Parashat B'shallah witnesses the triumphant redemption. Freed by the wonders of God and the leadership of Moses, the Israelites leave their Egyptian surroundings en route to the Promised Land of Israel. And while one would expect God to have mercy on these newly liberated children, guiding them along the shortest route possible, the parashah opens with a curious statement:
And it came to pass that when Pharaoh sent the people on their way, God did not lead them through the land of Philistines because that is near, for God said, "The people might change their minds when they see war in front
By Rabbi Joel Alter | Director of Admissions, The Rabbinical School and H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music, JTS
Given all that’s come before in Genesis, the Torah’s notice that Israel’s days are nearing their end brings dread. This stems not from fear of death, but a dread of blessing. The passing of a patriarch means that a scene of generational blessing is imminent. Experience tells us that these transitions are neither easy nor clean. Abraham accedes to God’s elevation of Isaac over his firstborn, Ishmael. Even though Ishmael will also be great even by the measure of “keeping up with the Jacobs” (he, too, will father twelve nations), God explicitly rejects Ishmael’s inheritance of God’s blessing.
By Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins | Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and Dean of the Division of Religious Leadership, JTS
Some stories are rich with visual imagery, while others resound with song. But it is fragrance, specifically the smell of savory food, which infuses Parashat Toledot. Food plays an essential role in several pivotal scenes. It is with a pot of lentil stew that Jacob purchases Esau’s birthright, and it is with a steak dinner that he secures the senior blessing from his father. The first story is simple—Esau is famished and ready to trade away anything for a bowl of soup. But the second story is enormously complex.
Isaac’s announcement that he requires Esau to hunt an animal and feed his father
Deuteronomy 21:1-9 describes the ritual performed when a murder victim is discovered in the open field and the perpetrator is unknown. The elders of the city closest to the body ask God to absolve Israel from bloodguilt by accepting, in place of the murderer, a heifer killed as expiation for the crime. This ritual serves as the backdrop of the Tosefta’s chilling story about the Temple in Jerusalem.
The lesson of the story is that ritual’s detail, unquestionably of tremendous significance to the rabbis, should not become an end in itself but rather should serve as a means to an end.
Demonstrating uncompromising devotion to God is the theme of this week's parashah. Such devotion is expressed through belief, but more importantly, through avodah, meaningful service to God. For the biblical Israelite, service to God meant loyalty to God's commandments and participation in the sacrificial cult. In Deuteronomy, avodah referred specifically to offering sacrifices to God at a central place of worship: “look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there.
By Dr. Shira Epstein | Assistant professor of Jewish Education in the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education
Moses relays to the People of Israel that when they eat and are “satisfied,” they should bless God for the land that was given to them (Deut. 8:10). This passage from Parashat Eikev, incorporated into the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), tethers the sensation of fullness and abundance to the act of offering gratitude for the source of our food. In this modern era of overly-processed packaged goods and “in-between snacking,” how many of us are actually tuned into the moment when we experience satiation, or take the time to consider the original source of what we ingest?
Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau, the City of Refuge, on Hawaii’s Big Island was functional into the early 19th century, when kapu, Hawaii’s system of ritual taboos, was overturned by King Kamehameha II. Until that time, many breaches of the kapu could result in death, including for an offence as ephemeral as allowing your shadow to fall over a chief’s house. However, by entering a pu`uhonua (a place of refuge), often by swimming across a bay, and performing a ritual facilitated by the priest there, the punishment could be annulled.
By Rabbi Mitchell Cohen | Director of the National Ramah Commission of the Jewish Theological Seminary
Recently I visited a group of Ramah teens on their one-week Poland experience, just prior to their summer trip to Israel. While visiting Jewish cemeteries in Krakow, I stood to the side and did not enter the area of the graves. Two of our teen participants, also both kohanim, asked me why I wouldn’t enter the cemetery, and I told them about the traditional prohibition of kohanim coming within six feet of a grave. Both decided to adopt this custom—at least for the days we were together—and both told me that even though they couldn’t explain why, it just felt right.
Two weeks ago I was amongst a group discussing the nature of obligation in Jewish tradition and contemporary life. I played some role in convening the group because this is—for me—a central and often unaddressed paradox in the world we live in today. One can argue about the bounds of halakhah and about the nature and pace of its evolution. But it is hard to argue that we are not a people with a halakhic tradition. Halakhah is too engrained in Jewish tradition and in Jewish history to argue otherwise.
And yet, the overwhelming majority of Jews today are not fully halakhically observant.
The main course at my Thanksgiving dinner—and perhaps at yours as well—is determined by a few verses in this week’s parashah, Shemini. After all, Leviticus 11 defines which living things are fit for kosher consumption, granting it a major impact on the Thanksgiving menu of kosher aviavores.
According to Leviticus 11 and the parallel text in Deuteronomy 14:3–21, when considered as food, living things are divided into four categories: land animals, fish, birds, and “winged, swarming things that walk on fours.” Each category is treated separately, reflecting the Israelite and, later, the Jewish