Author Archives: Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver

About Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.

Education for Change

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I consider the most beautiful passage in the Torah to be found in Parashat Nitzavim (Deut. 30:11-14):

AJWS Logo“Surely, this mitzvah that I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

One reason I love this passage is because it utterly fails to define “this mitzvah,” leaving each of us to attach our own personal meaning. I understand “this mitzvah” as an amalgam of the interpretations of the medieval commentators Nahmanides and Seforno.

This Mitzvah

Nahmanides says that the phrase refers to the entire Torah, and Seforno explains it as teshuvah–repentance and return. By pairing Torah, which at its essence demands that we pursue justice, and teshuvah, our capacity to right wrongs, we can understand this passage as a mandate to believe that we have an innate capacity to fight the status quo when it is unjust and create change in the world around us.

By telling us that “this mitzvah” resides within us–in our mouths and in our hearts–this passage acknowledges and strongly rejects the human tendency toward defeatism: to convince ourselves that change, hope, and progress are beyond our grasp.

We may sometimes wish that we could be passive receptacles for the difficult, transformative mitzvot that help us enact change in the world around us, that someone else could do this hard work for us, but this passage vehemently rejects that notion. Rather, it insists that the capacity to effect change resides within us.

Yet the passage neglects to tell us how we each can come to actualize and act on this capacity. I believe that the answer lies in the next parashah, Vayelekh (Deut. 31:10-12):

“Every seventh year…you shall read this Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people–men, women, children and the strangers in your communities–that they may hear and so learn…to observe faithfully every word of this Torah.”

Tzedek vs. Tzedakah: Justice vs. Charity

The term tzedakah, commonly understood as “charity,” serves as a catch-all for many biblical commandments designed to help the poor, including leaving harvest gleanings and the edges of fields for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22), providing interest-free loans (Exodus 22:24), forgiving loans, and tithing (Deuteronomy 15:1-11 and Deuteronomy 26:12-13). The word “tzedek,” which has the same root as tzedakah, appears carrying its now-common meaning of “justice” for the first time in Parashat D’varim. Though closely related linguistically, these two concepts each hold up a different ideal of righteousness in the Torah and in the eyes of the Rabbis.AJWS logo

Relationship & Proximity

One way that the obligation of tzedakah has been articulated is through a prioritization of giving based on relationships and proximity. Reading the commandment to “lend money to My people…[and] exact no interest from them,” (Exodus 22:24) Rabbi Joseph, a 4th-century talmudic sage, says that the phrase “My people” teaches us that:

“[Given a choice between giving money to] a Jew and a non-Jew–the Jew has preference; the poor or the rich–the poor takes precedence; your poor [i.e. relatives] and the [general] poor of your town–your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town–the poor of your own town have prior rights.” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a )

This endorsement of prioritization of those closest to you in tzedakah is quite different from the mandate for tzedek that appears in our parashah, where God clearly forbids favoritism in judging legal disputes:

“[Judges must] …decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike.” (Deuteronomy 1:16-17)

The Nature of Obligation

Why, in giving tzedakah, are our personal feelings of responsibility for those closest to us allowed to dominate, while in judging–tzedek–we are commanded to ignore those feelings that arise from the very real concentric circles of obligation around us?

The Gift of Speech

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The strange story of Balaam, his talking donkey, and the blessings he bestowed on Israel is recounted in Parashat Balak.

After the Israelites successfully defended themselves against the attacking Amorites, the Moabite king, Balak, asked Balaam to curse the Israelites in order to weaken them. Following several rounds of negotiations with Balak’s representatives and with God, Balaam accepted Balak’s charge on the condition that he would only say what God told him to. AJWS Logo

On the journey, Balaam’s donkey suddenly swerved off the road, pressed Balaam’s foot against a wall alongside the path, and finally, simply sat down in the middle of the road. After each incident, Balaam beat the donkey, not seeing the angel of God that had blocked the donkey’s path.

After the third beating, God “opened the donkey’s mouth” and she asked Balaam: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” God then revealed the angel to Balaam, and the angel reprimanded Balaam, who admitted his mistake. Bilaam then continued on towards Moab, where, much to Balak’s chagrin, he repeatedly blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them.

Why the talking donkey? The story would not have been substantially different without it, and, at first read, it is difficult to see what it adds. This anomalous talking donkey did not escape Jewish commentators. Midrash Numbers Rabbah (20:14) explains that God “closed the mouth of the animal [all animals], for if she spoke, they [people] could not subject her and stand over her. For this [donkey] was the stupidest of creatures and this [Bilaam] was the wisest of the wise, and as soon as she spoke he could not stand before her.”

Subjugation, in the rabbinic view, is made possible merely by the inability to speak. The donkey’s sudden, surprising voice in this story flips the power dynamic, rendering Balaam powerless in the face of her newfound authority.

Shemitah & Climate Change

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In Parashat B’har, the Torah requires residents of the Land of Israel to desist from planting, harvesting, or pruning during shemitah, the sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:2-7). The Torah itself anticipates the extreme hardship inherent in these laws and promises to mitigate it: “[S]hould you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’” God responds, “I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years” (Leviticus 25:20-21).

american jewish world serviceIn case the promise of agricultural abundance is not enough to promote compliance, Parashat B’hukotai contains a warning for what will happen if the Israelites disobey these laws: “And you I will scatter among the nations….Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest…” (Leviticus 26:33-34)

It is a chilling image and a kind of poetic justice: either follow God’s laws of your own free will and let the land have its rest, or you will be exiled and the land will have its rest without your consent. Shemitah will take place either on your terms or on God’s.

We can see a similar poetic pairing of reward and punishment in our relationship with the earth today: if we care for it, it will provide abundant gifts. If we fail to be thoughtful stewards of the earth, we risk a future without resources. If we don’t let the earth rest, it will claim its own shemitah of sorts–climate change and natural disasters will prevent us from continuing to enjoy the earth’s bounty.

One might think that spending this year–the year after shemitah–in Israel, I got to witness how an agriculture-centered economy continued to succeed despite letting the land rest for a year. Yet, the Israeli agriculture industry relies on rabbinic loopholes that allow the land to continue to yield produce during shemittah. While these legal loopholes prevent breaking the letter of the law, they do not preserve the intention of shemitah. Instead, the land continues to be worked to its maximum without receiving its sabbatical.

Giving Sensibly

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Parashat Shemini juxtaposes two sacrifices, both offered to God by Israelites in the desert and both summoning Divine fire, but with tragically different consequences. The first series of sacrifices was offered by Aaron and his sons and was rewarded: “the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people” and “[f]ire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar” (Leviticus 9:8-24). The second, incense offered by Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, elicited God’s wrath and swift punishment: “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died” (Leviticus 10:2).
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The contrast between these two parts of Parashat Shemini–one capped off by a holy revelation and a sacrifice-consuming fire and the other by sudden, fiery death–is striking. Why did Nadav and Avihu die? Were they not serving God by offering sacrifices, just as they and their father and brothers had previously?

Serving Spontaneously

Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, uses the phrase immediately following the description of the brothers’ sacrifice to explain the problem with their offering. Commenting on the words, “which [God] had not enjoined upon them,” he explains that their grave sin lay in doing something that God had not commanded them to do, in contrast to the earlier part of the parashah, in which the priests do “as Moses had commanded” (Leviticus 10:1). It was not so much what Nadav and Avihu brought as why they brought it–because of their own autonomous desire to worship God, not in response to God’s command (Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 10:1. Leviticus 9:21).

We can certainly understand this impulse. In our own modern, incense-less version of service, sometimes we respond to an explicit request for aid, while at other times we serve others spontaneously out of a desire to give or effect change in the world. Intuitively, we may feel that service offered out of our own heroic motivation should be more highly regarded than service offered in response to a call for help. After all, there is something a bit coercive about responding when someone asks–it can be difficult to say “no” in the face of suffering–while there is something unboundedly generous about offering help simply because one feels like it.

A Role Defined By Service

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Thinking about Parashat Tetzaveh during President Barack Obama’s first week in office created some internal dissonance for me.

Watching the inauguration live in a bar in downtown Jerusalem made me feel proud to be from a country where an intelligent person from a relatively modest background can, through hard work, become the democratically-elected leader of the most powerful free nation in the world. Reading Parashat Tetzaveh made me less proud: the highest ritual role in the Jewish nation, the kehunah–or priesthood, is assigned by birth, rather than by merit or popular vote.
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At the outset, the kehunah smacks of hierarchy and privilege. Parashat Tetzaveh describes the elaborate, lengthy process through which Aaron and his four sons were consecrated to be priests. In future generations born to these sons, Nahmanides notes, there will be no consecration: birth alone will confer leadership.

As an example of this privilege, Parashat Tetzaveh describes, at great length, the special clothing worn by the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest. The clothing was “for dignity and adornment,” and Nahmanides equates each of the priestly garments with royal attire popular at the time.

Service, Not Self-Aggrandizement

In a society in which we value democracy and strive to assign leadership based on merit, what can we learn from the priesthood? A closer look shows that although the kehunah is an inherited honor, it is a role defined by service, not self-aggrandizement.

Rashi explains that the word “kehunah” itself means “service.” Called avodah, or work, the priestly service involved the hard physical labor necessary to prepare and offer all of the daily, Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and holiday sacrifices for the Israelites.

Lest one think that the kohanim served in pursuit of their own glory, the phrase to “be priests for Me” appears four times in Exodus 28 and 29. The clear emphasis here is that the kohanim were the servants of God. They also recruited others in the service of God: the word “l’shareit” (“to serve”) is used to describe the purpose of the golden bells and pomegranates on the hem of the High Priest’s coat.

Collective Punishment and Collective Responsibility

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Although the plagues that God rains down upon Pharaoh and all of the Egyptians in Parashat Vaera and Parashat Bo seem almost grotesquely farcical in their nature–blood? frogs? fiery hail?–they raise complex and nuanced questions about collective punishment and collective responsibility.
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They seem, from the outset, to be a form of collective punishment that is deeply unjust. Moses begs Pharaoh to free the Israelites from their bondage, and when he says no, all of Egypt is punished over and over again—from blood to the slaying of the first-born children. The medieval commentary Sforno says that the verse, “from the first-born of Pharaoh…to the first-born of the captive,” which describes the scope of this last plague, is shorthand for a more accusatory phrase: “from the most guilty of parties [Pharaoh] to the least guilty of parties [the children of the captives who were sitting in the dungeon].”

Sforno’s comment highlights the fact that these “least guilty” were neither in a position to enslave the Israelites initially nor to free them in order to stop the plagues, yet they were punished collectively with those, such as Pharaoh himself, who were. It was outright punishment of the innocent.

Making Sense of It All

Setting aside the fundamental question of why innocent children should suffer for the sins of their parents, why must the powerless slave woman suffer along with the all-powerful Pharaoh in the slaying of the first-born? What sense can we make of this collective punishment?

Rashi circumvents these questions, saying that the Egyptian slaves and captives lost their first-born children in the plague because “they, too, enslaved [the Israelites] and took joy in their suffering.” According to Rashi, the plague of the first-born was a punishment for each Egyptian who participated in the oppression of the Israelites, and not collective punishment with all of its unjust implications.

Joseph’s Response to Hunger

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Joseph is a visionary; a man with a powerful capacity for imagining a future entirely unlike the reality before him. In Parashat Miketz, he skillfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams: in cows and sheaves, he sees seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.

american jewish world serviceWise Planning

However, this ability to imagine the impossible was necessary, but ultimately insufficient to avert agricultural and humanitarian disaster not only for Egypt, but the world (Genesis 41:57). It was the plan that Joseph presented, after all, that “pleased Pharaoh and all his courtiers” (Genesis 41:37).

What was so compelling about Joseph’s plan? Joseph’s proposal earned him the honorific “discerning and wise” because he went beyond promises to alleviate hunger and famine; he managed to prevent it through careful planning, storing, and withholding from the Egyptians portions of their harvests during years of plenty (Genesis 41:39).

Nahmanides parses the phrase “discerning and wise,” saying that Joseph was discerning because he possessed the administrative talent of distributing food to Egyptian families based on their individual size and needs during the seven years of bounty; he was wise because he had the technology to store food for long periods of time without it rotting or being eaten by moths or rodents.

Unequal Distribution

Like all of us, Joseph faced a world that had the potential to feed all of its inhabitants, yet uneven food availability challenged its ability to do so. Seven years of plenty followed by seven years of scarcity sounds a lot like our world, where in some countries less than 2.5% of the population suffers from malnutrition and in others over one-third of the population is malnourished.

As during the period of Joseph’s administrative rule in Egypt, the world today has enough food to feed itself, but unlike Egypt under Joseph’s aegis, people starve from lack of thoughtful distribution.

Opening the Gaps in Patriarchy

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When read with modern sensibilities, Genesis 24 is a traditional tale about a man who travels to a far-off land to find a woman to marry his master’s son. Imagine that you are that woman, going about your daily chores when a strange man approaches you. He gazes at you for a bit, and finding you to be a beautiful virgin, inquires as to your family lineage. Then he meets with your father and brother, who, seeing the many gifts that the servant has bestowed upon you and them, say without hesitation, “Take her and go, and let her be a wife to your master’s son.”

american jewish world serviceThis is the scene that unfolds in Genesis 24–a traditional story, but with a surprising twist: Rebecca’s father, Bethuel, and brother, Laban, recant, and say “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply” (24:57). This verse is extraneous to the story and does not change the narrative at all, since Rebekah immediately agrees to go. What is it doing here?

The Rabbis might have simply dismissed this as a stalling tactic since this verse appears in the context of the servant’s desire to take Rebecca with him immediately and her family’s desire that he tarry. Instead, Rashi makes a bold move and writes that from this specific phrase about a specific woman, we learn a general principle: a woman cannot be married against her will in Jewish law (Rashi on Genesis 24:57, based on Genesis Rabbah 70:12).

Thus, Rebecca is carried to a far off land to marry Isaac, but with an express consent that impacts all Jewish women: “I will go” (24:58).