Month: December 2016

Parshat Mikeitz • Genesis 41:1-44:17

Years of abundance followed by years of famine. Years of gladness followed by years of sorrow. Years of good followed by years of bad. All predicted by dreams in which thin, shriveled sheaves of grain swallowed healthy stalks and thin cows consumed their sturdy counterparts. In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), Joseph helps Pharaoh interpret his dreams and then prepare for the difficult years to come. His sage advice causes him to quickly rise from Pharaoh’s prisoner to his trusted advisor.

Miketz falls at an auspicious time on our secular calendar. Many count down the days of 2016 while feeling uncertain about the future. Will the abundance of the stock market continue? Are we facing years of sorrow in the many geopolitical hotspots the world over? Will 2017 bring the good many feel sorely lacking? As Joseph tells Pharaoh, there is much we can do to  prepare. We are actors, not observers, of our own destiny. May Joseph’s reassurances bolster us all as we enter a new year!

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parshat Vayeishev • Genesis 37:1-40:23

We’ve reached that moment in Genesis where Jacob has “settled down:” vayeshev means, 'and [Jacob] settled.’ In this Torah portion our curtain rises on Joseph, he of multi-colored coat fame. Joseph is set apart, distinct from his siblings – both through the favoritism of their father and his talent for dream interpretation. Joseph, though well-intentioned, stokes his brothers’ ire through his unfiltered processing of dreams – dreams that showcase just how favored and talented he is.

One day while the brothers are tending to the flock near Shechem, Jacob sends Joseph out to to find them. As Joseph sets out on his journey he comes across an unnamed individual – identified in the text as, simply, “the man" - who points Joseph in the direction of his brothers. The next part is more well-known to us: as Joseph’s brothers see him approach, they conspire to kill him and instead throw him in a pit. Alone in the wilderness, Joseph is soon picked up by a crew of traders and sold into slavery in Egypt.

What is most poignant about this passage is not necessarily the act of jealous, immature siblings; it is the mystery man, this individual without a name, who serves as a physical compass in the narrative. This man points Joseph not just toward his siblings, that pit, or the Midianite traders; he actually points Joseph toward Egypt. While first his residence is a prison cell, his talents eventually move him to be pharaoh’s most trusted advisor. It is Joseph who manages to save the people of the region from a devastating famine – an act that brings the brothers back together many years later. Were it not for the mystery man, how would Joseph’s destiny unfold?

I think about this story every Hanukkah – indeed, Vayeshev is always read right around the Festival of Lights – for its linked symbolism to the notion of increasing our light in a very dark world. While one could see the mystery man as a harbinger of despair – we know that Jacob is devastated upon hearing his son Joseph has died – I choose to look at him as an instrument of change. By sending Joseph to Egypt to oversee the storing of grains to anticipate a famine, this mystery man saves thousands of lives. By sending Joseph to Egypt the mystery man elevates the status of an Israelite, ensuring protection for our people in this generation and the next. While this mystery man may not receive a name, the goodness he brings forth is worthy of the highest status. Without a status of his own, the mystery man serves to increase the light in what could be a very dark, hopeless tale.

This holiday season we will encounter dozens of nameless faces – in crowded shopping malls, busy restaurants, on congested street corners and outside bustling supermarkets. If this one mystery man from Joseph’s story could have such a profound influence on our people’s narrative, imagine what power those nameless faces might have on us and our world. As we head into the holiday of Hanukkah, let us remember to cultivate a sense of grace toward these unknown individuals. For who knows? It may actually be they who point us toward our destiny, too.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Vayeishev • Genesis 37:1-40:23

Watch The Best of Rabcast for Rabbi Weiner's interpretation of this week's parashah.

Parshat Vayishlach • Genesis 32:4−36:43

Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner's interpretation of this week's Torah portion.




Parshat Vayeitzei - Genesis 28:10-32:3

I love it when the seemingly novel and insightful trends of the moment actually find antecedent in the timely wisdom of our tradition.  The notions of “mindfulness” and “being present in the moment” fill the self-help sections of Amazon and are fodder for self-actualization weekends.  Yet in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, we learn a potent lesson from our patriarch Jacob that spans at least three millennia.  On the run from his cheated and furious brother Esau, Jacob stops for the night with little but a rock as his pillow.  His past is closed off to him, and his future is highly uncertain.  He is distracted by his predicament and invested only in his challenges.  In a dream, he beholds a ladder spanning earth and the heavens, as divine beings traverse the interstices.  When he awakens, he verbalizes his epiphany, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”  Suddenly, his orientation shifts, his perspective broadens, and his priorities reorder.  He now locates himself within a larger destiny and bigger vision. The challenges of the moment, while still present, are now proportionate to what matters most.  Timely wisdom for all of us, indeed.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parshat Tol'dot • Genesis 25:19-28:9

The holiday season has officially begun! Many of us kicked off this most joyous time of year seated around large dining room tables last Thursday eve, filled to the brim with turkey, stuffing and cranberry goop. No matter where or how we celebrated Thanksgiving though, I’m willing to bet more than one of us engaged in some pretty tense conversations with family and friends. It’s not a surprise – we’re just a few weeks past the most divisive national election in recent memory, providing well over half the country with a profound sense of anxiety over what’s coming next. Add to that the barrage of incentives to engage in Black Friday shopping and the building stress of holiday cards, gift-giving and party attendance, well - it’s no surprise that at this time of year business is booming for counselors, therapists and psychiatrists.

Family dynamics are front and center in this week’s Torah portion Tol'dot, which translates to “generations.” At the forefront of the narrative are the twins Jacob and Esau, two brothers as different as night and day. Their parents pick favorites – Rebecca chooses bookish, loyal Jacob while Isaac favors brutish, brawny Esau. The fight over their birthright reaches a peculiar apex when Rebecca meddles in Isaac’s selection; her beloved Jacob tricks his father, resulting in his fleeing the family unit, headed into the wilderness. He leaves in his wake an odd sense of brokenness within his nuclear family, one that's repaired several years later at a reunion between Jacob and Esau’s newly established families.

How can we, as modern Jews, look to this story as guidance for our own family tensions at this time of year? My colleague Rabbi Lisa Kingston writes that, “Esau has physical strength, but Jacob’s strength lies in his ability to wrestle. Later in Jacob’s life he will wrestle with a messenger of God and earn the name Yisrael – indicating that [in Genesis 32] Jacob wrestled with the Divine and prevailed. With the name Yisrael, we recall all the ways Jacob has and will wrestle throughout his life. He struggles with his brother in the womb, he fights to win the birthright, he struggles with his own conscience alone on his journey from home, and he battles with his uncle Laban in order to marry Rachel. Thinking of Jacob only as the pawn in his mother's plan takes away from the true strength of Jacob's character. He is not just the favored son of his mother, born into a prophecy of greatness. His legacy is one of struggle. When we think of Jacob as a man who takes control of his destiny, he reminds us that we too are not fated to any situation in life; we too must struggle for what we want to accomplish.”

For many of us the holiday season is a time of joy and merriment, decorations and delicious foods. For others, the holiday season provides more tension and anxiety than any other. But no matter how we may see ourselves in relation to others these coming weeks, or how we might dread or anticipate that which December throws at us, let us remember through the teachings of Tol’dot that our patriarch Jacob, wrestling with demons physical and emotional, overcomes not only to survive, but to thrive.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen