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The Men in the Middle (Balak)

When you study Tanakh carefully, you begin to notice that many of its protagonists bear striking similarities to each other. In literary terms, such characters are referred to as “mirror characters.” We have compared many mirror characters together in the past, including Yitzchak and Noah, Shimshon and Avshalom, and Yosef and Tamar. There are dozens of others. (more…)

“Man Shall Not See Me And Live” (Ki Tissa)

In the third book of his mythological epic, Metamorphoses, the renowned Roman poet Ovid recounts the legend of a certain Greek hunter by the name of Narcissus. Narcissus is a sixteen year old boy of supreme beauty who happens upon his own reflection for the first time when passing by a fountain in the woods. For Narcissus, this is an ecstatic experience: never before has he beheld such a pleasant sight! In fact, the boy is so moved by his own appearance that he finds himself unable to tear himself away from it. And yet, the moment cannot possibly last forever. Narcissus eventually realizes this, and it sparks a crisis for him, because he doubts that he will ever find someone whom he loves as much as he loves himself. So he decides that he is not even going to try. Instead of returning to society, and subjecting himself to inevitable disappointment, Narcissus simply stays in place, waiting patiently “till death shuts up [his] self-admiring eyes.” (more…)

Six Approaches to Moshe’s “Heavy Mouth” (Shemot)

Note: A portion of this essay, originally posted in 2015, has been reprinted in Moe Mernick’s The Gift of Stuttering, published by Feldheim Publishers and available here: http://www.feldheim.com/the-gift-of-stuttering.html.


The English language offers us many idioms to describe those who experience difficulty speaking. If one enunciates poorly, we might say he has “marbles in his mouth.” If his voice is raspy, we’d say he has a “frog in his throat.” And if he’s unusually reticent, we’d say that he’s “tongue tied,” or that the “cat’s got his tongue.”

But what does it mean if we say that someone is “of heavy mouth and tongue?” That is how Moshe refers to himself in our Torah portion (Exod. 4:10). Though many of us are familiar with this expression, we don’t often pause to consider its precise meaning. Let’s do that this week. Together, we will look at six approaches to understanding the phrase “כבד פה וכבד לשון:” four proposed by traditional commentators, and two based on cultural context which we’ll piece together ourselves. (more…)

A Patriarch’s Plea for Privacy (Chayei Sarah)

An earlier version of this article appeared in the July 2014 edition of Kol Hamevaser: The Jewish Thought Magazine of Yeshiva University, whose theme was “privacy.” Thank-you to the editors for their helpful comments and suggestions!

We will begin by briefly considering the literary function of “tents” in Tanakh, in general. From there, we will proceed to examine the role that tents play in the life of Yitzchak, in particular—a character in whose life tents feature prominently. What we hope to see, by the end, is that it is largely through the symbolism implied by these tents that the Torah communicates its vision of Jewish peoplehood.


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It’s a Generational Thing (Noah)

If Johannes Gutenberg (inventor of the printing press) had succeeded as a mirror salesman, would literacy remain a luxury that only society’s wealthiest members could afford? If Martin Luther (leader of the Protestant Reformation) hadn’t pledged his life to God after lightning nearly struck him and his horse, would the Catholic Church still rule over Western Europe? If Edward Jenner (father of immunology) had ignored the advice of the mentor who encouraged him to “try, don’t think,” would human life expectancy ever have eclipsed fifty years of age? These questions, and others like them, belong to a field of study known as “counterfactual history.” Its practitioners invite us to imagine what our world might look like today had the events of yesterday unfolded differently. (more…)

On One Foot (Kedoshim)

There’s a lot which we humans argue about. But when it comes to the ethic of reciprocity – the idea that we should treat others as we want to be treated – almost all of us seem to be on the same page. Upon being asked to identify “one word that may serve as a rule for all one’s life,” Confucius memorably replied: “never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” Later in Chinese history, Buddha cautioned his disciples “not to hurt others in a way that you yourself would find hurtful,” and Laozi advised his to “regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and his loss as your loss.” In India, the notion that “one should never do to another that which one regards as injurious to oneself” was attributed to Brhaspati, one of the Hindu gods. An anonymous Egyptian playwright put it slightly differently in his Eloquent Peasant: “Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you.” From the Greeks we have the Epicurean maxim “never to harm nor to be harmed;” from the Romans, Seneca’s warning to “expect from others what you did to them.” Then there are the Abrahamic faiths. “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them,” Jesus proclaimed. Mohamed followed up with an expanded version of his own: “As you would have people do to you, do to them, and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.” (more…)

Jacob, Jethro, and Jewish Continuity (Vayehi)

Heroes often come of age away from home. This was one of many observations made by Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist who spent his career noticing similarities between the foundational narratives of different cultures, and codifying them in a model which he called “the monomyth.” Whether Campbell’s generalizations are accurate or not is subject to debate. Many scholars find them too simplistic, particularly because of all the exceptions to which they admit. Others argue that Campbell’s parallels hold little literary value – the characters in the stories which he studied developed in more or less the same way because all humans develop in more or less the same way, these experts claim. Both critiques are valid.

Nevertheless, it’s still fun to keep an eye out for the phenomenon which Campbell called crossing the first threshold: the tendency of heroes to grow up in a foreign environment. The Romans said it of Remus and Romulus, the English said it of King Arthur, the Chinese said it of Laozi and, להבדיל, our Tanakh said it too.  (more…)