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Plague

Thinking Big and Failing Fast

In Parashat Bo, the plagues continue with increasing intensity. As the Egyptians and the Israelites learn to recognize God’s power, is it possible that God, too, is learning to make each successive plague more effective?

D'var Torah By: 
How the Plagues Recall Creation
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Lydia Medwin

With the increasing severity of the ten plagues in Bo, God is teaching the Egyptians, the Israelites, and us, an important lesson. Through an understanding of God’s power, we can see the inextricable link between nature and collective morality. As our planet and so many people all over the world suffer from the weight of our collective decisions as humankind to consume without regard to consequences, we are called in this parashah to reexamine our own relationship with God and our humble place in the cosmos, and to realign ourselves with goodness and life for the sake of all Creation.

Shortness of Breath, Shortness of Spirit

In Va-eira, Moses tries to speak with the Israelites, who cannot listen due to their kotzer ruach, which can mean “shortness of breath” or “crushed spirit.” Both are results of debilitating work that prevents the Israelites from looking up to see new possibilities. 

D'var Torah By: 
Suffering from the Plague of Spiritual Inertia
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Jeffrey Ableser

In Va-eira, we learn that the Israelites suffer from spiritual inertia. They are not the only ones. Pharaoh, too, hardened his heart during the first five plagues, after which it became difficult for him  to change. We, too, can get stuck in a pattern of behavior that makes it hard to change. One small lie begets a second lie, and then a third and a fourth, until we’re no longer even sure where the truth lies.

Distracted by Blessing

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the king of Moab, Balak, is afraid that the Israelites’ encampment will ravish his land. He seeks to have a diviner named Balaam curse the Israelites. But God turns the curses to blessings.

D'var Torah By: 
Laughter Is the Best Medicine
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Mara Young

This week's portion, Balak, provides an example of how we can subvert anger with humor. The prophet Balaam endeavors to drive the donkey and gets incensed when she does not budge. We the readers see the humor of the situation in which a donkey can see an angel of God who blocks her way while the "prophet" cannot.

Learning How to Go from Stress to Empowerment

In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, demanding, “All the community are holy ... Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers  16:3). Often, Korach’s actions are interpreted to be the jealous behavior of one who sees himself as entitled to power. But what if his behavior reflects something different — a feeling of helplessness and a fear of being disenfranchised?

D'var Torah By: 
The Importance of Listening to Dissenters
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer

While Korach’s actions are often interpreted as jealous power-seeking behavior, his behavior may also reflect feelings of helplessness and being disenfranchised. Even in our own day, we see the destructive consequences of not taking seriously the concerns of those who feel disenfranchised. Perhaps, if we all listen more and assume less, we will find our shared divinity and harness our collective power to create the world we want to live in.

A Concrete Relationship with God

In Parashat Ki Tisa, the Israelites wait for Moses to return from the mountaintop. Feeling insecure with a lack of leadership, they tell Aaron to create a Golden Calf.

D'var Torah By: 
Religion as a Way to Reach Holiness
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg

One of the lessons of Parashat Ki Tisa is that we need concrete reminders, symbols, of our fundamental ideas. But while we embrace them we have to remember that these symbols — whether they be physical, ritual, textual, or other — exist for us, not for God. 

Why Firstborns Are Such a Big Deal in the Torah

The research abounds: birth order has an impact on development. The Internet teems with articles on expected personality traits for firstborn and later-born children and, in a rare moment of consensus, experts agree that birth order matters.1 It influences a child’s need for attention, interest in interacting with adults versus peers, reactions to challenge and pressure, and relationship with parents. As the mother of two young sons (and a firstborn myself), I see evidence of this research daily and often wonder how birth order will affect my children’s lives.

Birth order matters in Parashat Botoo. Bo begins with the final four plagues, culminating in that infamous, horrifying last plague: makat b’chorot, the killing of the firstborn. God takes this concept to its extreme, condemning every single firstborn — whether human or animal — to perish. The Israelite firstborns were saved by placing lambs’ blood on their doors.

D'var Torah By: 
What It Means to Be the Firstborn
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Amanda Greene

This week’s Torah portion forces us to consider the following: Is being the oldest child, the firstborn, really a reward? Or is it an obligation?

Indeed, as Rabbi Bonnheim suggests, symbolically, we all have the opportunity to be the firstborn as the Torah teaches, “Israel is My first-born son” (Exodus 4:22). But wasn’t Esau the firstborn? What then is the meaning of the verse? Our ancient tradition offers the following response: “It refers to Jacob, their ancestor, who purchased the birthright in order that he might serve God” (Sh’mot Rabbah 5:7).

The True Purpose of the Plagues

Parashat Va-eira is all action: the first six plagues descend on Egypt, and Pharaoh responds in kind, creating the dramatic and suspenseful story that will culminate in God redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The plagues are high drama, a fast-moving blockbuster film.

Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insects. Pestilence. Boils. My skin crawls and my scalp itches just writing about this batch of creepy, crawly, infectious plagues. The six plagues in Va-eira come in two sets of three plagues each (blood, frogs and lice; insects, pestilence and boils). In each set, Pharaoh is forewarned about the first two plagues and surprised by the third.And after each set, he refuses to free the Israelites.

D'var Torah By: 
The Prophet Meets God, His Maker
Davar Acher By: 
Yoni Regev

The people of Israel were not the only ones who needed a powerful reminder of God’s power and character. The memory and heritage of God’s personal connection with their ancestors had clearly dimmed in the generations of their servitude in Egypt, but the Israelites never forgot their core identity as a distinct people. Yet God’s chosen leader for the people was ignorant even of that basic tenet of the Israelite identity.

Love Yourself When Your Neighbors Won’t

This week's Torah reading, Parashat Balak, helps us consider the effects of persecution on our psyches. In it, we encounter Balaam, a prophet for hire, whom the Moabite king Balak enlists to curse the Israelites. Balaam, however, is unable to fulfill his commission. Balaam recounts:

From Aram has Balak brought me,
Moab's king from the hills of the East:
Come, curse me Jacob, Come, tell Israel's doom!
How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when the Eternal has not doomed?
As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations, . . . (Numbers 23:7-9)

Balaam, looking down at the Children of Israel's camp from the heights of the surrounding peaks, sums up the people's history up to that point and well into the future: "There is a people that dwells apart, / Not reckoned among the nations," he sings.

D'var Torah By: 
The Challenges of Being Both Modern and Jewish
Davar Acher By: 
Sarah Magida

"How can I be both modern and Jewish, simultaneously? This is the existential question." That's what Rabbi David Ellenson said to us on the very first day of his Modern Jewish Thought course at Hebrew Union College. This is also the question that Rabbi Skloot asks in his reading of Balak as well as the question that my students ask themselves on a regular basis.

How Not to Have a Conversation

In the words of the historian and public intellectual Julian E. Zelizer, "We no longer seek debate, nor do many shuls even allow it to happen. We are having trouble being tolerant of the other side" ("The Closing of the American Jewish Mind," Tablet, December 9, 2015). The same could be said in the hermetically sealed ideological chambers of American popular culture too.

We see the consequences of this kind of intellectual narrowness and the absence of civil conversation in this week's parashahKorach.

Korah is one of the great villains of the Torah; the leader of a rebellion against Moses.

D'var Torah By: 
Uncovering the Underlying Reasons for Conflict
Davar Acher By: 
Steven Folberg

The quotation from "That Lonesome Road" reminds me of something I learned from Jewish meditation teacher Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg: The word "wait," she says, is an acronym for the phrase, "Why Am I Talking?" And that's not always such an easy question to answer.

Pausing during a dispute, we may realize that the superficial content of the quarrel isn't what's driving the fighting. Looking inside, we see that we (and our opponent) are angry, resentful, or fearful about something entirely unrelated. Our hostile words are a facade shielding us from that underlying hurt or fear.

Matzah in the Realm of Paradox

The Torah reading for the first day of Pesach, which falls on Shabbat this year, comes from chapters 12 and 13 of the Book of Exodus, and discusses one of the most well-known topics of the holiday — matzah. We find the multiple commandments to both refrain from all chametz (leavened foods) and to eat matzah, in verses 15-20 of chapter 12. Then, we hear the familiar "historical" reason why the Israelites "baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt . . . since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves" (Exodus 12:39).

D'var Torah By: 
How a Matzah Sandwich Can Teach about Oppression and Injustice
Davar Acher By: 
Leah Doberne-Schor

This Passover, I will help my son pack a matzah sandwich to take to elementary school in our Southern city. Although he may be one of the only children to pack a matzah sandwich in his school, he is sharing in a common, powerful American Jewish experience. Whenever I talk about matzah sandwiches, heads nod and stories emerge: the colleagues who wonder at the strange flat cracker; the classmate who exclaimed, "even cardboard is kosher!"; the roommate who loved matzah so much she wanted her own box.

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