Tikkun Daily button

Archive for the ‘Torah_Commentary’ Category



Torah Commentary – Perashat Toledot: Blessing and Intention

Nov20

by: on November 20th, 2014 | No Comments »

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.

Read more...

Our Josephs, Our Choices

Aug12

by: Paul Tesser and David Steinberg on August 12th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Pharaoh Joseph

Credit: Creative Commons-Flickr pcstratman

In the Torah (specifically, the portion of Mikeitz), we read of Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s interpretations of them. As we know, Joseph explained the dreams to mean that there would be seven years of plentiful harvests in the land of Egypt followed by seven years of severe famine. In this way, Joseph was not only an interpreter but also a prophet, having interpreted the prophetic dreams that God gave to Pharaoh.

Pharaoh’s dreams speak to our own day, a day during which droughts, typhoons, and hurricanes of increasing severity are more and more frequent. These are the equivalents of Pharaoh’s dreams: disturbing, anomalous manifestations of something that calls out for interpretation.

But what is our equivalent of Joseph? We have but to think for a moment to realize that among us are men and women who interpret the overall shape of the novel climate events we have been witnessing – climate scientists. With respect to these phenomena, they are the best interpreters of what is occurring.And the consensus is in. Peer-reviewed science journals report that there is no longer the slightest quibble about the reality of climate change.


Read more...

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

Aug7

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?

Read more...

Shavuot’s Revelation of Self

May27

by: Shmuel Klatzkin on May 27th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Revelation is the heart of Torah. “G-d spoke to you face to face,” Moshe reminds the people as he recounts the great event of Sinai in which they all took part (Deut. 5:4).

That we all took part in it is essential to the meaning of Sinai. The revelation described by the Torah was not the property of one leader alone, or of an elite group, whose report had to be taken as authoritative truth. The authority of the revelation in the Torah is rather to be vouched for by the experience and the memory of each one of the community. Just as the redemption from Egypt was unmediated – “Not by means of an angel, not by means of a seraph, not by means of an agent;” “I, G-d, I and no other” – so, too, was the revelation to which the redemption led: “There was no intermediary,” said Abraham ibn Ezra (ad loc.).

On the path up Mount Sinai. Credit: Creative Commons/Templar1307.

As it was at first, so it remains: the authority of the revelation is to be found within. Its authenticity emerges simultaneously with the emergence of the authenticity of the self. As interesting as all other arguments may be for Torah, this essential argument is not an argument at all. It is pre-argument – the same way that we come to know that we are who we are, that reality is as reality is, so do we intuit how the authority and authenticity of Torah is as it is.

How is the content of that revelation written down for the ages? In some ways, it is not written down, for if it is to be as immediate and present for us as our own identities, there is unfolding something new to say each moment. It is, as Moshe says later in Deuteronomy, “in your mouth and in your heart, as you do it.”

But some of it was written down, engraved in stone, as we have learned to say. And the very first word on the stone is anochi – I.

It is, as it appears in the book, as it appeared on stones, the I of G-d. But the mystics break the word down to its elemental letters, each of which can be re-expanded and then stand for a full word. ANoChY – Ana Nafshi Ketavit Yehavit – wrote My self down and gave it (Likkutei Torah 48d).

Beyond giving of law, beyond imposing an order, the root of the revelation, the root of the Torah is G-d’s giving of self.

The receiving of Torah must match the generosity and the creativity of the giving.

Read more...

Our Self-Sufficiency is Ruining Relationships — Here’s How to Stop the Cycle

May15

by: Dovid Gottlieb on May 15th, 2014 | 8 Comments »

A psychiatrist asked to consult with me about a problem. He had lived through five failed relationships in a row. Each ended when the other party left him. He could find no reason for the failures. “Rabbi” he explained, “you must understand that I gave each of them everything anyone could wish for. Unlimited money, my time and attention [I never let work or anything else distract me from my responsibility to each of them], my deep understanding of human nature to provide whatever they might need, want, or even fancy. With all that – in spite of all that – each left me. What could possibly account for it?”

I was able to understand his frustration because of my own history of feeling as he did. As a man, and a teacher, casting others as needy and myself as provider came very naturally. It was a struggle to learn where this stance misses the mark. But I finally did learn it from my wife. With her insight in mind, I asked him: “And what did each of them give you?” He answered: “Give me?! Rabbi – I am a giver, not a taker. I asked them for nothing, gave them everything, and yet they walked out on me!?” I answered: “Well, maybe that is precisely what they needed to give to you. To feel validated by what they could do for you. Everyone needs to be needed.” The idea was utterly foreign and unacceptable to him and that is where the conversation ended.

I learned this from my wife when we were counseling a young man who was looking to get married. He presented his “wish list” – the characteristics he desired in a spouse. Compiling such a list is good preparation for the search for a spouse since it takes considerable self-understanding to recognize what one needs and what one wants in a marriage partner. Then my wife added two thoughts. First: “You need also another list – your give list. What can you share, support, encourage, inspire, model or teach a spouse? When you meet a possible match, and each of you has both lists, then see if your give list matches the other’s wish list and vice versa. If so, you have a good chance for a profoundly integrated relationship.”

Second: “And don’t think this is just altruism. It is in your own best interest. Imagine you meet someone who has everything on your wish list and is willing to marry you – but does not need you at all. Would you be happy? In a healthy relationship you need to be needed.”

It was this second thought that I tried to share with the psychiatrist. He did not even recognize his partner’s need to be needed. The illusion of giving when really representing the other as needy and dependent and thereby bracing one’s own fragile ego is a common male problem. It came as a revelation to me to learn that true giving must include showing one’s own needs.

Read more...

The Last Temptation of Noah

Apr9

by: Rabbi Howard Cooper on April 9th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Credit: Creative Commons

I once gave a sermon, at the Jewish New Year, during which a thunderstorm broke out and water started to pour through the synagogue roof. I’d like to claim that this was a cleverly-orchestrated special effects stunt that I’d managed to engineer; or even an example of my special relationship with what our tradition, anthropomorphically, calls ‘Our God in Heaven’. (Alas, it was just a leaking roof).

The title of the sermon was pinched – or ‘adapted’, as we writers say – from Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ which had come out that year (1988). In view of the release of  Darren Aronofsky’ s quasi-biblical epic ‘Noah’ with Russell Crowe as the eponymous hero – presumably not timed to coincide with the publication this week of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which relates what we already know in our guts, that global warming has already left its mark “on all continents and across the oceans”, creating havoc with our global weather including extreme heat waves and floods, as well as endangering food supplies; and that we are on the brink of “abrupt and irreversible changes” – I would like to share with you the text of this story-sermon, which has, sadly, frighteningly, stood the test of time…

Read more...

Torah Commentary: Purim- ‘New Dawn’ of Revolutionary Consciousness

Mar12

by: on March 12th, 2014 | Comments Off

1. Dawn of a New Age- The Book of Esther

I will admit that I’ve always had a certain hesitation when it came to Purim. It wasn’t that I was so influenced by Bible criticism or historical scholarship, it was my own sense that the Book of Esther, the focus of the holiday of Purim, read more like a novel than a book of prophecy. It is probably for this reason that if you ask many people which came first, Hanukka or Purim, they would say that Purim was later- there is something more modern about Purim and the Megilla than about the Hanukka story. The Hanukka story feels more biblical than does the Esther story for a number of reasons- it takes place in the land of Israel, there’s a Temple with sacrifices and ritual purity, but most of all, there’s a miracle at the core of the story, whereas with Purim, there is no miracle, it takes place in exile, the Jews are a persecuted minority, and a lot of political intrigue with all the attendant violence is involved. So, despite its being hundreds of years earlier, the Purim story feels more modern, more contemporary. More importantly, the book of Esther, the “megilla”, reads more like a novel than any other sacred Hebrew text, though it is included among the books of the “bible”. I would like to argue now that this novelistic quality, seemingly a detraction from the sanctity of the holiday, may be, in fact, literally, its redeeming quality.

Read more...

Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayikra- Who is Ritual For?

Mar6

by: on March 6th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

There is a lot of discussion these days in religious circles about “protecting halacha”, protecting the law, that if certain positions are taken by communities (usually issues related to the role of women, or modern scholarship these days), then “halacha” will be in “danger”.  I find this a curious new position. Is the role of Torah law to protect /elevate the people or is it some independent divine phenomenon that requires “protection”? Perhaps discussion of a more neutral set of Torah laws, those of sacrifice, neutral because they are no longer operative (itself an interesting development, and not without controversy at the time animal sacrifice was transmuted into prayer and other allegorical motifs). So how do we understand the purpose and function of the Temple rites and sacrifices?

My initial temptation was to play the phenomenologist, to compare our conceptions of sacrifice with those of other cultures, the use of language in Indian ritual, etc., but I was wary of the danger of explaining “away”, that is trying to give a good “excuse” for all this talk of korbanot, sacrifices. Rather than attempting to justify practices out of practice for two thousand years, and keeping in mind the suggestions of R. Kook that we may never sacrifice animals again, I would like to transform the question into one about the meaning of ritual in the human experience. So let us ask the central question of these questions, as does the Mei HaShiloach directly:

How can it be that if a person sins, he or she gets absolved from the sin by killing an animal?

Read more...

Torah Commentary: Ki Tissa- Text and Authority: Sinai and the Golden Calf

Feb13

by: on February 13th, 2014 | Comments Off

Another one of those periodic crises of authority that tend to erupt in the Orthodox world recently captured the attention of the greater community. In this episode, two Orthodox day schools allowed girls who wished to put on tephillin, the ritual prayer boxes traditionally worn by men, the right to put on tephillin during school prayer time. A salvo from the traditionalist camp was quick to follow, focusing not on the question at hand but on the question of authority, with the central argument being that decisions of this sort can’t be made at the local level, but rather require the input from those recognized as long standing authorities. In particular, in this response, the specific argument was that while everyone now has equal access to the full corpus of Jewish legal texts, by way of the internet and the Bar-Ilan database, it doesn’t mean that everyone had the rights of “authority”. I am not going to take sides in this argument, but I believe we get some insight into the problems of a concept like “authority” in both its presence and absence.

The central story of this week’s reading is the well known story of the Golden Calf. Just after all the miracles of the exodus, Moses goes up to Sinai to receive the Torah, and when he is delayed in returning, the people assume he’s dead, have a major freak out, and create an idol of a calf out of gold, which they proclaim the new god and leader of the people. When Moses makes his way back down the mountain with the tablets of the law, the “luhot”, he literally loses it, smashing the tablets. God reveals to Moses that the plan is to wipe out the people and start again, to which Moses regains his composure and advocates for the people. God accepts the appeal and Moses gets a second set of luhot. So was there any lingering result of the sin? We discussed one possible ramification, the idea of a dwelling place, which may have come about as a result of the people’s tragic error. This week we will look at another repercussion of the event, which may give us some insight into the motivations for what appears to us to be a very odd sin by the people given everything they had recently experienced. In other words, why did they make a golden idol of a calf?

Read more...

Weekly Torah Commentary Perashat Terumah: Art as Ultimate Failure

Jan31

by: on January 31st, 2014 | 1 Comment »

The world has seen some ugly battles fought recently over religion-related buildings. From the destruction of the Buddhist monastery at Bamiyan to the conflict over the so-called ground zero mosque, going back to Kristalnacht, the attempt at dehumanization of adherents to a religion frequently begins with a strike against the buildings associated with that faith. On the other hand, some of the most important architectural achievements of humanity across the globe, from Wat Phra Khao to Notre Dame, are a result of spiritual ardor manifested in stone. It would appear that religious structures can provide solace or evoke resistance. What does the Jewish tradition teach us about the role of buildings in spiritual life?

We will see that from the very start, from the Torah text itself, a conflicted reading of the importance or challenge of religious buildings per se is presented. The Torah text provides very lengthy and detailed descriptions for the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple carried by the freed Israelites in their journey through the desert. These details, with instructions regarding the building of the temple walls, roof, altars, ark, and other items related to the sacrificial service, are spread out over five perashiyot (Torah sections, as divided for weekly communal reading). We will see that this organization of the text itself teaches rather surprising and profound lessons about the values of sacred space and its rituals.

Read more...