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Showing posts from January, 2016

Yitro and Rejoicing with God

To know God is to fear God. So the Torah suggests. In this week’s reading we learn that the experience of Sinai is terrifying. “There was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.” (Exodus 19:16) This is how the Torah describes the revelation at Mount Sinai. In fact the people were so overwhelmed by the experience that they begged Moses to spare them further divine encounters. They pleaded, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:16) We ask: if the goal of our tradition is to draw us close to God how do we find encouragement in these words? How can a story filled with fear and dread provide us with inspiration? And so the rabbis reimagined the experience. In their eyes holiness becomes more manageable and God more approachable. To know God is to draw affirmation in the mundane, in the ordinary and everyday. Rabbi Akiva in fact understands Song of Songs, a biblica

Beshalach and Walking Away from War

Among my favorite poems is “Eli Eli” by Hannah Senesh: My God, my God I pray these things never end The sand and the sea The rush of the waters, The crash of the heavens, The prayer of man. Senesh was of course the young Zionist who parachuted behind German lines and made her way into her native Hungary in order to rescue fellow Jews. She was captured and we now know tortured mercilessly. On November 7, 1944 she was executed by a German firing squad. Her writing and poetry remain. Her words are often added to our Shabbat prayers.... This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Bo, Darkness and Heroes

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out you your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’” (Exodus 10:21) The tradition expands our understanding of this plague of darkness. It was so thick and enveloping that the Egyptians could not even see their hands in front of their faces. This helps to explain why darkness is the ninth plague. In that darkness the Egyptians were utterly alone. They only had their thoughts. They could see nothing but what could be found in their imaginations. Such ruminations must have given rise to even greater and greater fear. Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts ran through people’s minds. In their imagination frogs became transformed into crocodiles that devoured children. And locusts became vultures gnawing on the carcasses of dead cattle. Such is the power of the mind. Such are the dangers of imagination. One would think that this darkness could

Vaera and God's Many Names

This week’s Torah portion, Vaera, opens with the words: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Y-H-V-H…” (Exodus 6) To Moses God offers this personal name of YHVH. We, however, no longer know how to pronounce this name and so we say, Adonai, my Lord. This name is related to the name revealed at the burning bush. When Moses asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?’” God responds, Eyeh Asher Eyeh, meaning “I will be what I will be.” (Exodus 3) YHVH is thus a form of the verb, “to be.” What a mysterious, and wonderful, name. The name of God means: God is. As a consequence the Jewish tradition has many names for God. A casual search of the prayerbook yields well over 50 different names. Here are a few: the Teacher, the Holy One Blessed be He,