Wednesday, November 06, 2013

My Full List of Torah Commentaries for Congregation Emanu-El

In my time at Emanu-El, I have contributed nearly thirty essays to our weekly commentary. These commentaries are written not only by the clergy and educational staff, but also our administrators. They vary widely in style, from academic scholarship to thoughtful homiletics to amusing retellings of the story from the point of view of one of the minor characters. In my own commentaries, I’ve often written about the educational programs at Emanu-El and how they attempt to make ancient wisdom relevant to our lives today.

I’m assembling here (after the jump) the full list of my commentaries, with a brief excerpt from each one.

This is my absolute favorite thing I’ve written, from my March 2012 Commentary on Parshat Tzav: “Jeremiah is not opposed to the pursuit of wisdom, strength or wealth, and neither should we be. Jeremiah tells us, if you must be driven by ego, then take pride in how you emulate God in your behavior. Don’t simply attain wisdom for its own sake, he says. Use your wisdom to bring about kindness. Use your strength in the pursuit of justice. And with your wealth, seek equity.”

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GENESIS (B’REISHIT)
B’reishit (2015) “As befits the inscrutable story of creation, occurring beyond the limits of our scientific research and historic knowledge, the very first word of the Torah contains within it a mystery. Although the traditional English translation is “In the beginning,” it more accurately should be translated as “In a beginning” — in one beginning, among other beginnings ... implying that God created other worlds besides our own!”

B’reishit (2013) “We are so used to living with a seven-day week that it is hard to remember it is not a natural cycle but an invention. The week is completely different from the day, the month and the year, which are rooted in the observable movements of the sun and moon … For Jews in ancient Israel, however, time was marked by a weekly holiday, a cessation of work, Shabbat.”

Noach (2007) “For many people, the most important question raised by this story [of Noah’s ark] is, did this really happen? … I’m more interested in a different sort of question: Why did our ancestors think this was a story that was worth passing along from generation to generation? What message were they trying to teach their children?”

Vayeira (2009) “Abraham comes across as good and generous, but his actions probably don’t strike us as extraordinary. However, close examination of the choice of words used to tell this story reveal subtleties that demonstrate why Abraham exemplifies what it means to be a good host.”

Tol’dot (2013) “This [story of Jacob pretending to be Esau] is just one of the many tales in the Bible in which people wear a disguise or conceal who they are in order to achieve their goals … It is a thin line between clothing and costume, between dressing up and deception.”

EXODUS (SH'MOT)
Sh'mot (2016) “The second book of the Torah is known in English as “Exodus...” in Hebrew, however, the book and its first portion are called Sh’mot or “Names.” ... It is in this week’s portion as well that the Bible in a manner most mysterious explains what we should call God.”

Va-eira (2015) “We acquire many names over the course of our lives, reflecting the ways we have grown and changed and the evolving roles that we play in the lives of others. In the same way, we call God by many names because we need God in many ways.”

B’shalach (2009) “Reading these words today, we may wonder if the story of the parting of the Red Sea happened the way it is described in the Bible. It is perhaps helpful to note that more than a thousand years ago, such commentators as Rashi had difficulty accepting that God would disrupt the order of the natural world.”

B’shalach (2013) “Early commentators remarked on the foresight of the Israelites, who left Egypt in such a hurry that they were unable to bake leavened bread, yet managed to grab their timbrels and drums, anticipating that there would be cause for celebration in their future.”

T’rumah (2011) “By coming together to share in the work of building the Sanctuary, it was the Jewish people itself that was built.”


Ki Tisa (2015) “How is it that within a few months after experiencing the greatest miracles in the story of our people — the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Sinai — our ancestors lose faith in God and in Moses?”

Vayak’heil/P’kudei (2013) “Each month, our Shabbat Kodesh family worship service features a dramatic, interactive skit based on the week’s Torah portion. The creation of this script is a collaborative and intentional process, incorporating methodologies pioneered by the organization “Storahtelling.”

LEVITICUS (VAYIKRA)
Tzav (2012) “To many contemporary readers of the book of Leviticus, the entire notion of sacrificial worship is discomforting. But to find a critique of the institution of Temple sacrifice, we need look no further than the Haftarah reading that accompanies this portion, from the book of Jeremiah.”

Tazria (2011) “The Bible offers no physical explanation for this disease, and Rabbinic tradition holds that tzaraat is not a form of skin disease at all but rather the outward manifestation of an inner spiritual ailment, the visible embodiment of an inner ugliness.”

K’doshim (2011) “As Jews, we aspire to a future in which people instinctively are righteous, in which all of us created in the Divine image live each day with holiness. But to get us to that better world, it is to Moses and the Torah that we must turn for guidance.”

B’har/ B’chukotei (2012) “In times of prosperity, it is easier to believe our wealth is the result of our labors than it is during times of poverty … The Sabbatical year is an assertion that the earth belongs not to its human inhabitants but to God alone.”

NUMBERS (BAMIDBAR)
Naso (2013) “To bend heavenly spirits to one’s own will, to take direct control over the forces of nature … is to take God’s power for one’s own … The power to bestow blessing should be exclusively in God’s domain, but in the Bible, the priest is endowed by birthright with this superhuman and supernatural ability. How can we reconcile [this] dissonance?”

Sh’lach L’cha (2011) (with Danny Mishkin) “Why send [the 12 spies to scout out the land of Israel] ahead of the rest of the group? The Israelites need to know if their future life will be better than one spent wandering in the desert.”

Korach (2008) “Korach rightly observed that each one of us embodies the potential to be a leader within our community. His error was in believing holiness to be an innate quality within us rather than as a constant potential toward which we must strive.”

Korach (2009) “Our Israelite ancestors never learned from their mistakes, no matter how many times they were punished. This is, perhaps, a cautionary tale for us today … We must remember that punishment on its own doesn’t provide any guidance about what would be more appropriate behavior.”

Korach (2010) “The difference between the disputes of Hillel and Shammai and those of Korach and his assembly [with Moses] lie not in the words they use, nor in the causes they preach, but in the motivations that underlie their rivalry. As we learn from Hillel and Shammai, an “argument for the sake of heaven” is one that respects the perspective of the other even while we disagree with the position.”

Chukat (2014) “As we get better at understanding the patterns to explain everything around us, from the human body to the laws of physics, the notion that some things might be inexplicable can be demoralizing or even frightening.”

Balak (2010“Each week, we in the Religious School begin our worship services with the students by singing the words from Numbers 24:5, ‘How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel!’ When we teach our students about this prayer, we ask them to offer a compelling explanation for what we could possibly mean when we say the word ‘Israel.’”

DEUTERONOMY (D’VARIM)
D'varim (2015) “ Like the ancient Israelites, we must remember that as much as we have achieved in the familiar ways to which we have grown accustomed, before us lies a future of even greater possibility.

Va-et’chanan (2012) “It is inevitable. As we get older, [we] aren’t really open to possibility the way we were when we were young. Those of us who were ‘born in Egypt’ carry with us the memories of hatred, suffering and unfairness, and they are part of our assumptions about how the world works. We bring them into our work: They may inspire us, but they define us and thereby limit us as well.”

Eikev (2009) “The Bible particularly is concerned with raising our awareness around eating … When we eat, we very literally take a piece of the world into ourselves because we receive the energy to live from sunlight that has been reshaped into a form that we can use. Eating has the potential not only to nourish our bodies but also our souls.”

Eikev (2012) “As Reform Jews, we are challenged to create physical expressions of our love for God (a string around our fingers, as it were) while maintaining our emphasis on the ethical over the symbolic.”

Eikev (2013“The Torah teaches us that it is precisely because we are less likely to be grateful during moments of satisfaction and fulfillment that we are instructed to … pause to reflect on our good fortune and our responsibilities to those less fortunate than ourselves, rather than immediately turning our attention to the next thing on our “to-do” lists once our hunger has been satisfied.”

Shoftim (2016) “Even with a perfect God as our King of Kings, it is inevitable that we will seek out mortal rulers. This week’s Torah portion teaches us how we may ensure that human authority remains accountable to those it governs.
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