Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Magic Barrel by Malamud

Parsha Mishpatim
An excerpt from   The Magic Barrel  by Bernard Malamud — for the full story, come to Chevra on Jan.29th!


The sweet, the heady smell of Lieb’s white bread drew customers in droves long before the loaves were baked. Alert behind the counter, Bessie, Lieb’s second wife, discerned a stranger among them, a frail, gnarled man with a hard hat who hung, disjoined, at the edge of the crowd. Though the stranger looked harmless enough among the aggressive purchasers of baked goods, she was at once concerned. Her glance questioned him but he signaled with a deprecatory nod of his hated head that he would wait—glad to (forever)—though his face glittered with misery. If suffering had marked him, he no longer sought to conceal the sign; the shining was his own—him—now. So he frightened Bessie.

 She made quick hash of the customers, and when they, after her annihilating service, were gone, she returned him her stare.

He tipped his hat. “Pardon me—Kobotsky. Is Lieb the baker here?”

“Who Kobotsky?”

“An old friend”—frightening her further.

“From where?”

“From long ago.”

“What do you want to see him?”

The question insulted, so Kobotsky was reluctant to say.

As if drawn into the shop by the magic of a voice, the baker, shirtless, appeared from the rear. His pink, fleshy arms had been deep in dough. For a hat he wore jauntily a flour-covered brown paper sack. His peering glasses were dusty with flour, and the inquisitive face white with it so that he resembled a paunchy ghost; but the ghost, through the glasses, was Kobotsky, not he.


Mishpatim Overview: Exodus 21:1-24:18

  • Interpersonal laws ranging from the treatment of slaves to the exhibition of kindness to strangers are listed. (21:1-23:9)
  • Cultic laws follow, including the commandment to observe the Sabbatical Year, a repetition of the Sabbath injunction, the first mention of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, rules of sacrificial offerings, and the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. (23:10-19)
  • The people assent to the covenant. Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascend the mountain and see God. Moses goes on alone and spends forty days on the mountain. (24:1-18)

the mountain

wherever the mountain stood

it was good

wherever the eagle flew//

on the mountain the cloud sat

that was that

a presence unseen on the mountain//

a word unheard a breath

a mute voice

beyond the waters//

and suddenly the world was aflame

with the unsayable name

before the name went missing//

no name lost name






Yitro through the lens of other religions

Editor’s note: Raja first posted this as a comment, but I have turned it into a post to give it wider exposure. Thank you, Raja, for adding this.

1. “I am a very Jealous G-d”
Thank you for selecting this verse because it was this verse that initially drew my attention towards Judaism when I first read King James Version (KJV) of Old Testament (OT). It looked odd to me that a G-d that could bring plagues, part seas, provide food (Manna and quail) all this to show his mercy towards “Israel” would use/choose “jealous” as a word while speaking to the “people”. It is quite a derogative word that is outright wrong given the majestic nature of G-d or as Quran says “Be and it was”(3:59). We are talking about a being that is the creator (Brahma in Hinduism) and the destroyer (Shiva in Hinduism) or “I am the alpha and the omega” (Rev 22:13) or Isaiah (41:4). Islam too defines the two extremes, but none of the religions use such a harsh word as jealous (it diminishes such a divine being).

Now while Ramban agrees with Maimonides over the word “jealous” I find it strange that Ramban who was somewhat influenced by Islamic Mysticism (Sufism) would settle on that word and not pick on “99” other attributes associated with G-d especially given the fact that we are talking Sufism which is all about love of g-d for. In my humble opinion and I don’t understand Hebrew yet, but I believe the word if it were to be translated would be “impassioned” and not “Jealous”.

Initially when I came across this verse I was shocked, my g-d could not be a jealous g-d, he is a loving g-d so I went web searching using Google for more information because as I mentioned I found “jealous g-d” to be quite odd… in my Google searches, I came across a site or two which capitalized on this verse and added why Jesus was necessary to save the “stiff necked” people (Implying Jews). In Islamic literature (or what I looked at) I did not find a mention of a “jealous g-d”. I even went to the extent of asking this question on a Jewish forum ( and to my satisfaction the answer was “impassioned” or as the lady in the Chevra Torah mentioned “Tiger Mom”. Explanation I got was in an example of a bird that gets angry at her kids when they do silly things and one of the chicks fall out of the nest meaning not being safe, so the mom yells at the chicks for doing that, however the love of that bird towards the chicks is still there and the bird will pick the chicks and bring them back to the nest…. It’s kind of like parents that correct their kids; kids may not like that correction however it is necessary for the well-being of the child.

The birds analogy provided yet blew my mind because it was the birds and their unique songs and sounds (yes I am a nut) that initially caught my attention towards divinity and not the big bang theory. I will share more on that topic that some other day.

2. You will have no other g-ds
This verse itself is pretty unique, dynamic and also simple. It is unique because here you have a monotheistic g-d speaking to “people & Israel” not one person (like when g-d speaks to Moses or let’s say Muhammad) but to a collection of “people”….it is dynamic because this g-d is not refuting possibility of other g-ds, plus this g-d is not interested in these other g-d either, because this g-d is the supreme and any other “god” is inferior to him/it/her. Other g-ds are either a man-made contraption or some Persons ego trip (like pharaoh).

Another point is as simple as what we call in the corporate world as “Engagement Models or Operating Principles’”. For example there is not one bank (financial institution) but many banks, and every bank has its own unique Operating model. So if I work for a bank I must adhere to that banks agenda and not others. Thou shalt not serve other g-ds just like I must not serve other banks or their interests.

3. Auslander’s Foreskin Laments
While his writing is humorous, it was sad to see him so pissed off or angry at g-d. I did not understand his anger at G-d. I use myself as an example, I lost my father at age 7 in a car accident and saw my paraplegic Mother from age 7 till age 18, she was not able to walk, talk or move normally. I fed my mom with spoon, I picked her up and made her sit, I would pick her up and take her to the TV lounge so she could watch TV, she too passed away in 1994, but NEVER in my life was I pissed off or angry at G-d for doing this to me, for taking my father away and then my mother, rather It was, and it has always been “Dear Allah please keep my father and my mom in your safety and thank you for providing me with everything”.

With that in mind I was quite perplexed that a normal person would rebel so feverishly but re-reading the portion yesterday and looking from his perspective it was basically how he was raised and the environment he grew up in. It was reverence/irreverence as you mentioned. I can see now why he and some Orthodox Jews get turned off by Judaism….which is sad, but it also proves a point that anything done in excess is not good. This too took me back to the mysterious book of Job and his love of g-d while Eliphaz and his buddies try to talk him out… but more on that some other time.

4. When G-d Spoke to “People” or “Israel”
You asked the congregation of how one would feel if they heard g-d and the responses were quite interesting and mildly shocking (  ). It took me back to Ramban, per Ramban there were two groups, Israelites and people, which were further divided into four (at time of parting of the sea) however his idea is Israelites (righteous or Light) and people (ordinary or Dark). “And g-d saw light and it was good and he called it day” Genesis. Ramban has already played with this concept and labels manna as a light substance and quail as dark earlier before coming to the subject of g-d speaking to people, here too he plays with the fact that only Israelites or righteous heard g-d but not all… so when you asked this yesterday and some of whom that said “skeptical” was amusing to me.

What interests me is that this is the only time g-d spoke to a collection of people and didn’t not use prophets to send new directions or spin off a new religion, it was a collective people that heard and saw not one.

5. Thou shalt have no graven images
A gentleman in the congregation mentioned about allowing images of g-d for art and creative purposes, this came about after the discussion about Jesus on the cross in churches and your friend rabbi dis-agreeing with you.

In my opinion your friend rabbi is incorrect in stating about worship in a church. I believe the prayer should be meant from heart and one should have an “intent” of saying the prayer not just go through the motions of it, with that in mind one’s surrounding is pointless and it is funny in a way to prove my point because the book Jewish tapestry of time on page 45 has a story of two girls lighting candles in a concentration camp in a bathroom.

But on to graven images, I think it is very bad idea to allow creating images of Jewish g-d. Once an image is created it is only a matter of time that it will become g-d to people or something that always existed. It is very similar to brining in change (place, form, process) once its implemented everyone assumes it was always there and changing it becomes a nightmare. I believe that is why g-d simply said no graven images…..As I type this Joseph settling Israelites in Goshen comes to mind that maybe it was simply to safe guard Israelites to not worship city g-ds to keep them away from getting assimilated in city g-d culture and getting into Egyptian worship.

I hope you enjoyed my nutty ramblings.

Describing God

Thank you, Irv, for giving me a glimpse into what today’s discussion was about.  I was going to post a comment to Michael’s  note last week — I was particularly touched by his last lines:

….the warrior God, the God of the Covenant, seems to be a different God from the God who silences the jubilant angels – the God whose place is not this world, who cannot even be reached, and who yet is the light by which we may see, as we go on journeying.

 which made me think about the adjectives I would use for God. So it seems today’s discussion continued the theme….

I, too, have problems with the concept of God as vengeful or fearsome. But I also have problems with God as kind, gentle, caring, or forgiving. For me, Irv’s “stingy” comes closer — but the word I’d probably use would be indifferent.

Why indifferent? Because I can’t see God as paying attention to the daily events of a single person, or all humanity as a whole. Rather, God set this world in motion — now it’s up to us to determine how God’s work turns out.

Yitro: Exodus 18:1-20:23

Note: The verses to be studied at Chevra are Exodus 20:1-6

  •  Yitro brings his daughter Zipporah and her two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to his son-in-law Moses. (18:1-12)
  • Moses follows Yitro’s advice and appoints judges to help him lead the people. (18:13-27)
  • The Children of Israel camp in front of Mount Sinai. Upon hearing the covenant, the Israelites respond, “All that God has spoken we will do.” (19:1-8) •After three days of preparation, the Israelites encounter God at Mount Sinai. (19:9-25)
  • God gives the Ten Commandments aloud directly to the people. (20:1-14)
  • Frightened, the Children of Israel ask Moses to serve as an intermediary between God and them. Moses tells the people not to be afraid. (20:15-18)

Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander

An exerpt…to read more, please come to Chevra!
Parsha Yitro                                      Shalom Auslander

When I was a child, my parents and teachers told me about a man who was very strong. They told me he could destroy the whole world. They told me he could lift mountains. They told me he could part the sea. It was important to keep the man happy. When we obeyed what the man had commanded, the man liked us. He liked us so much that he killed anyone who didn’t like us. But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he didn’t like us. He hated us. Some days he hated us so much, he killed us; other days, he let other people kill us. We call these days “holidays.” On Purim, we remembered how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover, we remembered how the Egyptians tried to kill us.  On Chanukah, we remembered how the Greeks tried to kill us.

–Blessed is He, we prayed.

The song at the sea

There are several things that trouble me in the account of the journeying out of Egypt.

The Rabbis tell us that God stopped His angels from rejoicing when the Egyptians were engulfed by the sea. And, similarly, during the seder, when we recite the plagues, we spill one drop of wine to mark each of them, as though to remind ourselves that our glasses cannot be full when others suffer.

So why didn’t God also stop the freed Hebrews from rejoicing? Why were they allowed to sing the praises of a warrior God who had deliberately destroyed their former oppressors? This is the God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart so as to have a reason to deploy signs and wonders and who then led the Egyptians to their deaths for the sake of His own glory in the eyes of Israel.

Is it because of the implicit message that without God the Jewish people will never be able to vanquish their enemies who would relentlessly attack them down through the ages, and who are epitomized by Amalek? Why indeed does Israel seem doomed to have a foe? Why has Amalek in one guise or another continued to pursue the Jewish people throughout time? Is that the price of having been chosen? Chosen by a warrior God?

Chaim Potok, in the extract we read, speaks of journeying as an eternal atonement. We are all journeying, always on the way, never to arrive.

And what if the journeying were an atonement for the flaws in our own being, which are the flaws in the being of that God? For the warrior God, the God of the Covenant, seems to be a different God from the God who silences the jubilant angels – the God whose place is not this world, who cannot even be reached, and who yet is the light by which we may see, as we go on journeying.


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