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News Highlights Rabbi Nehemia Polen
Awarded Essay Prize

By Hebrew College
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atprize-graphicIn February, Hebrew College faculty member Rabbi Nehemia Polen was honored with The Ateret Zvi Prize, which recognizes an outstanding essay on a Biblical or classical rabbinic text displaying rigorous scholarship, religious insight, and literary sophistication.

Polen’s essay entitled “Nehemiah son of Hacaliah learns from Moses and Aaron,” which was awarded second prize, gives an innovative reading of the Mei Meribah incident — the water crisis that occurred near the end of the Israelites’ forty year wilderness trek (Numbers 20.1-13) — one of the most puzzling episodes in the Torah.

Polen explains, “Moses hit the rock — but why was he barred from entering the Promised Land? And why was Aaron punished in the same way? My analysis draws upon a much later biblical text, the Second Temple book of Nehemiah, and an incident where this leader shows courage and leadership in not escaping danger by misusing sacred space. The juxtaposition of two biblical texts from vastly different periods is exciting and revelatory. We learn that leaders must be selfless and fearless, acting without regard to their own safety or personal gain. The only way to preserve the sacred is by respecting it without any hint of self-interest. The sacred must be maintained for all, for the glory of God and the benefit of humanity and the cosmos. Religion is a call to service, not an avenue of escape.”

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