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Plague

A Concrete Relationship with God

In Parashat Ki Tisa, the Israelites wait for Moses to return from the mountaintop. Feeling insecure with a lack of leadership, they tell Aaron to create a Golden Calf.

D'var Torah By: 
Religion as a Way to Reach Holiness
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg

One of the lessons of Parashat Ki Tisa is that we need concrete reminders, symbols, of our fundamental ideas. But while we embrace them we have to remember that these symbols — whether they be physical, ritual, textual, or other — exist for us, not for God. 

Why Firstborns Are Such a Big Deal in the Torah

The research abounds: birth order has an impact on development. The Internet teems with articles on expected personality traits for firstborn and later-born children and, in a rare moment of consensus, experts agree that birth order matters.1 It influences a child’s need for attention, interest in interacting with adults versus peers, reactions to challenge and pressure, and relationship with parents. As the mother of two young sons (and a firstborn myself), I see evidence of this research daily and often wonder how birth order will affect my children’s lives.

Birth order matters in Parashat Botoo. Bo begins with the final four plagues, culminating in that infamous, horrifying last plague: makat b’chorot, the killing of the firstborn. God takes this concept to its extreme, condemning every single firstborn — whether human or animal — to perish. The Israelite firstborns were saved by placing lambs’ blood on their doors.

D'var Torah By: 
What It Means to Be the Firstborn
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Amanda Greene

This week’s Torah portion forces us to consider the following: Is being the oldest child, the firstborn, really a reward? Or is it an obligation?

Indeed, as Rabbi Bonnheim suggests, symbolically, we all have the opportunity to be the firstborn as the Torah teaches, “Israel is My first-born son” (Exodus 4:22). But wasn’t Esau the firstborn? What then is the meaning of the verse? Our ancient tradition offers the following response: “It refers to Jacob, their ancestor, who purchased the birthright in order that he might serve God” (Sh’mot Rabbah 5:7).

The True Purpose of the Plagues

Parashat Va-eira is all action: the first six plagues descend on Egypt, and Pharaoh responds in kind, creating the dramatic and suspenseful story that will culminate in God redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The plagues are high drama, a fast-moving blockbuster film.

Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insects. Pestilence. Boils. My skin crawls and my scalp itches just writing about this batch of creepy, crawly, infectious plagues. The six plagues in Va-eira come in two sets of three plagues each (blood, frogs and lice; insects, pestilence and boils). In each set, Pharaoh is forewarned about the first two plagues and surprised by the third.And after each set, he refuses to free the Israelites.

D'var Torah By: 
The Prophet Meets God, His Maker
Davar Acher By: 
Yoni Regev

The people of Israel were not the only ones who needed a powerful reminder of God’s power and character. The memory and heritage of God’s personal connection with their ancestors had clearly dimmed in the generations of their servitude in Egypt, but the Israelites never forgot their core identity as a distinct people. Yet God’s chosen leader for the people was ignorant even of that basic tenet of the Israelite identity.

Love Yourself When Your Neighbors Won’t

This week's Torah reading, Parashat Balak, helps us consider the effects of persecution on our psyches. In it, we encounter Balaam, a prophet for hire, whom the Moabite king Balak enlists to curse the Israelites. Balaam, however, is unable to fulfill his commission. Balaam recounts:

From Aram has Balak brought me,
Moab's king from the hills of the East:
Come, curse me Jacob, Come, tell Israel's doom!
How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when the Eternal has not doomed?
As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations, . . . (Numbers 23:7-9)

Balaam, looking down at the Children of Israel's camp from the heights of the surrounding peaks, sums up the people's history up to that point and well into the future: "There is a people that dwells apart, / Not reckoned among the nations," he sings.

D'var Torah By: 
The Challenges of Being Both Modern and Jewish
Davar Acher By: 
Sarah Magida

"How can I be both modern and Jewish, simultaneously? This is the existential question." That's what Rabbi David Ellenson said to us on the very first day of his Modern Jewish Thought course at Hebrew Union College. This is also the question that Rabbi Skloot asks in his reading of Balak as well as the question that my students ask themselves on a regular basis.

How Not to Have a Conversation

In the words of the historian and public intellectual Julian E. Zelizer, "We no longer seek debate, nor do many shuls even allow it to happen. We are having trouble being tolerant of the other side" ("The Closing of the American Jewish Mind," Tablet, December 9, 2015). The same could be said in the hermetically sealed ideological chambers of American popular culture too.

We see the consequences of this kind of intellectual narrowness and the absence of civil conversation in this week's parashahKorach.

Korah is one of the great villains of the Torah; the leader of a rebellion against Moses.

D'var Torah By: 
Uncovering the Underlying Reasons for Conflict
Davar Acher By: 
Steven Folberg

The quotation from "That Lonesome Road" reminds me of something I learned from Jewish meditation teacher Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg: The word "wait," she says, is an acronym for the phrase, "Why Am I Talking?" And that's not always such an easy question to answer.

Pausing during a dispute, we may realize that the superficial content of the quarrel isn't what's driving the fighting. Looking inside, we see that we (and our opponent) are angry, resentful, or fearful about something entirely unrelated. Our hostile words are a facade shielding us from that underlying hurt or fear.

Matzah in the Realm of Paradox

The Torah reading for the first day of Pesach, which falls on Shabbat this year, comes from chapters 12 and 13 of the Book of Exodus, and discusses one of the most well-known topics of the holiday — matzah. We find the multiple commandments to both refrain from all chametz (leavened foods) and to eat matzah, in verses 15-20 of chapter 12. Then, we hear the familiar "historical" reason why the Israelites "baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt . . . since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves" (Exodus 12:39).

D'var Torah By: 
How a Matzah Sandwich Can Teach about Oppression and Injustice
Davar Acher By: 
Leah Doberne-Schor

This Passover, I will help my son pack a matzah sandwich to take to elementary school in our Southern city. Although he may be one of the only children to pack a matzah sandwich in his school, he is sharing in a common, powerful American Jewish experience. Whenever I talk about matzah sandwiches, heads nod and stories emerge: the colleagues who wonder at the strange flat cracker; the classmate who exclaimed, "even cardboard is kosher!"; the roommate who loved matzah so much she wanted her own box.

Can You Really Ask God That?

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tisainterrupts the description of the building of the Tabernacle with a long narrative section that includes the story of the Golden Calf, the smashing of the Ten Commandments, the carving of the second set of tablets, and — although perhaps less famously — the most chutzpadik (impertinent) question in the whole Torah.

The question comes after Moses has negotiated twice with God on behalf of the Israelites: first, with moderate success, when he asks God to forgive the people for the sin of the idolatrous Golden Calf; and second, when he successfully convinces God to lead the Israelites along the next stage of their journey.

But Moses' next negotiation with God is not on behalf of the Israelites, but for himself. Out of the blue, it seems, just as God has acceded to his second request, Moses speaks up again. "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" he says to God (Exodus 33:18).

D'var Torah By: 
Anger and the Voice of (Almost) Reason
Davar Acher By: 
Rachel Ackerman

The dance between Moses and God is always a complicated one, and Ki Tisa offers us no exception.

Just as Moses nears the end of his 40 days and nights atop Mount Sinai and finishing touches are being put on the tablets, God urges Moses to hurry down the mountain because God wants to be left alone to destroy the Israelites for having built the Golden Calf.

But Moses begs God not to destroy these people, telling God that doing so would bring into question God's motives in the first place and make God out to be evil. And God relents to Moses.

Pharaoh’s Final Request

In the middle of the night, in Parashat Bo, Pharaoh and his whole court wake up to the horror of the 10th plague: as the firstborn sons are slain, every Egyptian household is suddenly in mourning. Under the weight of this tragedy, the king who fancies himself a god is finally humbled. In desperation, he gives in to Moses' demands of freedom for the Israelite slaves. Pharaoh declares, "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Eternal as you said!" (Exodus 12:31).

But at the end of this middle-of-night surrender, as Moses must have already been heading out the door, Pharaoh tags on a surprising request. "Uveirach'tem gam oti," he calls after Moses, "and may you bring a blessing upon me also!" (Exodus 12:32).

I'd often read this line as a bit of a throwaway, hardly worthy of consideration, but when I stopped to think about it, Pharaoh's request seemed incredibly galling. What chutzpah for a tyrant who had until this point been mocking Moses and refusing God's demands, to suddenly ask for a blessing! For the entire narrative in Exodus so far, Pharaoh has refused to acknowledge God's power. And now, in the moment when he finally does humble himself before God, he wants to benefit from God's power to receive a blessing. Even as Pharaoh finally acknowledges the limits of his own power, he still unabashedly focuses on himself.

Traditional commentators interpret Pharaoh's request in several different ways. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, thinks Pharaoh is being cynically practical. What Pharaoh means, Rashi suggests, is that Moses should ask his God not to let Pharaoh die – because Pharaoh himself is a firstborn son. Because the 10th plague threatens his own life, Pharaoh is suddenly ready to seek God's blessing. Nachmanides, the 13 th century Spanish sage, reads Pharaoh's words slightly more generously, arguing that Pharaoh is seeking a blessing not just for himself, but for the entire kingdom of Egypt.

D'var Torah By: 
The Little Things that Tug on Our Souls
Davar Acher By: 
Daniel Gropper

It is certainly hard to think of Pharaoh as one with even a hint of remorse. Our Haggadah paints him as evil incarnate; yet, with her close read of Parashat Bo, Rabbi Kalisch cracks open the door towards Pharaoh's redemption. Another midrash goes further, making Pharaoh into king of Nineveh.1 When Jonah comes calling, that Pharaoh is only happy to repent.

This latter midrash demonstrates how t'shuvah – returning to God – is a constant practice. Like exercise, it has no end. What, then, can we institute in our lives to help us along our journeys of turning and returning to God?

The end of Parashat Bo gives a hint. In both verses 9 and 16 of chapter 13, the text says, "And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead." The text refers to tefillin, those little black boxes that Jews traditionally wear in prayer. And Torah gives a reason, "in order that the Teaching of the Eternal may be in your mouth" (Exodus 13:9).

Learning New Names

How well did our spiritual ancestors actually know God? At the beginning of our Torah portion, Va-eira, God seems to suggest the relationship wasn't quite as intimate as we would have thought.

"God spoke to Moses and said to him: "I am the Eternal [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH" (Exodus 6:2-3).

The patriarchs had known God by one name, but apparently, not by the name through which God will be known to Moses, to the Israelites in the later books of the Bible, or to Jews today. It's a surprising statement. The patriarchs, after all, are understood by Jewish tradition to have been particularly intimate with God. In the Amidah prayer, we invoke their names when we address God - God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob - precisely because of the strength of their relationships with God. And now, we find out that they didn't even know one of God's most important names?

If we open up the Book of Genesis, we find things a little more complicated than our verse might suggest on its surface. The name Eternal appears all over Genesis; the patriarchs are quite familiar with Eternal as a name of God. Abraham refers to God as Eternal when directly addressing God (see, for example, Genesis 15:2) and when speaking to others about God (Genesis 14:22). Sarah also uses the name Eternal when she speaks to Abraham about God (Genesis 16:2). And Isaac and Jacob use the name as well (See, for example, Genesis 26:25 and Genesis 28:16).

D'var Torah By: 
In Search of Humble Candidates for Leadership
Davar Acher By: 
Jonathan Biatch

The encounter with God at the Burning Bush is awash with examples of Moses' fear and awe of this newly-named deity and of the tasks God demands of him. So much so that he mightily hesitates to get involved. But along with uncertainty, we perceive in Moses a willingness to understand God's many-hued and vibrant personalities, and ultimately to accept God's mission.

In Va-eira, we read the denouement of the negotiations between God and Moses, after which Moses agrees to be God's prophet. As his final attempt to evade his leadership responsibility, Moses explains to God that the Israelites would probably shun him. The Hebrew text reads: Vay'dabeir Mosheh lifnei Adonai, "Moses spoke before God," or literally, "Moses spoke to the faces of God" (Exodus 6:12). This is a somewhat unique construction of address, repeated in Tanach only one other time: when Jephthah, also in a reluctant state of mind, speaks to God after becoming the commander of the people (Judges 11:11).

Whose Word Is It Anyway?

"Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be . . ." (P'sukei D'zimrah, morning liturgy). It is among the most central of Jewish values. The power of the word.

D'var Torah By: 
God’s Word
Davar Acher By: 
Mark Kaiserman

We don't have prophets anymore. Judaism tell us the final prophet was Malachi (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 11a).

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