Parashat Mishpatim | Exodus 21:1−24:18

Mishpatim, the rules laid out in this week’s appropriately-named Torah portion, are those commandments that inherently make sense, that come complete with obvious moral backing. (Their ideological opposites, chukim, are those commandments issued without apparent reason that are particular to the Jewish community.) Mishpatim should and have arisen in many thinking societies. Do not murder, take responsibility for your animals, do not ill-treat orphans all make sense to us and are “easy” to uphold when we are thinking and acting as our highest selves. So why are they commanded in Torah and not a separate, secular legal code?
In Jewish tradition, the two are not distinct as they are in American life. To be fully Jewish is to live in accordance with your highest values in the synagogue as well as on the street, in religious as well as secular contexts. To not murder makes sense in a cooperative human society and also reflects the spark of divinity we find in every human being. We do it (or, as the case may be, don’t do it) for secular reasons and religious reasons combined. May our every action reflect this reality.
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Yitro | Exodus 18:1-20:23

Metaphor abounds in our Torah; there is no shortage of poetic language used to describe God, God's relationship with us, and indeed, our experience in the world. Among my favorite metaphors within our tradition are those that invoke the natural world; especially animals. We have a classical example of such metaphor in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Yitro. God calls to Moses from the mountain, instructing him to remind the Israelites of how God "... bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me." (Exodus 19:4) Rashbam, an 11th century French Torah Scholar (and grandson of Rashi) remarks that our metaphor is easy to understand. According to him, it might as well read, "I transported you safely over the sea in dry land just like eagles fly over the seas," emphasizing the speed and safety with which God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. But Rashbam's grandfather asserts that there is more we can glean from this metaphor.

"An eagle bears its young aloft on its wings," Rashi writes, "All other birds clutch their young between their legs underneath because they are afraid of another bird flying over them. The eagle, however, is only afraid of the hunter's arrow... It therefore places it on top of its wings saying: let the arrow rather pierce me than my young." Rashi's interpretation offers the possibility not only of efficiency, as Rashbam suggests, but of intimacy as well. The relationship  established between God & Israel at this moment is one of concern, nurture, and deep care.

How are we to understand our relationship with a God that can seem distant, indeed relegated to another time and place? If we are to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day (and we are), and if we are meant to see ourselves in every generation as having been redeemed from Egypt (and we are) then perhaps we ought to imagine an intimate, caring and protective God who wants us to survive and indeed thrive, just as the eagle protects and supports its young.

- Rabbi Callie Schulman


Parashat B'shalach | Exodus 13:17-17:16

Imagine the scene: you've just left Egypt with all of your belongings on your back, surrounded by everyone you know, and many whom you do not. You reach the Red Sea, only to realize that Pharaoh and his armies are hot on your heels. You have two options: certain death at the hands of the cruel leader whom you have just escaped, or possible death in the watery depths before you. And then suddenly, a third option: God causes the waters to part, and you tentatively step across the sand, timidity and disbelief turning into a mad dash for survival. You make your way across to dry land and turn around in time to see the encroaching armies swept up in the deepening tide... 
A stunned silence falls over the huddled masses, until you hear a singular voice ring out in song, the Song of the Sea - a song of gratitude and of wonder and of praise at the first true taste of freedom. The sound grows as the song moves through the throng of Israelites around you; family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers...
 
This is what we remember on Shabbat Shira: the third option which is God, and redemption, and freedom's hard-won song.
-Rabbi Callie Schulman

Parashat Bo | Exodus 10:1−13:16

"Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household,” we read in this week’s Torah portion. This earliest mention of the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, Passover, dictates both the ritual (sacrifice and eat a lamb) as well as the ritual attendees (your household). While we do not — and desire not to — slaughter cute, furry animals in the celebration of this holiday, we maintain the communal aspect to this day. Eating the Passover meal, sharing the Passover story, among a group of family and friends creates sacred community throughout the generations. Combined with the foodie aspects of the holiday, it is little surprise that the Passover Seder is the one of most observed Jewish rituals. The Passover offering mentioned in our Torah portion, then, both reflects and serves to create strong Jewish identity.

 - Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Va-eira • Exodus 6:2−9:35

Why do we drink four cups of wine during our commemoration of Passover? A historian might point out the parallels between the Greek symposium and the Passover seder, suggesting four cups was the ideal number to spark vigorous discussion without devolving into inebriation. A talmudist might guide us to the volume of consumption necessary to fulfill the mitzvah (four olive’s worth; Mediterranean olives, not pizza olives). A rabbi would suggest the answer is found in this week’s Torah portion.

"I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians," we read in this week’s Torah portion, the first of four promises made to the Israelites in Exodus 6:7-8. “I will deliver you from their bondage;” "I will redeem you with an outstretched arm;” and "I will take you to be My people,” round out these promises. In honor of God’s covenant with the people, we consume a glass of wine for each of these promises. A careful reading of the text, however, notes a fifth and final promise in the very next verse: "I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to your ancestors.” Our Passover seder, then, uses five cups of wine and not just four. The fifth cup, of course, is poured for Elijah the prophet, herald of the promises in this Torah portion!
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Sh'mot • Exodus 1:1−6:1

“A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph,” we read in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, beginning both a literal new book of Torah and a metaphoric new chapter for the Israelites. While the first eight verses of the portion continue the narrative of Genesis, enumerating those families sojourning in Egypt, verse nine renders Joseph’s assistance to the Egyptian people and subsequent rise null and void as the new ruler sought to impose harsh new restrictions. “So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh, Pithom and Raamses.” It is a dramatic narrative device from which we might learn an important lesson.

Jews are natural story tellers, born perhaps of our long and rich history. Tales of “your grandmother did this” or “your crazy uncle did that” not only build resilience among our people but ensure the lessons of previous generations are not forgotten. Compare this to verse nine of our Torah portion, where history and prior success are ignored. Not only is this model presented as distinctly non-Jewish, it is also quickly shown to be ill-advised. Let us continue telling the stories of our tradition, turning them and turning them again, for important lessons have yet to be fully grasped.

-  Rabbi Aaron Meyer


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

Teaching Us How To Say Goodbye

As we approach the end of the book of Genesis, our parsha features the death of not one, but two Genesis greats: Jacob first, and then his son Joseph. First, Jacob asks that upon his death he be treated with chesed v'emet, translated as "faithful kindness," requesting that his remains be buried in the family plot back in Canaan. Then, in an impressive moment of control, Jacob sits up in his deathbed to bless each of his sons individually, before drawing his feet back into his bed and then breathing his last breath.

Joseph's brothers remain unconvinced that he will not seek reprisals against their earlier treachery, and so they approach Joseph to beg his forgiveness. Here is what Joseph says, "though you intended me harm, God intended it for good in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive numerous people... thus did he comfort them and speak straight to their hearts." (Genesis 50:20 - 21) A few short verses later, Joseph, too, departs from the world.

According to Midrash B'reishit Rabbah, Jacob, in his dying, teaches us the "faithful kindness," is that which the living show the dead in performing acts of burial and eulogy. Joseph, in his dying, teaches us how to forgive - by speaking straight to the hearts of those who would seek our forgiveness. Each of these men offer us lessons in the difficult art of saying goodbye; reminding us that even in the final moments of a life, forgiveness and true kindness are attainable.

Rabbi Callie Schulman


Parashat Vayigash • Genesis 44:18-47:27

B’shert

It’s a term we Jews use colloquially to characterize something fated, something meant to be, or even something ordained by God.  Though most of us profess to putting little stock in such literal interpretations, at a deeper level, it is comforting to imagine that “things happen for a reason,” even if we must concede a bit of control over our destinies in the process.  In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph augments the potency of his “big reveal” to his brothers with an affirmation of faith:

“…God sent me ahead of you…to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here, but God…”    

On one level, this is an exoneration of his brothers for their harsh treatment of him, while providing for Joseph an easy pathway to grant forgiveness for their behavior.  But on another, it is an acknowledgment that there are forces beyond us and beyond this world, not necessarily causative but contributing to our future and our fate. As the eminent Torah scholar, Nechama Leibowitz, taught:

“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.” 

In many ways, this is the hallmark of faith:  To find in our attitudes and actions the intersection of divine intention and our daily endeavors.   

Rabbi Daniel A. Weiner


Parashat Mikeitz • Genesis 41:1−44:17

“Seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of scarcity," Joseph interprets from Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s brilliance and places him in charge of the entire land of Egypt. Through conservation of now abundant resources, recognizing and preserving this bounty, Joseph helps the Egyptians survive the famine and teaches us all a lesson about the cyclical nature of life: bad times often follow good, good times often follow bad. 
The same lesson is visible in the beauty of our Chanukah candles. Long before the Talmud story of oil that burned for eight crazy nights, the Book of Maccabees recorded the Israelite effort to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot as soon as the Temple was rededicated. They waited — they fought —for dawn to emerge from the darkness; and it did. Good times often follow bad in the cyclical nature of life. Maintaining our faith and hope, as did the Maccabees, gives us direction and fortitude in the midst of struggle. 
Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parshat Vayeshev • Genesis 37:1−40:23

Parshat Vayeshev introduces us to Joseph, our famous dreamer, whose story asks us to take careful notice of our dreams. Whenever we sleep our bodies and brains benefit from the restorative powers of rest; but Jewish tradition argues that our souls receive a tune up as well. Scattered throughout Jewish practice are hints at what our ancestors made of what happened behind their eyelids at night. Ever have a dream that you just can’t shake? Or that keeps recurring? A nightmare so terrifying you woke up in a cold sweat? So funny that you woke up laughing?  A dream, reviewed in the light of day, can sometimes seem like utter nonsense - like our brains have gone rogue on us, and run off with Lewis Carroll for a trip through Wonderland- but our tradition asserts that there’s got to be more to it than that.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, an 18th century rabbi from Italy, dug into the study of what Judaism has to say about the purpose of dreaming. After all, our biblical ancestors were having wild dreams all over the Torah, so there must be something to them. This particular rabbi taught that while our brains were resting and sifting through the information of the day, our souls become sort of detached from our bodies and zip around the realms of the spirit - where they are most at home. But he doesn’t stop there. The spiritual realm, he suggests, is like a grand reunion of spiritual beings and divine messengers. Rubbing elbows with such a crowd, our souls might innocently overhear some prophetic hint, what we might call an omen. That bit of information, he says, then travels down to us through our dreams, and gets filtered through our consciousness while the brain and body rest. These messages get mixed in with the rest of the strangeness of our dreamscenes and we are left to decipher them; just as Joseph was left to decipher the dreams that would ultimately become prophetic.

- Rabbi Callie Schulman