Ki Tetse: Mercy and the Injustice of Forgiveness

Ki Tetse: Mercy and the Injustice of Forgiveness

Last week, I described the loss of my Smartphone on a Jerusalem bus and suggested a variety of Chesbon HaNefesh lessons it inspired.  But the High Holidays are not only about self-evaluation. They are also, of course, about seeking and granting forgiveness. It’s now been more than a week since I lost my Smartphone, and no one has contacted me nor turned it in to the bus company lost and found.  According to this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetse, (22:1-3), which requires the return of (identifiable) lost property, they have therefore stolen it from me.   Am I obliged to forgive the thief?

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Aug 31

Shoftim: Lost and Found

Shoftim: Lost and Found

I lost my new “Smartphone” a few days ago.  It happened somewhere between my Jerusalem apartment and my arrival at morning minyan.  I think I put it on the bus seat when I opened my backpack to retrieve something that then took my full attention during the remaining short ride.   I remember being surprised when I looked up and saw that we were arriving at my stop; I jumped up, grabbed my backpack, and alighted without checking around me. No one has turned it in.  Yet, prompted by the Jewish calendar, I think that I have gained, rather than lost, from this incident ...

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Re'eh: There's no such thing as bad publicity?

Re'eh: There's no such thing as bad publicity?

In politics, I’ve heard, there’s no such thing as bad press. Of course, no politician prefers criticism or scandal to praise and respect, but the worst thing is irrelevance. “It’s not what they say about you that matters, it’s whether they talk about you!” Proponents of this idea argue that voters have short memories; if a candidate makes an impression, they’ll remember the name long after they’ve forgotten why. Then, when they arrive at the ballot box and look at a list of names, they’ll most often choose the most familiar one. Name recognition is also ...

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Aug 17

Ekev: Fists and Noses

Ekev: Fists and Noses

A familiar maxim of American law is, “my right to swing my fist ends at the other fellow’s nose.”   In other words, the governing principle of American liberty means that I can do as I please (and what I do is nobody else’s business and his/hers none of mine) so long as we don’t actually hurt each other.  A related maxim is the “no duty of rescue” rule: with very few exceptions in only a few jurisdictions, one has no legal obligation to help another in an emergency, even if such help can be rendered without risk or inconvenience.  I can live my life and ignore the plight and interests of others (unless I actively or negligently harm or damage them). 

Conversely, familiar maxims of Judaism include,

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Aug 10

Va-etchanan: This "week" in Jewish history...

Va-etchanan: This "week" in Jewish history...

This week I made a list of potential themes for my D’var Torah: 

1. Jews as the “Chosen People”
2. The “Ten Commandments”
3. The Commandment to “Do the Right and the Good”
4. Siyum Hashas (the completion of the 7.5 year Talmud study cycle)
5. This Shabbat’s designation as Shabbat Nachamu 
6. The Aleinu prayer with which we end each service.   

Each of these, among others, appealed to me.  Perhaps because I have just returned to Jerusalem and have not yet caught up on sleep,  I found myself unable to decide which to write about.  So, I thought I’d try briefly weaving them all together!




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Tisha B'Av: Not Just for the Orthodox!

Tisha B'Av: Not Just for the Orthodox!

We all know that much “history” – what happened during andbefore our lifetimes -- greatly affects “who we are” and how we self-identify.   Yet, fewof us consciously define our lives in an expressly historical way.   Unlesswe experienced a traumatic or clearly life-changing event, we don’t say or eventhink “I am who I am because of what happened.” Nor do we think or say, “I am a link in a chain of many generations.”  But doing so would likely enrich the meaning inand of our lives.  In this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, the first inDeuteronomy, Moses knows that he is soon to die.  How does he begin his last oration?  Rather than praising G-d or reiterating theCommandments, he begins with a narrative history of Israel’s experiencessince receiving the Commandments.  Perhapshe realizes that to ensure the future of the “Jewish people,” his mostimportant task is to ensure that they don’t forget theirpast –especially the bitter parts.

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Matot-Masei: How it looks matters, too.

Matot-Masei: How it looks matters, too.
Before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to conquer Canaan, they encamped on the fertile land to the East.  Two of their tribes told Moses that they preferred to inherit that land rather than the Promised Land.  To “clear their obligation to the Lord and to Israel,” they offered to lead the Israelites into battle and then return to their new homes, their flocks, and their families. Moses agreed.  Our sages were not satisfied to read this narrative only as an event in Jewish history.  They asked, more generally, what it means to be “clear of obligation to the Lord and to Israel?”  And they derived a principle that a Jew’s behavior should not only be correct, it should avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Continue Reading »
Jul 20

Pinchas: Surprising vote for most important Torah verse.

Pinchas: Surprising vote for most important Torah verse.
If asked: “which is the most important verse in Torah?” you might choose “Shema, Israel,” “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” “I am the Lord Your G-d,” “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue,” or some other familiar pasuk.  It’s very unlikely that you would cite Numbers 28:3 from this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas.  It requires the bringing of regular sacrifices to the Temple (interpreted during the past two millennia as daily prayer).  

Yet, according to a midrash ...

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Jul 12

Balak: Why Do Americans Celebrate July 4th?

Balak: Why Do Americans Celebrate July 4th?

Why do Americans celebrate the Fourth of July?  The simplest answer is, of course, that this date is America’s consensus“birthday,” since the Declaration of Independence was signed on that day in1776.[1] A more philosophical explanation might mention that Americans designate this day to contemplate, venerate, and celebrate our nation’s foundational principles of liberty, equality, and democracy. An even deeper explanation for the festivities might express some version of what political theorists call “American exceptionalism.”  This is the idea that our nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,”[2]has a unique mission “as a citty upon a hill. [T]he eies of all people areuppon us.[3] 

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Jul 05

Chukkat: Facing Our Fears

Chukkat: Facing Our Fears
The image of one or two snakes coiled around a staff is the familiar symbol of the medical profession. Depicted in several variations, it is called the “Caduceus,” the “Rod of Asclepius,” or “Hermes’s staff,” and dates from Greek mythology.   But we Jews have a much older tradition of a serpent on a staff.  It appears in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, and evidently played a significant part in our history for at least half a millennium.  By looking at it psychologically, we can continue to derive deep significance for our lives.

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3