Archive for the 'Parshah' Category

The Desert Speaks

I haven’t had many “only in Israel” moments to share on this blog recently.  But now I have a great one. After stepping out of my comfort zone and into the desert, I participated in an all-night hike in the desert, by the southern tip of the Dead Sea, in a program run by Shaul David Judelman of the Eco-Activist Beit Midrash.

Desert Moon at Sunrise

Shaul, along with fellow Bat Ayin resident Yisrael Hevroni, brought us back to nature Jewishly with poems and topics for discussion along the way. The entire trail winded through wadis that carved their way through desert sandstone, creating “flour caves”. I never walked upon anything quite like it. What looked in the dark like boulders and hard protrusions along the cliff was rock that would crumble apart when pressure was applied. The ground beneath my feet often felt like it consisted of hard-packed coconut.

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Israelites receive the Torah through the revelation at Mount Sinai.  A large focus of our guided discussion centered on the desert, and why it was fitting that the Israelites received the Torah in the desert of all places. Some thoughts:

  • While slaves in Egypt, we were steeped in a full-fledged culture, but a corrupt, carnal one of idol worship which was not ours. We needed to go to the barreness of the desert and wander there for 40 years before we could receive the Torah and build our own culture upon it.
  • The sands of the desert form piles, tels, that seems to have a strict form that gives it order, distinguishes one area from the next, but the seemingly permanent features are clearly shaped by the laws of nature that God put into place. Water and wind change its shape and form, just as God’s laws for us change and shape us.
  • The desert is a place of humility, a place where one feels fragile, needy. Even the life forms are clingy, preserving precious drips of water and places to take root.
  • The Talmud says that we are to become like the desert, in order to merit receiving the Torah. Some thoughts about why that might be:
    • The nature of the universe is more clearly revealed – just as there must be evil in order for us to recognize good, there must be barrennness in order for us to recognize the plenty which God has supplied us with

      A cliff inside the wadi that crumbles with each touch

    • After so many years of being slaves, and not thinking about how our sustenance was provided for by our masters, we had to be brought to the desert where it was clear that our physical sustenance was only provided for by the grace of God. Only then were we ready to have the spiritual sustenance of the Torah.
    • The Torah is compared to water. In the desert one truly thirsts for and savors water.

Other highlights included being accompanied by several former participants of Livnot U’Lehibanot programs, including Pesach Stadlin, and running into a platoon of paratroopers who were mountain biking through the wadi for fun at 5 a.m.

It was beautiful to pray the morning Shacharit service outside in the desert. I think it’s a shame that so much Jewish life and learning takes place indoors. The Torah even says that mankind is like a tree: כי האדם עץ השדה (Deuteronomy / Devarim 20:19), and it seems right and proper to be out in nature on a very regular basis, and not just during explicit times like Kedushat HaLevanah (blessing of the new moon) and Sukkot. In Israel at least, the temperature range is such that the outdoors can be enjoyed almost all year round.

The silence of the desert at midnight and early morning was spiritually soothing. And now, I’m ready for some Shabbat menucha. May we merit to receive and absorb the Torah whatever our external or internal climate. Shabbat Shalom!


It’s All in the Family

It’s no wonder that it’s easy to play “Jewish geography.” Not only are Jews small in number, but we’re also all related, the children of Abraham. And while the Torah delineates clearly each and every one of your relatives it’s not okay to have sexual relations with, we see in the parshah that we just read this past Shabbat that it’s okay to marry your cousin.

And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother and the sheep of Laban, his mother’s brother, that Jacob drew near and rolled the rock off the mouth of the well, and he watered the sheep of Laban, his mother’s brother… And Jacob loved Rachel, andhe said, “I will work for you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” (Genesis / Bereshit 29: 12, 18)

Shortly before Shabbat, I went into a jewelry store to get information about getting my engagement ring resized. The lady who helped me was named Claudia, and her Hebrew had an unusual accent. So I asked her the question I get asked a gazillion times: “Where are you originally from?”


“Wow. How many Jews live in Guatemala?”

“About 500 families”.

That’s an answer I often hear when the size of a Jewish community is in question – not people, but families. I’ve never heard that kind of answer given when asking about any other population demographic.

It’s clear that what makes the Jewish community and the Jewish people is the family.


At this time three years ago, Parshat Pinchas, that my journey back to Torah and ultimately to Israel hit a major milestone.  I went to a summer outreach program which ended in the rabbi suggesting, seemingly out of nowhere, that I should then go study in Israel.  The idea stuck.

During that program, I met each evening with a study partner, and we could learn whatever the program attendee wanted to learn.  I set a pretty ambitious goal – to be able to write a dvar Torah.  We began by looking at the parshah.

And it was very difficult to figure out what it, and all the commentaries meant.  Three years later, it still is.

While I did manage to pull some things together by the end of the two-week program, textual skills take a very long time to develop.  I’m taking another crack at that by doing Nishmat’s summer program part-time during the Three Weeks.  I’m managing a student blog for them, which you can check out here.

As usual, it’s the end of the week, very close to the beginning of Shabbat, and I am simply out of time.  But it wouldn’t seem right to begin without sharing a little something.  I came across this beautiful dvar torah on and it reminded me of a recent post of mine on Zelphead’s daughters, which I learned about in Sefer Yehoshua, but who originally appear in this week’s parshah, Pinchas.

A theme of this week’s parshah is about zealotry, which in the best definition of the word, means going after your convictions.  Returning recently back to Israel after spending a long vacation in the United States, I really needed to remind myself of my convictions for coming here.

While modern democratic society encourages us to be tolerant and to accept “to each their own,” there can and must be some things that we stand for and stand against.  This parshah challenges us to question what things we really stand for and are willing to fight for.

But the fighting need not take the form of violence as in Pinchas’s case.  One can fight against evil forces or evil values by externally attacking with force, or one can influence through internal strength and conviction.  Different times call for different methods.  But perhaps particularly in a time and place where we are allowed to all “do our own thing,” someone who is doing a difficult and perhaps even unpopular thing for a higher purpose will undoubtedly attract some attention.  The key here is to do it l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.

Three years ago while at the same program and some of the women wore long sleeves and long skirts on a Lake George boat cruise in the middle of the day in the heat of July, I was pretty impressed by their conviction to dress according to their religious beliefs, despite the external circumstances (although to be fair it’s largely true that when one grows up doing this they are used to it and would feel comfortable doing otherwise).

As an outsider, I was influenced by this demonstration, which was not done in order to make anyone else feel inappropriate for what they were wearing but rather merely doing what they believed to be right.  It’s difficult to see how convincing someone to dress more modestly through acts of force or intimidation, as is practiced in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, can be seen as helpful rebuke to a fellow Jew or encouragement to perform mitzvot, l’shem shamayim.

In an era with an unprecedented effort toward tolerance and diversity, we need not all blend into one homogeneous unit in order to get along.  It’s important to hold on to what makes Torah values and Jewish culture special and to preserve it with love, rather than force.

Age is Just a Number

I’m in some birthday limbo.  My teudat zehut, my Israeli identification card (kind of like a domestic passport, or a social security card with a number you share with everyone) has both my Hebrew birthday and my birthday on the Gregorian Calendar, May 25.  So I feel a bit between years, and so does the Israeli government, apparently.  (And they are really confused because they list my Hebrew birthday a day early, since I was born at night and Jewish calendar days begin at night.)

I felt initially a bit less excited about this birthday than others because I’m passed the stage where age enables you to do things.  Really, it’s a misplaced feeling, because as a significantly younger but wiser friend pointed out, that’s just what the world says I can (legally) do, but each year is what you make of it, and this being my first year of Aliyah, I’ve certainly accomplished a lot.

In Sefer Yehoshua, which we are learning and will complete, Gd willing, on my English birthday, a few times the phrase ויהושוע היה זקן בימים appears.

(ex. Now Joshua was old, advanced in years; and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to be possessed.” Chapter 13:1)

בא בימים translates literally to something like “came in years”.  In modern Hebrew you sometimes hear something like ‘איך היום עבר עלי’ which is roughly “Oh how the day passed over me,” which is an awkward translation, but the point is, in the former, the individual is active with his time, in the latter, time passed by, things happened to the individual, rather than the individual making things happen.

It’s been hard for me to break out of some pretty deeply ingrained beliefs that by a certain age a person should have reached certain benchmarks, or certain milestones (again, what “they” say).  On the one hand, this is a mistaken belief.  Each person needs to grow at his or her own pace.  Take for example what happens at age 18.  In the U.S. that is the time to enter college or some sort of post-secondary education, or a “gap year” before such programs, or the time to head right into the workforce.  In Israel, that is the beginning of two or three years of army or national service.  Many Israelis enter university at the same age that I graduated.

I set some pretty ambitious Aliyah goals, and I’m proud to say that I’ve achieved almost all of them, but letting things happen at their own (perhaps more realistic) pace is also important to keep in mind.  It’s a balance, in other words, between בא בימים and הימים עברו עלי.

The Torah seems to believe though that there are certain milestones one should reach at a given age.

This week’s parshah, Naso, begins be detailing the work of the Levites.  It says: “From the age of thirty years and upward, until the age of fifty years, all who come to the legion, service in the Tent of Meeting.”  While some Levites might feel ready earlier and some later, age thirty is the year.

This is even more explicit in Pirkei Avot:

He (Ben Hei Hei) would also say: Five years is the age for the study of Scripture.  Ten for the study of Mishnah.  Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvot.  Fifteen, for the study of Talmud.  Eighteen, for marriage.  Twenty, to pursue (a livelihood).  Thirty, for strength.  Forty, for understanding… (5:22)

Even here, though, exceptions are made (a Torah scholar, for instance, can wait until he is twenty to marry).

Age is indeed a very funny thing in the Torah.  We see several characters that live for hundreds of years, with abilities that one might not necessarily expect at a given age (Sarah gives birth at age 89, for instance).  She is so surprised that she laughs.  Rabbi Shlomo Arush, says that a woman should have great faith that she can give birth at any age and under any physical condition, if Gd wills it.  That even today, women can be as miraculous and Sarah Imeinu.1

My late grandmother, Helen, ז’ל, fought letting age get in her way, working past retirement age and always keeping a lively spirit.  Having lived through a lot of hardship, she could have let the years had their way with her, but she was always smiling and laughing, not complaining about what was or could have been.  She drove a car and showed me how she could touch her toes well into her 80’s.  “Old” was for other people.  “I don’t feel old,” she’d say.

Some people will read this and think I’m saying that I’m old.  Not by any means – just trying to figure out what I’m doing with these years and not letting the good times pass by.

Women’s Wisdom: The Garden of Peace pg. 199

Ki Tisa: Rejecting Gd, Building a New One

This week’s Torah portion provides a lot of description about the priestly acts of annointing and lighting of incense, and all sorts of Temple ritual.

And then,

Moses takes a bit too long in coming down from Mount Sinai.  The Israelites get impatient.

They build the infamous Golden Calf with the assistance of none other than the High Priest himself, Aaron.

Aaron said to them, “Remove the golden earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them [those earrings] to me.”  And all the people stripped themselves of the golden earrings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron.  He took [them] from their hand[s], fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into a molten calf, upon which they said: “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Shmot/Exodus 32: 2-4)

Just after being led out of slavery in Egypt, with “signs and wonders” such as the plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and seeing and hearing Revelation itself, the Israelites are quick to dismiss Gd and build a new one.

It’s scenes like this that give me trouble with the concept of yeridat hadorot, the “descent of the generations”.  Many Jewish authorities say that since Revelation at Mount Sinai, there has been a descent in the level of the Jewish people’s holiness, closeness to Gd.  I’m not so sure.  Throughout the rest of the Torah and into the Prophets and Writings, time and time again the Jewish people flagrantly violate the word of Gd, shortly after being reminded exactly what that word is.

There are no modern-day prophets (yeah, yeah, I live in Jerusalem and some people here think Gd talks to them), and the wide smattering of Jewish practice today reflects a disconnect from the true source.  It’s also nice to romanticize how holy rabbis back in the day used to live.  However, I think that this generation has got a lot going for it.  For starters, idol worship in its purest form is no longer a temptation.  I would strongly argue that it’s been replaced by other things, like money, that people turn to in order to feel that they, and not Gd, is in control of their lives and chase after at very high costs.  It just has different challenges.  The fact that Jewish people today still hold on to their tradition after so many years of disconnect and destruction says a lot.  The return to the Land of Israel and the creation of the State of Israel, while not under the rule of Halachah, Jewish law, is still HUGE.  It is much easier to deny Gd and run away from the “yoke of heaven” in times like these.

Those who denied Gd when He litearlly stood before them in the form of a thundercloud or even stood before their grandfather in a thundercloud have a lot more to reckon for, I think.

Ki Tisa: Proper Worship

One of the centerpoints of Jewish life and ritual is eating meals.   While many Jews enjoy a l’chayim or two, especially on the recent holiday of Purim, simchas and lifecycle events are often celebrated with a seudah, a festive meal.

A proper “meal” is defined by having at least an egg-size worth of bread.  That’s right – you can eat a t-bone steak and baked potato and not be required to say the full Grace After Meals, but you would if you had a piece of toast and butter.  Once considered a “meal”, you are also supposed to wash your hands before the halachic way, that is, by pouring water from a vessel a few times on to each hand.  Nope, you don’t have to wash your hands (or even with soap for that matter) before eating that t-bone.

Though you can probably tell that I’m perplexed by the rabbis definition of “and you shall eat and be satisfied” in terms of what constitutes a halachic meal, it is interesting to inspect where some of the ritual comes from.

The blessing said over washing hands is not typical.  Before eating an apple, for instance, you say “Blessed are you Lord of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.”  But after washing hands, you say al netilat yadayim, a blessing on the “lifting up of the hands,” not rochetz yadayim, the “washing of the hands.”

Keep kosher isn’t about eating unhealthy animals, and ritually washing hands before eating isn’t about sanitation.

Some people have a custom of therefore lifting their hands as they say this blessing, which is in commemoration of the ancient Temple service in which the Kohen was required to wash his hands before beginning rituals.

“When they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to make a fire offering rise up in smoke to the Lord.” (Shmot/Exodus 30:20)

The table is like an altar.  Some families have the custom of always sharing a dvar Torah, some Torah teachings, in order to sanctify the meal and recognize it as such.


Usually when I read the parshah, I have a lot of questions.  A lot of it is because I often have difficulty understanding biblical commentary or because I lack some sort of basic knowledge.  Sometimes though, I come up with a doozy that people much more learned than myself don’t have an answer for.

I plan on posting a list of questions following my posts on the parshah and welcome any answers or insight that you’d like to share.


Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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