This 52-year-old telegram could almost have been written today. So many people of color and their houses of worship have been destroyed this year because we haven’t rooted out systemic racism and oppression; because, like the weather, we talk about it, but most of us don’t do enough.
This week’s Torah portion teaches us, “Don’t harden your heart, and close your hand from your needy brother” (Deut. 15:6). Rabbi Yeshua Lalum, an Algerian community leader, explained:
“If your heart hardens, your hand will close and your fingers will all appear to be of equal length.
Sometimes leaders are wrong, and sometimes those who are meant to protect us actually hurt us. This basic fact is something we all know because we learned it in 1920s Germany with the rise of the Nazi party, in early 20th-century America with the implementation of the Jim Crow laws, and in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. For some reason, though, we have a difficult time acknowledging injustice and fighting against it, even when we see its effects.
The double parashah of Tazria-Metzora ranks at the top of the list of parshiyot to avoid for a bar or bat mitzvah. Its detailed lists of bodily ailments—rashes, colorations, emissions, and secretions—associated with ritual impurity are not the stuff of religious inspiration in contemporary times. I confess to having once colluded with congregants to subtly move the date of their daughter’s bat mitzvah celebration slightly further away from her Hebrew birthday, in order to provide her with a more palatable Torah reading to chant and speak about than Tazria-Metzora.
As an attorney, I am fascinated by the code of civil and criminal law contained in Mishpatim. In Egypt, law was made by the Pharoah, who could unilaterally decide the fate of his subjects. All lives and property were forfeit at his whim—as his subjects learned during the course of the plagues, and when the Egyptian army was decimated at the Red Sea. Conversely, Mosaic law focuses on equality and social justice. The poor, the downtrodden, the stranger—even the man whose destitution forced him to sell himself into slavery—were required to be treated with dignity under the law.
After a long walk across the park on a Shabbat winter morning in New York City, services concluded, guests assembled at an Upper East Side apartment. The host of this particular Rabbinical School student gathering held the meal hostage. The ransom was the answer to his question: “Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?”The host had a group of well-educated, eager to answer, soon-to-be rabbis at his disposal.
Performed by Richard Newman (speaking and vocals), Ronni J. Reich, and Michael Summa (speaking).
“And Now, You Pray?” explores both human and Divine responsibility in Parashat Noah. The piece utilizes several sources that explore voices of protest or requests for help, both those which are voiced as well as those suppressed or ignored.
Sometimes an article in the newspaper reminds you of something in the Torah and makes you think in new ways about verses you have read many times before. On January 2, 2014, the New York Times featured an article on its op-ed page about young girls in Haiti being sold into slavery by their families. Their story drew my mind to this week’s Parashat Mishpatim, which opens with a discussion of slavery, specifically the eved ivri (Hebrew manservant), and the amah ivriya, (Hebrew maidservant).
Parashat Mishpatim (Exod. 21–24) presents a very long series of laws.
By Dr. Ismar Schorsch | Chancellor Emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Professor of Jewish History
In July, 1994, I returned to Esslingen, the medieval town not far from Stuttgart, Germany where my mother was born. My grandfather ran a boarding school and enjoyed a regional reputation as an innovative educator. The handsome building which housed it still serves as a school, though no longer Jewish, and bears his name, bestowed by the city fathers a decade earlier in a spirit of contrition.
Rousseau opened his famous essay on the ideal political order, "The Social Contract," by stating his intention to "imagine men as they are and laws as they might be." The same could be said of Moses's objective in the book of Deuteronomy and particularly in this week's parashah. Moses offers a blueprint for the ideal society to be built by the Children of Israel in the Promised Land in accordance with divine directive.
I have posed this question to fund-raisers and philanthropists, and most, if not all, have responded with a categorical yes. I am sure that many of you reading this are thinking the same thing. But allow me to put a finer point on the question. If I contribute to my kids' Jewish day school, is that tzedakah? If I give a donation to the Museum of Modern Art, is it tzedakah? And, of course, the obvious question, if I make an annual contribution to The Jewish Theological Seminary, is that considered tzedakah?