Filling Our Hands: Parashat Tzav/Shabbat Ha-gadol/Passover (5780 – 2020)


Parashat Tzav/Shabbat Ha-gadol/Passover (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

Quarantine is a theme found in our Torah portion and in the Passover celebration that we will observe next week. Self-seclusion is mentioned as part of the story of the first Passover and also in the story of the first Tabernacle made for Israel. (See, also, Sparks for 2012 and 2013)

On the night of the first Passover, when the Children of Israel were still officially slaves in Egypt, God instructed the Hebrews to seclude themselves in their homes. They were even told to mark their doorways with the blood of the Passover sacrifice as a symbolic protective seal against the plague raging outside their door. Continue reading

Making Space: Parashat Vayiqra



Parashat Vayiqra (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 

“And He called out to Moses; and the Eternally Present One spoke to him from out of the Tent of Meeting, saying.” (Lev. 1:1) The fascinating beginning of this third book of the Torah has elicited many questions, commentaries and musings. I have returned to ponder it many times. God calls out to Moses! And God calls out from inside a modest tent. Can we imagine that God is really in that small structure? As Solomon asked when he celebrated the dedication of a far greater shrine, the First Temple: “Could it be, indeed, that the Almighty would dwell on earth? Look here! The heavens and the heavens’ heavens cannot encompass You, so how could this house that I built?” (1Kings 8:27)

So, among the many discussions I have devoted to this text over the years, in one of them (Sparks 2013) I have pointed to the concept of tzimtzum – contraction and shrinkage. It is a concept highlighted in kabbalistic thought. It is a way of imagining how the infinite God could be present in our finite world. Some see this concept alluded to in the special way that the first word of this Torah portion is written. The last letter of the word, vayiqra, is written smaller than the rest (- like this – vayiqra), signaling God’s contraction while calling out to Moses.
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Astounding Resilience: Parashat Vayaq’hel-P’qudei/Ha-Hodesh


Parashat Vayaq’hel-P’qudei/Ha-Hodesh (5780-2020)
Exodus 35:1 – 40:38

How to respond to a crisis? We struggle during this difficult time to find a balance between navigating unique circumstances and yet holding on to our tried-and-true routines. All our places of social gathering have been closed and we sense a great responsibility to be cautious and caring. It is disorienting for some and comforting for others – and for some of us it may be both at the same time – that certain rhythms, such as those determined by the Jewish ritual calendar, just keep on going on, no matter what.
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Taking of One’s Hands: Parashat Ki Tissa/Parah (2020)


Parashat Ki Tissa/Parah (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Hand washing has become a life-saving imperative. What has been, until now, a matter of good manners and personal hygiene has now become a matter of urgent concern. And it has become ritualized by the medical authorities by mandating that we wash for a prescribed amount of time. We testily joke about this as we come up with new ways to measure the 20 seconds that we must endure.

We learn of different washing rituals in our Torah readings this week.

Our second Torah reading, about the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah – and hence the extra name for this Shabbat – Shabbat Parah) concerns itself with the ritual of cleansing purification that included a mixture of immersion in water as well as the sprinkling of fresh water with a mixture of ashes on the person who had become ritually impure. The ritual is paradoxical in its details. (See Sparks for Parashat Huqqat.) And the concept is somewhat alien to us, as all concepts of spiritual impurity have become. Yet, the idea of cleansing through water is certainly connected to our basic physical experiences.
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Fathers and Sons: Parashat T’tzaveh/Zakhor/Purim


Parashat T’tzaveh/Zakhor/Purim (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Our reading precedes the Purim holiday and, as many have noticed, in both the Torah reading and at Purim, clothes, uniforms and costumes play a major role. (See Sparks for 2012).

Our Torah portion sets forth the clothing for the priests who will minister in the new Tabernacle planned by God and Israel. Starting with the original priestly family of Aaron and his four sons and continuing down for millennia, the priests were divided into two classes – one High Priest (Aaron and his successors) and many regular priests (his sons and their successors). The uniforms for each class were very different. Much space is given over to describing the ornate costume, consisting of eight special garments, of the High Priest. These garments were festooned with gems and gold chains and fancy and colorful embroidery. But the regular priests had only four garments and they were all of simple, white linen. Continue reading

Non-Neutral: Parashat T’rumah (2020)

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Parashat T’rumah (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

We begin the extensive treatment of creating a Tabernacle – a place for God and Israel to dwell together – in our Torah reading. The discussion will continue to the end of the book of Exodus – it is that important.

But what is its importance to us? Is the building of God’s House a unique endeavor, with its own rules and goals, or is the building of God’s House meant to serve as a paradigm for how we should build our own houses? Is God’s House an incomparable case, or can housing developers or landlords, for instance, learn something from this example? Continue reading

God’s Own Heart: Parashat Mishpatim/Sh’qalim (5780 – 2020)


Parashat Mishpatim/Sh’qalim (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

The turn from narrative – the common genre of the Torah from its start until the Exodus – to law, the common genre for most of the rest of the Pentateuch – is in full swing in the first part of our Torah portion. We are overwhelmed with laws, as the title of our Torah portion indicates – “Mishpatim – just laws.” (For some discussion on the interrelationship between law and narrative see Sparks 2016.)

The statements of the laws are mostly in the casuistic form – “if something is the case, then x is the law.” This form, indeed, preserves a weak form of narrative. But, generally, the text is characterized by legalistic, dry language.
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Meet you there: Parashat Yitro (5780 – 2020)

Parashat Yitro (5780 – 2020)

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

After we read of God’s direct revelation to Israel of the Torah at Mount Sinai we read that God continues to communicate to them by means of Moses, their representative. This is Israel’s desire, for they have been too overwhelmed by God’s Presence to bear it for too long. So they send Moses into the space that they open between themselves and God. Thus, God will no longer be in direct contact with the people.
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Regret and Consolation: Parashat B’Shalach, Shabbat Shirah, Tu BiSh’vat 2020


Parashat B’shalah/Shabbat Shirah/Tu BiSh’vat (5780-2020)
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Our Torah reading opens with a play on words. The verse explains that, when Pharaoh expelled the Israelites, God, in leading them (naham), did not take them directly to the land of Israel, “lest the people regret (yinahem) it when they see war, and return to Egypt.” (Ex. 13:17) In this wordplay the Torah expresses the paradox of a God, All Powerful, Who leads the people, and Who, nevertheless, cannot control the people’s emotions and reactions to their experiences, for they have free will.

The word chosen to describe the people’s feelings – yinahem – has been used sparingly by the Torah before. Basically, it can have two possible meanings. One is “regret” or “have second thoughts.” This meaning is apparent early in Genesis, when God sees how badly human beings have turned out. “And God regretted (va-yinahem) having made the human being in the world, and God was saddened in His heart.” (Gen. 6:6) The other meaning is “to be comforted, consoled.’ Thus, when Isaac weds Rebecca, the Torah tells us that Isaac “was consoled (va-yinahem) after losing his mother.” (Gen. 24:67Continue reading

Unnatural Law: Parashat Bo 2020

Parashat Bo (5780 – 2020)

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

Our Torah portion tells of the final plagues that befell Egypt until Pharaoh capitulated to God’s might and liberated us. What was the underlying conflict that pitted Pharaoh against God? What was this power struggle all about? (For one discussion see my Sparks for 2017.) Early in our reading God offers that it is-

For the purpose that you may tell your children and your child’s child that which I performed in Egypt, and all the signs that I did among them, so that you may come to know that I am the Ever Present One.
(Ex. 10:2)

What does this “knowing” entail? Our great teacher, Maimonides, has derived from the Torah that our faith in God and God’s messengers cannot depend on the evidence of miracles. He writes: “Israel did not trust in Moses because of the signs he performed. For anyone who believes because of signs has falsehood in his heart, for they may happen through magic and the like.” (Mishneh Torah, Foundations of the Torah, 8:1) But if the miracles wrought by God cannot serve to make us believe in God, they can serve to teach us something about who God is.
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