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Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayetze- Dreams of a Refugee


by: on November 20th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

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 | No Comments »

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?


Hoping for Rain- Biblical Understanding of Cosmic Order, Human’s Nature and Drought


by: Rabbi Belle Michael on June 27th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

A photograph of Lake Mead (Arizona/Nevada) in the midst of a drought.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Chris Richards.

As we all heard, 2014 set record for being the hottest year in a decade; in fact scientists say that every year in the past few decades set a record for being the warmest year. We know it for fact now; our planet is getting warmer each year.

Some scientists are still trying to figure out the causes for Global Warming while others study the effects of Global Warming on extreme weather events such as heat waves, hurricanes and droughts. As to the drought in California, so far no scientific link between Global Warming and the drought was found. Research has shown contradicting evidence and thus, contradicting conclusions.


For the Sake of Heaven


by: Melissa Weininger on June 23rd, 2015 | Comments Off

Close up of a flame.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Oliver.

According to reports, when a young stranger walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last Wednesday night, the senior pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, invited the young man to sit next to him so that he would feel welcome. It was literally an article of faith that the church should embrace the young man, though he was not a regular member of the community, though he was white in a historically black church. These things didn’t matter to Pinckney and the other members of the Bible study group that met that night. What mattered to them were tenets of faith and the standards of their community, a congregation built on the premise of inclusion, particularly inclusion of the marginalized and rejected.


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?


The Iconography of Sorrow: How Easter Transforms Our Response to Suffering


by: Luke Bretherton on April 1st, 2015 | Comments Off

From pictures of poor farmers in Depression era America to bloated children in Sudan, the contemporary aesthetics of poverty subtly reinscribe the ancient division between the children of the soil (chthonoi) and children of the gods (theion) familiar to us from the Greek and Babylonian myths.

Those who live some form of what is often deemed the ideal “Western” lifestyle look down from Olympus with sympathy on the sons and daughters of the soil and their visceral imprisonment to nature and necessity.

“We” who benefit from consumer lifestyles, technological advancement and decent sewers contemplate the photographs of stricken faces and think: “If only they can be more like us.”


The King and the Ring: On Purim and Violence


by: Aryeh Cohen on March 4th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?


Responding to Anti-Semitism


by: Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah on March 4th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Graphic of a girl covering her mouth with her hand, with the British flag behind her.

Survey data is easily manipulated to 'prove' a certain view or opinion. What matters more is how we confront anti-Semitism in the context of historical Jewish persecution. Credit: CreativeCommons / SA HonestReporting.com

Anti-Semitism is in the news again. First: the deadly assault on the kosher supermarket in Paris on January 9(2015), which claimed four lives, two days after the murderous attack against Charlie Hebdo magazine. Then, on Shabbat, February 14: the killing of a Jewish man on security duty and the wounding of a police officer outside a synagogue in Copenhagen – after an attack against a cafe holding a meeting about free speech, where another person was killed. All these attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists, and in each case, anger against Western press freedom that has allowed the publication of material that is disrespectful of the Prophet Muhammad, followed by the targeting of Jews.

So, has anti-Semitism got worse? Those who set up the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism UK (CAA) that was launched in August 2014 believe that it has. A YouGov poll commissioned by the CAA that was publicised following the Paris attacks, said that 45% of Britons assented to at least one of four anti-Semitic statements put to them.[1] The CAA also conducted their own survey of over 2,200 British Jews, which showed that more than half felt that they had witnessed more anti-Semitism in the past two years, and that 54% feared that Jews have no future in the UK.[2] Alongside the results of these surveys, the Community Security Trust recorded a 36% rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the first six months of 2014, while during the Israeli operation in Gaza in July 2014 hate crime in London soared, with 90% of attacks being aimed at Jews.[3]

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.


Our Josephs, Our Choices


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.