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D’var Torah for Leo Baeck College

Parashat Lech Lecha


The Dark Side of the Moon


Arriving at Parashat Lech Lecha, it is tempting to focus on its beautiful and momentous opening in which Abram is commanded to go forth from his homeland. ‘Lech Lecha’ has become the paradigmatic narrative for the spiritual journey and the religious covenant.

Today, however, I would propose we journey a little deeper into our parashah to one of its more obscure sections and see if we can cast light upon it. In Genesis Chapter Fifteen, after Abram has battled the four kings of Canaan and withstood a number of tribulations, the Torah tells us about the arcane ritual of the Covenant of the Pieces (‘Brit haBetarim’). After Abram’s military successes, he appears to spiral down into melancholy (or perhaps today we would call it ‘depression’) and asks God both an existential and a practical question: who will inherit if I fail to have children, “v’anochi holech ariri?“ (Gen. 15:2)

This is a poignant moment. We can imagine Abram trying to come to terms with both his successes and his failures. Abram wonders what merit his successes will have if he has no progeny to bequeath his heritage to.


It is at this very moment that God enters center stage. First, God tries to comfort Abram by affirming God’s special relationship with the patriarch. ‘I am your shield’. (Gen. 15:1)

Secondly, God promises progeny as numerous as the stars, seemingly against all odds. This can almost be read as a prophetic echo of a comforting line from Psalm 147:4, ‘the Eternal numbers the stars and gives each one a name’.

To ratify His covenant with Abram, God instructs Abram to conduct a strange ritual, the so-called ‘Covenant of the Pieces’.

The ‘Covenant of the Pieces’ represents the darker sphere of both reality and our covenantal religion. It is not a clean or polished ritual but gritty and primitive. Abram is told to slaughter a number of different animals (a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon), to split them and then to pass through them. The scene is set dramatically: the sun sets and Abram falls into a deep and troubled sleep. In his sleep, he experiences a fiery furnace and a blazing torch passing through the covenant of the pieces and Abram is promised two realities: his descendants will be enslaved for four centuries, yet in the end, they will inherit the land promised them.


Our mysterious episode ends as suddenly as it started. Chapter Sixteen already commences with the Hagar narrative. If we were to examine this connection through smichut parshiyot, an analysis of adjacent verses, we may see that God seems to immediately fulfill His promise to Abram and Sarai.

And yet, the reader is left to wonder. What was the meaning of this dark and gruesome ritual? What was the purpose of the blood and gore and fire?


The Sages see the Covenant of the Pieces as being an allusion to what the Jewish people are yet to face: enslavement, loss of autonomy, exile but also ultimate Redemption. The Covenant of the Pieces teaches us that the bigger picture can speak to even the minutiae of our own lives. We all struggle with our successes and failures, our dreams and fears. Many of us may face moments in life where we pass through the fire, where we lament things lost and fear things yet to come. Life is not always clean and polished. Nor is life only a magnificent journey that we embark upon with our dignity intact and our hopes high. Sometimes we are broken and blinded by the thick smoke of our pain. The Covenant of the Pieces teaches us, however, that there is a torch to light our way through the black smoke.

According to Rashi, the act of splitting the animals and passing between them represents covenanting: the sharing of an experience in which the partners become like ‘blood siblings’. He also states that the ‘furnace and torch’ represents the Shechinah (Divine Presence) as She – like a pillar of fire by night - accompanies us through life’s darkest hour. Again, a psalm comes to mind: ‘as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear’ (Psalm 23:4).


Life can force us into the shadows and to gaze upon the dark side of the moon. Yet, true to God’s promise to Abram, the darkness and shadows allow us to see our stars shine all the brighter. The strength of the Covenant of the Pieces lies in its grittiness, in its ability to mix metaphors, to blend life and death into one intoxicating experience. We can pass through dire straits only to be born again. This is a covenant of a God Who is both infinitely loving and brutally honest. And it is this experience that makes our reality covenantal. Life isn’t easy, and sometimes we walk through darkness. But we might just be able to intuit that the Shechinah lights our way like a torch and that the stars illuminate our darker sphere. We may yet emerge stronger and more human, a true journey of the soul.

estherhugenholtz: Writing (Writing)

Be Here Now


Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai eloheichem…’ – ‘Today, you all stand before the Eternal your God’. These are the momentous opening words of our Torah reading. This apparently simple verse encapsulates this entire, spectacular Yom Kippur reading. In fact, the first word—hayom, today—is a fractal, a miniature, of this Parashah and perhaps even of Judaism. Let us look at four possible ways of approaching this seemingly ordinary sentence and examining the function this one remarkable word, ‘today’.


Firstly Today can speak to us plainly and simply refer to the time of the narrative. In that case, ‘today’ is a finite point in history, over three thousand years ago, when Moses addressed the people just before they crossed the Jordan and entered the land of Israel. The focus is on ‘nitzavim’—to stand firmly as the Jewish people, rooted in history.

If we read it like this, ‘today’ is an ancient Declaration of Independence which determined the fate of an entire people. ‘Today’ recounts the girdling of loins and the unsheathing of swords. The people are gathered, from the lowest water bearer to the highest chief. They stand united: before God, their leader and the vision that binds them all. Empires may rise and fall. The ancient Egyptians will only leave us their pyramids and the ancient Greeks only their philosophy. But Judaism stands as strong today as it did then. Today is history.


Today can also speak to us metaphorically. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic Rebbe, the ‘Today’ in Parashat Nitzavim refers to the judgment on Rosh haShanah. The key word is ‘Adonai eloheichem’—the Eternal your God. Today is Yom Kippur, the day on we enter into profound relationship with God, the day on which the Judgment is sealed. We stand before our Creator to contemplate our shortcomings, analyse our deeds and accept consequence. Today, we are purified through prayer, repentance and fasting. Today we travel through the most sacred time of our Jewish calendar. We wear white and deny ourselves food and drink so that way may inherit the quality of angels. We brush up against death and embrace life. Today is timeless.


In our third approach of hayom, Today is tomorrow. Today is Redemption. ‘You all stand before the Eternal your God’ is prophecy. Only when our hearts are truly united in purpose, as illustrated by the important word ‘kulchem’—all of us, then the lion shall down with the lamb and the wood hewer can stand on equal footing with the elder, the parent and child, husband and wife. This is the day where ‘lo yisa goy el goy cherev, v’lo yilmedu od milchamanation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Micah 4:3, Isaiah 2:4). It is the sheathing of swords and the drying of tears. It is the time of the Great Aleinu, when we stretch our imaginations to imagine a redeemed world where the specters of hunger and war plague us no longer. Or as the British band Queen sang, ‘if every leaf on every tree could tell a story that would be a miracle, if every child on every street, had clothes to wear and food to eat, that’s a miracle, if all God’s people could be free to live in perfect harmony, it’s a miracle.’ Today is the future.


And yet, out of all these readings, the one I find most compelling is my final and fourth reading. Today—hayom—refers to exactly what it is: the present. If we are gathered here now, before the Eternal our God…

It is not only a description of the past, nor only a vision of the future. It is not only an encounter with eternity, rather it is Now.

The traditional commentators, who analysed each word of the Torah, conclude that ‘there is no beginning or end to the Torah’. What they mean by this is not that the stories are out of sequence but rather, that there is an eternal quality to these stories. The cadence of Biblical Hebrew, with its mixture of present, past and future tenses, forces us to take the Torah on her own terms—she speaks to us still today. We can relate to the characters and their stories, their blessings and travails. In each of our communities, there is a Sarah struggling with infertility, there is an Isaac who suffers in silence, there is a Jacob who experiences personal growth. There is a Moses who rises to leadership, despite apparent handicaps, there is a Miriam who gets unjustly punished for delivering legitimate criticism, there is a Rivka who struggles with the meaning of life.


But the Torah is not only relevant because her stories still compel us but also because Judaism offers us a methodology of the present. Judaism forces us into the reality of Now. As our Parashah states, ‘ki hamitzvah hazot asher anochi metzavecha hayom lo niflet hi mimcha v’lo rechokah hi: lo bashamayim hi’—for this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, or to remote. It is not in heaven…’ God doesn’t want to set us up for failure or taunt us with what isn’t. Rather, God wants us to reach and touch and experience and live. In the words of Psalms 34:8, ‘taste and see that God is Good’. Life is to be lived in the full and sanctified in our midst. Our lives are not in Heaven, or beyond the sea so that we may be disempowered and feel small. No, today is tangible and real, close to us, in our mouths and our hearts, so that we may live it and be fully present.


Not only does Judaism want us to be fully present, Judaism forces us to be fully present. We make blessings over the rainbow and the sea, over freshly baked bread hot from the oven and a juicy, blushing apple. We make blessings upon seeing long-lost friends and upon hearing good news. So many of our traditions, rituals and laws are geared towards sensitizing us to the sanctity of life. We do not dwell on death or hypothesize about the Hereafter. What matters is the work of our hands and the path before our feet. When we enshroud ourselves in our tallit, we feel soft wool brush against our skin. When we light Shabbat candles with our loved ones, we feel the weight of a week lift from our shoulders as we celebrate rest with loved ones. When we make a conscious decision about what we do and do not eat, we empathise with the farmers who grow our food and the animals which are slaughtered for our nourishment.

To be present is to be engaged. It means that we can open our Bibles and prayer books and let the words invite us into an ancient conversation. It means that we can engage in lively discussion with our friends and fellow congregants. We can be angry and hurt and disappointed by our Judaism, just as we can fall in love with it and cherish it and feel moved to tears by it. Either way, it means that we care. Caring means we have the courage and strength to make our Judaism fully our own. It means that we are committed to studying and learning and doing. Or as the Children of Israel answered upon receiving the Torah: ‘na’aseh v’nishmah: we will do and we will listen’.

To be engaged is to be responsible. It means that we embrace our heritage and that we wrestle with it, warts and all. We are anguished over injustices and cruelties perpetrated by our texts and our communities. We vow to change and renew and open up when Judaism shuts the doors on so many of us, when it locks out women or homosexuals or minorities. To be responsible is to be covenanted. ‘L’av’r’cha bivrit Adonai eloheicha uvalato asher Adonai eloheicha koret imcha HAYOM.’—‘…to enter into the sworn covenant which the Eternal One your God makes with you this day.’


Our covenant is based on choice. Free will is a cardinal value and undeniable reality in our religion. ‘Hachayim v’hamavet natati lefaneicha, habracha v’hak’lalah u’bacharta bachayim l’ma’an ticheyeh ata v’zarecha’—‘I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.’

The famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides reminds us of this unshakable truth in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentence 5:1-3: “Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands...".


It is the right and the responsibility to choose that makes us distinctly human and that makes our Judaism real, modern and genuine. We all have to choose, just as we all stood at the foot of the mountain to hear the lightning and see the thunder. Being in the moment, fully present, awake, covenanted and committed—is what gives our lives value. Cherish every moment, savour every breath. Sit here on this day, this holy and awesome day. Do not only think, but breathe, feel, touch. Make yourself aware of your surroundings and of your community, of the chair that you sit in, the melodies that ring in your eyes and the love that envelops you. Hold the experience of loved ones in your life and the bittersweet memories of those who are no longer with you. Let the sun warm your skin and the breeze stroke your hair.

Let this Yom Kippur wash over you, the songs and words, the tunes and silences, the standing and the sitting, the hunger and thirst, the love and the awe. It is all real and all holy. This day is a mosaic of past, present and future. Judaism speaks to our history and our Redemption, it speaks to our sense of eternity. But most of all, let it speak to us today.


Our Parashah ends with an injunction to love God. How can we be forced to love God? In fact, can we know how we love Something that most of us find hard to define, to grasp or to understand? And yet, Torah provides us with the answer. Love is never abstract, it is always real. Be present in this awe-inspiring world and cast off the sin of indifference. Love will come from a tactile appreciation of life as it is. Let us set this day before our eyes. Be. Here. Now.

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The Politics of Being Nice


It was a blistering summer day in Jerusalem and the sweat was pouring from our faces. My friend and I had just visited the Kotel Ma’aravi, the Western Wall, to say our prayers. It was Friday afternoon and we wanted to walk home and prepare for Shabbat. We crossed through the Arab section of old Jerusalem and weaved our way through the masses of Muslim Arabs who left their mosques after Friday prayers. Even though the old quarters were crowded, people graciously let us pass. My friend wanted to buy a refreshing limonana drink from a Palestinian vendor. The vendor asked if I wanted one too but I declined because I still had a bottle of water. Even though we were clearly identifiable as Jewish women in our modest skirts, headscarf and Star-of-David necklaces, the kindly Muslim vendor offered me a limonana drink for free. Gratefully, I accepted and knowing that he himself would be fasting due to Ramadan, wished him a blessed Ramadan. It was a small act of random kindness but it meant a lot to me. Between the politics of land, power and money, this stranger practiced the politics of kindness.


This is what I want to talk about today: the politics of being nice. ‘Nice’ appears to be the plainest word in the English language. Being kind is an underrated value. It is deemed a small thing. Being ‘kind’ in and of itself will not solve the environmental crisis, world hunger or usher in world peace. It may not even be a guarantee for personal happiness. There are plenty of kind and good people in the world who suffer nonetheless. Our collective voice of cynicism may even ask what good small random acts of kindness do. They seem fleeting, like a drop in the ocean.

And yet, the politics of being nice is one of the pillars on which our tradition stands. The Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud really valued kindness, chesed, and the power of acts of kindness, which they called gemilut chasadim. In fact, our Rabbinic Tradition values kindness so much that it, according to Pirkei Avot 1:2, is one of the three pillars on which the world stands, together with Torah and the service of God itself – ‘al shlosha devarim haolam omed – al haTorah, al haAvodah v’al Gemilut Chasadim’.

After the destruction of the Temple, it was prayer and kindness that replaced the sacrifices and that became the heart of our Jewish spirituality.

Of course, the cardinal importance attached to kindness didn’t merely begin with the Rabbis. Our entire tradition—from the earliest Bible stories to the Chassidic tales of the 18th century—brims with a love of kindness. Avraham Avinu himself was praised for his kindness and exceptional generosity towards strangers and wayfarers. His exemplary kindness towards the citizens of Sodom is something I spoke about on Rosh haShanah.

But Abraham Avinu isn’t the only Biblical hero who displayed kindness, of course. Shifra and Puah, the midwives of ambivalent status (some hold that they were Jews, others hold that they were righteous Gentiles) displayed great courage and kindness when they tried to save Hebrew babies from Pharaoh’s evil decree. They gently took care of baby Moses. According to Rashi, the kindness is even reflected in the etymologies of their names. Shifra is related to the root shin-peh-reish, ‘to beautify’ and Puah is related to the Hebrew word signifying cooing. In other words, not only did Shifra and Puah save babies, they also displayed extra chesed by beautifying and comforting them.

Of course, there is the story of Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, who rescued Moses from the gaping mouth of the Nile. There are the stories of Job and Noah, two Gentile heroes our Tanakh accords great respect on account of their kindness. Moses was praised for his humility and his kindness to even animals. The Midrash states that the Eternal chose Moses for his mission because God saw the great mercy Moses displayed towards retrieving a straying lamb. David, as a young man, showed compassion for the troubled Saul by playing his harp to sooth Saul’s spirit.

Moreover, the Midrash recounts another act of supreme kindness: in the time of King David, there were two brothers. Both had an equal share of land. One, however, was single but prosperous. The other, destitute but rich in children. The single brother thought, ‘I have more than enough crops to sustain me, let me go give wheat to my brother who has so many mouths to feed’. While the brother with wife and children thought, ‘Through my children, I will have support in my old age and so I do not need all this crop, let me go to my single brother who has no such guarantees and share my wheat with him. ‘ Unbeknownst to each other, they secretly filled each other’s silo with wheat, out of the goodness of their heart. Because of this, God merited that the Holy Temple itself would be built on the very land that prompted them to act with great mercy.

                Furthermore, it is the Prophets themselves who enjoined acts of kindness upon us. As the Prophet Isaiah states in the Haftarah for Yom Kippur: “Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:1-14)

Finally, in the Midrashic imagination of the Rabbis, even God Himself graced us with His kindness. It was God Who adorned Eve as a beautiful bride and escorted her to the chuppah in Gan Eden. And it was God Himself who made sure that Moses was buried when he died at 120 years of age. Unsurprisingly, core rabbinic values of kindness are accompanying the bride and burying the dead.


When we are reflecting upon our shortcomings during Yom Kippur, it’s easy to dwell on the spectacular transgressions. After all, our liturgy focuses—thankfully addressing us in the collective—on committing adultery, slandering, hatemongering and theft. In a way this may cause a disconnection. Do all of us really commit adultery and acts of violence? Of course not. But this sense of disconnection from the liturgy makes it easier for us to fall into the trap of putting this criticism aside and believing that we have less inner work to do. What if we choose to focus on our relationship with our ability to be nice? Let us think about what it means to be kind—both from the vantage point of our tradition (as I have already discussed) and from the vantage point of our personal experience. I am not proposing that we should ignore the negative injunctions of the liturgy but instead I propose that we add positives as well. In what ways could we have been kinder? In what ways could little acts of chesed have brightened the days of our fellow human beings?  Perhaps added to our solemn list of ashamnu’s and al chet’s, we could chant to the rhythm of our heart:

We can smile at a stranger on the bus. We can open the door for an elderly person. We can extend a hand to a lonely refugee. We can treat a single mother with dignity. We can give a little more charity. We can write a Get-Well card for a sick co-worker. We can give an extra hug to a grandchild. We can listen to a lonely friend. We can make that extra phone call to an ailing parent. We can spend those few extra minutes recycling our trash. We can volunteer an extra hour at the local shelter. We can help our neighbour carry her groceries. We can, as the Prophet Micah commands us, not only walk humbly but also do justly and love mercy.’


Kindness begins as a reflection in the face of our fellow human being, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Traditionally, the introspective period before the Yemei Teshuvah—the Days of Repentance—is divided up between contemplating two categories of relationship: bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero. The first refers to the relationship between the individual and the Divine. The second refers to the relationship of the individual and his or her fellow human beings. Modern Jewish thought, however, has proposed a third category: bein adam l’atzmo: between an individual and his or herself. We don’t only reflect upon our so-called horizontal and vertical relationships but also on our internal relationship—with ourselves.

This logic can be extended to practicing the transformative politics of kindness. Not only should we be kind to others, and to the Omnipresent and all that God encompasses (such as our sacred, physical Universe) but also to ourselves. Perhaps this is the hardest kindness of all.

V’ahavta larecha kamocha’, our holy Torah commands us (Leviticus 19:18), ‘Love your neighbour as yourself – I am the Lord’. Rabbi Hillel taught this verse to the convert who asked him to explain the essence of Judaism on one foot: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it’ (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a). Rabbi Akiva expounded this verse as being a ‘great principle of the Torah’ (Midrash Torat Kohanim).

Usually we look at thsis verse one-dimensionally. It seems obvious. Love your neighbour as yourself. We read it with the emphasis on neighbour. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. But what if we shift the emphasis and read it as, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? We can only truly be kind to others if we can first be kind to ourselves. If we judge ourselves too harshly, this will provide fertile ground for harsh judgments of others. But if we are gentle with our own souls, then we create the spaciousness of heart and the fortitude of spirit to be gentle with our fellow human beings. One cannot exist without the other.


Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”, thus spoke Philo of Alexandria, the ancient Hellenist Jewish philosopher.  This truth echoes across the millennia. Life is hard, and in varying degrees, we have all experienced its hardships. Being kind is gratifying. Although it is not easy, it is simple. It is a task from which we are not free to desist and it is an investment that yields immediate returns. In a cynical world where it is easy to feel disempowered in the face of great evil and suffering, it is random acts of kindness that can empower us: both as givers and as receivers. Be kind to our world, to others and last but not least, to yourself. When saying the ashamnu’s and al chet’s, don’t literally ‘beat yourself up’ but rather gently knock at the gates of your heart. ‘Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah’—‘Open for me the gates of righteousness and I will come there and thank God’ (Psalm  118:19).


Open yourself up to the rhythms of compassion and attune to the music of your heart. Then perhaps we may one day discover that there is more love to go round than we had expected. That we can build up our world through this grace, this abundant love, stone by stone, brick by brick, layer by layer. And then we might find that acts of loving kindness are indeed the pillars of Creation after all.

You might be surprised yet.

estherhugenholtz: Writing (Writing)

Did Abraham Fail the Test?


There are countless themes that run through the High Holidays and we are familiar with many of them: repentance, justice, prayer, soul-searching. Of the Yom haDin, the Day of Judgment and of celebrating the Creation of the world: of anticipated endings and new beginnings. They push us to think about our relationship with ourselves, others, the world and God. The Yamim Nora’im—Days of Awe—are not supposed to be easy; they are supposed to be meaningful.

The theme I would like to address concerns itself with the courage to be morally defiant, even if it means defying God for the sake of God’s own justice. Many of us have the classical image in our head of God being crowned King on Rosh haShanah as all of Creation passes before Him in judgment. However, this can also be a difficult and an incomplete image. Perhaps it is us who should judge God in return.


This sounds preposterous, of course. But is it? I propose that we look closer at this idea through the lens of one of the most riveting and disturbing Rosh haShanah stories: Akeidat Yitzchak—the Binding of Isaac. And I dare launch a controversial statement.

Abraham failed the test. Not because he didn’t sacrifice Isaac but because he almost did.


How did Abraham fail the test of sacrificing his son? In order to answer that question, let us look at the context.

Looking at the context of a Torah passage or verse is an ancient Jewish technique of text study. Rashi calls this smichut parshiyot, the joining of different passages so that we may glean meaning from their interconnection.  In a sense it is like watching a soap opera. What happened in the previous episode and how will this impact the unfolding plot?

Previously in the book of Genesis, we witnessed the unfolding of the Sodom and Amorrah story. The twin cities of sin have found ill-favour in God’s eyes. Not because, as often is thought, due to acts of sexual depravity, but rather, as the Midrash states, because of social exclusion. The Sodomites twisted their laws to legally oppress the stranger and the poor amongst them. Finally God heard a great outcry rising from Sodom (which the Midrash recounts as coming from a young woman tortured to death because she fed a starving man). God decides to intervene and overturn the cities. Of course this begs the question: were all the inhabitants of Sodom and Amorrha cruel and morally corrupt and deserve to be killed by the wrath of God?

Avraham Avinu asks himself the exact same question and he calls God on it, so to speak. “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?” (18:25) he says. And he proceeds to negotiate with God down to ten righteous people.

The Abraham we encounter here is truly a man who walks with God. He has the courage to hold God to God’s own absolute moral standards. Does God not expect Abraham to rise to the occasion?

As the famous Bible scholar Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes in her monumental work, ‘Genesis – the Beginning of Desire’:


‘In [this] famous passage, Abraham negotiates with God about the destiny of Sodom. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”asks God (18:17). In [Midrash] Bereshit Rabbah, God’s special love for Abraham is expressed thus: Ï shall do nothing without his knowledge”… his consciousness (da’at) is valued by God, his reactions courted even where they run, in an obvious sense, counter to the expressed intent of God. So Abraham pleads for Sodom, “plays” God down from fifty righteous saviors of the city to ten. The core of his plea balances his concern for God with his concern for humanity. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”(18:25).“


It is Abraham’s ability to ‘hold both God and man in a single thought’, which, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel is the mark of a truly religious human being. It is what makes Abraham uniquely righteous.

Abraham is the first in the Bible who dares take initiative as exemplified by his aggressive plea to save Sodom. Abraham’s intimate relationship with the Eternal and his heart overflowing with love makes him unafraid to draw on either quality for the sake of even the gravest of sinners. This is the Abraham we love and admire.


This, then, is the context preceding Akeidat Yitzchak. Our troubling passage opens with ‘achar hadevarim haeleh’—‘and it was after these things’. The classical commentators ask themselves, ‘what things?’ (Many things happened in this parashah, and Midrash fills in the blanks). My bold proposition then, is to read ‘achar hadevarim haeleh’ as referring to the Sodom episode. Like a good soap opera, we know what our protagonist has been up to before. We saw last week’s cliffhanger. We think that we can anticipate our hero’s next move. Abraham has, after all, shown momentous courage.

But then Abraham our Father surprises us with his most troubling act of moral ambiguity yet. When the Torah tells us, ‘achar hadevarim haeleh, haElohim nisa et Avraham’—‘and it was after these things that God tested Abraham’ we know all too well what follows: the reprehensible commandment to sacrifice his son. Is this the same God Whose justice could be tempered by a man’s plea for mercy? Is this the same God Who promised to never destroy the earth again after the deluge? Who sets a rainbow over all the earth as a sign of His covenant of love with all of Creation?

Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that Abraham stayed silent upon hearing the gruesome order. She says:


‘Silence is the ultimate modality of Abraham… Abraham was silent when suffering, as it is said, ‘Take your son.’ He could have said, ‘Yesterday, You told me, ‘in Isaac your seed will be named.’ He could have [should have?] responded… but he says nothing.’


And so we are left to wonder, is this the same Abraham full of bravado only a few chapters ago?  This man timidly and willingly resigns himself to the fate of sacrificing his beloved son.

This story seems a direct inversion of the Sodom story. In the Sodom story, God could be swayed and He promises to show mercy if ten righteous people are found (of course, the story doesn’t end well for the Sodomites). It is Abraham who sets the conditions. What we see is a picture of a stern but merciful God and of God’s brave and morally righteous servant.

However, in the Akeidah, it is God who is unrelenting and Abraham who complies with an absurd demand. How can this be? The korban (sacrifice) seems to be inverted: the guilty becomes the innocent, the bystander becomes the father and the God willing to forego some of His power now becomes a God Who wishes to vindicate Himself ad absurdum.

Or so it seems.


I believe we can read the text in a radically different way. When the Torah states that ‘God tried Abraham’, I believe the true test was not whether Abraham would sacrifice Isaac but rather whether Abraham would have the holy chutzpah to do again what he did before. Resist. Defy. Argue. Isn’t this the pattern of behavior that the Eternal expects (and demands) from his faithful servant? After all, Abraham is commanded to ‘la’asot tzedakah u’mishpat’—to do righteousness and justice. The text may provide us hints to support such a reading.

The Torah recounts: ‘Abraham, take your son.’ The famous medieval commentator Rashi fills in the gaps of a truncated conversation: ‘God says, ‘take your son.’ Abraham said to God, ‘I have two sons.’ God said to him, ‘your only one’. Abraham replied, ‘which son? God said, ‘the one you love’ upon which Abraham replied, ‘I love them both’. Finally God specifies:’ Isaac’.

It is almost as if the Torah and Rashi are both waiting with baited breath. Each word carefully articulated, each pause apparent. Are you sure you want to do this, Abraham? Stop. Think this over. Stop. Take a deep breath. Stop. Remember who Isaac is, Abraham. He is your longed-for, chosen son, heir apparent of your legacy of justice and loving kindness, the only child of your beloved wife Sarah. Stop.

Can you almost hear the dark irony of the Torah’s text as God issues His command? It is as if you can almost imagine God repeating the thought to Himself: ‘shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing?’ Is God issuing Abraham a hidden invitation, no better yet: a hidden command to rebel?  Is, a God who demands such an exacting price a God worth serving? Rashi hints at God’s real intent through the word ‘v’ha’elehu’—bring him up. God doesn’t use the word ‘slaughter’ at all…


And yet, Abraham zealously complies.

He takes his son up to Mount Moriah. Silence marks their ascent to the sacrificial altar, a descent into slavish obedience. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav considers this an encounter with the challal panui, the silent space of God’s absence. Perhaps God makes Himself absent from abhorrent human actions done in His Holy Name. Perhaps the silence awaits Abraham’s response – not in an eagerness to serve but in an eagerness to oppose in the Name of God Himself. And yet Abraham and Isaac walk on together, the son completely trusting his father, the father completely loving the son. It only makes the scenario more poignant and cruel.

At the end, God stays Abraham’s hand, the knife hovering dangerously over the bound Isaac. But is it really God staying Abraham’s hand? Genesis speaks of a ‘malach’, an angel of God. Why is it not God Himself intervening? Is it possible to read God’s lack of direct presence as thinly-veiled disappointment? He sent His angel to stop the drama from unfolding. Perhaps God is angry with Abraham. Like an angry and disappointed parent, God does not want to face Abraham. True, the p’shat (plain meaning) of the text suggests pride of not having been withheld Isaac but I can almost imagine this being a taciturn compliment of a sour and obligatory nature.

Abraham failed the test. Perhaps this passage should be called Akeidat Avraham for truly it is Abraham who is bound: hands and feet and heart and lips, failing to reject callousness in the Name of the Most High.


We can all imagine moments in our lives as Jews, as people of faith, as human beings where we should have stood up to authority unafraid, even when that authority seems absolutely correct. It is easy and comfortable to conform, to wash our hands clean from responsibility, to shirk accountability. But both the Sodom story and the Akeidah remind us that it is often through rule of law that the cruelest of crimes are perpetrated.

Of course, we are fallible. We, too, fail to stand up to ‘do righteousness and justice’. But then again, we can take comfort by looking at the other side of the coin. We too can defy authority for a righteous cause and confront the Divine with Divine principles. There is a definite place in our tradition for what I would call ‘covenantal anger’ sparked by the human condition and all the cruel and senseless tragedies that can befall us throughout our lifetimes.  Rule of divine law means that even God Himself is bound by justice and that when God fails to live up to His own standards, then we are called to judge Him. Only then can God’s integrity be preserved and is He worthy of our worship. This is the mark of a person’s genuine relationship with God and only under this condition can God be the One Who ‘heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, who numbers the stars and gives each one a name’ (Psalm 147:3-4).


Fortunately, both modalities of Abraham live within us. Hopefully, reminding ourselves of the Akeidah and standing before the Divine Presence during these Days of Awe will give us the strength to emulate the Abraham we love and admire. Be the justice in the world that you want to see done. Be and be not afraid. Then perhaps we can really bring Heaven down to Earth.


Shanah tovah!

estherhugenholtz: Writing (Writing)

Today, entertainment competes heavily for our attention. Some eagerly await the Season Finale of ‘Lost’, others are happy to go see a movie at a nearby movie theater. There’s Hulu and Netflix and the iPod, and even the iPad. There’s a real information overload but why?

The premise of cheap entertainment is the thrill. The premise of quality entertainment, however, is the story. And good stories can be told compellingly in any medium whether it’s the silver screen, pixels or print. Or, perhaps, a good story can be told through the forgotten art of theater.

I would like to cordially invite you to examine a unique and ancient theater production of our own: the Megillah Reading. True, it may not be a Broadway show, but the story is absolutely riveting. The Book of Esther contains comedy, romance and suspense and is topped off with a happy ending—of sorts. The Megillah features a brave hero (Mordechai), and evil villain (Haman), a well-intentioned but ignorant king (Achashverosh) and of course, our beautiful heroine: Queen Esther.

I would like to approach the character of Esther. How does she develop as a character? And what is her message for a contemporary audience?

The book of Esther can be read on multiple levels. At first glance, the story seems to be a Shakespearian ‘comedy of errors’. Yet the apparent levity of the story is counterbalanced by a profound sense of gravity.

Firstly, for a Biblical text, it is remarkable that the protagonist who is featured so prominently (and heroically) is a woman. Moreover, it is striking that she is also the richest and most complex character in the story. Achashverosh and Haman are caricatures. Vashti only makes a brief cameo appearance and even our brave Mordechai is a flat character. In a sense, his heroism is predictable and one-dimensional. It is Queen Esther who tantalizes us with her complexity, courage and contradictions. Unsurprisingly, then, she is also the character that undergoes the most growth.

Another striking feature of the Book of Esther is the absence of God. The Rabbis from the Talmud already wrestled with this question. If this book is a sacred and canonical text, then where does God come into play? Or does He remain in the wings? The Megillah does not mention the God of Israel once. Furthermore, the Megillah’s plot illustrates a number of incidents that contradict Jewish law. Wasn’t Esther ‘intermarried’?  How did she keep kosher in the palace of the Persian king? Was Esther a religious girl or a prime example of assimilation avant-la-letre? Exploring these questions will provide us with compelling insights into Esther’s character.

Midrash tries to answer these questions.

One of the Midrashic answers comes from the Talmud Bavli (Megilla 10b to 17a). The Midrash suggests that Esther adhered to a vegetarian diet at the palace, immersed in a mikveh before consorting with the King and resisted relations with Achashverosh. All this, of course, is conjecture of idealized ‘rabbinic’ behavior on part of Queen Esther. The rabbinic imagination doesn’t stop here. The Midrash describes Queen Esther’s beauty to the Morningstar. Even so, a more contemporary analysis of Esther’s character is more complex and more enticing.

Esther’s story begins as a hybrid between Cinderella and America’s Next Top Model—only set in Antiquity. The orphan Esther (also known as Hadassah) is Mordechai’s beautiful niece. After Achashverosh’s unfortunate incident with his former wife Vashti, Esther is summoned to the palace. There she is to compete against the many beautiful young maidens of Shushan in order to find favor in the King’s eyes. Esther won the beauty pageant avant-la-letre and was assigned personal handmaidens and an intricate year-long spa treatment with oil of myrrh, perfume and cosmetics.

If one reads the p’shat (literal meaning) of the story, concluding that Esther was the superficial type would be obvious. She allows herself to be pampered and seems to enjoy the attention lavished upon her. The text of the Megillah doesn’t hint at her having any other ambitions except from being Persia’s beauty queen. Initially, it is Mordechai who takes bold steps in order to safeguard the future of the Jewish people while Esther prefers to look away. Even when the situation surrounding Haman’s evil plans worsens.

Mordechai tries to galvanize Esther into action when he learns of Haman’s genocidal plans. He prods her to draw the King’s attention to these plans. Her initial response is evasive. 'All the king's servants, and the people of the king's provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live; but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days.' (Esther 4:11)         

Mordechai is disappointed in Esther’s response and even has to convince Esther to search out the King. Mordechai states; 'Don’t think that you shall escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews.’

Interestingly so, this outcry is the turning point in the narrative. From a literary perspective, it cannot be coincidental that this occurs in the middle of the Megillah, in the fifth chapter. And not only is this a turning point for the plot but also for the growth of Esther as a true heroine. She becomes a character of depth and substance who gains insight and courage. Both bravely and stoically, she proclaims, ‘v’cha’asher avad’ti, avad’it’: ‘if I perish, I perish’. (Esther 4:16)

This is the moment that Esther comes to full bloom and where she develops real Shakespearian finesse. Our young heroine forges her own plans to manipulate Achashverosh through seduction, wit and palace intrigue. Amongst these worldly goals, Esther still balances spiritual concerns by fasting—in sharp contrast to the opulence and decadence of the Persian court.

Unlike many Shakespearian dramas (although in keeping with Shakespearian comedies) all ends well. The Queen is rewarded, Mordechai is vindicated, Haman is hanged and the Jews are saved.

Esther reigns triumphant, as a fully developed and well-rounded character. She is worthy of her title, ‘Esther haMalka’. Her personal development gains full significance in light of a small but telling detail in the narrative of the Megillah. In Chapter 9, verse 29, the Megillah writes: ‘vatichtov Esther’, ‘and Esther wrote’. This description of the Purim decree that Esther issued speaks volumes. Esther shares the (albeit, dubious) honor with Jezebel of being the only two women in Tanakh who wrote in person. (Jezebel’s act of writing is recording in Kings I, 21:8). The notion of a literate Biblical Queen sparks the imagination of the contemporary reader. Esther truly underwent a metamorphosis and became the complex and rich character that still fascinates us to this day.

If you would like to experience the depth of Esther’s character yourself, I would encourage you to come to a Megillah reading. Bring your Megillah – in Hebrew and in translation – and your best spirits. Allow yourself to be swept away by an epic tale that still rings true and by the charm of its beautiful protagonist. The Book of Esther surely is a good story. With a great heroine at its midst.       

(This (slightly revised) article, written as an assignment for class, was inspired by an earlier Dutch article on Queen Esther)

estherhugenholtz: For discussing Torah and mitzvot (V'ahavta)

Haftarah for Bamidbar: Hosea 2:1-22

I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You

How can I forget the day that I was to be married to my beloved husband? Of course, every wedding has its memorable moments. There’s the whispered holiness of the mikveh the day before, the silken-soft rustle of dress and veil, the lilting scents of perfume and bouquet. More importantly, the hugs and kisses of loved ones in celebration punctuate my memories. Of course, there is dancing and song and laughter. The giddying experiences of being hoisted upon chairs during the Hora and the sweetness of sanctified wine upon eager lips.

To me, however, the moment suspended in eternity was when my beloved chattan pronounced the words that sanctified me unto him according to the Law of Moses and Israel and when he - amongst all the pomp and circumstance of the day – slid a simple, unassuming gold band on my finger. From that moment on, my heart sang, we were covenanted to each other.

Of course, a wedding is the culmination of an intense process of emotional and spiritual growth between two people. Most great love stories have spectacular endings yet humble beginnings. So too for my husband and myself. What is there to tell? We met in synagogue!

One of the world’s greatest love stories is the relationship between God and the Jewish people. This saga also had humble origins—with a shepherd from Ur Kasdim. And, like most love stories, there was an intense process of emotional and spiritual growth between God and Israel. In our case, this took place in the desert, after a spectacular elopement from Mitzrayim.

Parashat Bamidbar recounts this formative period in the covenantal relationship. The parashah sets the stage: “on the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt…” (Num. 1:1) only to continue with a seemingly strange demand: “take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses…” (Num. 1:2)

Hence, Moshe and Aharon are instructed to count the people and administrate them, the overarching theme of the parasha.

According to Rashi the census may not be strange at all. This famous early Medieval commentator explains that God counted the people out of His great love for them. What better way to cement a relationship than to pay close attention to detail; to the needs of your love and to take constant note of their presence? Or as the 19th century poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in Sonnet 43: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’

The Haftarah on Hosea ties in beautifully with this theme and expands it.

The eighth century (BCE) prophet Hosea was the first prophet to phrase the covenantal relationship between God and Israel in marital and monogamous terms. Chastening the Jewish people for their idolatry, he compares this to adultery and hereby creates an oft-repeated refrain of monotheism as spiritual monogamy. However, Hosea is not only interested in chiding the Jews in the name of God but also offers them healing their relationship through the forgiveness of God. The divine voice oscillates between anger and love, like a lover spurned or husband betrayed.

Hosea persuades his audience by appealing to metaphors of both a romantic past and a promising future.

Love in the wilderness is one of the nostalgic metaphors that the prophet Hosea draws on. Through him, the Holy One Blessed be He reminisces that He ‘will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness and speak to her tenderly… there she shall respond as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt’ (Hosea 2:16-17).

Not only is Hosea a prophetic mouthpiece for God’s desire to enter and maintain a covenantal ‘marriage’ with Israel, but he also becomes an actual conduit for that desire. The prophet is forced to take the prostitute Gomer daughter of Diblaim as his wife and accept the fruits of her womb as his own children, regardless of which unknown man sired them. His children he shall name ‘Lo-Ruchamma’ (Unforgiven) and ‘Lo-Ammi’ (Not My People) as an embodiment of God’s feelings of betrayal by Israel on account of their idolatry. In essence, Hosea lives—body and soul—in the experience of a broken relationship that must—and will be—fully restored.

When Israel will return to God in unwavering loyalty and worship of Him alone, this relationship will be restored. With inspired Messianic fervor, the prophet voices God’s desire:

‘And in that day—declares the Lord—you will call Me Ishi, and no more will you call Me Baali. For I will remove the names of the Baalim from her mouth, and they shall nevermore be mentioned by name. In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land. Thus I will let them lie down in safety.’ (Hosea 2:18-19)

 The pun on ‘ba’al’ is obvious to the attentive reader. Ba’al is the Canaanite fertility god at whose sacred groves the Israelites knelt in idolatry. But ba’al—meaning ‘master’— is also the Hebrew word for husband. A husband in antiquity was indeed the ‘master’ of his wife: he acquired her for a bride-price and had legal jurisdiction over her.

Yet here, Hosea is proposing something awe-inspiring. Not only is God eager to take His beloved bride back into His arms but moreover, He is yearning to develop their relationship. God appears to says through his faithful prophet that in the Messianic Era, Israel and God will not relate to each other in old terms but in new ones. Not through a model of patriarchy shall God be served, but perhaps through a model of marital egalitarianism. The poignantly neutral word ‘Ish’—man—is substituted. Can we imagine that in a time of universal peace, brotherhood and spiritual closeness it is possible that we will have an entirely new and fulfilling relationship with the Holy One? Where we are betrothed again in ‘righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy’ so that we may ‘know the Lord?’(Hosea 2:21-22)

It is a daring metaphor that Hosea employs and compelling in its spiritual audacity. Maybe the metaphor allows us to superimpose divine love onto human love. If we are created ‘b’tselem Elohim’—in the image of God—and are betrothed to Him in sacred covenant, then maybe we can extend that same covenant of love to other people. Maybe it will enable us to look at our partners, our husbands and wives with new eyes. Maybe it allows us to blend and redefine our notions of the masculine and feminine, of God the King of Kings and as His Shechinah on a model of God betrothing us all. Is it a coincidence that Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) that holiest of love songs speaks of such a love between lovers and allegorically between God and humanity? Of a love where the partners are equals yet at the same time entirely devoted to each other.

It is unsurprising then that this same rousing passage is recited during the ritual of laying tefillin (phylacteries). As we say these verses and wrap the strap linking the Torah to our hands around our fingers, we emulate the chuppah. We are invited to marry God each day anew, in a relationship that allows our full potential to come to fruition.

As a kallah (bride), my moment suspended in eternity did not end after my chattan slipped the ring on my finger. I proceeded to gently take his hand into mine and to slip a gold band around his finger. I too covenanted him to me—in righteousness and justice, goodness and mercy.

Together we live our lives in a tender and sacred covenant where my husband is not my ‘ba’al’ but my ‘ish’.

I can only wish the very same for all of us—both in the realm of earthly love and in the realm of God’s presence.

estherhugenholtz: For discussing Torah and mitzvot (V'ahavta)

A Dutch proverb says: "dreams are deceptive". However, when speaking from within the Jewish tradition, I couldn’t disagree more. In this D’var Haftarah from 1 Kings on parashat Miketz, we will explore the significance and prophetic value of dreams.

Someone else who who believed in the power of dreams was the late Reverend Martin Luther King. In his momentous 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he bravely stated:

 "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." 

Further on in his speech, the late Reverend King cites from Amos and Isaiah, referencing the idea that in his dream of a better world, a more racially equitable world, righteousness will roar like streams and and every valley shall be exalted. The power of his words and of his dream echo across the generations.

In parashat Miketz, it is Pharoah’s dream--whose leadership represents the antithesis of freedom and social equality--that echoes across the generations. He dreams of seven fat cows being devoured by seven lean cows followed by a dream about seven solid ears of grain being swallowed up by seven thin ears of grain (Gen. 41:2-7). Many of us know what happens next: Joseph, the lowly Hebrew prisoner in his dungeon, is able to successfully interpret his dreams and is ‘exalted’ (to extend the metaphor from Isaiah) to a position of being the capable viceroy of Egypt.

The Haftarah links beautifully to this parasha where the evocative power of dreams is combined with wise judgement in leadership. The haftarah tells the story of how Shlomo haMelech acquired an ‘understanding heart’. Before his building of the Beit haMikdash, he--like his fellow Israelites at the time--brought offerings to God on the bamot, the high places. After offering a generous sacrifice in Gibeah, God appears to him in a dream. When God asks Shlomo what he wants, Shlomo answers wisely: he does not yearn after riches, power or success but rather after wisdom to judge right from wrong:

וְנָתַתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לֵב שֹׁמֵעַ, לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-עַמְּךָ, לְהָבִין, בֵּין-טוֹב לְרָע:

"Will you give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to know the difference between good and evil". (I Kings 3:9)

God honors Shlomo’s request and he is given a heart that has the ability to listen (lishmoa), understand and judge fairly. In fact, immediately after Shlomo’s awakening (and him offering more to God in gratitude), Melachim Aleph narrates the story of two prostitutes living under one roof. Two prostitutes appear before Shlomo’s court and argue about the claim to a remaining living child. One of the mothers accidently killed her newborn by laying on top of him but it is not clear which of the two women is responsible for her child’s death. Both claim to be sincere about wanting to maintain custody over her rightful child.

It is through Shlomo’s wisdom and careful listening that he is able to discern the truth: because the true mother refers to the living child first (demonstrating her maternal love) while the false claimant emphasises the dead child (thus emphasizing her claim to possession). Shlomo, after trying the women with a trial that near-wagers the child’s life, goes on to judge correctly:

"The king said, "One says, ‘This is my son, the live one, and the dead one is yours’; and the other says, ‘No, the dead boy is yours mine is the live one.’So the king gave the order, "Fetch me a sword."A sword was brought before the king, and the king said, "Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other." (1 Kings 3:23-24)

Of course, his threat to kill and divide the child is only a ploy to pry the truth out of the women. Though shocking and traumatic to modern sensibilities, he appeals to the maternal instinct to place the interests of the child above all. He prooves apt at both seeing the big picture while at the same time recognizing that ‘God is in the details’. His close listening prooves effective.

In response, the people stand in awe of their wise king. This really is a turning point in Shlomo’s royal career. Previously, he had taken his royal lineage for granted after having secured the kingship with the help of the plotting of his mother Batshebah. Before, he was a king in title only. But at this moment, he is crowned with wisdom.

The haftarah is clear about the role of dreaming in this character development. It is through dreaming that Shlomo realizes where his priorities should be and it is through dreaming that he attains the ‘ruach hakodesh’--the holy spirit--with which to judge wisely. It is then no surprise, after the people’s enthusiastic and awestruct acceptance of his kingship, that Melachim Aleph recounts how his people know peace, security and prosperity, ‘with every man under his figtree and vine’. Under wise and equitable leadership, the people are content and the intention of God’s Torah is fulfilled.

The Talmud Bavli comments on the power and significance of dreams. In Masechet B’rachot 57b, it is stated that ‘a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy’, just like Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World to Come and sleep is one-sixtieth of death. Why one-sixtieth? Because this fraction represents a liminal moment. Just as one-sixtieth of chametz on Pesach or treif food in a kosher pot can determine or influence the status of the said food, one-sixtieth of prophecy in dreams hints at the budding potential of true wisdom in our dreams. Not a fully actualized potential, but one waiting to be unfolded.

Furthermore, the Talmud puns on the connection between Shlomo and dreams as it states earlier on the page that ‘if one sees Shlomo in a dream, one may hope for wisdom’. The connection between dreams, prophecy and wisdom in Jewish tradition is profound and ancient.

Yet, this is not where the story ends. Dreams may not be real but they call upon us to be realized. Ruach hakodesh is in vain when a dream that calls upon justice is not materialized. Martin Luther King didn’t merely state that he had a dream as a far-off messianic vision or as a figment of a fanciful imagination. No, his very and every intention is that his dream would come true. Dreams can be translated into hope and hope can be galvanized into action.

Both the parashah and haftarah teach us about the actualization of dreams: the despot Pharaoh, through the implementation of Joseph’s wisdom, was able to stave off famine for his people (though I am sure his motives weren’t entirely altruistic). Likewise, Shlomo took his dream to heart and fulfilled it immediately (the ‘smichut parshiyot’, the joining of the verses narrating his dream and his judgement of the prostitutes is significant in this regard). He judged wisely, knowing ‘good from evil’ but furthermore, he judged compassionately. Two lowly women--like the lowly Joseph--appeared before him. He could have sentenced them to death for prostitution or taken away the child from either of them altogether. However, his ‘understanding heart’ allowed him to judge with both din (judgement) and chesed (loving-kindness), a perfect balance of God’s justice in our world.

Dreams are not deceptive. They are only deceptive if they lure us away from loftier goals and ideals, if they imbue upon us a sense of fear, despair or worthlessness. But some dreams are worth dreaming--and pursuing. Dream a good dream of justice--be it in the small things of personal life or in the large scheme of the world--and pursue it arduously. And know that these inner prophecies may indeed come from God.

estherhugenholtz: Recipes and reviews (Food)
I tasted this delicious soup in a fine Spanish-French restaurant ran by a disciple of Paul Bocuse. I was so impressed with the recipe that I tried to copy it at home. This silky smooth yet fresh soup is truly delightful and well worth the effort.

Ingredients: (serves 4)
- 12 tomatoes (or use judgement)
- 5 cm. of fresh ginger root
- freshly squeezed juice from 1 or 2 lemons
- a few large dollops of cooking cream  
- salt and pepper
- (vegetarian) stockcube or tablespoon of Osem* powder

The trick to this soup is patiently crafting the consommé. In order to do this, bring a pan of water to the boil and score each tomato, drop in boiling water for half a minute or so. Drain and remove skin and seeds until you are left with the firm flesh only. (This will leave you with considerably less tomato but with a far purer product). Meanwhile, bring another pan with water to the boil. Peel fresh ginger root and cut into large slices. Allow ginger root to steep in boiling water for about 15 minutes. Remove from water. Add stockcube.
Add the remainders of the tomatoes and allow to boil to a pulp (one can also use a blender). Then, sift through a sieve (or better yet: a cheesecloth) in order to trap the last remaining impurities and keep the sieved consommé.
Finally, add the lemon juice to flavor (slightly fresh and acidic but not too much).
Just before serving, add the cream until you get a fresh-tasting, creamy soup. Turn off the flame. Then, very briefly, pureé the soup once more so it turns frothy and rich (though be careful not to curdle it!) and serve immediately.

Osem powder or soupmix is an Israeli product (kosher/parve) and an easy way to make vegetarian soup stock.
estherhugenholtz: For discussing Torah and mitzvot (V'ahavta)

Parashat Vayetzeh is brimming with potential and is pregnant with becoming. Even though the parashah starts off with ‘vayeitzeh’(he went out), this really is the parashah of women, and of girls-becoming-women.

                As with any good story, the parashah opens with a mystery: Jacob, when travelling from Beer Sheva to Haran sets up camp to spend the night. It is there that he has his fateful dream of angels ascending and descending the ladder. But as it often goes with strange and inexplicable dreams, they teach us something. As God appears in Jacob’s dream, He says: “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go.” (Gen. 28:14) Of course, Jacob awakes startled and proclaims: “Mah nora hamakom hazeh! – How awesome is this place!” The perennial way to start a journey of becoming.

                Then, the parashah shifts. Jacob meets the lovely Rachel at the well and falls in love with her, because she is “shapely and beautiful” (29:15). Does the Torah really want us to assume that good looks are really that important? All too often women compare (and compete with) our looks from which can stem a profound sense of inadequacy. It is tempting to see this parashah as a grand competition between two sisters, both entwined in each others’ pain. It is easy to become fixed on the externals—on the good looks of things—that we forget their potential and what they could become. Rachel and Leah were so trapped in sisterly rivalry for the love of one man that they negated their own potential. Their obsession with what was blinded them to what could be.

                And so, the Torah’s remark about Rachel’s physical beauty needs not to be read one-dimensionally. The Hebrew says: “Rachel haita yafat-to’ar v’yafat mar’eh”: And Rachel was beautiful of shape and of appearance.

Rashi comments on the word ‘mar’eh’. He says that this referred to the ‘shining of her face’. Our faces can become windows through which our essence shines. It does not have anything to do with skin-deep beauty but everything with potential and confidence and kindness. Maybe Rachels’ beauty was not external but internal. It seems fitting that immediately after the Torah describes Rachel’s beauty, the narrative states that Jacob loved her. A kinder (and more emancipated) reading would be that Jacob loved her for her neshama—her soul—and all the potential her soul engendered.

Does this excuse the troubling events in the parashah? Yes and no. Rachel and Leah get switched at the wedding. Leah feels deeply and desperately unloved. And both their father Laban and their husband Jacob do not display the most moral of conduct.

All these things implicate our patriarchs (and matriarchs) and the unsettling nature of the parashah resonates on both a moral and an existential level. But sometimes that’s just how life is. And moreover, this is also just how we experience life—our Biblical forebears being no different. We can all feel loneliness or self-deprecation. We punish ourselves with our insecurity and sense of inadequacy. This human condition applies to both genders but it is no surprise that the sisters Rachel and Leah seem to act as an example therein. All too often it is women who experience these emotions.

And so it is important to be aware that this is all part of being human and of self-actualization. Yet the beginning the parashah, featuring Jacob’s dream, could provide us both insight and comfort in this process. In the dream, the Holy One blessed be He said that He would always be with Jacob.

If emunah (faith) is to teach us anything, it is that in the hard moments of our lives, when we are fighting hard to become someone new and for our place in the world, we can trust in ourselves. Emunah lies not only in seeing the awesomeness of the place in which we stand or to feel loved by something greater than ourselves, but also in the ability to see ourselves as whole: as beautiful in both form and appearance.

So, whether we travel from Beer Sheva to Haran or any other of the myriad destinations of our lives, we can and should extend the kindness of angels to ourselves. In our coming and going as the parasha suggests, we can feel protected. But we can also protect ourselves by faith and trust and profound self-love and self-respect. Only then is the journey not merely on of travels and travails but also of becoming fully who were are, a mirage of the divine.

Sexy Time?

Nov. 15th, 2009 10:13 am
estherhugenholtz: Reading, book reviews (Book)
I must admit; some things are remarkably Dutch about me and one of those things is my complete happiness to discuss sexual matters in a spirt of openness. (Although I suspect that having both parents in the mental health industry might have had something to do with that too - I was reared on Freud).
So, I was excited to hear about the project of a former schoolmate (and future colleague, God willing) of mine:
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. She had edited Yentl's Revenge and written her own book Surprised by God before bringing to light (as we say in Hebrew) her latest (editorial) work: The Passionate Torah.

As soon as this anthology of essays discussing Judaism and sexuality came out, I rushed to the library to read it.
As suggestive as the sexy cover with the ketubah hanging over the unmade bed is, be not mistaken: 'sexy' doesn't begin to describe this intelligent and cutting-edge anthology with its stellar contributors.
'The Passionate Torah''s sex-appeal is not steeped in graphic depictions of eroticism but rather in rigorous and daring scholarship. Divided in three sections according to the Buberian worldview of relationships (I-It, I-Thou and We-Thou), the various contributors write about anything. From a fresh approach to hilchot niddah/family purity laws, winding through controversial discussions on the eroticism of Jew-Gentile relationships, to a reconstruction of a progressive form of tzniut (modesty). Other topics ranged from prostitution, the Sotah trial as rabbinic pornography, queer theology and masturbation. 

Although the book is not as sexy as the cover suggests, it is tantalizing in its courage to 'go there' and discuss issues that are taboo, villified or just plainly misunderstood. Some of the stellar contributors are Jay Michaelson, (female Orthodox) Rabbi Haviva Ner-David and Rabbi Elliot Dorff.
Pieces that really had me riveted was "Queering God, Torah and Israel" by Jay Michaelson as he constructed a more gender-fluid and queer theology understanding God to be the biggest dragqueen and gender-bender of them all. Not only is this liberating to GLBT people but also helpful to heterosexuals who would like to expand their experience of gender and the Divine.
Danya Ruttenberg's piece "Towards a New Tznïut" was both brave and innovative in her insistence of addressing subject matter that has traditionally been the jurisdiction of Orthodoxy (and men). With great sensitivity to women, their bodies and self-images, Ruttenberg crafts a new vision of dressing with self-love and self-respect.
In terms of theoretical discussion for practical application, Haviva Ner-David lowers the threshold on the ancient mitzvah of mikveh and Family Purity by offering alternative readings and practices helpful to non-Orthodox Jews.
Finally the book closes in a vein of Messianic hope with Arthur Waskow's "Eden for Grown Ups" in which he cites the Song of Songs as a new ethic and eros helping us to understand our relationship to our sexuality, our planet and to the Divine.

"The Passionate Torah" is a beautifully crafted and balanced piece of work that manages to combine inclusivity with an engagement of traditional Jewish texts and traditions. As a traditionally-observant but progressively-minded Jew, it was heartening to read essays on gender and queer issues side by side studies of Talmudic passages and ancient observances.
In conclusion, I have high praise for "The Passionate Torah", which should be a must-read for every (formal or informal) student of Judaism. However, a mild critique remains. As I read the various essays, I sometimes found myself a little resistant to the (righteous) indignation the writers brought to our ancient texts. Maybe I am overly apologetic (or helplessly naive) in my reading of Biblical or Talmudic texts, or maybe I take a feminist worldview for granted, but I felt that I did not really need that anger. I didn't find that anger conducive to the reading of the book and found it a little distracting: don't we all know by now that most of Jewish (and human) history is patriarchal? I am far more interested in finding a way of overcoming that and making women and men love themselves, each other and Judaism within their own (denominational) framework and terms.

Apart from this mild critique, "The Passionate Torah" is a wonderful book. I also think it would be great if it could have a companion volume in which the abstract discussions of this volume are illustrated by real life experiences and examples--this would help these discussions come to life in rich and meaningful ways.  

All in all, this book is worth your time and money and skillfully balances modernity and tradition--no easy feat. Sexy? That it is not. But it's title is accurate in one regard: this book will make you passionate about Judaism. And dare I say it? That's sexy.
estherhugenholtz: Recipes and reviews (Food)

I confess: I am a foodie and love cooking. So, as a new entry to this blog, I am posting one of my (many) recipes. Bon appetit!

This makes a great "but-I-only-have-an-hour-before-candlelighting" Shabbos dinner and it's also suitable for warmer weather due to its freshness and tangy-sweet lemon and honey flavor.

Ingredients (serves 4):
4 pieces of chicken (legs and thighs, preferably)
3 lemons
1 onion
a few cloves of garlic
1 zucchini
2 carrots
fresh mediterranean herbs (like thyme, basil or oregano)
salt and pepper
olive oil

Wash lemons, potatoes, zucchini and carrots.
Squeeze lemon juice from lemons into a bowl. Keep the peels
To the bowl, add chopped or ground garlic, mediterranean herbs, salt, pepper and a dash of olive oil.
Allow chicken to marinate in this mix for 15 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, chop up lemon peels, potatoes (either peeled or with their skins), onions, carrots and zucchini into generous chunks.
Grease casserole dish with olive oil and add the lemon peels, potatoes, onion, carrots and zucchini.
In a non-stick pan, sear the chicken so that they are crisp on the outside (but you don't have to cook them fully). Pre-heat oven at about 180 degrees Centigrade/400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the chicken pieces in the casserole dish and glaze them lightly with honey. (This will caramelize nicely but do keep your eye on the chicken so that it doesn't burn). Add remainder of the marinade to the vegetables and chicken in the dish.
Allow to cook in the oven for about 45 minutes.

The veggies will cook in the juices of the chicken, herbs, lemon and honey and it's absolutely delicious.
Serve for an extra fresh touch with a simple green/spinach salad dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
Tip: are you in a hurry? Pre-boil the potatoes 'al dente' before putting them in the oven: this will save you time.

estherhugenholtz: Me (Default)

There is an idea that in order for religion to remain relevant, religion should make the comfortable feel uncomfortable. The ability of Judaism to be self-aware, critical and iconoclastic is especially revealed in how the tradition shapes our ethics regarding the treatment of the stranger, the disempowered and the poor.


Of course, many of us are familiar with the Torah’s insistence to treat the stranger with compassion since we were strangers in Egypt. The Exodus is often invoked as a motive for social justice, by the small and great alike, including Dr. Martin Luther King. However, there is a narrative perhaps even more powerful and certainly more unsettling than the Exodus narrative. This is the narrative of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar in B’reishit (Genesis 16).

            The story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar is unsettling because it really brings home the point of what it means to be an outsider. Our own tradition confronts us with our own failings and prejudices. We are forced to re-examine the characters of our beloved Patriarchs and Matriarchs and we are forced to acknowledge that even they didn’t always live up to the ethical standards that we hold dear.


The story of Hagar and Sarah is well-known. Abraham and Hagar fail to conceive a child and it is Sarah who takes the initiative to give her servant girl Hagar to her husband (Gen. 16:1-2):


וְשָׂרַי אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם, לֹא יָלְדָה לוֹ; וְלָהּ שִׁפְחָה מִצְרִית, וּשְׁמָהּ הָגָר.

וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל-אַבְרָם, הִנֵּה-נָא עֲצָרַנִי יְהוָה מִלֶּדֶת--בֹּא-נָא אֶל-שִׁפְחָתִי, אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה; וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָם, לְקוֹל שָׂרָי.


“Sarai, the wife of Abram had not borne him children and she had an Egyptian maidservant and her name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, behold now, the Lord has stopped me from bearing. Come please to my maidservant [so that] maybe I will be built up through her. And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarai.” (translation mine)


The epithet used to describe Hagar pointedly identifies her both according to her “race” and her “class”. She is an Egyptian maidservant, a person of lower status than Abram and Sarai (whose name, in fact, means “princess”). If Hagar (whose name is based on haGer, “the stranger”) is to bear Abram’s child, then why does the text choose to emphasize her social inferiority?

Rashi states: “She was a daughter of Pharaoh when she saw miracles done for Sarah and she said, ‘better to be a maidservant in this house than a mistress in another house.’” (translation mine)


The notion that Hagar is more than a mere maidservant but actually a daughter of Pharaoh sheds new light on an ancient and oft repeated dynamic: the relationship between the powerful and powerless, between Israel and Egypt. Is it coincidence that generations later, Moshe himself is rescued from the Nile’s watery embrace by “Bat Paro”, Pharaoh’s daughter?


In the light of our modern sensibilities, Rashi’s explanation of Hagar’s presence and even good fortune, to dwell in the household of Sarai, may be presumptuous. Is this the excuse we use to justify labor malpractices? To justify the employment of underpaid immigrant workers? Arguing that they are “fortunate” to dwell in our households? That they are better of as servants in our households and factories than masters in their own?

            Our sacred narrative challenges us to re-examine these assumptions. Maybe this is a case of middah k’neged middah (measure for measure), also known as poetic justice. After all, when our greatest spiritual leader was a mere infant, he becomes utterly dependent on the kindness of a daughter of Pharoah. Sarai “oppresses” Hagar and Hagar flees into the desert unknown (Gen. 16:6). Is this the kindness we should show the stranger among us?


The easiest compassion roused in our hearts is that which springs forth from our own traumas of oppression. This is why it is easy and perhaps even comfortable for us as the powerful and privileged to refer to the Exodus narrative as an ethical injunction on how to treat the stranger. After all, we were ourselves strangers in Egypt. But perhaps the most profound compassion comes from another, less expected, place. Perhaps it comes from a place of acknowledging that we too, can be the oppressors. As unsettling as this insight may be, it may provide us with real tools of respect and reconciliation: the awareness that we are all human and all part angel and part beast. The rest depends not only on the power dynamic in our lives, but thankfully also on our will to choose and do the right.

Ship Ahoy!

Nov. 8th, 2009 11:19 am
estherhugenholtz: Writing (Writing)
As a Dutch Jew who has done a fair bit of sailing myself, Edward Kritzler's book "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean" was a double treat for me.

Judaism, the Holy Inquisition, the upstart Republic of the Netherlands and... pirates?!
This volatile mix is cemented into Kritzler's tour-de-force historical account that you simply can't put down once you've picked it up.

"Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean" maps out the journeys of intrepid Sephardi Jewish travelers: first as merchants and then later also as 'privateers' (pirates). Initially forced into the New World by the Inquisition, these Jews - as Kritzler puts it - carved out a niche for themselves in a hostile world. Kritzler, a Jewish Jamaican
historian and author, colorfully describes the Jews' momentous trek from being Spanish conversos (crypto-Jews) who followed Columbus in his wake to finding citizenry in the Republic of the Netherlands and England.

This beautifully-crafted book is an absolute page-turner and makes delicious (Shabbat) reading. The writing is gripping and there's the added bonus of infotainment; after all you pick up a chunk of Western history along the way. Kritzler's easy writing doesn't betray his rigorous scholarship (pages and pages of footnotes in the back). The book presents an engaging and educational account of the Age of Discovery and of the role of piracy. Not as peripheral as we are inclined to believe, pirates were cunning and entrepreneurial and were important actors during this historical epoch. Without wanting to romanticize the crueller aspects of piracy, the privateers did sometimes sow the seeds for proto-communalist or democratic structures (it is the
red flag raised on mutinous ships that became the symbol of Socialism) in their challenging of autocratic regimes.

Of course, none of this is entirely new to the reader. What is new and even inspirational to the reader is the Jewish role in all of this. Although it is well-known that Jews established themselves in the New World from early on, their role in privateering had not been much elucidated. To read about Jews who were unafraid to take destiny into their own hands and to stand up to the oppression they faced through courage, faith and wit is more than inspirational and is a story that can't be told often enough. Frankly, it will change your perception of Jews in the late Medieval, early Modern period.
The brilliance of Kritzler's book is that one is made to feel entirely sympathetic to the lot of the Jewish pirates (and merchants) even if they acquired their wealth and freedom through deceit and even violence. One cannot help but rebelliously feel solidarity in this sweeping saga pitted against the forces of bigotry.

My only real criticism of the book is both historical and political in nature. As sympathetic as I found the account of the Jewish rogue traders and sojourners, as lacking I found the account towards other minorities who suffered with (or sometimes even at the hands of) the merchants and pirates. The book mentions very little about the position and treatment of women and women only feature in the wings as prostitutes or wives. Also, lower class workers and immigrants into the New World receive very little treatment. More importantly, the book almost circumvents the issue of slavery and colonialism. Yes, the book mentions the maltreatment, abuse and annihilation of both Native Caribbean/American and imported African populations but only as a footnote in the greater Jewish narrative. Essentially, the spectular story in the book is the story of the elite. A repressed elite, but still an elite often commanding huge wealth needed to sway their fate.

This bias in the book bothered me on two levels: as an anthropologist, I don't find it a fair representation of facts. The stories of slaves and 'Indians' are just as relevant (if not more relevant) in how history was shaped. And as a Jew it made me uncomfortable: our suffering should immediately generate a concern for the sufferings of others. 
Jews, just like non-Jews at the time, were slave-traders and sometimes even owners. Fine ships, glittering gold and silver mines, grand houses, luxurious fabrics and spices that so evocatively illustrate this era in the book were produced by the blood, sweat and tears of these slaves. I don't think the author purposely or callously side-stepped this issue but it would have made the book all the richer, more nuanced and truly morally relevant if Kritzler would have made those connections.

Apart from this criticism, the book is simply a wonderful read: an incredible journey into a world both magical and real.
If you are interested in Caribbean and American history, in Judaism or simply in the guts 'n glory of the pirate world, this book is for you.
In short, pick up a copy and say arrrr!
estherhugenholtz: Personal and family (Hugenholtz)
Welcome to Esther's bilingual (Dutch/English) blog that accompanies my website.

This blog will feature my publications, articles, reviews and general thoughts pertaining to Judaism in general and the Rabbinate in particular.
Posts will alternate between Dutch and English.


Welkom op Esther's tweetalige (Nederlands/Engels) blog dat onderdeel is van mijn website.

Op dit blog zal ik mijn publicaties, artikelen, recensies en algemene gedachten m.b.t. het Jodendom in het algemeen en het Rabbinaat in het bijzonder zenden.

Posts zullen wisselen tussen nederlands en engels.


estherhugenholtz: Me (Default)
Esther Hugenholtz

January 2011

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