Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
August 9, 2019

August 8th, 2019 | 7 Av 5779

Hope Amid Destruction

By Sara J. Bloomfield,
Director, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

 

Tishah Be’av, which begins immediately after this Shabbat, is a moment on the Jewish calendar when we pause to reflect on the nature, impact, and significance of destruction. I’ve spent 33 years working at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, so naturally I’ve thought intensely about what the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry means for me, for Jews, and for humanity.

Destruction can teach us why freedom, justice, and human dignity are important—and fragile. And, that when freedom and justice are denied and dignity is threatened, we still retain certain powers over our own humanity.

That lesson has been brought home to me over and over again in my career, learning from the responses of both victims and survivors of the Holocaust. The assault on them was so horrific, so devastating, and so complete, it seems as if they had no agency. That, of course, is precisely what the Nazis wanted the Jews to think.

The Jews were faced with very few choices, and those they had have rightly been called “choice-less choices.” But choose they did, and those stories from survivors I have known have been a great inspiration to me.

Here’s how Lilly Malnik described her first two days in Auschwitz:

“You are told your name is a number. Forget your name. You don’t have a name anymore. And you’re hungry. And you have no clothes. And you’re freezing. And your family is taken away. At [16] I felt like I was 90. It was very hard for me to accept. Yet I got a hold of myself. I pushed all this behind me and I said: I have to live; I have to be strong.”

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The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).

August 7, 2019

August 8th, 2019 | 7 Av 5779

Hope Amid Destruction

By Sara J. Bloomfield,
Director, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

 

Tishah Be’av, which begins immediately after this Shabbat, is a moment on the Jewish calendar when we pause to reflect on the nature, impact, and significance of destruction. I’ve spent 33 years working at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, so naturally I’ve thought intensely about what the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry means for me, for Jews, and for humanity.

Destruction can teach us why freedom, justice, and human dignity are important—and fragile. And, that when freedom and justice are denied and dignity is threatened, we still retain certain powers over our own humanity.

That lesson has been brought home to me over and over again in my career, learning from the responses of both victims and survivors of the Holocaust. The assault on them was so horrific, so devastating, and so complete, it seems as if they had no agency. That, of course, is precisely what the Nazis wanted the Jews to think.

The Jews were faced with very few choices, and those they had have rightly been called “choice-less choices.” But choose they did, and those stories from survivors I have known have been a great inspiration to me.

Here’s how Lilly Malnik described her first two days in Auschwitz:

“You are told your name is a number. Forget your name. You don’t have a name anymore. And you’re hungry. And you have no clothes. And you’re freezing. And your family is taken away. At [16] I felt like I was 90. It was very hard for me to accept. Yet I got a hold of myself. I pushed all this behind me and I said: I have to live; I have to be strong.”

CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE READING

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).

August 2, 2019

August 1st, 2019 | 29 Tamuz 5779

Boundaries on the Move

By Benjamin D. Sommer,
Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages

 

Every week, we read a parashah from the Torah during our Shabbat morning service, and then the beginning of the next parashah during our Shabbat afternoon service. The result of reading from two parashiyot on a single day can be surprising. This week, as we read first from Masei, the last parashah of Numbers, and then from Devarim, the first from Deuteronomy, we can hear an ancient debate about an issue that remains deeply contested: where to draw the line.

Parashat Masei (at Numbers 34) contains what we might call a map in prose. This map describes the extent of the Promised Land that the Israelites will soon enter. The boundaries are defined as follows:

  • The southern boundary runs through the Negev Desert about 30–45 miles south of Beersheva, so that the northern part of Negev is within the Promised Land.
  • Much of the western boundary consists of the Mediterranean Sea. Moving southward, the western boundary continues along the riverbed called the River of Egypt (נחל מצרים), Wadi El-Arish today, which runs west of the Gaza Strip.
  • The northern boundary runs through current-day Lebanon, probably starting slightly south of Beirut and extending east.
  • The eastern boundary’s northern flank is somewhere to the east of Damascus. It then moves westward to Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), and continues south along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

But next week’s parashah, at Deut. 1:7, provides a different description of the Promised Land’s borders, also found in more detail in Gen. 15:18–21. According to the map those passages share, the Promised Land is considerably larger:

  • The western boundary is still the Mediterranean and the River of Egypt.
  • The northern boundary is not clarified with great specificity, but it seems to extend up to Asia Minor (today’s Turkey).
  • The eastern boundary is the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria.
  • The southern boundary is not spelled out, but it may extend all the way to the Gulf of Eilat.

The most important difference between the two maps involves Transjordan, which was inhabited in ancient times by two and a half Israelite tribes: Reuben, Gad, and part of Manasseh. Several passages elsewhere in the Bible agree with one or the other map. Josh. 13, 14, and 22 describe how each of the twelve tribes received their own territory under the supervision of Joshua. These chapters assume the map from this week’s reading in Numbers, treating Israelite tribes in Transjordan as residing outside Israel’s territory. But other passages agree with Deut. 1 and Gen. 15, regarding the Transjordan’s inhabitants as within the Promised Land (Exod. 23:31, Deut. 11:24, Josh. 21, 2 Sam. 24, and 1 Kings 4–5).

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The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).

July 29, 2019

July 25th, 2019 | 22 Tamuz 5779

In the Face of Violence, a Covenant of Peace

By Marc Gary,
Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer

 

Karen Armstrong, the scholar of religion and popular author of such works as The History of God, relates that wherever she travels, she is often confronted by someone—a taxi driver, an Oxford academic, an American psychiatrist—who confidently expresses the view that “religion has caused more violence and wars than anything else.” This is quite a remarkable statement given that in the last century alone, tens of millions of people have been killed in two world wars, the communist purges in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and the Cambodian killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, none of which were caused by religious motivations.

This is not to say, of course, that religion has failed to play a significant role throughout history in the instigation of wars or the perpetration of individual acts of violence. History is replete with such examples from the Crusades, to the massacre at Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, to the killing and maiming of abortion providers by fundamentalist Christians, to acts of terror committed in the name of Islam. Those of us who take religious life seriously and who see its fundamental values expressed in concepts of love, justice, and human dignity cannot help but feel both disgusted and defensive about this history of wars and violent acts undertaken in the name of religious conviction even if our secular friends and neighbors tend to impose disproportionate blame on religion for the world’s woes.

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The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).

July 19, 2019

July 18th, 2019 | 15 Tamuz 5779

The Sorcery in Our Midst

By Jonathan Milgram,
Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics

 

In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Balak, we read a riveting story of the diviner, Balaam, who was commissioned by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites (Num. 22:2–24:25). Balak’s goal was to weaken the Israelites, encamped at the borders of Moab, so that he could defeat them in battle. Balaam is richly and, at times, inconsistently described in our detailed narrative. Part of the story’s complexity is due to the historical fact that two narratives about Balaam were conflated in the finally redacted text of the Bible. The internal contradictions in the Balaam story before us attest to the literary history of the text. Whereas Balaam was a faithful servant of God who wouldn’t curse the Israelites without God’s consent (22:8, 13, 18, 38), he also sought to curse Israel without God’s permission (22:22, 34). God was angry at Balaam for going on his journey to curse the Israelites (22:22), even though he previously had permitted Balaam to go (22:20). Indeed, the story of Balaam is an important example of how the discipline of biblical criticism skillfully unravels combined literary layers in the Pentateuch. Serious students of Bible are advised to read the untangling of the embedded narratives in our parashah by the late bible scholar, Jacob Milgrom (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, pp. 468–473).

The contradictions in the narrative in its current form certainly spawned inconsistent characterizations of Balaam, through the ages. The Rabbis of the Mishnah, for example, emphasized Balaam as evil—they called him “Balaam the Wicked”—and proclaimed that he, and his followers, forfeited the world to come (Avot 5:19). The midrash Seder Eliyahu Rabbah (Ish Shalom ed., p. 142), on the other hand, credited Balaam with having greater wisdom than even Moses! In this commentary, I highlight another aspect of the narrative presentation of Balaam. The literary parody in the scenes of Balaam and the donkey, evidently a self-contained literary unit, is worthy of independent treatment. In the final analysis, we will explore the significance implicit in the mockery of Balaam and in the fact that the Balaam story is made up of originally conflicting traditions.

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The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).