Author Archives: Carol Ochs

About Carol Ochs

Carol Ochs teaches at Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is currently preparing a new edition of her book Women and Spirituality for Rowman and Littlefield Press.

Understanding Our Own Mortality

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

The second account of the Decalogue (“Ten Commandments”) described in this portion has long been scrutinized for how it differs from the version in Parashat Yitro. One obvious difference is the reason given for observing the Sabbath.The Torah: A Women's Commentary Exodus states that we should rest on the seventh day in imitation of God at Creation, but Deuteronomy 5:15 focuses on our need as humans to rest. Another discrepancy is that Exodus 19 situates the revelation at while 5:2 refers to this sacred site as Horeb. But the most significant difference between these two texts lies in the Israelites’ own state of mind.

When the Israelites stand at Mount Sinai in Exodus19-20, they have successfully fled the Egyptians, crossed the Sea of Reeds, and been fed in the wilderness on manna; the danger is behind them. When they hear the first of the “Ten Words”–“I Adonai am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”–each of them has a personal understanding of the God they have known and experienced.

In Deuteronomy, however, the danger lies ahead. Of those hearing Moses’ recitation of the commandments this time, almost none actually fled Egypt themselves. Earlier, they may have witnessed their rebellious parents’ refusal to fight for the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14); but now, precious few of them still has a living parent. The giants of their youth–Moses, Aaron, and Miriam–are either dead or soon will be. The Israelites themselves, untested, will have to battle their way into the Promised Land in order to settle there, In Exodus, the Israelites are preoccupied with the present; in Deuteronomy, they are focused on the future.

The Death of a Parent

Religion promises us a meaningful world. If we are not free, whether because of physical or psychological enslavement, then life may not be meaningful. But death also threatens meaning, so one of religion’s major tasks is to reconcile us to the losses we experience and, ultimately, to our own mortality. Our religion must convince us that although death exits, meaning abides. We are finite not only because we die, but also because we have chosen the particular life we live. A people’s story spreads over a large canvas and lifts up everyone who participates in its story. When we identify with those who came before us and when we are invested in those who will come after us, then we are part of something much larger than our individual lives and efforts.

Remembering Miriam

Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Miriam, like Moses, and Aaron, was a child of Amram and Jochebed, both of the tribe of Levi. The prophet Micah recognizes all three siblings as Israel’s leaders when he proclaims in God’s name: “I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you” (Micah 6:4). Although the Bible preserves only a few direct references to Miriam, her importance to the Israelites’ story shines through even this leanest of biographical sketches. 

women's torah commentaryFirst, Miriam is called a prophet (in Exodus 15:20), although her prophetic teachings are not recorded. Second, she sings and leads the women in song to God following her people’s safe passage across the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 15:21). Third, she (along with Aaron) speaks out against Moses about his wife and his authority (12:1-2). Fourth, she is shut out of the camp when she is stricken with skin disease; tellingly, the Israelites refuse to move on until she returns (12:10-15). Finally, she dies and is buried in Kadesh (20:1), a place name that evokes the holy (kadosh). These few references to Miriam are but clues to the larger story of her life and importance.

Let us imagine that larger story by creating a midrash. Picture Moses as he climbed Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land he would never enter and to experience God’s drawing out his soul as gently as a kiss draws out the breath (Deuteronomy 34; on God’s kiss, see Post-biblical Interpretations, p. 932, at “Miriam died there”). What was he thinking at that moment? In the midrash we are creating we may imagine that this inspiring leader thought about the future of his people and about who would preserve the Covenant for future generations. First, he considered Aaron’s son Eleazar, who would carryon the priestly functions; he could reassure himself that the priests would preserve the teachings of the Torah. Indeed, for a time, the priests did maintain their role.

The Power of Language

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Genesis Begins with God’s creation of the world by word alone: God said, “Let there be light!” (1:3). At the end of Genesis 1, God surveyed all that [God] had made, and look-it was very good! With language God created the world, separated the waters above from the waters below, named, judged, and expressed great satisfaction with the results. But by the end of parashat B’reishit; we read that Adonai saw how great was the wickedness of human beings . . . So Adonai thought: ‘I will wipe the humans whom I created from off the face of the earth” (6:5-7).
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
In parashat Noah, what sin had the people committed to warrant the Flood? The fact that so many different answers have been offered suggests that there is no clear answer. Some interpreters say that the wrongdoing was miscegenation: the interbreeding between the sons of God and the daughters of mankind (6:1-4). Others in traditional sources postulate that it was the sin of refusing to have children–indeed, even Noah waited until he was 500 years old to have his first child.

For all the various theories about the precise nature of the sin, it is clear that the Flood’s essential purpose was to cleanse Creation of the flaw that led to its corruption. And yet, from the time of the Ark’s landing on dry land, God demonstrates an awareness that some essential flaw persists. God says: Never again will I bring doom upon the world on account of what people do, though the human mind inclines to evil from youth onward (8:21). Why does the human mind incline to evil? What is the flaw in the human mind? While the questions are not explicitly answered, we can nevertheless find answers in our tradition.

Why is Noah Silent?

Many commentators have criticized Noah for not challenging God about the planned destruction, as Abraham later does when God reveals the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (18:17-33). Readers over the ages have been puzzled by Noah’s silence. But his silence is precisely the point. Nearly the entire portion of Noah is filled with God’s speech and Noah’s actions–but not words. From his building the ark through the entire Flood, Noah utters not a single word. When Noah finally speaks after being awakened from his wine (9:24), his words disclose the problem: he understood what his youngest son had done to him, so he said “Damned be Canaan! To his brothers he shall be the basest of slaves!” (9:24-25).