What Would You Pack?

1 pair of pants, 1 shirt, 1 pair of shoes and 1 pair of socks
Shampoo and hair gel, toothbrush and toothpaste, face whitening cream
Comb, nail clipper
100 U.S. dollars
130 Turkish liras
Smart phone and back-up cell phone
SIM cards for Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey

—contents of Iqbal’s backpack on arriving in Lesbos, Greece (emphasis added)

Iqbal, from war-torn Kunduz Province in Afghanistan, is a refugee featured in this photo essay by the International Rescue Committee. He said that he hoped that his cosmetics and grooming would make it less likely that he would be identified as a refugee and detained.

Two sections of our parashah (Num. 4:21-49, 7:1-9) deal with the instructions to the Levite clans responsible for transporting the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The tales of these contemporary refugees’ packs remind us just how remarkable it is that the Israelites carried substantial (and seemingly nonessential) structures through the wilderness.

Read more at JTS Torah Online →


Parashat Va’era 5777 (On Israelite and American national destinies)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Abraham — knight of faith. Was willing to leave his home and be the first to swear fealty to the one God.
Isaac — gentle peacemaker. Builder of altars and digger of wells in the Land.
Jacob — cunning fighter. Wrestled with God and established a people.

So God made and affirmed covenants with them. None was perfect, but they had their virtues, and God singled them out, protected them, and maintained a special relationship with them. So far, so good. But then in our parashah, God says about the whole people:

וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים

and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God (Ex 6:7)

This national covenant was promised to Abraham and his descendants, but now is its time. And even the least worthy of Israel is seemingly included.

The question is: why? What can possibly be special about all Israel to make us deserving of this covenant? Continue reading

A Ladder to the Heavens

Image from Hubble telescope

Galactic wreckage in Stephan’s Quintet, in the constellation of Pegasus, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope from 300 million light years away.
Source: spacetelescope.org/images/heic0910i;
credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team.

As Jacob sleeps, he sees a ladder with its base on the ground and its top touching the heavens (Gen. 28:12). The seemingly unreachable realm above the earth, Jacob discovers, is actually relatively accessible, almost within our grasp. The images from the Hubble Space Telescope—and space exploration more broadly—play a similar role for us. One might have expected that humanity’s newly found ability to discover more about space would have blunted our sense of wonder, as more and more of the universe ceases to be so mysterious.

Read more at JTS Torah Online →

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5777 (On the Akedah, the shofar, and teshuvah)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Today, on the Day of Judgment, we see ourselves as standing in a tenuous situation. As our past deeds are evaluated—by us and by God—will we be written into the book of life, or won’t we? And, today, at the start of the New Year, we celebrate God’s coronation and prepare for a new beginning, for a world where God’s reign is manifest. These two stances are somewhat at odds we look back at the year that has ended and consider our lives to be hanging in the balance, whilst  also committing to improve our lives in the coming year. But they also reinforce the same central theme of this period: teshuvah—turning away from a flawed past and towards a better future.

There is perhaps no better model for this paradox than the account we are about to read: that of Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, a story that has to be read in two seemingly contradictory ways at once. And also a story that, like Rosh Hashanah, contains for us an existential concern. Continue reading

Notifications Now and Then (Beha’alotekha 5776)

How often do we hear the sound or feel the vibrations of a mobile device demanding our attention? Breaking news, emails, traffic, and game updates—alerts both trivial and critical are brought to us by beeps, bars of music, and buzzes.

Although the medium may be new, the need to communicate across distances is not. Numbers 10:1–10 directs the making and usage of a pair of silver trumpets—not musical instruments, but sirens, calling Israelites to assemble, instructing them to travel in formation, alerting them to enemy attack and to holidays and sacrificial rites.

Read more at JTS Torah Online →

Bronze Bull, Golden Calf (Ki Tissa 5776)

Photo: Raging Bull—Wall Street, Sylvain Leprovost, CC BY 2.0

The metal bovine with a peculiar magnetism that is known as the Golden Calf (Exod. 32) brings to mind Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull (1989). A potent Financial District icon, it exerts a remarkable pull on passersby (on its webcam you can see the crowd so often around the statue). According to the artist’s website, it was designed as a “symbol of virility and courage” and “the perfect antidote to the Wall Street crash of 1986,” but it was also created without the invitation of the Wall Street community and was promptly removed from its original location in front of the New York Stock Exchange.


Read more at JTS Torah Online →

Parashat Bereishit 5776 (On living in a garden)

Devar Torah given at Congregation Neveh Shalom, Portland, OR

What was it like in the very beginning? As if to emphasise that no-one knows for sure, our parashah offers two distinct perspectives.

In the first few verses of the Torah, the earth is tohu va-vohu. Biblical scholar Richard E. Friedman half-jokingly translates these two rhyming words with one basic meaning as “chaos shmaos”. There is also darkness, tumult and the primordial matter in this account is water, which is fluid and without form. As the days of creation proceed, God tempers the darkness with light, separates out the matter into earth and sky, land and sea, day and night. Each of the categories of plants and animals is created to populate this new world, “lemino” — according to its species. Humanity, with its diversity of genders, and then, at the culmination of these six days, shabbat is created, and we have what we call a week. The week is entirely artificial. Whereas years are a response to the passage of seasons; months–to the cycle of the moon, weeks are imposed as a way to organise and order our lives. Thus the Creation is complete–from absolute chaos to total order. Continue reading

Cities of Refuge (Mattot-Masei 5775)


Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau, Hawaii (credit: Ashira Konigsburg)

Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau, the City of Refuge, on Hawaii’s Big Island was functional into the early 19th century, when kapu, Hawaii’s system of ritual taboos, was overturned by King Kamehameha II. Until that time, many breaches of the kapu could result in death, including for an offence as ephemeral as allowing your shadow to fall over a chief’s house. However, by entering a pu`uhonua(a place of refuge), often by swimming across a bay, and performing a ritual facilitated by the priest there, the punishment could be annulled.

Read more at JTS Torah Online →

Parashat Emor 5775 (On Blasphemy and the Image of God)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

This week’s parashah ends with a sin:

וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן-הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת-הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל.

The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name [of God] and cursed. (Lev. 24:10-23)

Maybe we don’t need to overthink why a law code seen as given by God would determine that cursing God is not ok, but how severe a crime is this? Evidently, Moses was uncertain, as the culprit was detained while Moses checked in with God. Because, perhaps, the negative consequence of this act seems unclear. After all, what harm can possibly come to God through human words? Continue reading

On Bibi’s Statement and Israeli Democracy

What was it that prompted the Rabbinical Assembly to issue a strongly-worded condemnation of Bibi’s 11th hour statement calling on right-leaning Israelis to vote Likud to counteract the ballots of the Arab hoards? The RA is, as the New York Times describes it “traditionally a reliable defender of the Israeli government”, but this was deemed beyond the pale. At first glance, it seems that it was the race-baiting “dog whistle” that caused the outrage, the implication that Arab citizens of Israel voting is intrinsically problematic. Gershom Gorenberg points the finger at the military terms used, which raise the spectre of Arab voters as an invading force within the State.

As serious and problematic as this all is, I think there is something deeper about Netanyahu’s pitch that repulses believers in liberal democracy, perhaps especially Americans (and perhaps especially Conservative rabbis). Despite the Republican Jewish Coalition’s attack on the Rabbinical Assembly for making this statement, I really don’t believe that a top-tier Republican leader would ever (publicly) say, “Black voters are being bused to the polls by liberal activists—protect the Republican-controlled House and vote now!” But why is that? Continue reading