Torah Commentary

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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Korah: Is the Torah true?

Korah: Is the Torah true?

Is the Torah true? Millions of Jews (as well as non-Jews), particularly those raised in traditional, religiously observant homes, schools, and communities, would answer an unqualified “yes.” Millions of others would respond “of course not.” But what does “true” mean for purposes of answering this question?

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Jun 21

Don't Say Nice Things About People!

Don't Say Nice Things About People!

“If you can say something nice about someone, don’t!”  This seems like an illogical and mean-spirited miscasting of the familiar maxim: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  But, taken as a general rule, “don’t say nice things about people” accurately reflects both Jewish ethics and human nature.  This week’s Torah portion helps explain why.

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Jun 15

Be-Ha'alotekha: Scattering our Enemy

Be-Ha'alotekha: Scattering our Enemy

I have a good friend who is “ultra-orthodox.”   Only, he is not haredi; quite the opposite.  You might say that he is ultra-orthodox in his secularism.   Or, to put it another way, he “religiously” avoids and is even hostile to religion.  Recently, he said to me “I want to ask you a question, not as a friend, but as a rabbi.”  (Whether this meant that, in his mind, the two are mutually exclusive, I don’t know).   Here was his question: “Why do otherwise intelligent people engage in absurd religious rituals?”  He was referring, of course, to the other kind of “ultra-orthodox.”

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Jun 07

Naso: G-d's Will?

Naso: G-d's Will?
Most of my synagogue experience has been in Reform schuls.  Near the end of Shabbat services, the rabbi and/or cantor recites the “threefold benedictions of Torah” – the Birkat-Kohanim (Priestly Blessings/Benediction):    
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B'midbar: "We're history."

B'midbar: "We're history."

According to the Etz Hayim Torah commentary: "A tradition has it that the tribe of Judah, situated at the eastern edge of the camp, marched backward when the Israelites broke camp and traveled eastward, to avoid turning their backs on the Ark.  They thus found their path to the future by orienting themselves to their past." (my italics) The last sentence is striking.  American culture emphasizes looking ahead, not behind. 

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May 25

Behar/Behukkotai: My Countries Right or Wrong

Behar/Behukkotai: My Countries Right or Wrong

Many of you grew up in the 1960s and vividly remember it.  Student occupation of college administration buildings.  Rampant drug use.  Long hair.  Bra burning.  Race riots.  Vietnam war protests.  Protesters within earshot of the Oval Office chanting: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Flag burning.  The environmental movement.  The consumer movement.  Political assassinations.  It was a time of great social and political turmoil. 

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Emor: Judaism's G-d of Vengeance?

Emor: Judaism's G-d of Vengeance?
This past Pesach (Passover), my wife, daughter, and I attended a Seder at a women’s prison.  Actually, the name of the institution is a “correctional facility.”  As we waited to go through security at the entrance, we discussed whether imprisonment for non-violent crimes is humane and effective.  I mentioned that in law school, I learned that there are three purposes of incarceration: punishment, correction, and deterrence.  The punishment aspect in America is limited by the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.  
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May 10
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If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.
Jewish Proverb