When the ancient Rabbis want to etch something in memory and make it part of regular practice and belief, they stick it in the siddur. I cannot specific cite a source for this pronouncement, which I included in a recent dvar torah — although Berakhot, the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate on Blessing, is one source that […]

“Tammuz is interlude, reiteration, steady growth,” writes Debbie Perlman, describing the month in the Jewish calendar which began this past weekend. She goes on to reference sprinklers, weeds, and fields already planted, concluding: Hear us as we move into this time of increase, As we gather up sunlight and breezes and rains To lay aside […]

“When do we eat?” is often identified as the fifth question at the Passover seder, after the prescribed four about dipping and reclining, bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Just as often, in my experience, people are asking about two Hebrew words that look identical in English transliteration: ‘oved‘ meaning ‘slave’ and ‘oved‘ in the phrase […]

As we approach the high holidays, grass shows up in two haftarah readings. What do these verses tell us in this season of repentance and return? I am pondering. Meanwhile, a recent yahrzeit called to mind the sweetness of grass as well as its transient nature. Does that, too, carry a message for the high […]

Chapter 21 of Deuteronomy (Shoftim: Deut 16:18-21:9) tells the Israelites what to do, upon entering the land, “if a corpse be found..the identity of the slayer not being known.” This is the elaborate ritual involving the Red Heifer in which the elders of the nearest town must be prepared to declare, “Our hands did not […]

10599394_717380508311895_7027393843189443889_n“Every 28 hours across America a black person is killed by security guard, police officer or some other executive of the state,” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson said on the recent “Face the Nation,” adding that President Obama needs to use his “unique position” to explain the rage emanating from Ferguson, MO:

[Obama needs to explain] to white people whose white privilege in one sense obscures from them what it means that their children can walk home every day and be safe. They’re not fearful of the fact that somebody will kill their child who goes to get some ice tea and some candy from a store.”
— Michael Eric Dyson on August 17 Face the Nation

The Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

Meanwhile, the Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

If we turn from Sinai

The portion Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25) includes verses that make up the second full paragraph of the Shema. These words, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, are included within tefillin as well. This passage, therefore, appears several times in many prayerbooks. But it’s far less prominent in, or missing entirely from, some liberal prayerbooks.It’s easy to see why a passage that speaks of reward and punishment as a direct result of the People’s actions was omitted or diminished in Reform Prayerbooks. (See, e.g., Richard Sarason on the Three Paragraphs of the Shema.) But Mishkan T’filah (URJ, 2007) includes, as an alternative reading, a thematic paraphrase of the Shema’s second paragraph.

The reading — by Richard Levy, a member of the editorial committee for the prayerbook and an author of many contemporary liturgical pieces — can be found on page two of these Mishkan T’filah sample pages:


But if we turn from Sinai’s words
and serve only what is common and profane,
making gods of our own comfort or power,
then the holiness of life will contract for us;
our world will grow inhospitable.

Let us therefore lace these words
into our passion and our intellect,
and bind them as a sign upon our hands and eyes….
— from Mishkan T’filah, p.67 and p.235

Levy’s is one of a number of approaches to this paragraph that take what theologian Judith Plaskow calls “a more naturalistic” view, focusing on the need to avoid thinking that “we can trample on or transcend the constraints of nature.”

The passage also seems to capture what another theologian, Elliott Dorff, calls the insistence that God is ultimately just. He points out that the ancient Rabbis had trouble with the way reward and punishment are described in this portion. Still, he says, they included this passage as a central part of the prayers because of their “deep faith in the ultimate justice of God as the metaphysical backdrop and support for human acts of justice.”

(Both Dorff and Plaskow quotes are from Jewish Lights’ My Jewish Prayerbook, vol 1: The Shema and its Blessings)

I see this idea reflected in the passage which is recited when laying tefillin on the hand (wrapping around the finger three times):

  • I will betroth you to me forever;
  • I will betroth you to me through justice and rule of law, kindness and compassion;
  • I will betroth you to me in trust, and you will know that I am God

— Hosea 2:21-22

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The story of Ruth, read on the holiday of Shavuot – the time of the giving of Torah — centers around a “redeemer”: a “redeemer” in the financial sense, a male relative to retrieve the land holdings of a widow; and a “redeemer” in broader understandings, encompassing messianic hopes and God as ultimate Redeemer of Israel. And the story of Ruth itself is a powerful redeemer in its own right.

Ancestresses of Ruth’s Story

Ruth is one in a line of women – including Lot’s daughters (Gen 19:30-38) and Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen 38) – who use their sexuality, one of the few powers women could employ in the world of these ancient texts, to accomplish crucial goals for themselves, their families, and all Israel. Boaz is one in a line of men – including Lot and Judah – who are seduced by younger women as part of larger schemes in which the men function chiefly as seed-providing tools.

Lot and his unnamed daughters flee Sodom as it is destroyed. According to some commentary, Lot knew that only a few cities, including their own, had been destroyed; his daughters, however, feared that they were the last people on earth. In an effort to continue the human race, each, in turn, plies their father with drink and then seduces him in order to conceive. Lot, in a drunken sleep throughout both incidents, is “not aware of her lying down or her getting up” (Gen. 19:33, 35).

We’re told that the sons of Lot’s daughters become progenitors of the Moabite and Ammonite peoples. Israel is later forbidden from allowing these peoples into their congregation, for reasons linked to these peoples’ behavior and not to their conception. (Deut. 23:4; rabbinic tradition later determines that only men of these peoples were banned). But the Genesis story moves on before we learn anything about the lives of Lot and his daughters post-seduction. top


Tamar dresses as a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law after he delays in giving his third son to her in leverite marriage. Judah has thus prevented her from conceiving a child to support her in life; denied his own son (her first husband) the chance for an heir, and, in some understandings, a rebirth of his soul; and added another obstacle in the birth of the child who was to become – and some say Tamar knew would become – an ancestor of the Davidic dynasty.

Tamar is veiled, and Judah does not recognize her during the time he is intimate with her. Later, when Tamar is pregnant and on trial for sexual misconduct, she sends out Judah’s wrap, staff, and signet – which he’d given her as pledge in lieu of her “prostitute’s fee.” Only at that point does he recognize the woman with whom he fathered a child. He takes that opportunity to say, “she is right” (Gen. 38:26). top
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