Burton L. Visotzky

A Sense of Direction

The book of Exodus comes to a close this week with laws relating to gift-giving for the Tabernacle and the details of its construction. In what appears to be a fund-raiser’s fantasy, Moses relates God’s command that the Israelites “give their heart’s desire” (Exodus 35:5), and they give so much he has to ask them to stop! This Sabbath we also announce the coming month of Nisan in our synagogues, and with that proclamation Passover preparation begins in earnest.

In the Time of the Plagues

A couple of years ago, my family and I vacationed in Egypt. In Cairo, we stayed at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, a former palace situated on an island in the Nile. At night, kept awake by the constant din of automobile traffic, we could gaze at the reflection of the lights on that mighty river. In the morning, there it was, just outside the window — the River Nile! We stepped out on the balcony to get a better look at the famous river, took a deep breath at the awesome sight, and then coughed and coughed while our eyes stung from the pollution.

Korah; or, the Possibility of Change

This week’s Torah portion, Korah, tells a spectacular story of rebellion and punishment. Korah challenges Moses and Aaron’s rule with a deceptively simple argument: “All of the community is holy.… What makes you so special that you raise yourselves up?” (Numbers 16:3) Coming as it does from his very own tribe, Moses falls into despair.

Ignoring the Icky Stuff

This time of year rabbis often despair over the weekly Torah reading. Our portion covers much of what Bible scholars technically refer to as “the icky stuff.” We read of skin eruptions, blemishes, leprosy of houses, genital flows and fluxes.And yet there is much “Torah” in this Torah portion. First, one could follow the rabbis of Leviticus

Gold and Silver and Wisdom

In the book of Job, the title character asks, “Where can wisdom be found? Where is the source of understanding?” (Job 28:12). Not bad questions, all in all. Rabbi Tanhum ben Hanilai suggested that these questions refer to King Solomon, who spent so much of his life seeking wisdom. God rewards Solomon, explaining, “Since you

Erasing the Shadow of Fear

My honored senior colleague, Rabbi Myer Kripke of Omaha, Neb., writes to me regarding Numbers 27:1, where the daughters of Tzelophechad (Zelophehad) are mentioned. He wonders whether there is any midrash on the name Tzelophechad, which he divides into two parts, as though it were shorthand combining two words into one.This is an old method

An End to Blood Feuds?

This Sabbath we announce the coming of Av, the month about which the Mishna teaches: “When Av begins, diminish joy.” Given the sorry litany of events that befell the Jewish people during this month, it’s no wonder that the Mishna counsels against rejoicing. The Mishna lists five tragic events that took place on the 9th of Av: The

Moses and the Miracles Of Wood and Water

In memory of Martin Luther King Jr., who taught us how to go forward. Our rabbis teach us in a midrash that when God created trees, they were full of pride because of their towering stature. Then God created iron, and those trees that could foresee the axe trembled with fear. “Why do you tremble?” God asked. “No axe can be formed to cut