Picture of Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Right or Righteous?

There is a modern-day term for the inability to admit wrongdoing: sociopathy. A conscience that cannot feel guilt is capable of untold evil. An ability to look critically at ourselves, to see where we are wrong, is the beginning of making things right. Being right — in the narrow sense of \”correct\” — amounts to very little, if a correct position isn\’t also righteous. Joseph is correct in interpreting his dreams of domination and superiority to his family, but he is also insensitive and inflammatory. He is right again, according to midrash, in what he tells his father about his brothers\’ bad behavior. But in Jewish law, unlike American, truth is not a defense against defamation. Accuracy is not piety.

But Who’s Complaining?

Yes, there is something natural, human and probably inevitable about complaining. As the people who raised murmuring to a high art during the desert trek with Moses, Jews may have more precedent to complain than others. I once invented a game called \”alphabetical kvetch,\” and I have rarely had a problem getting Jews to play along.

Saying “Amen” to Life

Some things — in fact, some of the most important things in life — cannot be fully understood before they are assented to. While you can select a partner wisely, you can never know what marriage will be like before you say, \”I do.\”

Holy Doubt

This week\’s Torah portion contains a story that most of us skipped in Hebrew school — the story of Dina.

How to Give Torah

Shavuot commemorates the Jewish people\’s grandest moment of revelation — on a mountain, but definitely not in solitude. Absolutely personal, but not in the least private.

Connecting the Dots

Despite the High Holidays arriving late this year, many Jews are still scrambling to prepare. The practical and spiritual work is demanding: cooking, traveling, repenting, forgiving — it all takes time and energy.

In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, Jews judge themselves this month, conducting a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). Some people resist this not just because it is daunting, but because the process seems negative. They don\’t want to be mired in self-criticism.

But accounting means looking at both sides of the ledger — deposits and withdrawals, mitzvot and sins. One way to balance the ledger is to reduce withdrawals; the other is to increase deposits. The latter method may be even more effective, because our assets (good deeds) can be leveraged to eliminate bad debt (sins that seem so enticing at the time, for which we pay later).

This week\’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, offers many laws that can increase rachamim (compassion, mercy). Rachamim is a particularly valuable asset, because it offsets anger and augments patience. We can deliberately grow midat harachamim in ourselves. The goal is to make compassion greater and more important than being right. Thus, we imitate God, who is said to pray: \”May My mercy overcome My anger\” (Berachot 7a).

Ritual’s Mysteries

This week\’s Torah portion begins with, and is named after, the key word chukat. Chukat means \”the law of\” and specifically refers to the ritual law of the red heifer. What distinguishes a chok from other kinds of laws is its mystery.

Most Torah commandments have a basis in reason and logic. Chukim cannot be justified by rational arguments. There is no plausible explanation for why the ashes of an unblemished red cow are particularly powerful against ritual impurity. Nor can intellectual arguments justify why those ashes should have the paradoxical effect of purifying an impure Israelite, but rendering a priest who handles them impure. The chok of the red heifer, like the chok not to wear a blend of wool and flax, doesn\’t claim to be reasonable. It claims to be holy and to foster holiness.

Often people will tell me that what they love about Judaism is the freedom to question, to challenge and to demand answers.

Living Torah

Imagine yourself forgotten, without anyone to protect you. Ruling powers are oppressing you and killing your children. The purported

\”reason\” is economic, but a deep hatred based on mere difference underlies this attempted genocide. Helpless, you cry out. Who, in heaven and on earth, will hear your cries and move to save you? Awaiting relief, what do you do?

Now, imagine that you are privileged — a son or daughter of the ruling class. Your life is comfortable, even luxurious. You witness the sharp contrast between your situation and the suffering of the underclass. They are slated to die, and your cooperation, whether tacit or overt, will help make it happen. What do you do?

The Heart of Time

What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library.

Ready for Judgment?

This week ushers in Elul, the month when Jews traditionally prepare for the High Holidays. In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, we judge ourselves, conducting a full cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). The Torah portion Re\’eh can serve as a checklist for forgiveness, repentance and renewing our lives. Its various laws and themes each suggest avenues for real and lasting change:

Blessing and Curse


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