Parshat Vayechi • Genesis 47:28–50:26

As Sir Thomas More languished in the Tower of London awaiting almost certain death, he penned a meditation on the meaning of life and ordering of priorities. In his eloquent and transcendent expression, he intones:
"To think my worst enemies my best friends, for the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred."

This was a powerful rationalization of even the most malicious machinations of his enemies as fodder for necessary growth and a singular realization of God’s larger vision and will. In this week’s portion, Vayechi, Jacob dies, and the guilt-ridden sons believe that Joseph will finally drop the hammer of revenge upon them in the absence of paternal judgment. But Joseph again affirms his capacity to rise above recrimination, a sure sign that he as evolved into a judicious leader. He asserts that God intended what happened to be for good and life, and offers the rhetorical and spiritual humility: “Fear not, for am I in the place of God?”

For those of us who find it difficult to let go, to loosen hold on grudges, or to see our acts as part of a larger, more enduring purpose, More’s meditation coupled with Joseph’s divinely configured forgiveness are inspiring guides to a better, less fraught life.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parshat Vayigash • Genesis 44:18–47:27

Fallen Dominoes

The Domino Theory has gotten a bad rap for its role in reactionary, anti-Communist foreign policy during the Vietnam War.  I’d like to reclaim it as the Domino Theory of Jewish Theology for its critical role in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers, and rather than exact wrathful vengeance for how they treated him, he gives them a pass by intoning, “…for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”  More than merely an act of altruistic forgiveness, it reflects Joseph’s realization that the human dynamic within his family propelled a much larger, more impactful unfolding of events on the fraught stage of Jewish destiny.  Without Joseph’s imprisonment in Egypt, he would not have risen to the Egyptian court, thus empowered to save both Egypt and Jacob’s tribe from famine.  Without their refuge in Goshen, the Jews would not have been established in Egypt to eventually become slaves. Without enslavement, the Jews would not have been liberated by God, received the Torah on Sinai nor eventually settled in the Promised Land.  It’s a kind of Chad Gadya on a geo-theologiocal scale!  As the contemporary commentator, Nechamah Leibowitz, reminds us,“Fortunate is he to whom it is granted to detect in the metamorphoses of his daily existence and the vicissitudes of her personal affairs, the workings of Providence—a mission on which he has been sent by God.”

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parshat Mikketz • Genesis 41:1-44:17

Dream On

This week’s Torah portion, Mikketz, recounts some of the most famous and enduring dream sequences in Jewish literature. But the power of these dreams is more in the interpretation than in the content—an interpretation that propelled both Joseph’s destiny and that of our people. But beyond even the Freudian power to glean insight into ourselves through understanding our dreams, or to attain divine guidance through mystic messaging, the figurative sense of dreams has transcended every historical and cultural context. That sense of dreams was conveyed most compellingly by Dr. King. It is a dream as communal vision of a world that can be, a world that should be, a world that God desires for us, if we would only realize it through the breadth of our hearts and the work of our hands. If a dream is to be more than self-help gimmick or religious parlor trick, it must concert and compel our encompassing efforts to better align the world with our ideals and with God’s will.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parshat Vayeishev • Genesis 37:1-40:23

There is a colloquial saying derived from the word “assume”. When we make an assumption, it states, we make a four-legged member of the horse family (ASSume) out of you (assUme) and me (assuME). It is important piece of advice as we prepare to tackle this week’s Torah portion. In parashat Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23, we begin in earnest the story of Jacob’s favorite son Joseph. Dreamer of fantastic dreams, he soon finds himself in hot water with his brothers. 

Yet not everything is as we know it from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice “modern midrash". That cloak Joseph was wearing? We have no reason to assume it was colorful at all. His brothers’ anger? Perhaps the punishment didn’t fit the crime, but Joseph was far from innocent. Popular culture and majority beliefs within a society have a way of coloring our thoughts and our sacred texts. The two examples mentioned above have quite minor effects; the same cannot be said for misreadings which devalue the role of women, LGBTQ individuals, and lead some to think abortion is murder. Our challenge as a Jewish community is to maintain our identities and unique insights into a values-driven life, separating our truth from that around us. It sounds an awful lot like the moral of Chanukah, doesn’t it? A Fraylichen Chanukah!

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parshat Vayishlach • Genesis 32:4-36:43

This week’s parsha begins with momentum: having fled the house of Laban, his father-in-law, Jacob now anxiously prepares for his reunion with brother Esau, whom he has not seen since Jacob duped their father into blessing him with a birthright. Much time has passed since then; Jacob is now a father and husband to many; married to Rachel and Leah, he counts their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah as fellow mothers of their collective tribe of children. And yet, the text tells us as Jacob moves toward his meeting with Esau, “[Jacob] was terrified. So anxious was he that he divided the people who were with him into two camps. He thought, ‘if Esau advances on the first camp and strikes it, the remaining camp will be able to escape.’ (Gen. 32:8-9) Jacob expects the worst from his encounter with Esau; weighed down with guilt, he prepares for the inevitable payback for what he did to his brother so many years ago.

Night falls and Jacob is alone. We read in the text that “a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn. When [the man] saw that he could not overcome him, he struck Jacob’s hip-socket, so that Jacob’s hip-socket was wrenched as the man wrestled with him … then [the man] said, ‘let me go; dawn is breaking!’ But [Jacob] said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ The other said to him, ‘what is your name?’ and he said, ‘Jacob.’ [He replied], ‘no more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel … for you have struggled with God and with human beings and prevailed.’” (Gen: 32:25-29) Jacob, moved by this powerful exchange, renames the site of their altercation Peni-el – meaning, “for I have seen God face-to-face (panim-al-panim) and prevailed.”

It is clear both from the exchange itself and the name Jacob chooses for the site that this has been a holy encounter for him. From Peni-el, Jacob goes to meet Esau where, in one of Torah’s most sacred and heavy moments, the two brothers fall upon one another in an embrace and burst into tears.

This week, many of us will head to gatherings with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, a secular holiday which, at its best, pushes us to think about gratitude and thankfulness at a time of year when both might be furthest from our minds. From competing Black Friday sales to stressful airplane travel to discussion of current political or global events with our family members, this particular week of November may pose more conflict than camaraderie and more gripes than grace. Yet – sometimes what we need most during this holiday season is a reminder of the powerful exchanges that come when we face those we love panim-al-panim – face to face. Though we may wrestle – physically or emotionally – with the challenges thrown our way, we can emerge from those matches with a greater understanding of who we are … even, in some cases, receiving an unexpected blessing from places and persons we least expect.

With that, we at at TDHS wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving. May it be a celebration of gratitude and grace, compassion and love.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Vayetzei • Genesis 28:10-32:3

Imagine you’ve just instigated a huge shift in your known universe: having followed the instruction of one parent to dupe the other and steal something of importance from your sibling, you’ve now fled your home and community in search of a new life. You’re alone, on the run, in the midst of a vast wilderness. You stop for the night to rest your head and your weary body; in your slumber, God and God’s angels appears before you, ascending and descending a ladder to the heavens. As you dream God speaks to you, promising God's allegiance, responsibility and care as you continue to navigate this uncertain road to your future.

Pretty intense, right?

That’s exactly what takes place at the beginning of this week’s parsha, Vayetzei. Our protagonist is Jacob, the man who has just fled his father’s home with a “stolen” birthright, leaving behind an ostensibly furious brother Esau and conflicted mother Rebecca. Jacob heads in the direction of Haran. There he will meet his beloved Rachel, marry her sister Leah, father multiple children and give rise to our Twelve Tribes - but not without another act of deception, this time at the hand of Laban, father of the two women.

Essentially, Jacob emerges from chaos and heads towards chaos. Leaving behind one fragmented family, he finds himself heading toward another. Jacob perseveres in spite of the tumultuous narrative, but it is clear throughout Vayetzei that even as he celebrates marriages and the births of his children, Jacob is a refugee. He is never quite at home in Laban’s house. While he has fled the painful reality he and his mother instigated, I believe he lives with fear lurking in the darkest corners of his mind that his athletic, impulsive brother might one day come after him. Throughout Vayetzei one might wonder: is Jacob, our forefather, really safe?

Today's global refugee crisis is all too similar to Jacob’s plight. Having fled their homes and known communities, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are currently taking extreme measures to seek out new lives in Europe and elsewhere. Now, in the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris this past Friday, many of those refugees are finding gates and borders closed to them; a world that is too afraid, too paralyzed by fear and uncertainty to protect and shelter these vulnerable individuals. The situation itself may be far more complex than Jacob’s plight. However – at the core of Jacob’s story is his (and his mother’s) desire to secure a future. Particularly as we head into the holiday season and consider how we might use our resources to help protect and care for these unprotected and landless souls, let us remember what God speaks to Jacob in the midst of his dream in the wilderness: “And here I am, with you. I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)

Wherever home may be, or wherever one may find themselves in the midst of extraordinary change, let us remember those powerful words.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Toldot • Genesis 25:19–28:9

This week’s Torah gives us a lot to contemplate. In Parasha Toldot, Jacob deceives his father and brother and steals his brother Esau’s birthright with the help of his mother, Rebecca. The most disturbing part of the portion is the way our patriarch Jacob seems not to care about the feelings of his brother or father, but only about getting what he wants and feels he needs. While Jacob’s behavior is manipulative it seems to me that this week’s Torah portion is asking, do the ends justify the means? Rebecca received a prophecy that Jacob would be the father of the Hebrew people over his brother Esau. However, prophecy works only in so far as one is willing to do the actions that will make that prophecy come true.
This is a story about consequences. This lesson our tradition is teaching us is that God may point us in a direction or try to lay things out for us, but it is up to us to recognize those opportunities and to take advantage of them when they arise. The world is not determined for us, rather it is our obligation to make our own destinies. However, in making our destinies sacrifices must be made and consequences lived with. Jacob’s actions get him what he wants, but at what price? Also, while we should not step on people to get to the top, how do we balance caring for others with achieving our own personal goals?
There is saying in our tradition by the sage Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Jacob has to act to make his destiny and dreams come true, he knows that nothing will be handed to him. On the other hand he has to make a decision about what is more important to him: a relationship with his brother and father or to be the father of a great nation. Jacob chooses the ladder. I do not know what the right decision is here. I do not know if the ends justify the means. Jacob suffers throughout the rest of his life by getting what he wants. Therefore even though he gets what he wants, the consequences are great. All decisions we make come with consequence. Therefore, for us, we need to ask ourselves what are we doing to make our dreams and destiny come true and are we willing to live with the consequences of those decisions?
Rabbi Micah Ellenson

Parshat Toldot • Genesis 25:19–28:9

As this week's parasha, Toldot, recounts the first generations of our people, let us revisit the creation of our Project 613 Torah--a sacred effort that transcends the generations.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner
Check out this video on YouTube:

Parshat Chayei Sarah - Genesis 23:1-25:18

It is perennially ironic that the title of this week's parsha – Chayei Sarah – speaks to the “life of Sarah,” Abraham’s wife, yet this parsha begins and ends with death. Just last week we read the troubling account of Isaac’s near-sacrifice at Mount Moriah. That we open this week with Sarah’s death – at he age of one hundred twenty seven – is no accident. Many commentators connect Sarah’s death with Isaac’s narrow escape from tragedy. Some believe Sarah died of shock upon learning of her husband’s actions; others posit that Sarah’s death was the result of “an inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.” (Zornberg, Etz Chayim Torah & Commentary) Once Sarah dies, her grieving husband Abraham arranges to have her buried - at full price - at the Cave of Machpelah, receiving permission from the Hittites to purchase land in what is present-day Hebron.

Two chapters later, having secured a wife for his son Isaac, Abraham “breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented.” (Genesis 25:8) He is buried alongside Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah. Though the circumstances of their deaths are different, each of them lived full, complete lives – filled with celebration and sorrow, pain and joy. For both Abraham and Sarah, their endings are treated with dignity and respect; the final resting place for both is one arranged with thought, care and consideration.

The arrangements we must make in the face of loss are at times overwhelming – from burial plots to funeral plans to shiva. Processing one’s grief in the midst of those plans can make the process that much more challenging – yet, as Chayei Sarah reminds us, making those very plans not only help us say goodbye to our loved ones; they help us demonstrate kavod l’meitim – respect for the deceased – one of the highest of all mitzvot. Whether one suffered or died peacefully, we remember our loved ones by celebrating their life. The very title of the parsha – The Life of Sarah – is a reminder of just how significant that distinction can be.

Tonight in Seattle at 7pm, I invite you to join me and Adam Halpern, JFS’ Director of Aging in Place, to discuss the practical, logistical and emotional needs involved with life transitions and preparing to say goodbye to our loved ones. It is the conclusion of our series “Life is a Journey,” presented by Temple’s Sacred Journeys Initiative. Whether we currently find ourselves in the midst of those challenging questions or not, at some point we will all find ourselves in that peculiar, overwhelming space. We invite you to join us, to learn and ask questions, so that we may continue to enrich our lives and the lives of those we love with dignity, respect and care.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Noach • Genesis 6:9-11:32

"Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.”

What does it mean that "Noah was blameless among the people of his time”? When God comes to Noah and tells him the world will be flooded, Noah says nothing. Unlike Moses and Abraham who argue with God, Noah seems to accept the fate of mankind without batting an eye. This hardly seems like the acts of a righteous man.

According to the Seforno, a Rabbi from the 15th century, his commentary on the Torah states that, “Noah walked in God’s ways by trying to help others and to instruct and if necessary rebuke them.” One can assume that by walking in God’s ways, Noah did try to tell the people to do the right thing but they did not listen to him. Therefore, when God told Noah to build the ark, the fact that Noah did not say anything in response to God is more a reflection of the fact that even Noah thought the people were beyond helping.

However, according to Rabbi Yochanan, a third century Rabbi, Noah was only righteous in comparison to the other people that lived at his time. If Noah had been born at a later date, he would have been no better and perhaps even worse than most people. Therefore, according to Rabbi Yochanan, had Noah been such a great man he would have spoken up and tried to negotiate with God.

The lesson we can derive from these teachings is that we are all products of the age in which we are born. We are molded and shaped by those around us. Yet, we always have the power and the ability to rise above and be our best selves. When you are remembered, do you want to be remembered as righteous in your generation, or as a model of righteousness for all time?

Rabbi Micah Ellenson