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Out of This World (Naso)

This week’s Parshah introduces us to perhaps the most confounding character in the Torah: the nazir (“Nazirite”). The nazir is a person who takes a specific type of ascetic vow called nezirut (the “Nazirite vow”). Once he does so, all laws that pertain to nezirut apply to him; most notably, he is forbidden from cutting his hair, drinking alcohol and consuming grape products, or exposing himself to a corpse. (more…)

The Great Unknown (Bamidbar)

The glass has been falling all the afternoon,

And knowing better than the instrument

What winds are walking overhead, what zone

Of grey unrest is moving across the land,

I leave the book upon a pillowed chair

And walk from window to closed window, watching

Boughs strain against the sky

And think again, as often when the air

Moves inward toward a silent core of waiting,

How with a single purpose time has traveled

By secret currents of the undiscerned

Into this polar realm. Weather abroad

And weather in the heart alike come on

Regardless of prediction.

Between foreseeing and averting change

Lies all the mastery of elements

Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter.

Time in the hand is not control of time,

Nor shattered fragments of an instrument

A proof against the wind; the wind will rise,

We can only close the shutters.

I draw the curtains as the sky goes black

And set a match to candles sheathed in glass

Against the keyhole draught, the insistent whine

Of weather through the unsealed aperture.

This is our sole defense against the season;

These are the things we have learned to do

Who live in troubled regions.

—“Storm Warnings,” by Adrienne Rich

Bamidbar: “in the desert.” It is the title of our Parshah, and the title of the fourth book of the Torah which we begin this week—and it beckons us into treacherous territory. The desert, after all, is fraught with danger. It is a place of blazing heats and howling winds; of scorpions and sandstorms; of drought and death. To enter it is to expose oneself to the extremes of the elements—to stake one’s very survival. (more…)

The Prince and the Precedent (Vayishlach)

Hi everyone,

Hope your Shabbos preparations are coming along nicely! Just a few quick notes to share with you this week:

1. Linking Out

This week’s article, “The Prince and the Precedent,” has been published directly in The Lehrhaus and can be accessed through this link: http://www.thelehrhaus.com/timely-thoughts/2016/12/13/the-prince-and-the-precedent-genesis-34-in-its-socio-legal-context. For those not familiar, The Lehrhaus is a new online journal which aims “to generate thoughtful and dynamic discourse among individuals within the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond.” Special thanks to the editorial staff for inviting me to contribute this piece.

(And if you’d like to read a previous year’s article on Vayishlach, “What’s in a Name?”—here’s the link to that: https://whatspshat.org/2014/12/05/vayishlakh/).   (more…)

On Second Glance (Chayei Sarah)

The following are some quick ideas on this week’s Parshah, Chayei Sarah, building upon last week’s article, “Willful Blindness.” For the 2015 article on Chayei Sarah, “Unfinished Business,” please click here; for the 2014 article, “A Patriarch’s Plea for Privacy,” please click here.

A professor of mine once mused that “to a dog, everything looks like a bone.” It was his funny way of saying that we tend to see the things we’re used to seeing. Last week, we spoke a lot about the theme of “seeing” in connection with Avimelech, king of the Philistines—the man who abducts Avraham’s wife and steals Avraham’s water. Our basic observation in that piece was that Avimelech is often described as “covering his eyes,” in one form or another, during his interactions with Avraham. Avraham, by contrast, is a man who is constantly found “lifting his eyes.” To realize this, we suggested, is to begin to appreciate that Avimelech has a much larger role to play in Avraham’s story than we generally attribute to him. Though Avimelech himself only appears in a couple of short scenes, he emerges, through his behavior in those scenes, as no less than Avraham’s antithesis: whereas Avraham searches for truth, Avimelech turns a blind eye to it; whereas Avraham digs wells of water (literally: “eyes” of water),[i] Avimelech shuts them sealed. They’re not just fighting over people or property. They’re presenting two vastly different perspectives for how we view the world and our role in it.

And once you’ve looked at Avimelech’s relationship to Avraham through this lens, once you’ve began to see Avimelech as Avraham’s foil par excellence, you start to notice Avimelech everywhere in Avraham’s life—even in those chapters that seem to have nothing to do with him at all. Last week, we read two episodes in this light: Avraham’s hosting the angels (Gen. 18) and Avraham’s binding of Yitzchak (Gen. 22). In these chapters, we found a slew of parallels to the Avimelech chapters—striking similarities in language, theme, and plot—which strongly suggest that what we have here is not a series of disconnected events, but rather a single saga spread over many acts, all of them intertwined, and all part of the same overarching conflict which pits Avraham against both the person Avimelech and the attitude which he represents. (more…)

It Ain’t Over ‘Till it’s Over (Vezot Habracha/Simchat Torah)

Every year, in synagogues across the world, Jews come together on simchas Torah to celebrate the completion of yet another cycle of communal Torah study. After spending the morning singing, dancing, and exchanging l’chaims, we gather around the bimah and culminate the festivities by reading publicly the final verses of the “Five Books of Moshe:” (more…)

The Rock Song (Yom Kippur/Haazinu)

Rabbi Eliezer taught: Repent one day before you die. His students asked him: But does a person know on which day he will die? He replied: All the more reason that he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow; and thus, he shall spend all of his days engaged in repentance (T. Bavli Shabbat 153a).

It was Moshe’s one hundred and twentieth birthday, the day on which he achieved that age which in Jewish tradition is associated with a life lived to its fullest. It was also the day on which Hashem had told him he was to die. He had much to be proud of: cast away by his mother at birth, persecuted by the Pharaoh as a young adult, and still looking to start a family in middle age, he had managed to overcome much adversity in his personal life and emerge as the unlikely savior of a nation whom he had rescued from slavery, taught Hashem’s Torah, and delivered to the border of the land promised to their ancestors centuries ago. (more…)

Higher Desires (Shoftim)

The following essay explores the concept of “cravings” as it appears in this week’s Parshah, Shoftim, and last week’s Parshah, Re’eh. For the 2015 article on Parshat Shoftim, “A Tale of Two Cities,” please click here. For the 2014 article on Parshat Shoftim, “Samuel and the Separation of Powers,” please click here.

Near the middle of this week’s Parshah, the Torah outlines the position that the Kohanim and Levi’im are to occupy within broader Israelite society (Deut. 18:1-8):

The Levitic kohanim, the entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel; the Lord’s fire offerings and His inheritance they shall eat. But he shall have no inheritance among his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as He spoke to him. And this shall be the kohanim’s due from the people, from those who perform a slaughter, be it an ox or a sheep, he shall give the kohen the foreleg, the jaws, and the maw. The first of your grain, your wine, and your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. For the Lord, your God, has chosen him out of all your tribes, to stand and serve in the name of the Lord, he and his sons, all the days. And if a Levite comes from one of your cities out of all Israel where he sojourns, he may come with all that his soul desires / craves [בכל אות נפשו], to the place the Lord will choose, and he may serve in the name of the Lord, his God, just like all his Levite brothers, who stand there before the Lord. They shall eat equal portions, except what was sold by the forefathers. (more…)