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Showing posts from December, 2019

What's in a Name

Customarily we call people to the Torah using their Hebrew names. “Yaamod Shmaryah ben Tzemach v’Masha.” But we go about our days using our English names. “Stand up Steven Moskowitz.” Except at synagogue, or perhaps at weddings and funerals, we rarely call people by their Hebrew names. So why are people surprised that our patriarch Joseph goes by an Egyptian name instead of the Hebrew name his parents gave him? The Torah reports: “Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah.” (Genesis 41) In ancient Egyptian, this means “God speaks; he lives.” First Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his number two, in charge of shepherding Egypt through the impending famine. Then he gives him a proper Egyptian name, as well as a wife, by the way. Like Joseph we live in two worlds. We carry two names. Our identities are hyphenated. American-Jew. Which name we rely on depends upon the circumstance. Do I identify as a Jew? Or should I be called by my American identity? It depends on w

Let's Be Proud...and Be Careful

Although the true history of Hanukkah recounts a bloody civil war between Jewish zealots led by Judah Maccabee with their fellow Jews enamored of Greek culture, we prefer to tell the story of the miracle of oil.   Here is that idealized version. A long time ago, approximately 2,200 years before our generation, the Syrian-Greeks ruled much of the world and in particular the land of Israel.   Their king, Antiochus, insisted that all pray and offer sacrifices as he did.   He outlawed Jewish practice and desecrated the holy Temple.   But our heroes, the Maccabees, rebelled against his rule.   After nearly three years of battle, the Maccabees prevailed.   They recaptured the Temple. When the Jews entered the Temple, they were horrified to discover that their holiest of shrines had been transformed and remade to suit pagan worship.   They declared a dedication (the meaning of hanukkah) ceremony.    Soon they discovered that there was only enough holy oil to last for one of the eigh

The Kiss of Reconciliation

The Torah scroll is beautifully calligraphed. Each of its letters is meticulously drawn. It takes a Torah scribe one year to fashion a single scroll. Some letters have small, stylized crowns. The chapters and verses are perfectly arranged in columns, unfettered by punctuation marks. Although each scroll is different because it is fashioned by a different scribe, the letters and words of every Torah are calligraphed in a similar manner. “Moses” looks the same in every Torah scroll. There is the mem, the first letter of Moshe. Then the shin, adorned with its crowns, and finally the heh. Like all the other words in the Torah, there are no vowels below the letters or cantillation marks above the letters. In fact, only a very small fraction of words in the Torah have additional notations. Very few words have marks above the letters. This week we discover one of these unique examples: “Vayishakeyhu—and he kissed him.” Calligraphed above each of its letters is a dot. Here is

Finding Our Shul and Our Path

Among my favorite, and often quoted, books is Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. (The title alone is enough to get me to pick it up again and again.) Solnit offers a number of observations about travel, nature, science and discovering ourselves. She begins: “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” The question is the beginning of apprehension. (And this is exactly why apprehension has two meanings.) Journeying, and the curiosity that must drive it, leads to wisdom. Uncertainty is where real learning begins. Our hero Jacob stands at the precipice of an uncertain time. He is running from home. He has just tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. Esau has promised to kill him. Their mother, Rebekah, urges Jacob to leave and go to her brother, Laban. Their father Isaac instructs him, “Get up! Go to Paddan-Aram.” Jacob is alone.