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Mark Kirschbaum
Mark Kirschbaum
Mark Kirschbaum, M.D. comes from a traditional yeshiva background. He writes a weekly Torah commentary attempting to fuse traditional and mystical readings with contemporary philosophical discourse.

Torah Commentary- Ki Tissa: “Strong Leaders” and the Golden Calf


by: on February 25th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

I. “Strong Leadership” as Communal Failure

These days, much of the world is surprised by the ascendance of extreme demagoguery within the US political process. We are shocked by the ascendance of a disruptive “strong leader” who wishes to make “America great again” through force, violence, and hate speech. It seems like another age, the return of a malevolence that we thought was suppressed many decades ago. In contemplating this week’s texts, which deal with the flawed demands of the recently liberated people for a new form of leadership (in this case a golden calf), we can see parallels to the current situation and a response.

When dealing with the repetitions of the mishkan (tabernacle) narrative in the book of Shemot (Exodus), we discussed the idea of boundaries, of distance introduced as a result of the sin of the golden calf. The mishkan structure itself, and the garments of the priests, act as signifiers of, and simultaneously as a means of overcoming the boundaries and distance introduced by the sin of the golden calf. In his discussion of these texts, R. Zadok Hacohen makes the following comment, which would be incredibly radical except that the source of the quote is the Talmud (BT Nedarim 22b)

“If it weren’t for the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jews would only have received the Five Books of the Torah and the Book of Joshua”.

It was only with the second set ofLuhot (tablets received by Moses at Sinai) not the first set smashed because of the golden calf, that we were given the Oral law. R. Zadok understands this to mean that had there not been the distance introduced by sin, our relation with the Torah text would have been an unmediated one, one that would not have required the supplemental hermeneutics of the commentaries and supercommentaries familiar to the student of Jewish studies.

Had this episode of the golden calf not occurred, our understanding of the Torah would have been akin to what Maimonides describes of Adam before his sin, that he would have had a pure objective relationship with God undistorted by subjectivity (which is why the forbidden tree in Eden was known as that of “good and bad”, good and bad being purely subjective categories, liking something or not liking something, as opposed to the tree of ‘life’, which Maimonides saw as symbolizing empirical, objective knowledge, as in science (science as a medieval thinker would have seen it, which included theology).

According to the biblical text, Moses’s absence is taken to mean that he is dead and the people demand a new leadership, this time in the form of a golden idol in the shape of a calf. Our thematic question is, what was the ‘allure’ of the golden calf, what kind of leadership were they looking for, and why would that error lead to a divine recognition that suddenly the five books of the Torah are no longer adequate, and that supplementation with a vast commentary is necessary?

The Meor V’shemesh has difficulty comprehending how a generation that experienced what it experienced could lapse so crudely into idolatry of the most primitive sort. What was it that the people wanted from this idol? His response is that it wasn’t a “god” they were looking for at all, but rather a “strong leader”, an authority figure.


Torah Commentary- Perashat Vayigash: Confronting Societal Injustice, Confronting Ourselves


by: on December 18th, 2015 | Comments Off


In these troubled times, when we see societal tolerance of speech approaching that of fascism, when open hate speech about anything or anyone approximating an “enemy”, where even the victims of oppression are treated with hostility and suspicion, one feels helpless in attempting to maintain a sense of justice and decency. How does one respond to what appears to be a situation of crisis? What kind of discourse is appropriate as a response?

This week’s perasha (Torah portion) begins at a similar moment of crisis- All seems lost. An innocent descent to Egypt to purchase food has ended up with youngest brother Benyamin imprisoned by the enemy authorities. To the brothers, it would seem that their own actions have put the children of Rachel at risk of total decimation (with Yosef believed dead and his only brother Binyamin in a place worse than death), an outcome which would compound their father’s already unrelieved grief to beyond mortal tolerance. The family appears helpless in a Kafkaesque trial situation which caught them entirely unawares.

In an act of desperation, Yehudah steps forward and begins to plead with the enemy leader for his brother’s life. The text uses some unusual language- the text reads:  Vayigash Elav Yehudah, literally Yehudah “encountered” him. The use of the term vayigash, from the root hagasha, (to come close, also to prepare) is somewhat unusual, both linguistically and even in terms of the action, given that they were in the same room. And to whom is the second word in the phrase,Elav, “to him”, referring to?

In fact, why does the text need to quote Yehuda’s speech at such length? This speech does not reveal anything new towards the linear development of the plot; we are given no new facts about the brothers’ history, and no new personal revelations. Yet this speech is clearly central to the story and thus extensively analyzed by the Midrashim. The Midrash choreographs entire dialogues lurking behind the words of Yehudah, referring to all sorts of hidden meanings within his every word, both conciliatory and threatening words; the prelude in the Midrash Rabbah (BR 93:3) insists that the words of Yehudah “can be interpreted from every angle”. We will find that the words of Yehuda teach us several useful lessons on mindfulness in the moment of apparent crisis.


Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayetze- Dreams of a Refugee


by: on November 20th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

When I reached manhood, I saw rising and growing upon the wall shared between life and death, a ladder barer all the time, invested with an unique power of evulsion: this was the dream….Now see darkness draw away, and LIVING become, in the form of a harsh allegorical asceticism, the conquest of extraordinary powers by which we feel ourselves confusedly crossed, but which we only express incompletely, lacking loyalty, cruel perception, and perseverance…. Rene Char, Fureur et Mystere

In the traditional literature, the patriarch most symbolic of the Jewish people is Jacob (Yaakov in Hebrew), who comes into his own in this week’s Torah reading. While more of a passive player in the previous episode, Jacob comes to life- as he is forced into exile. This essay will deal with dreams, the dreams of a refugee. It is not accidental that the first dream recorded in the Torah is associated with a man on the run, who has placed a stone from the road under his head in order to sleep. That dream is the lyrical dream of the ladder which ascends to heaven in which Jacob sees angels alighting and descending, which the Midrash suggests may be read as allegorical for Israel in exile, subject to the rise and fall of nations and circumstances over which they have no control. It is thus fitting that this week we contemplate dreams and exile, and the plight of the refugee. Sympathy for the refugee is a biblical sentiment from the very earliest passages, and that must not be forgotten in these troubled times.

The commentators from the earliest days noted the relationship between place/circumstance and the appearance of the dream. The Midrash latches on to an extraneous word in the verse- “and he chanced upon the place and rested there”. The Midrash explains the word vayifga, “and he chanced upon”, as meaning “he prayed there”, using as a proof text the use of the same term in the Jeremiah 7:16 and 27:18. The Midrash states that there, in that place where Yaakov rested, Yaakov created the evening prayer, the Arvit service, described by R. Shmuel bar Nahman as embodying “May it be Thy will that You remove me from darkness to light”. Exile as night.

A second curious midrash is found on verse 28:16, which reads “and Yaakov awoke from his sleep, mishenato“. The Midrash alters it to miMIshnato, from his studies, from his “learning”. At first glance, one might suspect a surprising anti-study, anti-intellectual message, likening study to sleep, in that Midrashic reading. Why is study like sleep?

The Maor V’Shemesh understands the emptiness of study without dreams. He says that the “Torah spiritual life” is made up of two intertwined elements- study and prayer (compare the Maharal in Netivot Olam A, chapter 7). Neither approach, neither study alone, nor prayer alone, is adequate on its own. This is the lesson of Yaakov’s development as narrated by the midrashic readings. The Midrash narrates that Yaakov spent 14 years in the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever”, yet he never had a heirophany, a divine revelation, until this episode, which takes place not in a study hall- but on the road, alone, uncertain of the direction his life might take, a refugee, with only stones under his head for comfort. This situation, which moved Yaakov to beseech God for his very survival, is what “awoke his learning” as well, infusing his years of study with the urgency of dreams, transforming study into yearning and a route for redemption.

It is the encounter with the dark silence of reality that is transformative. A refugee sees the world collapsing around them and dreams, urgently, that there must be a better reality where normal life can proceed.


Torah Commentary- Noah: Transcending Deluge-Era Consciousness


by: on October 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

The story of Noah is on the surface rather straight forward. The people are bad, Noah is good, God decides to wipe out the Earth but saves Noah and a large number of representative animals in a big wooden boat. After bringing down rain for 40 days and nights, the rain stops, and Noah sends out two animal emissaries, when the second finds dry land, they disembark. Makes for a great children’s book, cartoon, or sci-fi movie. Versions of this tale are found throughout the ancient world, and much literature is dedicated to the roots of this story. Ultimately, though, in any version of this, it is a horrible story, so much death and destruction, and it doesn’t even end well for Noah.

My interest is less in the ancient near eastern roots of this narrative, nor about its authenticity. What moves us in this series of essays on Tikkun is what meaning or sense could be derived from the text we have by the serious spiritual thinkers who have encountered these passages over the generations. Is there a meaning beyond “be good or be a good swimmer”?

Much of the Rabbinic writings focus on Noah, why was Noah saved, what merit did he earn that can be emulated? Much like in the contemporary presidential debates, the ‘media’ as it were seeks a winner. If one compares Abraham, Moses, and Noah, among the great religious figures of crisis, who did the right thing and who committed ‘gaffes’? My interest, however, and for which there seems to be no strongly held position, was what did humanity do that was so terrible that a collective punishment of this scale was warranted, and what lessons does it have for us today?


A Note for the New Year


by: on September 22nd, 2015 | Comments Off

This new year, we enter Yom Kippur amidst a period of great divisiveness about a large number of social issues. The lines polarizing the greater community seem more severely drawn, and clear expressions of what in the past would have been immediately labeled as hate speech have become a commonplace even within the presidential election process. Perhaps, this year, contemplating these matters is a necessary theme for the high holy day period.

In antiquity, and preserved within our textual rites, the central moment of the Yom Kippur experience was the set of sacrifices that the High Priest brought at the Temple in Jerusalem, as an act of healing for the people, its leadership, and its priesthood. Noteworthy about the rite on Yom Kippur as opposed to the sacrificial rite of the rest of the year was that the High Priest performed this rite in simple white clothing rather than the usual gold embroidered uniform (the bigdei lavan vs the bigdei zahav). Many reasons have been given for this, but one resonated with me for this year.

The Kedushat Levi explains that on Yom Kippur, the ritual is performed in white symbolizing white light, white light being made up of the full spectrum of colors, as is seen when white light is refracted through a prism. He explains that on Yom Kippur, all the different forms of spiritual efflux come together into a unified whole, rising above their usual differentiation in the material worlds.

Yom Kippur is marked by the practice of withdrawal, for a full day, from eating, drinking, sexual intimacy, high end (leather) shoes, and tending to appearances (washing). As we have written, this is not meant as punishment, but as a practice of reaching beyond. Our deeper selves are given a chance to reach beyond our limited mundane desires and primitive unmediated appetites.

This year, perhaps more than in years past, as we contemplate the spiritual process of Yom Kippur as ritually signified by white rainment, white clothing, the special white Torah ark covers used for these days, we should meditate upon the true nature of white light, a light made up of all the possible colors of the spectrum. All the colors of the spectrum, as a praxis, means we need to overcome all obstructions that hinder our vision from attaining the highest light, recognize the unity of all mankind, consciously transcend all the seeming limitations of politics, nationalisms, race, faith, and gender that keep us apart. Let us in our Yom Kippur experience learn to transcend hate.


Torah Commentary: The Seder and Transformative Consciousness


by: on April 3rd, 2015 | Comments Off

The Torah tells us of four sons…

One of the central passages of the seder involves a presentation of the questions of, and the responses to four paradigmatic sons. We are told of a wise son, a wicked son, an innocent or naive son, and the fourth described as one who does not know how to initiate a question. Each of these “sons”questions, in one way or another, is about the meaning of the ritual observances surrounding Passover, and for each one an appropriate answer is given, depending on the personality of the son. Each of these ‘sons’ questions and answers are constructed out of biblical proof texts which contain a reference to instructing one’s offspring. However, they are not presented, Powerpoint style, in order of their appearance in the Torah, and are used in a homiletic manner to teach certain points. What these points might be is also left unexplained in an almost zen koan like challenge to comprehension; we will see that loaded within this seemingly innocuous passage is a call to transformative consciousness.

The entire passage is unclear, for example, the question of the wise son and the wicked son are similar, while the answers they receive are curious; furthermore, the answer given to the wicked son and the non-questioning son are derived from the exact same verse. What do all these texts with their attributions to different types of children come to teach us on the first night of Passover, what does any of this have to do with liberation from oppression?


Torah Commentary – Perashat Toledot: Blessing and Intention


by: on November 20th, 2014 | Comments Off

These days, there is no shortage of hatred to go around. Tragically, much of this hatred has erupted into tragic violence in Jerusalem this week, a brutal set of murders in a synagogue that most clearly illustrates the religious, and we may say, biblical nature of this conflict. It is noteworthy that this week’s Torah reading is one in which the growing animosity between Jacob and his brother Esav is described, a rift that the Talmud records as the source of eternal enmity between Jacob, that is, the Jewish people, and Esav, midrashically reified as Rome and thus European society. The reflexive assumption made before reading the texts, then, is Jacob=good, Esav=bad. However, that is a prejudice not entirely present in the text, as we shall see, a text which is extremely ambiguous with regards to who is or is not the hero of this episode. For after all, their father Isaac (Yitzchak), clearly intended to bless Esav, but only through the wily intervention of Jacob’s mother does Jacob hijack these blessings.

Despite the ambiguity in the narrative, the blessings that ultimately are bestowed upon Jacob are read in various ways as prophetic of later Jewish history, and as such are incorporated into the traditional prayers. The Midrash gives many readings of these blessings as pertaining to the Jewish future, but surely Yitzchak had a whole different idea of the blessing’s possibilities, geared as they were in original intent towards Esav. To put this in modern terms, there is a very wide gap here between authorial intent and reader response to these texts. I will present three exegetical approaches to this conundrum, which will be presented in order of progressive radicality in terms of the usual assumptions about this episode.


A Thought For Yom Kippur


by: on October 3rd, 2014 | 1 Comment »

One year, in anticipation of the Yom Kippur prayers before Kol Nidre, the community was reciting Psalms in an agitated fashion. R. Pinhas of Koretz (a contemporary of the Baal Shem Tov) turned to them and said, all this carrying on and your words are going nowhere. You think that if you speak sheker (falsehoods) all year, suddenly your words will make an impact above? So I tell you this: Take upon yourselves that you will no longer speak falsehood and your prayers will immediately rise up…


Torah Commentary- Shabbat Nachamu: Hope means Justice in the Present


by: on August 7th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope. (Walter Benjamin, Schriften I)

The world today is ugly, one in which we can read of children dying as a result of political battles in too many places in the world, without shedding a tear, or worse, justifying this outcome as valid or expected. We must cry out for an end to this kind of suffering and cry out for an end to these horrors.

This Sabbath is known traditionally as Shabbat Nachamu, The Sabbath of comforting. The Isaiah 40 (well known outside the synagogue as the opening of Handel’s Messiah) is a prophecy of hope read at this point in the calendar, just after the commemoration of the horrors of war which twice led up to the destruction of the Temple and the creation of millions of refugees. As a result of these experiences, traditional Jewish culture is marked by an emphasis on hope, on a belief that injustice will be overcome, and that the “weary will be given strength”, as the end of this chapter in Isaiah proclaims.

Hope seems one of the more lofty spiritual aspirations of mankind, yet one of the least frequently defined. Schiller seems to have summed it up for the Romantic era as:

Im Herzen kuendet es laut sich an:

Zu was Besserm sind wir geboren!

The heart proclaims it loudly within

We were born for better things!

What these better things might be is not detailed, as yearning itself was enough of a goal in the Romantic era. Whatever hope may be, it was usually something earmarked for future generations. Imber’s Hebrew poem, “The Hope”, later adapted for use as the Israeli national anthem, is built around a similar theme: “As long as within the heart/ A Jewish soul yearns…our Hope is not lost.” This hope is defined as (in the current official version, somewhat different from the original text), “To be a free nation in our land/ The land of Zion-Jerusalem.”

While perhaps in Imber’s time, a harsh time for Jewish existence, a free land may have been adequate to define “the hope”, there are few who would currently feel that hope has been fulfilled only with land ownership, which itself has brought with it some serious challenges, not all of which can be said to have been reached. Certainly we have no less need for hope. So what is it that we hope for? Furthermore, must hope always be something aimed at the future? Is it possible that we can define hope in such a way that it reflects a process which can be actualized in the present, in the here and now? Can we afford to wait for the future when the present is so filled with death and suffering?


Torah Commentary Perashat Balak: Rising Above Being-Animal, Particularly Now


by: on July 3rd, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Once again we find ourselves in a world of brutal murders, teenagers this time, with heart-rending images of mothers crying, on both sides of the political spectrum. The ensuing scenes of mobs calling for yet more violence, and the apparent “revenge” killing that occurred, make it likely that we will witness, and then become blase again, about the kind of violence that is truly endless- no parent can ever live normally after the death of children, it is an eternal sorrow that no human should need to suffer, and certainly not for reasons of “politics”. I submit that the point of this week’s Torah reading, which tells the story of a failed attempt by haters to do harm to innocent people (with “curses” prior to actual violence) foiled, in part, through a talking donkey, is meant to teach us just this lesson.

Perashat Balak, this week’s Torah reading, stands as a unique narrative segment in the Torah. For the first time, we are presented with a narrative episode which is entirely not experienced by the Israelites; a “behind the scenes” presentation, or to use contemporary film theory terminology, we are “sutured in” from an entirely different vantage point, outside of the usual concern with the Exodus. It can be assumed that if the Torah had not told us this story, no one would have ever known it, as it all takes place outside the horizon of the participants of the Exodus.

The film theory analogy may not be far off. In reading through this passage, one is struck by a preponderance of visual terminology. Again and again terms dealing with sight are used, even down to the description of the Israelite masses as covering “eyn haaretz”, the “eye of the land”. The Daat Moshe (son of the Magid of Kozhnitz, and an important thinker in his own right) suggests that even the name of the king of Moab, protagonist of our tale, Balak ben Zippor, reflects this, as the word “zippor” is akin to the aramaic “tzafra nahir”, inferring a certain type of clarity, as of daylight. Perhaps our text is trying to teach us a lesson in how to “see”?

This passage is so cinematic that there is even a novel special effect thrown in, when the bad guy Bilaam’s donkey starts to speak, a bit of “magical realism” tossed in, a sort of effect not found elsewhere in the Torah.

Now even if the Torah felt it necessary to give an historical perspective on how the surrounding tribal peoples responded to the emergence of the Israelites on the scene, and even if the resulting positive spin of Bilaam’s blessings are worth preserving, why tell us the odd story of the talking mule? The text never finds it important to present, for example, the rituals or political structures during the period of slavery in Egypt, so why do we need to know the details of Bilaam’s escapades? This type of story seems more reminiscent of those odd Midrashim that attempt to fill in gaps in the narrative, as in the details of Moshe’s adventures in Midian, etc. So what is this episode, and particularly the talking donkey segment, attempting to teach us?