Author Archives: Carol Towarnicky

Carol Towarnicky

About Carol Towarnicky

Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

Corrupt Leadership

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit

Parashat B’hukotai is one of the Torah portions that makes me cringe. Like chapter 28 of the book of Deuteronomy, it promises abundant blessings to those who obey God’s commandments and ghastly disasters for those who do not. So when bad things happen to good people, as they always do, some good people assume that the punishment is divine retribution for sin.

These sections of Leviticus and Deuteronomy follow a pattern of legal codes from the ancient Near East: A statement of laws is followed by a promise of blessings for those who obey them and curses for those who resist. This also was the pattern for treaties made by powerful rulers with the vassal kings whom they “protected.” If the vassal kings did not live up to their oaths, their rulers exacted terrible punishments, not only on the kings, but also on the people they ruled.

A Warning for Leaders

To me, Parashat B’hukotai makes more sense when read as a code for communities and their leaders rather than for individuals. When a nation’s leaders enact wise and just policies, their communities regularly reap prosperity, contentment, and peace. In contrast, corrupt leaders often bring unmerited suffering on their people.

In the parashah, God promises to reward obedience to the covenant with good crop yields, good health, and freedom. Resistance to the moral law will be punished first with disease and famine, then with increasingly terrible disasters. “I will wreak misery upon you,” God says. “Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin (Leviticus 26:33).”

As modern translator Robert Alter notes, “The section of curses is structured as a sequence of downward spiraling disasters. After each set of punishing blows, God, as it were, pauses to see if Israel will correct its ways. When this does not happen, He intensifies the catastrophes…” These include pestilence, environmental degradation, and the scattering of the people.

Water for Life

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit

As the title suggests, this week’s parashah deals with the care and treatment of metzorot–lepers–as well as people with other physical afflictions and diseases. The text gives instructions for purification so that individuals who leave the community because of illness and impurity may re-enter safely. Not surprisingly, fresh water is essential to the process: “He shall…bathe his body in mayyim hayim and he shall be clean (Leviticus 15:13).”

The Hebrew phrase mayim hayim translates as “living waters.” These waters are, indeed, the waters of life. The sense of the idiom, according to modern translator Robert Alter, is that the water is not stagnant, but flowing, either from a spring or river. “The…ritual,” he writes, “is designed to carry off the impurities from the place inhabited by the community (Alter, The Five Books of Moses).”

Illness & Water

While water’s function of carrying disease away from the camp is central to the parashah, the phrase “living waters” also provides a description of what the water brings to the community. The words “living waters” convey how essential clean fresh water is to all people. It provides for sanitation and health, both in treating illness and in preventing it.

The parashah makes the assumption that illness is inevitable. The word “when” is used repeatedly to introduce the instructions for healing (Leviticus 15:12, 13, 16, 19, 25, 28). This phrasing calls on us to ensure that we can treat illness, as well as prevent it as much as possible. In this context, we are directed to ensure access to clean water in order to restore health and life.

Note that the Torah assumes that, even in the desert, living waters will be available for cleansing and purification. In a sense, ensuring that the Israelites had access to flowing water for drinking and sanitation was essential to their national survival. Yet in the modern global community, billions of people lack access to the water they need to live and thrive.

The lack of clean water endangers the health and economic well-being of more than a third of the developing world. According to the United Nations, 2.6 billion people–42 percent of the world’s population–lack access to basic sanitation. This results in preventable child and adult deaths and disease, and expands the divide between rich and poor.

Improving sanitation can dramatically improve the lives of individuals and communities. Every dollar spent on improving sanitation and hygiene results in up to 34 dollars saved in health, education, and social and economic development.

The International Year of Sanitation

2008 is the International Year of Sanitation, part of the International Decade for Action on Water declared by the United Nations in 2005. While significant progress is being made on providing safe drinking water, the drive to increase sanitation is well below its targets.

The major barrier, says U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is a lack of political will. Our elected leaders have not made water a priority and neither have we. Here again, the Torah teaches us.

The Israelites who fell ill, who became impure with skin afflictions and discharge, were not neglected by the community. Rather, they were cared for by the most revered members of the community, the priests. The religious and political leaders themselves stepped out of the mishkan and walked among the people to engage personally with lepers.

Imagine the implications for our global community if political and religious leaders paid regular visits to those suffering from preventable diseases, to those denied access to sanitation, to those without living water. Providing a spotlight for the current reality would build political will. It is when leaders step out of their houses of leadership and walk among the community that real needs begin to be addressed.

The name of the U.N. movement for water and sanitation is called “Water for Life.” This week’s parashah calls on us to raise our voices to make clean water a focal point of our action and advocacy.

Team Effort

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In this week’s parashah, Pekudei, Moses finished the work of setting up the mishkan, the movable sanctuary in the desert. The mishkan was designed to be the central structure of relationship between God and God’s people. It was also the center of the human community, the location of all religious activity and the site where civil disputes were heard and settled. It housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the core document that declares the principles of human-Divine and human-human interactions.

american jewish world serviceThe mishkan in many ways exemplifies the relationship between holiness and community. The root of the Hebrew word, sh-ch-n, is related to the root of the words Shechinah–God’s presence on earth–and shachen–neighbor.

The physical placement of the mishkan was also significant: once constructed, the mishkan not only was the spiritual and civil center of the people, but also the physical center of the community as the Israelites arranged their camp around it by tribe (Numbers 1:1-4:20). Through the mishkan, the Israelites were able to structure their community around God and God’s laws. The creation of holy community thus became possible through the shared creation of a structure founded on sacred ethics.

The Torah gives detailed instructions on the design and construction of the communal structure, and names the person responsible for building it. Yet the Israelites were still invited to contribute offerings from their own hearts.

Everyone has a Role

Sforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, wrote that because the Jewish people wholeheartedly donated the materials to build the mishkan, they shared in its actual construction. Even if one was physically unable to do the work of creating the mishkan, he argued, providing support for its construction allowed each individual to share in it completely.

The parashah, too, even while recognizing the leadership of the mishkan’s chief architect, emphatically attributes the project to the entire community. “The Israelites did so,” it says, “just as God had commanded Moses, so they did (Exodus 39:42).”

Exodus Morality

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

As the title suggests, this week’s parashah consists almost entirely of mishpatim–laws–about everyday living. Directed to a people who have traveled only a short distance in time and space from slavery, the mishpatim are anything but mundane legalisms–they are instructions for building a just society.

american jewish world serviceOne of the most profound directives is the incredible command, repeated twice in this parashah alone, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20, 23:19).” This is the epitome of Exodus morality: we must not perpetrate upon others that which was perpetrated upon us. 

Memory of Bondage

This central, Jewish moral imperative was articulated when the memory of bondage still was very much alive. Because it is embedded in that memory of bondage, however, it contains an implied awareness that future generations would need to find a way to keep that memory vibrant.

The Exodus morality that is so clearly outlined in this one mitzvah is infused into our liturgy and rituals. At Passover, the directive to remember goes further: we re-enact the story as if we ourselves were enslaved and then freed. The repetition of this story helps us to “turn the memory into moral dynamic,” to use the story as an energizing force for change. The Torah maps out for us the parameters of how experience can serve as the basis for moral action. Yet it is not only actual experience, but shared memory that provokes moral action.

Whether or not we actually know the suffering of the slaves, we are nonetheless commanded to act as if we do. As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes, “The experience of slavery that breaks and crushes slaves does not destroy free people. It evokes feelings of repulsion and determination to help others escape that state.” This divinely-given determination to help others drives our moral responsibility. 

Our Burmese Sisters

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Sh’mot begins with two stunning acts of civil disobedience in which five righteous women help birth a liberation movement (Exodus 1:15-2:10). Many millennia later, righteous women in Burma are leading a nonviolent resistance movement in a society only marginally less repressive than ancient Egypt.

american jewish world serviceShifrah and Puah were midwives who “feared God” (Exodus 1:17) and so did not follow Pharaoh’s orders when he decreed that male Hebrews be killed at birth. In a society in which Pharaoh was considered divine, these two women possessed the discernment to know what was morally right and the courage to act on it. 

In our time, another story of women’s discernment and valor continues to unfold in Burma. Led by Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese women have been among the leaders of the pro-democracy movements against a succession of oppressive military juntas. Even though Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for most of the last 19 years, she remains a vivid symbol of strength for her people, a name that instills hope.

Unknown Women

The resistance in Burma is also supported by thousands of courageous women whose names we do not know. These daughters of Burma are leading movements against forced labor, speaking out during pro-democracy protests and documenting the Burmese military regime’s use of rape as a weapon of anti-insurgency.

This covert work for democracy echoes the story of the three unnamed daughters of Sh’mot’s second act of subversion–to save the life of a boy named Moses. There are three women in this collaboration: a daughter of the tribe of Levi who gave birth to the baby, her daughter who watched from a distance as her brother’s basket floated down the Nile, and the daughter of Pharaoh who found the infant and unexpectedly took pity on him in defiance of the law (Exodus 2:6).

Even though two of the women are identified later as Yocheved and Miriam, the Torah makes a point of not recording their names in this parashah, suggesting they are meant to be archetypes of women who cross class, ethnic, and religious lines to “shape the destiny of the world.” 

The Path to Reconciliation

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In Parashat Vayishlah, Jacob makes plans to return to the land he had fled 20 years before. Assuming that his twin brother Esau still wants revenge for being defrauded of their father’s blessing, Jacob devises several contingency plans. Yet, when the two brothers finally meet, Esau runs to embrace him.  Jacob declares, “When I see your face, it is like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33:10).” 

american jewish world serviceMany medieval commentators hold Jacob blameless in the betrayal of Esau and explain his use of obsequious language and flattery during their reunion as a clever ploy to protect his family rather than an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Some contemporary readers see the story as one of genuine forgiveness. Jacob wrestles with an angel–that is, his conscience–and is changed. Esau finds it in himself to respond to his brother with love.

Regardless of the interpretation we ascribe to this event, however, the brothers do not live together happily ever after. Almost immediately after their reunion, they separate again–Esau goes to Seir, Jacob heads to Sukkot. They come together only once more, to bury their father Isaac. This is not a true reconciliation, but rather an uneasy détente like that between the former Soviet Union and the United States in the final years of the Cold War. For two countries separated by oceans, like the two brothers divided by long distances, this may have been the most reasonable first step.

What Could Have Been

In today’s world, however, most significant conflicts happen within countries–for all parties, there is no option to “go their separate ways.” Even in the case of atrocity crimes, survivors must inhabit the same land as those who have perpetrated horrific violence against them. In many of these cases, however, victims and perpetrators are seeking ways to transcend cycles of violence and to achieve reconciliation.

Since 1973, more than 20 reconciliation commissions have been established in countries across the world–from Argentina to Zimbabwe, from Rwanda to Sierra Leone. Not surprisingly, after a conflict ends, each side has its own version of “what really happened.” By providing a forum for survivors and perpetrators to tell, record, and acknowledge their stories, these commissions can provide the means for people to move toward sustainable relationships. 

Hagar & Reproductive Health

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In Parashat Lekh L’kha, Abram and Sarai, the first Jews, “go forth” from their old lives into a relationship with the one God, and the Jewish story begins. Embedded within this story is a short interlude, the tale of Hagar, whose very name (ha-ger) means “the stranger,” the “outsider.” Both Hagar’s encounters with God and the placement of her story inside Abram and Sarai’s tell us something important about our role as Jews in the work for global justice. 

american jewish world serviceAs recounted in Genesis, a childless Sarai offers her Egyptian slave, Hagar, to Abram with the intention of making Hagar’s child her own. But when Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai mistreats her, forcing her to flee to the desert. There, an angel of God appears and tells her to go back, promising that she will be the mother of a great nation.

In response to God’s acknowledgement of her, Hagar gives God a name, the only person in all of Torah to do so. And what a name it is: “El-Roi–the God who sees me.” Seeing–and its higher meaning, understanding–is a central theme of this story. In particular, God sees Hagar’s reality in a way that Sarai and Abram don’t.

Reproductive Health Around the World

Reproductive health was at the heart of both Hagar’s exploitation and her power, and reproductive rights remain central to the lives and challenges of women around the world. Family planning is indispensable to social, political, and economic development, yet, like Hagar, millions of women lack the right to choose when, or even if, they will have children.

More than half the women in some countries report that they would have preferred to postpone or avoid their most recent birth. Additionally, unwanted pregnancies are directly tied to 19 million unsafe abortions every year, a leading cause of maternal mortality. Even though there is a greater risk of injury and death when adolescents bear children, 82 million girls 17-years-old and under are married each year. Reproductive health issues are the leading cause of death for women in the developing world.