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Following sixteen hours of deliberation in the penalty phase of the Boston Bomber trial, the jury unanimously called for the execution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  For the U.S. government, the verdict represented a major victory in the biggest terrorism prosecution since 9/11.  But for some of the victims, the application of the death penalty is a matter of simple justice.  Bombing victim Sydney Corcoran who nearly bled to death and whose mother lost both legs is reported to have said: “Now he will go away and we will be able to move on…’an eye for an eye.’”

While many may sympathize with Corcoran’s emotions, no educated Jew can agree with his Biblical analysis. 

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A certain rabbi regularly invited pre-school children to the synagogue where he gave the youngsters a tour.  He would bring some ritual items and show the kids some of the important features of the sanctuary, especially the Aron Kodesh and the Torah scrolls inside.  One day the rabbi was unexpectedly detained and he was unable to give the children the full tour.  He did not have the time to open the Holy Ark.  This left the children in a state of speculation.  They were in dispute as to what was really inside.

One four-year-old was certainly a product of our materialistic age.  Probably influenced by television game shows, this little guy argued that inside the Holy Ark was a brand new car.  Not so, said a classmate.   Far more pragmatic than creative (and thus destined to have a future in Jewish education), this little girl insisted that inside the Holy Ark was a Torah and she was sure because she saw it in there before.  But this did not convince another little girl who will probably succeed in becoming a professor of existential philosophy in a major university.  She said there was nothing inside.  Another four-year-old demurred.  He said with an unusual degree of confidence that inside the Holy Ark was a giant mirror.  He may not have convinced the others of the truth of his vision but this young man – we ought to hope – should become the rabbi of tomorrow.

It is not the fact that the child was correct.  He clearly was not.  But that he had the right idea about Torah and its connection to the Jewish people.  To this little boy all who stand facing the open Ark are a reflection of the Torah kept inside it.  Indeed, this is precisely what the sages say, albeit somewhat differently.  The Talmud (Yebamot 79a) derives from specific verses in the Torah that all Jews are characterized by three central traits.  Jews are compassionate, helpful, and diffident. 

Shavu’ot is the time for celebrating the historic event of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai.  It is also a time for all Jews to reflect on the nature of what it is to be a Jew, living in the reflection of the Torah, mirroring the values and virtues that inhere in the Torah and in the lives of those we venerate.  For just as the Torah defines who we are as a people, our ancestors determine who we are as individuals.  (Interesting to note is that each Hebrew letter that makes up the word “Israel” is the initial of all of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.)

Celebrating Shavu’ot is both a testament to the eternal worth of the Torah and worthiness of the people of the Torah.

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Among the most memorable English novels of the nineteenth century is George Eliot’s Silas Marner.  What makes it so enduring is its carefully crafter character study in which the author describes the ruination of a person obsessed by his greed.  Marner’s vice is exemplified by his nightly compulsion to count – coin by coin – all the money he keeps hidden behind a stone in the fireplace.

In contrast, the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) teaches that “the early sages were called soferim because they used to count all the letters of the Torah” in order to safeguard the correctness of the transmitted text.  Silas Marner counted money.  Scholars counted letters.  What is counted reflects what is treasured.  Because Marner treasured his money, in his greed he counted coins.  Because the scholars treasured Torah, in their love of learning they counted letters.


Words to live by


Don’t throw away your old shoes until you have got new ones.

-       Dutch Proverb