The Revelation on Mt. Sinai . . . the giving of the Ten Commandments . . . our Torah portion, Yitro, describes the scene with great fanfare. The text has given cinematographers plenty of good material: thunder and lightning, smoke rising up into the sky, the whole mountain shaking violently, and the loud blaring of a horn, sometimes specifically called a shofar. Miraculous? Inspiring? Awesome? Yes, our Sages teach, but it was also really, really noisy.
When the medieval rabbis read about Sinai, they focus our attention on that seemingly unimportant detail of just how loud it all must have been. One medieval commentator, the French rabbi known as Rashbam, teaches that the description of God answering Moses "in thunder" is really a metaphor about the volume of God's voice—God had to shout to be heard over all of the other noise at Sinai! (see Rashbam on Exodus 19:19). And God was shouting for good reason. "The blast [of the shofar] was louder than any sound that had ever been heard before," Rashbam's contemporary, the Spanish sage Ibn Ezra writes on Exodus 19:16.
Following the giving of the Ten Commandments in last week’s Torah portion,Parashat Mishpatim brings us a diverse collection of civil, criminal, ritual, and ethical laws. Included in the parashah is a section of text that has become relevant to a topic that is highly contested in our day.
Next month, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, a challenge to a restrictive Texas abortion law. It will be the first time in more than 20 years that the Supreme Court has heard an abortion case.
Anyone who has lived in New York City is familiar with the challenges of "small-space living." When I was apartment hunting in New York, I looked at one apartment where the kitchen was so small, the refrigerator was placed directly in front of the kitchen sink. In order to wash your dishes, the real estate agent explained, you could just stand off to the side and reach in. In the apartment I ended up taking, one of the bedrooms could only fit a bed — no other furniture at all. Luckily, my roommate was short enough to be able to stand underneath a loft bed to access a desk and a dresser.
Since I left New York, though, the concept of small-space living has come into vogue. HGTV, for example, currently airs three series on the glamour of living in spaces with an average size of 180 square feet. An article describes, "For some, the tiny house movement has become a way of life, adjusting to a smaller space and fewer possessions, with a goal of saving money and focusing on relationships and experiences."1
Just a few years after leaving New York City, when my husband and I moved into our not-so-tiny house, I remember wondering how we would ever fill the space. It was so much bigger than any of the apartments I'd lived in. I quickly got used to life in a house, and I'll admit that I much prefer it to the tiny apartment with the side-access sink. But a beautiful midrash on this week's Torah portion, Parashat T'rumah, suggests that God might think about things a little differently.
In its brief 40 verses, Parashat Nitzavim immediately presents us with tensions between confidence and condemnation, promise and punishment, and ultimately, between humility and hubris. Throughout the text of these two compact chapters—Deuteronomy 29 and 30—Moses consistently oscillates between inspiring the Israelites toward their future and forewarning them about their inherent (and perhaps inevitable) flaws.
In the story of Elijah, this classic text describes the prophet’s encounter with God: “... the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound [kol d’mamah dakah]” (I Kings 19:11-12). The sound of silence—or close to it. The power of the soft whisper, the energy of the absence of sound. Jewish tradition, and the Torah specifically, uses many examples of the drama that can be achieved with sound,
In our High Holiday machzor, we read a poem entitled, “The Sacred Pilgrimage,” by Rabbi Alvin Fine: "Birth is a beginning and death a destination. But life is a journey ..." The familiar verses of this poem could easily be the underlying emotional narrative of Parashat Vayeilech. In this week’s portion, Moses is in the midst of this process; for in Parashat Vayeilech, Moses officially retires and begins to prepare for his death.
In last week's portion, Vayeilech, we read, “Then Moses recited the words of the following poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel” (Deut. 31:30). This verse concludes last week’s portion, Parashat Vayeilech and in doing so, creates one of the most dramatic cliffhangers in our entire Torah. Surely this forthcoming poem, Moses’ actual last words to the Israelites, will be emotional, inspirational, and transformational.
Each year on Sukkot, we read these famous words of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet): “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. …a time for tearing down and a time for building up.” (Kohelet 3:1,3). To speak of building during a holiday dedicated to erecting a temporary structure seems fitting. And yet, the order the ideas in this verse is at odds with our Sukkot experience. Surely, “a time for building up and a time for tearing down” would align more closely with sequence of the holiday. So why this order? And what exactly are “we tearing down and building up”?
W.C. Fields said, "Never work with animals or children, [they steal the spotlight]." Though no one ever accused him of being a Torah scholar, his insight was certainly applicable to this week's Torah portion. Parashat Noach, the second portion in the Book of Genesis (and my bar mitzvah portion) is perhaps the most universally known and, at least by children, most adored portion in the entire Torah. This is in part, no doubt, because it has not one animal, but all animals — and they come in pairs! Later, God teaches us to value one another in the incident of the Tower of Babel.