Author Archives: Daniel Bloom

Daniel Bloom

About Daniel Bloom

Daniel Bloom is an Australian-born environmentalist who currently works as a program associate at Hazon. He lives with his wife in New York City.

Establishing a System

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In Parashat Terumah, Moses receives instructions for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle wherein God’s presence will dwell amongst the Jewish people. The Mishkan does not provide for any obvious material need, nor is it a victory monument or a wonder of the world intended to evoke pride or inspiration. Rather, the Mishkan establishes a system that lays out demands and regulations for spiritual development, a system that persisted for centuries in the ancient Jewish kingdoms and can provide us with insights for modern nation building.
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In addition to a litany of architectural requirements and building materials listed in the parashah, the text also makes demands upon the individuals involved in the construction. From the outset, the Torah requires that those contributing to the project have noble intentions. Bnei Yisrael is instructed: “Take for Me a donation; from each man whose heart makes him willing.”

Financiers of the Mishkan cannot be emotionally disconnected from the enterprise, but must give out of a volunteering heart. Rashi, explaining the unusual phrase v’yikchu li terumah (take for Me a donation) writes, “li: lishmi–for Me: for my Name.” The contributions to the Mishkan must be given for the sake of God alone, without thought for personal benefit. The construction of the Mishkan requires more than the simple allocation of resources. It demands heartfelt identification with the enterprise and motivation beyond that of self interest.

A Focus on Collective Action

Furthermore, the Mishkan as a system necessitates a focus on collective, rather than individual action. The parashah, in conveying the instructions for building the structures of the Tabernacle, generally uses the second person singular, “you shall make.” It makes an exception, switching to third person plural, when commanding “they shall make the ark.” The Or HaChaim, an 18th-century Moroccan commentator, picks up on this inconsistency, explaining that the Mishkan illustrates an individual’s responsibility in the framework of the nation as a whole:

Sins of the Past

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In Parashat Vayehi, we find a fascinating examination of complex relations amid a family struggling to move beyond the sins of the past. Much has changed since the traumatic incident decades earlier, when Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him, eventually selling him into slavery. Now, after Jacob’s death, and with Joseph occupying a position of power, the brothers fear vengeance. They say:
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“Perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did him.” So they instructed that Joseph be told, “Your father gave orders before his death, saying: ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: “Please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and sin for they have done you evil.”

Steps Toward Reconciliation

Although their major motivation may be fear, the brothers make two important steps toward reconciliation: confessing their wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness. The brothers’ request for forgiveness, however, is enacted in a strangely impersonal and roundabout manner, requesting that a third party retell the instructions of Jacob to Joseph. Additionally, these instructions, the sages inform us, are a fictional invention, part of the Torah’s testament to the “greatness of peace”–such that truth can be skewed in order to bring about peace between brothers. The brothers employ indirect, even devious means in their attempt to establish peace, yet their approach appears to be sanctioned by the Torah text.

In response Joseph weeps and assuages the brothers’ fear, telling them:

“Fear not, for am I instead of God? Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good: in order to accomplish–it is as clear as this day–that a vast people be kept alive. So now, fear not–I will sustain you and your young ones.”

Joseph chooses to tell a different version of past events, minimizing his brothers’ malice while instead focusing on the beneficial final outcome. He reassures them that their sin was ‘for good’ in a historic sense, and promises them that he will look after their needs. Interestingly, Joseph leaves out any explicit mention of forgiveness–which is, after all, what the brothers were seeking–and nowhere do we find any of the words associated with atonement or expiation. It is clear Joseph wants to move on from the issue and has managed to reinterpret and rationalize prior events. Whether or not the rupture with his family was ever completely restored, remains a question.

Jacob’s Anxiety

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At the beginning of Parashat Vayetze, we encounter Jacob on the run from Esau, having tricked his brother out of the birthright. As night falls, Jacob rests for the night and has a startling prophetic dream involving angels ascending and descending a ladder between earth and heaven.

american jewish world serviceDuring the dream God makes a number of promises to Jacob, concerning both his future well-being and that of his progeny.  The following morning Jacob makes a neder, a vow, which largely parallels God’s promises in the dream, but with several deviations which may grant insight into Jacob’s psychological state:

The Dream

Jacob’s Vow

The land… I will give it to you and your descendants… All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.


Behold, I will be with you;

If God will be with me,

I will watch over you wherever you go,

And will watch over me on this path upon which I go,


And will provide me with bread to eat and clothing to wear,

And I will return you to this land.

And I will return in peace to my fathers house,

I will not leave you.

The Lord will be for me a God.

The differences between Jacob’s neder and God’s promise reveal Jacob’s fear for his personal security. He has exchanged the more general, long-term vision of God’s blessing for more personal, immediate needs. God promises to “watch over you wherever you go,” while Jacob asks only for supervision of the path he currently walks. A promise to return to the land becomes a hope simply to return to his father’s home in peace. The promise of descendents disappears completely from Jacob’s response. Instead he asks only for the most basic sustenance and raiment.

The Earth Was Filled With Violence

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In Parashat Noah God destroys all of humanity, save for Noah and his family, in a great flood. The text provides us with a reason for God’s wrath–va’timale ha’aretz hamas, that the earth was filled with violence. A simple reading may bring to mind a brutish anarchic existence, in which people fight, steal and destroy without restraint. Indeed, various rabbinic interpretations explain hamas as connoting theft, murder, sexual sins and kidnapping.

Were The Sins So Bad?

One midrashic source, however, proposes that the crimes of the generation of the flood were in fact cunningly small: “If a countryman brought a basket of vegetables to market, they would edge up to it, one after the other, and abstract a bit, each in itself of petty value.” We might assume theft, especially this kind of petty theft, to be the product of a culture of scarcity, where fierce competition for resources encourages some individuals to take from others.

Perhaps surprisingly then, the Rabbis insist that the moral depravity of the generation of the flood was due to prevalent abundance and plenty. We learn that “as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity, they grew insolent…A single sowing bore a harvest sufficient for the needs of forty years.”
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In addition to the nature of the sin, an interesting feature of the Noah narrative is the extended wait between God’s warning of imminent destruction and the moment flood waters engulfed the earth. Commanded to build an ark, Noah plants the trees that will be used as wood, taking 120 years to complete the construction. This painstakingly slow building regimen was intended to serve as a warning sign. Rashi writes that passersby would ask, “What is this of yours?” And he [Noah] would say to them: “In the future God will bring a flood to the world, [thinking] maybe they will repent.”

With the aid of the midrash, we have a fascinating picture of the generation of the flood. Firstly, society was in a crisis caused by the cumulative effect of seemingly insignificant individual acts; secondly, prosperity and abundance were the root of their societal malaise; and thirdly, the punishment for their actions–a destructive flood–was slow in coming, allowing adequate time for them to change their ways.