Author Archives: Rabbi Ed Rosenthal

Rabbi Ed Rosenthal

About Rabbi Ed Rosenthal

Rabbi Ed Rosenthal is the Campus Rabbi and Executive Director of Cornell Hillel: The Yudowitz Center for Jewish Campus Life.

Ethical Vegetarianism

Excerpted with permission from CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly, Spring 1992, © The Central Conference of American Rabbis

Modern Reform Judaism has seen a swing back to many traditional observances. Yet with regard to the observance of particularistic mitzvot [commandments], Reform Judaism has always accepted the right of the individual to choose those that add meaning to one’s life. Thus, for example, there are many Reform Jews today who observe at least some degree of kashrut; everything from biblical kashrut out of the home [eating only permitted animals] to full rabbinic kashrut [with all the traditional restrictions] is observed in many Reform households. The autonomous individual hopefully, through a commitment to study and learning, makes educated choices to observe these mitzvot as a means to enhance his/her life, but Reform Judaism has never stated that such observance is obligatory upon any Reform Jew.

ethical vegetarianism In the case of ethical mitzvot, however, Reform Judaism from its inception has accepted them as having been given by God and binding upon all Jews. Even as autonomous individuals, we do not have the right to choose which ethical mitzvot can be observed and which cannot. As a Reform Jew, one cannot choose to observe “Thou shalt not murder” and ignore “Thou shalt not commit adultery” or “Thou shalt not steal.” Through all of the developments that have taken place, that which has not changed is the unequivocal belief of Reform Judaism that the ethical and moral laws of the Torah are binding and obligatory. Indeed, Reform Judaism can and still does call itself ethical, prophetic Judaism.

As a Reform Jew, I understand “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food” [Genesis 1:29, the original eating instructions to Adam and Eve, before human beings were granted the right to eat meat as, some would argue, a concession to human weakness] as an ethical mitzvah that is given by God. To violate that ethical mitzvah, for me, would be a sin.

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

The following article is reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Numbers 22 of Parshat Hukkat begins and ends with the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.

Verse 1: The entire community of the children of Israel came into the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, where the people settled down in Kadesh and Miriam died and was buried.

Verse 28: Moses divested Aaron of his (priestly) garments and invested his son Eleazar with them. Aaron died there on the top of the mountain and Moses and Eleazar descended from the mountain.

Following the death of Aaron in verse 29, the Torah tells us that “the entire community saw that Aaron was dead and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron 30 days.” Interestingly, there is no mention of any mourning following the death of Miriam. In fact, what follows immediately upon her death is the typical grumbling of the Israelites. The water that had been provided over 40 years to the Israelites was due to Miriam. When she died, the water immediately dried up and the people’s thirst led them once again to rebel against Moses.

Your Numbers Navigator

1: What was it about Miriam that ensured the miracle of water in the wilderness for the people?

2: When Aaron died, he was succeeded by Eleazar, and the people mourned for thirty days. When Moses died, he was succeeded by Joshua, and again, the people mourned for 30 days. Why do you think that no one succeeded Miriam?

3: Why do you think the people complained, instead of mourned after the death of Miriam?

4: Who fulfilled Miriam’s responsibilities after her death?

Our tradition teaches that only the men of that generation died in the wilderness before entering the Land of Israel, while the women merited entering the Land.

Your Midrash Navigator

Numbers Rabbah 21:10

“In that generation the women built up the fences which the men broke down.”

The passage from Numbers Rabbah is too long to quote, but shows that the women did not participate in the building of the Golden Calf or accept the Council of the Spies not to enter Eretz Yisrael (land of Israel). The following is the conclusion of the passage.

“Against this congregation the decree (not to enter the Land) was issued, because they had said: ‘We are not able to go up.’ The women, however, were not with them in their counsel.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented on this by saying:

“As a result, the women, as grandmothers and mothers, were able to go with the new generation when it entered the Promised Land for its new future, and to bring with them into that new future their personal recollections of their past in Egypt and of the momentous events they had witnessed in the wilderness under the protection and guidance of God.

“Thus they were given the opportunity to inspire their grandchildren and great-grandchildren with the spirit of the God-revealing experience they themselves had witnessed. The fact that these Jewish women were so deeply and thoroughly imbued with the Jewish spirit may be ascribed in no small part to Miriam, who set them a shining example as a prophetess.”

A Word

While some might point to the lack of mourning following the death of Miriam to be yet another example of chauvinism in the Torah, it is perhaps more a reflection of the simple fact that we mourn what we have lost. We mourned the loss of Moses because no matter how great a leader Joshua was, he would never be another Moses. We mourned the loss of Aaron because no matter how great a leader Eleazar was, he would never be another Aaron.

The greatness of Miriam was that she was the embodiment of the honor and glory of the women of Israel. Moses, Aaron and Miriam were not misled by falsehoods and lies or controlled by a desire for instant gratification. Rather, they held fast to the way of life that makes us who we are. Our ancestors knew that they had not lost Miriam, but that her essence is contained within every Jewish woman.

I Have A Dream…

Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

Q: What do you get when you cross Martin Luther King and Led Zeppelin?

A: The dream of a stairway to heaven or….this week’s Parashah.

Parashat Vayeytze begins:

"And Jacob went out from Beer Sheva and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon the place, and stayed there all night, because the sun was set. And he took of the stones of the place and put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.

“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold the Lord stood beside him and said:

“’I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie to you will I give it, and to your descendants. And your descendents shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south. And through you and your descendents shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go and I will not leave you, until I have done all that I have spoken of to you.’ And Jacob woke up out of his sleep and said: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.’"

The story of Jacob’s dream has inspired countless paintings and poems over the millennia. What is it about this passage which has made it so personal for so many throughout the ages? Is it the dream itself (something which every person does)? Or perhaps it is the angels (which provide a source of comfort)? Is it the image of God as an imminent force so near to us and watching over us wherever we may be? Or is it the promise of redemption and blessing for all humankind?

Parashah Navigator

1: "He lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed" Is there a difference between a dream (while one is asleep) as Jacob had, and a vision (while one is awake) as did Abraham and Isaac?

2: "Behold a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it." What is the significance of a ladder? After all if angels are celestial beings did they really need a ladder to get from heaven to earth (the whole wings thing we can leave for another time)?

Does the statement that it is set up on the earth and its top reach to heaven imply that there is a direct connection between heaven and earth? If so, where or what is it?

3: "And through you and your descendents shall all the families of the earth be blessed." How have the nations of the world been blessed through the descendents of Jacob? Are they still?

4: "And Jacob woke up out of his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.’" Is there any place where God is not?

Midrash Navigator

Bereshit Rabba 68:11
1: "And he dreamed"–Rabbi Abbahu said, "Dreams have no influence whatsoever." "Bar Kappara taught, "No dream is without its interpretation."

What is the difference between these statements? Can a dream have no influence on a person yet still have significance worth interpretation?

2: "The Rabbis related it to Sinai."–The ladder symbolizes Mt. Sinai. The angels symbolize Moses and Aaron. "And behold the Lord stood beside him" symbolizes that God came down on Sinai.

Is there anything beyond an allegory to connect Jacob’s dream to the Revelation at Sinai?

According to the tradition, if two words share the same gematria (numerical equivalent) then there is a deeper connection between them. The connection the rabbis show is that the ladder (sulam) and Sinai each have the gematria of 130. Sinai is the ladder that connects the physical world and the spiritual world.

A Word

Every human being has dreams. Jacob had a dream and he saw the mountaintop: Sinai! Rabbi Shlomo Riskin once wrote, "The fact of the matter is that a person can dream when he’s asleep and can dream when he’s awake. But only the dreams that one dreams when he/she is awake can become transformed into the visions which change reality."

May each of us wake from our sleep and see, like Jacob, that "Surely the Lord is in this (and every) place and we did not know it." If we take our dreams and transform them into visions, and turn our visions into reality, then we will fulfill the promise of God to our father Jacob, "Through you and your descendents shall all the families of the earth be blessed."