I admit: I often find it difficult to read divrei Torah on the parshah. Some take outlandish midrashim at face value, ignoring mefarshim like the Rambam and the Ibn Ezra who insist that we should interpret them metaphorically. Others evince gross ignorance of history, making definitive claims about ancient times on the conjecture of a famous rishon or acharon. Still others provide cringe-worthy displays of narrow-mindedness and provincialism (vis-à-vis non-Jews and our mission as the chosen people on this earth). Many, alas, feature all three.
For this reason, I feel grateful when I come across a volume like Angel for Shabbat: Thoughts on the Weekly Torah Portions, Volume 2 by Rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of the historic Spanish Portuguese Synagogue. The book is not a masterpiece. I can think of other books more profound or inspirational. But it is reasonable, moderate, and thoughtful – qualities which unfortunately are not as common in Western Orthodoxy as they once were.
The 100 divrei Torah in this book originally appeared online and were distributed via e-mail. Unsurprisingly, therefore, many of them address contemporary issues. For example, on Parshat Mishpatim (and elsewhere), Rabbi Angel berates Israel’s chief rabbis and others for making life increasingly difficult for would-be converts to Judaism. On Parshat Vayigash, Rabbi Angel scolds 40 Israeli rabbis who signed a proclation prohibiting Jews from selling land in Israel to non-Jews.
These criticisms are not unexpected coming from the pen of one of Left-Wing Modern Orthodoxy’s most prominent rabbis. What may surprise readers, though. are Rabbi Angel’s many conservative divrei Torah advocating, what some would call, “old-fashioned” values.
For example, in a dvar Torah on Parshas Vayeshev, he addresses an article a Stern College girl wrote two years ago in a school newspaper in which she unburdened herself, confessing a moral failing. Many at the time supported the student, praising her “courage” in discussing a topic that many prefer to speak about behind closed doors.
Not so Rabbi Angel. He quotes the Rambam who writes, “[S]ins between a person and God need not be publicized, and it is brazen to publicize them; rather, one should repent before God, blessed be He.” Rabbi Angel sees the student’s article as reflective of a larger trend in American society where “[e]xhibitionism seems to be fashionable.” He argues for a return to modesty, privacy, and self-respect.
In another dvar Torah, on Parshas Balak, Rabbi Angel largely rejects introducing more egalitarianism or congregational singing in synagogues. The problem in modern synagogues, he writes, is not uninspiring services, but the loss of “intimacy with God. God is simply not a real presence in many of our lives…[e]ven if we observe the commandments, study Torah, and say our prayers….”
Advancing a similar theme on Parshas Naso, Rabbi Angel writes, “The external forces of secularization have taken a toll on our internal spiritual lives. We – wittingly or unwittingly – adopt a secular lifestyle that is dressed up in religious garb. … [T]he essence of holiness is missing.” The solution, Rabbi Angel writes in an essay on Parshas Kedoshim, is “to take Judaism more seriously, to reconnect with the Almighty, to infuse life with the fullness of Torah learning and observance. We don’t want gimmicks or short-term and short-sighted suggestions that aim at inflating our egos.”
While most of the book is filled with similar ruminations on life, society, and the Jewish community, Rabbi Angel engages in some traditional homiletics as well. For example, on Parshat Chukas, Rabbi Angel asks the classical question: Why do the kohanim who prepare the parah adumah ashes and water become impure when these very same ashes and water make impure Jews pure?