moses was from Cush means on some level she was referring to Zipporah’s darker skin color. Miriam’s punishment is therefore about her skin, making her own skin color the opposite of what she had said about Zipporah.


The land of Cush played an important role in the history of ancient Israel. Jennifer Drummond of the Biblical Archaeological Society explains:


“The Kingdom of Cush, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, played an important role in biblical history despite being one of the lesser-known kingdoms. According to 2 Kings 19:9, “Tirhakah, King of Cush” came to the aid of Hezekiah against Sennacherib, king of Assyria, when his forces laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Without such aid, it is hard to imagine that the Kingdom of Judah would have survived. Judah would have likely gone the way of the Kingdom of Israel – spread to the four winds, never to return.”


Kabbalat Shabbat, Friday evening services, begins with the singing of “Yedid Nefesh” (You who love my soul). It was written by Rabbi Eleazar Azikri of the famous and influential Kabbalistic circle of 16th-century Safed.


It speaks of the human soul’s desire to cleave to God. It was placed at the start of the Shabbat liturgy as a reminder that our souls need the remedy of Shabbat so we can return to a healthier relationship with God and, by extension, ourselves and the people we come in contact with.
That is exactly why the words of Moses, the shortest prayer in the entire Bible, from this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha – “O God, please heal her – please/el na refa na lah,” are incorporated into “Yedid Nefesh.”


On one level, it says our souls are sick and need repairing from the pace of the work week. On another level, it is saying remember the context of when Moses said these words – the worst of family dynamics.


As Moses was able to rise above the moment and ask that God heal and not punish Miriam, we must – so we can enter the peace of Shabbat – let go of any acrimony we may have with any family members. In that way, we can have a Shabbat shalom and, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “call the Sabbath a delight/oneg” (Isa 58:13).  

Parashat Nasso

The Priestly Blessing’s many layers

 

Michael M. Cohen

May 25, 2023

‘It mounts by gradual stages from the petition for material blessing and protection to that for Divine favor as a spiritual blessing, and in beautiful climax culminates in the petition for God’s most consummate gift, shalom, peace, the welfare in which all material and spiritual well-being is comprehended.”


So Rabbi Joseph Hertz quotes biblical scholar Emil Kautzsch in describing the sublime words of Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:23-26), from this week’s parasha, Naso.


The simple three-line blessing in Hebrew expands in an ever embracing structure from three to five to seven words:


“May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn to you and give you peace.”


Its words are the oldest of the Torah ever found; Aharon Varady points out, also the earliest artifact of Jewish liturgy we have in physical form, some 500 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls. Israeli archeologist Gabriel Barkay discovered two silver amulets, with parts of the blessing on them, in a burial cave in Jerusalem just below St. Andrews Church and behind the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. There is an extensive explanation of the discovery and its significance at that site. The amulets can be viewed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They date from the late seventh or early sixth century BCE around the time of King Josiah.


Rabbi Reuven Hammer comments on the historical liturgical significance of the Birkat Kohanim:


“The practice of having kohanim recite the blessing in the synagogue is an ancient one. Originally the blessing was a part of the Temple service, but nothing in the Torah restricts it to the Temple site. The Mishna records that it was recited outside of the Temple as well, and tells of certain differences in such cases. In the Temple it was pronounced as one blessing; elsewhere, as three. In the Temple, the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter Name of God) was pronounced; elsewhere, the word ‘Adonai’ was substituted. In the Temple, the priests raised their hands above their heads; elsewhere, only as high as their shoulders. (See Sota 7:6)” (Hammer, Or Hadash, p. 177).


Significantly, this blessing is written in the second person singular – you – while most Jewish liturgy is framed in the first person plural – us. There is the communal concern when we pray as Jews for the larger community we live within, but in the case of blessings there is a shift to our individual needs and hopes. The individual blessings listed in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 are also in the second person singular.


Traditionally, only a male kohen can offer this blessing as part of the Amida section during certain synagogue services (there are different customs based on where in the world one might be, as well as per denomination). Regardless, it is one of the Amida blessings recited silently or in the prayer leader’s repetition of the morning and afternoon Amida (Birkat Kohanim was not pronounced in the evening in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem). In many non-Orthodox circles the Priestly Blessing solely offered by a male kohen is no longer practiced. In the Reconstructionist siddur, we find this alternate:


“Another way to enact the Priestly Blessing is for each congregant to turn to a neighbor and recite the first half of each blessing, while the neighbor responds with the second half of the blessing” (Kol Naneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim, p. 318).


When kohanim recite the blessing, they take their shoes off – an echo of when Moses encountered God at the burning bush: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). In addition, Levites wash the hands of the kohanim before they invoke Birkat Kohanim. This, too, is a reminder of earlier practices:


“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. And you shall put water in it, for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it” (Ex. 30:17-21).


We also read in the Mishna: “Rabbi Yehuda says: Even the high priest lifts his hands above the front plate, as it is stated: ‘And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them’ (Leviticus 9:22)” (Sota 7:6).


And so, after covering their heads with their tallitot, the kohanim raise their hands to bless the congregation. They also move their fingers so they look like the Hebrew letter shin, signifying one of God’s names, Shadai. That hand configuration was made famous by the Star Trek character Spock. Actor Leonard Nemoy explained:


“I still have a vivid memory of the first time I saw the use of the split-fingered hands being extended to the congregation in blessing. There were a group of five or six men facing the congregation and chanting in passionate shouts of a Hebrew benediction.... My dad said, ‘Don’t look.’ I learned later that it is believed that during this prayer the Shechina, the feminine aspect of God, comes into the temple to bless the congregation. The light from this Deity could be very damaging. So we are told to protect ourselves by closing our eyes. I peeked. And when I saw the split-fingered gesture of these men... I was entranced. I learned to do it simply because it seemed so magical. It was probably 25 years later that I introduced that gesture as a Vulcan greeting in Star Trek... It gives me great pleasure since it is, after all, a blessing.”


There is a custom, based on the Birkat Kohanim roles of the kohanim and the Levites, that in Jewish cemeteries an image of the hand symbol is carved on the gravestone of a kohen, and a pitcher on that of a Levi. According to the Talmud (Brachot 55b), if one had a dream and is uncertain about its meaning, then, while the Priestly Blessing is offered in the synagogue, a prayer should be said by the congregant. The Priestly Blessing is also incorporated into the home Friday night ritual. Parents recite its words to their children while placing their hands on their children’s heads. This usually takes place between the lighting of Shabbat candles and the singing of “Shalom Aleichem.” 

 

Rabbi Tamar Fox adds:


“Beyond the weekly blessing on Friday nights, many parents recite this blessing on special occasions, such as at a child’s brit milah or naming ceremony, bar or bat mitzvah, and wedding. Any important milestone in a child’s life, from the first day of school to birthdays, to the day they graduate high school or college, can be appropriately marked with this blessing.”


A shortened variation of Birkat Kohanim is found in Psalm 67: “May God grant us grace and bless us, may God’s face shine upon us” (Ps. 67:2).


We note that it is written in the first person plural, unlike Birkat Kohanim, which is composed in the second person singular. By combining the two sources, we are reminded: I can only be blessed if you are blessed, and you can only be blessed if I am blessed.

Parashat Bamidbar

Prayer sources

 

Michael M. Cohen

May 18, 2023

The second chapter of the Book of Numbers/Sefer Bamidbar opens:


“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying…”
(Num. 2:1)


The midrash comments on the pairing of Moses and Aaron in that sentence from this week’s parasha, Bamidbar:

 

“In 18 passages you find Moses and Aaron placed on an equal footing [when God spoke]. This is related to the 18 benedictions [of the weekday Amidah prayer section]... In 18 passages Moses and Aaron are conjoined; giving a hint for the 18 benedictions, which correspond to the 18 references to the Divine Name occurring in the Shema [Deut. 6:4-9; Deut. 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41] and in ‘A Psalm of David’ [Psalm 29]. The Three Patriarchs, then, introduced the custom of praying three times a day, while Moses and Aaron and from the above mentioned references to the Divine Name we infer 18 benedictions [in the weekday Amidah].”
(Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:1)


In this midrash, the rabbis are looking for a justification why the Amidah, the core prayer of every Jewish prayer service, has 18 parts. They also note we pray three times a day because of the Three Patriarchs. Since the 2nd century CE, after an additional benediction was added to the Amidah, bringing the total to 19 benedictions, the Amidah has continued to be called the “Shemoneh Esrei” (Mishna Berachot 4:3). (On Shabbat and holidays the Amidah has only seven sections.)

 

In another midrash we read:


“Rabbi Hanina said in the name of Rabbi Pinechas, ‘The Patriarchs are mentioned 18 times in the Torah [together], and accordingly the Sages [rabbis of the Mishna, 200 CE, and Talmud, 500 CE,] instituted 18 benedictions in the service.”
(Midrash Rabbah Genesis 69:4)


We find further discussions on this topic in the Talmud:


“Shimon HaPakuli arranged the 18 blessings before Rabban Gamliel in their order in Yavne. Rabbi Yohanan said, and some say that it was taught in a baraita [a teaching from the mishnaic period not included in the Mishna]: 120 elders [the Men of the Great Assembly (approx. 4th century BCE to 1st century CE)] and among them several prophets, established 18 blessings...”
(Megillah 17b)


We see in this overview a number of different answers to the source of the 18 benedictions of the Amidah. We find a question raised as to why we pray three times a day (with the Amidah and its 18 benedictions as its core). In the midrash quoted above we also discover:


“Abraham instituted morning prayer, as it is said, ‘And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood, etc.’ [Gen. 19: 27]... Isaac instituted afternoon prayer, as it is said, ‘And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at eventide’ [Gen. 24:63]... Jacob instituted evening prayer, as it is said, ‘And he came upon the place, etc.’ [Gen 28:11].”

(Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:1)


In this understanding, the Patriarchs are associated with why we pray three times a day. A very similar example of giving credit to Abraham Issac, and Jacob for thrice praying each day is found in Genesis Rabbah 68:9. There we find two additional reasons for the three daily times of prayer:


“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: [the three times we pray correspond to the] three times the day changes. In the evening, a person needs to say ‘may it be Your will, Lord my God, that you will bring me from darkness to light.’ In the morning one needs to say ‘I thank you Lord my God, that you brought me from darkness to light.’ In the afternoon a person needs to say ‘may it be Your will, Lord my God, that just as I merited to see the sun rise, may I merit to see the sun set.’ Another explanation... the rabbis say the prayers were fixed according to the [daily] Tamid sacrifices. The morning prayer according to the morning Tamid offering. The afternoon prayer according to the Tamid of the late afternoon. The evening prayer has no set moment, it was established according to the limbs and fat pieces that were consumed by the fire of the altar.”
(Genesis Rabbah 68:9)


Rabbi Shmuel ties praying three times a day to the natural cycle of the day, while the rabbis link them directly to the daily sacrifice in the Temple. In the discussion of why we pray three times a day we have seen answers that predate the Temple – the Patriarchs and the three natural time periods of the day. We also see an answer that connects the times of prayer to the actual Temple sacrifices themselves.


Returning to the 18 benedictions of the Amidah, there are voices within the tradition that claim the reasons predate the Second Temple, such as the 18 pairings of Moses and Aaron in the Torah (Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:1). There is also the belief that the Men of the Great Assembly “established the 18 blessings” (Megillah 17b) while the Second Temple stood. And there are those that place the answer after the destruction of the Temple by the Sages (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 69:4). What is fascinating is that while some of these explanations place the 18 benedictions originating while the Second Temple stood, there are those that give the answer before or after the Second Temple.

 

This despite the history as explained in Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Rabbi Ismar Elbogen:
“There can be no doubt that the nucleus of this [Amidah] prayer took shape as early as the Second Temple period; it seems likely that the number of benedictions was already eighteen, at least in the practice of most communities, before the ‘formulating’ of this prayer in Yavneh. This view is nearly universally accepted today.”
(Elbogen, p. 37)

 

One way to understand why there are explanations of why we pray three times a day, and why there are 18 benedictions in the Amidah that are not grounded in the Temple, is because once the Temple was destroyed it meant that any justifications associated with the Temple in regards to the daily prayers and the 18 benedictions of the Amidah were weakened. And so to expand the premise of praying three times a day and why there are 18 Amidah benedictions, thinking was broadened.


This is the strength of Judaism – for thousands of years we have confronted the need for adaptability in the face of new realities. One aspect of daily prayer is the renewal/hitchadeshut of the self as we experience the multitude of what the day brings us. Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild points out, “The Hebrew verb le’hitapallel, from which the word for prayer – tefillah – comes, means in essence to work on oneself and to judge oneself. So the language of prayer is reflexive... it is about stepping outside of the normal stream of time and busyness and looking at ourselves in order to decide for ourselves.”

 

Commenting, Dr. Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University writes, "'renewal' refers both to natural/cosmic preocesses and human ones related both to society and the individual, from daily, monthly, yearly, and seasonal cycles of human resilience and renewal."

 

Prayer can help us achieve this hitchadshut as a way to adjust and balance our lives through the course of the day as established by the tradition – evening, morning, and afternoon.

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Higher and higher

 

Michael M. Cohen

May 11, 2023


The two parshiyot we read this week take place on Mount Sinai. Fittingly, the beginning of the first parasha and the end of the second parasha make reference to that portentous location. The first parasha is called Behar, meaning “on the mountain,” while the second parasha, Behukotai, “my laws,” ends with the phrase “behar Sinai,” on Mount Sinai.


We do not know Mount Sinai’s exact location, just as in the case of Moses’s grave. In both cases the tradition downplays their locales so as not to turn them into places of veneration, veneration that could border on the idolatrous.


There are a number of mountains that are believed to possibly be the Mount Sinai we read about in the Torah. One of the most intriguing is Mount Karkom, which reaches a height of 847 meters (2,780 feet) above sea level, located in Israel near the Egyptian border in the southwest Negev Desert, with its ancient cultic sites signifying it has an ancient tradition of being a very holy mountain.


Archaeologist Emmanuel Anati says, “We can say that Mount Karkom has been a sacred mountain for millennia.... No other known sites of the Sinai Peninsula show such evident, intense and rich traces of cult activity.”


However, many people consider Jabal Musa (2,285 m. [7,497 ft.] high), in the southern Sinai Peninsula, to be Mount Sinai. At its base is St. Catherine’s Monastery, built in the sixth century CE, which encloses a bush thought to be the burning bush encountered by Moses. Cecil B. DeMille filmed the revelation scene for his 1956 movie The Ten Commandments there, with Charlton Heston playing the role of Moses.

NOTWITHSTANDING ITS mysterious whereabouts, Mount Sinai is a mountain. Why is that significant? In the spiritual quest, distance and space play their unique roles. Is our experience with God immanent or transcendent?


Dr. Amanda Jenkins explains, “The words ‘transcendent’ and ‘immanent’ often are seen together in theological language. The transcendence of God means that God is outside of humanity’s full experience, perception or grasp. The immanence of God means that he is knowable, perceivable or graspable.”


Mount Sinai can be seen as representing both immanence and transcendence. The top of the mountain is far away, and so in that sense is transcendent, but it is not as far as heaven, and so it is also immanent.


In his brilliant exploration of our relationship to, and role with, the environment, Evan Eisenberg adds insight to the importance of mountains and religious cultures. He writes:


“The two great worldviews I mentioned at the outset belonged to two kinds of civilizations: those of the hilly lands and those of the great river valleys. The first kind typified the Canaanites, the second the Mesopotamians... the hill peoples and the valley peoples had different world-poles. The world-pole is the axis on which the world turns. It is the heart of the world, the source of all life. Nearly every people has a world-pole, but they do not agree on its shape. For the Canaanites, the world-pole was the Mountain: the place sacred to the gods, the font of life-giving water. For the Mesopotamians, it was the Tower: the ziggurat that rose in the midst of the city” (The Ecology of Eden, p. 70).


We note that despite their different cultural orientations, they share the notion that the gods are found by reaching upward. That vertical theology is passed along to, and found in, Judaism from its earliest stages. This is not surprising, as Abraham and Sarah come from, and Jacob, along with Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, spent time in, Mesopotamia (Abraham from Ur [Gen 11:28], Jacob in Padan-aram [Gen 28:6]). In addition, ancient Israel was originally inhabited by the Canaanites (Gen 12:5 - 6).


Responding to this vertex theology, Rabbi Art Green teaches:


“But suppose for a moment that we allowed ourselves to be freed from this upper world-lower world way of thinking.... Some of our greatest philosophers and mystics surely understood that this way of seeing things could well be replaced by one that spoke in terms of ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ rather than ‘upper’ and ‘lower’.... This journey inward would be one that peels off layer after layer of externals, striving ever for the inward truth, rather than one that consists of climbing rung after rung, reaching ever higher and higher. Spiritual growth, in this metaphor, is a matter of uncovering new depths rather than attaining new heights” (Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology, p. 12).


Perhaps inner and outer can also be understood as an echo of immanent and transcendent, close and distant. In that case Mount Sinai as a metaphor can stand for the classic upper-lower worldview, with the peak of Mount Sinai perceived as far away, as well as the inner-outer orientation, since most of us never physically climb Mount Sinai; rather, we attempt to spiritually climb it within ourselves.

Parashat Emor

The many meanings of the Ner Tamid


Michael M. Cohen

May 4, 2023


One of the most recognizable Jewish symbols, used for over 2,000 years, is the menorah from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One of the earliest images we have of the menorah is from the reign of Antigonus II Mattathias, the last Hasmonean king of Judea, who minted coins (40-37 BCE) with images of the menorah. We also find the menorah in the Arch of Titus, built in Rome in 81 CE to celebrate the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the Roman victory over the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE).


In addition, many menorahs can be seen to this day at the Beit She’arim necropolis (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), dating from the second to fourth centuries CE. We also find menorahs used in the elaborate mosaic floors in the synagogues of Hamat Tiberias (fourth century CE), Susya (fifth-sixth century CE), Beth Alfa (sixth century CE) and Beit She’an (fifth-seventh centuries CE).


Utilized during the ensuing centuries in Jewish locations around the world, the menorah was incorporated into the official emblem of the modern State of Israel in 1949.


The menorah mentioned above is the seven-branched candelabrum. Why seven? One answer: seven represents a whole complete unit, like the first week of Creation. The hanukkiah of the holiday of Hanukkah is a nine-branched candelabrum, with its eight candle holders commemorating that eight-day holiday, and the middle holder, the shammash, functioning as a helper candle for lighting those eight candles.


We are first introduced to the menorah in the Book of Exodus (Ex. 25:31-40) as part of the accessories of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) used by the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert. The Mishkan was their sanctuary for the worship of God. It also acted as the blueprint for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.


We read in regard to the menorah in the Tabernacle: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Ex. 27:20).


The Hebrew word for regularly is “tamid.” We get clarification of what regularly means:
“Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Lord [to burn] regularly” (Lev. 24:3-4).


That is to say, regularly/tamid, when it comes to the menorah, means every evening. This raises a question. According to the Etz Hayim commentary (p. 503), Exodus 27:20, quoted above, is the proof text for the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, found above the ark in synagogues around the world. The Ner Tamid in the synagogue is lit all the time, 24/7, while the lights of the menorah in the ancient Temple (Ex. 27:20/Lev 24:2-4) were only lit at night!


How can this be reconciled?


We also learn: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual/tamid fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out” (Lev. 6:5-6).


In this instance, in reference to the fire on the altar, we see “tamid” utilized in the sense of all the time. That is to say, “tamid” has two meanings: it can be understood as perpetual, to never go out (Lev 6:5-6), and as regular, as in every night (Lev 24:2-4/Ex. 27:20).


“Tamid” therefore represents two important cadences: the persistent, nonending; and that which reoccurs. Our breathing comprises these two elements. We breathe our entire lives, but with a signature of inhalations and exhalations.


With this insight we can understand the Ner Tamid of the synagogue holding both of these elements of the word. The Ner Tamid can represent God, Judaism, our connection to the Jewish people as a constant, on the one hand, but on the other it recognizes those relationships can have their own pulse and oscillation.

AN ASTUTE observation on the complexities of the Ner Tamid is made by Hannah Sedletsky:


“The original Ner Tamid was an open flame, a visible pillar of fire, casting heat and light, the engine of combustion generating noise and smoke. The Ner Tamid in our synagogues today is distant from that sensory experience. It is a symbol of a symbol.”


This confusion surrounding the Ner Tamid is also found in Midrash Tanhuma, which relates that Moses had trouble following the instructions from God how to make the menorah:


“Moses still found difficulty with it, and when he came down, he forgot its construction. He went up and said: ‘Master of the Universe, I have forgotten [how to make it]!’ God said to him: ‘Look and make [it]’; God made its form out of fire and showed him its construction. Still, Moses found its construction difficult” (Tanhuma, Beha’alotecha 11, Buber ed.).


We find a similar idea in another midrash: “You see that Moses struggled with the design of the menorah more than with all the other vessels of the Mishkan, until the Holy One Who is Blessed showed him with a finger” (Numbers Rabbah 15:1).


Commenting on this, Rabbi Brad Artson writes: 

 

“Why were those details so impossible to retain? What is the Torah teaching us about human beings and about being human? After all, Moses is able to remember the entire Torah (according to one tradition of how the Torah was recorded), and according to Mishna Avot (1:1) he was able to remember the entire Oral Teaching as well! How could such a skilled and gifted mind have trouble remembering the details of the menorah?


“Perhaps the Torah is telling us that even the most gifted of minds is stronger in some areas and weaker in others. Moses was a great role model for our entire people, yet he, too, was imperfect. Bezalel (as the architect of the Mishkan), who made no great contribution to Jewish law or Jewish literature, was able to make a timeless contribution that was beyond Moses’s abilities.”


The multi-meanings of the word “tamid” – constantly there or a rhythmic pattern – mirrors that multifacetedness of being human. We are reminded of that layered human condition by Moses and Bezalel when it came to creating the menorah of the Mishkan and its command to kindle its “lamps regularly/ner tamid” (Ex. 27:20). The Ner Tamid of the synagogue represents that the vibrancy of the universe, as well as how we experience our lives, comes in an array of perceptions and colors.

Parashat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim
Why holiness matters to society

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 27, 2
023


The first part of our double parasha this week, Aharei Mot, begins by describing many of the rituals that constitute the core practices of Yom Kippur as found in the Torah. Later they were developed and adapted in the Mishna, Talmud, and eventually as the Avoda section of the Mussaf service found in the Mahzor prayer book for that most holy of days within the Jewish calendar.


In all its iterations, the order of expiation has been the individual, originally Aaron in his capacity as the high priest (Lev. 16:6) and then his family (Lev. 16:6), the Sanctuary (Lev. 16:16) and finally the entire community (Lev. 16:21).


That structure reminds us that to effectively change society, we must first begin with ourselves, then our families, followed by the institutions of society and finally the fullness of our body politic.


Woven within the atonements and restorations of the day is the rite of the Azazel – the sending off of a goat into the wilderness, “to carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region” (Lev. 16:22). Symbolically this goat took away the transgressions of the people.
We may ask, “Okay, they were taken away symbolically, but that is only a symbol, so what good was it? Moreover, what meaning can it have for us today?”


Decades ago a congregant knocked on my office door. They were distraught and feeling guilty for something that had happened. They were tangentially responsible at the most. It was close to Rosh Hashanah, when we would do tashlich by the Battenkill River behind the synagogue. I suggested to the congregant that they join us for tashlich, and that as they cast their pieces of bread into the river, they should symbolically imagine their guilt being carried away by the waters of the river. A few weeks later they once again knocked on my office door and informed me that since doing tashlich, they had felt so much better. There can be a profound power in symbols, often when tied to ritual.

AS PART of the Yom Kippur instructions, we are told: “And this shall be to you a law for all time... you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you. For on this day expiation shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord” (Lev. 16:29-30).


In the Mishna (Yoma 8:1), self-denial is defined as being forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on sandals, or to have sexual intercourse. This denial is not for punishment or to inflict suffering, but, rather, to show we have agency. These actions, which we do the rest of the year, affirm life, make our lives more comfortable, and can bring pleasure. In essence, they are all good and can enhance our lives. The latter can create life itself. The charge of Yom Kippur is to show that if we can control those activities for all their positive elements, then for the rest of the year we have the power to curb and overcome yearnings we would be better off avoiding.


Rabbi Dorothy Richman reminds us that self-denial should be limited in how and how often we practice it. Addressing some voices within the tradition that favorably express self-denial as a way of support when others suffer (Ta’anit 11a; Shulhan Aruch, Hilchot Ta’anit, 674:4), she writes (on myjewishlearning.com):


“A hassidic story describes a wealthy man who prides himself on his self-denial. He comes to his rabbi’s home and brags that he eats only bread with salt and drinks only water. The rabbi, horrified, orders the wealthy man to eat rich and nutritious meals and to drink wine. After the rich man leaves, the rabbi’s disciples are puzzled. The rabbi explains, ‘Not until he eats meat will he realize that the poor need bread. As long as he himself eats only bread, he will think the poor can live on stones.’


“It can be tempting to deprive ourselves of pleasure rather than face the challenge of repair. Yet self-denial for the sake of solidarity is a waste of privilege. It is imperative to use our gifts of wealth, education and influence to improve conditions for the poor and powerless.”

AT THE end of the day, the goal for Yom Kippur and every day is to live a holy life. In that light, it is logical that the parasha after Aharei Mot is Kedoshim (holy ones), our second parasha this Shabbat.


We are told at the beginning of the parasha, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). What does it mean to be holy?


Being holy is a state of mind. It is an awareness that floods the soul so that we see, so that we experience, not that everything is God (pantheism), but, rather, that everything, all existence, is within and is an extension of God (panentheism).


When it comes to explaining panentheism, Rav Hillel Rachmani (on etzion.org.il) makes the comparison of a leaf and a tree: the leaf is not the tree, but is a part of the tree.


That interrelated orientation of holiness places all things within a web of mutuality. That is the inner logic for the concentric circles of the Avoda service of Yom Kippur. It creates a dialogue and concern which radiates out and then back between the individual, the family, the structural institutions of society, and the body politic we live in. In the thinking and the words of the Torah, that is the path to living a holy life every day of the year.

Parashat Tazria-Metzora
The Value of Eight

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 20, 2023


We are in the midst of counting the Omer from the second night of Passover for seven full weeks. The first day of the eighth week will be the festival of Shavuot. Last week’s parasha is named Shmini, meaning eighth. In this week’s double parasha of Tazria and Metzora, we read the following:


“On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3).


“On the eighth day that person shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil” (Lev. 14:10).


“On the eighth day of purification, the person shall bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord” (Lev. 14:23).


“On the eighth day he shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and come before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and give them to the priest” (Lev. 15:14).


“On the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 15:28).


The number eight, or rather the “eighth day” during this period of time in the Jewish liturgical calendar, gets a lot of attention and invites us to investigate.


At its core, eight is seven plus one, seven expressing a whole finished period of time – think of the first seven days of Creation. That which follows, represented by the number eight, is the future.


In that light we can understand the reason a brit milah (circumcision) takes place on the eighth day of a young child’s life. During that ceremony we mark the part of the body through which future generations will emerge. In addition, as part of the brit milah ritual, the child is brought into the covenant (brit) of the Jewish people; his future identity and responsibilities are declared at that moment by his family and community.


That declaration parallels the holiday of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. There the Jewish people entered into the covenant with God:


“Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one saying, ‘All the Lord has spoken, we will do!’ And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord” (Ex. 19:7-8).


Shavuot, as mentioned above, is the first day of the eighth week after the counting of seven full weeks from the second night of Passover. That day marks when the people stood at the base of Mount Sinai and entered the covenant for themselves going forward, as well as for all future generations of the Jewish people. And so the symbolism of falling on that number eight, which represents the future, should not be lost on us.


The other verses noted from this week’s double parasha all spotlight a transition from one status to another, with eight highlighting that new future chapter in one’s life.

WHEN WE think of Judaism and the number eight, the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah is often what first comes to mind:


“Then Judas, his brothers, and the entire community of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at the same time each year, beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days” (I Maccabees 4:59).


“Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards and instituted these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name” (Shabbat 21b).


We are usually taught that Hanukkah is eight days because of the story of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days (Shabbat 21b). That, however, is an explanation given by the Rabbis centuries after the events in an attempt to lessen the role of the Maccabees. The Maccabees, known as the Hasmonean dynasty, were some of the most corrupt leaders in Jewish history, in large part because of their exploitation of power when they combined the priesthood and the kingship. They were descendants of Aaron, and so it was logical they became the priests, but they were not descended from the House of King David, and so they should not have also been the kings. That separation of powers is the Jewish version of Lord Acton’s statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” An important lesson then and today.


In fact, Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days as a late celebration of Sukkot. During the war to liberate Jerusalem, the Maccabees could not celebrate the pilgrimage holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem:


“They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot, they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So, carrying lulavim [palm branches]... they offered hymns of praise [perhaps Hallel] to God, who had brought to pass the purification of his own place” (II Maccabees 10:6-7).


In addition, the eight-day dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees parallels the earlier dedication by King Solomon of his Temple in Jerusalem. As Noam Zion points out:


“The connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah (as the Rabbis later called this holiday) goes beyond the accident of a postponed Sukkot celebration. Sukkot is the holiday commemorating not only the wandering of the Jews in the desert in makeshift huts but the end of that trek with the dedication of the First Temple (i.e., the permanent Bayit/Home of God in Jerusalem by King Solomon circa 1000 BCE).”


Zion then quotes from I Kings: “King Solomon gathered every person of Israel in the month of Eitanim (Tishrei) on the holiday (Sukkot) in the seventh month... for God had said, ‘I have built a House for my eternal residence’” (I Kings 8:2).


He concludes, “Thus the Maccabean rededication celebration is appropriately set for eight days in the Temple.” Here we once again see the use of the number eight connected with communal ceremonies setting the stage for the future – the dedication of Solomon’s Temple and the rededication by the Maccabees.


We are told that in the future, the harp of the Messiah will have eight strings:
“Rabbi Yehuda says: The harp in the Temple was of seven strings.... Rabbi Yehuda continues: And in the days of the Messiah, eight strings, as it is stated: ‘For the Leader, on the eighth: A Psalm of David’ (Psalms 12:1)” (Arachin 13b).


Over and over, we see in the Jewish tradition the connection of the number eight to the future. Rabbi Naamah Kelman adds a fascinating insight to this concept: “Knock the number eight (8) on its side and it is a symbol of infinity; eight is sanctified time, endless time.”

Parashat Shmini
Our most important partnership with God

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 13, 2023

 

“And it was on the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel,” opens this week’s parasha, Sh’mini. (Lev 9:1) The Talmud uses this line in a classic multifaceted Talmudic discussion about the word vayhi/and it was in an attempt to determine if the phrase portents woe or joy. After presenting a number of Biblical sentences from the Bible supporting the former, the Gemara, the rabbinic discussion within the Talmud, turns to Biblical sentences that understand vayhi in a more upbeat light. It is in that context we find our verse:

 

“But isn’t it written: ‘And it came to pass/vayhi on the eighth day’ (Leviticus 9:1), {after a week of ordination events for Aaron and his sons as priests; the eighth day marked the dedication of the Tabernacle} And it is taught: On that day {the eighth day} there was joy before the Holy One, Blessed be God, similar to {the joy on the} day on which the heavens and earth were created. {the Gemara then applies a hermeneutical analysis called gezerah shavah/an inference drawn from identical words in two passages to make its point.} It is written here, ‘And it came to pass/vayhi on the eighth day,’ (Leviticus 9:1) and it is written there, ‘And it was/vayhi {evening, and it was} morning, one day.” (Genesis 1:5)

 

(Megillah 10b)

 

Through this analysis the Talmud establishes that vayhi can also indicate joy. For our purposes the connection the Talmud makes between the construction of the Tabernacle, a human event, and the Creation of the Universe, a Godly event, is an association we want to further explore.

 

In her deep and far reaching commentary on the Torah Nehama Leibowitz also notes that similarity. In her close reading of the text she finds “seven parallels between the Creation and the Tabernacle:”

 

Made/make     Genesis 1:7;16;25         Exodus 25:8;10;23;31

Six days          Genesis 20:11                Exodus 24:16

Seventh day    Genesis 20:11                Exodus 24:16;18 

Finished          Genesis 2:1-2                Exodus 39:32; 40:33

Saw                “God saw,”                      “Moses saw”

                       Genesis 1:31                 Exodus 39:43

Behold             Genesis 1:31                 Exodus 39:43

Blessed           “God blessed”               “Moses blessed”

                       Genesis 2:3                    Exodus 39:43

 

Leibowitz then goes on to write:

 

“The Lord created the heaven and earth and all therein, for man to dwell in,

and created them in six days and rested on the seventh day. Similarly, 

Moses was summoned on the seventh day to the cloud to see the pattern

of the Tabernacle that it was his duty to erect, in order to provide a place on

earth for the Divine Presence. It is incumbent on man to imitate his Creator,

His ways and attributes and assume the role of being His partner in Creation.”

 

       (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p.481)

 

There are two profound lessons we can learn from Leibowitz's insight about imitating and being partners with God. This first is that we should see our work during the six days of the week as building a Tabernacle -  building space for God and godliness in our lives and our world. The second, which is brought out by the connection between Creation and the Tabernacle, is that we have been given the critical and deeply holy task to be partners with God in the unfolding and preservation of Creation. 

 

We read in the morning prayers, “You who in your mercy give light to the earth and its inhabitants, and in your goodness do perpetually renew each day Creation's wondrous work.” (Kol Haneshamah, Daily Siddur, p. 68) Living in the shadow of our human mistreatment and exploitation of the environment, divine renewal is not guaranteed because of our individual, communal, national, and global violations and abuse of the world’s climate. To put it another way, we have turned our backs on that partnership with God when it comes to Creation. Just last month United Nations General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador) told the world, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet…Eleven years is all we have ahead of us to change our direction.” 

 

We mentioned above that “Moses blessed,” the Israelites for fulfilling the task God had commanded them when it came to the building of the Tabernacle. (Ex 39:43)  Rashi says that Moses blessed them by saying, “and the work of our hands firmly found for us, and the work of our hands firmly found!” (Ps 90:17) Robert Alter comments that “firmly found” is “strategically important. It is a word used for keeping dynasties or buildings unshaken.”

 

That is our challenge, what we have been commanded to do, when it comes to this third rock from the Sun we all inhabit and call home - ensure it is firmly set so we, all the children of God, and other living creatures and this planet will endure with the viable conditions for life. Writing this month, Environmental prophet and activist Bill McKibben warned and confronted us:

 

“One the face of it, then, we’re still losing this fight. But there are a few new numbers - wild cards, really - that could yet rewrite the end of this story. They cut both ways: Some of this math deepens our predicament, and some of it points to a way out. They’re the new numbers of this past decade, and they’re big enough to stop and take notice.” (Rolling Stone, April 2023, p. 50)

 

As Moses and the Psalmist remind us, that way out lies in our hands.

Passover Shabbat
The freedom of many names

 

Michael M. Cohen
April 6, 2023


Within the special Shabbat morning Torah reading for Passover we read, “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Pessah remain until the morning” (Exodus 34:25). In this verse, the holiday is referred to as Pessah, based on the sentence, “I will pass (ufasachti) over you” (Exodus 12:13). In addition, “pessah” is the name of the lamb sacrificed on the holiday (Numbers 9:2). As with most Jewish holidays, it has more than one name. In this case three more:


• Chag Hamatzot/the Holiday of Unleavened Bread: The name of the flatbread we are commanded to eat during the holiday (Exodus 12:17; Deuteronomy 16:3).


• Chag Ha’aviv/the Spring Holiday: We are told Passover needs to be observed in the spring (Deuteronomy 16:1), though it appears that that specific name does not appear till much later in Jewish history. Spring, the season of rebirth, also parallels the rebirth of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom.


• Zeman Cheyruteinu/the Time of our Freedom: We celebrate the transformation from slavery to freedom (Exodus 13:9). Included within that name is the implication never to take freedom/democracy for granted.


Passover is not the only holiday in Judaism that is called by more than one name:

• Rosh Hashanah/the Head of the Year: There are actually four “new years” in Judaism (Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1). Rosh Hashanah is for the numbering of the years, which is why this year of 5783 began on the first of Tishri. The term, Rosh Hashanah, appears first in Ezekiel 40:1. It is also known as Yom Hadin/Day of Judgment, since we are judged that day by God (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
It is also known as Yom Hazikaron/Day of Remembrance, echoing the phrase from the liturgy, “Remember us for life.” None of these names appear in the Torah. Rather, in the Torah it is established as, “a reminder by (shofar/horn) blasts” (Leviticus 23:24), which leads to its other name, Yom Teruah/Day of Blasting.”


• Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement is derived from the sentence, “But on the 10th day of the seventh month it is the Day of Atonements/kippurim” (Leviticus 23:27). The plural, kippurim, mirrors our prayers, which we say in the plural since in Judaism our concerns are not only for ourselves, but always communal. Yom Kippur is also called a Shabbat Shabbaton (Leviticus 16:31), emphasizing the totality of refraining from work so that we can focus on atonement.


• Sukkot/Festival of the Booths is named for the booths we build for the holiday to commemorate the booths we lived in for the 40 years while in the desert, “in order that future generations may know I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42).


Karin Kloosterman, founder of Green Prophet website, points out that the booths, “came from when the farmers would dwell with their families and eat meals in them to be close to the harvest, in celebration of a job completed.” It is also known as Chag Ha’aseif/the Festival of the Ingathering (of the fall crops) (Exodus 26:16) as well as Chag Leshem/the Festival of God (Leviticus 23:39), or simply Hachag/the Festival (I Kings 8:2). Finally, it is also called, Zeman Simchateynu/the Time of our Joy, since we are told to, “rejoice before Adonai, your God, seven days” (Leviticus 23:40).


•Hanukkah/Dedication (Shabbat 21b) is so named since the Maccabees were able to rededicate the Temple after defeating the Greeks in 164 BCE (I Maccabees 4). It is also called the Festival of Lights (Josephus, Antiquities).


• Tu B’Shvat/literally the “15th of Shevat,” since it falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It is also called Rosh Hashanah Leilanot/New Year of the Trees, (Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1), as it marked the beginning of the fiscal year for trees.

• Shavuot/the Festival of Weeks is how the holiday is termed in Deuteronomy 16:9-12, connecting it to the seven weeks that are counted (known as counting the Omer) from Passover to Shavuot. It is also referred to as Chag Hakatzir/the Harvest Festival (Exodus 23:16) and Chag Habikurim/Festival of the First Fruits (Numbers 28:26), reflecting its agricultural nature.


Finally, it is also known as Zeman Matan Torateynu/the time of the Giving of the Torah, because the rabbis place the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. (Shabbat 86b; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 494:1) That is to say, there is food for the body, the harvest; and the food for the soul, the Torah.

WE HAVE examined seven Jewish holidays and discovered 24 names! Adding to this, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch reminds us, “Judaism is a wellspring that emits an endless profusion of names for God. The Bible contains some 70; rabbinic literature adds another 90 or more, and no one as yet has bothered to tally the number added by Jewish mystics.”


Those different names for God not only reflect God’s divergent qualities, but mirror the divergence of how we as individuals experience and understand God.


The different names for Passover exemplify the multidimensional aspect of the holiday. This reminds us that we are most free as individuals when we acknowledge and allow ourselves to live -- fully -- the different dimensions of who we are. This lesson of being multifaceted, as we have seen, is also carried by the many names of the other Jewish holidays.

Parashat Tzav
Reclaiming the Mitzvot

 

Michael M. Cohen
March
30, 2023

“Vayikra,” the book of the Torah we read during the spring, literally means, “called,” as in its opening verse, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him…” (Lev. 1:1). God’s spoken message throughout the Torah is often framed as a mitzvah, a commandment.
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, means “command.” Our parasha begins, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying...” (Lev. 6:1). It concludes, “And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord had commanded through Moses” (Lev. 8:36).


When most people are commanded, they follow orders. For example, in the army, a commander gives an order to his or her troops, or in baseball the manager sends a signal to the batter, telling her or him, whether to bunt or to hit away. In both cases, individuals usually do what they are told to do. Soldiers and ballplayers know and see who commanded them. They also understand that these authority figures can enforce their orders; if they are not followed, soldiers can be sent to military prison, and ballplayers can be benched, fined or thrown off the team.


But when it comes to the Torah, we do not see the Commander, and many do not connect the consequences of inactions when it comes to not doing mitzvot. This is a great challenge, in particular, for many non-Orthodox Jews. Is there a different framework for engaging with mitzvot?


A Talmudic discussion provides an interesting angle to that question. In the Midrash God held Mount Sinai over our ancestors’ heads and said, “If you accept the Torah, all is well; if not, this mountain will be your burial site” (Shabbat 88a). The Talmud does not lose sight of the coercive element:


“Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: ‘This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.’ Said Raba, ‘Yet even so, they reaccepted it in the days of Ahasuerus (the king from the Purim story in the book of Esther), for it is written, ‘[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon themselves…’ ( Esther 9:27), confirming what they had accepted long before” (Shabbat 88a).


This is a model we should not lose sight of today.


A core value of Judaism is the generational obligations of the generations. Moses said, as the people prepared to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land: “I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today” (Deut. 29:14-15).


Beginning with Joshua and his generation, who entered the Promised Land, the Jewish people felt the need to take on that obligation on their own:


“The people replied to Joshua, ‘No we will serve the Lord!’ And Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have by your own act chosen to serve the Lord.’ ‘Yes, we are witnesses,’ they responded” (Josh. 24:21-22).


However, for many Jews today that process is not so simple. The reconciling of liberty with service, as Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out, is the great question and challenge for a meaningful life. We who cherish freedom sometimes forget that one of the major lessons of the Exodus story is that freedom without responsibilities can lead to a shallower life, and can often develop into new forms of slavery and idolatry.

SO HOW do we, like our ancestors in the Book of Joshua, take on the Torah’s responsibilities?


At the core of being commanded is obligation – in this case, holy obligation. Obligation is the act of binding oneself through social, legal and moral ties. Until the Jewish encounter with modernity within the last two centuries, that sense of duty came from a belief that the Torah was the transmitted word of God. In our day, when many Jews do not share that traditional view of Torah, it becomes imperative to claim a renewed sense of duty and responsibility. In the mitzvah system, while being commanded lies at its heart, at its essence it is about the binding of oneself to that Call as recorded in the Torah and discussed in the Talmud and other Jewish halachic (legal) and philosophical conversations throughout the ages.


We have a vast sea of possibilities that our tradition lays before us. Sincerely examining and deciding, not a simplistic picking and choosing, what our tradition has to offer can be one approach to seriously engaging with the mitzvot – not from the sense of being commanded from above, but from a sense of filling and enhancing our lives through holy obligation.


Relatedly, it should not be lost that the halachic process has never remained static. Some mitzvot have fallen out of favor or have been circumvented through the centuries. For example, the death penalty and the sota ordeal. Other actions, while not commanded in the Torah, have been raised to the level of commandment, such as the lighting of candles for Shabbat and Hanukkah, when we say, “who has commanded us.”


When an action is claimed as a mitzvah, the question is no longer “should I do this?” but, rather, “now that I am bound, if you will, commanded to do it, how shall I do it?” In addition, with many mitzvot, the question, based on the concept of hidur, or adornment of the mitzvah, will also be, “how can I make this action – and in turn my life and the world we live in – more beautiful?”


Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, in his hassidic Torah commentary, Sfat Emet, teaches that when we take upon ourselves a mitzvah, it can be an innovative process, including one of self-transformation:


“Now you shall command” (Ex. 27:20) Bring the mitzvah into the souls of Israel so that they themselves become mitzvot!... it is the remaking (tikkun) of the person that takes place through mitzvot, forming a person into one dedicated to God.... That person... has become a mitzvah. This is the meaning of ‘asher kidshanu bemitzvotav (who has made us holy through God’s commandments) vetzivanu’ – and made us into mitzvot!” (Sfat Emet, Tetzave; The Language of Truth, translated by Arthur Green, p. 124).


Living a Jewish life is about living a life of commitment and service. It is about binding ourselves to certain ideals and actions. It is about leading a commanded life through our response to that Call as expressed in the words “asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu.” The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. talked about living “a committed life.”
For many non-Orthodox Jews, seeing the mitzvot not as literal commandments but as opportunities to take on personal holy obligation can be a way to reframe a deliberate commitment to Judaism, as well as build a deeper sense of purpose within a Jewish context.


The Sfat Emet reminds us that that process can be transformational. By doing so we remodel not only our actions, but also our lives and the people we come into contact with – our families, our communities, the Jewish people and our world.


Holy obligation can reorient the performance of mitzvot as a way to reclaim that profound responsibility that comes with the mitzvot – as well as convey a heightened awareness that we are all connected to and mirrored in the universe and in the Infinite.

Parashat Vayikra
Please Pass the Salt

 

Michael M. Cohen
March
23, 2023

Of the Five Books of Moses, the most difficult to relate to and comprehend for many is the third book, the Book of Leviticus, with its focus on the sacrificial system.


That difficulty is compounded by the fact that the system was based on the mishkan/tabernacle during our 40 years in the desert, and then the Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. For thousands of years, neither has existed. So we are confronted with a system that is both hard to fathom and no longer present.


And yet is it so far away? In this week’s parasha, Vayikra, we are introduced to various sacrifices and offerings – animals, birds, and grain. We read this week:


“When anyone brings a grain offering to the Lord, their offering is to be of the finest flour. They are to pour olive oil on it, put incense on it and take it to Aaron’s sons, the priests. The priest shall take a handful of the flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial portion on the altar, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the food offerings presented to the Lord” (Lev. 2:1-3).


Grain was also used in the shewbread – 12 loaves, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, that were divided into two rows of six loaves on a golden table called “the table of shewbread” (Ex. 25:30; Lev. 24:5-9) and were changed every Shabbat (Lev. 24:8).


The Prophet Ezekiel mentioned the shewbread: 

 

“The altar was of wood, three cubits high, and its length two cubits, and so its corners; and its length, and its walls were also of wood, and he said to me: This is the table that is before the Lord” (Ez. 41:22).


In discussing this verse the Talmud asks why does the sentence begin by talking about an altar but concludes by talking about a table? Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Elazar said that while the Temple stood, the altar brought about atonement for the individual, but with the Temple no longer standing, a person’s table brings about that atonement (Menahot 97a; also Hagiga 27a with Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish).


In that creative move, which was essential to maintaining the existence of the Jewish people, the rabbis replaced the Temple and the sacrificial system with our kitchen table. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the massive defeat of the Jews by the Romans in the wake of the Bar-Kochba revolt (132-135 CE), there was a very good chance the Jewish people would disappear from history and the face of the earth.


In “Jewish Liturgical Responses to the Roman Destruction of the Temple,” Rabbi Ruth Langer explains:

 

“The rabbis taught a liturgical system that fulfilled the most important functions of Temple rituals but in new, purely verbal forms. They expected universal Jewish participation in daily verbal prayer, corresponding to the times of the lost Temple’s sacrifices (m. Ber. 4:1, 3) and fulfilling their covenantal function.... Atonement for many sins, though, could be sought every weekday, through the regular liturgy. Thus, the most significant Temple functions were modified or transferred, providing Jews with ritual continuity” (The Yale ISM Review, vol. 6.1, spring 2021).


In confronting the stark realities and traumas of the first and second centuries CE, the rabbis made two adjustments – the home and prayer became a substitute for sacrifices. In addition, a strong connection to the land, the seasonal environmental cycle of the Land of Israel, was woven into the daily, weekly and annual liturgy of prayer and the holidays, which the Jewish people carried with them in exile.


In less than two weeks we will celebrate Passover. On its first day, in the Amida prayer, we will switch from saying the prayer for rain to reciting the prayer for dew. This makes complete sense for someone living in the Land of Israel, but for someone living in some other part of the world, there could be a disconnect.


However, if you want a person, a community, to maintain a strong connection to the land while living outside of its borders, that is what you do. That affinity with the Land of Israel was key to maintaining Jewish identity over 2,000 years, and enabled the Jewish people to carry the seed of return to the land, a religious seed that contained within it a national identity.


The litmus test of the health and strength of a Jewish community is not how full or big synagogues may be (though they do have an important role to play), but, rather, what takes place within the Jewish home. Particularly, is there daily study, alongside home rituals and other forms of Jewish observance, including Shabbat and holidays? The rabbis understood this dynamic, when, as mentioned above, they replaced the altar of the Temple in ancient Jerusalem with our kitchen table.


How did they do that? Sorel Goldberg Loeb and Barbara Binder Kadden illustrate:
“Many traditional Jewish practices at mealtimes are based on the ceremonies surrounding the sacrifices. After reciting Hamotzi, we salt our bread before eating it, because of the admonishment to the priests to salt all offerings (Lev. 2:13).


“We wash our hands before breaking bread, as the priests did before bringing a sacrifice. The custom of covering the knife during Birkat Hamazon is explained by the fact that a knife, which is a sign of war, was not allowed to touch the altar, which is a sign of peace” (Loeb & Kadden, Teaching Torah, p. 133).


Salt has been used as a preservative since the days of ancient Egypt. In the Book of Numbers (18:19) we read about a “covenant of salt” (brit melah), with salt conveying a sense of permanence. That has always been the goal and challenge – preserving the Jewish people. As we know from nature, evolution and adaptation are the key to achieving that eternal perpetuation. But it is not preservation for the sake of preservation – the rabbis were always concerned with an ethical and communal layer, even as they adapted to new realities.


“Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him. And he saw the Holy Temple destroyed. Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe to us, for this is destroyed – the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven! Rabbi Yohanan said to him: My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Acts of kindness, as it says, ‘For I desire kindness, rather than burnt offerings’” (Hosea 6:6) (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4).

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei
A Lesson in Democracy

 

Michael M. Cohen
March
16, 2023

The Torah commentary Torah Temima, published in 1902, was compiled by Rabbi Baruch Epstein. Its title comes from “torat Hashem temima” (the Torah of God is perfect)” (Ps. 19:8). A magnum opus, Torah Temima culls the vastness of rabbinic literature into short commentaries that invite the reader to dive further into what Epstein provides. This week’s parasha, Vayakhel, is a case in point.


We read, “Moses said to the Children of Israel: See the Lord has called in the name of Bezalel, the son of Uri the son of Hur from the tribe of Judah” (Ex. 35:30).
 

On that verse we find in Torah Temima (Ex 35:30): “‘See, the Lord has called in the name’: 

 

R. Yitzhak said: A leader does not appoint over the people without their first being consulted, as it is written: ‘See, the Lord has called the name Bezalel.’ The Holy One, blessed be God, said to Moses: ‘Moses, is Bezalel acceptable to you?’ Moses answered: ‘Lord of the Universe, if he is acceptable to You, how much more so is he acceptable to me!’ Whereupon God responded: ‘Even so, go and tell the Jews’” (Brachot 55a).


Torah Temima provides us with a pithy slice of a larger discussion. The topic presented – the function and strengthening of democracy – is critical today in Israel, the United States and around the world. David Schacht notes in temimahblog.com that “the Torah Temimah is defending the practice of gaining the consent of the governed.” The weekly demonstrations in Israel are a reminder to the Knesset and the Israeli government that passing laws without the consent of the majority of a country’s citizens runs against this Jewish value.


This Talmudic discussion opens: “Rabbi Yohanan said: Three matters are proclaimed by the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself: Famine, abundance and a good leader. Famine, as it is written: ‘For the Lord has called for a famine....’ (II Kings 8:1). Plenty, as it is written: ‘And I will call for the grain and will increase it, and lay no famine upon you’ (Ezekiel 36:29). A good leader, as it is written: ‘And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: See, I have called by name Bezalel....’ (Ex. 31:1–2).”


This is an interesting list – famine, plenty and a good leader. Is there a connection? The first two – famine and abundance – relate to food. The third phrase, “parnas tov” (a good leader), referred during the Talmudic period to “both the religious leader and the administrator of the community,” according to Cyrus Adler and Gotthard Deutsch in the Jewish Encyclopedia. (ed. 1906, vol. 9, p. 541). At the end of the day, if we think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food is one of our most basic needs. A well-functioning society, with a leader to guide and administer it, therefore must provide what is necessary to feed the community.


The Talmudic discussion then moves to the section we began with, above: the way Moses agreed to the choice of Bezalel to oversee the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was a model of good leadership. Commenting, Rabbi Zvi Ehrman writes, “R. Isaac injects a democratic note.... The inference is that, as a matter of principle, leaders should never be appointed save in consultation with the people” (Talmud El Am, Brachot, vol. 4, pp. 1003-04). We find a related ruling within a rabbinic discussion on how Halacha (Jewish law) should be interpreted and applied:


“Rava bar Rav Hanan said to Abaye, and some say to Rav Yosef: What is the Halacha? He said to him: ‘Go out and observe what the people are doing’” (Brachot 45a).


Relatedly, the halachic system models for us that change is a slow, evolutionary process, not the warp speed we are seeing at present in the Knesset – particularly with the changing of fundamental structures and laws for the Jewish state.

THE TALMUD then explores the qualities that made Bezalel a good choice:


“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said, Rabbi Yonatan said: Bezalel was called on account of his wisdom. When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Go say to Bezalel, ‘Make a tabernacle, an ark and vessels’ (see Ex. 31:7–11), Moses went and reversed the order and told Bezalel: ‘Make an ark, and vessels and a tabernacle’ (see Ex. 25–26). Bezalel said to Moses: Moses, our teacher, the worldly practice is a person builds a house and afterward places the vessels, and you say: Make an ark, and vessels and a tabernacle. The vessels that I make, where shall I put them? Perhaps God told you the following: ‘Make a tabernacle, ark, and vessels’ (see Ex. 36). Moses said to Bezalel: Perhaps you were in God’s shadow (betzel El), and so you knew” (Brachot 55a).


The point is astounding: Moses changed the order of construction as dictated by God, and Bezalel is presented as understanding God clearer than Moses! Rabbi Ellie Munk (The Call of the Torah, Ex. 35:31) offers a fascinating explanation derived from the commentary Shita Mekubetzet. Based on that 16th-century commentary, Munk writes, “When Moses reversed the order of the commands, he did so in order to be able to demonstrate Bezalel’s stature to the people.” That is to say, according to the Shita Mekubetzet, Moses shuffled the command of God intentionally. By doing so, Moses lowered himself in the eyes of the people to show how wise Bezalel was. While a radical reading in so many ways, it fits the character of Moses, who we are told was the most humble person on the face of the earth (Num. 12:3).


Having shown that Bezalel was able to understand God closely, emphasized with the wordplay on his name – Bezalel and the Hebrew “betzel El,” meaning “in the shadow of God” – the Talmud presents in what ways he was so wise:


“Rav Yehuda said, Rav said: Bezalel knew how to join the letters with which heaven and earth were created. It is written here: ‘And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge....’ (Ex. 31:3); and it is written there [with regard to creation of heaven and earth]: ‘The Lord, by wisdom, founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens’ (Proverbs 3:19), and it is written: ‘By His knowledge the depths were broken up and the skies drop down the dew’ (ibid. 3:20). Rabbi Yohanan said: The Holy One, blessed be God, only grants wisdom to one who possesses wisdom, as it is stated: ‘He gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to those who know understanding’ (Daniel 2:21). Rav Tahalifa, from the West [Eretz Yisrael], heard and repeated it before Rabbi Abbahu. [Rabbi Abbahu] said to him: You learned from there; we learn it from here, as it is written: ‘And in the hearts of all who are wisehearted I have placed wisdom’ (Ex. 31:6)” (Brachot 55a).


As Rabbi Ehrman explains, we learn that Bezalel “was endowed with the qualities that went to fashioning heaven and the earth” (Talmud El Am, Brachot, 4, p. 1,005). In addition we are told that “wisdom” is increased from initial work at obtaining wisdom.


This sugya, a Talmudic conversation on a topic, opens with a directive that for democracy to flourish, its leaders must give ear to the voice of the people. It closes with an emphasis on the importance of the attribute of wisdom. According to Nechama Leibowitz, quoting Rashi, wisdom is “what a person learns from others” (Studies in Shemot, p. 677). This fittingly echoes the opening message of our sugya to listen to the voice of the people, particularly when they take to the streets week after week.

Parashat Ki Tisa
The Choreography of Mercy

 

Michael M. Cohen
March
9, 2023


The story is familiar. The pinnacle of Moses’s leadership, literally and figuratively, was on the top of Mount Sinai, as he received from God “the tablets of stone and the teaching and the commandment that I have written to teach them” (Ex. 24:12).
That peak experience, however, was short-lived. Having recently left Egypt, a culture of numerous gods, the people at the base of the mountain were still adjusting to following not only just one God but an unseen God, compared to the visible statues of many gods. And then Moses, their visible emissary to this one and unseen God, had disappeared on the mountain. In a panic they said, “we do not know what has happened to him” (Ex. 32:1). In that fear of abandonment, they built “a molten calf” made of gold (Ex. 32:3-4).


The response of both God and Moses to this apparent lapse in faith and belief by the Israelites was anger. God said to Moses, “Now, let me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make you a great nation” (Ex. 32:10). Moses would have none of this, and told God such actions would be very bad PR. God listened to Moses “and renounced the punishment God had planned to bring upon God’s people” (Ex. 32:14). However, a few verses later, anger got the best of Moses, as “he became enraged, and hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 32:19).


This quick judgment by God and Moses certainly raises questions. One way to understand their actions is to note its placement within the biblical narrative. Shortly after the Golden Calf incident and the smashing of the tablets by Moses, God revealed God’s 13 attributes to Moses, after Moses had returned to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the new set of tablets.


One of those attributes is mercy (rahum) (Ex. 34:6). What do we mean by mercy?
Rabbi Michael Lerner makes a fascinating and insightful comment by examining the choreography between God and Moses at the proclamation of those 13 attributes. Moses, who had asked to see God’s face, was told by God instead to go “in the cleft of the crag” so that Moses would only then see God’s back (Ex. 33: 22-23). But Moses saw more than God’s back. Standing behind God, he not only saw the back of God but also was able to look over God’s shoulder and saw what God saw! That is exactly what mercy is about – being able to see the world from the perspective of someone else.


When an individual goes in front of a judge and asks for mercy, they are asking the judge to step into their shoes and understand their reality and why they were motivated to do what they did. As Hillel taught, “Do not judge someone until you have put yourself in their place” (Avot 2:4).


That message is reinforced by an additional layer. The three-letter root of rahamim (mercy) in Hebrew is resh-het-mem, which as a word means womb. What is the connection of womb to mercy? When a woman is pregnant, she needs to take into consideration not only her own needs but those of the growing child within, as she decides what to eat and drink and makes other lifestyle decisions. That same connection in Arabic exists between womb and mercy.


We can now better understand the placement of the incidents of the anger of God and Moses in reaction to the Golden Calf. Neither took into account or tried to understand the needs and realities of the Israelites at that moment. New to the relationship with an unseen God, having just come out of a land of visible god effigies, the people, seeing that Moses “took so long to come down from the mountain” (Ex. 32:1), were scared and confused. That the text immediately emphasizes the attribute and value of mercy can be seen as a veiled critique of the use of this anger by God and Moses.

THE TALMUD adds its own weight to this discussion. It asks, “What does God pray?” “Rav Zutra bar Tovia said in the name of Rav: God says: May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger, and may My mercy prevail over My other attributes, and may I conduct myself toward My children with the attribute of mercy, and may I enter before them beyond the letter of the law” (Brachot 7a).


The Talmud asks another insightful question. “How long does God’s anger last?” It answers by saying: a moment. It then asks, “And how long is a moment? Rabbi Avin, and some say Rabbi Avina, said: A moment lasts as long as it takes to say [the word ‘rega’ (moment)]” (ibid.).


How does the Talmud conclude that God’s anger is so short-lived? “For it is stated: ‘His anger is but for a moment, His favor, for a lifetime’ (Psalms 30:6). And if you wish, say instead, from here: ‘Hide yourself for a brief moment, until the anger passes’ (Isaiah 26:20) (Brachot 7a).


Both of these verses teach that God’s anger passes quickly, but even in such a short moment, irrevocable damage can be done. Many events in the world today can make us angry. We can justify anger as a human emotion but not as the source of our actions. Like God, we need to pray that our mercy should outweigh our anger.

WHAT ABOUT the justice that is called for, demanded, in such moments? We are taught by the prophet Micah, “It has been told to you, O human, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).


Rabbi Barbara Penzner comments, “The three parts of Micah’s message are in tension. They are not simple, but they speak to the complexities of life. They encompass the everyday choices we make, and they point toward a grand vision” (https://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/micahs-message).
That tension is real, as real as the strain of living in a world where our ideals crash into reality. We are told that the Ark of the Covenant contained the shattered first set of tablets along with the new whole set of tablets brought down by Moses (Bava Batra 14b). This reminds us that we carry in our engagement with the world the broken with imperfection, along with striving for the more perfect; anger and equanimity; justice and mercy.


Relatedly, there is a weight with all of this that can push us down and hold us back. It is easier, as we have seen in this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, to shatter and tear down – to grasp onto anger. The difference between the two sets of tablets? With the first, God did all the work; but with the second, God invited Moses to carve the new tablets, and God then wrote the holy words on them (Ex. 34:1). Taking into consideration the needs of the other is demonstrated with those second tablets. God realised for those second set of tablets to be accepted by humans Moses needed to be part of their creation. With this we see a different model than the earlier displays of anger.

 

In the King James Bible, the construction of the top of the Ark of the Covenant, where God would speak to Moses, is translated as “a mercy seat of pure gold” (Ex. 25:17).


One path to mercy and wholeness is when we attempt to see and discern the reality of the one standing before us (Avot 2:4). In some situations we are called upon to act individually, but in conflict there is often more than one party with agency, and so both individuals, both sides, need to try to step into the place of the other. Mercy is modeled, as we have explored, when Moses looked over God’s shoulder and was able to see a different perspective. Another model for mercy, a second step when appropriate, is modeled by the two winged cherubim on the top of the Ark: they face each other.

Parashat Tetzeveh

Remember and Follow


Michael M. Cohen
March
2, 2023

Try to remember the kind of September

When life was slow and oh, so mellow

Try to remember the kind of September

When grass was green and grain was yellow

Try to remember the kind of September

When you were a tender and callow fellow

Try to remember and if you remember

Then follow, follow

 

These lyrics from the nostalgic song “Try to Remember” open the off-Broadway and world’s longest running musical (1960-2002), The Fantasticks. The words invite us to remember the past as a salve for whatever issues we may face at the moment.


Remembering is one of the pillars, one of the cornerstones, of Judaism. The Jewish year begins with Rosh Hashanah (Head of the Year). It was not known by that name until the time of the Prophet Ezekiel, in the sixth century BCE (Ezek. 40:1). In the Torah it is called zichron t’rua, “remembering by [shofar] blasts” (Lev. 23:24). In addition, in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we recite a special Mussaf section called Zichronot (Remembering), and in the haftarah that day we read that “the Lord remembered” Hannah (I Samuel 1:19).


Not only do we start the year with this emphasis on remembering, but the whole Jewish year places a high value on memories of the past. Ten days after Rosh Hashanah, during Yom Kippur, which also includes Zichronot in Mussaf, we pause for the first of three Yizkor (May God Remember) services observed throughout the year, as we remember family members no longer with us. Relatedly, every year on the anniversary of someone’s death, we mark that day by following the yahrzeit (Yiddish for “year’s time”) rituals of lighting a memorial candle and saying the mourner’s kaddish.


Remembering is also woven throughout the annual reading of the Torah, referenced in all Five Books of Moses.


In Genesis, 150 days after the Flood, “God remembered Noah” (Gen. 8:1); and in Jacob’s stairway to heaven dream/vision, God declared, “Remember, I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land” (Gen. 28:15).


In Exodus the text reads, “God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Ex. 2:24). In this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, the words “zikaron” (remembrance) and “l’zikaron” (for remembrance) appear in the same sentence describing the function of the stones of the ephod, the priestly vestment of the high priest (Ex. 28:12). We are also commanded in Exodus, during the Revelation on Mount Sinai, “zachor et yom hashabbat (remember the Sabbath day)” (Ex. 20:8).


We noted above in Leviticus the use of remembering and its connection to Rosh Hashanah (Lev. 23:24).


In the Book of Numbers we are informed of an offering called minhat zikaron, a meal offering of remembrance. (Num. 5:15).


This Shabbat happens to be one of the four special Shabbatot before Passover and is called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, because we read the verses from the Book of Deuteronomy, as we take out a second Torah, telling us: “zachor et asher asa l’cha Amalek,” remember what Amalek did to you” (Deut. 25:19). This special Shabbat always falls on the Shabbat before Purim, connecting the actions against the Jewish people by Amalek in the Torah and by Haman in the story of Purim.


This overview of the use of words related to memory and remembrance in the Five Books of Moses is not exhaustive (they are used some 50 times), but, along with the liturgical uses of memory, it raises the question: why so much attention and significance to memory in Judaism?

RABBI IRA Eisenstein offers an insight. At a convention of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association some 30 years ago, he explained that one way to understand the function of the past is by how we direct a rowboat. When we row a rowboat, our back is to the direction we are rowing. If we look over our shoulder all the time to see where we want to go, that would be uncomfortable and a waste of time and energy. So what do we do? We line up the rowboat to where we want to go, and then we find something behind us that becomes our marker that we keep our eyes on as we row forward. As Eisenstein taught, in this way we can understand how something behind us – the past, if you will – becomes our compass, directing us into the future.


In other words: in Judaism, remembrance of the past is not a passive activity but a connective dynamic about yesterday, today and tomorrow.


Commenting on “God remembered” (Ex. 2:24), Nahum Sarna writes: “The Hebrew stem z-k-r connotes much more than the recall of things past. It means, rather, to be mindful, to pay heed, signifying a sharp focusing of attention upon someone or something. It embraces concern and involvement and is active, not passive, so that it eventuates in action. As Menahot 43b has it: ‘Looking upon leads to remembering, and remembering leads to action’” (The JPS Torah Commentary, Exodus, p. 13).


In Judaism, remembering is not values-neutral but about our responsibilities; thus, Moses declared, “I am making this covenant both with you who stand here today in the presence of the Lord our God, and also with the future generations who are not standing here today” (Deut. 29:15).


To this, James Baldwin adds, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”


In the Haggadah we quote Rabban Gamliel: “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see themself as if they left Egypt, as it is stated (Ex. 13:8), ‘And you shall explain to your child on that day: For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt.’ Not only our ancestors did the Holy One, blessed be God, redeem, but also us [together] with them did God redeem, as it is stated (Deut. 6:23), ‘And God took us out from there, in order to bring us in, to give us the land which God swore unto our ancestors.’”
The Jewish past is always present – we invoke it and remember it as a guide for our actions today; this is our transgenerational obligation. Thus, at the beginning of the Amida prayer, we invoke our biblical ancestors.


Golda Meir reminds us of this challenge when it comes to remembering the past, “One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present” (My Life, p. 231).


The Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz adds: “If you have no past, you have no future either, you are a foundling in this world, with no father or mother, without tradition, without duties to what comes after you, the future, the eternal.... You have moods but no character; desires, but no will – no great love, no great hate – you [merely] flirt with life...” (Kol Haneshamah Mahzor, p. 385).


As far as we know, we are the only living creatures with a sense, a real connection, to the generations that preceded us, including those we have never met, as well as with those who will follow us. Other living creatures have relationships and associations to their known parents and their children, but not to their genealogies beyond that.


The focus on remembering the past in Judaism is quite profound. In essence, when we remember, it makes us both more human and, specifically, more Jewish.


Or, as the song from The Fantasticks concludes:

 

“Deep in December, our hearts should remember

And follow, follow, follow.”

Parashat Truma:

Time Travel in the Biblical Text

by Michael M. Cohen

Feb. 25, 2023 
 

The 25th chapter of the Book of Exodus opens this week’s parasha, Truma. Or does it?

 

According to many Torah commentators throughout the ages, chapter 31 actually happened before chapter 25. What is going on here? Are we being told reading the Torah is like traveling in Dr. Who’s TARDIS, whose inside is larger than its outside dimensions and which travels backward and forward in time?
Commenting on the golden calf episode in chapter 31, Rashi explains: “There is no ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ (no chronological order) in the events related in the Torah: in fact, the incident of the golden calf happened a considerable time before the command regarding the work of the Tabernacle was given (chapter 25 and the following chapters)” (Rashi, Silbermann edition, Ex. 31:18).

 

That is a bold statement by Rashi, claiming the Torah was not written, dictated by God to Moses, in chronological order. On what does he base this radical approach to the text?

 

In the Talmud, there is discussion about two verses. The Book of Numbers, chapter 1, reads, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt” (Num 1:1), and in the Book of Numbers, chapter 9, it states, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Desert of Sinai in the first month of the second year after they came out of Egypt” (Num 9:1). Clearly, these sentences are not written in sequential order, which led Rav Menashya bar Tahlifa, quoting Rav, to conclude, “That is to say, there is no earlier and later in the Torah” (Pesahim 6b).
While this was recognized as an accepted hermeneutical tool in understanding the Torah, it was by no means accepted by all rabbinic authorities. It was one of the major differences between the schools of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael and how they understood the infrastructure of the Torah.

IN HIS magnum opus, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explores these two approaches. Akiva believed the Torah was written chronologically, and Ishmael followed the teaching of bar Tahlifa that there is not always a strict chronology to the words of the Torah. 
Heschel quotes Rabbi Judah the Patriarch who thought, as did Ishmael, “There are many passages linked to each other in the text but in actuality they are as far apart as east from west” (Heavenly Torah, p. 241; Sifre Balak 131).

 

Heschel also cites Rabbi Aha who offers a very interesting explanation of why God would have written the Torah out of order:

 

“Rabbi Aha made this interesting observation: The fact that there is no chronological order in the Torah testifies that the sacred texts were uttered by the Holy and Blessed One. Otherwise, people would say, ‘They are merely fiction, written by someone who used his imagination, in the manner of a person who relates what happened in his lifetime’ (Genesis Rabbah 85:2). He concludes, therefore, that because they lack any chronological order, they must be the product of the Holy Spirit. Moses wrote them down in the order in which they were communicated to him through prophecy” (Heavenly Torah, p. 242).
Akiva, on the other hand, as Heschel says, “stated bluntly, ‘Every passage that adjoins another has to be learned in conjunction with it’” (ibid. p. 241; Sifre Balak 131). Akiva, according to Heschel, appears to base his thinking on this verse from Psalms, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect” (Ps. 19: 8).

 

We also find a synthesis of these two divergent positions. Heschel quotes Nahmanides: “The Torah follows a chronological order, except where it provides a specific explanation for placing a text earlier or later, depending on the demands of the subject or for other reasons” (Heavenly Torah, p. 243; Nahmanides, Num. 16:1).

 

With the two passages in the Book of Numbers out of order, it is clear how Rav Menashya bar Tahlifa came to his conclusion that those two sections, and some other passages within the Torah, were written in unchronological order. So, what drew Rashi to say that Exodus chapter 25 and chapter 31 are out of order? 
Rabbi Micah Peltz offers a beautiful and keen insight: “For Rabbi Ishmael, then, the order of the Torah is as follows: Sin of the golden calf; commandment to build, and the building of, the mishkan. Therefore, the sin of the golden calf actually happens before any talk of a mishkan. Suddenly the mishkan, which represented the Divine ideal for Rabbi Akiva, becomes a Divine concession for Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Ishmael believes that God never intended [for] Israel to build a mishkan – but then Israel sinned. Only then does God give the command to build the mishkan. God is abstract, and therefore wanted people to relate to God in an abstract way. But the people needed something concrete, something tangible, in order to relate to God, so God gives in.

 

“Through this example, we see that Rabbi Akiva views the world through the lens of heaven – where Divine desires come first. Rabbi Ishmael, however, views the world through an earthly lens – where human needs can affect God.”

 

https://www.jewishvoicesnj.org/articles/seeing-the-world-in-only-one-way-offers-a-skewed-view/

 

Ross Benjamin, in the preface to his new and comprehensive translation of Kafka’s diaries, offers another way to grasp the written biblical text that in places appears random in its structure:

 

“Unlike the Brod edition, which imposed an artificial chronology on the entries, the critical edition retains the sequence as it appears in the notebooks. Kafka went back and forth between several of them at the same time, without dating every piece of writing” (Franz Kafka, Diaries, trans. Ross Benjamin, p. ix).
“There is no chronological order in the Torah” also sends us into the reality of Einstein’s special theory of relativity that time is not absolute; there is an elasticity to time: the faster one moves, the slower time is experienced, and the slower one moves, the faster time is encountered. With Einstein’s theory chronology remains constant, unlike in the Torah where we are told the text does not always follow a direct time chronology. However,  with Einstein’s special theory of relativity and its fluctuation of the speed of time along with the un-chronological sequencing of the Torah our perceived sense of time can be disjointed by both. 

 

Perhaps that is the point. Life at times flows like a sweet melody, and at other times there is dissonance; things seem out of order. We harmonize those disparate moments by reading the text of the Torah through the lens of the Talmud which presents the perspectives of Ishmael and Akiva as both having validity.

Parashat Mishpatim:

Holy Medicine

by Michael M. Cohen

Feb. 16, 2023

 
In our parasha, Mishpatim, the text imagines a quarrel between two men that escalates into a fight where one of them is injured. We are then told:
“If that victim gets up and walks outdoors upon a staff, the assailant shall go unpunished – except for paying for his loss of time and the cure to thoroughly heal him (verapo yerape)” (Ex. 21:19).


Rashi cites the Mechilta, which asks “why [are these verses, 18-19] stated in this particular form? Since Scripture states (Ex. 21:24) ‘an eye for an eye,’ we learn from it only that compensation for the loss of limbs has to be paid, but we cannot infer from it that indemnity for loss of time [during which the injured has been disabled from work] and cost of medical treatment have also to be paid; consequently this section” (Rashi on Ex. 21:18, Silbermann translation).
In other words, the Torah is telling us to expand our understanding of injury and look beyond its physical aspects.


In addition, Rashi comments on the phrase “heal him” (v. 19): “Translate it as the Targum [Aramaic translation of the Torah often cited] does: he shall pay the physician’s fee” (Rashi on Ex. 21:19, Silbermann translation).
Implied is that we should seek medical help from qualified doctors and nurses and follow their advice. At face value, this seems so obvious that it does not need to be stated. Yet, all we have to do is reflect on these past COVID years and the number of people who refused to listen to medical professionals and did not get vaccinated – and we can add to that chorus the general anti-vaxxers.


Within these groups there are those who base their position on a particular belief in God. In a fascinating study, “‘God will protect us’: Belief in God/Higher Power’s ability to intervene and COVID-19 vaccine uptake,” we read:
“We find that belief in God or a higher power’s ability to intervene in the world is consistently negatively related to COVID-19 vaccine uptake and intent to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.... Current and future public health interventions would benefit from considering how to best create vaccination campaigns that speak to people who believe that God or a higher power will protect and heal them” (DiGregorio,Corcoranand 
Scheitle, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9183751). 


The Talmud is very clear when it comes to seeking medical attention, based on the verse from this week’s parasha: “As it is taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael: ‘To thoroughly heal him’; from here that permission is granted to a doctor to heal” (Bava Kamma 85a).


But some might say this counters the belief expressed earlier in the Book of Exodus and other statements in the Bible: “...for I the Lord am your Healer” (Ex. 15:26); “I will remove illness from your midst” (Ex. 23:25); “Please, God, please heal her” (Num. 12:13); “I will restore health to you and I will heal you of your wounds” (Jer. 30:17); “O Lord, my God, I cried to you and you have healed me” (Ps. 30:3).


The following midrash answers that belief:
“Once when Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva were walking in the outskirts of Jerusalem a sick man confronted them. He said, ‘My masters, tell me how I can be cured.’ They said to him, ‘Take these medicines until you are cured.’ He said to them, ‘But who brought this disease upon me?’ They said to him, ‘The Holy One, blessed be God.’ He said to them, ‘And you have stuck your head into a matter not your own. God struck and you dare to heal? Are you not violating God’s will?’ They said to him, ‘What is your occupation?’ He said to them, ‘I till the soil’ here is my sickle.’ They said to him, ‘And who created the field and the vineyard?’ He said to them, ‘The Holy One, blessed be God!’ They said to him, ‘And you stick your head into something that does not concern you? He has created the field, and you pick its fruits?’ He said to them, ‘Don’t you see the sickle in my hand? If I would not plow and clear and fertilize the field, it would not bring forth anything.’ They said to him, ‘Just as the tree will die if you don’t weed and fertilize the field, so also the human body. Medicines can be compared to weeding and fertilizing, and the physician is like the farmer” (Midrash Shmuel, ch. 4).


It is clear through these sources and scores of others within Judaism that medical professionals and their knowledge, care and advice are part of God’s holy plan.
At the end of the day, Judaism sees our lives and our work, whatever that work may be, as a partnership with God.


When it comes to medical professionals, that becomes clear in a different passage in the Talmud. Rav Aha said that a person who has gone through a medical procedure should say: “May it be Your will, O Lord my God, that this enterprise be for healing, and that You should heal me, as You are a faithful God of healing, and Your healing is truth. Because it is not the way of people to heal, but they have become accustomed” (Brachot 60a).


Implied in what he is saying is that doctors and other medical professionals do not have the expertise to heal; only God can do that. To which Abaye counters (ibid.) making the point again from our line in this week’s parasha, “to thoroughly heal him,” (Ex 21:19) that “permission is given to the physician to heal.” Not wanting to completely abandon his position, Rav Aha says that after a medical procedure one says, “Blessed is the gratuitous Healer” (Brachot 60a).
While Rav Aha takes a dim view of human healing, this bracha/blessing that he suggests after a medical procedure by a medical professional hints at a partnership, if you will, between the doctor or nurse and God. He never says that we should not go to a medical professional; rather, he wants God acknowledged through the work of the medical professionals.


From the verse “Observe my laws and my judgments, which, if a person does, he shall live through them” (Lev. 18:5), Sefer Isur V’heter (chap. 60, end) derives that it is a mitzvah to maintain bodily health.


Laws and judgments here can be understood as the structure and dynamics of how the world was created and so operates. Our task is to try to do our best, through education, to understand how the world, created by God, is so constructed so that we gain the insights needed to heal people, as well as the world itself.

Parashat Yitro:

The different audiences of the 10 Commandments

by Michael M. Cohen

Feb. 9, 2023

 

The pinnacle of this week’s parasha, Yitro, is the giving of the Torah.
For that rendezvous and theophany, Moses, at the age of 80, had climbed to the top of Mount Sinai to meet God.


There, Moses received what is often called the Ten Commandments, but that name is not found in the Torah. They are called aseret hadvarim (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13, 10:4), which can be understood as the 10 words/statements/pronouncements. That phrase was eventually translated into Greek by the ancient Jewish community of Alexandria as deka logi, which became Decalogue in English. However, the rabbis used the phrase “aseret hadibrot” (the 10 utterances).


As Yosef Lindell explains: “Scholars have also theorized that the very term ‘aseret hadibrot,’ which is different than the language ‘aseret hadvarim’ used in the Torah, was invented by the Sages to dispel any notion that these are the most important commandments. ‘Aseret hadvarim’ literally means 10 statements, but can also be understood as 10 commandments – perhaps, one might erroneously think, uniquely important commandments. Dibrot, on the other hand, is not the plural of davar, a thing, but of diber, speech. What is more, diber, which appears only once in Tanach as a noun, connotes not just any kind of speech, but specifically revelatory speech” (https://thelehrhaus.com/scholarship/revealed-yet-concealed-the-meaning-of-aseret-ha-dibrot).


What about the phrase “Ten Commandments”? We find its usage first in the Geneva Bible, published in 1560, about 50 years before the King James Bible, which also used the “Ten Commandments” wording. It is called the Geneva Bible because it was written by a group of Protestant scholars in exile from England, including John Knox, in Geneva, Switzerland. They were influenced in their work by John Calvin.

THERE IS another aspect of aseret hadibrot that invites attention. There are two different versions of them in the Torah. The first appears in Exodus (20:2-14) and the other in the Book of Deuteronomy (5:6-18).


According to biblical scholars, if we look closely at the text we can find four distinct voices, based on linguistics, terminology, content, themes, and other writing styles. This theory is known as the documentary hypothesis, which culminated in a redactor (one who combines/synthesizes text) weaving the four voices together within the text sometime around the fourth century BCE into the version of the Hebrew Bible we know today.


While historically I find this approach compelling, it does nothing for me theologically or spiritually, so I am drawn to the inherent contradictions within the Bible, not as proof of the documentary hypothesis, which I do believe to be true, but, rather, as invitations to draw lessons from those contradictions.


Nor do I believe that accepting the documentary hypothesis takes away from the holiness of the Bible. If we understand that something holy is a synapse within the universe that connects us to, as Rev. Martin Luther King said, “the interrelated structure of reality,” that perspective can enhance our understanding of its words as holy.


Let us look at the Fourth Commandment, which tells us how to observe Shabbat. Below are the two versions with their differences italicized:
“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:8-11).


“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:12-15).


While there are a number of differences, I would like to explore the focus at the end of each version. In Exodus we are told to think about the Creation story, while in Deuteronomy we are told to remember slavery. Why are there two different points of reference for our weekly day of rest?


Jeremy Benstein offers an insightful answer from a class he taught at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.


He points out that the difference between the Book of Exodus and the Book of Deuteronomy is 40 years. Moses had two very different audiences before him. One had just left slavery 50 days earlier, while the other audience was the children and grandchildren of those slaves, who had never known slavery.
Benstein says that it would make no sense to tell a group of people who had just left slavery that on their one day of the week when they did not have to work, they were to think about once being slaves. It would, however, make sense to have them reflect on being created anew as free people, and so thinking about Creation would be logical. Forty years later, a new generation being told to remember slavery so as not to take liberty for granted, would present an important message.


Moses teaches us a very important lesson when it comes to effective communication: know our audience. As Samara Johansson, the founder of Samara Global, states, “It all starts with being curious and humble; putting yourself in the shoes of your audience and going on the journey with them” (https://veracontent.com/mix/knowing-your-audience-great-marketing/, quote 18).


Moses knew his audience, and by meeting them where they were, he was able to lead them.


He continues to teach us today on our individual and collective journeys, as we wrestle with the meaning of his words, those holy words.

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