The story of Yaakov’s dream dialogues with a much earlier story, the story of the Tower of Babel. There, the tower builders set out to “make a name for themselves”. They would build a tower—a ziggurat—with its top in the heavens. But the true encounter cannot be forced. Yaakov’s vision comes to him when he is at his most vulnerable—alone, at night, in a strange place, far from home and fleeing his brother. Asleep and helpless to defend himself even against dreams. While the tower builders constituted a single unified society bent on wresting the secrets of the heavens, Yaakov is one man, alone in a stony land, suspended between a painful past and an uncertain future.
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
What are we to make of the conspiracy on the part of Rivka and Yaakov to steal the blessing that Yitzhak meant to give to his eldest son, Esav? Surely this is treachery of the highest order! What does the Torah itself think of this act? While the Torah offers no immediate moral judgement of Yaakov’s actions, it will become increasingly clear that there right and wrong are rarely clear cut, and that Yaakov’s deception will have to be paid for.
Who the mother of one’s child is matters in more ways that one can ever rationally know. God doesn’t tell Avraham why Sarah must be the mother of his heir, but we readers begin to suspect that she holds the key to the future. Avraham seems to have learned this by the time he sends his servant back to Terah’s tribe to seek a wife for Yitzhak. The servant specifies a test for the bride-to-be: that she not only offer him a drink from her pitcher, but also care for his thirsty camels, at considerable investment of effort. In other words, he devises a test for kindness—kindness to the stranger and to beasts of burden.
Well, the first rains have finally made it to Israel, except that it’s been raining rockets and shrapnel all week long. But if we have to be spending time in shelters, at least there’s what to read! Here are some recommendations from around the Jewish blogosphere (in more or less alphabetical order). Note that cover images link to the relevant affiliate-linked book page on Amazon.
In the course of my research for Havruta with a One-Eyed Cat, I’ll be reading a variety of books on topics ranging from Talmud to mathematical logic. Here are some musings on this week’s book: Devora Steinmetz’s Freedom & Punishment, a veritable treasure of Halakhic insight.
When God says of Avraham: For I have known him, that he will teach his children to love justice and compassion” God is in effect saying, I have a stake in the future of this nation, and I know they’ll survive as a nation. But more, we are told what the rules of the game are, and to pick our heroes accordingly. After all, God did!
Through the Covenant of Circumcision we consciously declare that humanity is meant to transcend evolution—history is evolution by other means, just as culture is instinct by other means. Only when human beings become partners with God in their own creation, do they become truly human.
In Parashat Noah, God promises that the natural order will remain in balance, with season following season. Now humans must ensure that their society also stays in balance. They will need to keep man’s wild side from breaking loose and destroying the world. If God is to forfeit the solution of erasing all life because of man’s wrongs, man must step in to make sure that justice is done, and balance is preserved.
We’re past the sadness of Tisha b’Av and only a week later it’s Tu B’Av, the Jewish answer to Valentine’s Day. For those not out dancing in the vineyards, what could be better than pouring a glass of wine and settling down with a good book? To get you started, here are some recommendations from around the Jewish blogosphere.
I’m excited to share a marvelous project that I’ve been involved in for the past nine months (er, no, not that kind of project). That’s how long it’s taken me to assemble a marvelous collection of essays by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, edit them, and put them into book form. Introducing Cardozo on the Parashah!
Does Bible Criticism undermine faith? I would argue that, if understood correctly, it has the potential to strengthen it! We can try to peer back into history to see the stages of the Torah’s development without in any way detracting from its divine origin. The idea that the incredibly meaningful work that we have today may have been the end result of centuries of development only heightens the wonder. Certainly it doesn’t lessen it. If anything, it makes it seem even more miraculous, that out of all the possible things that might have gone in, just the right bits did make it into the mix, in just the right proportions to create the multi-layered text that we have today.
Sefer BaMidbar is the story of a great test: Can the disparate tribes of Israel put into practice the lessons learned during the revelation at Sinai and the subsequent building of the Mishkan. Can they forge themselves into a nation capable of conquering their ancestral homeland and building a just and lasting society?
A poem in honor of Yom HaShoah 5779. A Sonderkommando’s memories and the role of the living.
Hiding between the seemingly dry—and to the modern ear, somewhat esoteric—laws of Parashat Metzora is a fascinating insight into the nature of reality and human knowledge. The laws of the “plague-afflicted house” and the zav teach us about living in a world where certain things are in principle unmeasurable, and where observation can change reality.
Parashat Shminit: What was the crime of Nadav and Avihu, who were consumed by divine fire while offering incense? It turns out that by comparing this incident with a later one, in which Moshe strikes a rock to bring forth water, we can learn a lot about miracles, holiness, and leadership.
In our parashah, the phrase: “Beit Yisrael”, the House of Israel appears for only the second time in the entire Torah. The first was in regard to the manna, where the Torah tells us that, not knowing what it was, “the House of Israel” called it “man”, that is, “what’s this?” Is there a common denominator in these two cases, or is this merely a coincidental quirk of style? I believe that not only is there something in common between these two appearances, but that the commonality has much to teach us.
This week’s parashah opens with an odd juxtaposition. Just before explaining to the Israelites how the Mishkan is to be constructed, Moshe pauses to exhort the people to sanctify the Shabbat. Why is the commandment of the Shabbat inserted here? The usual answer is that building the Mishkan—as important as it is—nevertheless does not over-ride the prohibition of work on Shabbat. But this only puts off the question: why are we are told to sanctify the Shabbat by ceasing all creative work on that day?
How could Moshe, who, more than any other figure, stands for Torah…how could he destroy the precious written record of the Covenant, inscribed by God’s own hand? Moreover, how is it that the sages of the Talmud praised Moshe’s actions and hailed him as a hero for breaking the tablets? The answer lies in the difference between the first set of tablets and the second.
our parasha heralds a political revolution in Israel, though this can be easy to miss among the details. We’re so used to thinking of Aharon and his sons as the “normal” kohanim of Israel that we come to take this from granted. But the tribe of Levi was not always set apart for Divine service, nor were the kohanim originally from that tribe.
It’s been noted that the Mishkan which the Israelites were commanded to build in the desert bears a striking resemblance to the royal military tent of Pharaoh Ramses II. Further, the Ark of the Covenant appears to have been modeled after an Egyptian sacred boat. What are we to make of these parallels? Are they merely a matter of historical curiosity or is there a deeper meaning?