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Jewish Thought

Jewish Thought

By Dr. Walter Herzberg | Assistant Professor of Bible and Professional and Pastoral Skills

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Numbers 32:1–7

In this week’s parashah, we are told that the children of Reuben and Gad “had a very great multitude of cattle” (verse 1) and the land of Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan was an excellent “place for cattle.” They, therefore, hoped that Moses would permit them to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan and not cross over to Canaan/Israel proper when the time would arrive to enter the Land.

So “the Reubenites and Gadites came and they said (vayomeru) to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying: “[the towns of] Atarot, and Dibon,

By Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins | Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and Dean of the Division of Religious Leadership, JTS

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After quoting Amos 5:24 about justice rolling like a mighty stream in his most famous speech, Dr. King, Jr., z”l, then belted out the soaring vision quoted above. In it he exquisitely captured the style of the ancient Hebrew prophets, howling against the injustice of their time but then summoning their strength to describe a more worthy and noble future. 

The first chapter of Isaiah, which is read this week of Shabbat Hazon leading into the fast of Tisha Be’av, builds up to an enraged denunciation of the corrupt leaders of Israel—judges, priests and prophets—who have betrayed their ideals,

By Professor Arnold M. Eisen | Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary

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As the Children of Israel prepare to enter the Promised Land, their backs to the wilderness after 40 years of wandering, the Torah, too, seems to change direction—and even tone. It trades instructions for the priests and narratives of Israelite disobedience for details of land distribution, inheritance and other laws that will regulate life inside the Land. It is as if the Torah wants to underline the transition about to occur—from wilderness to settlement, disorder to order—by changing the visual image before the reader’s eyes.

By Malka Strasberg | Student, Gershon Kekst Graduate School, JTS

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It is easy to pigeonhole people and to dichotomize the categories into which we place people, such as good vs. evil. Myths and legends tend to portray characters in this one-dimensional manner, and it is considered remarkable when a character is portrayed as complex. But all humans are complex. The human condition is a multivalent one, and people are almost never so easily categorized. Everyone’s character has the capacity for both good and bad, and in fact, everyone realizes elements of both within themselves.

Unfortunately, our reputation is never truly dependent solely on our actions.

By Rabbi Jonathan Lipnick | Rabbi-in-Residence, William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, JTS

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Reading Parashat Balak along with Rashi, the medieval 12th-century French exegete par excellence, one quickly discovers how vilified Balaam is in midrash. But not all biblical commentators side with Rashi. There’s a fantastic chapter by Nehama Leibowitz  in Studies of Bamidbar entitled “Prophet or Sorcerer?” Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, too, has an article on the subject entitled “Balaam: Saint or Sinner?” in his extraordinary JPS Commentary to Numbers.

The biblical accounting of Balaam’s behavior, without rabbinic interpretation, is rather straightforward.

By Dr. Alan Mintz | Chana Kekst Professor of Jewish Literature, JTS

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נפשטה הבהמה, החלו האנשים לחלק אותה לחלקים, לחתוך את ראשה, את רגליה. קצב אחד לא יכול לעצור ברוחו, ויקח את הכבד השמן וישטחהו על גבי גחלים בוערות, ששמו אחרים בפינה. ובבוא הדם באש אכלו אותו כולם בלי מליחה ובתאוה עזה נמרצה וילוקו את אצבעותיהם בחמדה. ובקבוק גדול של יי"ש היה עומד מוכן על הקרקע וישתו ויאכלו מלוא תאותם. ככוהני-הבעל בשעתם היו האנשים האלה בשעה ההיא, בהיחָלק הקרבן לפני המזבח.והדבר לא היה בבית-אל או בדן, כי אם בעיר היהודיה דשיה, לא לפני גלוֹת עשרת השבטים נעשה הדבר, בממלכת ישראל הצפונית, כי אם בשנת חמשת אלפים שש מאות ארבעים וחמש ליצירה. . .

 —"The Red Heifer" by Micha Josef Berdichevsky

By Rabbi Judith Greenberg | Kollot Rabbinic Fellow, Midwest Region, JTS

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While wandering in the wilderness, when God’s cloud of glory rests on the Tabernacle, Israel dwells in their camp. When the cloud lifts, they journey onward. In the first half of this week’s parashah, Beha’alotekha, life is orderly and peaceful, with each tribe and each leader in their place in the procession.

Suddenly, in chapter 11 of Numbers, we return to real life, where nothing is quite so clear. The people complain bitterly, beginning a cascade of negativity. The people beg for meat and long to return to Egypt.

By Dr. Ismar Schorsch | Chancellor Emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Professor of Jewish History

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The Rabbis tend to curb the revelatory role of dreams. As a vehicle of extrasensory perception, they would contend, dreams tell us more about what's on our mind than on God's. In the early third century, R. Yonatan, a first generation Palestinian Amora, delivered an opinion worthy of Freud: "Dreams convey to us only that which we are already thinking about during the day." He based himself on a careful reading of the experience of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian conqueror of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

By Dr. Ismar Schorsch | Chancellor Emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Professor of Jewish History

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Judaism shuns the celebration of military victory. The conquest of Canaan by Joshua was never transmuted into a holy day. Passover commemorates our redemption from Egypt; Shavuot, the giving of the Torah at Sinai; Tisha B'Av, the destruction of the Temples; but the demolition of Jericho by Joshua or the final achievement of sovereignty with the erection of the national shrine at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1) find no place in the religious calendar of Judaism.

Nor is Hanukkah, a post-biblical festival, an exception to this pattern.

By Dr. Benjamin Sommer | Professor of Bible, JTS

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In this week’s parashah we find the first legal passage in the Torah, Exodus 12, which contains laws concerning Passover. Torah as a type of literature is best defined as a combination of law and narrative. In Torah we read not only some laws here and some narratives there, but laws that are authenticated and explained by the narrative, and narrative whose purpose is to motivate us to observe the laws. Since we first encounter law in this week’s parashah, in a significant way it is here that the Torah begins in earnest.

But it is not only Torah in its full sense that emerges in Parashat Bo.

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