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

Parshat B'reishit • Genesis 1:1-6:8

"Bereshit bara Elohim…In the beginning, God…” The first words of Torah, which we begin reading anew this week, present us with a challenge. Why does Torah starts with the letter “bet” instead of the first letter in the alphabet? The Zohar, the mystical text of Jewish tradition, presents a creative answer. “As God verged on creating the world, all the letters presented themselves before God, from last to first.” Each letter presents the case for why it should begin Torah, the sacred work of all creation, and each is ruled out in turn. Tav, which is the seal of the word for truth, emet, is also the seal of the word for death, mavet. Shin, which is the first letter of God’s holy name Shaddai, is also the first letter of the word for lie, sheker. The text continues in similar fashion until the bet is reached, the first letter of blessing, bracha. “Master of the world,” bet said, “may it please You to create the world by me, for by me You are blessed in the heavens and on earth.” May this new year give us the opportunity for the recreation of our worlds closer to how we wish them to be, and may this new cycle of reading Torah be a blessing for us as we bless our God.

Parshat Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot • Exodus 33:12-34:26

"...u'dar Adonai mirushalyim." As part of our Torah service on Shabbat morning, we sing that Torah comes from the Land of Israel, the word of God from Jerusalem. A city central to our people's narrative and promise, we might actually conceive of two Jerusalems as did the Talmud. Jerusalem shel mala, the heavenly, ideal concept of Jerusalem mentioned in prayer; and Jerusalem shel mata, the everyday Jerusalem subject to human struggles and strife.

In two weeks, these Jerusalems collide. The World Zionist Congress, an every five years gathering of 500 Jewish leaders from the world over, gathers in Jerusalem to discuss and debate issue of global Jewry. I have the honor of being a voting delegate at this conference and need your help! I will be journaling the experience on a Facebook page linked to Temple with two purposes: first, to share this unique experience with the our TDHS community, and second to allow your voice to be heard in real time. You can read about the issues being discussed and the resolutions up for vote, and your feedback and responses in real-time will help inform my vote and voice!

Please "like" the Facebook page to receive daily updates, https://www.facebook.com/TDHSatWZO, and share with anyone who might be interested!

Parshat Haazinu • Deuteronomy 32:1-52

Another Yom Kippur has come and gone; we have communally and individually celebrated, reflected, and atoned. Now we shift our focus toward the conclusion of our cycle of Torah readings with parshat Ha’azinu, the penultimate portion of the Torah. In a few days we begin the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot followed by Simchat Torah – a holiday whose name literally means "joyous celebration of Torah.” Then we start over as we do each year with Genesis – and the cycle begins anew.

Endings and beginnings, beginnings and endings. I’m reminded of that popular song from the 90s by the band Semisonic - “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Ha’azinu is the epitome of this cycle, for the parsha is Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites. He reflects, at times with pride and at others lament; yet the centrality of God is paramount throughout. Just as Moses bids farewell, the Israelites gear up for their new chapter in the Promised Land. It is a strange juxtaposition between old and new; between ending and beginning, between life and death.

The parallel between Ha’azinu’s message and the passage of time in our Jewish community is no accident. In these days our transitions are abundant – from year to year, season to season (hello, autumn!) chag (holiday) to chag, school year to school year and Deuteronomy to Genesis. In these sacred days, may we continue to pay attention to those transitions, reflecting on the centrality of our Jewish community and our belief in something greater than ourselves.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat Vayeilech • Deuteronomy 31:1-30

“Tune in to the 11:00pm news if you want to keep your kids safe…”
“One of you will be Chopped”…right after this commercial break!
“Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel…”

Cliffhangers are the norm rather than the exception in modern American life. Television programs are particularly notorious for building toward a climax and then taking a commercial break, in order that we stay tuned through the less-compelling advertisements. Our, Torah, too, uses this tactic in Parshat Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30).

During the Yamim Nora’im, when our religious consciousness is heightened and our receptivity to hearing what we can do to make 5776 better is at its peak, Torah leaves us with a cliffhanger. Knowing that the people would turn aside from God when the entered the promised land, God gives Moses a poem to teach to the people of Israel that bears witness to the covenant. This week’s portion ends with the words “then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel…” We only get to hear the poem itself next week, when we tune back in to our regularly scheduled Shabbat programming.

It’s worth staying tuned.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Nitzavim • Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

The rock band “fun” had a song popular back in 2012 called “Some Nights.” You’ve probably heard it – with its catchy lyrics and nonstop radio play, it was hard to miss! One of the most memorable lines in the song is this:

Oh, Lord – I’m still not sure what I stand for, oh
Whoa oh oh (what do I stand for?)
Whoa oh oh (what do I stand for?)
Most nights – I don’t know …

When you’re driving along and singing aloud to the song blasting back at you, it can often be hard to focus on what its lyrics contain. Only when one stops and pauses might we consider that existential question “fun” is pointing us toward – what do I stand for?

Parshat Nitzavim begins this week with the following: You stand here this day, all of you before, Adonai your God, your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp … to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God … to the end that God may establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and as God swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … I make this covenant with its sanctions not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day … and those who are not with us here this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

In parshat Nitzavim, we learn that the people stand together, united as one, about to cross a threshold into the land of Israel. They are not perfect people – not the tribal heads, nor the elders or officials, nor the children or the strangers within the camp. We know that the forty-year trek which led them to this moment was an arduous, painfully human voyage – one where leaders made mistakes, where humans complained and questioned authority, where rebellions led to loss of life, and where God at times grew profoundly impatient with this people. Yet – here they are, standing together. Here they are – united to receive God’s promise. Here they are – standing as one community, a part of an everlasting Covenant that stretches to this day. What do they stand for? They stand for God.

And yet – we also read that this day, God makes this covenant not just with those who are present but those who are not. We realize that “one need not physically stand among those destined to dwell in the Land of Israel in order to stand before God as part of the People Israel. While we may be separated by time, by space, by native language, by ritual practice, or by the conditions in which we live, we who embrace the Covenant are all worthy of being part of K’lal Yisrael – the Jewish people.” (Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin)

This Sunday we will begin our celebration of the New Jewish Year, 5776. At this time of year we ask ourselves – what do we stand for? We take stock of our actions and look ahead to the opportunities of a fresh start and new beginning. This coming Sunday, many of us will stand together – shoulder to shoulder, machzor to machzor, as we pray Avinu Malkeinu. Yet some of us will be absent, bound elsewhere – either due to illness, choice or circumstance.

No matter where we physically stand this coming High Holy Days – we still stand together. No matter what we hold in our hearts – what pain and grief, what joy and excitement, what anticipation and anxiety, what pride or fear – we stand together as one holy community, united in our bond to one another and our tradition.

What do we stand for? We stand for one another, no matter where we are.

Shana Tova U’metukah – to a good, sweet year ahead.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen