Skip to main content


Showing posts from May, 2013

Shelach Lecha

Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor , writes: How much can an idealist know about the world and still not be defeated by it?  Consider love: blind love is surely an inferior sort of love—the expression of the fear that the object of love may not be sufficient to justify it; but hope, too must face the problem of ignorance.  With too little knowledge, hope may be a delusion; with too much knowledge, hope may be destroyed.  To some extent, idealism is always a defiance of the facts—but defy too many of the facts and you court disaster.  People who wish to change the world have a special responsibility to acquaint themselves with the world, in the manner of scouts or spies. (“Flaking Paint and Blemishes,” The New Republic, June 10, 2013) Herein we gain insight to the sin of the spies detailed in this week’s portion.  Moses commands twelve spies to scout the land of Israel.  Ten bring back a negative report.  “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devo


An intriguing verse is found in this week’s portion: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled.  There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at!’” (Numbers 11:4-6) What is so great about cucumbers that would cause people to weep?   Obviously it is not about the objects themselves but instead a longing for the past, even when it was one of slavery.  We tend to mythologize the past.  As soon as we confront struggles and challenges with the new direction we have chosen, or for that matter were dragged into, we long for the past, even when that reality was not in our best interest.  How else can we explain the Israelites craving leeks and onions?  I certainly doubt they were making chicken soup in Egypt!  Now that they are confronting hardshi


This week’s Torah portion contains the priestly blessing.  “The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel.  Say to them: The Lord bless you and protect you!  The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!  The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!”  (Numbers 6:22-26) In ancient times the priests uttered this blessing on a daily basis.  In Sephardic synagogues as well the priestly blessing is recited during the morning prayers.  In Ashkenazi synagogues, however, it is only recited on Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  This priestly ritual, known by its Yiddish name dukhanen, is re-enacted by those who trace their lineage to the ancient priests.  Among those who attend Reform synagogues, this threefold priestly blessing is associated with the blessing the rabbi offers at weddings, baby namings and b’nai mitzvah.  On these occasions it is offered not to the Jewish people as a whole but to a

The Forgotten Holiday

What follows is my May-June newsletter article. One would think that a holiday that offers cheesecake as its required delicacy would be among our most popular.  On Shavuot it is customary to eat dairy foods so cheesecake and blintzes are its traditional foods.  Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai .  Contained in the Torah are the laws for slaughtering meat.  Thus we can only eat dairy until the time we receive these specific laws.  In addition the Torah is likened to milk and honey.  It is as sweet as honey and as pure as milk.  It is for these reasons that we eat dairy. Still, despite these favorite foods, Shavuot remains the forgotten holiday.  It could not of course be more important in its message.  So why is it neglected?  Perhaps this is because its primary observances are not found in the home, like the seder of Passover, but instead in the synagogue.  At Shavuot services we read the Ten Commandments.  In addition it is customary that we stay up


The holiday of Shavuot begins this evening.  It marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  Each of the major holidays has a megillah assigned to them.  On Passover we read Song of Songs.  On Sukkot we read from Ecclesiastes.  On Shavuot we read from the Book of Ruth.  This fascinating story tells the tale of Ruth, a Moabite, who marries into the Israelite family of Naomi.  Sadly their husbands die and so Naomi urges her to return to her own country. Ruth refuses and pledges herself to Naomi and her people.  “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.  Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17) And with these words Ruth pledges herself not only to her mother in law but to the Jewish people.  Why is this story assigned to Shavuot?  One


There is an interesting, and perhaps even strange, verse that concludes this week’s Torah portion.  Its meaning, and understanding, is dependent on how we translate its words.  “But let them not go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.” (Numbers 4:20) In ancient times the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, carrying with them the portable tabernacle and its sacred objects.  Their sanctuary was portable.  It was the job of certain members of the Levites to dismantle this tent of meeting as they journeyed from place to place.  In essence they had to break down camp and pack it up.  Apparently no one else could witness this task.  This could diminish the power of the sanctuary in their eyes.  To see it as it was dismantled could lesson its holiness. All of us have attended concerts, shows, or even weddings and b’nai mitzvah.  There is a certain majesty that is of course absent when you see the empty room before it is set up for the ceremony or


The Torah is quite literal in its understanding of human events.  It proposes the following: if you do good then you will receive many blessings.  If you do bad then evil will befall you.  This week’s portion proclaims: “If you follow My Laws and faithfully observe My commandments…you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.…  But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments …  I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and body to languish…” (Leviticus 26) This theology does not of course comport with reality.  Each of us can name any number of righteous people whose lives were sadly cut short.  Far too many people who fill their lives with noble pursuits are not blessed with a fair allotment of years.  We can also name others who never, for example, gave a penny to tzedakah yet who still live a long, healthy, untroubled life.  The equity and justice that the Torah promis