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

Parashat Chayei Sarah • Genesis 23:1–25:18

Watch The Best of Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner’s interpretation of this week’s parasha.

Parashat Vayeira • Genesis 18:1-22:24

From a place of great personal pain can come overwhelming care and protection of others.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24), begins with Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent. Commentators question why he was sitting still rather than tending to the needs of his family or his flocks and look to the previous portion for answers. Abraham, it seems, was recovering from his adult circumcision!

Despite this, he rose immediately to greet the three strangers who appeared at his tent and attended to their needs. Hospitality in a desert culture was a matter of life and death, and Abraham’s urgency might well have arisen from his first-hand knowledge of pain. May we continue to draw inspiration from our sacred texts.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Lech L'cha • Genesis 12:1-17:27

On account of Sarai, “al d’var Sarai,” the Egyptians are punished in this week’s Torah portion. First, some backstory. With a famine in the land and a need to travel, Abram pleaded with Sarai to say that she was his sister rather than his wife, lest the Egyptians desire her and seek to kill him. Her beauty was indeed noticed, and she was “taken” into Pharaoh’s household.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik points out that whenever God addressed Abraham about Sarah, she was always spoken of by name — whereas in this text, the Egyptians refer to her only as an anonymous woman, as no more than her physical appearance. He posits that the Egyptians were punished for this action, “because they degraded Sarai, a great and singular person, by regarding her merely as a comely, anonymous woman.” It is an important lesson we haven’t learned in the 2,500 years since this text emerged on the scene.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Noach • Genesis 6:9-11:32

God’s covenant with Abraham includes the information that he will live a good, long life and be reconnected with his ancestors in peace (Genesis 15:15). Commentators on our sacred text point out that this is an astounding promise. Terach was an idolator, and the remainder of our text does not deal kindly with those who worship idols: how could Abraham reconnect with him in peace?

“And Terach took Abram his son…and they went forth from Ur of the Chalices to go to the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 11:31) These words, from the end of this week’s Torah portion, come BEFORE God’s command that Abraham should leave his home in the following chapter. They were already on the journey when God commanded “lech-lecha!” Rashi thus asserted that Terach repented at the end of his life, seeking not only to place physical distance between himself and the source of his transgression but a better relationship with his son. Sometimes physical movement can be what it takes to change our perspective — literally distancing ourselves from wrongdoing. What moves do we need to make at the start of this near year?

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat B'reishit • Genesis 1:1-6:8

Meaning and Metaphor

It is an error in perspective to believe that those who came before us were primitive in their literal interpretation of sacred scripture, and that we modern sophisticates alone possess a nuanced appreciation for the power of metaphor.  In some cases, quite the opposite is true.  The authors and conveyors of the biblical text intimately intuited the capacity of metaphor to convey meaning beyond the constraints of mere expository language, while it is often our contemporaries who mistake the integrity of faith for fidelity to, or even an idolatrous devotion to, the text. (My teacher and past Scholar-in-Residence Rabbi Michael Cook coined the term “bibliolatry” for such errant obsessiveness.)

Those who came before us understood that the biblical account of creation was most probably not an historical or empirical account of the world’s birth a mere five millennia prior, even in the absence of scientific insight.  The truth imparted from both creation stories within the first chapters of Genesis is a moral truth, not an historical one.  It is God’s resume, a testament to the beneficence and power of the Creator in bequeathing the world to us.  It provides the background for the peak experience on Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus, when the Jewish people intoned as one “We will do and we will hearken.”  They accepted the constraints and direction of Torah wisdom because God had earned credibility through ma’aseh bereishit, the acts of creation.

Parshat Bereishit reminds us of the many truths beyond the sensory and measurable, the moral truths that are truly the gift and boon of the Torah as the terms of our covenant with God.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner