Want to find your signifiant other in the Biblical text? Hang out by a well! With the well itself serving as a symbol of fertility and the act of drawing water emblematic of a forming spousal bond, this scene repeats over and over in Torah.
In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant finds Rebekkah for Isaac. In Genesis 29, Jacob meets Rachel. And in Exodus 2, this week’s Torah portion, Moses find Zipporah. Each meeting is more or less the same…but it is the subtle differences that illustrate the beauty of Torah.
In Genesis 24, Isaac is completely absent; it is a servant who acts on his behalf. Quite appropriate for his role as a patriarch, right? Whether in the story of the Akeidah or the Blessing of Esau and Jacob, his whole story is about others acting upon him while he remains passive. It’s also the only text where a woman brings forth water from the well, perhaps showing Rebekkah’s initiative we will seem time and again.
In Genesis 29, Jacob finds a well in a field rather than near the city, setting up the conflict between shepherd and agrarian ethics. It’s also interesting to note the presence of a well cover in this story and this story alone, a stone that might foreshadow Jacob’s using a stone as a pillow and also a marker when encountering God.
The writing in Exodus 2 is even more beautiful. The shortest of the well scenes, Moses saves the women involved — just as he saved the Israelites — and rhetorical emphasis is placed upon his drawing of water. Whether because he himself was drawn from the water — see what they did there? — or that he would later draw water for the Israelites, these subtle difference from the other well scenes set up Moses as the hero of our story.
For more on this way of reading the text, check out “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter.
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Abraham had two sons. Okay, eight, six of whom came considerably later in his life. Of the original two, the story follows Isaac. Isaac had two sons, and the story follows Jacob. Jacob had twelve sons: whom should the story follow?
Our first guess might be Joseph, his favorite, but the text squashes that idea this week and next, embalming Joseph and leaving him in an Egyptian coffin before a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph. We might instead guess Leah’s firstborn, Reuben, but Jacob’s so-called-blessing this week writes him out of the story for his earlier actions:
Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer, for when you mounted your father’s bed you brought disgrace — my couch is mounted!
While Israel was staying in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel found out.
Perhaps Simeon and Levi? Nope, their past actions disqualify them, too.
Simeon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Rashi on Genesis 49:5
Simeon and Levi were of one mind, regarding Shechem and regarding Joseph. In the land of their sojourns, they conducted themselves with violence.
Benjamin? A solid guess…but Benjamin goes down as the ancestral progenitor of Saul, who ultimately falls from grace. Judges 19 and 20 absolutely excoriate the Tribe of Benjamin and leave it for dead.
Down and down the family tree we go until eventually we arrive at Judah. Central to Israel and the priesthood, ancestral progenitor of King David, our sacred text ultimately follows Judah. As do we, those who practice Judah-ism.
The Joseph story offers those aspiring to positions of power a cautionary tale. By objective measures, he certainly succeeded in rising to the highest echelons of Egyptian government:
Genesis 41:55 And when all the land of Egypt felt the hunger, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians: “Go to Joseph; whatever he tells you, you shall do.”
Everyone in Egypt, native and sojourner alike, turned to him during the crisis of famine in the land. He had tremendous power. But he had also forsaken the values with which he was raised for that which was temporary and fleeting.
In his book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Dr. Yoram Hazony suggests that ours is a history of shepherd ethics over those of the farmer:
1) Life after Eden begins with the murder of Abel, a shepherd, by his brother Cain, who was a farmer; and this because God accepted the shepherd’s sacrifice but rejected that of the farmer.
2) At the climax of the Abraham story, God commands him to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering, but that God then forgoes the sacrifice of the child and accepts instead the sacrifice of a sheep.
3) It is in Pharaoh’s palace that Moses, the greatest leader of the Hebrews, is raised as a child. But instead of accepting Egyptian ways, he flees to the desert and becomes a shepherd like his fathers. It is while herding his flock that Moses is called by God. And when he returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and rain plagues down upon the land, he does so with a shepherd’s staff in his hand.
Shepherd ethics, a life of dissent and counter-cultural initiative whose aim is to find the good life for man, is offered by Hazony as as God’s true will in our sacred text.
But Joseph? He falls for the allure of the city and the empire, the pinnacle of farming civilization. Yes, it saved the Israelites when they were in a bad spot. AND it offered them 400 years of servitude. As for Joseph’s legacy? Well, Genesis next week ends with him embalmed in Egypt before a new Pharaoh arises who knew not of his existence. Temporary and fleeting indeed, as his ancestors, as we, are still here.
Shriveled, we often translate it…as in: “the sheaves of grain foretelling seven years of upcoming famine were shriveled.” But that word, tz’numot, is without precedent in the Biblical text. Rashi thinks it’s from the same root as the Aramaic word “rock.” Onkelos translates that it means the grain blossoms had been emptied of their seeds. Rashbam simply sees fit to remind us that no other word related to this one appears anywhere in the Bible. Ibn Ezra gets creative when he says some say it means “images,” as it does in Arabic. Nachmanides throws a lot of words at the problem before saying it means “shredded.” So much commentary on a seemingly superfluous word, and without a definition drawn from other uses no one can be proved wrong. So why did they — and why do we — care?
Perhaps it amplifies the urgency of Pharoah’s dream. Seven fat cows, seven skinny cows, seven healthy stalks, seven shriveled stalks. Two separate seven year cycles? No, says Rashi, just one that is really going to happen. Shriveled, rock like, shredded, images of grain? It’s going to be unprecedented, just like the word tz’numot. Famine is coming, it’s going to be bad, and Pharaoh needs advice and guidance and interpretation. Enter Joseph, a man in whom there is the spirit of God, to save the day. And his brothers. And his people. And us.
Freud claims that all details of a dream – even the most ridiculous – have significance. I’m not entirely sure I agree, but this little detail seems to have saved the day.
Happy Chanukah from the staff at Temple Emanuel of South Hills!
“V’Yisrael ahav et Yosef Mikol banav…v’asah lo k’tonet pasim.”
Israel loved Joseph more than all of his sons…and made him a k’tonet pasim. A what? We are not really sure. Ask the Septuagint or the Vulgate or Tim Rice and k’tonet passim means “coat of many colors.” Ask Rashi and it was simply made of a more refined wool. Nachmanides thinks it was striped. Targum Yonatan suggests it was more form-fitting than those cloaks of his brothers.
No matter who you ask, they all agree it was notable. Colorful or striped or made of fine material or form-fitting, it must have been something to look at…and it made Joseph different. Or at least signified that he WAS different. Rashi suggests he spent more time fixing his hair and touching up his eyes than the other boys. Midrash, Genesis Rabbah describes a particular way of lifting up his heels while walking. The Zohar suggests he was every bit as beautiful as his mother Rachel, for whom Jacob labored the extra years.
And when you add in his resistance to Potiphar’s Wife’s many sexual advances, you begin to build either indirect, vague evidence…or at least reasonable suspicion…about Joseph’s sexuality. Yes, I am absolutely reading the stereotypes and concerns of the modern day onto this text. But I’ll take a hero for a community that has been too-often marginalized wherever I can find it, particularly when it is a man chosen by his father and by God for great things.
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Last week, a group of seven people from Temple Emanuel left Pittsburgh for the URJ Biennial in even colder Chicago.
“The URJ Biennial offers an opportunity to compare notes with similar congregations, learn best practices from around the movement, connect with colleagues and friends, and grow even more excited about the future of progressive Jewish life in America,” Rabbi Aaron Meyer says. “All Biennials feature amazing scholars, great educational sessions, moving worship opportunities, and more. The 2019 Biennial focused on issues of inclusion. Our communities, our religion is stronger when it makes intentional space for all.”
Kathy Ginsberg, a member of Temple Emanuel’s Board of Trustees and Worship Chair, attended for the first time. She heard about Biennial before she even became Jewish. Some of her Jewish friends had gone and reported what a remarkable experience it was. “This year, with my taking on a larger leadership role at Temple, I felt the time was right,” she says.
Ginsberg knew it was the largest gathering of Jews in North America, but she was unprepared for the number of folks roaming around. “It was amazing to sit in the plenary sessions and Shabbat services with 5,000 other Reform Jews!” she recalls. “Talk about the power of community!”
Tracy Barnett was also a first-time attendee. She says she decided to go for a couple of reasons. She’d also heard from prior attendees what a wonderful experience it was. Then, when she reviewed the schedule, she saw how many classes applied to her position on the Temple Board as co-treasurer and hoped to learn new things to help her be a better board member. She mainly took classes regarding governance and temple finances, since those are her areas of interest.
“I learned new approaches for fundraising and governance approaches,” Barnett says. “I wish the breakout sessions had been longer to be able to hear more about what other congregations were doing. But I do feel that we at Temple are ahead of the game in the way we get input from the whole congregation in major decisions (rabbinic transition and mission/vision).”
Ginsberg enjoyed a session by Ariel Burger, an Orthodox rabbi who was Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant for many years. Other sessions she attended were on worship, social justice issues like climate justice and gun violence prevention, and helping to integrate both Jewish adjacent members and members with disabilities into temple life. “I was very impressed by the number of young people there who were doing important social justice work while still in college,” she says, calling it very inspiring.
This was Temple President David Weisberg’s second Biennial. He says it was great connecting with other presidents, of whom there were 250 in attendance. “We were able to share ideas and common issues,” he says. “Best practices can be brought back and potentially utilized at Temple.”
In fact, two other synagogue presidents reached out to Weisberg after they heard about the success of our interim and settled rabbinic searches. Both congregations have long-tenured rabbis soon to be retiring and asked about our processes. Temple’s Tashlich & Tacos was also recognized as a top innovative program. “Many other congregations loved the idea and would consider a version of it for their own synagogue,” reports Weisberg.
High school junior Anna Schwartz, NFTY-PAR VP of Programming, also attended. She spent her time with other NFTY teens and NFTY programming, but participated in the general Biennial programs as well. She called it an amazing experience.
When asked how this Biennial compares to others, Rabbi Jessica Locketz says every Biennial has its moments – the ones that make their impact and inspire her. This one was no different. “To name a few…hearing about the interfaith efforts in Omaha, NE was a powerful reminder of the importance of building a larger religious community that includes all faiths and all peoples,” she says. “When President Rick Jacobs spoke about ‘widening our tent’ to include Jews of color, Jews on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, Jews with disabilities, etc…it made me feel good about all we have accomplished and ready to take on all the work we still have to do to make a diverse Jewish community a reality.”
Rabbi Locketz was able to network with educational colleagues about innovations in their schools and talk to vendors about new curricular resources that she hopes to share with the Torah Center Advisory Board as they navigate changes to the Torah Center program. “I am excited about what is in store for our students and their families!” she says.
She most enjoyed seeing colleagues and friends, as well as spending time with the lay leaders that attended as part of the Temple delegation. “Attending sessions and sharing meals together gives us the rare opportunity to deepen relationships and engage in conversations about Temple’s future,” she says.
Rabbi Aaron agrees. “The Biennial is designed to expose lay leadership to the best and brightest in the Reform Movement,” he says. “While I enjoyed seeing friends, connecting with congregants from previous cities, and some personal growth opportunities, the highlight by far was traveling with our great delegation from Temple, comparing notes after provocative and inspiring sessions, and thinking about the future of Temple Emanuel.”
Likewise, this was the most important thing that Ginsberg feels she got out of attending Biennial. Executive Director Leslie Hoffman also enjoyed the introspection. “For me, one of the best parts of attending the Biennial is having the opportunity to step away from day-to-day operations and take the time to reflect on why we (Temple) do what we do,” she says. “A recurring theme in the sessions that I attended was the importance of making sure that everything that we do aligns with our mission and vision. As we are in the midst of reshaping our congregational mission and vision right now, I am excited to work with our rabbis and lay leadership to shape our future.”
The next URJ Biennial is December 8-11, 2021 in Washington, DC (National Harbor).
I’m not great at math, but even I know that 12-11 leaves one left over. You’ll need to know this when you read this week’s torah portion, Vayishlach. Our math problem is hidden in chapter 32 verse 23, “[Jacob]… taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok [river].” At this time in his story, Jacob already had 12 children. His son Benjamin was born later, but Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Dina were traveling with him. 12-11… Who is missing?
Rashi tells us that is is Dina who is absent. Where was she? Rashi explains “[Jacob] had placed her in a chest and locked her in so that Esau should not desire to marry her.” Now just in case you’re thinking Rashi must be crazy – other commentators tell the same story. They explain that is was because of this action that Jacob would later be punished through his daughter. Genesis Rabbah imagines God telling Jacob, “Had you married [Dina] to [Esau] she would not have sinned.”
This midrash reminds me how easy is is to place blame when bad things happen to us and to those we love. Too often we hear that a victim is at fault because their choices put them in harm’s way. Too often we hear that tragedy is the result of someone else’s misdeeds.The greater challenge, the one we must rise to, is to ensure that victims are supported and never blamed. Dina’s story is not her fault, nor is it the result of her father’s actions. We honor her name and her story when we carry this message with us.
Sometimes it takes a change in perspective to see things more clearly. Doing something, anything, different. For Jacob, in this week’s Torah portion, that meant using a rock as a pillow. Different, right?
And sometimes it takes something unusual, something unexpected, a surprise to make us see things more clearly. For Jacob, it this week’s Torah portion, it was a surprising dream: a ladder stretching to heaven, with angels going up and down. Up and down. Up first, as they inhabited the world with him, and then down. Unexpected. Enough to change his perspective.
He had no idea of the reality before him — nothing less than the presence of God before him, actually — and it took something unexpected to see it, a change in perspective to see things more clearly.
“Yesh Adonai B’makom Hazeh v’Anochi Lo Yadati: Surely God is in this place and I didn’t know it.”
That’s what he was missing. What are we missing, and how do we find it?
Maybe, like Jacob, we need a bit of physical distance.
Maybe, like Jacob, we need to see the bigger picture. Running away from his brother, from his parents, from the only home he had ever known, Jacob forgot about God’s promise. When we get stuck, we too lose sight of the forest.
And maybe, like Jacob, we need to reclaim our agency. His mother scripted his every move. His brother drove him from his home in fear. His father bestowed on him a blessing. Until this point, Jacob was a bystander in his own life. He now becomes an actor. Okay, so maybe he doesn’t always get those actions right — in fact, he very rarely gets those actions right — but they become his to make. How easy it is for us to blame others, too…we often need to reclaim our agency just like Jacob did.
Each of these things helps us to change our perspective. Each opens our eyes to a new world of possibilities. Each keeps us from missing the thing right before our eyes. Get some space. Realize the bigger picture. Reclaim your agency. May something as majestic as God’s very presence is waiting for you, too.