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Vayikra ~ Why such a book?

Triennial – Leviticus          3:1-5    to 4:24-26       Etz Hayim p. 592

Haftarah           Y’sha’yahu 43:21-44:23                   Etz Hayim p. 607


Our reading deals with the burnt offering, the cereal offering, the well-being offering, the purification offering and its gradations and it ends with the reparation offering. The reparation offering text is different from the other offerings’ texts because it gives us examples: someone is able to testify but pretends not to, touches something tameh and realizes only later; swears to do something but does not complete it, misuses sacred things, lies about finding other people’s possessions, commits robbery or fraud or transgresses “any of the mitzvot”.


As we begin what probably is the most difficult book for moderns, Vayikra, I would like to ask you about your thoughts regarding the book. What bothers you? What feels alien? How do you deal with it? Ismar Schorch says that this is his favorite book. Can you guess why?

Our triennial focuses on the well-being offering and the purification offering. Look closely to those two offerings. What is the most basic difference between the two?


The first thing I want us to have in mind, the framing of our discussions about Vayikra, is what Jacob Milgrom wrote in his commentary to Leviticus published in 2008. “Behind the seemingly arcane rituals lies a system of meaning that we can draw into our own, modern lives.” He knows what he is talking about, given that he published an enormous quantity of papers and books arguing exactly that – that there is a much deeper meaning in this system.

Ismar Schorch, likewise, says that this is his favorite book because he likes “literature that doesn’t yield up its meaning at a glance, that doesn’t resemble the contours of my mind but rather expands and alters them. Profound ideas can be articulated in different ways. Leviticus chooses to do so through the prosaic and concrete language of law and ritual, without benefit of much explanation. We need to slow down to fathom this teeming canvas, and when we do, we discover views and values that still address the conundrums of our own lives with refreshing power.”

The first thing I want us to see is that there is a difference between the sacrifices, a basic one. First, the book opens with the optional offerings. That is the basic difference between the well-being offering, shelamim, and the hatat offering, translated as “sin offering” but that Milgrom calls “purification” offering.

The Hebrew term for the offering is hattat, which tends to be translated as “sin offering” (see Leviticus 4:3, 14, 24, 29). Understanding the Hebrew word in this sense suggests that we are speaking of a sacrifice to atone for a violation of God’s will, even if done without intent. And the term hattat is certainly related to the Hebrew word for sin, het, which runs through the Yom Kippur service.

But Jacob Milgrom firmly rejects this interpretation. He translates the term hattat as “purification offering,” a verbal form which has precisely the opposite force of “to sin,” namely, “to cleanse from sin.” The theology of Leviticus is changed by that attention to the construction of the word – because this term, “purification” forces us to focus on the people, on the community – and not, as we are trained to do, on God’s honor or perceived slight.

Milgrom wants us to understand that what is being cleansed with the offerings is not the person – but the sacred space itself. The actions of a person affect the community as a whole, and the presence of God specifically. Remember that the promise is “veshachanti betocham” – I, says God, will dwell among them, the people. Not betocho, in it, NOT in the sanctuary’s walls, not in the construction itself. The building is a mere symbol for the presence of God within the community.

The hatat is called a purification offering by Milgrom and not a sin offering because its goal is not to cleanse the inadvertent sinner, but the damaging consequences of the act. The sacred space is damaged by the acts of humans because those actions weaken the connections with God’s presence.

The transgressor does not go through a ritual of purification because the remorse, the feeling of guilt when he or she discovers, is enough for that. What needs to be purified is the space of the Tabernacle – and that is why the blood is sprinkled on the space seven times “before the Lord in front of the curtain of the Shrine” and “on the horns of the altar of aromatic incense, which is in the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord (Leviticus 4:6-7).

Notice that none of those are effective for willful acts of bad faith.

Our actions are what make or break the sacred space. Individually, our own guilt is enough. Remorse – presumably accompanied by personal reparations if needed and stopping the behavior – is enough for the individual’s process. But collectively there is a mark, a stain that remains, much like air pollution – and the purification offering, according to Milgrom, addresses that.

The ultimate source of impurity for Leviticus (and the Torah) is human behavior. We, our actions, have the capacity to pollute the sacred space – and not external forces. Later in the book of Leviticus that pollution by our actions extends itself to the very land. And here is an interesting parallel: the land vomits out the inhabitants that are acting basely, and God’s presence also leaves the Mishkan.

Now if we step back, and admit that the community is affected by our behavior, we also have to admit that the text of Leviticus has another thing right, something we learn from the environmentalists: our individual actions affect the earth as a whole. Even inadvertent actions can render our planet uninhabitable. And maybe we have not, as a whole human race, tried to destroy the planet – but our actions are there. As individuals, it is enough that we feel remorse and change course, as humans we have an enormous challenge ahead.

Now speaking for a moment into more current events – I want to address a little what happened this week, with the massage parlors. The act in itself is despicable, the ability of someone just to buy a gun and go around shooting people is an enabling law that only in America. But this – an attack that has the contours of hatred towards people of Asian heritage – has given rise to voices within the Jewish community regarding how we treat someone who is not necessarily White.

Rebecca Kuss is a writer who lives in New Jersey. Her mother is Korean, her father Jewish. She was brought up in our American Jewish community since birth. Her mother converted 4 years before she was born. And because she looked biracial, she can tell you stories of how is it really like to live among us. How her mom tried to pick her up from JCC preschool, only to have the teacher refuse to let her take me home, as no one had called ahead to tell her “the maid” would be coming to get me. How at 11, she earned a full scholarship to the Jewish day school – because she read Hebrew like a pro – and how her mom, bursting with pride, spent the weekend making kimchi for lunch for Rebecca’s first day — only to be called into the principal’s office and shamed when other students accused Rebecca of eating “baby embryos” in the cafeteria. How at her bat mitzvah her mom — who had worked three jobs for months to afford the dress and the luncheon — was denied a seat on the bimah. [You can read her entire piece by clicking here, and I urge you to do so ]

Each and every one of those actions was done by one individual. Standing alone, they may seem small. But the effect they had on Rebecca is undeniable. And I want to say that the effect on the community – the perpetuation of a subtle bigotry, a quiet prejudice – is corrosive and destructive. Wouldn’t we be glad to have a ceremony to cleanse us, as a community, of such acts? To have something saying – we know that this individual did this unthinking, not out of badness of heart, just inadvertently, but we are sorry and we want our community safer, better, more inclusive?

I myself would tell you – I wish we had something like that, a clear, obvious way of saying – this was done inadvertently, but we are committed not to see this done again.

So may this week we remember that our actions make or break our sacred spaces – our Jewish communities and our planet, and may we take steps to admit our wrongs and make them better, even if collectively, as the American Jewish community, we don’t have a way of cleansing us from those inadvertent sins.

Shabbat shalom

Vayikra ~ Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s gift

Vayikra centers on sacrifices. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is קורבן KORBAN, and the root is the same root of קרוב KAROV, to be close. Besides sacrifices, there were gifts that people would give to the Temple. This is a story about such a gift.


What we know from Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa is that he was alive when the Temple was still standing, and he saw its destruction by the Romans. We also know that he was the poorest of all the rabbis, and that he was a stone cutter by profession. He wasn’t so poor that he couldn’t feed his family, but he himself only ate carobs from one week to the other, with the exception of Shabbat, so as to provide for them. He was supposed to be such a great Tzadik that much more important rabbis would ask him to pray in their behalf, because his prayers were answered immediately. He lived in a town called Arav.

Once Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was getting ready for going to the Temple in one of the pilgrimage festivals. He saw people carrying all their gifts, and kept wondering what could he give to the Temple, he, that was so poor. And he saw a large boulder. Being a stone cutter, he thought he could cut and polish the boulder so it could be placed in front of the Temple, and those who were tired could used the boulder to sit and admire the Temple. So he set to work.

Once the boulder was cleaned, cut, and polished, he began looking for a way to carry it to Jerusalem. Of course he couldn’t by himself, so he looked about for men to hire. He found at first 5 strong men, and offered them everything he was able to save for the holiday – 5 golden coins. But that crew wanted 100 golden coins to do the work of carrying the boulder. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa did not have even 50 coins, so that was a no go.

Suddenly another set of 5 men appeared. These were dressed in rags and looked as famished as Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, and the leader of the group said: we overheard you talking to those men. We are not so proud or strong as they are, we will carry the boulder for you up to Jerusalem. We want your five coins. Rabbi Chanina was surprised, but thankful. He took the coins from his bag, the leader accepted and then the leader motioned for him to come help move the boulder. And as soon as he touched the boulder, a blinding light appeared, and when Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa opened his eyes again, he was in Jerusalem, a few feet away from the main throughfare that went to the Temple. The boulder was there, but the five men weren’t. He looked about and searched them, but couldn’t find them. The coins were back in his bag.

Chanina ben Dosa was overjoyed. He made his way back to the town of Arav, and had a feast with his family, being able to afford all the good things for the holiday. Up to this day everyone agrees – those 5 men were angels, sent by God, who loves the sacrifices of both rich and poor equally.

You can find many more stories about Chanina ben Dosa clicking here.

Ki Tissa ~ The Golden Calf, Women and Leadership

Our triennial picks up at the moment of the Golden Calf Incident.

~ Who exactly is involved in the collection of the gold? How long does the process of making the calf itself take? What other things are built?

~ What is Aaron’s role? Can you defend what he does? What does he say to Moshe?

~ How do you see God and Moshe’s dialogue? What does God say to Moshe, and how do you understand it?


The first question – Pirkei deRabi Eliezer is the one who begins explaining to us that the women did not participate in the Golden Calf. How do we know that?

Aaron asks on verse 2 “‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.’ But on verse 3 we read “And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron.” (Pirkei de Rabi Eliezer 45). The midrash imagines what happens next: The women heard (this request), but they were unwilling to give their earrings to their husbands; and they said to them: Y’all desire to make a graven image and a molten image without any power in it to deliver!

And then the midrash has a very powerful, women body positive assertion: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the women their reward … What reward did He give them in this world? That they should observe the New Moons more stringently than the men, and… they are destined to be renewed like the New Moon.”

Meaning, that as a reward for this the midrash explains a custom that has lost its potency in non-orthodox circles: women are supposed to take an extra day off every month, which is the Rosh Chodesh. That’s why we had a resurgence of Rosh Chodesh groups as a feminine space. The same idea that women were not participants is found in Midrash Tanchuma.

And as we continue reading, Aaron builds an altar. The gold is made into a calf, and the people begin exclaiming “this is the god that took you out of Egypt”. And then Aaron and proclaims something odd “tomorrow is a festival of YHV”H. What do both of those mean? Does Aaron know what’s about to transpire? It is not very clear – as his own role is a strange one, and we see that for even having a role we gets to use the frontlet with “kadosh lAd0nai”, about which we talked last Shabbat. And what possess the people to say such words? Have they forgotten the miracles they saw? Have they forgot the giving of Torah completely?

Another midrash, which is Midrash Tanchuma, on Ki Tisa 19 tries to piece together that and the self-effacing answer of Aaron to Moshe: “Out came this calf”!

The midrash tells this story that among the erev rav, the mixed multitude, were two of Pharaoh’s magicians who enchant the gold. They take also some other things – leftover brick from Egypt and the tablet where Moshe had written the enchantments to take the bones of Yosef from inside the Nile. They mix all this with the gold of the ear rings, and then the calf comes out, actually moving. That is the explanation for Aaron’s “out came this calf”! And then if you imagine being in the same place and thinking the same – a walking calf made of gold is a pretty interesting miracle. So wrongfully they think it is the same thing as the other 10 miracles they saw.

When the Talmud is looking at the leadership of Aharon, the rabbis ask the same question of Moshe: what happened? What did they do that you brought this great sin upon this people?! And the rabbis point out that there is something unexplained – Aaron saw “this” says the text on verse 5. What did he see? The mob had murdered Hur, another of Moshe’s helpers. The Talmud sees a hint in the words “vayiven mizbeach” which we translate as “and he built an altar”. They can be reread as “vayaven mi-zavuah” – meaning, he understood from the slaughter. Who was slaughtered by the mob? Hur, who had protested what the people were trying to do. And so he thinks to himself: better they do this than kill another person, because there is no complete repentance for murder. But the Talmud is not really satisfied with that solution, and closes with a warning: Whoever praises Aaron for this compromise is provoking God (Sanhedrin 7a).

The Talmud comes hard on Aaron because he has been put in a position of leadership and can’t do what is right, and can’t be the true leader that the people require. The people is already anxious – note the first verse: Moshe is taking too long, and they can’t wait. They can’t understand that Moshe is not the one who took them out of Egypt, but God was. And the moment they said “the man Moses, who took us out of Egypt” – Aaron, as a leader, should have been more clear regarding that faulty thought but instead asks for the earrings, trying to buy time so Moshe would come and fix the mess. This midrash also brings the real fear of the people to fore: that Moshe has actually died. That’s why, according to the same Tanchuma, they say “the man Moshe.”

The question of how leadership is supposed to act is such a rabbinic worry that Devarim Rabbah, compiled around year 900, brings a lot of those questions. In a particular acerbic one towards rabbis themselves and the rabbinic hierarchy itself (DR 2:19) the text goes on to say that those at the top have a responsibility towards those at the bottom, and that if the top begins acting wrongfully, the effect trickles down – everyone of them is wrong, clearly, but who is eventually responsible for it all, asks the text? The top person who gave the first bad example. The text goes on to say that integrity is fundamental for leadership, one cannot be a leader telling people not to steal, and stealing himself; not to lend on interest and he himself does that.

Recently we learned how certain people in certain positions were fundamental to prevent our democracy from being completely destroyed – and were it not for the integrity of those people, we would be living in a very different reality. And from what I understand those people were not flaming Republicans or Democrats – they were people who simply had integrity in their jobs.

And that is one of the great aspects of Moshe – he is consistent and has integrity. He is not perfect, of course, and we will talk about this in a different Shabbat. But he is consistent in his love for the Jewish people – when God says “this is your people” he answers back: they are your people too. When God says: I’ll finish them off and begin with you again – he says, no thank you. The last midrash I want you to know of today, and you will be able to read it when I post the sources on the blog, is Shemot Rabbah 43:7. In that particular piece of text, the rabbis imagine what kind of words Moshe used to change God’s mind, besides the “what will the Egyptians think of You” facet.

Integrity ^^^                                

And the rabbis see Moshe telling God – come on, a little more understanding for this people! Master of the universe, where did You bring them? Was it not out of Egypt, where they worship calves? This can be compared with a sage that sets a ship for his son. Where is the shop? In the middle of the red district. What does it sell? Perfumes and make up items. The street plied its trade, the perfume business plied its trade, and the lad, like any young man, plied his natural inclination. When the father came and caught him with prostitutes, he began to shout, “I’ll kill you!” But the sage’s friend was there, and he spoke up. “You yourself ruined your son, and now you are yelling at him! You ignored all other occupations and taught him to be a perfumer; you ignored all other streets and deliberately opened a shop for him in the red light district!” Likewise, Moses said: Master of the Universe, You ignored the entire world and deliberately enslaved Your children in Egypt, where the inhabitants worship calves; and so Your children learned from the Egyptians, and now have even made a calf for themselves. Therefore Moses said, “That You have brought forth from the land of Egypt” – bear in mind from what kind of place You brought them forth.

So in the rabbinic mind, Aaron is not a good leader, and deserves the forever reminder on his forehead. And Moshe, for all his anger and foibles, is the one who stands up against God, and teaches God a thing or two about being human.

May this week be a week of integrity in leadership. May we see it, recognize it, and call it out when it is not happening, in whatever side of the isle we happen to find ourselves in.

Shabbat Shalom.

Eat, my coat, eat

Tetzaveh focuses on the clothes worn by the Kohen Gadol, the high priest. This is a great story – what is the connection to the Torah portion? What values is the story trying to teach?


In Turkey, there once was a man who sold coals. His name was Marko. He had a large family, and walked around town selling coals. He was able to sell coals, and with that he eked a living for himself and his family. At the end of every day of work, he would sit on a stone, look at the moon and say:

Dear moon, dear moon, Marko is happy today too.

And he would get up, go home, and feed his family. He had five children, and always arrived in a good mood, making jokes and bringing happiness to his home. It was because he was always with a smile and a good cheer, and always knew how to make conversation flow, that Marko was invited to the weddings and celebrations of the rich people. But he always arrived in his old, tattered coat, and was always smelling of coals. And so he was always sat on the last chair at the very end of the table, and was always served the least appetizing of the burekas and the kubes, the last of the hummus and the hardest meat, the most shriveled of the stuffed grape leaves. But he was happy to come home and be one less mouth to feed, and be able to give a little more to his family.

One day, a rich man to whom Marko sold coals said to him: “Marko, I went to our holy city, Jerusalem, to empty my father’s house. I found this very beautiful coat, and I wanted to give it to you, my dear, because you have sold me coals all my life.” Marko took one look at the coat and knew it was simply not for him. It was beautifully ornamented, made with silk and gold threads, and red dashes and it was amazing and almost unused, if a little old. It had enormous pockets. But the rich man would not take no for an answer. And so Marko eventually took the coat home.

When he got home, his youngest child asked: “Abba, what’s in the bag?” Marko said: “A coat. But it is not for me.” And they all saw it, and all agreed, that coat was for a rich person.

A few weeks later, Marko got invited to another wedding. And as he was about to leave, his youngest child said: “Abba! Go with the beautiful coat this time!! It is better than what you are wearing!” And Marko agreed. He took the coat out of the wardrobe and put it on, pretending he was a prince. He took the broom and pretended to ride it, while showering the “audience” with kisses and weaving. All had a great laugh, and Marko left to the wedding banquet.

As he arrived there, the waiters saw the beautiful coat he was wearing, and put him at the best spot for the best food. All those sitting near him were talking to him about how high taxes were this year, and how it rained too much for the grapevines and too little for the cucumbers. Marko pretended he was interested, but as the food was coming through, he realized it was the best burekas, and kubes, and stuffed grape leaves and salads. And so as he was talking to people, he would stop and fill the pockets, saying: “Eat, my coat, eat!” And all the guests looked at him in amazement.

When he had the pockets of the coat full to the brim with food, Marko thanked the guest, gave a blessing to the bride and groom, and went home. As he did so, he stopped, sat on a rock and said to the moon:

Dear moon, dear moon, Marko is happy today and the coat is happy too.

When he arrived home, his family ate all the delicacies he brought, and that night, they truly had a feast.

Adapted from “Tochal, Me’il, Tochal” by Ronit Chacham and Shirli Vaisman

Tetzaveh ~ the symbols we wear

Exodus 28:31-35 to 29:18                   Etz Chayim 508

Haftarah Y’hezkel 43:10-27                            520

Tetzaveh continues the instructions given regarding the Tabernacle, with a special focus on the clothes worn by the High Priest.

Both the structure of the Mishkan and the clothing of the kohanim, and particularly the Kohen Gadol are highly symbolic, and one of the ways of finding meaning in these readings, particularly if you are not in the fashion business, is to understand the symbols.

So as I read, please give your attention to the clothes of the High Priest. What do you think they symbolize? I am particularly interested in the first verses of our reading.


Our reading deals with certain aspects of Aharon’s clothing: a blue robe with bells, a frontlet, a tunic, a head covering and breeches. The piece our reading skips, because of the triennial cycle, is the breastplate.


[A general discussion about clothing and attitudes emerged, with a question regarding “dressing code” for shul. The was a consensus built in the need of it being a internal action much more than a top-to-bottom process. Many shared their upbringing coming to shul wearing special clothing. COVID was mentioned as a time when we don’t pay attention s much to what we wear, and wearing the same house attire everyday contributes to the feeling of isolation]

[Naomi Kamins brought us back to the main topic – the weight is symbolic of the weight of leadership]

And here were my written remarks, which I wove some into our discussion:

First I want us to know that the triennial makes us lose an important refrain, one that appears several times when the Torah is talking about the clothes of Aharon and his sons: lekavod uletifaret – for glory and honor.  And the simplest way to understand those is, of course, the saying “the clothes make the person”. We feel differently when we wear certain clothes, and we express our relationship to our surroundings differently. In part this is the game of Purim – we are allowed to wear something completely different and change our relationship with our surroundings as we read that particular story.

Aharon and his sons are expected to take a certain role – the ones who raise the consciousness of the people, despite their own defects. Notice that all these descriptions are coming before what we know is the worse moment of the people, the golden calf incident. So Aharon will wear those clothes with everyone knowing of his own part in the golden calf, and maybe even worse, with him knowing what he did. In a general sense we have this particular set of clothing helping Aharon and his children through what we know today as imposter syndrome, the idea that you are not really good enough for whatever you do, that you don’t trust your own expertise. Aharon, having succumbed to the wishes of the people and facilitating, at least, idolatry, is definitely second-guessing himself at all times. So the refrain “lekavod uletifaret”, to glory and honor – are a validation of yes, you are good enough. Your teshuvah has been accepted – to the point that you and your sons are the priests. That is the most basic understanding.

And now let’s dive deeper.

The blue robe is not any blue – it is tchelet, a specific blue that some nowadays use in the tzitzit. It is symbolic of the sky and the sea, according to the Talmud [Menachot 89a]. Both the sky and the sea are expansion of horizons, a reminder of transcendence, of expanded consciousness of mochin de-gadlut, in the Jewish tradition. Mochin de-gadlut, expanded consciousness, reminds us – and Aharon, of course – that life, to be meaningful, is lived above the constant, small talk of our brains. That talk can be divided into “I like this” “I dislike this”; “this is pleasant/unpleasant.” Mochin degadlut, expanded consciousness, raises above that to try to find meaning. And this is a lesson not only for the kohanim, but also for us. When did you last look to your tallit and desired expanded consciousness? When did you last pray and have a moment of greatness, or at least of greater understanding about your own fights?

Now the Hebrew is interesting here: the blue robe has an opening, a peh, a mouth. Even though it is translated as “opening” the expression is “pi rosho” – the mouth of its head. The text is talking about the robe, but you can read – the Chafetz Chayim (Yisrael Meir Kagan, Belarus, 1838-1933) certainly does – as an indication of your mouth, specifically. And he goes onto marrying the two ideas – transcendence and your mouth. Your words, he says, raise up all the time. So imagine the words you use, when you are happy, angry, sad. When you meet someone. All those words are energies that float up to the Throne of Glory, and there they get separated to confront you later. And so the Chafetz Chayim reads all these descriptions of the robe as warning against the misuse of your own power to speak. For the Chafetz Chayim the moment you abandon the thoughts about how you talk to people you will eventually abandon all mitzvot.

Now, even though Aharon and his sons will be seen as conduits for the relationship between God and the Jews in the desert and while the temple is standing, we all know fights happen. Conflict is inside every single human relationship. How you deal with that conflict is fundamental. The Chafetz Chayim will point out that there is this specific expression on the second verse of our reading, verse 32. The mouth is supposed not to tear, and supposed to be like a coat mail – both of which indicate war. And he says – when you do not feed into the conflict with your own words, that is already a coat mail. That is your defense. So it’s not only about being careful with which words you use, but being careful with how you express yourself, and how you behave in conflict.

Now, what to make of the hem, that has a pomegranate and a bell, all around? There are moments of speech and moments of silence. A bell always makes a sound, the pomegranate never does. Knowing when to be silent and when to speak is fundamental. Speech – because it is energy, because it can build up or tear apart – is partnered with silence, with refraining from speaking. And we could add – with listening. Silence is the first step to be able to listen, and then to hear. And we all want to be heard, particularly by our leaders.

Aharon, in the Jewish tradition, will be connected to the community in ways that Moshe never could be. He runs after peace, making peace between people. When Aharon dies the whole community is upset, the text says “the entire house of Israel wept” – more even than when Moshe dies, when we read “the children of Israel wept”. In part it is because unlike Moshe, Aharon actually listens to people – and tries to work with them. Which is why the next piece of clothing is important.

The frontlet says “Kadosh LYHVH” – Holy to Ad-nai. This is a symbol, a constant reminder to Aharon of his failure in leadership – which is coming in our reading, next week: the Golden Calf. He lets the people build it, does not really take responsibility, and is unable to set limits to the group. If Moshe is all about the rules, decision, limits – Aharon is the soft side of leadership. But it does not end well in that particular instance. So that is the reminder of an eternal struggle of human beings: your core values versus the forces around us and within us. Aharon needs this constant reminder – he is for God. All his work with the community is for a higher value, the molding of this ragtag band of slaves into a more or less cohesive group centered in Jewish values and in God. The headdress, which is like a cook’s hat according to some opinions, or like a kippah, according to others, reminds the wearer of that.

I heard an interesting story – Rabbi Artson, the dean of my rabbinical school, was once a pulpit rabbi. And a teenager came to talk to him. You see, the teenager had began wearing a kippah all the time. But the teen also had a problem, which is, he was a very hot headed driver. He would curse for the drop of a hat, and would cut people off and so on. So his question to rabbi Artson was that, since he felt that he was giving the Jewish people a bad name because of his driving habits, could he just take off the kippah while he was driving? And rabbi Artson said: well, if you yourself know that your behavior while driving is horrifying, maybe the weight of the Jewish people will make you a better driver. No, you may not take your kippah off.

In Aharon’s case the frontlet is there to remind him of his own mistakes, and at the same time to help him as the purifier of the intentions of the people – to take away any sin arising from the sacred donations. That means that as one gives to the Temple – an animal for sacrifice, or the other donations, like first fruits and challah – the intentions and thoughts might need some help. Looking at Aharon with the “holy to Hashem” headband might help also us, simple people, direct our intentions.

And this is, in part, what clothing does. It is supposed to be a reminder of values, something that will help you not buckle under the pressures. There is a famous story in the Talmud (Menachot 44a) about a student  of rabbi Hiyya who goes to a prostitute, paying an enormous amount up front, but as he is getting naked his tzitzit slap him on the face, and he decides not to go through with it. The story has a happy ending: she stops being a prostitute, converts and marries him. And it is thought that his attributing a larger consciousness to the fact that he had tzitzit on is what makes for the good end of the story. The moment you wear something specifically with an intent, if you are awake and remind yourself of those values, you will be better equipped to make different choices, more aligned with your best version of yourself.

And finally, the last piece of clothing, the tunic. In Hebrew, it is called kutonet. And there is another story about kutonet – which is the kutonet passim of Yosef. And one Chasidic master, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841) in his book Agra deKalah, connects kutonet that to the sale of Yosef. And to the jealousy that almost destroyed the Jewish people at its very inception. Wearing kutanot, tunics, would help the kohanim to transcend the common jealousies of being siblings and family.

On the word shesh – translated as fine linen – the Alshich (Rabbi Moshe Alshich, 16th century, Tzfat) has his own point. It is not just a reminder of how to guard oneself against jealousy, but also a reminder that Proverbs say that six things are seen as terrible by God – shesh in Hebrew means six. And those six things are pretty basic:  lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, minds that hatch evil plots, feet who run do to evil, false witnessing, and creating ill-will among siblings.

The Alshich then sees the kutonet shesh, the linen tunic, as a reminder of these six basic things that the kohanim are supposed to be reminded of at all times. The idea being that our leaders are supposed to be held at a higher standard – but also are supposed to have constant reminders of that higher standard.

And so it is with us – it is not just about the kohanim. When did you last make a clear choice about the values you espouse when you use something?

Once I went to a store where kids clothes were being sold – it was a food store – in Danbury. An entire attire for boys – pants, tshirt and shirt – was being sold for 5 dollars. Even though we were strapped for money and my young boys might have benefitted of a new set of clothes, I didn’t buy them. In part because I realized that that price had to come with someone else paying for it: was it slavery? Smuggling? Whatever it was, I decided I did not want to be involved with it. If other people bought it, what could I do? But I was not going to have that in my house.

And I want to let people with that question: when was the last time ou paid attention to what you were supporting when you bought clothes?

May the week that begins bring us to a point of being more deliberate in our expression of our values through our wardrobe choices.


Shabbat Zachor ~ In(war)d and out(war)d

Shabbat Zachor ~ maftir: Deuteronomy (Ki Tetzei) Maftir 25:17-19

Haftarah I Sh’muel 15:2-34


Today is a special Shabbat, which is Shabbat Zachor. Shabbat Zachor is when we read two specific readings connected to Purim. They are the maftir and the haftarah.

I want to begin by asking you to pay particular attention to the maftir, which is on page 1135 of the Etz Chayim. As I read, I’d invite you to entertain a few questions:

~ To whom is this text speaking?

~ What are we supposed to do?

~ What has Amalek done, and when?

~ Why do we read it just before Purim?



One of the things I want to make sure we understand, and you can see it for yourselves, is what happens before the first encounter of Amalek and the Jewish people. Check page 420 in your Etz Chayim, or Exodus 17:3 to 7 (click here). There what we have is a revolt against Moshe, one of fierce that Moshe believes he’ll be killed at any moment. And just after that, after the text says “the Israelites said: “Is God present among us or not?” – Amalek begins the attack. Hold on to that thought.

Notice that no reason given is given for the attack whatsoever, and notice that the same idea is expressed in our maftir: Amalek attacked those who were most vulnerable. That very same idea will show up when King David encounters Amalek, before he is actually king, in I Samuel 30:1-4 (click here). The Amalekites, just for the fun of it, burn the entire town of Ziklag, where David and his men have settled, and take the women and children captives. The text is pretty clear that Amalek has a certain pattern – it lies in wait for the stronger ones to be distanced or away, and then attacks those who can’t defend themselves, destroying everything in the process.

As some said, we read the maftir because we connect it with Haman, who is called Agagite, and the link between Amalek, Agag and Haman will be explicit when we read the haftarah. There, the king is Agag – and he is the ancestor of Haman.

Now one of the many questions is what moves someone like Haman – and we know that there are Haman’s spiritual descendants, the ones who would have us destroyed – what moves Haman to want to destroy Mordechai’s entire people?

The Talmud takes that question in a by-the-way fashion, as it usually does, when it is discussing whether there are insignificant verses in the Torah – spoiler alert, there aren’t. One of the verses brought up in that discussion is in Genesis 36, among a very long list of the descendants of Esav and other groups. There we read a verse that says “and Lotan’s sister was Timna”. Why would it be there? What can one possibly learn with a verse that mentions a non-Jewish woman in a list of non-Jewish tribal connections not even really connected to the Jews? The answer is brough in a midrash that links another verse about Timna: she is the concubine of Eliphaz, son of Esav. The midrash says – well, Timna, the daughter of non-Jewish kings, wanted to convert and live with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But they did not accept her as a convert. She eventually does as best as she can, and becomes a concubine to Esav’s son Eliphaz. And who does she give birth to? Amalek, which will become that nation. And so the midrash concludes: and why are we suffering under the hand of Amalek? Because they should have accepted Timna, and did not. The sting of that rejection is what creates Amalek (Sanhedrin 99b click here to read it all).

Does that make ok for Haman to want to destroy us? Of course not. But here the rabbis begin with the midrash a process that will have an important impact on how we read the verses of our maftir: an internalization of Amalek. Amalek stops being a people we have to actually destroy and becomes a force, something that exists in the world – and within us. And to clear out Amalek, we need to first clear out our internal Amalek. The rabbis of the Talmud are worried about dismissing potential converts, and are incredibly worried about the oppressing of converts, to the point that it will affirm that not oppressing converts appears 36 times in the Torah (Baba Metzia 59b click here).

As this process of internalization continues through our people’s textual history, it does not stop at the question of accepting and treating well those who chose to come under the wings of the Shechinah. It takes on a more general human aspect. The Kedushat Levi (Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, 18th century Poland) has a very potent explanation of the verse. Amalek is the force within every human being. Since every human is a small world, and since we see that Amalek exists in the world, it follows that it also exists inside us, inside each human being. The Kedushat Levi points out that just before the attack, in Exodus 17, the Jewish people are weak. And we saw this – they bicker and rise against Moshe. That is how we can reread the verses we just did, the middle verse of our own maftir, verse 18:

אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחַרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃

he cooled you off in your pathway, and cut down all the weak ones in your rear, when you were tired and hungry – and then the verse says “and did not fear Elohim”. The verse is not really clear to whom that “did not fear God” belongs. And so, the Kedushat Levi says, the strength of our people, which is Torah and prayer “since the voice is the voice of Jacob” – needs to be there. Because when we let that go, he says, when we don’t feed our awe for God and the world, then Amalek attacks. You can read the explanation of the Kedushat Levi on Sefaria, click here.

The legacy of Amalek, the destructive force, the force that due to greed and anger destroys things sometimes simply for the pleasure of destruction – that is a fight for all times. That is what we have to constantly try to erase, and never forget – because as long as human hearts exist, the temptation of seeing others as mere means to an end will always be there.

So may we have a Purim of giving gifts to the poor, giving gifts of food to each other, reading the Megillah and feasting – but always remembering that all these festivities are to remind us that our internal work continues.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parashat Yitro

One of the few parshiot in which the triennial and the annual readings are the same. The reason is that the 10 commandments or aseret hadibrot, figure in them – we would not imagine having a year in which you don’t read about the revelation at Sinai.


Well, and there is the joke about Joe Cohen. His alarm went off and he said the famous words “just five more minutes”. When he woke up he was 30 minutes late for an important meeting. He puts on a suit and runs out the door. He gets stuck in traffic and as he arrives at the company’s parking lot he is still 25 minutes late. He looks for a parking space and finds none. Zilch. Having driven around the lot and checked out each potential space, he stops his car in desperation and looks up towards the heavens. He is not a religious man in the least but he cries out:

“Dear God, if you please just give me a parking spot I promise I will go to synagogue every week, will only eat kosher food, and I’ll follow every single one of the 10 commandments, just PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE give me a vacant spot so that I won’t lose my job!”

Miraculously, a parking spot opens up right by the front of the building. He then looks back up to the heavens and says, “never mind I just found one!”

I love this joke, and a British rabbi, Rabbi Claude Vecht-Wolf, is the one that told that to me.


Look at the asaret hadibrot, popularly known as the ten commandments.

~ Why do you think the Jewish tradition does not call these 10 commandments, which would be aseret hamitzvot, but aseret hadibrot, or aseret hadevarim, the ten sayings?

~ Which one is the hardest, in your opinion?

~ How would you categorize or divide the aseret hadibrot? Be creative, there are at least three different ways.


So the first thing that I wanted us to notice is that by calling the 10 commandments Aseret Hadibrot our tradition tries to connect them with the story of creation which, if you count, has ten “and God said”. Ten sayings and ten sayings – so there is this message that the entire creation is upheld by those actions or refraining from these specific actions.


This is the easiest way of dividing the Asret Hadevarim – positive and negative.

Another way is “God’s name is mentioned” and “God’s name is not mentioned”.

Another way is “bein Adam Lamakom” – between you and God; and “bein adam lechavero” between you and your fellow human beings.


A way I want us to get familiarized with is how the sage Avraham Ibn Ezra, who was alive in the 11th century in Spain, divides the mitzvot in three groups:

Of the heart, of the tongue and of doing. And then he subdivides these in positive and negative.


Now some are pretty easy, such as murdering and stealing – or at least we imagine so. The most challenging is coveting. Why is it the most challenging? Because we usually do not think that emotions can be regulated. And how does Ibn Ezra understand this specific, thorny commandment?


In the first section regarding the heart, his positive ones include “love God”, the veahavtah et Adnai elohecha” as well as to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. The negative ones cover such commandments as ‘don’t hate your brother in your heart’ or ‘don’t bear a grudge’.


In the second category regarding words of the tongue, he includes the commandment to say the Shema twice a day and Grace After Meal (‘Benching’) and an example of negative is the not bearing a false witness or cursing using God’s name.


The third category are actions.


So going back to the Aseret Hadibrot, he points out that the first two are of the heart, because if you’d think that not bowing down to idols was an “action”, you’d be wrong – it is an expression of the heart, he says, since it is about loving God. The third commandment is about the tongue, as even if you love God you could use God’s name in vain. Shabbat is about actions, as is honoring parents. Those would be in the first tablet. On the second tablet, he says, what you have is the another set of actions – murder, adultery, stealing followed by not swearing falsely in court, which is obviously a question of how you use your tongue. Which leaves, of course, coveting for the heart. And it looks like a neat sandwich, for sure, but is not exactly helpful.


And of course Ibn Ezra has a response. He says yes, it is a heart business, but not like what you’d think. He brings a parable to explain, and in the parable there is a peasant that sees the daughter of the king. Even though she is beautiful, and the peasant knows that, the peasant will not covet her since it is as possible for him to sleep with her as it is for him to suddenly sprout wings in his back. So for him – and for many other rabbis – coveting is not simply feeling the desire, but trying to actively get what you desire. That is illustrated with two fairly famous stories.


The first one is of none other than King David, who sees Batsheva bathing on the roof, has an affair with her while her husband Uriah is fighting the war with the Philistines, and when she reveals to David that she’s pregnant, David proceeds to kill Uriah. The second story comes from another king, Achab. Achab wants a vineyard that belongs to Navot, and Navot or Naboth, does not want to give it to him. So he does what all great kings do, and pouts, and whines and refuses to eat. Jezebel, his wife, does what all great queens do, and tells him to kill Navot and just stop whining already.


And that, for the rabbis, is the most important thing – it is not about wanting the woman or the vineyard, it is not about fantasizing. It is about using your smarts or your power to get what you fantasize about, even though they are not supposed to be yours in the first place. Ibn Ezra wants you to know an important maxim of the Jewish tradition, which is – certain things are given to you as part of your existence. What possessions will you have, how long your life is and how many children you have are all decided beforehand. So coveting something or someone is really about being ungrateful, and not seeing the blessings you already have in your life.


By seeing “do not covet” as a heart commandment, and by defining coveting as actively trying to get what you cannot have, Ibn Ezra is really trying to tell that coveting means making the plans. The heart is not necessarily the seat of emotions alone, but of all thought. In that sense, controlling coveting really means controlling the thoughts of planning – and not the emotion of desire. It is about controlling the tendencies of being ungrateful – and that even modern psychology says is possible.


So may this week be a week of seeing that our grass is greener than the neighbor’s simply because it is our grass. And may we find the grace of being thankful for the many blessings in our lives, for our internal and external beauties and for our many gifts.


Shabbat Shalom





Bo ~ Choosing to go through the door

The portion begins with the plagues of locusts and darkness, and its bulk is the death of the firstborn and the going out of Egypt.

Bo is the parsha of the Exodus, in the sense that it is here when we read the last night of the Jews in Egypt. It is in Bo that three of the four children, with their questions, appear. “When your children ask: what is the meaning of this for you?”; “When your child asks: what is this?”, and “you shall say to your child”. These are known as the wicked, the simple and the one who does not know what to ask.

Notice that we celebrate Pesach today as one big holiday, but it is actually composed of two, both mentioned in our portion: Chag HaPesach and Chag Hamatzot – the festival of the Passover sacrifice, lasting one day, and the Festival of Matzot, that lasts 7 days.

Our portion makes clear that there are two different Pesachim (plural of Pesach): Pesach Mitzrayim and Pesach LeDorot, that is, the First Passover; and the celebration of Passover for all generations. For instance, we do not smear our doorposts with blood nowadays, but the did that in Egypt.

The image of the Jews painting our doorposts is a fairly famous one. Look at the text – this command is repeated twice. Why do we have to paint the mezuzot with blood? Where do you think this blood is – in the inside or the outside of the door? Who needs to see it, and why?



The first thing I want us to notice is the preparation for that moment: the text says – the lamb was to be selected on the tenth of the month, kept separated and guarded, and then slaughtered, roasted and eaten.

According to historians, rams were seen as a symbol of fertility in the Egyptian pantheon and were identified with various gods. Ram-headed sphinxes flank the entrance to the temple of Amun at Thebes. The bodies of some rams were mummified and equipped with gilded masks and even jewelry. So there is quite a statement being made here, which is, we, slaves, will take the symbol of the deity – a one-year old ram – slaughter, roast it, and eat it. The blood will mark our doors. Nachum Sarna affirms that there is a process of making the interior sacred, marking the difference between interior and exterior.

A collection of Midrashim, the Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael, offers three possibilities:

“(Exodus 12:7) “And they shall place it on the two side posts and on the lintel”: on the inside. You say on the inside, but perhaps on the outside (is meant)? It is, therefore, written (Ibid. 13) “And I will see the blood” — blood which is seen by Me and not by others. These are the words of R. Yishmael. R. Nathan says: On the inside. You say on the inside, but perhaps on the outside? It is, therefore, written (Ibid.) “and the blood will be for you as a sign” — for you and not for others. R. Yitzchak says: On the outside — so that the Egyptians see (their gods being slaughtered), and their insides be “ripped apart!”

The midrashim usually have no problem with presenting different opinions without harmonizing them. Each of these three opinions hold different attitudes. God wants to see the sign – in part because, as the midrash explains next, once the destroyer is out and about there is no distinction between good and bad people. So the destroying force, which is clearly not very bright, needs a sign to do precisely what the term Pesach means – skipping. The third opinion holds that it is an outside sign, but God is not the audience. The audience are the Egyptians, who will see their gods being slaughtered. That is the symbolic act of leaving idolatry.

The second opinion that holds that the sign is for the inside, is the one that interests me more this year. The audience is the Jews themselves.

There is this interesting idea that four things were kept by Jews in Egypt, which was why they were redeemed, but God’s worship was not one of them. There are four things: Jews kept their names, their language, the idea of not speaking lashon hara, and the idea of not being promiscuous. (Vayikra Rabba 32:5 and other places). Which points to another idea, popularized in the 16th century, that we were almost not redeemed, we were steeped in 49 gates of ritual impurity. 50 is the maximum. Those four things – the names, the language, the value of faithfulness and not gossiping are the hook that made it possible for us to get out.

So marking the door has a lot with us choosing to continue the Jewish experience – with us actively choosing to be, not passively being chosen because we are descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. That idea is not present in the Book of Exodus at all. The escape from Egypt has to do with a promise made to Avraham, and not so much with a choosing that God makes about our people. The idea of choseness comes later, after the giving of the Torah, and our accepting of it. And then the choseness is not unconditional, and does not point to an ineffable essence, but to acts and actions, mitzvot.

And if we think about it, how could God be choosing Jews in Egypt when we did not even know God that well? Remember, the plagues are not just for Pharaoh’s benefit – the plagues surely are an answer to Pharaoh’s question “who is God that I should let Israel go?” – but the plagues are even more a question of teaching the Israelites who God is. Next week, in Beshalach, we will read that once we have seen 10 plagues, once we were at the Sea seeing the Egyptian army drowned, “the Jews believe in God and Moshe”.

We know that a mixed multitude came with us, they saw the possibility of freedom and took it. But we also know that the desire to go back to Egypt will not leave the Jews for forty years. Poor Moshe has no idea yet, but soon he will know. And why we will want to go back? For the menu, the leeks, the cucumbers, the fish, the meat. And you could imagine that there were those who decided to stay behind, who didn’t want to go out. Who liked fish, cucumbers and leeks so much that they thought they were a fair price for freedom. Those did not mark their doors, sealing their fate forever, disappearing from our people –later also forgetting names, language and values.

So I believe that the blood on the door is actually for us, it is our moment to say “I’m in”. The Zohar affirms that at that fateful night in Egypt we are not simply smearing the blood on the frame and the doorposts – we are writing three yuds, one on each piece of the door, and that is the sign. In some old prayerbooks you can still find God’s name portrayed like this. In the Zohar’s imagination, the door is always there – every time you pray. Because as the distance grows between the miracles in Egypt and us we understand much more the nature of the miracle. It is a constant choosing to be Jewish, keep Jewish, act Jewishly. It is as much a miracle of God as it is a miracle of the people: keeping, against all odds, the flame alive.

May we continue to do so this week, keeping the flame, the continuity, the mitzvot, Hebrew.



< page for the “Haggadah Hermana” or “the Sister Haggadah” manuscript (Spain, 13th century)

On the attack at the Capitol

Dear friends,

As more and more information becomes available about the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday, not just about the violence, the victims and participants but also about the details of those harrowing hours, I would like to share a few thoughts.

The first one has to do with the images of observant Jews, some in kippot and tzitzit, some in skirts and snoods, participating in this. They were engaging in a demonstration to overturn the government’s basic institutions, a demonstration that had violent ends, proven by the presence of a noose erected outside. One of the most important principles in Jewish Law is Dina DeMalchuta Dina – which means literally, the rule of the land is the rule[1]. We obey the laws of the land. Examples abound: paying taxes, speeding or using banned substances – Jews should obey all those laws, and every other law enacted by the government. All the more so this principle applies to violence.

Dina DeMalchuta Dina is only supposed to be crossed if the government is forcing Jews to stop observing Jewish law. One example would be if the government forbade circumcision – then we keep doing circumcision, even if it means travelling with the infant to a nearby country that permits circumcision, as it is the case with our Kenyan brothers and sisters, who travel to Uganda[2]. But even such a case does not give permission to try to overthrow a government using violence.

The noose outside also hinted at executions, without what we would call a due process, of those considered enemies by the leaders of this mob. In more stark terms, lynching was not outside of the imaginary of those perpetrating loudly the storming the capital, or those supporting it silently. Again, there is no such a thing in Jewish law: even murderers get their day in court. Eichmann did. There was a process, witnesses, defense and prosecution. Lynching has never ever been condoned in Jewish thought and Jewish law.

Let’s talk about violence. And destruction. Destruction of public property has no place in Jewish thought. Cutting fruit trees in times of war is forbidden. Even destruction of your personal property is forbidden, unless there is a higher purpose[3] – an upcycling of the materials: you can dismantle a table to make chairs, or reform a building, or building something. But not as an expression of rage, anger and violence. In the Jewish ethos, even necessary violence, ie, war, has its constraints.

For starters, wars of aggression, which are began to conquer territory, are not permitted nowadays given the lack of a king in Israel, and the fact that the Sanhedrin is not in existence[4]. We are supposed to engage in defensive wars only. Moreover, even in secular terms, the Israeli army in its code of ethics, called “Ruach Tzahal”, affirms the values of human dignity for all humans, purity of arms and democracy[5].

It deeply disturbed me, and I am sure that some of you saw the pictures too: it appears that there were people wearing t-shirts with an acronym 6MWE which stands for ‘6 million wasn’t enough’, it is certain that there were people wearing t-shirts with “Camp Auschwitz.” It strikes me as profoundly naïve that Jews, observant or secular, were hand in hand with people sporting those, as they storm or support storming the seat of the government. Our history has shown that antisemitism finds its breeding ground in extremism, and for those sporting those shirts there are no “good Jews.”

The pictures of an Israeli flag and a confederate flag flying side by side were also upsetting for a similar, complementary reason. Degel Israel, the Israeli flag, was based on a tallit, the symbol of God’s presence. That is the same God that affirms, in Genesis, “let’s make humans in Our image.” Not Jews, not Whites, not Blacks, Asians or Natives. But “humans.” All humans. And the confederate flag stands for the right of reducing certain humans to chattel. The Israeli flag reminds us of our own 2,000-year landlessness. It reminds us of our being vulnerable, of our longing for freedom. It should be a modern articulation of a prophetic promise: that we, all Jews, rose from slavery, exclusion and oppression to champion the values of justice and compassion articulated by the prophets to the entire world.

The attack in the Capitol has been called many names by many people. One that I have not seen yet is desecration, which I think it fits in many levels. The institutions that are “the pride and glory of our country[6]” were desecrated, symbolically, in this attack. Many of the values that we hold dear, because they are the connections between Judaism and America, were desecrated. But above all, core values of Judaism: respect for the rule of law, human dignity, due process, limits to violence, not destroying wantonly, were desecrated, together with our common destiny, were desecrated.  Jews, religious or secular, have no place in a destructive and violent mob trying to overthrow seated government.


Rabbi Nelly Altenburger

[1] Nedarim 28a, Gittin 10b, Baba Kamma 113a-b and other places in the Talmud.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Kenya

[3] Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandment 57

[4] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:1-2. Even if Maimonides accepts the possibility of a war of aggression, notice that he envisions that only in the context of a King being able to convince the 71 judges of the Sanhedrin that this is warranted.

[5] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ruach-tzahal-idf-code-of-ethics

[6] Prayer for Our Country


Vayishlach ~ What happened to Dinah?

Vayishlach is a packed portion, mostly focusing on Yaakov and his road to redemption from being Yaakov to becoming Yisrael. The portion opens with Ya’akov sending messengers to Esav, their encounter and their settling things out. It is in this story that Ya’akov has his struggle with the angel, and is named Yisrael for the first time. Deborah, Rivkah’s nurse, dies. Rachel also dies, giving birth to Benjamin. The portion closes with the line of Esav.

Our triennial focuses on the story of Dinah, which happens just before the deaths of Deborah and Rachel.

As we read the story, I’d like you to think about a few questions:

  • Using the text, describe Dina with your own words. What do you imagine is going to be the traditional understanding of Dina?
  • If this is a case of rape, what is missing? Could you read this as a case of seduction? What does the simple meaning (pshat) imply regarding Dina’s agency?
  • What do you think of Shechem and his actions? What does the text imply about Shechem’s power?
  • What are the differences between how the men involved see the episode? How do Yaakov, Chamor and the brothers see what happened?
  • How could the brothers do what they did?




The traditional reading of this episode [Genesis 34, read it here] will be influenced by Rashi. Rashi will blame the entire episode on Dina, and of course, her mother Leah. Calling them both yatzanit, goer-out, he points out that were Dina not going out to see the girls of the land, like her mother who goes out to get a night with Ya’akov in exchange of the mandrakes (we saw this last week) nothing would have happened. [Read it here]

Many commentators disagree, but it is important for us to make sure we understand that there is this position in our tradition. The strongest voices against Rashi come from David Kimchi, Abarbanel and Luzzatto.

David Kimchi (Radak, Provence, 1160-1235) admits that were Dina to stay in, nothing would have happened and that that was Leah’s fault. However, he also points out that there is a midrash that looks with askance about Dina in the previous story, the encounter of Yaakov and Esav. In that midrash, Dina was hidden by Yaakov inside a chest, so that Esav would not see Dina, and not request to marry her. (Genesis Rabbah 76:9) The question revolves, too, on the fact that Shechem is not circumcised, whereas Esav was.

Abarbanel (Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, Portugal, 1437-1508) says that the blame is actually all Yaakov’s. He was the one who decided to buy land there, and pitch the tents near the city. If he was so worried about his daughter, he should have pitched the tents farther away. Moreover, to buy the plot he obviously had to invite Shechem, who saw Dina. He goes on to actually defend Dina’s reputation, saying that Rashi is completely wrong and that Leah was a modest woman, who stayed in the tents – the one going out pasturing sheep is Rachel. And then he adds something else: Dina is the only young woman in that entire household. She has no sisters. And of course, he says, she went out with company – as Moses did when Moses goes to see his father-in-law.

Luzzatto (Shadal, Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865) defends Dina from the accusation of doing anything wrong: he says she just wanted to see the clothes and the women – and this is just what women do, there is nothing wrong. And he adds that, when he saw the Samaritan version of the Torah, it is not written “to see”, lir’ot, but “to instruct”, leharot, leaving us with a higher image of Dina than we would have.

A final voice for this moment in the discussion, much older than Rashi but apparently unknown to him, is a midrash collection called Pirkei deRabi Eliezer (Israel, 3rd century CE). On 38:1 it calls our attention to the verse that says that Shechem desired Dina the daughter of Yaakov – that Shechem had seen the tents pitched and wanted the wealth as well as the girl, so he send women to play music on pipes in the streets, and as soon as Dina came out drawn by the noise, he takes her. So depending on where you look, you will see different positions regarding Dina’s agency – and by comparison, the agency given to women in general.

Now, let’s talk about the case itself. There is a dispute on whether this is rape or seduction. Rape is an objective crime, seduction is much more complicated. And you understand the different reactions of the males in the story by separating these two ideas.

Those who see this as rape point out to “lay with her by force.” But this is a question of translation – the word “yeaneha” actually means “mistreated her” or “he humbled her” – and it is used in several other instances, but not in rape. This mistreatment of the body can be self-inflicted, imposed, or willing, and is used to describe fasting (Vayikra 23:32), slavery (Bereishit 15:13), and even adultery (Devarim 22:24).

The Tanach talks about rape in different moments – and in all those the expressions are chazakah – lit. force, or tefisa – lit. seizing physically (see Deuteronomy 22:25-28II Samuel 13). Both are missing from this story. There is no expression by Dina of screaming or trying to ward off Shechem. The verb used is lakach, to take, an ambiguous verb that is used also in marriage (to take as a wife.) The Tanach also knows about seduction, and in the case of a woman not betrothed, they must get married (Exodus 22:15-16) or the father receives the bride-price, whatever the father decides. Jewish law later, due to rabbininc enactments, will make sure that in the case of marriage the woman has the final say in any instance.

But back to our case – compare Dina’s case to the case of rape of Tamar by Amnon. As soon as he is done, he casts Tamar into the streets (II Shemuel 13:15-19). The idea is that once the act of violence is completed, from the psychological standpoint, the usual case of rape results in disgust on the part of the rapist for his victim.  And this is why in Deuteronomy the rapist is punished by having to marry and never to divorce his victim unless she desires it (Devarim 22:29). But look at Shechem – in the aftermath we read “his soul clung to Dina… and he loved the girl, and he spoke to the girl’s heart” (34:3). They are either inside the palace or they go into the palace later.

With those possibilities in mind, we can try to position each of the male characters. Each reaction is paired with a verse:

Yaakov (“for Dina his daughter had been defiled” [v. 5]);

The sons (“for an abomination had been committed in Yisrael” [v. 7]);

Chamor (“Shechem my son longs for your daughter” [v. 8]).


Yaakov sees his daughter as defiled because she had relations with an uncircumcised male. His baby, unaccustomed to the attentions of men she is not related to, has been taken advantage of by the local prince, a youth who may have slept with half the girls in his town already, for whom “I want, I have” is pretty much the law: this is not exactly democracy. Perhaps she even believes she is in love with him. Yaakov is upset but what can he say? He is learning all this through this visit of the king, Chamor, who actually wants the two young people to marry. Maybe Yaakov does not want to leave his daughter in the hands of this man, but he cannot force her to leave either. Uncharacteristically, Yaakov is quiet and reminds us much more of Yitzchak.

For Dina’s brothers, this is a clear-cut case of rape – statutory rape, perhaps, but the legal difference is not so important. “For an abomination had been committed in Yisrael, to sleep with a daughter of Yaakov – such cannot be done!” They are incensed. They feel dishonored and decide to act with guile, convincing the townspeople to circumcise themselves. Shimon and Levi, the zealots, alone murder every male, but all sons help in the plunder (v. 25-28).

Chamor sees this as a case of young love. Apparently, he is serious, seeing a full socioeconomic assimilation in his town’s future. Indeed, his townsmen see circumcision as a prerequisite for the assimilation of Yisrael amid the Chivi. They suspect nothing, since they see nothing wrong with the whole situation – and even if they did, who among them was going to go against the future king?

Dina, clearly, is not part of the conversation. She is not given the chance to say she wants – or not – to marry Shechem. Her only active part is going out. In all the rest of the story she is passive, and is only mentioned as an independent person at the end, on verse 26. She is seen as a figure, property, really, and the words to describe her will describe to whom she “belongs” – a girl to become a wife, a daughter, a sister. The story is much more a story about the positions of the men regarding Dina than of Dina herself. But that she might have been a willing participant is also underscored by what the brothers say at the end: is she to be treated like a prostitute? Prostitutes typically engage in sexual activity willingly, whatever your thoughts about prostitution might be.

Now, even though all brothers are together to take Dina back, only two are filled with blood lust. The brothers say twice that the only guilt here is “defiling” Dina. They do not even bring up the abduction – maybe because there was none. Maybe they all understand, through Chamor, that Dina went willingly. But that does not matter – it was the honor of the males that they go to punish the city. Yet Shimon and Levi go on to do an indiscriminate killing.

In terms of social conventions, if the seductor and the seduced were Israelites, they would be married. But this story comes to talk about the intermarriage with idolaters, circumcised or not. In this case, the polemic is very strong – and it has  reverberations later in Deuteronomy and Ezra-Nehemiah. But neither of those two books have the violent reaction of Shimon and Levi. That is so beyond the pale that Yaakov objects strongly at the end of the story, and will not forget this when he dies, cursing them (Gen. 49:5-7):

“Simeon and Levi are a pair;

Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

Let not my person be included in their council,

Let not my being be counted in their assembly.

For when angry they slay men,

And when pleased they maim oxen.


Cursed be their anger so fierce,

And their wrath so relentless.

I will divide them in Jacob,

Scatter them in Israel.”


Levi, we all know, gets no land – they are scattered in towns and are not landowners. Shimeon, as a tribe, eventually has land, but it is an enclave inside the tribe of Yehuda (See map here). Rashi, looking at this much later, will say that “all the very poor, such as scribes and elementary teachers, are all from the tribe of Shimeon.” Levi, without any land, has to serve in the temple and “go around collecting the tithes and gifts to the levites and kohanim” (Rashi on Genesis 49:7), a step up from begging, but not by much.


If the reaction of Yaakov in the beginning has to do with practicality, we see that it morphs to moral at the end of his life. Not only what Shimon and Levi did was morality wrong, but also it demonstrated even less consideration for Dina’s welfare than the laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy.


Dina will disappear from the Torah, but the daughter that she has with Shechem, according to the midrash, will be Asenat (Pirkei deRabi Eliezer 38:1-2). Asenat will marry Yosef. This last midrash is really looking to find a silver lining in all this, one of the most difficult stories of our patriarchs.


Shabbat Shalom.