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March 26, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayikra

This week’s portion is all about the details of sacrifices.   One of the most puzzling offerings is the guilt offering in case of doubt – that is, when one “is uncertain if he sinned” (Lev. 5:17).  In that case, one offers a ram.  Miller suggests that this is one of the more expensive offerings.

Why?  “If you are uncertain if you have sinned you are in need of more atonement.  When you know that you have sinned, you are sure that something needs correcting, which will probably lead you to act on your feelings.  But if you are uncertain that you have sinned, you are likely to take the matter less seriously.  Therefore a more powerful- and more expensive- atonement is necessary.”

I wonder how this worked out in practice.  It would seem like anyone at all prone to self-doubt would be bringing a few rams a day.  Or maybe that’s just me.

Maybe its harder to move on when you aren’t quite sure whether you did the right thing, and maybe the offering reflects this.

March 24, 2017 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

My usual guest isn’t coming and there isn’t a shul dinner this week, so I get to plan my own menu.

The Torah portion of the week that just ended mentions that the Tabernacle was made of gold, silver, and blue, red and purple yarn (among other things) (Exodus 35:6).  So I’ll have

purple cabbage with red eggplant dip

pumpkin with schmaltz herring (that’s my gold and silver)

pizza from Calabria’s in Crown Heights (more gold)

cheese blintzes (ditto)

blue cotton candy (blue)

and multicolored marshmallow (all kinds of colors!)

The portion also mentions pomegranates on the priests’ robes (39:24) and that the menorah is shaped like almond blossoms (37:24) so there’ll be some pomegranate seedes and almonds in the cabbage salad.

March 19, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayakhel-Pekudei

The book of Exodus concludes with the construction of the Tabernacle.  One midrash on this event is that Moses assembled and disassembled the Tabernacle every day for seven days in a row.

What’s the point of this weird story? Miller notes that the Tabernacle and its successors shrines were dismantled seven times over the centuries (including the Two Temples). He adds that this story of building and dismantling “is true in our personal experience.  God gives us the power to rebuild our spiritual lives and inner sanctuaries, again and again.  Although we may stumble or even collapse, we are always able to rise again.”

Kind of a Hallmark-card ending, but it does make the midrash make more sense.

March 14, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tissa

This week’s Torah portion mentions that Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands before entering the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 30:19).  This phrase may be the root of the modern custom of washing hands after waking up and before eating bread.

What’s the purpose of this?  Miller writes: “Any cleaning process is the removal of impurity.  Here the ‘impurity’ which the priest fears is any inappropriate motives that might creep into his worship… This is the very same purpose of our ritual washing every morning upon awakening, and before eating bread.  When we begin to fulfill the needs of our body we pray to God that if our dealings with the world bring us into contact with something which God does not want, He should remove (“wash away”) any desire wewmight have to do that inappropriate action.” In other words, ritual washing is a kind of prayer for purity and go0dness.

March 5, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Tetzaveh

This week’s Torah portion discusses the clothing of the High Priest, including pomegranates and bells on the bottom of his robe.  The Torah states that the bells’ “sound should be heard when he enters the Holy Place before God” (28:35).

Miller responds that this verse is a lesson to everyone in a leadership role..  Just as bells make noise, “in a leadership position, you must speak forcefully… so that the people will be inspired by your words.”  This, of course, doesn’t seem very related to the Torah  portion.

But it is related to our time.  The nation and the Republican Party is lead by a President who seems increasingly unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.  If this had happened decades ago, the leaders of the Republican Party might have spoken forcefully about the problem, and found a way to make him retire.  But ever since Trump won the Indiana primary, the leaders of the Party have been afraid to take him on: starting with Ted Cruz (who prematurely withdrew from the contest rather than fighting for an open convention) to the Republican National Committee (which could have stacked the Rules Committee to ensure that delegates could vote their conscience, which might have caused hundreds of delegates to switch from Trump to Cruz) to the Establishment Republicans who failed to mount a credible third-party alternative, to the Republican press lords and talk-show costs who rolled over (and continue to roll over) for Trump, to the Congressional Republicans who refuse to stand up to him.

Everyone who can lead is afraid to lead- the elected officials, I think, out of fear of Republican primaries; the Republican wing of the press out of greed (because let’s face it, Trump is good for ratings).  Admittedly, the Democrats are pretty aggressive*- but they are the minority party, so they don’t have any power to speak of.


*Too much so, in my opinion.  But that’s another discussion, and since this page is more about religion than about politics I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to discussing it.



February 25, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Terumah

At Shabbos dinner, one guest complained that Jews don’t act with enough kavanah (intentionality, or pure intentions) and said that doing mitzvah by rote is worthless.   I wondered if this means I had to have kavanah for not, say, committing incest.  Rabbi Miller actually addresses the point.

This week’s Torah portion begins: “Speak to Bnai Israel and have them dedicate to me a contribution.”  (Exodus 25:2).  Miller divides these contributions into two parts: (1) the act of donation by the donor and (2) the act of collection by the Tabernacle.

Miller engages in some fancy footwork here to make a moral point.  He writes that donation is analogous to abstaining from evil, because just as a donation removes property, abstaining from evil removes something negative from yourself.  By contrast, collection is analogous to doing good, because it elevates the world towards perfection.

He then writes (citing the Lubavitcher Rebbe): “the act of donation did not have to be accompanied by holy intentions, whereas the act of collection did.” (I’m not sure where this idea comes from).  Thus, kavanah (pure intention) is not required for abstaining from negativity, but is required for positive action.  So Miller’s opinion is that kavannah is not required for abstaining from incest, but might be necessary for something positive such as prayer.

Am I persuaded? From a supernatural perspective, I think the question is unanswerable; there is no way of knowing what God thinks, and the Torah is unclear.

From a naturalistic perspective, I sort of disagree, because I think kavannah and non-kavannah are more intertwined than a simple good-vs-evil dichotomy suggests.  If I do a mitzvah (for example, prayer) regularly, it seems to me inevitable that I will think about what I am doing at least occasionally. So it seems to me that if you think of mitzvot with kavanah as a positive, and mitzvah without kavanah as a nullity, the latter is still positive insofar as it at least now and then leads to the former.

February 25, 2017 / conservadox

My shul website updated

Manhattan shul website now includes a review for Sixth Street Community Synagogue in the East Village.

February 21, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mishpatim

At the end of this week’s Torah, the Torah says Moses was “upon the mountain forty days and forty nights.” (Exodus 24:18).  What was Moses doing up there?

The most traditionalist Jews might argue that he was being given the “Oral Torah”- that is, the Mishnah, Talmud etc.  They use the idea of a Divinely-given Oral Torah as a justification for a halachic system that often addresses issues far removed from the written Torah.

But surprisingly, even Miller doesn’t go this far.  He writes that “God taught him only the general principles” (based on a midrash).  Why?  Miller cites Joseph Albo (a 15th c. rabbi) for the proposition that “it is not feasible that the Torah would have been given in a comprehensive manner… because new types of human interaction and conduct arise constantly and they are too vast in scope to be included in a book.”  Thus, Moses was given general principles “from which the sages of each generation would be able to innovate further points of law.”

I am kind of surprised to see someone as far right as Miller admit that halacha is mostly man made.

February 12, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Yitro

This week’s Torah portion begins with Yitro’s advice to Moshe about judging.  Moshe is resolving disputes and teaching Torah, and Yitro tells him that the former function is wearing him out.  He accordingly suggests that Moshe appoint judges for “minor matters” but that “When any major matter arises, they will bring it to you.” (Exodus 18:22).  Moshe concurs, but the Torah suggests that he slightly altered Yitro’s idea, stating that “They would bring any difficult case to Moses.” (18: 26)

What’s the difference between a “major” case and a “difficult” case? Miller suggests that major cases involve large sums of money, while “difficult” cases are complicated ones.  Moshe thought he should judge only the latter cases rather than focusing on high-value cases (which would presumably be more likely to involve wealthy individuals).

How does the U.S. court system resolve this tension? The highest courts (both federal and state) review cases at their discretion.  I think the unspoken norm is that, like Moses, they should focus on legally difficult issues rather than high-dollar ones.  So here we seem to have borrowed from the Torah- rightly so, I think.

February 7, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Beschallah

This week’s Torah portion involves a miracle- the Splitting of the Sea, causing the Hebrews to escape Egypt for good.  Reflecting on this, Miller writes: “God is the essence of good and desires to do good… Reflect upon this frequently and deeply, and w0rry will be dispelled at once.”

I guess the validity of this statement depends on the meaning of the word “good.”  If by “good” we mean “good” to every individual human, this statement strikes me as highly questionable.  Certainly in this life, even the best lives usually end in suffering (because of old-age related diseases) and death.   The difficulty of this problem has forced humans to invent the concept of an afterlife in which humans are compensated for their lifetime pain.

A Jewish traditionalist might argue that the Torah actually supports the notion of the afterlife.  I am perfectly prepared to assume this is so- the Oral Torah of Jewish tradition unequivocally believes in a mostly-good afterlife, though the Written Torah could, I think, be read either way.  But non-Jewish religions agree- which tells me that belief in an afterlife is a basic human urge, a way to make God seem better.

Alternatively, one could define “good” very differently- as good for the planet or universe as a whole.  But this concept of goodness certainly doesn’t dispel worry for an individual, who might reasonably believe that he or she (or his nation/culture/other relevant collective) gets the short end of the goodness stick even if the universe as a whole wins out.