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 →

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

Parashat Vayigash 5774 (on developing a narrative for one’s life)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

How would you reintroduce yourself to someone who you had completely lost touch with, who hasn’t seen you in years, hasn’t heard about what you’ve been up to from your connections and hasn’t even been following your exploits on Facebook?

How would you frame your new life and the story of how you got from the person you were then to the one you are today? What are your values and priorities now? Would you confront the awkward fact of your lack of contact for all these years, and if so, how would you make sense of it? Continue reading

Parashat Hukat 5773 (on God’s presence in human affairs)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

In the middle of our parasha, overshadowed by: the ritual of the red hefer, the deaths of Moses’ siblings, the sin of striking the rock, the plague of serpents, tales of diplomacy and war, the narrative pauses to include… a really short song, recounting what happened earlier in the parasha when the people needed water:

This song is interjected into a passage listing the stages of the journey.

 וּמִשָּׁם, בְּאֵרָה:  הִוא הַבְּאֵר, אֲשֶׁר אָמַר ה` לְמֹשֶׁה, אֱסֹף אֶת-הָעָם, וְאֶתְּנָה לָהֶם מָיִם. אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת:  עֲלִי בְאֵר, עֱנוּ-לָהּ. בְּאֵר חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים, כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם, בִּמְחֹקֵק, בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם; וּמִמִּדְבָּר, מַתָּנָה.

And from there to Be’er, which is the well where God said to Moses: gather the people and I will give them water. So Israel sang this song: Spring up, well, sing to it:  the well that princes dug; the nobles of the people started it, with the scepter, with their canes. And from Midbar to Mattanah. (Num 21:16-18)

…and so the list continues. Continue reading