Chumash Musings

Yosef, Slavery and Morality

by R. Gil Student Sometimes we struggle to understand specific laws or passages that do not seem to fit into the Torah’s overall picture of harmony, community and connection with God. One such issue is that of slavery, which the Torah permits and legislates. The moral approach that seems most true to me, most consistent with Torah and history, is ...

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The Mount Sinai Narrative: A Literary Analysis

by R. Gil Student Seven weeks after the Exodus, the Jewish people gathered around the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. This historic experience is described primarily in five chapters: Exodus 19-24. 1)Although see also Deut. 4 In a 2015 book, Prof. Benjamin Sommer of JTS dissects this passage into multiple sources in which he finds different accounts ...

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Texts: The Akedah’s Message

In his article on LGBT and Halachah, Prof. Aaron Koller says that he doubts Akedas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22), is about sacrificing one’s family (literally or figuratively) for God’s plan. After all, he points out, in the end Avraham did not sacrifice Yitzchak. Prof Koller direct readers to his forthcoming book on the subject, which I have ...

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Everyone Needs A Yisro

My comments at my son‘s bar mitzvah party (a few weeks before his actual birthday in the summer): In an easily overlooked passage in Parashas Beha’alosecha, we find a message about the fundamental attitude toward a full Jewish life. In just four verses (Num. 10:29-32), we see Moshe trying to convince his father-in-law, Yisro, to stay with the Jews rather ...

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Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner and the Bi’ur

Rav Itzeleh (Yitzchak) Volozhiner succeeded his father as rosh yeshiva of the premier yeshiva in Europe. A Torah scholar and famous orator, he also served as a leading representative of the Jews to the Russian Czar. Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner was royalty in the yeshiva world, the son of Rav Chaim Volozhiner with descendants that include the Netziv and the Soloveitchik ...

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How Hard Is a Hardened Heart?

by R. Gil Student I. Hardened Hearts When God hardens a heart, shouldn’t that mean that the person whose heart is hardened cannot repent? While reading the beginning of the weekly Torah portion of Bo, I was struck that this does not seem true. God tells Moshe that He hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants: ”And the LORD ...

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Texts: Reuven and Bilhah

by R. Gil Student The Torah (Gen. 35:22) briefly tells how Reuven lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine-wife. Ostensibly, this seems like an act of great disrespect for his father as well as an act of some form of adultery. In Ya’akov’s last words to his sons, he decries Reuven’s having mounted his (Ya’akov’s) bed (Gen. 49:4). That seems to ...

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Angels and Afterlife

by R. Gil Student I. Angels and Visions The Torah speaks explicitly about angels but gives little detail about these supernatural creatures. A debate about these biblical narratives reflects not only different understandings about the nature of angels but also about other crucial concepts. According to Jewish tradition, Avraham is visited by three angels (Gen. 18:1). Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:42; ...

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Long Biblical Lives

by R. Gil Student The biblical lists of generations include descriptions of very long lives. For example, Adam lived 930 years (Gen. 5:5), Noach 950 (9:29), and the longest — Mesushelach 969 (5:27). How do we relate to these descriptions of longevity, well beyond anything we can expect of human beings? Two approaches emerge from Medieval Jewish commentary. I. Theories ...

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Koheles and Political Struggle

by R. Gil Student Who wrote Koheles, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes? The traditional answer to the question of Koheles’ authorship is Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, who according to tradition wrote Shir HaShirim, Koheles and Mishlei (Koheles Rabbah 1:1), which were copied and finalized by Chizkiyahu and his counterparts (Bava Basra 15a). My question is not which person wrote Koheles, ...

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