Parshat Bo • Exodus 10:1-13:16

“Why do Jews wear those funny boxes on their heads?” While such a question would be considered offensive in most other contexts, it was beautifully innocent coming from the overeager 4th grader on a tour of Temple’s sacred spaces. Stepping back from my emotional connection to the rites and rituals of Judaism, I must admit she had a point. Tefilin, the black leather boxes traditionally-observant Jews wear on their heads and forearms during prayer, do look a bit funny. The answer to her question was more complex than she could have anticipated.

I explained that we sometimes read the biblical text quite literally. Why do Jewish holidays begin the night before? “There was evening, there was morning, a first day” we read in Genesis, a model of night and day different from the secular solar ordering. Thus when it says “you shall bind them as a sign before your eyes”, that is exactly what we do! The last words of this week’s Torah portion, Bo, offer further explanation: “And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt (Exodus 13:16).” Those funny boxes, then, not only serve to fulfill one of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot but also as a reminder of our freedom in this world and our obligation to emulate God by striving to bring freedom to all in need.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parshat Va’era • Exodus 6:2-9:35

This week’s Torah portion, Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35) begins with an introduction. “God spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai (El Shaddai being one of the many names for God in Jewish tradition).” Certainly God needs no introduction, so why this peculiar way of starting the Torah portion.

Instead of listing attributes — “I created the heavens and the earth” or “I destroyed the world in the time of Noah, pay attention” — God presents as the same God honored by Moses’ forebearers. The manner in which God is introduced forms a lasting theme in Jewish prayer. With the Amidah, we begin our central prayer recognizing God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Indeed, the sages of the Talmud suggest that the very idea of prayer itself was initiated by these patriarchs: “Rav Jose son of Rav Hanina said, the tefilot were instituted by the patriarchs (Berachot 26b)!” God’s introduction, then, is a lesson for all of Jewish history rather than mere making the acquaintance of Moses.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parshat Shemot • Shemot 1:1–6:1

“A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” This week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Exodus (Shemot 1:1-6:1), presents a sudden shift in status for the Israelite people: the ruler who knew Joseph was kind to the Israelite people while the ruler who didn’t would deal shrewdly with them. The abruptness of this verse apparently bothered the authors of the Zohar, the mystical text of Jewish tradition: “Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘Thirty days before a nation rises to power or is overtaken by calamity on earth, that event is proclaimed in the world. Sometimes it is transmitted through the mouths of children, sometimes through people who have no sense, and sometimes that word is transmitted through the mouths of birds who announce it in the world yet no one notices.’” Unable to accept that such dramatic change can happen unforeseen, they rationalize that we must simply have missed the signs. The authors of the Zohar point out an important reality: as human beings, we are indeed quite adept at seeing only that which we want to see.

An equally powerful lesson might also be found in the opposite teaching. Sometimes things do happen in an instant, without warning, that completely reframe our world view and either delight us or challenge us to the limits of our emotional capacity. New situations arise which know not the arrangements of the past. May we find the courage to face them as our ancestors faced their new reality, eventually emerging from our own personal mitzrim to the promised land.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

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