Originally posted April 11, 2017. Tonight I went to a Queer Seder at my school, called Exodus (get it? coming out… of Egypt and the closet and so on) and the event holds a very dear place in my heart. This holiday is one of my favorites (mostly because of Prince of Egypt, let’s be real) and in this Haggadah, we have members of the community share coming out stories at each cup of wine. This was what I shared.

My name’s Léah and I use they/them pronouns.

(Look at that, I just came out! That’s it, I’m done! Just kidding.)

I had been in a rut trying to think about what I wanted to say when I got here because I don’t really have an eventful Coming Out™ moment that fits into a clean narrative. Which I think is fine, for life, and it reveals the truth of how coming out isn’t one big moment but rather a process that happens in big and little ways every day. But that doesn’t make for a very exciting story. And this holiday is all about exciting stories.

Perhaps instead of retelling a story of a closed chapter in my continuing coming out book, I can just come out to you now, as who I am today. Mah nishtanah, ha-laylah ha-zeh, mi-kol ha-leylot (Why is this night different from all the other nights?) This night is different from all other nights, but only as all other nights are different from each other, because my identity is never stable and the words are never adequate nor complete. In the right contexts, I am a firm believer in the utility and the benefit of labels, but only so far as they are allowed to be flexible and impermanent.

I don’t see myself as being one thing that I narrate to others, my self-ness is very relational and depends on social and cultural context, and sometimes conscious choice. In that understanding, I have various self-narrations that I shift through kinda like Hannah Montana’s remote control closet.

I am gay when I joke with my friends about gay memes and the gay agenda. I am not really that gay when the “gay rights movement” centers homosexual rich white men and their marriage in the name of all queer liberation.

I am queer when I am angry, when I am witchy, when I’m too tired to explain other words, when I am taking academia into my own hands and language. I’m just generally queer as heck. I am cautiously queer around my elders because I can hold simultaneous truths of liberation and deep pain held tight within the same word hurled like bricks or gleefully sewn on denim jackets.

I am bisexual when I want to fit into the LGBT acronym comfortably or when I want to make a political point about bisexual erasure and biphobia. I’m not bi when it means only men and women.

I am ace because I connect to the asexual community and parts of their conversations are deeply resonant for me. Identifying as ace was immensely socially and psychologically helpful for a spell, and parts of it still are, but I can feel myself shifting away from the usefulness of that narrative now.

I am panromantic polyintimate because I like shoving prefixes and suffixes together to make meaning. What else are words? I made these words in my first year of college, and they still fit pretty well, but I only really use them as conversation starters/enhancers, and less as fill-in-the-blank form responses, because they aren’t really legible without a deeper conversation and sometimes I don’t feel like going there. Pan for type of people, aka lots. Romantic for romantic attraction, aka squishy heart feels and deep care. Poly for amount of people, aka lots. Intimate because sexual doesn’t feel right, but I feel a deep-seated need for physical and emotional intimacy, aka lots of snuggles and deep talks.

I am kinky when I go to makeout parties in Brooklyn because I NEVER grew out of wanting to play spin the bottle and let’s face it, Berlin is a great place for coming into yourself as a sexual being. I am kinky even while also communicating the boundaries of my asexuality.

I am sexy when I blues dance. This one isn’t really a label I put on myself, but it is still something empowering to claim and I love playing with normative gender roles and desires within the safe confines of a dance. There is no doubt in my mind that my dancing is related to my queerness, to my gender, to my sexuality, and that dancing has actively healed wounds and opened doors into confidences and skills intimately intertwined with my intimacies.

I am nonbinary even when I don’t say anything about pronouns. (Or am I? Ahh!) This one has a lot more to do with visuals than language, for me though. Visibility is a double-edged sword, especially for trans and nonbinary people. For some, like trans women, hypervisibility can lead to violence on the daily from psychological micro-aggressions and invalidations to potentially fatal physical injury. On the other hand, I often feel entirely invisible in my nonbinary identity because I don’t look like the traditional thin, white, masculine androgynous model–I’ve only got one of those: I’m very white. I always joke that I’m going to title my autobiography Unintentionally Femme, because the oppression of beauty standards under capitalism or whatever means that pants don’t fit my body shape and I compensate with lots of floral dresses and fun patterns. Which I love, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t love crying from frustration in Target dressing rooms, because I just want ONE pair of pants that fit comfortably enough–just enough!–for when I work in theatre or just want to leave the house in a tshirt and jeans with no purse. Am I still nonbinary as I grow my hair out and don my violet lips? I think so, but it’s hard to feel that way out in the world. So even as I feel comfy in how I personally understand my identity, I know that my gender isn’t able to be legible to others in the way that I want, which can wear on me.

There. Those are some of the words that feel right today. (Or at least, on Sunday when I wrote this). Maybe next year I will tell a coming out story about today.


Building A Diverse Coalition? A Trip To Israel Could Help

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” — Tony Robbins

This January, a group of student leaders from New York University departed on a flight bound for Israel. Together, they represented more than fifty diverse campus communities and had assembled to learn about one another while visiting a nation full of historical nuance and continuing complexity.

The planning for this pilot program began in August of last year at the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, where I am a student staff member. While NYU, despite its immense size, does a phenomenal job assisting students in creating micro-communities around their interests and passions, there remains a lack of substantive communication between the various groups. In the spirit of coalition building and in recognizing the importance of solidarity, the Campus Influencers Seminar was created as an opportunity to bring together unique student leaders, create space for a more intentionally inclusive community, and engage in stimulating discussion, something that has become crucial in the last several months.

In recruiting for the program, we sought to assemble a group of influential campus leaders, diverse in race, gender, religious background, sexual orientation, and political beliefs. After interviews and applications, twenty-five student leaders were selected, including budding poets, Christians, students of color, Jews, members of the LGBTQ community and representatives of various political groups.

The programming was unique, intentionally put together to offer the influencers a comprehensive and honest portrayal of Israel in all of its triumphs and struggles. Together, we explored Christian, Muslim and Jewish sites, as well as spoke with journalists, writers, refugees, and political leaders from Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Traveling to almost every part of the country, we heard history and current events told from several different worldviews and perspectives, challenging ourselves with often-conflicting opinions along the way.

In Tel Aviv, speaking with Deputy Mayor Asaf Zamir, we learned about public education programming designed to create consistent opportunities for all children to learn together, regardless of whether they are Muslim or Jewish, secular or religious. In Acre, meeting with the founder of the Arab Jewish Community Center, we witnessed the tremendous strength and devotion an Israeli Arab Muslim man has to bridge the divide in his community and successfully create space for unity. In Jerusalem, listening to diplomat Dr. Tal Becker and author Matti Friedman, we learned about the importance of empathy in conflict and the need to enlarge our understanding of a complex region with an even more muddled history.

Sharing his perspective on the greatest difficulty affecting the Israeli state today, prominent LGBTQ activist Imri Kamlann expressed, “Our challenge now is to be a real community. To strengthen the feeling of solidarity between us, to strengthen the structures that will help us make decisions together, and to put aside the political differences when it comes to taking care of each other and fighting together for our goals as a community. I believe that if we can be strong as a community, we can achieve everything.”

In between listening to and engaging with speakers diverse in profession and opinion, we turned to one another. As participant Oscar Adelman noted, “We were constantly debating, questioning, pushing one another to consider another perspective.” In doing so, we learned about one another and ourselves, fostering greater understanding. We willingly and openly confronted immense challenge head on, striving to understand the people, the region and the conflict beyond the few powerful sound bites we had previously heard in the media.

Ultimately, we created a community between us, united by a shared experience and a clear willingness to engage in dialogue even when it was challenging or uncomfortable. Now back on campus, we continue to work diligently to ensure that this community remains strong and expands beyond its original group. More than ever, there is a tremendous need for communication between those seemingly different from one another. This program represents one effort towards achieving this aim, and we actively commit ourselves to continuing its work, determined to cultivate unity in moments of uncertainty and division. As author Yehuda Berg poignantly notes, “Every little action creates an effect: we are all interconnected.”


This piece originally appeared on March 7, 2017 on forward.com

Jay Street Conference in DC

This past weekend I did something really cool that my mom would be very proud of: I ate pizza for at least two meals every day from Friday to Sunday. What I mean to say is, I went to D.C. where I don't have a kitchen or meal plan to learn more about the Israeli Palestinian conflict and some paths toward the two-state solution.

When I wasn't running frantically from the pizza place next door back to the convention center to get to the next panel, I was listening to a number of speakers passionate about ending the occupation, promoting peace domestically and abroad, and so much more. This weekend with JStreet, I had the opportunity to visit 17 out of the 19 Smithsonian museums, listen to Bernie Sanders speak not as someone trying to win an election, but as a Jewish person deeply troubled by the situation in Israel, and hear both Israeli and Palestinian voices sharing their stories. The conference, at least for me, culminated in the area just in front of the White House where we all, signs and bells in tow, protested for the rights of Palestinians and the ending of the occupation. This is where I felt the most inspired I had since the Women’s Marches, it was where, in a sea of thousands of young people yelling, “This is what democracy looks like,” I was reminded the deep obligation I have both to my country and to Israel. As a young person, born into this yet unconquered inequality and oppression, I was reminded of my unique ability to take my values and make change. After all, the world isn’t going to fix itself.

JStreet is a political organization with pro-peace pro-Israel goals. The organization aims to promote a peaceful Israel through a two-state solution. At their conferences, carefully-curated panels of impassioned activists speak on the nuances of bringing about peace. This is something I find to be very important. It is one thing for college students to learn in classrooms, but there is something so invaluable about being in Washington D.C. listening to MKs and Palestinian peace-workers debate policy.

I’d like to end on something I’ve taken away from the conference, something which was reinforced by Shimon Peres’s granddaughter, Mika Almog. No matter what you are working for, whether it be peace in a land you yourself have never been to, any of the domestic issues of inequality, you must love what you are fighting for. You must internalize it and come to have it as a part of yourself, because this, this is how you win the fight.

Tu B’Shevat 5777 - Opening to the Beginning

Some beginnings are dramatic and obvious:
Move-in day. The birth of a sibling or a cousin. Commencement.

Beginnings like this are identifiable, recognizable--you can celebrate their anniversary.

But sometimes beginnings creep up on you.

A friendship grows in trust and depth.

A task becomes a vocation, somehow.

NYU turns into “home,”
but you can’t remember the first time you used that word for this place.

Tu B’Shevat is a beginning: the new year for the trees.

And it’s happening when we’re covered in snow,
Wondering what spring will feel like, should it ever come (G-d willing, it will!).

We sit together and eat different kinds of fruits,

Fruits full and ripe, with the potential of a new seed inside,

And fruits locked into themselves, encased in a shell.

We are mindful of what is seen and what is unseen,

Mindful of what is hidden just beneath the surface.

We eat fruits we have never eaten before--
Or fruits we have not eaten for a long, long time,

So that we experience their tang or their sweetness

As if for the first time.

And before we eat each fruit, we say a beracha, a blessing.

In Jewish tradition, we are obligated to bless something

Before we enjoy it, before we gain benefit from it (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 50:1).

Easy to do, with these fruits laid out beautifully in front of us.

Easy to eat mindfully and gratefully, with a seder to guide us.

But what if our new beginning, what if that enjoyment, what if that benefit and blessing,

What if it sneaks up on us?

We are obligated to bless before the miraculous renewal we feel
in enjoying the fruits of this world.

But what if we don’t notice until it’s too late.

What if we’re like Jacob,

Who ran through the wilderness in fear of his brother’s anger.

Jacob sleeps on the ground, a stone for his pillow.

And something happens.

He has a miraculous dream.

He experiences a new beginning.

A ladder, with angels traveling down and up.

And G-d’s Presence, right there with Jacob in the middle of the desert.

Jacob awakens.

אכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי

Wow! The Eternal was in this place, and I, I did not know.

Jacob experienced something new, something unprecedented,

In the most unexpected place.

He wasn’t ready.

It took him a beat or so to catch up with his experience.

And then he sprung into action,

Marking the place with a stone, anointing it with oil,

And making a promise to G-d.

Jacob renamed the place of his new begining Beit El, the House of G-d.

Our beginnings aren’t always announced to us.

Every day isn’t “the first day of school” or “the hundredth day before commencement.”

Or Tu B’Shevat, when bounty is laid out before us.

I keep thinking about how this holiday, this seder,

Is happening just after a blizzard.

How are we supposed to think about beginning, about budding?

The medieval Rabbi Menachem Meiri calls this day
the midpoint between winter and spring (Beit HaBechirah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1).

Winter is weakening. The sap is flowing in the trees.

The author Kurt Vonnegut claims that there are six seasons, not four.

Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall.

But also “Locking” and “Unlocking.”

Between Winter and Spring,

The time we are just on the cusp of approaching,

Is “Unlocking” (Palm Sunday: Bits of the Collage, 1981).

The earth needs to get ready for spring.

The beginning doesn’t happen in that glorious moment
when the crocus peeks up from the rich brown in all its green and purple glory.

The beginning is before that,
When the grown begins, imperceptibly to humans, to thaw.

The beginning is when the worms begin to stir.

The beginning is when a flow of energy happens

Just beneath the surface.

Everything is unlocking

So what does this have to do with us, tonight?

On Tu B’Shevat we bless before we eat and enjoy,

And we’re mindful of this process.

But all the time we are invited, we are called, we are obligated,

To unlock ourselves to the possibility of beginning again.

If we must bless before we enjoy,

And if the potential for benefit and blessing is all around us,

Then we’d better get ready!

Our challenge, all year round, is to be open to the possibility of the new.

To be open to the possibility of blessing.

To be open to saying Achein!

What just happened here, that’s blessing, that’s goodness!

Any place could be that Beit El, a place where something Divine has taken root
And blossomed.

Indeed, the very place that Jacob named “Beit El” was originally called “Luz.”

“Luz” is an ancient word for almond-blossom:

The shaked, the almond-tree, is the first to bloom in the land of Israel.

The first to bloom at this time of year, at Tu B’Shevat.

So this New Year of the Trees
Is a reminder to us

That every Luz, every almond-blossom,

Might be the opportunity for a Beit El,

For a place where surprise and blessing and miracle and holiness

Can take root.

Be open to the possibility of beginning again.

Shabbat Va'eirah D'var Torah - Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi

Laboring for Freedom
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi
27 January 2017


“I have heard the cries of the children of Israel,
Whom the Egyptians are enslaving in bondage,
And I remembered My covenant” (Exodus 6:5).


The certainty with which this week’s Torah portion opens is

So comforting.

Our people are in pain.

We are being treated unfairly.

We are held in slavery.

Generations have passed since the leader
Of the land in which we’ve been living

Has even known the names of our Jewish communal leaders.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”

“And they oppressed the Israelites with difficult labors.”

Suddenly the ultimate Authority hears our cries,

Recognizes us,

And does something about it.

All told, ten things, actually--

The plagues that finally prompt Pharaoh to “let our people go.”


But it’s never really that easy,



Freedom has never been a matter

Of a great, all-powerful God

Suddenly splitting the sea for us.


Freedom won’t work that way today, either.


Over Winter Break and J-Term,

Many of you reached out to me

With questions about how to live

In the uncertainty of today’s world,

Including but not limited to the current presidential administration in particular.

Uncertainty is agonizing.

And we all want to hear that promises have been remembered,

That freedom’s just around the corner,

Across the sea, within reach.

It would be comforting to hear that all we need to do is be led to the shore.


But the thing is, freedom doesn’t work that way.

Freedom is having ownership of our bodies and some measure of autonomy

For our futures.

Freedom is not an absence of work.

Freedom is a different sort of labor.

In Hebrew, avodah means “slavery.”

And avodah also means “worship.” “Service.”


Freedom is about laboring for our values, our heritage, our communities,

Our covenant.


I keep thinking about the heroes of last week’s Torah portion:

The Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah.

In the course of their work,

They took ownership.

They refused to be enslaved to Pharaoh’s edict.

They disobeyed his orders to kill all male Hebrew children as they emerged

from their mothers’ wombs.

Instead, they lied to Pharaoh and let all the children live.


And I keep thinking about the Hebrew parents themselves:

Those folks who continued to grow their families

Despite Pharaoh’s attempt to bring only death and destruction and bitter bondage.

In the haftarah reading for this week,

Isaiah uses the image of birth to describe

The miraculous turn from slavery to freedom,

From rejection to acceptance:

“Who has ever heard the likes of this?

Who has ever seen the likes of this?

Is it possible that a land can be born in one day?

Is a nation born all at once--

That Zion should feel birth pangs and

Immediately bear her children?” (Isaiah 66: 8).


I’ve never actually given birth.

But I think it likely feels both as miraculous as Isaiah claims

And also like a sh&* ton of work!

It’s called labor for a reason.


Some of you may have seen Sikh activist Valerie Kaur’s
New Year’s speech.

She asked us to reenvision the darkness many of us see around us

Not as the “darkness of the tomb,”

But rather as the “darkness of the womb.”

“Breathe,” she urged.

And after that, she reminded us, it’s time to “Push.”


So, here’s the thing:

Lots of us want certainty.

Lots of us want the Ultimate Authority to come and

Tell us what to do.

Lots of us want to hear a booming voice reassuring us,

“I have heard the people’s cry,

And I have remembered My covenant.”

Lots of us want to just be on the other side of the sea already!


But that’s skipping a whole bunch of steps.

That’s skipping the hopefulness of the Hebrew parents

Who went ahead growing their families despite Pharaoh’s edict.

That’s skipping the rebellion of the midwives Shifra and Puah

Who simply disregarded the words of a powerful king.

That’s skipping the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam

In showing the people that a new future was possible.

That’s skipping the agonizing plagues.

That’s skipping the terror at the shores of the sea

And the immense relief and fulfillment and wonder of reaching the opposite shore.

And that’s for sure skipping the years of wandering in the desert,

Figuring out how to be a free and an ethical people.


That’s skipping the avodah, the service,

That we’re called to as Reform Jews.


Our movement was founded by folks who believed deeply

That it is our responsibility as Jews

To refuse to merely accept tradition because it was handed down to us.

Reform Jews have long believed in doing the work

That freedom requires:

Examine inherited beliefs.

Honor the generations that came before us.

Listen to the cries of the oppressed around us.

Respond to the changing needs of our world.

Accept newly-revealed truths.


Reform Jews, in the words of its leaders

On the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary

Of the formal establishment of our movement in the U.S.,

Dedicated itself to this labor:

“The great contribution of Reform Judaism

Is that it has enabled the Jewish people

To introduce innovation while preserving tradition,

To embrace diversity while asserting commonality,

To affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt,

And to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.”

Narrowing the gap between the affluent and the poor,

Welcoming refugees,

Achieving full inclusion for women and the queer community

In both Jewish life and political life,

Bringing meaningful Jewish practice into our homes,

Engaging with the broader Jewish community in love and respect--

These are just some of the values we espouse as Reform Jews.

Values that require us to labor.

To breathe. And to push.


It’s not easy.

In fact, it’s labor.


That’s what freedom is like.

That’s what avodah is.

Freedom doesn’t appear in a flash.


It is birthed.

Freedom requires parents and midwives,

Community and family.

And, sure, it requires a miracle, also.


God heard the cries of our people in their enslavement.

God performed miracles such as had never been witnessed, before or since.

God recognized that the Jewish people suffered from kotzer ruach--

A crushed spirit.


And God lifted our spirits by performing those signs and wonders.

And God made it possible for us to breathe again.

But the purpose of all those signs and wonders,

All those labors,

Was to free us for a different kind of avodah,

The labor of being Jewish in a changing world.


The work will never be over.

Because there will always be a cry to which we must respond.

There will always be a name that calls out to be recognized.

There will always be new kings who make claims on the lives of the less powerful.

And there will always be an opportunity for us to pay no heed

To the edicts of any Pharaoh who rises up in the name of destruction and enslavement.

There we always be an opportunity for us to choose life,

And to labor for the values of our Jewish covenant.


Maybe that’s not as comforting as a religious tradition

That would assure us that all we need to do is surrender everything into God’s hands.

But freedom has never worked that way.


So, instead of comfort, we’ll turn to covenant--

That call to birth the freedom we wish to enjoy and to engender.

Shabbat Vayeira D'var Torah - Ilana Symons

This text was take from Ilana's D'var Torah to the Reform Community on Friday night, November 18th, 2016.

Shabbat Shalom!

My name is Ilana. I’m a sophomore in Liberal Studies.

This week’s parsha is called Vayeira. It is most well-known for the Akedah, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. However, it also contains one of my favorite stories in the Torah: the story of Sodom. In it, G-d tells Abraham G-d is planning on destroying the city of Sodom because of their wickedness. Abraham asks if G-d would still destroy the city if it contained fifty righteous people, then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. G-d agrees to save the city under these circumstances, but unfortunately, is unable to find these righteous people. I think it’s easy to see this as negative; after all, Abraham worked hard to stand up to G-d, and was still unsuccessful. He lost, it was over. I don’t think we can see it as a failure though.

The most topical theme I’ll point to here is the importance of advocacy. I can only imagine that Abraham was terrified when approaching G-d. After all, G-d had just blessed him with a son and again promised to make his descendants a great nation. Abraham had the courage and humility to approach G-d and say that this is wrong. He did the right thing rather than the easy thing. He advocated on behalf of people he didn’t know sort of for an unknown reason- maybe because his son was just born, maybe for his uncle Lot, or maybe because it was simply the right thing to do.

As Jews in the twenty-first century, we have many texts and events we can point to that make us want to stand up for others. Over and over in Jewish history, we see Jews standing up for ourselves and for other peoples. We look at Moses who, despite his lisp, told the most powerful man in Egypt to “Let my people go.” We point to Hillel who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for me, what am I? And if not now, when?” We recall Abraham Joshua Heschel who prayed with his feet while marching in Selma and Washington during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. We do the right thing because we were strangers in Egypt and continue to know what it feels like to be a minority voice.

All Abraham knew about the Jewish people at this point is that G-d promised they will be a great nation. He didn’t have Jewish role models or texts or events he could site when asked why he stood up for the people of Sodom. His motivation came solely from the knowledge that his people will be great, and he is in no small part responsible for this greatness. It came from his son who even at just a few days old, Abraham knew would lead the Jewish people.

Midrash teaches us that Sodom’s crime was inhospitality. G-d punished them for closing doors in the face of people who were different, for humiliating their visitors, and for keeping their bountiful crops to themselves. Any of that sound familiar? Abraham was the opposite. He was known for audacious hospitality. Before the time of Jewish role models, Abraham embodied what it meant to stand up for others for the sake of doing the kind and right thing, rather than the cruel and easy one.

After the events of the past few weeks which confirm the hatred and bigotry in our world, it’s easy to feel small and powerless. It’s easy to feel that our voices aren’t being heard and to focus on helping ourselves rather than anyone else. After working so hard maybe for a specific candidate or outcome, some of us feel that we failed and that’s going to mean a lot more pain in the world. Like Abraham, we put ourselves out there and for a second maybe felt that we had won, only to find a crushing defeat. But like Abraham, we must keep going. We must fight on and work for the future and for the great nation we have yet to become. We must be one of those 10, 20, 30, 40, 45, 50 righteous people that G-d couldn’t find in Sodom but could find in America.

Somehow, I think Abraham knew we’d be put in this place. That the Jewish people would have to endure thousands of years of anti-Semitism and that beyond helping ourselves, we’d want to help others. It is Abraham that I look to as a role model in these distressing times. Abraham who was the first Jew and who is most remembered simply for welcoming people into his tent. For standing up for people without a voice. For being promised a great nation and setting up a beautiful legacy for it to fulfill. Abraham teaches us that the best we can do is advocate for a better world for our children and to be kind simply for the sake of kindness. If we do that, we will have succeeded.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reflections on Parashat Devarim

Parashat Devarim

Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) consists of Moses’s speech to the people of Israel, as they prepare to enter the land of Canaan. In this first parasha, he describes their journeys in the desert, including the establishment of the judicial system, the incident of the spies, their encounters with the nations of Eisav, Moav, and Ammon and battles with Sichon and Og, and the giving of the Trans-Jordan territory to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe.

Devarim, Rashi, and God’s Love for Israel
The Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) opens: These are the words which Mosheh spoke to all of Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wildnerness, in the Arava, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban and Hatzerot, and Di-Zahav.     
Rashi comments: Since these were words of rebuke, and here are listed all the places where they angered God. Therefore the verse condenses these matters and alludes to them only through a hint, on account of the honour of Israel.
From a simple reading of the text one would not have gleaned that concern for Israel’s honour is the guiding principle behind the list of locations. What explains Rashi’s comment?
Before suggesting an answer it is worth considering some of the difficulties of reading Rashi.
Rashi – full name Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki – wrote, arguably, the most significant and beloved of all commentaries to the Torah. And yet, figuring out what Rashi himself actually thinks is particularly difficult.
Firstly, where other medieval Biblical commentators such as Ramban or Seforno wrote, in addition to exegetical works, long essays on topics they deemed significant, Rashi’s work is almost exclusively made up of commentaries to verses. If he is ‘chained’ to the verse, how can we know what topics mattered to him?
Secondly, his comments are almost always brief. If we are to deduce something of his worldview, we have only a few words each time to work from.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the vast majority of Rashi’s words are not even his own! Rather they are select quotes taken from the vast pool of earlier midrashic commentaries. So if Rashi is copying and pasting from elsewhere, what can we usefully say is his own opinion?
Professor Avraham Grossman, in his wonderful book on Rashisuggests a number of tools that lovers of Rashi can use to overcome these problems. One idea is to isolate instances where Rashi consistently inserts a certain theme into the text at various locations, even though the Torah text itself makes no hint at such a theme.
The most striking example of this is Rashi’s first comment to each of the Torah’s five books. In each case Rashi diverts from the simple meaning of the text in order to insert an alien theme – God’s love of Israel.
Bereishit (Genesis) opens with creation – a universal theme – and yet Rashi turns to the land of Israel and God’s gift of it to the Jewish people, conditional upon their righteous behavior.
Shemot (Exodus) begins with an innocuous list of the names of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt but Rashi notes that the list has already been mentioned at the end of Bereishit, and is repeated here ‘to make known God’s affection for them’.
Vayikra’s (Leviticus) begins, ‘And God called to Mosheh…’ – and goes on to list the various sacrifices. Rashi, however, notes that the language of God ‘calling’, as opposed to the usual language ‘speaking’ denotes the affection and intimacy that God feels for Mosheh and Israel.
Bamidbar (Numbers) opens with the census of the Jewish people, ostensibly to assess their military strength. Yet Rashi explains, ‘on account of His love for them, He counts them at every moment’.
And, as we have seen, Rashi’s first comments on Devarim introduce an identical theme. The Torah passes over God’s rebuke to Israel on account of their honour.
Five times then, at a highly significant juncture in the text Rashi emphasizes God’s love for Israel, and this, despite anything in the actual text, which indicates that this is a theme. What are we to conclude from this?
Rashi lived in France and Germany from 1040 to 1105. Dominated by the Crusades, this period was arguably one of the most miserable in Jewish history. If ever there was a period in which Jews could have been forgiven for thinking that God had forgotten this covenant with Israel – this was it. A religious leader could have told them that God was still their judge or king and would hold them to account if they strayed.
Yet Rashi, put God’s enduring love for Israel front and centre.
Tisha B’Av – the most sombre day of the Jewish calendar – falls this Sunday. Rashi’s example, at the beginning of Devarim and elsewhere, reveals one of the most compelling themes of the day. More noteworthy than the destruction of the Temple and other historical catastrophes, is that despite these catastrophes, Jews did not lose their faith.
Not for nothing was Rashi given the moniker ‘me’or einei hagola’ – he who illuminated the eyes of the exile.

This post was originally posted in Limmud on One Leg's weekly email.