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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 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

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

“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 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
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
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
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 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
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” (
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
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.”


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 

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” (

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” (, 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 to hate all Jews specifically, and not all furriers instead? According to Sartre, this goes to show that people are more inclined and predisposed to rely on the antisemitic, social concept of the Jew on which to blame their wrongdoings rather than another figure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parashat Vayehi:

The continuum of endings and beginning

by Michael M. Cohen

Jan. 5, 2023

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Parashat Vayigash:

The Power of Words

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 29, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

What happened:

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


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


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

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

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

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

Parashat Miketz:

Why Is a Minyan 10?

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 22, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parashat Vayeshev:

Tamar: a mother of the Messiah

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 15, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

Parashat Vayishlach:

What's in a woman's name

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 8, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parashat Vayetze:

Giving Thanks

by Michael M. Cohen

Dec. 1, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parashat Toldot

by Michael M. Cohen

Nov. 24, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parashat Hayei Sarah:

Keturah, Kibbutz Ketura, and the Arava Institute

by Michael M. Cohen

Nov. 17, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Centuries later the Zohar wove a variation on the narrative:


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parashat Vayera:

Interpreting the Akeida

by Michael M. Cohen

Nov. 10, 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Parashat Lech Lecha:

Say Our Name

by Michael M. Cohen

Nov. 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Parashat Noach:

Babel & Eden: An eternal cautionary tale

by Michael M. Cohen

October 28, 2022


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


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


We read last week:


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


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


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


Related, Nehama Leibowitz teaches:


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


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


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

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

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

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


Parashat Bereshit:

Harmony and conflict in Genesis

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

By Michael M. Cohen

October 21, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.”


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.■

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