Through the unexpected and serendipitous Shabbat meal invitations that often seem to come about when one is studying in Jerusalem, I found myself many years ago sitting at the festive Shabbat table of an ultra-Orthodox family one autumn Friday night. The parashah was Toledot, and the father—garbed in his black suit and black hat—sat at the head of the table proudly quizzing his children on what they had learned in school that week about the Torah portion.
One of the girls—probably eight or nine years old—excitedly shared the very same verses that had caught my eye during my own studies that
This week's Torah portion contains an ambiguity that is rarely noted, and yet it is crucial to how we understand the contest between Rebecca and Isaac. When Rebecca experiences the as yet unborn children struggling, indeed almost crushing each other, she goes "to seek God"—whatever that may mean. She is told that two nations will emerge from her womb, two nations that will contend with each other and, the divine response concludes, "ve-ravya'avodza'ir."
This last phrase is normally translated as, "The elder son shall serve the younger." Indeed, Nahum Sarna suggests that this episode is
We Jews are not a religious lot. In fact, by a variety of metrics cited in the recent Pew report, Jews are less religious than any other religious group in America. For instance, only one quarter of Jews say religion is “very important” in their lives, compared with more than half of Americans overall. More to the point that I’d like to explore, a belief in God is much more common among the general non-Jewish public than among Jews. The latest Pew report tells us that amongst people who identify as Conservative Jews, (only) 41 percent said they “certainly” believe in God.
What a magnificent and rich Torah reading we have this week, Parashat Va’et-hannan! It’s as if the Torah wants to compensate the Jewish community for the week gone by, a week during which we commemorated Tishah Be’av, the putative anniversary of so many devastating events that have occurred throughout Jewish history. This week’s “reward” is a reading that incorporates a restatement of the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-17) followed almost immediately by the first paragraph of the Shema (6:4-9).
Coincidentally, those two units were originally part of a basic prayer service as attested in the Nash
By Rabbi Joel Alter | Director of Admissions, The Rabbinical School and H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music, JTS
It’s not for nothing, this reputation God has for consuming anger. The Torah itself makes the case. Our parashah opens with yet another instance of God hovering at the brink. God is prepared to wipe us out in a rage over our incessant violations of the inviolable. We read in Numbers 25:10-15 that God grants Pinehas a “covenant of peace” for having leapt into action (at the end of last week’s parashah), publicly slaying two people who grossly violated sacred boundaries before the entire people.
Ex Libris Familiae Abraham (bookplate). BP 1:8:3. (1978)
It might be surprising, given its association with the people’s sin of being dissuaded from entering the Land, that the motif of the two spies carrying an enormous bunch of grapes (Num. 13:23) became a popular Zionist symbol and eventually even the logo of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Indeed, it has been suggested by arts writer Menachem Wecker that several of the older Christian representations of this image deliberately portray the two grape-bearers in a negative light. (A few of those images are featured in this blog post).
When the spies returned to the Israelite camp in the wilderness of Paran after scouting out the Land of Canaan, they reported that the land did indeed flow with milk and honey but that it could not be conquered. It was full of warlike people—Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Emorites, and Canaanites—men of enormous size and strength, giants descended from the sons of gods dwelling in fortified towns with walls that reached the sky.
By Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins | Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and Dean of the Division of Religious Leadership, JTS
The summer after graduating college, I went backpacking with a friend in North Cascades National Park in Washington. The sun shone brightly on Lake Chelan as we were ferried deep into the woods, landing at the little outpost of Stehekin to begin our weeklong trek. It was a euphoric beginning, but soon both the weather and my mood grew darker. Late one afternoon we were hiking up a long ridge when the icy drizzle became a frigid downpour. A tender spot on my foot blossomed into a painful blister, and each step was agony.
By Dr. Ismar Schorsch | Chancellor Emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Professor of Jewish History
This past week, my two-and-a-half year old granddaughter spotted me one morning davening by the window in our living room. She recognized the telltale signs of the act, my tallit and tefillin. Spontaneously, she announced her intention to daven also, took herself over to the drawer where we keep some old JTS benchers (small grace books), removed one, and proceeded to strut about with the bencher in her face. Later, I found the bencher on the floor in another room, but for a few tender moments at least, I had a precious soul mate in greeting God that morning.