It seems to me that we can—and often do—internalize Jewish tradition to such an extent that we act on it without conscious awareness, much the way we speak a language without consciously being aware of grammar. Is this a good thing? Is it better to perform an act in full awareness of what we’re doing and why? Or, is it better to internalize right actions to such an extent that we never even consider an alternative?
After an adventurous and unattributable career in security and intelligence, Yael Shahar now divides her time between researching trends in terrorism and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is an entertaining and sought-after public speaker, and lectures both in Israel and abroad.
Recent articles by Yael Shahar
Here in Israel the first rains have fallen and the nights are getting cooler. A great time to get cozy under the covers with a glass of wine and a good book. Here are some recommendations from around the Jewish blogosphere.
While the Torah explicitly cautions against putting the younger before the elder in terms of inheritance, time and time again, the narrative portions of the Torah provide a lesson to the contrary: Yitzhak before Yishmael, Yaakov before Esau, Rahel before Leah, Yoseph before all his elder brothers, and Ephraim before Menashe. What is the meaning of this odd discord between law and example? What is the Torah trying to tell us?
Why is Avraham depicted coming back from the Akeda alone? Where was Yitzhak? The sages of the Talmud offer a strange answer: he was off studying Torah with Shem, the favored son of Noah! What are we to make of this notion? Are we to conclude that Yitzhak put on a suit and hat and sat down in a classroom? Such a simplistic understanding misses the point entirely. The less literal interpretation is both richer and more meaningful.
It often surprises those who know Jews only as “the people of the Book” that the greater part of Jewish observance is not to be found in the written Torah at all. The Judaism we know today would be unrecognizable to those who stood at Sinai. There are those who argue that this process of continual re-interpretation has made the Judaism of our day less “authentic” than that of our ancestors’ time. And yet, if we believe that God has had a hand in our history, we must see the Torah as being continuously given via the same hand that puts these challenges in our path and requires us to adapt to them.
History shows that civilizations rise, reach their peak, and decline into oblivion. And yet, one small nation somehow managed to escape that fate. But how? This weak’s parashah offers a recipe to escape the cycle, but it is a drastic one indeed!
Teshuvah is, among other things, a process of reaching closure and healing. In wronging another, we dealt a blow to our relationships—our connection to ourselves, to our community or society, and to our relationship with God. Reaching closure means healing these wounds. But what if we can’t ask for forgiveness because those we wronged are no longer alive?
“Not only with you am I making this covenant and this oath, but with those standing here with us today before the Eternal our God, and with those who are not here with us, this day.” Every generation is the Jewish people. And every generation must choose life or death: do we pass on our traditions to our children or do we let the Jewish people die with us?
Returning explores the boundaries between right and wrong, choice and choicelessness—and what happens when we cross those boundaries. It challenges notions of black and white, and calls into question the sovereignty of death itself.
Parashat Ki Tavo begins with the description of the ritual whereby the Israelite farmer is to offer the first fruits of the harvest at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the second half of the parasha describes the horrendous fate that will befall the nation of Israel in the future. The juxtaposition of these two discordant descriptions is no coincidence. Parashat Ki Tavo is a lesson in learning from history.
This week’s parasha includes the celebrated “law of the birds nest”, the observance of which is associated in the Torah with long life. But what kind of long life is meant here? A case can be made that what is at stake is not the life of the individual but of the society as a whole.
The Law of the King, in the Book of Deuteronomy sets out the rules for a constitutional monarchy for the nation of Israel. For over a thousand years, kings were judged by how well they followed its precepts. But in the writings of the later prophets, the Law of the King suddenly became applicable to individual citizens. What was behind this radical shift?
Elul is called “the season of reconciliation.” It is a time of quiet, when our crops have been planted and are nearing harvest. We are reminded that the deeds and thoughts that we have sown among each other are also coming to fruition.
This week’s parashah continues Moshe’s orations to the Israelites in the desert. The setting plays a crucial role in understanding what is going on: it is the eve of their transformation from a group of wandering tribes into a nation. It is no coincidence that this parashah is called “ekev”, literally “because of”. This parashah is about historical consequences.
Although the commandments—the contract between God and Israel—were written on stone, the voice of God never ceased speaking; it is heard to this day, if we will only listen.
Many in Israel wonder whether we should still mourn on Tisha b’Av, with Jerusalem rebuilt, surrounded by a thriving Jewish state. I would argue that especially now, in the midst of national rebirth, the lessons of Tisha b’Av take on a new urgency. For the past 2,000 years we were not in a position to repeat the mistakes of the past. Now we are.
We’re just past mid-summer here in Israel and the days are long and slow. It’s a good time to relax in the shade with a good book and a glass of something cold. Here are some recommendations from around the Jewish blogosphere.
Three times a day, we Jews praise God for “reviving the dead”. Some, following the prophet Ezekiel, like to think of this in metaphorical terms—the resurrection of Jewish national life out of the ashes of the past. Others see it in more literal terms. Dan Sofer presents an altogether different—and delightful—view of the rabbinical traditions surrounding the resurrection.
This week’s Torah reading includes the troubling story of how Moshe performed a miracle to provide water for his thirsty people, and how he was punished for it. But what did Moshe do wrong? Why was he punished for doing more or less what God had commanded him to do? The answer lies in a comparison of this story with a parallel narrative found elsewhere in the Torah.
Returning is a haunting and compelling exploration of the choices we make in a choiceless time, the terrifying strength and burden of the will to survive, and the power of the human spirit to transcend even its own destruction. This book will leave you changed forever.