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June 2, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shelach

This coming week’s portion is all about the “sin of the spies.” Moses sends a bunch of spies to explore the land of Israel in preparation for conquest.  10 of them give a negative report; Caleb gives a positive one, and a 12th (Joshua) apparently says nothing.  People get angry at Moses, God gets angry at people.  God originally threatens to wipe them out; after Moses calms God down a bit, God merely promises that no man of military age (20-60) will live to enter the Promised Land.

Drazin and Wagner suggest that it was understandable for the people to trust the spies’ judgment, and ask: “Why doesn’t Moses gently suggest to God that the proposed punishment doesn’t fit the crime, since the report of the spies overwhelmingly favored a retreat and it was a very human response to give greater credibility to the majority?”

I am a little more sympathetic to Moses than they are.  I have been browbeaten by bosses a few times in my career- a couple of weeks ago over something that I have to admit was  mostly my fault, sometimes over more ambiguous situations.  Usually I am too numb to respond effectively, and the more aggressive the attack the more numb I get.  And I’m not even being browbeat by God, just by a boss!  So if I can’t effectively respond to the boss, how can we expect to Moses respond to God?

June 2, 2018 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

I spent Shabbos in Maastricht, Holland at an academic conference.  I could have arranged dinner with the Chabad rabbi at their nice little shul, but since shabbos started at almost 9:30 I really wanted to be home.

The shabbos of last week’s parsha (Behalotkha) is one of my favorite “theme Shabboses” anyhow.   The Jews cry for the fish, onion, cucumbers, melons, leeks and garlic that they had in Egypt (Numbers 11:5).  I was too busy to get melons, but I managed to get everything else for a nice theme shabbos: canned mackerel (fish), ghormeh sabzi (an Iranian stew with leeks, onions, and garlic) and onion/garlic salt (admittedly redundant, but I bought the stew for the leeks and didn’t notice the onions and garlic until later).  I also had a prepackaged waffle made in Antwerp for dessert, though as it turned out it really was no better than the American version of same.

May 27, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Behalotcha

This week’s Torah portion mentions that the Levites are serving in the Tabernacle in place of the firstborn, but adds that “every Israelite firstborn is [God’s].” (numbers 8:17-18).

What do the firstborn have to do with Divine service? And why were the Levites substituted?  Drazin and Wagner list a variety of answers, but the most interesting speculation comes from Sforno.  He writes suggests that normally “firstborn males were the most honored member of the family and were responsible for the family divine service.”  Since the firstborn are the oldest/most mature it makes sense that they would have the greatest responsibilities.

Why, then, were the Levites substituted?  Drazin and Wagner point out that once ritual was centralized in the Tabernacle, it no longer made sense for the firstborn to “leave their homes and responsibilities and gather to work in the Tabernacle.”  This argument isn’t persuasive in the context of the 40 years before entry into Eretz Yisrael, because everyone could walk to the Tabernacle.  But the Torah isn’t designed just for that period, but for the period after entry into the Land.  And in that period, each tribe had its own territory, so if all the firstborn to leave their tribes to go to that spot, that would be pretty disruptive.  Instead, it would cut down on unnecessary travel to have a class of specialists (Levites) who spent a significant portion of their lives on Tabernacle (and later Temple) rituals.

May 22, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Naso

This coming week’s Torah portion includes the Sotah ritual- in which a woman suspected of adultery clears herself through a trial by ordeal (details here).   The woman drinks some bitter water in front of a priest, and if she is guilty she becomes ill, and if she is innocent she does not.  This ritual has generated a lot of commentary, much of it centered on the sheer weirdness of a trial by ordeal.  In other contexts, Jews rely on judges to determine guilt or innocence, but here Jews apparently relied on a miracle. And some commentators indeed believe that.

But Drazin and Wagner have a different, and yet interesting, spin.  They note that according to the Talmud-era rabbis, this ritual “was discontinued when adultery became prevalent in Israel.” Why would that be?  Drazin and Wagner suggest that maybe the “procedure no longer worked because it was only effective when women believed it would be effective, and fearfully admitted guilt to avoid the consequences to their bodies that the Bible describes if they were guilty of adultery.  However, it was ineffectual when the women stopped believing that the drink could reveal who was guilty…”  In other words, the ritual itself did nothing, but the threat of the ritual induced honesty.


May 18, 2018 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

This week I begin the Bs in my country by country cooking list: Bahamas.  There are lots of recipes for Bahamian red snapper stew, and I picked one of the simpler ones (though i added a little lime since that seemed to be in a lot of other versions).

lots of things mentioned in the Torah portion: yet again we read about the blue and red coverings for the Tabernacle furniture at Num. 4 so I will have some blue and red food (see examples below- also the fish stew will have tomato paste).   And in honor of the Tabernacle’s golden altar, golden blintzes (see below).

also for Yom Tov: about 3 dozen blintzes from various sources.  i tried out a couple of stores’ fresh/refrigerated blintzes, bought frozen potato blintzes and scooped out the potato to include goat cheese, bought blueberry blintzes as well.   I bought a couple of the tiny diet cheesecake things and put some of them in the blintzes as well, just to have cheesecake over Shavout.  And just to top it off, I bought Gino’s Chicago kosher deep dish pizza, which I now think was perhaps overdoing it.  My guess is that I have enough food to last me for a week; I should have invited someone over but am not feeling 100 percent (not in ways that really impair eating, however).

May 15, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bemidbar

This week’s Torah portion begins with a census of the tribes; it notes that Moses and Aaron “declared the pedigrees of their families by their paternal houses, according to the numbers of their names, from twenty years up, by head count.” (Numbers 1:18).

Drazin and Wagner quote two interpretations.  On the one hand, Rashi writes that the heads of the tribes “brought documents to confirm their pedigrees, and witnesses to verify their birth claims”  on the other hand, Ibn Ezra writes that the purpose of the declaration was not to establish ancestry “but rather to determine who was at least twenty years old, and, thus, eligible for military service.”

I cannot imagine that Rashi’s interpretation makes literal sense.  Even today, the furor over voter identification laws illustrate how hard it is for people to verify their ancestry ; to get the relevant identification people have to go through all kinds of bureaucratic hurdles, since to get the most common kinds of photo identification you need a birth certificate, which is not always easy to get (see the link for examples).  And that is in a civilization where paper is cheap and plentiful.

So I would imagine that 3500 years ago, paper wasn’t that cheap, and I suspect that many people couldn’t write.  Furthermore, I doubt that there was anything resembling official Egyptian documentation of the family trees of slaves.   So it would be even more difficult to get “documents to confirm their pedigrees.”  Even if Rashi is right in suggesting that the tribal heads gave Moses and Aaron some sort of information about ancestry, it was probably oral. *

A more interesting question to me is: why would Rashi think otherwise?  My guess is that he was taking the standards of his own time (when at least a decent number of Jews could probably read or even write) and projecting them backwards.  I suspect most of us do this all the time, overlooking the extent to which the past is another country.   For example, if we are on the Left we blather about all of the Torah’s progressive ideas, but overlook the Torah’s particularism: not only does it NOT require we give the level of support to foreigners that we give to Jews, but it affirmatively requires that some foreigners be driven out of Eretz Yisrael.


*Another problem is of course: why would they?  Moses and Aaron might be interested in the number of Jews so they could know how many troops they would have (Ibn Ezra’s view) but I don’t understand why they would care about family trees.


May 6, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Behar

This coming week’s portion discusses the laws of the jubilee year, and contains the phrase: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.” (Behar 25:10).  In context, this language seems to refer to freeing slaves.

But obviously the term “liberty” (deror) may have a broader meaning; Drazin and Wagner point out, for example, that this word may come from an Akkadian phrase for “freeing from burdens.”

More interestingly, Rashi says that this phrase comes from the word  “dur” (“dwell”) and infers from this that one is free when he can dwell where he pleases.

Are Americans free by this test? Not as free as we could be.  because of exploding rents and housing prices, more and more people are priced out of more and more cities.  This is a fairly direct result of public policy: zoning laws rigidly constrain supply, which in turn raise prices.  Especially in New York where I live, housing is a “pariah” land use-  no matter what type of housing is involved, someone will speak out against it.

In large part, this is a matter of greed: less supply means higher prices, which is in the interests of existing homeowners.     It seems to me that there really isn’t any justification for this sort of exclusion.


May 1, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Emor

This coming week’s Torah portion focuses heavily on the various Jewish festivals, many of which have been discussed in other portions.

One of the festivals mentioned here is the festival of Shemini Atzeret.  Drazin and Wagner explain that atzeret means “gathering.”  There are many highly creative interpretations of this term, but Drazin & Wagner point out something I have never noticed before: the term “atzeret” is also used to describe the end of Pesach.  Both terms refer to the end of a week-long (or more accurately, eight-day long) holiday period.

Pesach is kind of a hinge in the Jewish calendar: the end of a period of relatively easy, fun holidays (from Sukkot to Purim) and the beginning of a period of more intense, obligation-filled holidays (from Pesach to Yom Kippur).*  Conversely, Sukkot /Shemini Atzeret is the beginning of a (mostly) relatively easy period (notwithstanding that there are a couple of fast days mixed in there).   So maybe that’s another similarity; we gather for the end of a mini-era.

On another note, the Torah portion also includes rules about priests, and particularly a rule that a priest with certain disabilities may not offer sacrifices (Lev. 21:21).  What’s with the disability discrimination?  Drazin and Wagner suggest that a priest who looked deformed would “distract the people from holy thoughts.”  I thought of this tonight; I saw someone with a visible disability at a shiur, and even though he was just part of the audience I was still a little distracted.

*Though Shavout is kind of an exception to this; even though on the one hand it is a two or three day Yom Tov in the Diaspora all you have to do is pray and eat.

April 27, 2018 / conservadox

Shabbat dinner

Next on my list of countries is Azerbijan.  Brooklyn has a kosher Azeri restaurant, King Solomon, so I got kutab (meat pancakes) and dushpara (a kind of beef ravioli soup).

Also, this week’s portion does mention that the Promised Land is a “land of milk and honey” (Lev. 24:20) I thought I would recognize that by getting parve milk (almond milk) and date honey (since many sources suggest that’s the honey the Torah is referring to and making a parve egg cream (which is basically milk, syrup and seltzer).  Also I got hummus from Meraki, a new place that was near King Solomon, and also some sort of almond paste empanada from Meraki.

April 23, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Acharei Mot

This week’s Torah portion commands us to “afflict” ourselves on Yom Kippur- a phrase that Jewish tradition has interpreted to include (among other things) fasting.

Drazin and Wagner ask: “Why is such ‘affliction’ mandated?  Judaism is such a celebratory religion and, by and large, eschews sadness, self-affliction, and dispiriting activities.”

My first thought: we are?  What about the Three Weeks? What about Sefirah?  What about the five other fast days?  I count about two months in the Jewish calendar that are somehow mourning-related.  If anything, I wonder if Judaism is too mourning-heavy.

On the other hand, perhaps Shabbos balances out all those negative days.  But even if this is so, Judaism strives for balance.   Judaism wants us to celebrate life somewhat, but also wants us to remember tragedy.  I am not sure any religion is all fasts or all fun and games; either extreme seems to go against human nature.