Cover

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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi

Contents

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pp. vii-x

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Foreword

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

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pp. xi-xvi

This is the golden age of the parashat ha-shavua (weekly Torah portion) commentary. Once treated as ephemera, Torah commentaries are increasingly being published, studied, and returned to again and again. Important rabbis and scholars have written substantive, sophisticated essays. These, in turn, are read and discussed in many synagogues on Shabbat mornings, distributed by the thousands and tens of thousands to their followers via the Internet, and, sometimes, published in written form....

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xvii-xviii

R. Yitz Greenberg has been a revered teacher, trusted mentor, and cherished friend for more than two decades. His theological vision has deeply influenced the way I think, the way I read texts, and the way I understand my work in the world. I am grateful to Yitz for his Torah, and for penning such a generous foreword to these volumes.

Professor Jon Levenson has likewise long been a teacher, mentor, and friend. His scholarship on Tanakh is consistently bold, insightful, and religiously alive; I can only hope that some small part of his gift for reading...

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A Note on Translations

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pp. xix-xx

In presenting translations of biblical verses, my default position has been to cite the NJPS translation. However, for accuracy and felicity of expression, I have also regularly consulted the NIV, NRSV, and Alter translations and have at times followed their renderings; in addition, some translations are my own. On Deuteronomy I have also benefitted from the translations of Richard Nelson...

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Introduction

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pp. xxi-xxxvi

“O how I love Your Torah,” declares the psalmist; “I meditate upon it all day long” (Ps. 119:97). “Were not your Torah my delight,” he adds, “I would have perished in my affliction” (119:92).

I begin with these words from the psalmist because they give powerful voice to the enchantments of learning and teaching Torah. Writing the essays that make up these two volumes has been a labor of abiding love; it would be impossible for me to convey the joy and delight I took in producing them week after week. I pray that my love for Torah is evident...

GENESIS

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Bere’shit No. 1. What Can Human Beings Do, and What Can’t They? Or, Does the Torah Believe in Progress?

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pp. 3-6

What can human beings accomplish in the world? According to the Torah, an awful lot. But not quite as much as many myths of human progress would have us believe.

According to a variety of ancient myths, culture and civilization were gifts from the gods. Human beings were seen as recipients, not initiators, of skills like agriculture, animal husbandry, and the ability to build cities. In the myths of Mesopotamia, for example, the basic institutions of civilization were all founded by mythical, semidivine beings; Bible...

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Bere’shit No. 2. Created in God’s Image: Ruling for God

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pp. 7-11

Genesis famously tells us that human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26– 27). But surprisingly it does not tell us what this means. Both Jewish and Christian commentators have offered an array of interpretations, often seeking to identify a particular human quality as the image of God within us. For Maimonides (1135– 1204), for example, the image of God is reason (Guide of the Perplexed, 1:1); for R. Meir Simha of Dvinsk (1843– 1926), it is free will (Meshekh Hokhmah to Gen. 1:26,31); for R. Eliyahu Dessler (1892– 1953), it is the capacity to give freely and generously.7 And yet fascinating as many of these...

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Noaḥ No. 1. Before and After the Flood: Or, It All Depends on How You Look

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pp. 12-15

Something very strange happens after the great flood in Noah’s day.

Let’s look closely at what happens “before” and “after” the storm. Genesis 6 reports that the earth “became corrupt before God” and “filled with lawlessness” (Gen. 6:11). God is disappointed and gives up on humanity: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his heart was nothing but evil all the time” (6:5). The forty- day flood comes, bringing death and devastation in its wake....

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Noaḥ No. 2. People Have Names: The Torah’s Takedown of Totalitarianism

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pp. 16-20

The Tower of Babel is among the best known and most frequently cited stories in the Torah. And yet most of the conventional interpretations of the narrative are, I think, mistaken. Genesis 11 is not a simple morality tale about a human attempt to storm the heavens and displace God. Nor, conversely, is it a primitive allegory about an insecure deity who is so threatened by human achievement that God needs to wreak havoc on the best- laid human plans. The narrative is also not placed where it is in the Torah in order to explain the vast multiplicity of human...

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Lekh Lekha No. 1. Are Jews Always the Victims?

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pp. 21-25

Biblical texts talk to each other, often in subtle but startling ways.

In Genesis 15, Abraham36 gets both good news and bad. The good news is that he will have abundant offspring, as numerous as the stars in heaven (Gen. 15:5), and that they will one day inherit the land (15:18– 21). The bad news is that Abraham’s descendants will first have to endure a prolonged period of suffering in a strange land (15:13). Only after their prolonged travails will Abraham’s children receive the fullness of God’s blessing.

The progression of events here does not seem coincidental; it does...

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Lekh Lekha No. 2. Between Abram and Lot: Wealth and Family Strife

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pp. 26-30

Genesis 13 tells the story of a family in the process of falling apart. God’s bountiful blessing of wealth paradoxically leads Abram and Lot, the Patriarch and his nephew, into deep conflict. Having returned to Canaan together, the two now part ways: Abram remains in the land of Canaan, while Lot departs for Sodom.

But the separation between Abram and Lot is not just geographical; it is also characterological. In the hands of the narrator, Abram and Lot become paradigms for two very different ways of perceiving and...

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Va-yera’ No. 1. The Face of Guests as the Face of God: Abraham’s Radical and Traditional Theology

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pp. 31-34

Parashat Va- yera’ begins with a stunning scene. God appears to Abraham as he sits at the entrance of his tent. Receiving a visitation from God is obviously an awe- inducing experience, and yet Abraham does something very strange. He leaves God and runs to greet three passing travelers, warmly inviting them to eat and rest.

Not for nothing is Abraham held up by Jewish tradition as the very paradigm of hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests into one’s home. Here he treats seemingly random guests like royalty. They appear at the...

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Va-yera’ No. 2. In Praise of Protest: Or, Who’s Teaching Whom?

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pp. 35-39

It is, by all accounts, one of the most remarkable stories in the Torah. Appalled by the corruption and lawlessness of Sodom and Gomorrah, God is moved to respond. But before taking action, God makes a choice to consult with Abraham. Alarmed at the prospect of God acting unjustly, Abraham protests, demanding to know whether God will “sweep away the innocent along with the guilty” and asking indignantly, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” “Far be it from You,” Abraham twice boldly admonishes...

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Ḥayyei Sarah No. 1. Isaac’s Search: On the Akedah and Its Aftermath

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pp. 40-42

After the Akedah, Isaac seems to disappear.

At the opening of the story, as Abraham and Isaac journey toward the land of Moriah at God’s command, the Torah takes special care to tell us that “the two of them walked on together” (Gen. 22:6). And yet after the intense drama of the Akedah, after the angel has stayed Abraham’s hand, we hear only that “Abraham then returned to his servants” (22:19), with whom he travels home to Beer- sheba. The sensitive reader cannot help but ask: Where is Isaac?...

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Ḥayyei Sarah No. 2. People Are Complicated: Or, Sensitivity Is a Dangerous Thing

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pp. 43-48

Human beings are complex creatures, capable of deep kindness and stunning selfishness. In the span of just three chapters of Genesis, one biblical character scales the heights and plumbs the depths of human behavior. One of the Matriarch Rebekah’s great virtues is her ability to discern what a vulnerable, reticent man wants but cannot ask for. But that very insight is also dangerous, because it comes with an ability to manipulate, to utter just the right words in order to get what she wants. As we shall see, Rebekah can care for her husband Isaac,...

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Toledot No. 1. In Praise of Isaac: The Bible’s Paragon of Marital Empathy

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pp. 49-53

Does Abraham understand Sarah’s importance? Are the covenantal promises his alone, or does God want Sarah, too, to be the bearer of blessing?99

After mandating that Abraham and his offspring keep the covenant by circumcising every male, God tells Abraham that his wife Sarah, too, will be abundantly blessed: “I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her” (Gen. 17:16). Abraham seems to find this absurd and falls on his face in laughter. And then he adds words—one wonders...

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Toledot No. 2. Between God and Torah: Judaism’s Gamble

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pp. 54-59

During much of the biblical period, Tanakh tells us, people spoke to God, and God spoke back. More, God actively sought people out and communicated God’s will to them. But by the end of the biblical period, the line of direct divine communication had largely dried up. Instead of seeking direct dialogue with God, people began to seek guidance and inspiration in God’s teachings— that is, in Torah. Insisting that God’s will and presence could be found in Torah was one of Judaism’s greatest innovations and achievements. It was also one of its greatest...

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Va-yetse’ No. 1. Can We Be Grateful and Disappointed at the Same Time? Or, What Leah Learned

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pp. 60-63

It’s not often that a biblical character makes you want to cry, but if you pay careful attention to the Matriarch Leah, she can break your heart.121 Leah is married to Jacob, a man who does not love her— indeed who barely notices her. According to Genesis, Jacob arrives at Laban’s house and is soon smitten with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, who is, the text tells us, “shapely and beautiful.” As for Rachel’s older sister Leah, we are told only that she had “weak eyes”— and Jacob pays her no attention at all (Gen. 29:17)....

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Va-yetse’ No. 2. No Excuses: Jacob’s Sin and Its Consequences

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pp. 64-68

To be human is to be accountable. In contrast to (other) animals, the Mishnah teaches, human beings are always held responsible for their actions (Mishnah, Bava Kamma 2:6). The Torah seeks to impart this lesson through the often sordid story of the Patriarch Jacob.

One day, as Jacob is cooking a lentil stew, he is approached by his exhausted older brother, who asks, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished” (Gen. 25:30). Esau is presented as brutish and uncouth— he does not care how or what he eats, as long as it...

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Va-yishlaḥ No. 1. The Fear of Killing: Jacob’s Ethical Legacy

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pp. 69-73

What is the Jewish attitude toward violence and military force? One crucial window into that extremely important question is provided by a Rabbinic interpretation of parashat Va-yishlaḥ.

Jacob had long ago left home after taking his brother’s blessing in a morally compromised fashion (Genesis 27). Now, finally on his way back home, he faces the fearful scene of Esau coming toward him with four hundred men (Gen. 32:7); in that moment Jacob no doubt recalls Esau’s desire to kill him (27:41– 42). All that he has built and acquired...

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Va-yishlaḥ No. 2. The Power of Compassion: Or, Why Rachel’s Cries Pierce the Heavens

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pp. 74-78

Devastated by her barrenness and immensely jealous of her sister, Rachel starkly demands of her husband Jacob, “Give me sons or I shall die” (Gen. 30:1). She does eventually give birth to a son, but evidently she means what she has said: Rachel wants sons, in the plural— one will not suffice. So she names her eldest son Joseph (“may God grant more”), thus giving voice to her fierce desire for another (30:24). Sure enough she conceives again, and while traveling on the road toward Efrat, Rachel goes into labor. Labor is extremely difficult, and her midwife...

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Va-yeshev No. 1. Against Halfheartedness

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pp. 79-82

Jealous of his favored status and fed up with his grandiose dreams, Joseph’s brothers decide to kill him. Reuben, the eldest, resists their plan and attempts to save him. But something about Reuben’s seemingly noble efforts leaves the talmudic sage R. Isaac b. Marion profoundly uneasy.

As soon as the brothers hatch their plot to dispose of Joseph, Reuben intervenes: “But when Reuben heard it, he came to his rescue. He said, ‘Let us not take his life.’ And Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood!...

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Va-yeshev No. 2. Election and Service: What Joseph Learned

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pp. 83-87

Being singled out by God is an enormous privilege, but it also comes with heavy responsibilities.

Already as a teenager, Joseph earns the enmity of his brothers. In their eyes he is guilty of at least three crimes. First, Genesis tells us, he “brought bad reports of them to their father” (Gen. 37:2). It is not clear whether Joseph’s reports were true or false, but the Hebrew word used to describe them, dibah, elsewhere suggests a false and malicious report.167 In light of this, Bible scholar Gordon Wenham contends that...

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Mikkets No. 1. His Brother’s Brother: Judah’s Journey

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pp. 88-92

It is a mandate as easy to express as it can be hard to fulfill: We are responsible for the fate of others. As a variety of biblical narratives attest, the Torah is preoccupied with the inescapable fact of human responsibility, but also with the transformative processes by which we can learn to embrace and internalize it.

Cain is brazen in his refusal of responsibility. In one of the most well- known stories in the Torah, Cain and his brother Abel bring sacrifices to God. When God accepts Abel’s offering but ignores Cain’s,...

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Mikkets No. 2. Reuben’s Recklessness: What Disqualifies a Leader?

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pp. 93-98

In ancient societies it was generally assumed that the firstborn son would inherit the mantle of leadership from his father. Yet in one appalling moment Reuben’s hopes of one day assuming leadership over his family come crashing down. In telling this sordid story, the Torah offers a fascinating window into the destructive dynamics of Jacob’s family and the tortured inner life of one of his sons. But it also imparts a powerful lesson about just how much damage impulsiveness can do— and about why it disqualifies even those with good intentions...

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Va-yiggash No. 1. Humiliation: Judaism’s Fourth Cardinal Sin?

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pp. 99-103

In Jewish ethics humiliating another person is regarded as an extraordinarily grave offense, one that we should avoid committing, some rabbis insist, even if our lives depend on it. The talmudic sages learn that lesson from two striking stories in Genesis, each of which, they insist, has dramatic ethical implications.

Parashat Vayeshev tells the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38). Tamar finds herself in an impossible situation, with her life on the line, and the sages are awed by the way she handles...

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Va-yiggash No. 2. Saving and Enslaving: The Complexity of Joseph

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pp. 104-108

Sometimes the line between heroism and cruelty can be difficult to discern.214

Faced with severe famine, Joseph shows himself to be a skilled and effective administrator; with great foresight and planning, he repeatedly brings the Egyptians back from the brink of starvation. Joseph is obviously an adept manager, but he is also seemingly a ruthless one: He saves the Egyptians, but, as we shall see, he also enslaves them. In so doing he runs afoul of the Torah’s vision of how an ideal society...

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Va-yeḥi No. 1. The Majesty of Restraint: Or, Joseph’s Shining Moment

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pp. 109-113

Judaism generally urges us to be agents, to be active rather than passive, to take responsibility for our lives and for the world. R. Joseph Soloveitchik (1903– 93) goes so far as to insist that “the peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is man as creator.”239 This means that we are often asked to use the power at our disposal both to better our lives and to achieve holy ends.

But sometimes we are challenged to do just the opposite, to know when it is inappropriate to exercise our power. Although Soloveitchik...

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Va-yeḥi No. 2. Underreacting and Overreacting: Dinah’s Family in Crisis

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pp. 114-120

How do we respond when someone we care about is violated? Genesis portrays both Jacob and his sons responding in ways that are, ultimately, totally inappropriate. The Torah’s account of their reactions prods us to imagine how we might respond in the face of such disorienting and infuriating brutality.

As the end of his life nears, Jacob passionately denounces his sons Simeon and Levi: “Simeon and Levi are a pair; their weapons (mekhoroteihem)245 are tools of violence (hamas). Let not my person be included...

EXODUS

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Shemot No. 1. Why Moses? Or, What Makes a Leader?

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pp. 123-127

What makes a leader? For the Torah leadership is not primarily about methods or tactics; it’s about character.

What kind of human being must one be in order to lead on God’s behalf ? Not surprisingly, the life of Moses offers us some clues.

Exodus 2 recounts three episodes in Moses’s life that seem to prepare him to assume the mantle of Israel’s leader. First, Moses sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite and intervenes on the latter’s behalf (Exod. 2:11– 12). Not content to defend his fellow Israelites,...

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Shemot No. 2. Gratitude and Liberation

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pp. 128-133

Everyone thinks they know the story of the Exodus: No longer able to bear their oppression and enslavement, the Israelites cry out to God, who remembers the covenant and redeems them. The story of the slaves being freed is the foundational story of the Jewish people: Twice a day Jewish liturgy recounts the experience of slavery and liberation, and once a year, at Passover, Jews ritually reenact the journey from bondage to freedom. When God is revealed at Mount Sinai, it is not as Creator of heaven and earth but as the “God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2; Deut....

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Va-’era’ No. 1. The Journey and the (Elusive) Destination

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pp. 134-138

Sometimes we feel we know certain texts so well that we lose the capacity to be surprised and unsettled by them. It is thus easy to forget— or to fail to notice— that two of Judaism’s most basic texts are marked by the same oddity: They tell a story whose ending has been lopped off.

The foundational story of the Jewish people is about our ancestors being freed from slavery in Egypt and brought by God to the Land of Israel. And yet, reading the Haggadah at Pesach, we come upon...

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Va-’era’ No. 2. Cultivating Freedom: WhenIs Character (Not) Destiny?

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pp. 139-143

“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse,” says the Deuteronomy; “choose life, that you and your children may live” (Deut. 30:19).

The conviction that human beings have the freedom— and the responsibility— to choose how we will act lies at the very heart of Jewish theology and spirituality. As Maimonides (Rambam, 1135– 1204) writes, free will is “a great principle and a foundation of the Torah.... The choice is yours, and anything a person wishes to do, for good or...

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Bo’ No. 1. Pharaoh: Consumed by the Chaos He Sows

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pp. 144-148

The plagues that God visits upon the Egyptians confuse and disturb many contemporary readers. What are all these “signs and portents” (otot u-moftim) meant to accomplish? Is this just an extended revenge fantasy, or is there a deeper meaning here? What does this narrative teach us about the nature of the world?

Imagine living in a world in which violating the laws of morality leads inexorably to consequences in the world of nature. Faced with the fear and pain of living in what appears to be a cold, unfeeling cosmos, where...

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Bo’ No. 2. Receiving Gifts (and Learning to Love?): The “Stripping” of the Egyptians

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pp. 149-154

Three times Exodus tells us that as the Israelites were departing Egypt, they “plundered” the Egyptians. Bible scholar Brevard Childs notes that “few passages have provoked such an obvious embarrassment both to Jewish and Christian expositors as this one.”47 And yet unease with the surface meaning of the text has enabled interpreters to uncover deeper and deeper layers of meaning within it. The result has been a stunning array of exegetical and ethical- religious insights.

Pharaoh finally defeated, the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt. But before their departure, we learn, “the Israelites...

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Be-shallaḥ No. 1. Leaving Slavery Behind: On Taking the First Step

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pp. 155-158

The scene is terrifying. God wreaks a series of harrowing plagues on the Egyptians, and the Israelite slaves finally leave the place of their suffering and degradation. At last admitting defeat at the hands of God, Pharaoh and the Egyptians let the Israelites go and, stricken with fear over what God might do next, even urge them on.

But now, as the Israelites approach the sea, Pharaoh and his minions have a change of heart and set out with a massive force in hot pursuit. The Torah ominously tells us that every chariot in Egypt is enlisted for...

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Be-shallaḥ No. 2. Bread from the Sky: Learning to Trust

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pp. 159-164

Long after liberation, the lingering effects of dehumanization endure. For the people of Israel, a long and tortuous road lies “between bondage and well- being.”73 One of the many things Pharaoh has taken from them is the ability to trust. God’s provision of manna (and Shabbat) is intended to restore that ability to the people, and thus to open them to the possibility of healthy dependence and real relationship.

Only days after their liberation from slavery, the Israelites grow thirsty and complain against Moses. God responds by miraculously providing...

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Yitro No. 1. Does Everyone Hate the Jews? And, Is There Wisdom Outside of Torah?

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pp. 165-168

What should a people repeatedly attacked conclude about the broader world’s relationship to it? What attitude should a nation blessed with divine revelation hold toward other potential sources of wisdom? Parashat Yitro subtly offers powerful and surprising answers to these fundamental questions.

The order of events described in our parashat seems jumbled. But the seemingly confusing chronology is meant to teach us a crucial lesson.

Parashat Yitro begins by recounting the story of Moses being visited by his father-in-law, who delights in all that God has done...

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Yitro No. 2. Honoring Parents: (Sometimes) the Hardest Mitzvah of All

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pp. 169-174

The fifth of the Ten Commandments reads: “Honor (kabed) your father and mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is giving to you” (Exod. 20:12). Noting that we are commanded to “honor” both our parents and God, the Talmud concludes that Scripture equates the honor due parents with the honor due to God (BT, Kiddushin 30b).

And yet the parameters of the obligation are not obvious: What is required by the commandment, and what isn’t? And perhaps most significant...

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Mishpatim No. 1. Turning Memory into Empathy: The Torah’s Ethical Charge

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pp. 175-178

One of the Torah’s central projects is to turn memory into empathy and moral responsibility. Appealing to our experience of defenselessness in Egypt, the Torah seeks to transform us into people who see those who are vulnerable and exposed rather than looking past them.

Parashat Mishpatim contains perhaps the most well- known articulation of this charge: “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9; see also 22:20). By ger, the Torah means...

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Mishpatim No. 2. Hearing the Cries of the Defenseless: Or, We Are All Responsible

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pp. 179-183

Biblical laws make specific, concrete demands upon us. But discerning the meaning of these laws for our own time can sometimes be extremely difficult: How does a law rooted in the ancient world continue to speak, inspire, challenge, and provoke even in our own radically different one? Parashat Mishpatim offers a fascinating case study.

The Torah teaches: “You shall not oppress any widow (almanah) or orphan” (Exod. 22:21). According to some scholars, an almanah in the Torah is not equivalent to a widow in our modern context. By widow we...

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Terumah No. 1. Being Present While Making Space: Or, Two Meanings of Tzimtzum

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pp. 184-188

The great Kabbalist R. Isaac Luria (known as the ARI, 1534– 72) was troubled by a fundamental theological question. If God is truly everywhere, he wondered, how can the world exist? If God is infinite, how can anything finite exist? How, in other words, can there be anything that is not God?

His answer was radical, and it became enormously influential in later Kabbalah: Luria taught that the existence of the world is made possible by an act of contraction or withdrawal on God’s part. God recoils or...

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Terumah No. 2. Returning to Eden? An Island of Wholeness in a Fractured World

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pp. 189-193

Biblical texts remember a perfect past and dream of a redeemed future. Jewish life offers us glimpses of those idealized moments in the hopes that they will nourish, sustain, and inspire us as we make our way through a far- less- than- perfect present.144 Dreaming of a perfect world is deeply rooted in the Jewish psyche. And yet potent and powerful as they are, dreams of perfection also have their dangers: They can keep us so rooted in a longed- for future that we grow indifferent— or even oblivious— to the blessings and possibilities of the present....

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Tetsavveh No. 1. God in the Mishkan: Present but Not Domesticated

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pp. 194-197

The hunger to be close to God can be one of the most powerful human desires, but it can also be among the most dangerous.

Some psalmists pine for God so intensely that they dream of living in the Temple, God’s earthly abode. In one well- known psalm, the psalmist speaks of his longing to “dwell in the house of the Lord for many long years” (Ps. 23:6); in another, he asks “to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of [his] life” so that he may “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (27:4). Such longing for proximity to the divine presence is...

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Tetsavveh No. 2. Between Ecstasy and Constancy: The Dynamics of Covenantal Commitment

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pp. 198-202

Rabbinic interpretation of parashat Tetsavveh paints a powerful portrait of covenantal mutuality— of God’s commitment to Israel and of Israel’s commitment to God. But it also claims, crucially, that covenantal mutuality depends less on ecstasy than on constancy. Covenant thrives, ultimately, less on high drama than on the day- to- day commitment to living with God.

As parashat Tetsavveh opens, God instructs Moses: “You shall further command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for...

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Ki Tissa’ No. 1. The Importance of Character: Or, Why Stubbornness Is Worse Than Idolatry

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pp. 203-206

God’s response to the sin of the Golden Calf is perplexing. God is so angry with the Israelites’ unfaithfulness that God wants to wipe them out. But the explanation God gives for why God wants to destroy them is baffling. And yet God’s anomalous response is actually a crucial window into the world of Jewish ethics.

As the Israelites worship the calf, God bids Moses to go witness their appalling behavior: “The Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted...

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Ki Tissa’ No. 2. God’s Expansive Mercy: Moses’s Praise and Jonah’s Fury

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pp. 207-212

Parashat Ki Tissa’ culminates in a stirring— and enormously influential— proclamation of God’s mercy. The appropriate response to this rousing affirmation of God’s grace and benevolence would seem to be praise and thanksgiving. But for one embittered biblical prophet, these words elicit pain, desperation, and indignation instead. To understand why is to learn a powerful lesson about the vastness of God’s love— and about our own dogged but ill- fated attempts to cut God down to size....

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Va-yak’hel No. 1. Whom Do We Serve? The Exodus toward Dignified Work

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pp. 213-216

At the beginning of Exodus, God’s people are enslaved to a false god; by the book’s end, they have been liberated to serve the real One.

The king of Egypt is not just a brutal taskmaster; he is a brazen and delusional despot: “My Nile is my own,” he declares; “I made it for myself ”199 (Ezek. 29:3). A medieval midrash imagines him insolently declaring: “I have no need of God; I created myself ” (Midrash Ha-Gadol to Exod. 5:2). For Pharaoh grandiosity and cruelty go hand in hand. In response to the request Moses and Aaron make for a brief opportunity...

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Va-yak’hel No. 2, Pekudei No. 1. (A) Building with Heart

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pp. 217-220

In conveying instructions for the building of the mishkan (tabernacle), God instructs Moses, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts (terumah); you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him (yidvenu libo)....And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exod. 25:2,8). These opening words make two crucial points. First, God does not simply seek a place to dwell; God seeks, rather, a place constructed by human hands. Second, God has no interest in a structure erected through coercion or taxation; what...

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Pekudei No. 2. Building a Home for God

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pp. 221-224

After reporting on all that had been done in erecting the mishkan (tabernacle), the Torah declares: “And Moses saw (vayar) all the tasks (kol ha-melakhah), and behold (ve-hinei), they had done it (asu)— as the Lord had commanded, so had they done— and Moses blessed them” (Exod. 39:43). To the attentive reader, the links to the creation story are unmistakable: “And God saw (vayar) all (kol) that God had done (asah), and, behold (ve-hinei), it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). In the one case God looks and sees, while in the other Moses does; in both cases...

Notes

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pp. 225-264

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A Note on Bible Commentaries

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pp. 265-270

Readers who wish to engage with Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah can turn to the classic midrashic compilations: the Mekhiltot on Exodus; Sifra on Leviticus; Sifre on Numbers and Deuteronomy; and the Rabbah collections and Tanhuma on all Five Books.

Louis Ginzberg’s astonishingly learned Legends of the Jews casts a wide net in gathering interpretations of major biblical figures and stories. The one major drawback of Legends is that erases the textual bases that make many of these stories possible; in other words, reading Ginzberg...

Bibliography

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pp. 271-296

Subject Index

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pp. 297-330

Classical Sources Index

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pp. 331-358