Author Archives: Midrash Manicures

Parashat Noah: All Aboard

Check out Rabbi Buechler’s Parasha column for Noah featured in this week’s The Jewish Week! Some people need an extra nudge to get out of bed in the morning. Noah needed an extra nudge to get onto the ark. The Torah … Continue reading

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Matot/Maasei

Foursquare nail artIf foursquare had existed in biblical times, this app would have certainly come in handy for Moshe. In Parashat Maasei, Moshe lists all 42 places that Bnai Yisrael stopped in during their 40-year desert travels. Why did Moshe take the time to mention these stops at the very end of Bnai Yisrael’s journey? The Be’er Yitzchak of the 19th century writes how recalling these details of their journey in the desert enabled Bnai Yisrael to better appreciate how Hashem had helped them at each stage along the way. While the desert was not an easy place to dwell in and to navigate for 40 years, Bnai Yisrael were under God’s constant protection. Continue reading

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Pinchas: Passing the Mantle

Moses Staff Leadership SemichahIn Parashat Pinchas, Moshe asked God to appoint someone to take his place as the leader of Bnai Yisrael. What triggered this request from Moshe? The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 21:13 explains that when Moshe saw that the five daughters of Zelophchad received their father’s inheritance, he began to wonder about who would receive his inheritance and take over his position as leader of Bnai Yisrael. The fact that Moshe recognized the need for new leadership and a smooth transition to this new era for Bnai Yisrael speaks to his qualities as a leader. Moshe is instructed to lay his hands upon Yehoshua in order to initiate the transfer of power and authority to him. Continue reading

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Parashat Balak: Blind Spots

Donkey Nail ArtDid a parent or teacher ever give you permission to do something but then get upset with you when you actually did it? This seems to be the case for Balaam in this week’s Parasha. God allowed Balaam to go out to curse Bnai Yisrael but God became angry when Balaam actually set out on his way. When Balaam was mid-course, Balaam’s donkey stopped short and refused to move. Little did Balaam know that God had sent an angel with a sword in his path. Balaam hit his donkey in anger each time the donkey came to a halt. God opened the mouth of the donkey to rebuke Balaam for his actions and only then was the angel revealed to Balaam. Continue reading

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Chukat: Ritual Detergent

Red Heifer Cow Nail ArtHave you ever had a really tough stain that requires immediate attention? Local pharmacies often keep stain sticks, wipes and other forms of remover right near the checkout lines. In Parashat Chukat, we read about what the bible scholar Jacob Milgrom refers to as a “ritual detergent,” namely the ashes of the Parah Adumah, or red heifer. The Torah treats human contact with a corpse as requiring immediate attention through ritual purification. Continue reading

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Korach: Leadership Blossoms

Almond Blossoms Nail Art KorachKorach’s rebellion challenged the legitimacy of the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. Right after Korach and his followers were destroyed, Hashem instructed Moshe to take twelve rods and to inscribe on them the name of the leader of each tribe. Overnight, the rod with Aharon’s name on it blossomed with leaves, flowers, and almonds (Bamidbar 17:23). This miracle signified that Aharon was chosen as the high priest and reconfirmed the role of the Kohanim in the spiritual leadership of Bnai Yisrael. Continue reading

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Shlach: They Might Be Giants

NY Giants Nail ArtThe Midrash in Bamidbar Rabah 16:11 asks: How do you scare a child? You remind the child of things that hurt them in the past. In Parashat Shlach, ten out of the twelve spies take advantage of Bnai Yisrael’s collective childhood memories. In describing the negative traits of the Land of Israel, the ten spies first speak about the presence of the people of Amalek in Israel. The people of Amalek were known for attacking Bnai Yisrael from the back, attacking the women, children and elderly first. The spies also mention that there are giants living in the land of Israel. Continue reading

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B’haalotcha: Cravings

Bird nail artIn Parashat B’haalotcha, members Bnai Yisrael complained to Moshe that they were tired of eating Manna day in and day out and that they wished to eat meat. The Spanish scholar Rabenu Bachya explains how Manna was meant to elevate Bnai Yisrael on a spiritual level, but not necessarily satisfy them on physical level. Bnai Yisrael desired something that was less bland and more physically satiating. God’s response to Bnai Yisrael’s complaint was to send down swarms of quail. Members of Bnai Yisrael who ate the quail were struck with a plague that took their lives. Continue reading

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Nasso: The Case of the Sotah

Sotah Nail ArtThe episode of the scarlet letter seems minimal compared to the ordeals of the Sotah, found in this week’s Parasha. Bible scholar Alice Bach explains how the Sotah, the case of a woman accused by her husband of adultery, is the only instance in the Torah when a person can be accused of a capital crime without two witnesses. Once accused by her husband, as part of the ritual, the woman was brought before a Kohen and required to drink bitter waters filled with dust from the floor. Continue reading

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Bamidbar: Unplugged

Plug Nail ArtHow often do we truly unplug? Sometimes we need to take a vacation in another place in order to distance ourselves from being attached to our iPhones and other electronic devices. Parashat Bamidbar presents an interesting take on how location can affect our ability to focus. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 6:1 explains that God purposely chose the “Midbar,” the desert, as the location in which to give Bnai Yisrael the Torah. The desert was a place with less distractions and more opportunity for Bnai Yisrael to recognize their dependence on God. Continue reading

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Behar/Bechukotai: Holy Garbage

Apples Nail Art Shemita YearOnce every seven years, the Torah forbids any planting, pruning, plowing, or harvesting of the land in Israel. This year-long rest for the land of Israel, which is called the Shmita year, is one of the biblical agricultural commandments described in Parashat Behar that we still observe in modern times. Jewish law explains how all of the fruits and vegetables that grow during the Shmita year possess a level of holiness. Continue reading

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Emor: Biblical Purell

Bacteria nail artWorking in a school surrounded by Purell dispensers at every corner, it seems that the theme of purity and impurity highlighted in Parashat Emor continues to manifest in modern society. As the Kohanim are the ritual leaders of Bnai Yisrael, the Torah states how it is important for them to be distanced from ritual impurity. Parashat Emor teaches that the Kohanim are forbidden to be in contact with dead bodies except for those of close relatives. The Kohanim are also not permitted to enter a home or an enclosure that contains a dead body. Why were the Kohanim given so many rules about purity? Continue reading

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Acharei Mot/Kedoshim: Sticks & Stones

Feather nail art Lashon HarahParashat Kedoshim covers many laws that govern the interactions between people. The Parasha states, “Do not go as a talebearer among your people” (Vayikra 19:16). Unlike the saying “sticks and stones may break your bones…” the Torah believes that words can be harmful. A story is told about a student who went to his rabbi to tell him that he felt guilty since he spread gossip about one of his classmates. He asked the rabbi what he could do to make amends.The rabbi told him to go home and to take a pillow and spread its feathers into the wind. Continue reading

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Tazria/Metzorah: The Birds & The Bees

Birds and Bees Nail ArtParashat Tazria describes how the mother of a newborn is required to bring sacrifices to God in gratitude for a successful pregnancy. The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 14:3 asks: “If a person carries a bag of money with the opening facing downwards, don’t the coins scatter?!” The Midrash responds: “Now the embryo has its place in the mother’s womb, but God guards it so that it should not fall out. Is that not a matter of praise?” Continue reading

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Shemini: Strange Fire

Fire Nail ArtIn Parashat Shemini, Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu are killed by fire for bringing an “Esh Zarah,” a strange offering, to God. The rabbis utilize several explanations for why Nadav and Avihu received such a harsh decree. The authors of the Sifra, which is halachic Midrash on Vayikrah, explain that since the Torah states that Nadav and Avihu “each took his own censer” (Vayikrah 10:1) this means that they not only acted without consulting their father or Moshe, but that they also acted without seeking advice from one another (Sifra Acharei Mot 1). Continue reading

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Tzav: Holy Fashions

Kohen breastplateJust as we witnessed the installation of a new pope last week, Parashat Tzav describes the details involved in the ordination of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Fashion plays a major role in the installation of Aharon and his sons. The Torah spends more time discussing the clothing of the priests than of any other biblical personality! Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, was required to wear a breastplate with twelve gem stones, each of which was inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Continue reading

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Vayikrah: BBQ Time

Watermelon nail art BBQVayikrah: BBQ Time You know that summer has arrived when the air is filled with the smell of local barbeques. In Parashat Vayikrah, we learn that God enjoyed the smell of barbeques. Biblical barbeques, or sacrifices, needed to have a “fire of pleasing odor” to God (Vayikra 1: 9). Why did God decide to give Bnai Yisrael the laws of the sacrifices at this point in the Torah? The Midrash in Tanchuma Terumah 8 explains: “God wanted the gold of the tabernacle to atone for the gold that was donated for the golden calf.” While Bnai Yisrael were eager to create a golden calf to worship God, this activity had not been done with directives from God. The sacrifices, however, served as a way to channel communal worship to God on God’s terms. Continue reading

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Vayakhel/Pekudei: The Artist

Paintbrush artist Nail artThe concluding Parshiyot of Sefer Shemot focus on the work that Betzalel, Bnai Yisrael’s artist-in-residence, did to complete the construction of the Mishkan. When Moshe introduces Betzalel’s work to Bnai Yisrael he states, “See! God has called by name, Betzalel” (Shemot 35:30). Ramban, Nachmanides, states that the word “see!” emphasizes how out of the ordinary it was to come upon a person as skilled as Betzalel. Since Bnai Yisrael were mostly accustomed to working with brick and mortar, it was unusual to find an individual so skilled in working with precious metals and stones. The Israeli Bible scholar Nehama Leibowitz emphasizes how Betzalel represented a generational shift from centuries of slavery to a Jewish future of innovation and creative artisanship. Leibowitz explains that this newness is the force of the word “see!” Continue reading

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Ki Tissa: Holiness in Time

Watch Nail ArtIn Ki Tissa, as we wrap up with the instructions for the Mishkan, we take a commercial break for a message from our Sponsor about Shabbat. God tells Moshe to convey to Bnai Yisrael, “Nevertheless, you must keep my Shabbatot” (Exodus 31:13). The use of the Hebrew word “Ach” “nevertheless” indicates that God wanted to make it clear that the construction of the Mishkan, holiness in space, should not supercede the observance of Shabbat, holiness in time. Continue reading

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Tetzaveh: Recurring Donation

Olive Branch Nail Art TetzavehPaypal may have not existed at the time of Bnai Yisrael in the desert but the concept of a recurring donation did exist. Parashat Tetzaveh begins by explaining how Bnai Yisrael should continually bring forth olive oil to kindle the lamp of the Mishkan. The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah 36:1 gives two reasons as to why olive oil is God’s liquid-of-choice for the Menorah. According to the Midrash, just as an olive is pressed, and ground down in order to produce the oil for the light of the Menorah, so too did Bnai Yisrael have to undergo many hardships before being able to glow. Continue reading

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Terumah: Holy Construction Zone

Mishkan Construction Nail Art

In Parashat Terumah, God gives Bnai Yisrael a blueprint for the construction of the Mishkan, a portable dwelling place for God. Modern Bible scholar, Nahum Sarna, explained how that now that the revelation at Sinai had concluded, the Mishkan would ensure the “spiritual welfare” of Bnai Yisrael. The Mishkan enabled Bnai Yisrael to access God in a new and meaningful way. Sarna stated how the Mishkan was a major step in helping to shape the organized religion of the Jewish people. Continue reading

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Mishpatim: Keep Each Other Warm

Argyle Nail Art MishpatimHave you ever wanted to just curl up in your blanket? Among Parashat Mishpatim’s many laws that regulate our interactions with one another is the following: “If you take your neighbor’s garment as security, until sunset you shall return it to him, for it is his only covering; it is his garment for his skin. With what else shall he lie? (Shemot 22:25-26)” The Torah provides us with a scenario in which a lender gave a loan to a person in need and kept that person’s blanket as a security for the loan. Even if the person in need did not have a chance to pay back the loan, the lender is required to return the blanket to him by nightfall.

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Yitro: The Yoke of Torah

Egg Yolk Nail ArtIn Parashat Yitro, God decides that it is time for Bnai Yisrael to live under the yoke of Torah. Why do Bnai Yisrael deserve to receive the Torah at this point in the narrative? Why did they not receive the Torah as soon as they were freed from slavery? The Israeli Bible scholar Nehama Leibowitz states that only once Bnai Yisrael had freed themselves from the marks of an “alien yoke,” namely that of the Egyptians, were they ready to bear the yoke of Torah. Continue reading

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Beshalach: Cloudy with a Chance of Manna

Manna Food Nail ArtLong before the publication of one of my favorite children’s books, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, dinner really did fall down from the sky. After Bnai Yisrael entered the wilderness, they complained to Moshe and Aharon that they were hungry and that they were better off in Egypt where they had food to eat. But before Moshe had a chance to lodge this complaint with God, God stepped in to introduce Manna, an edible substance, saying, “I will rain down bread from you from the sky.” (Shemot 16:4) Continue reading

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Bo: Tough Times for Pharaoh

Pharaoh's Heart HardenedThe Midrash in Shemot Rabbah 13:3 asks: Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart in the first place? Since God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, heretics could argue that Pharaoh had no way of truly repenting as Pharaoh was a puppet of God. The Midrash explains that God tried to reach Pharaoh several times through the first five plagues but that Pharaoh took no notice. Therefore, God resorted to hardening his heart. According to Rashi, God intentionally hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that there would be more plagues brought to the land of Egypt. Continue reading

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Vaeira: Fishy Situation

Fish nail art plague bloodThis week’s Parasha features the first seven of the ten plagues. Why is blood the first plague to hit Egypt? Nahum Sarna, a modern Bible commentator, explains how the plague of blood served to target the polytheistic beliefs of the Egyptians. The Egyptians worshiped the Nile and assigned it to one of their gods. The contamination of the Nile as a result of this plague therefore discredited that god. Sarna also explains that fish were a staple of the Egyptian diet. Continue reading

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Shemot: Building Blocks to Slavery

Mortar Brick Nail artIn this week’s Parasha, the tides have turned on Bnai Yisrael. Yosef passes away, and a new king arises who “does not know Yosef” (Shemot 1:8). As a result of the decrees of the new Pharaoh, the Egyptians make Bnai Yisrael’s lives “bitter with hard service” (Shemot 1:13). The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah 1:11 explains how the Hebrew word for hard service, “B’Farech,” can be split into two Hebrew words “B’feh Rach,” with a soft mouth. The Midrash explains that Pharaoh gently persuaded Bnai Yisrael to help him in making bricks. Continue reading

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Vayechi: Final Blessings

This week’s Parasha features the origin of the blessing that many parents offer their sons on Friday evenings, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” When Yaakov went to bless his grandsons, he put his right hand on Ephraim, the younger son, and his left hand on Menasheh, the older son. Yosef thought that this must be a mistake, as he believed that his older son should receive the first born blessing. Yaakov however, tells Yosef: “I know my son, I know.” (Bereshit 48:19) The Midrash in Genesis Rabbah 97:4 teaches that Yaakov’s response is meant to not only convey that he is intentionally giving the first-born blessing to the younger son but that he is also aware of patterns of his family’s past, ranging from child favoritism to birthright swaps. Continue reading

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Vayigash: Movin’ On Up

“Man plans and God laughs” is a popular Yiddish proverb. After throwing him into a pit, the brothers thought that they would never see Yosef again. In quite a turn of events, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers in Mitzrayim. While Yosef may no longer bear his coat of many colors, he is now well-coated as the distributor of food rations in Egypt. Yosef attributes his success entirely to Hashem and reassures his brothers that they should in no way feel responsible for his “plight.” Yosef even states that Hashem brought him to Egypt so that he could now save their lives from the famine. Continue reading

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Miketz: I Dreamed a Dream

“I dreamed a dream” may sound like it comes from the trailer for the upcoming movie Les Miserables, but these words also touch on a theme from this week’s Parasha, Miketz. After all of the magicians and wise men of Egypt were unable to explain Pharaoh’s dreams about cows and ears of corn, Yosef comes to the rescue. Not only does Yosef interpret Pharaoh’s dreams but he also goes on to offer Pharaoh the idea that someone should oversee preparations for the famine in Egypt. Continue reading

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Vayeshev: Playing Favorites

Joseph's Coat Nail ArtA few months ago Good Morning America ran a story about a father who posted on his blog that he favored one son over the other. I shared this news clip with my day-school students, as we were at the time studying the story of Yaakov and his favoritism of Yosef. Yosef did not have such a great reputation among my students, since he went out of his way to share his self-aggrandizing dreams with his brothers. Upon watching the news clip, however, my students began to express feelings of empathy for Yosef, as he was burdened with the pressure of being the favorite son.

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Vayishlach: An Untold Story

Parashat Vayishlach contains a narrative that is “rated R,” one that is often skipped over in religious school. Chapter 34 of Bereshit describes how Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov and Leah, “went out” of the confines of her village and ended up in the city-state of Shechem. We do not know why Dinah left her hometown but we do know that the son of a Shechem aristocrat almost took Dinah as his wife. This narrative is replete with images of assault, force, love, and family ties, yet we never hear from the main character herself. Continue reading

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Vayetze: Desperate Housewives of Haran

After Yaakov discovered that he had married the wrong sister, his father-in-law Lavan told him: “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.” (Bereshit 29:26) Yaakov, who had never been short for words, did not respond to Lavan. Parashat Vayetze simply states that “Yaakov did so” and agreed to work for Lavan for another seven years in order to earn Rachel as his wife. Why was Yaakov silent? One possibility, offered by Bible scholar Nahum Sarna, is that perhaps Lavan’s words struck a chord in Yaakov’s past and reminded him of his own childhood struggles of an older versus younger sibling. Continue reading

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Toledot: Energy Drinks

The lines outside of Starbucks after Hurricane Sandy reminded me of the Esav’s statement in Parashat Toledot: “Give me some of that red red stuff!” (Bereshit 25:30) For centuries, scholars have wondered why Esav so desperately wanted to drink the “red red” stuff that Yaakov had cooked. Nahum Sarna, a 20th century Bible scholar, explained how the description of the Yaakov’s stew as “red red stuff” may indicate that Esav thought that the stew was made of blood. In the ancient Near East, blood was thought to have magical properties. Perhaps Esav, exhausted from hunting, thought that this stew would serve as a powerful and spiritual energy drink. Continue reading

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Chayei Sarah: Ripe Old Age

Chayei Sarah is bookended by the loss of two major figures in Jewish history, Sarah and Avraham. By way of the following story, the authors of the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 62:2) ask whether this Parasha was really the right time for Avraham to pass away: Rabbi Akiva and his students used to sit and study under a fig tree, whose owner would get up early every morning and gather the fruit from this tree. Continue reading

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Vayeira: Helicopter Parenting

“Helicopter parenting” is a buzzword in modern society. In Parashat Vayeira, we see Sarah’s strong reaction to Yishmael “playing” with Yitzchak (Bereshit 21:9). The authors of the Midrash wonder why this “playing” caused Sarah to have such a strong reaction to the point where she banished Yishmael and his mother Hagar. The Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 53:11 suggests that Yishmael and Yitzchak were engaged in more than just child’s play. Continue reading

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Lech Lecha: Homeland

The Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah 39:9 asks why God’s request for Avram to leave his homeland is so verbose. God tells Avram: “Go forth, from your land, from the land of your birth, from your father’s house” (Bereshit 12:1). The Midrash explains that the reason this verse contained so many words was because God wanted to acknowledge the extent of the sacrifice that Avram would have to make in order to enter Canaan. Continue reading

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Noah: All Aboard

Some people need an extra nudge to get out of bed in the morning. Noah needed an extra nudge to get onto the ark. The Torah states that Noah and his sons and his wife went into the ark “Mipnei Mei HaMabul” “because of the waters of the flood” (Bereshit 7:7). The Midrash in Genesis Rabbah 32:6 asks: Why does the Torah state that it was “because” of the flood waters that Noah and his family entered the ark? Didn’t God already tell Noah about the flood? Continue reading

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Bereshit: Speech vs. Action

When God learned that the snake enticed Chava to eat from to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge, God said to the snake: “Ki Asita Zot” “Because you have done this…” (Genesis 1:14) The Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah 20:1 asks why God used the word “Asita,” which implies that the snake did an action, rather than the word “Dibarta” which would more accurately reflect the snake’s involvement, namely through speech. The Midrash ultimately uses the snake as an example of how evil speech is equivalent to evil action. Continue reading

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V’Zot HaBrachah: Final Blessings

“V’zot HaBrachah” “And this is the blessing.” (Devarim 33:1) Why was Moshe given the special opportunity to give a final blessing to Bnai Yisrael? The Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 11:3 depicts a conversation that occurred between Moshe and famous biblical personalities in order to expose the underlying reasons for this honor having been bestowed on Moshe. Adam said to Moshe: “I’m greater than you because I was created in the image of God!” Moshe responded that he was superior to Adam because God’s radiance was within him. Continue reading

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Haazinu: Spiritual or Materialistic?

Parashat Haazinu begins with the words “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth hear the words I utter!” (Devarim 32:1) The Chatam Sofer, a 19th century European scholar, asked why Moshe called upon both the “heavens” and the “earth” to hear. The Chatam Sofer explained that this verse is meant to refer to two different kinds of people, individuals who are spiritual, whose thoughts are in heaven, and individuals who are down to earth, whose concerns are more materialistic. Continue reading

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Vayelech: Wonders

The Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 9:4 explains that when it came time for Moshe to die, he asked God: “Why must I die after I have witnessed such glory and have had such power?” After all, Moshe had experienced many wonders, including the burning bush and the revelation at Har Sinai. God replied to Moshe by listing all of other great biblical figures who experienced God’s glory but eventually had to be laid down to rest. For example, even though Avraham was saved from a pit of fire, Yitzchak was rescued from the altar, and Yaakov had the experience of wrestling with an angel, each of our forefathers ultimately passed away. Continue reading

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Nitzavim: Open Arms

Parashat Nitzavim explains that even when Bnai Yisrael stray from the ways of God, there are always ways to restore their relationship with God. When Bnai Yisrael return to their love of God, God will restore their fortunes and have mercy on them (Devarim 30:1-6). The Hebrew root of “Shuv,” “to return,” can refer to our internal process of transformation, a return from negative patterns of behavior, and a change in how we approach our relationship with God. Continue reading

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Ki Tavo: Woven Gifts

If the Container Store had existed when Bnai Yisrael settled in the Land of Israel, it would have certainly come in handy. Parashat Ki Tavo describes how farmers were prescribed to present a basket to God which contained some of the first fruits of the Land. The philosopher Philo, of 1st century B.C.E., described this ceremony as the “basket ceremony.”
When the farmer presented the basket to the officiating Kohen, he was to recite the following declaration: “I acknowledge this day, before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that God swore to our fathers to assign us” (Devarim 26:3). Continue reading

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Ki Tetze: Fashion Faux Pas

When I was fifteen, I bought a purple sweater from a local department store. When I went to put the sweater on to wear it, something didn’t feel right. I looked at the tag to discover that it was 60% wool and 40% linen. “Shatnez,” I gasped as the sweater fell right to the floor. Shatnez, the prohibition to wear garments that combine wool and linen, is featured in this week’s Parasha, Ki Tetze. After returning the sweater, I wondered why Shatnez was prohibited in the first place. Shatnez is categorized as a “Chok,” a law in the Torah that cannot be explained. We do know, however, that the Kohanim were commanded to wear garments that contained Shatnez, so perhaps Shatnez was meant to delineate Bnai Yisrael from the priestly class.
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Shoftim: An Ax to Grind

The Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah 5:10 teaches that on the third day of creation Gibborim, “strong ones,” were created. According to the Midrash, iron was one of the “strong ones” that was created, along with the mountains where it is deposited. The Midrash states that on the third day, the trees began to tremble. The trees were nervous that their wood, when combined with the iron, would be used for axes to cut them down. The iron said to the trees: “Don’t worry! As long as none of your wood enters me, no one will be harmed.” Continue reading

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Re’eh: A New Menu

Among the many benefits to living in the land of Israel, one benefit stands out in this week’s Parasha: eating meat. Prior to living in the land, members of Bnai Yisrael only ate meat as part of a sacrificial offering. Now they did not need to share their steak with the Kohanim; they could slaughter an animal themselves and privately enjoy the meat among their family members. Parashat Re’eh provides us with a list of clean and unclean animals.

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Ekev: Giving Thanks

This past week I had the opportunity to visit Ramah Nyack, a Jewish day camp. What impressed me about camp was not only the Ruach (spirit) with which campers approached Israeli dancing and Jewish singing but also the gusto with which they recited Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals. In Parashat Ekev, Bnai Yisrael are told that God will bless them with the fruits of the Land of Israel. Continue reading

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VaEtchanan – Bound by Love

“Bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as a symbol between your eyes” (Devarim 6:8). The V’Ahavta paragraph, which is found in Parashat VaEtchanan, describes how we are to internalize the Torah’s teachings and pass them on to future generations. Not only are God’s commandments to be remembered and spoken of constantly (when we wake up and when we lie down) but God’s commandments are also to be worn on the body. The rabbis understood Devarim 6:8 as the basis for the Mitzvah of laying Tefillin. Continue reading

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Devarim – Torah on Rewind

When we first met him back in Parashat Shemot Moshe said to God: “Lo Ish Devarim Anochi, I am not a man of words” (Shemot 4:10). Here in Parashat Devarim, however, Moshe is a man of many words. Like a movie on rewind, Moshe goes through a number of problems that Bnai Yisrael encountered throughout the desert, including the Amorites who chased Bnai Yisrael like Dvorim, bees. The Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 1:6 discusses a word-play between Dvarim, words, and Dvorim, bees. Continue reading

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Parashat Matot/Masei

Short term benefits or long term rewards? This is the dilemma facing two tribes in Parashat Matot. The tribes of Reuven and Gad requested permission to remain on the other side of the Jordan rather than move to the Land of Israel, stating: “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” (Numbers 32:16). Any tribe’s request to live outside the Land of Israel would have been troubling to Moshe. This request was even more distrubing given that Reuven and Gad prioritized their cattle before kids. While Moshe ultimately agreed to this real estate deal, so long as Reuven and Gad would fully participate in conquering the land of Israel, Moshe’s response to the tribes indicated his disappointment in their priorities. Moshe responded with a subtle reversal of their original request: “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks…” (Numbers 32:24). Continue reading

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Parashat Pinchas

Parashat Pinchas features a unique occurrence in the Torah: a re-formulation of law. Moreover, this change to a law of inheritance is prompted by five women. The daughters of Tzelophchad, Malchah, Noah, Choglah, Milkha, and Tirtzah, bravely stepped in front of Moshe, Elazar the Kohen Gadol, the tribal leaders, and the elders to say: “give us a possession among our father’s brothers” (Numbers 27:4). The five sisters articulated their argument clearly, causing Moshe to bring their case before God. God responded to Moshe that the daughters should in fact receive their father’s inheritance. Continue reading

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Parashat Balak

The original debut of a talking donkey occurred not in the movie Shrek, but in this week’s Torah portion. Baalam-the-prophet was on his way to curse Bnai Yisrael, at the order of the Moabite King Balak. Balaam’s donkey drove quite frantically on the road in efforts to avert collision with an angel who was holding a sword. In response to his roller coaster of a donkey-ride, Balaam hit the donkey at each abrupt stop. Continue reading

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Parashat Chukat

Whenever the authors of Midrashim have a question about a particular Torah text but they don’t want to officially ask it, they will insert a character into the Midrashic narrative who will ask the question on their behalf. In Numbers Rabbah 19:8, the authors present us with an idol worshipper who questions the 1st century sage Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai. The idol worshipper states: Your Torah’s rituals look just like witchcraft! You bring a red heifer, burn it, and take its ashes in order to use them as a remedy for impurity.” Continue reading

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Parashat Korach

Parashat Korach, which is named for the man who stirred up a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, begins with the words “Vayikach Korach,” “Korach took.” What is it that Korach “took?” The authors of the Midrash in Numbers Rabbah 18:3 looked to the final lines of last week’s Parasha in order to find an answer. The last lines of Parashat Shelach contain the third paragraph of the Shema, which introduces the commandment to wear Tzitzit. Continue reading

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Parashat Shlach

In Parashat Shelach, God tells Moshe to send twelve Meraglim, scouts, on an expedition to explore the Land of Israel. Ten out of the twelve Meraglim return with a not-so-flattering report about this land of milk and honey, telling Bnai Yisrael: “And we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). The Midrash in Tanhuma Shelach 7 points out a flaw in the logic of the Meraglim. Continue reading

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Parashat B’haalotcha

“You Light Up My Life,” the title of a song popularized in the 1970s, helps to encapsulate a theme in this week’s Parasha, which contains the commandment to light the Menorah. The Midrash in Numbers Rabbah 15:8 asks: Why did God command us to kindle the lamps? After all, God doesn’t physically need light! The Midrash brings in the following story: A king said to his friend, “I want to have dinner with you at your place. So go get ready!” Continue reading

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Parashat Nasso

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nasso, mentions the offerings that the Nesiim, the leaders of the tribes of Bnai Yisrael, brought at the time that the Mishkan was being prepared for use. The Nesiim first offered a group gift of oxen and carts to carry the Mishkan. Following the group gift, each leader individually contributed the same gift of utensils and animals, one day at at time for twelve days.
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Parashat Bamidbar

I am half way through watching an American television series called The West Wing. The fictitious American president’s staff members are always interested in polling the American public so that they can report back with numbers to help support a particular agenda. This spirit of gathering numbers resonated with me as I read through Parashat Bamidbar. Why did God order a census of Bnai Yisrael at this point in history? Continue reading

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Parashat Behar/Bechukotai

Parashat Behar, which focuses on the laws concerning land ownership in Israel, urges Bnai Yisrael to support members of their community in need (Leviticus 25:35-38). The Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 24:3 extends the need for us to support individuals who are going through tough times to the need for us to take care of our own bodies, which may be in poor conditions. The Midrash states: At the end of a day of studying, Hillel the Elder walked out of the Beit Midrash (house of study) with his students. Hillel the Elder’s students asked him, “Where are you headed?” He answered, “To perform a religious duty.” Continue reading

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Parashat Emor

A few months ago the guest list to my Shemini Atzeret dinner was growing quickly as the holiday approached. Even though I had cooked enough chicken to feed twenty, I asked a friend to pick up a pound of turkey, just to be on the safe side. About an hour before candlelighting, my friend stopped by with one pound of chopped turkey, instead of the sliced turkey which I had assumed would be clear from this last minute request. The turkey remains in my freezer to this day. The Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 28:1 reminds me of this encounter: “If a person buys a pound of meat in the market, how much trouble he must go through, how much anxiety he must suffer until he cooks it! Continue reading

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Parashat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

Holiness: Coming to a Community Near You – Parashat Kedoshim opens with the famous line of God telling Bnai Yisrael: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). The Torah could have easily stopped there, and left holiness up to our imagination. The entire chapter of Leviticus 19, however, goes on to list different ways in which we can act in holy fashions and bring holiness into our communities.
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Parashat Tazria/Metzora

This week’s double Torah portion, Parashat Tazria/Metzora, focuses on the laws concerning a “Metzora,” a person with leprosy, as well as the leprosy that spreads on garments and the walls of homes. According to the Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 16:4, the word “Metzora” represents the words “Motzi Shem Rah,” one who utters evil reports. The rabbis understood the disease of leprosy to be caused by Lashon HaRah, evil speech. Continue reading

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Parashat Shemini

In the fast paced world that we live in, sometimes we do things a little too fast. In some cases, we may be so eager to reply to an email that our tone is inappropriate or unprofessional. In other cases we may even hit “reply all” with a personal message, that will be broadcast to an entire listserve. This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, states that Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, died because they brought an “Esh Zarah,” a “strange offering” (Leviticus 10:1) to God. Continue reading

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Parashat Tzav

At times, reading through the details of the sacrifices mentioned in the book of Leviticus can be an exhausting exercise. The authors of the book of Midrash entitled Leviticus Rabbah, compiled around the 5th century C.E., recognized that the generations that lived after the destruction of the Second Temple would have difficulties connecting with this outdated ritual. The authors of the Midrashim often used metaphors to help us connect with the sacrificial procedures. Continue reading

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Parashat Vayikrah

When I was in the tenth grade I had to memorize each step of the sacrifices, from the slitting of the birds to the sprinkling of their blood on the altar. At the time, I found this learning experience to be quite repulsive. I wondered why the Jewish people were commanded to participate in this intricate sacrificial system in the first place. While the steps of the sacrifices listed in Parashat Vayikrah may often appear unpleasant upon first reading, I think that there is a deeper message that we can glean from their details.

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Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

In this week’s doubleheader of Parashat Vayakhel and Parashat Pekudei, Moshe conveys God’s instructions that anyone “whose heart so moves them” (Exodus 35:5) can donate materials toward the building of the Mishkan. Bnai Yisrael contributed so many materials that Moshe had to ask them to stop donating toward the campaign. This would be any fundraiser’s dream! Why were Bnai Yisrael so eager to contribute materials toward the construction of the Mishkan? Continue reading

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Parashat Ki Tissa

Parashat Ki Tissa focuses on the first edition of the tablet. Who knew that God could be so technologically savvy? Exodus Rabbah 41:6 gives us a glimpse into the reason we now have a “Torah SheBichtav,” a “written Torah.” The Midrash explains that even though Moshe spent all forty days of his stay on Mount Sinai trying to learn the Torah, he kept on forgetting what he had studied. Moshe cried out to God: “I’ve spent forty days studying yet I know nothing!” In response to Moshe’s complaints about his unsuccessful cramming, God gave Moshe the Torah on two tablets so that Moshe could have a visual learning tool. Continue reading

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Parashat Tetzaveh

Parashat Tetzaveh may read more like a fashion magazine than a typical Torah portion as it gives a detail account of the garments to be worn by the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, and the Kohanim. The Kohen Gadol is commanded to wear eight clothing items, each of which are custom-designed for his work in the Mishkan. For example, the Choshen, the breastplate, will contain twelve gemstones, each engraved with the name of a tribe of Bnai Yisrael. Exodus Rabbah 38:8 explains that the reason the stones were placed in the Choshen was so that God would see them when Aharon entered God’s service. Continue reading

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