Month: January 2017

Parashat Va-eira • Exodus 6:2−9:35

Custom during the Passover Seder is to remove ten drop of wine from the second glass, diminishing our symbol of joy in deference to the plagues which befell the Egyptians. Indeed, the sacred and eternal message of Passover is to remember that suffering, to remember that we were strangers in Egypt - and to act accordingly in every subsequent day and age.

Our Torah portion this week, Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), recalls the harsh treatment of our ancestors and the beginning of the plagues Moses and God brought before Pharaoh to secure their redemption. We are ritually reminded of this message every year, not because we are not all wise, not all students of history, but because situations and context continually change. I hope you will join us at 7:00pm in Seattle this Erev Shabbat as Dr. Roberto Dondisch, the Jewish Consul of Mexico, shares the concerns of his community: Mexican immigrants made to feel as strangers in our land. Together may we remember the lessons of our sacred tradition and find new application for these ancient words.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Sh'mot • Exodus 1:1-6:1

What’s in a name? That’s the question coloring this week’s parashah, Sh’mot, as we open the book of Exodus this week. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Isaachar, Zeubulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.” (Ex. 1:1-4) Through the familiar names of the brothers of Joseph, our text creates a bridge between the closing narrative of Genesis and the beginnings of our oppression as slaves in Egypt. It then moves quickly to introduce a new character, Pharaoh. “Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile … they multiplied and increased greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” (Ex:1:6-8) Joseph’s name and legacy mean little to this new leader, a man intimidated by the sheer number of Hebrews in his kingdom.

And so a system is established – one known far too well by cultures and societies throughout the generations – of the powerful oppressing the weak; of one group’s potential constrained and controlled by another. Our ancestors enter into slavery under the rule of the Egyptians, which eventually gives way to the killing of newborn Hebrew boys, which eventually introduces us to Moses, father of our liberation. Moses quickly becomes an adopted son to Pharaoh’s daughter, growing up in the palace of the very person who first ordered his death. Moses then reaches a pivotal moment of morality, striking down an Egyptian guard whose abuse of a Hebrew slave churned in Moses like a fire. He soon flees to the land of Midian and the house of Jethro, marring his daughter Tziporah and establishing a life in the wilderness.

We soon come to experience the first meeting of God and Moses at the Burning Bush and with this encounter we witness the early beginnings of our Exodus story. In Genesis 3:13 as the bush is alight with fire but not consumed, Moses – struck by this overwhelming sight – asks God to share God’s name - “the people will ask ‘what is this God of yours’ name?’ What should I say to them?” And God responds to Moses, “ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I will be what I will be.” This name is, to this rabbi, the most resonant, honest and sacred moment of clarity in all of Torah. God does not respond “My name is God,” the way most of us would introduce ourselves to someone new. Rather, God chooses to share with Moses – and, really, with us – that God's identity is always growing, always evolving, and is in the process of becoming its ultimate self. Similarly, we humans are always growing and evolving as we make our way through life. For God to identify God’s self – in this premiere moment of the most significant story in our collective Jewish identity – as ever-evolving, still on its way to becoming what it fully is, is breathtaking. It also returns us to our initial question, what’s in a name?

This past weekend we honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His name, for us modern Jews, is synonymous with civil rights and social justice. His name evokes recognition of Selma, of marches, and “I Have a Dream.” Like God, Moses, and Joseph before him, MLK’s name has become over time a symbol of something greater than him alone: a reminder of the power of our words, actions and deeds. A harbinger of hope, equality and grace. A lesson to children and adults alike that we all possess innate strength to do what is right and just in the world. As we enter a new chapters of Torah, life and American government this week, let us remember the potential and power of a name.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat Va-y'chi • Genesis 47:28-50:26

 “All good things must come to an end,” wrote Chaucer in the 1380s – and it’s possible he was referencing parashat Va-y'chi when he did. In this week’s parashah we bid farewell not only to the narratives we well know from Genesis, but also to the nuclear family of Jacob as his and son Joseph’s lives meet their respective ends. Yes, it is a time of endings and beginnings as the sun sets on the biblical patriarchs and rises again with Shemot – the earliest tales of our time as slaves in Egypt – next week.  
The beauty is in the simplicity of Va-y'chi – it contains a sweet goodbye between a father and the son he once thought he’d lost. “Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So Joseph brought [his sons] close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, 'I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.' Joseph then removed them from his knees, and bowed low with his face to the ground.” (Gen. 48:10-12) The patriarch Jacob – he whose earliest tales involve deceit, deception and fleeing from his father’s home, has come full circle. He mirrors the scene that once involved his own ailing father and brother, extending a blessing toward the grandsons he never expected to know. Jacob echoes the actions of years earlier by choosing to bless the younger Ephraim over firstborn Menasseh, sharing with Joseph, “[Menasseh] too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother [Ephraim] shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.’ So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh.” (Gen. 48: 19-20) 
From this very scene we moderns have adapted the blessing over our children on Shabbat evening, one I vividly remember my father invoking before every family Shabbat dinner: “May God make [our daughters] as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah … May God make [our sons] as Ephraim and Menasseh.” This gesture resonates with even greater power because of the very scene in Va-y'chi from which it was drawn. It is a scene many of us know all too well – a goodbye in the waning hours of a loved one’s life. Instead of speaking words of rebuke – Jacob saves some of them for his other sons – the words shared are those of acceptance and empowerment. In spite of everything that’s happened to their family, Jacob and his beloved Joseph close their chapter with love. 
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen