Shakespeare is expressing the medieval stereotype of Christian mercy (Portia) as against Jewish justice (Shylock).
For the first and only time, Moses invokes a miracle to prove the authenticity of his mission
This week’s sedrah, Shelach Lecha, ends with one of the great commands of Judaism – tzitzit, the fringes we wear on the corner of our garments as a perennial reminder of our identity as Jews and our obligation to keep the Torah’s commands.
Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, is remarkable for the extreme realism with which it portrays human character. Its heroes are not superhuman. Its non-heroes are not archetypal villains. The best have failings; the worst often have saving virtues. I know of no other religious literature quite like it.
On the face of it, the connections between the sedrah and haftarah of Bamidbar are slender. The first has to do with demography. Bamidbar begins with a census of the people. The haftarah begins with Hosea’s vision of a time when “the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or numbered.” There was a time when the Israelites could be counted; the day will come when they will be countless. That is one contrast between the future and the past.
In its account of the festivals of the Jewish year, this week’s parshah, Parshat Emor, contains the following statement: “You shall dwell in thatched huts for seven days. Everyone included in Israel must live in such thatched huts. This is so that future generations will know that I caused the Israelites to live in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your G-d.”
At the center of the mosaic books is Vayikra. At the center of Vayikra is the “holiness code” (chapter 19) with its momentous call: “You shall be holy because I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.” And at the centre of chapter 19 is a brief paragraph which, by its positioning, is the apex, the high point, of the Torah:
Judaism is less a philosophical system than a field of tensions – between universalism and particularism, for example, or exile and redemption, priests and prophets, cyclical and linear time, and so on.
A long drama had taken place. Moses had led the people from slavery to the beginning of the road to freedom. The people themselves had witnessed G-d at Mount Sinai, the only time in all history when an entire people became the recipients of revelation. Then came the disappearance of Moses for his long sojourn at the top of the mountain, an absence which led to the Israelites’ greatest collective sin, the making of the Golden Calf. Moses returned to the mountain to plead for forgiveness, which was granted.
Framing the epic events of this week’s sedrah are two objects: the two sets of tablets – the first given before, and the second after, the sin of the Golden Calf. Of the first, we read: “The tablets were the work of G-d; the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved on the tablets.”
As soon as we read the opening lines of Terumah we begin the massive shift from the intense drama of the exodus with its signs and wonders and epic events, to the long, detailed narrative of how the Israelites constructed the Mishkan.
Wherever the term “and these” is used, it signals continuity. Just as the commands in Parshat Yitro were given at Sinai, so too were the commands in Parshat Mishpatim. Why are the civil laws in the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim placed in juxtaposition to the laws concerning the altar at the end of Parshat Yitro? To tell you to place the Sanhedrin near to the Temple.
The revelation at Mount Sinai – the central episode not only of parshat Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole – was unique in the religious history of mankind.
The Song at the Sea was one of the great epiphanies of history. The sages said that even the humblest of Jews saw at that moment what even the greatest of prophets didn’t. For the first time they broke into collective song – a song we recite every day.
Throughout all Egypt the dust turned into lice. But when the magicians tried to produce lice by their secret arts, they could not. The lice attacked men and animals alike. The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of G-d.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen.
The sedra of Shemot, in a series of finely etched vignettes, paints a portrait of the life of Moses, culminating in the moment at which G-d appears to him in the bush that burns without being consumed. It is a key text of the Torah view of leadership, and every detail is significant. I want here to focus on just one passage in the long dialogue in which G-d summons Moses to undertake the mission of leading the Israelites to freedom – a challenge which, no less than four times, Moses declines. I am unworthy, he says. I am not a man of words. Send someone else. It is the second refusal, however, which attracted special attention from the sages and led them to formulate one of their most radical interpretations.
The drama of younger and older brothers, which haunts the book of Bereishit from Cain and Abel onwards, reaches a strange climax in the story of Joseph’s children. Jacob is nearing the end of his life. Joseph visits him, bringing with him his two sons, Manasheh and Ephraim. It is the only scene of grandfather and grandchildren in the book. Jacob asks Joseph to bring them near so that he can bless them. What follows next is described in painstaking detail:
Joseph is now the ruler of Egypt. The famine he predicted has come to pass. It extends beyond Egypt to the land of Canaan. Seeking to buy food, Joseph’s brothers make the journey to Egypt. They arrive at the palace of the man in charge of grain distribution:
The deception has taken place. Joseph has been sold into slavery. His brothers have dipped his coat in blood. They bring it back to their father, saying: “Look what we have found. Do you recognize it? Is this your son’s robe or not?” Jacob recognized it and replied, “It is my son’s robe. A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces.”
Jacob and Esau are about to meet again after a separation of 22 years. It is a fraught encounter. Once, Esau had sworn to kill Jacob as revenge for what he saw as the theft of his blessing. Will he do so now, or has time healed the wound? Jacob sends messengers to let his brother know he is coming. They return, saying that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with a force of 400 men. We then read: “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Genesis 32:8).
Rebecca, hitherto infertile, became pregnant. Suffering acute pain, she went to inquire of the Lord – “vateilech lidrosh et Hashem” (Bereishit 25:22). The explanation she received was that she was carrying twins who were contending in her womb. They were destined to do so long into the future.
The call to Abraham, with which Parshat Lech Lecha begins, seems to come from nowhere: “Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, and go to a land that I will show you.”
Is there such a thing as an objective basis of morality? For some time, in secular circles, the idea has seemed absurd. Morality is what we choose it to be. We are free to do what we like so long as we don’t harm others. Moral judgments are not truths but choices. There is no way of getting from “is” to “ought,” from description to prescription, from facts to values, from science to ethics. This was the received wisdom in philosophy for a century after Nietzsche had argued for the abandonment of morality – which he saw as the product of Judaism – in favor of the “will to power.”
It is the most famous, majestic and influential opening of any book in literature: “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” What is surpassingly strange is the way Rashi – most beloved of all Jewish commentators – begins his commentary:
Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, is the supreme moment of Jewish time, a day of fasting and prayer, introspection and self-judgment. At no other time are we so sharply conscious of standing before God, of being known by Him. But it begins in the strangest of ways.