thought for the week

Vayakhel: Building the Shabbat

“The laws of Shabbat…are like a mountain being held up by a thread” (Chagigah 10a). Shabbat is the pivot around which Jewish life revolves. Its laws are vast and detailed, and are applicable week in and week out. Yet beyond the mitzvah to “remember” and “guard” the Shabbat, we are told next to nothing about how to observe it. One little verse—“Do not light a fire in all your dwelling places on Shabbat” (Shemot 35:3)—and that is about all we are told[1].

Beshalach: Great Expectations

Throughout the Exodus story, the Jewish people are silent. We do not know what they were thinking or doing during the plagues. We hear them rejoicing when Moshe first arrives with the message of redemption (Shemot 4:31), and complaining when his initial meeting with Pharaoh ends with an even more onerous slavery. But that is all we hear of them until just before the 10th plague when, to be worthy of redemption, the people were commanded to slaughter a sheep and place its blood on the doorpost. Yet the actual voices of the Jewish people remain silent until they have left Egypt.

VaEra: The Sons of Korach

The initial meeting between Moshe and Pharaoh did not go well. The workload placed on the poor Jewish slaves was increased, and more importantly, the people's morale was shattered. Whereas initially, "the people believed, and they heard that G-d had remembered the people of Israel" (Shemot 4:31), as conditions worsened, "they did not listen to Moshe from shortness of breath and hard work" (Shemot 6:9).

Vayechi: The Inconsistent Truth

"And they said, should they make our sister like a harlot?" (Breisheet 34:31). So ends round one of the debate between Yaakov on one side, and Shimon and Levi on the other, over the killing of the people of Shechem for the rape of Dinah. The Torah moves on to record Yaakov's return to Beit El as the family enters a new phase in their travels. It is on Yaakov's deathbed that we hear his response: "Shimon and Levi, the tools of violence are in their hands...in their anger they killed men" (Breisheet 49:5-6).

Tetzaveh: Counting Sheep

In his introduction to his Eiyn Yaakov, the classic commentary on the non-legal sections of the Talmud, Rav Yaakov Ibn Chaviv quotes a discussion regarding the most important verse in the Torah. While each verse is the word of G-d, the rabbis debated which verse encapsulates the essence of our Torah. Ben Zomah, the second-century sage, claimed that it is the first verse of the Shema, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One".

VaYera: The Man of Prayer

Our tradition teaches that the founder of the Jewish people, Abraham, is the one who introduced the notion of daily prayer to the world. “And Abraham awoke in the morning to the place, el hamakom, where he had stood, asher amad sham, before G-d” (Breisheet 19:27). Though prayer is not actually mentioned in the above verse, our sages interpreted the word amad, where he stood, as a reference to prayer, stating that “there is no standing other than prayer”.

Breisheet: Let Us Make Man

The belief in one G-d is perhaps the most fundamental teaching of Judaism. Thousands have died rather than negate this central tenet of Judaism. "In the beginning, G-d created the heaven and the earth" lays down the Biblical perspective right from the beginning. All that exists in this universe has only one source. While this may seem obvious to us, it is not necessarily inherently so. Could it not make more sense to argue that good and evil are a reflection of competing gods?  

Re'eh: Do You Love Me?

How can you tell if somebody loves you? We all understand that words alone are hollow, and that it is actions that count. Even so, it is not always easy to understand the actions of others. Misreading one's intentions in this sensitive area can have disastrous consequences. Imputing noble motives where none exist is no less dangerous than falsely accusing someone of nefarious intentions. While the latter is liable to lead to tensions, the former can lead to death. Testing someone's love trying to snare someone seems a little immature and can be dangerous.

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