Author Archives: Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

About Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Easter and Passover

The following article explores the similarities and differences between the messages of Passover and Easter. Reprinted with permission of the

Jewish Theological Seminary


The frequent overlapping of Easter and Passover–of the Christian Holy Week with our eight-day celebration of Passover–merits attention. Unlike the yoking of Christmas and Hanukkah, Easter and Passover are festivals of equal gravity. Side by side they bring to light the deep structures of both religions.

Destined to Coincide

First, their inviolable matrix is spring. In each case, the calendar is adjusted to ensure that the holiday is celebrated early in the spring. For the church, which believed that the resurrection took place on a Sunday, the First Council of Nicaea in 325 determined that Easter should always fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. In consequence, Easter remained without a fixed date but proximate to the full moon, which coincided with the start of Passover on the 15th of Nissan.

easter and passoverBy the same token, the rabbis understood the verse “You go free on this day, in the month of Aviv” (Exodus 13:4) to restrict Passover to early spring–that is in a transitional month when the winter rains end and the weather turns mild. The word “Aviv” actually means fresh ears of barley.

Moreover, since the Torah had stipulated that the month in which the exodus from Egypt occurred should mark the start of a new year (Exodus 12:2), the end of the prior year was subject to periodic extension in order to keep the Jewish lunar calendar in sync with the solar year. Thus, if the barley in the fields or the fruit on the trees had not ripened sufficiently for bringing the omer [the first barley sheaf, which was donated to the Temple] or the first fruits to the Temple, the arrival of Passover could be delayed by declaring a leap year and doubling the final month of Adar (Tosefta Sanhedrin 2:2).

In short, Easter and Passover were destined to coincide time and again.

The Language of Memory

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

This week’s parashah finds the Israelites routing the Midianites. The victory is total; the five kings of Midian and all their male subjects meet their death. The Torah appears to go out of its way to inform us that the Israelites "also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword" (31:8). It is a passing detail that triggered the rabbinic imagination. The narrative fragments which constitute the interaction of this pagan prophet with the fate of Israel seem little more than dots waiting to be connected midrashically. A form of reader participation, midrash embellishes the spare story line of Torah narrative. In the process, it tends to give the material a refreshingly moral twist.

Two questions prick the Rabbis: Why does Balaam merit death? And why by the sword? The end of the story takes us back to the beginning. According to the midrash, the fear of an ascendant Israel brought the traditional enemies of Moab and Midian to bury the hatchet and forge an alliance. Given that Moses had lived among the Midianites, indeed found his wife in their midst, Balak, the king of Moab, inquired of Midian as to the secret of his strength. When they responded that "his strength resided in his mouth," that is, his ability to communicate with God, Balak decided to attack them with their own weapon. Hence, the recourse to Balaam, Midian’s renown sorcerer, to employ words as weapons in cursing Israel (Rashi on 22:4).

To our first question, then, the Rabbis offer two answers. First, punishment is visited upon Balaam for his intentions rather than his deeds. In truth, God frustrated his design. The beauty of Israel paralyzed his powers to curse. Only words of blessing were forthcoming. Nevertheless, he had come to harm and what counts in the exacting scales of divine justice is not the spin we give to our actions but their inner motivation (Torah Shlemah, Mattot, ch. 31, no. 55).

The second answer posits a still darker portrait of Balaam. Having failed to curse, he conspires to harm Israel with another stratagem. He advises Barak to have his young women seduce the men of Israel. Passion leads to apostasy. The worship of Baal-peor included sexual orgies (25:3). The ensuing eruption of God’s wrath cost Israel some 24,000 casualties.

Adding insult to injury, Balaam demanded to be rewarded for the success of his devious counsel. That is the reason he is to be found among the kings of Midian when he is slain. He sought recompense for each one of the 24,000 Israelites who fell at Baal-peor. Like the camel that insists on horns, only to have its ears cut off, Balaam pays dearly for overreaching (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106a).

The principle at work in Balaam’s violent death is measure for measure. As he tried to employ Israel’s weapon against them by neutralizing their power of speech, Israel ended his life by turning Midian’s usual weapon of war against him and them. Death by the sword mocked Balaam’s complete impotence (Rashi on 31:8).

Much of this binary reconstruction is driven by a pervasive rabbinic conviction that Israel’s survival depends on God’s favor rather than man-made weapons. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamma, a witness of the Hadrianic persecution and a disciple of the martyred Rabbi Akiva, picturesquely formulated the conviction of Israel’s uniqueness: At Mount Sinai "a book and a sword descended from heaven conjointly." What God meant to say by this set of symbols was twofold: "If you abide by this written Torah, it will protect you from the sword. If you don’t, the sword will smite you" (Sifre, Ekev, 40). That is, the word is the mightiest weapon of all.

There is a touch of irony in the depiction of Moses as a man of speech, for in his first encounter with God, he had described himself as "slow of speech and slow of tongue" (Exodus 4:10). But the point of the midrash is the potential of the human spirit to transcend the physical world. Speech in this context stands for a spiritual affinity that engenders religious experience. Through the vehicle of Torah, Israel creates an environment that softens the harshness of reality with divine meaning. Ultimately, Jews live in their head.

Jewish history attests the power of the spirit. Where are the ancient empires that decimated Samaria in 722 B.C.E., Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., the Jewish communities of the Rhineland in 1096, Spanish Jewry in 1492 or European Jewry in the Holocaust? The vanquished long outlived their oppressors. Inestimable losses and unimaginable suffering failed to deplete the spiritual reservoir of the Jewish people. On the contrary, the vanquished survived to write the history of their losses. Memory rendered past calamities into an anguished present that never fades. And memory is the function of speech.

The 24-hour fast of Tishah b’Av celebrates the resilience of the Jewish spirit. Even as we commemorate the destruction of two Temples and other dark moments of our history, we pay tribute to the unbroken faith and indomitable will of our people. Thus rabbinic Judaism rises from the ashes of the Second Temple, the talmudic academies of Ashkenaz after the First Crusade, Lurianic kabbalah after the Spanish expulsion and the State of Israel, and the renaissance of American Judaism after the Holocaust. Mourning is the language of memory, the passage to recovery. As we move during the course of the day from lament to resolve, we affirm the primacy of the spirit in a world awash with violence.

Pinhas in America?

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In 1962 I graduated rabbinical school and entered the army for a two-year stint as a chaplain. Such national service was then still required of all JTS graduates before they could take a pulpit. After completing chaplaincy school in New York, I drove to my first assignment at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I arrived in the late afternoon and decided to visit the Jewish chapel where I would preside without delay. That was my first mistake.

Outside the door paced an agitated, well-dressed gentleman in civilian clothes looking for a Jewish chaplain. I revealed my identity all too quickly and smugly, my second mistake. In the office I would occupy for less than a year (the army would reward my stellar work at Fort Dix by sending me to Korea), he unloaded on me an impassioned account about his daughter who was going to marry a young Greek in basic training at Fort Dix. I couldn’t tell exactly whether the father, a wealthy man from Connecticut, was furious because the kid was Christian or poor and uneducated. In fact, the father suspected him of seeking to marry his daughter for her money. He insisted that I call in the kid to disabuse him of his folly, and I, by now floundering in my inexperience, reluctantly agreed. To my surprise, the young man came when I summoned him and turned out to be good-looking and charming. Despite great discomfort, I carried out my futile task and never heard from him or his nemesis again.

In retrospect, my baptism by fire foreshadowed the engulfing crisis of Jewish continuity in our day: Can Jews as individuals avail themselves of the unlimited opportunities of American society and still preserve their group identity? Are the twin goals of integration and survival compatible? As so often, the Torah relates to our predicament.

The end of last week’s parashah and the opening of this week’s deal with an early instance of integration. After 40 years, a renewed nation of Israel finds itself primed for the conquest of the Promised Land from the territory of Moab in the west. Alarmed, Balak, the king of Moab, calls on the gentile soothsayer Balaam to thwart Israel with his curses: "For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed" (Numbers 22:6).

But Balaam is overwhelmed by the singular beauty of Israel’s individuality. He recognizes therein the hope of humanity, a new, far purer, and more wholesome form of nationhood. Try as he might to curse Israel, he can only sing its praises: "There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations…. No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel…. Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel…. How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 23:9, 21, 23; 24:5). To Balaam, the young Israel appears without blemish and invincible.

Yet the very next episode in the narrative brings a stark reversal of Israel’s fortune. For the Torah, with its hard-nosed view of reality, stability is never a long lasting human condition. At Shittim, Israelite men begin to mix with Moabite women, even to the point of joining them in their pagan rites. The midrash sees the hand of Balaam behind this intermingling. Before he is unceremoniously dismissed by the irate king of Moab, Balaam advises him to erode Israel’s apartness. Socializing will lead to intermarriage and apostasy. Soon what could only be done at first in secret will become publicly acceptable.

Thus the Torah recounts the romance of one mixed couple flaunted in full view (Numbers 25:6). Is Moses’ conspicuous absence from this turn of events another sign of his growing weariness or of inner conflict springing from his marriage to Zipporah, herself a Midianite woman? The leadership vacuum is filled by Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, who on his own kills the offending couple and halts the plague that has already consumed 24,000 lives. In gratitude, God rewards Pinhas (who bears an Egyptian name) for his zealotry with a promise of friendship and eternal priesthood (Numbers 25:12-13).

The midrash detects in the words of the opening story–vayeshev (settled down)–a touch of paradox. "When Israel settled down at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with Moabite women" (Numbers 25:1). Overtly, the verb suggests the end of a taxing journey, the delicious anticipation of a long and undisturbed rest. But, declares R. Yohanan, in truth, wherever the Torah uses the verb "vayeshev," the narrative that follows is filled with anguish and turmoil. For example, Jacob returns "to settle down (vayeshev) in the land where his father had lived, in the land of Canaan (Genesis 37:1)" after an arduous absence of 21 years in the house of Laban. What follows is hardly the respite he sought and deserved, but the bitter envy of his sons toward Joseph.

Similarly, Israel arrived at Shittim to rest prior to invading Canaan, and not to become entangled with the women of Moab. How often the course of events makes a mockery of our hopes!

Is America any different? Here too Jews came filled with the sentiments of vayeshev, to escape the antipathy and constrictions of a conflicted continent, where even the advocates of emancipation for Jews despised Judaism. Nor did this country fail us. Since the Second World War it has surely afforded Jews a measure of individual opportunity and collective freedom unprecedented in Jewish history. But will equality and prosperity be our undoing? Does the term vayeshev still carry the ominous ring of disaster? The escalating incidence of intermarriage is already decimating our ranks. What communal strategy can secure our collective identity without giving up on our individual equality?

For most American Jews, a flight back into the seclusion of the ghetto is unacceptable. The zealotry of Pinhas is no longer helpful.

Permit me to close with a concise formulation of my own view. First, I believe that if our children end up marrying non-Jews we should not reject them. Their choice of a mate is usually not made out of pique with us or in rebellion against Judaism. They happened to fall in love with a non-Jew because that is where circumstances, which admittedly we might have better controlled, placed them. Indeed, we should love them more in order to retain a measure of influence on their lives, Jewishly and otherwise. Life consists of constant growth and our adult children may yet reach a stage when Judaism will suddenly take on new meaning for them.

Second, we should not miss an opportunity to give the non-Jewish spouse of our son or daughter a chance to savor Jewish experience. We should start from strength by taking them into our families and exposing them often to the emotional warmth, ethical standards, intellectual power, and artistic beauty of Judaism. While religious conversion remains for me the final goal, I realize fully that helping someone even consider the idea takes patience, sensitivity, and understanding.

Third, in the midst of our confusion and pain we should not ask of Judaism to adopt measures which do violence to its integrity. Judaism is not responsible for the intermarriage crisis nor is it without resources to address it. That is why I stress the historical significance of conversion as a reflection of religious openness and universalism. We absolutely need to do as much outreach as possible, giving intermarried couples a sense of being welcome and an appreciation of the sacred in Judaism, but without eliminating boundaries. In time, Jews by choice will undoubtedly enrich Judaism with their own religious sensibilities.

And, finally, long before intermarriage takes place, we need to deepen the Jewish consciousness of our children. If we can extend their study of Judaism beyond bar-and bat-mitzvah, enlarge and enhance the Jewish teaching profession, build more day schools and enrich the curriculum of our afternoon schools, expand the opportunities for informal Jewish education in Israel, at camp, and in youth movements, and, above all, turn our home into a venue of holiness, we will dispose our youngsters to seek a Jewish mate, and, short of that, to expect of their non-Jewish mate to become a Jew by choice. With sufficient pride and knowledge they will not long abandon us or Judaism. In sum, where external barriers no longer exist to separate us from our neighbors, we must cultivate inner resources to offset the pull of complete assimilation.

Spirit Strength

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

After two impressive victories against the Canaanites of the Negeb and the Amorites in Transjordan, the looming military might of Israel throws the leaders of Moab into a panic. Only the land of the Moabites separates Israel from the Jordan River and the conquest of Canaan. Balak ben Zippor, King of Moab, knows that he is next.

In desperation, he takes recourse in an unconventional pre-emptive measure. He summons Balaam son of Beor, a sorcerer from Mesopotamia to curse Israel, making it susceptible to defeat on the battlefield. Though Balaam comes, God frustrates the plan. Within the monotheistic framework of the Torah, Balaam can utter only what God imparts to him. Hence he ends up in rapturous praise of Israel, to the consternation of Balak.

In an imaginative midrash, the Rabbis expatiate on what brought Balak to seize on this particular tactic. Awestruck by Moses, he inquired of the Midianites, among whom Moses had once found refuge when fleeing Pharoah’s wrath, as to the man’s strength. They responded that Moses’ strength resided in his mouth, that is, his prayers were able to move God to act in his behalf. To neutralize that weapon, Balak turns to sorcery. Balaam’s strength also resides in his mouth. His curse will trump Moses’ prayers. Without divine assistance, Israel is eminently beatable (Rashi on 22:4).

As so often, the midrashic genre yields rich insight. Words are weapons when they carry conviction. As long as the prayers of Israel embody deep faith, a sense of chosenness and real dialogue, they have the capacity to keep chaos at bay. With the information at hand, Balak intuited that the ultimate source of Israel’s dominance was spiritual and not military.

The training ground for that resilience of the spirit would eventually become the synagogue, the sacred space that reverberates with the spoken word. How appropriate, then, that the first words we intone upon entering the synagogue in the morning are taken from Balaam’s encomium: "How fair are you tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (24:5) While in the Torah, these words express Balaam’s astonishment at the expanse and quality of Israel’s encampment in the wilderness, in the siddur [prayerbook] they give voice to our gratitude for the sustenance of the synagogue. Throughout its Diaspora sojourn, Israel finds refuge in the synagogue, where prayer and study spin a web of existential meaning. It is the synagogue which generates the vocabulary that enables us to endure and prevail.

Yet, for all its importance, the ritual of the synagogue is but a means to an end. In Judaism, behavior takes priority over belief. Faith without deeds will not change the world. And this hierarchy of values the Rabbis articulate in a startling comparison between the figures of Abraham and Balaam.

"Whoever possesses these three qualities is numbered among the disciples of our father Abraham, and those who possess the three opposite qualities are found among the disciples of wicked Balaam: A generous spirit, a humble soul and a modest appetite–such a one is a disciple of our father Abraham. A grudging spirit, an arrogant soul and an insatiable appetite–such a one is a disciple of wicked Balaam" (Or Hadash, Reuven Hammer, 275-276).

At issue in these conflicting worldviews is clearly how we live. For the Rabbis, Balaam personified a lifestyle that turns on the self. The other is always secondary. In contrast, Abraham’s virtues combine to contract the ego. Compassion, humility and self-restraint not only privilege the other but also devalue material possessions. Judaism strives for self-control. Nobility of character requires a touch of ascetism.

In his commentary to this passage, Judah Goldin posits that such virtue is not a function of biological descent, but persistent effort. Jewishness is defined by what we do with our lives. Like Abraham, we can choose to follow God’s voice as refracted in the sacred texts of Judaism.

Incomparably, that same value scale is enunciated by the eighth-century prophet Micah, whose words constitute our haftarah [prophetic reading] for this week’s parashah. The superficial link is his glancing reference to Balak and Balaam. In a deeper vein, he espouses the primacy of ethics over ritual. The goal of genuine religion is not to mollify God with escalating numbers of sacrifices culminating in the offering of one’s own first-born child. On the contrary, what God has long demanded is "only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God" (6:8).

Again, the thrust runs diametrically counter to our penchant for self-absorption. The best way to infuse the world with holiness is by harnessing the self. As long as ritual is tethered to that aspiration, it can provide us with the discipline to move beyond ourselves.

Sometimes, There Are Second Chances

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

One of the most compelling new rituals in the Conservative synagogue is the adult bat-mitzvah. The impulse is egalitarian, the result religious empowerment. The women who participate enjoyed no bat-mitzvah ceremony in their youth. Years later they seek to fill the void. Usually in small groups of up to a dozen, they study with their rabbi and cantor for a period of at least two years.

The practice is so widespread today that the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism has produced a carefully articulated curriculum to enhance the meaningfulness of the experience. Learning to read Hebrew is required. Biblically based yet religiously encompassing, the study period culminates in the preparation of a specific parashah and haftarah [prophetic reading] to be chanted in the synagogue on a Shabbat morning. There is definitely comfort in numbers. Doing the bat-mitzvah as a group lessens the tension of performing in public. Each participant must master only a part of the whole.

A few years ago, a large Solomon Schechter elementary day school appointed its first rabbi-in-residence, a post vital to intensifying the religious atmosphere and programming of the school. A number of the women on the faculty approached her about preparing them for an adult bat-mitzvah. She readily agreed provided that the ceremony be held in the school. After two years of serious study, the teachers celebrated their bat-mitzvah in a service attended by all the students in the school. The event was role modeling at its best. To see their teacher and colleague reach for holiness transformed students and teachers alike.

The reward that comes from an adult bat-mitzvah is commensurate with the effort. A second chance brings with it a heightened state of consciousness. We would not be there if we didn’t appreciate what we missed. The bonding with fellow adult learners, the illumination of Jewish texts, rituals and values and the mastering of a new set of skills fill us with pride and meaning. The growth brings us closer to God even as it affirms our vitality.

The power of this new ritual is infectious. Men who never celebrated a bar-mitzvah or endured one bereft of spiritual content are beginning to ask their rabbis for equal attention. To cast study in the mold of ritual is to infuse it with sanctity.

What prompts me to speak of the innovation of an adult rite of passage is the briefest of narrative fragments in our parashah. Out of Egypt a year, the Israelites are instructed by Moses to observe their first Passover in the wilderness. Some, however, inform Moses that they have been rendered impure by contact with a corpse and therefore are prohibited from sacrificing and consuming the Paschal offering on the assigned day. Yet given the momentous nature of this first anniversary, they do not want to be excluded.

Moses seeks God’s counsel and returns with a unique concession, that individuals who are precluded from participating by virtue of defilement or being on a long journey may offer the paschal sacrifice exactly one month later, that is on the twilight of the 14th of Iyar rather than the 14th of Nisan (9:1-14). The accommodation gave rise to what became known as Pesach Sheni or a second Passover which remained operative as long as the Temple stood. Today the date on the calendar is merely noted by the slightest of changes in the morning prayer service.

But the passage remains noteworthy. For one, it offers a classic example of the intimate connection between nomos and narrative in the Torah. Law repeatedly springs from a narrative context, in our case a lasting ritual concession from a minor historical incident. The Torah is far more than a codification of law, though at its core it most assuredly is a legal digest whose disparate ordinances are often put into a narrative setting for effect and explication.

Secondly, the passage reveals a striking exception. No similar concession is granted for missing any other festival. There is no second chance for those who for some valid reason are unable to observe Sukkot or Yom Kippur. The added dimension of Passover seems to be its thoroughly national character. It commemorates the founding of ancient Israel as God’s emissary to humanity. Each time that the nation was reconstituted by Joshua, Hezekiah, Josiah, and Ezra, the occasion was marked by a public celebration of the Passover festival.

The import of Pesah Sheni seems to be the integration of the individual into the religious polity. To sacrifice the Paschal lamb was to reaffirm one’s sense of belonging. Hence, the possibility of a second chance. Annually, everyone had to avow and renew the bonds of national affiliation.

Pesah Sheni ended up more important in a psychological vein. The accommodation caught the optimistic spirit of Judaism. Human beings are endowed with the capacity to avail themselves of a second chance. Neither habit nor fate is the final arbiter of what we do with our lives. Pesah Sheni brings to mind the stirring odyssey of R. Akiva whose life turned on the intrusion of a second chance.

As a young man, according to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva was no more than an illiterate shepherd for one of the richest men in Jerusalem. His daughter, however, fell in with Rabbi Akiva because of his modest demeanor. She also recognized his innate talent and promised to marry him if he would go off to study Torah. He agreed and they married secretly. But when her father discovered the breach of social etiquette, he drove them from his home, disowning his daughter.

Despite their dismal poverty, the couple adhered to their plans and each other. For 12 years, Rabbi Akiva left his wife to study at the academy of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. Ready to return, he learned indirectly that his devoted wife would endure another dozen years of widowhood if her husband would continue to study. Again he heeded her wishes.

Finally, after an absence of 24 years, Rabbi Akiva, now the greatest scholar of his age, did come home with an entourage of students without number. As his shabbily clad wife approached to embrace him, they tried to rebuff her. But Rabbi Akiva immediately recognized her and told his students "what is mine and yours is actually hers."

Achievement had not gone to his head. Still modest, he acknowledged that his awesome erudition owed everything to the judgment and loyalty of his helpmate (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 62b-63a).

The story is not without a touch of irony. The primary founder of rabbinic Judaism was a second career student! Had his farsighted and long-suffering spouse not provided him with a second chance, his flock would not have changed. After Rabbi Akiva citizenship in the Jewish polity was acquired through the study of Torah. Age ceased to be a barrier. It is never too late to start. Nor, in fact, is there a point at which we are entitled to stop.

For the beneficiaries of the exodus and Sinai, Torah became the link to God, the world and the Jewish people.

Why Bondage?

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

The book of Genesis ends as it starts, with its lead characters in a state of exile. The existential human condition is to be out of place, far from home. Jacob’s clan no longer resides in the land promised to his father and grandfather. Yet the narrator makes it unmistakably clear that their final destination was not Egypt, but Canaan, the land that would eventually bear Jacob’s other name, Israel, the one who "strove with beings divine and human and prevailed" (Genesis 32:29).

Prior to relocating to Egypt, to be reunited with his long-lost son Joseph, Jacob is reassured by God that "I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back" (Genesis 46:4). As the end of his life approaches, Jacob beseeches Joseph to inter him in the family burial place in Hebron (47:29-30), and in a subsequent conversation makes pointed reference to Canaan as his nation’s "everlasting possession" (48:4). Joseph, indeed, accorded his father a protracted state funeral on the way to burying him in "the field of Makhpelah" (50:13). As for Joseph, he did not ask the same of his brothers, only that when God restores them to Canaan, they should take his embalmed bones with them for burial.

Reaffirming Canaan

In short, the Torah goes out of its way at this juncture to reaffirm Canaan as the sacred destiny of Jacob’s progeny. Despite the detour into Egypt, the storyline never loses sight of its end. As Joseph avers to his brothers, they are in Egypt by design, not accident. What appears to happen at random up close, from a distance gains purpose and meaning. God employed Joseph to rescue his family, if not Egypt itself, from a terrible famine. Henceforth, the fate of both will be intertwined, though Israel’s sojourn is never destined to become permanent.

The question I wish to ask is what was the need for the sojourn in the first place? If the narrative leaves nothing to chance, what did it intend to accomplish by subjecting the nation to emerge from Abraham‘s loins to centuries of suffering? God guides Abraham to Canaan only to tell him when he gets there that the land is not yet his, that his descendants will have to endure affliction and bondage in a land not their own for some 400 years (Genesis 15:13). The wrinkle suggests a change of heart. The story is so familiar to us that we have stopped feeling the inelegance of the plot. Or perhaps, God’s will is not to be questioned.

I confess that the traditional commentaries are not much concerned with my question. The first answer I can find is the one given by the Torah itself. The land is not empty and its inhabitants are not yet wholly unworthy of it: "For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (Genesis 15:16). The explanation implies an inchoate concept of a just war. Depravity constitutes a valid reason for dispossessing a people of its ancestral home. In this case, cultic practices and moral standards of the Amorites are well on their way to rendering the land completely contaminated. When that point is reached, but not before, conquest is permissible. Though the Torah displays a heartening sensitivity for the other here, the fate of the Amorites seems irreversible. The purpose of the detour in Egypt is to wait out the inevitable.

But this rationale fails to account for the brutality of the bondage. The sojourn could also have been painless. One midrash conveys the need for acts of redemption.

"Why were the Ten Commandments not stated at the beginning of the Torah? The answer came by way of analogy. A man came to a country and said: ‘I am ready to rule over you.’ Its citizens said: ‘What have you done for us that you should rule over us?’ What did he do? He built for them a wall, brought in water and waged wars for them. Again he said, ‘I am ready to rule over you.’ This time they responded, ‘Absolutely.’ In the same manner, God took Israel out of Egypt, split the sea for them, brought down manna, raised up a wall, provided them with quail, and defeated Amalek. Only then did God say, ‘I am ready to rule over you,’ to which they responded, ‘Absolutely’" (Mekhilta d’R. Yishmael, Howoritz/Rabin ed., p. 219).

Covenant is Redemption

According to this Midrash, the context for covenant is redemption. Divine intervention in a situation of utter hopelessness created the sense of indebtedness which induced Israel to accept the Torah. God’s compassion and power had readied Israel to obligate itself to the dictates of God’s wisdom. The midrashic intent is to explain the preamble of the Ten Commandments: "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2), which is the justification for the laws that follow. The claim on Israel’s allegiance is historically grounded; without the Exodus there would have been no Sinai.

The third reason makes still better sense of the flow of the biblical narrative. Egyptian bondage is a necessary prelude to fulfilling the mission of God’s chosen people. If the progeny of Abraham are to be a source of blessing for the nations of the world (Genesis 12:3), if they are to be a model of what is just and right (Genesis 18:19), then they must have exposure to what is wrong with the world. To endure the insecurity of homelessness and the abasement of slavery is the requisite soil for creating a body politic imbued with principles of equality and justice. The Torah’s oft-repeated compassion for the stranger seems to well up from the nightmare of dire oppression.

The Egyptian experience also helps to account for the centrality of the land. The Torah aspired to be more than a corpus of disembodied and untested legal principles and practices. Sacred space served not only as a homeland, but also as a laboratory for turning abstractions into reality When Moses tarried in the midst of the Exodus to take with him the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19), he did more than fulfill the words of the man responsible for bringing Jacob’s family into Egypt. He took with him the bitter lessons learned in degradation to give birth to a nobler experiment in the freedom of the promised land.

Our God, Our Matchmaker

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

It takes courage to get married. Divorce statistics attest to the high risk of failure. Yet ours is not the first generation to appreciate the demanding complexity of matrimony. A charming rabbinic tale suggests that the rabbis already deemed every successful marriage a miracle, the blessed product of divine intervention.

The following dialogue, one of many, is reported in the name of R. Yosi ben Halafta, one of the Mishnah’s most prominent sages, and an unnamed Roman woman of rank. She asked R. Yosi, "In how many days did God create the world?" "In six," he answered. "And since then," she asked, "what has God been doing?" "Matching couples for marriage," responded R. Yosi. "That’s it!" she said dismissively. "Even I can do that. I have many slaves, both male and female. In no time at all, I can match them for marriage." To which R. Yosi countered, "Though this may be an easy thing for you to do, for God it is as difficult as splitting the Sea of Reeds."

Whereupon, she took her leave. The next day the aristocrat lined up a thousand male and a thousand female slaves and paired them off before nightfall. The morning after, her estate resembled a battlefield. One slave had his head bashed in, another had lost an eye, while a third hobbled because of a broken leg. No one seemed to want his or her assigned mate. Quickly, she summoned R. Yosi and acknowledged. "Your God is unique and your Torah is true, pleasing and praiseworthy. You spoke wisely"(Bereshit Rabba, 68:4).

Beyond the obvious self-validating intent of this tale, it does weave a profound view of marriage. The institution is always in jeopardy. Even God is rattled by the odds against sustained success. The ordinary, crafting of a good marriage, is as demanding as the extraordinary, rescuing of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds. Put differently, matrimony is the extension of creation. God did not finish the task in six days. Marriage is creation in another mode. Without it, the world would be altered and diminished. Hence, God’s ongoing involvement. As part of the fabric of the creative process, marriage requires divine attention. By freighting marriage with cosmic weight, the rabbis gave poetic expression to the daunting difficulty of making it work. No need for prosaic analysis. Because the ideal often exceeds our grasp, we wait for moments of grace.

What prompts me to cite this fragment of rabbinic theology is a seldom noticed marriage prescription in this week’s parashah. Though not given to easy implementation, its underlying sensitivity cautions against any mechanistic approach to the universal challenge of procreation. The law reads: "When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt for one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married" (Deuteronomy 24:5).

Interestingly, the law follows directly on the heels of several injunctions dealing with divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), as if to suggest that divorce might be averted by nurturing the marriage, especially at the outset. The obligation to do so devolves explicitly on the husband. During the first year of marriage, he is to be unencumbered by responsibilities that would remove him for any length of time from his household. His task is transitive, as Rashi stresses, to make his wife happy and not merely to live happily with her.

In his medieval compilation of the Torah’s 613 commandments in order of appearance in the Torah, entitled Sefer ha-Hinukh (a halakhic primer), the unknown Spanish author lists this particular commandment as number 582. He explains that freed from distractions, the groom is expected to become physically compatible with his bride, to focus his sexual desires solely on her and to implant her image and deeds in his heart. According to the author, two benefits would accrue from such bonding: the groom would be habituated to regarding other women as off-limits and together, bride and groom would create a wholesome environment for filling God’s earth with good children.

I don’t think the Sefer ha-Hinukh misstates the intent of the biblical legislation. Whatever economic arrangements attended marriage in the Torah and Talmud, there is no doubt that for the institution to flourish, it requires a large infusion of mutual respect and considerateness. We should not blithely assume that all arranged marriages of an earlier age were loveless. By envisioning a year of uninterrupted courtship after the wedding, the Torah was seeking to blend two distinct personalities into a harmonious union for life.

And that is precisely the goal the Torah had set for itself when it coupled marriage with creation at the beginning. After recounting the formation of Eve, the Torah resoundingly declaims: "Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife so that they become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Marriage is a form of restoration. A partnership based on utilitarian considerations can never end our existential loneliness. Yet for husband and wife ever to merge into one, their relationship must be cemented by love.

In this spirit, we are told later, and not by accident, that Isaac‘s love for Rebecca, his bride from abroad, welled up only after they were married (Genesis 25:67). A love that does not deepen and expand with shared experience is destined to wither.

The Order of Disorder

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

The Bible’s most famous riddle was the brainchild of Samson. “Out of the eater came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges 14:14). Samson posed it on the occasion of his seven-day wedding feast to 30 young Philistine men who came to celebrate his marriage to one of their own. On the last day, the young men responded gleefully: “What is sweeter than honey, and what is stronger than a lion?” Dismayed, Samson accused them of coercing his bride: “Had you not plowed with my heifer, you would not have guessed my riddle.” And indeed, threatened by them with savage revenge, she had wheedled the answer out of Samson, only to betray him, exactly as Delilah would do later in his life.

Behind the riddle lay a real life experience. On his first trip to the land of the Philistines to arrange the marriage, Samson had killed bare-handed, a full grown lion on the attack. Upon his return for the wedding feast, he turned aside to inspect the carcass. A swarm of bees had taken up residence in its skeleton. Samson scooped up a handful of honey which he savored and shared with his parents without revealing its source. The riddle conveys the impact of the experience: Samson was intrigued by the phenomenon of an object becoming its opposite. Reality seemed more fluid than fixed.

Language of the Bible

That sense of impermanence is imbedded in the very language of the Bible. Biblical Hebrew contains a small number of words that bear antithetical meanings. These words are more than homonyms with dissimilar meanings like bear (to carry) and bear (the animal.) Their meanings are diametrically opposed to each other. Moreover, in English, homonyms usually derive fortuitously from different origins, whereas in biblical Hebrew the polarity of meanings seems to inhere by design in one and the same word. Like Samson’s lion, the word morphs into its opposite.

It is the appearance of such a Hebrew homonym in our parashah that prompts me to take you down an arcane philological path. But I do so because in this instance a deep worldview is built into the structure of the language.

This week we read of the tithe that every Israelite was obliged to give every third year of the sabbatical cycle. In contrast to the tithes of other years, this tithe was not to be brought to the central sanctuary for its priestly officials, but distributed at home to those at risk– orphans, widows, strangers and Levites. When the duty had been fulfilled, the Israelite was to attest in a public declaration that, “I have not eaten of it [the tithe] while in mourning [ve-oni], I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead” (Deuteronomy 26:14). That is; as Jeffrey Tigay explains in his sterling commentary on Deuteronomy, the poor-tithe was no less sacred than that which was to be brought to the sanctuary. Both belonged to God and hence had to be kept ritually pure.

What interests me, however, is the Hebrew word for mourning, oni. The exact same word in other contexts means strength as in Jacob‘s reference to Reuben, his first-born, “the first fruit of my vigor [reshit oni]” (Genesis 49:3). On occasion, these two meanings of oni may even converge in a double entendre. Rachel expires tragically as she gives birth to Benjamin: “But as she breathed her last– for she was dying –she named him Ben-oni” (Genesis 35:18), which could be translated with equal validity as “son of my suffering” or “son of my strength!” The polarity of meanings gives rise to a dialectic that mirrors the complexity of life itself.

Another homonym comes from last week’s parashah. The well-known Hebrew word for holy (kadosh) can also at times mean unholy. Thus the Torah prohibits the mixing of different crops in the same field (kil’ayim): “You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, else the crop– from the seed you have sown– and the yield of the vineyard may not be used” (Deuteronomy 22:9). In Hebrew the verb for “may not be used” is a form of kadosh–pen tikdash, meaning literally, unholy. To intermingle crops defiles the produce making it unusable and therefore to be destroyed.

Similarly, later in the parashah, the Torah cryptically forbids the institution of cultic prostitutes, whether male kadesh or female kedeshah. The connection of both terms to the word kadosh is self-evident. Clearly, implicit in the word and concept of the “holy” is its polar opposite, ever-ready to break forth in an act of sacrilege. In fact, the relationship between the words “sacred” and “sacrilege,” which share a common Latin root-meaning holy is as close a parallel as I can find in English to the organic homonyms of biblical Hebrew.

The prohibition against mixed cropping appears as part of a cluster of laws forbidding other combinations such as yoking an ox and an ass for plowing or making garments of wool and linen (sha’atnez). All of these proscriptions are informed by the Torah’s pervasive thrust to establish order out of chaos. The ideal is to respect and perpetuate that order, the individuality of its constituent parts and the integrity of the boundaries on which it rests.

And, yet, reality daily threatens to erode and eradicate that order. Things are hopelessly intermingled and jumbled. It is to that underlying dynamic of disarray that the homonyms of biblical Hebrew allude. An excess of holiness can easily turn religion into fanaticism. A difficult delivery denied Rachel the joy of nursing and nurturing her baby. Our lives are jolted by a never-ending cascade of conflicting emotions and conditions. Hebrew philology points to a philosophic truth: the normal state of humanity is impermanence and disorder.

A Common Destiny

The texts for this Shabbat refract our common destiny in the fluid fate of ancient Israel. The parashah opens with a scene of peace and prosperity. Once settled in the land of promise, Israelite farmers are to journey to the country’s central sanctuary with the first fruits of their annual harvest to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. It is the bounty of the soil that enables them also to share of their produce with their vulnerable fellow-citizens in a poor-tithe.

But that idyll of pastoral tranquility quickly gives way to a horrific litany of national calamities. The covenant with God is not an unmixed blessing. Israel’s infidelity will lead to defeat, deportation and exile. Endless sights of suffering will drive many to distraction. As strangers in foreign lands, Israelites will be smitten with an inescapable sense of precariousness.

And yet the covenant is not abrogated. Contrition and atonement will be followed by restoration. Exile is not to be Israel’s irreversible condition. This week’s haftarah of consolation– the sixth of seven between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah– soars with images of reconciliation and redemption. The exiles will soon come streaming back. Their oppressors will cease to revile them and hasten to rebuild Jerusalem for them. Bathed by God’s presence, Jerusalem will emit an effusion of light that will free it of need for the sun by day or by night.

And your people, all of them righteous,

Shall possess the land for all time;

They are the shoot that I [God] planted.

My handiwork in which I glory.

The smallest shall become a clan;

The least, a mighty nation.

I the Lord will speed it in due time. (Isaiah 60:21-22)

Still, till then instability remains the actual order of our daily lives, individually and collectively. Samson’s riddle is the key to the riddle of life. As 9/11 reminds us so painfully, chaos lies in wait to shatter our equilibrium beyond endurance and recovery. The recognition of that vulnerability is encoded in the very fabric of the Hebrew language, because the mission of religion is to help us master life.

Rebuke and Reward in this World

Reprinted with
permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The penultimate chapter of Leviticus consists of a divine
plea to heed God’s commandments. It takes the form of inducements and
intimidations, promises of agricultural bounty and national tranquility and
threats of defeat, chaos and exile. The future of ancient Israel in its
homeland will depend entirely on its adherence to the revelation at Sinai.
Aside from the poetry of the passage, its rhetoric pulsates with a tone of
urgency. Free will has its risks; people may choose to put themselves in harm’s
way. Rebellion against the strictures of God is the persistent evil that
endangers society.

Neither this collection of admonitions nor those at the end
of Deuteronomy are cast in terms of life after death or the world-to-come. They
are utterly different from the hell-fire sermons of Puritan New England in
which compliance is coerced through damnation. The religious vocabulary of the
Torah, and indeed the Tanakh, is pervasively this-worldly. Life predominates as
the supreme value and relegates an inchoate notion of the afterlife–Sheol–to
the margins of collective consciousness. Accordingly, retribution or reward are
natural phenomena, occurring in the here and now. The language betrays no
notion of a soul that transcends death.

Equally noteworthy, the audience for our concluding address
is the people as a whole, and not the individual Israelite. What will be
weighed in the balance is the piety and morality of the nation, which if found
to be wanting will impact adversely on the fate of the minority of God-fearing
citizens. To abide personally by God’s will can secure one’s well-being only if
a sufficient number of others do the same. Hence, the paradigmatic nature of
Abraham’s discourse with God on the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. How many
righteous members will it take to avert the destruction of a community? Throughout
much of the Tanakh the group takes precedence over the individual. The marquee
actor in the drama is the nation. The Torah’s legislative agenda is to forge a
mass of slaves into "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," a
beacon of justice and righteousness for an ever wayward humanity.

For all their power, then, these admonitions could not be
the final word on God’s moral calculus. While history confounds the correlation
between the fate of the nation and its character, the plight of the individual
begged for divine empathy. The Hellenistic world, with its heightened
sensibility for the priority of the individual, created the context for
post-biblical Judaism to absorb a full-blown belief in life after death. By the
first century B.C.E., the Second Book of Maccabees eases the pain of martyrdom
with the promise of immortality and resurrection. And several centuries later,
the Mishna makes the belief normative: those who deny that the doctrine of
resurrection is not to be found in the Torah forfeit their place in the world
to come (Sanhedrin 10:1).

What interests me in this theological evolution is how the
earlier biblical strata are salvaged. Creative exegesis allows for
reconciliation. The master of this preservative technique is Maimonides, who devoted
his life to rereading the Tanakh in light of Aristotelian philosophy. Hebrew
Scripture and Greek philosophy served as two media for the expression of the
same truths.

The material blessings stipulated in Leviticus and
Deuteronomy, for Maimonides, represent an intermediary stage in the path to
individual salvation. By providing for our collective physical needs–fertility
and food, law and order and domestic tranquility and national security–they
generate the conditions within which we can indulge our love of Torah full

Reconsidering these blessings after more than a millennium
of national exile, Maimonides understood them to be a depiction of the
messianic era, when a scion of David will have restored the Jewish people to
its land, rebuilt the Temple and achieved a lasting state of peace. None of
this will be effected through divine intervention, but solely through
enlightened leadership. Though "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the
leopard lie down with the kid," the nature of the world will remain
unchanged. The Messiah is but a warrior steeped in Torah, a mortal combining
the prowess of Bar Kochba with the piety and profundity of Rabbi Akiva.

Maimonides draws a sharp distinction between the messianic
era and the world-to-come. The former is natural and collectively experienced;
the latter supernatural and individually attained. The messianic era creates an
ideal set of circumstances in which each of us can pursue what the harsh
reality of daily life denies us: the undistracted study of Torah. According to
Maimonides, "neither the prophets nor the rabbis yearned for the messianic
era in order to rule the world or oppress the gentiles or enter into matrimony
with them or wine and dine, but solely to be free to engage in Torah and philosophy."
A world at peace becomes the springboard for individual salvation.

In this vision of the world-to-come, the love of God
expressed in the ceaseless endeavor to fathom the nature of God leads to the
immortality of the soul. As our understanding expands, our love intensifies and
rationality gives way to mysticism. Union with God is the ultimate blessing for
those solitary individuals who have extended themselves intellectually to serve
the Almighty without desire of reward (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah,
chapters 8-10; Hilkhot Melakhim, chapter 12).

For all his elitism and intellectualism, Maimonides has
caught the spirit of Leviticus’ litany of reward and rebuke. Coming at the end
of the Holiness Code (chapters 17-26) the composition reaches for a level of
morality that would transform our brutish existence into a paradigm of the good


Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

Words often conceal the origins of the idea they denote. Etymology and meaning diverge and thus confound. A good example relates to a halakhic fragment in this week’s parashah. I refer to the verb "to glean." The word denotes minimal gain through hard work. Basically an agricultural term, it conjures up an image of beggars at harvest time gathering whatever remains in the field after reaping. From there the meaning expands to any activity, physical or mental, that involves collecting painstakingly individual items of the same order from disparate quarters.

The etymology of the word "glean" may be medieval English or even Celtic, but the idea itself hails directly from the Torah, but one of many scattered throughout the fabric of western civilization. Without the biblical context, the social value that inheres in the word remains unilluminated. The practice of leaving gleanings in the field for the poor is adramatic example of the extent to which faith is a seedbed for charity in Judaism and later in Christianity.

In our parashah, we read an abbreviated version of a law first enunciated in last week’s parashah. "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God" (Leviticus 23:22). Omitted is the parallel injunction pertaining to the harvesting of your vineyard: "You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard"(19:10).

Bearing the Plight

The spirit of both verses is identical: at the very moment when we are overcome with a sense of entitlement, we should bear the plight of others less fortunate in mind. No matter how hard we labored and worried to bring in this harvest, it does not belong wholly to us. Our personal blessing carries a measure of social responsibility. God forbids us from harvesting our crop down to the last stalk or shoot. There are first some with holding taxes to be paid.

According to the Mishnah, they take three forms: leqet, shikheha and peah. Leqet consists of gleanings dropped while harvesting. Shikheha comprises that which is inadvertently left behind in the field when the crop is transferred indoors, a sheaf of wheat or a bundle of hay. Both leqet and shikheha then pass into the public domain, irretrievably. As for peah, it is a portion of the field, at least one-sixtieth, not to be harvested at all, but left standing for the indigent. In sum, the Rabbis render concrete the ethical impulse that engendered the biblical injunction.

Two other features of that injunction are noteworthy. First, it is largely unenforceable. Compliance is a matter of personal choice. There is no provision for a horde of bureaucrats to sweep through the fields to exercise oversight. Much of what is expected is in fact beyond measure because it is utterly subjective. The ordinance projects an ideal of mutual responsibility attainable only if internalized by each landowning member of the community, which is why the text ends with a resounding reference to God: "I the Lord am your God." Philanthropy springs from faith. God inspires us to reach beyond ourselves.


Second, the beneficiaries of our idealism include the stranger, who is even more vulnerable than the impoverished native. A touch of universalism informs this vision of society. Charity does not begin strictly athome, a principle on which the book of Ruth turns. Having accompanied her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Judah, Ruth, a Moabite and also bereft of husband and child, takes to the fields at harvest time to feed them both. She chances to glean on the field of Boaz, a blood relative of Naomi. Boaz takes Ruth in and quickly gains the right to a levirate marriage. Their nobility is duly rewarded with a great grandson named David, who is destined to be ancient Israel’s greatest king. In short, the good that may result from a modest act of charity should never be undervalued.

Ovadyah Sforno, rabbi, humanist, physician and leader of Italian Jewry in the first half of the 16th century, stressed in his Torah commentary the textual context of this charitable ordinance within our parashah. He notes that it follows directly upon the passage requiring Israelite farmers to bring to the temple or tabernacle first fruits, specifically bread made from the new crop of wheat about to be harvested. A token of thanksgiving to God for the bounty of the land, the act releases the produce for human consumption. Precisely at this moment of gratitude, observes Sforno, the pilgrim is reminded to remember the dispossessed when he returns home to harvest the fruits of his labor.

The setting of the text amplifies its meaning. Sforno quotes a cryptic adage to make the point: "The salt of wealth is charity (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 66a)," that is, to preserve our wealth we need to diminish it through acts of kindness. The Torah warns the farmer in his state of self-satisfaction that God cares as much for the gleaners as for the reapers. The well-off are but divine instruments for alleviating human suffering.

Yet, we should not romanticize the saving power of faith based charity. The life of a gleaner always hung in the balance. The conscience of most landowners obliged them to do no more than the minimum, if that much.

In his highly evocative painting of 1857 (oil on canvas) entitled "The Gleaners," Jean-Francois Millet captured the grim reality of survival by gleaning. In the foreground, three swarthy, stocky peasant women are bent over trying to salvage a few stalks from the sparse stubble left in the ground. The slimness of the pickings is accentuated by the mountains of hay rising in the distance. Precious little has been left to glean. Millet’s empathy for the peasants does imbue them with a stolid dignity that lifts them above their pain and despair.

Still, Scripture alone could not rectify the inequities of an economic system that put a premium on profit. In a rapidly secularizing age, government would eventually have to step in as the moral arbiter of civil society.

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