2 Minutes of Torah Study – Vayeishev

“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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2 Minutes of Torah Study – Vayishlach

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. 

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Vayetzei

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.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Toldot

(Special guest appearance by Rabbi Emily Meyer!)

What were they thinking? Why didn’t they say anything? Are their words important? Just as every word in Torah is significant, so too are the moments when characters are silent. 

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins with a prayer. Isaac beseeches God to grant a child to his wife, Rebecca, but Rebecca herself does not speak. “Isaac prayed to Adonai opposite his wife because she was barren. Adonai accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived.” 

You wouldn’t be the first to wonder, “Why isn’t it Rebecca praying?” 

Some commentators look at the word “opposite” to shed light on this question. Perhaps it means they were praying opposite one another, one in each corner, as Rashi says. Or perhaps it means Isaac was focused on Rebecca during this prayer, as David Kimhi explains: “‘Facing his wife,’ to keep his thoughts focused on her.” Others suggest that it had to do with embarrassment. Either not embarrassing Rebecca because of her infertility or Isaac not being embarrassed himself for his infertility. 

Modern scholars have seen Rebecca’s silence as an opportunity to imagine what she might have been thinking. Perhaps she had changed her mind about having children or perhaps her feelings about her husband had changed. Perhaps, imagines Dr. Ellen Frankel in her midrash, “The Five Books of Miriam,” she was simply powerless to speak. 

The silences in our text raise questions, and they can inspire empathy as we imagine the thoughts and feelings of those whose voices we cannot hear. Focusing on the silences in our text also forces us to focus upon silences perceived in the modern world. Whose voices are we missing, and what can we do to ensure those voices are heard and valued? 

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Chayei Sarah

Va’yih’yu chayei Sarah mei’ah shanah, v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim, sh’nei chayei Sarah. Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years. Many translations say Sarah was 127 years old, but such a simplistic translation does violence to the tradition. 

Why the laborious manner of listing each time period separately?

The midrash (Yalkut Shim’oni) compares each stage to the last: “At one hundred she was as beautiful as a girl of twenty; at twenty she was, was regards sin, as innocent as a child of seven.”

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has an even more poignant interpretation: “She was always a one-hundred-year-old adult, a twenty-year-old woman, and a seven-year-old child. In the realm of chemical processes, there is no way to retain biological youth in a middle-aged person, nor can the pattern of the middle-age be preserved in old age. In the realm of the unfolding of the spirit, however, it is possible to see youth and ripe old age, or even childhood and youth, as simultaneous experiences. The young are sometimes characterized by cautious wisdom and sober judgement, and an older person may be wonderfully childlike, with a dreamer’s naiveté and excitement.”

I love the idea that we can simultaneously possess an old soul and youthful exuberance, awe and wonder and pragmatism at the same time. In what ways are you wise beyond your years? In what ways do you retain the joy of youth? May you be eighty and seven years, or forty and ten years, all the days of your life!

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Vayera

What was the sin of the Sodomites?

From the Biblical Text:

“Adultery and false dealing. They encourage evildoers so that no one turns back from his wickedness. To Me they are all like Sodom…” (Jeremiah 23:14 )

“This was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

“Moab shall become like Sodom…that is what they shall get for their haughtiness.” (Zephaniah 2:9, 10)

And From Early Jewish Literature:

“The men of Sodom said…why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth. Come, let us abolish the practice of traveling.” (Sanhedrin 109a)

“Rabbi Judah said: They made a proclamation in Sodom – everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor or the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt.” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 25)

“The Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God…they hated strangers.” (Josephus, Antiquities 11:1)

Of the 39 references to Sodom in the Hebrew bible, none are related to sexual practices. Even when used in the Christian bible, Sodom is used only as an example of inhospitality.  Yes, Jude condemns the sexual practices of the Sodomites – but only that they wanted to sleep with angels. Philo, informed by stoicism and not rabbinic literature, was perhaps the first to interpret the story as a condemnation of homosexuality, a misinterpretation later made popular by Augustine. 

Join us at 9:00am in the WRJ room each week as we uncover uniquely Jewish understandings of our sacred text.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Lech Lecha

Which was more difficult for Abraham, leaving Haran or offering Isaac as a sacrifice? The symmetry of Torah and the commentaries of our sages connect the two in fascinating ways.

In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham is commanded to Lech Lecha, to go forth. In the Akidah, the binding of Isaac, Abraham is again commanded to Lech Lecha, go forth…the only other time it occurs in the text.

In this week’s Torah portion the destiny is shrouded in mystery, as Abraham is commanded to go to the “land that I will show you.” In the Akeidah? To the “mountain that I will show you.”

In this week’s Torah portion we get a threefold repetition of what was being sacrificed, each more difficult than the last in the commentary of Nachmanides: Leaving your country is easier than leaving your birthplace, which is easier than leaving your parents’ house. In the Akeidah, the same threefold repetition. Take your son, then your only son, and only then is Isaac named.

In Midrash, Rabbi Levi raises these commonalities. “Lech Lecha is written twice, (this whole narrative frame is used twice), and we do not know which was more precious to God.” The rest of his comment is unfortunately lost to history. We don’t know why Abraham was twice tested, nor which was more important to him or to God. What we do know is that life is often filled with difficult moments of transition, and we pray that they each work out as well for us as they did for Abraham.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Noah

Where did they put the phoenix on Noah’s Ark? That’s the question you had while reading again Parashat Noah, right? Where did the imaginary animals fit in? Or what about those too big to hitch a ride, like the wild ox? And how on earth did Noah keep all of those animals from responding to their, well, instincts to create other animals while in the tight confines of the Ark?

The great rabbinic sages of our tradition spent a surprising amount of time answering these questions.

Animals overeager to perpetuate their DNA were only allowed on with their pre-existing mates:

Talmud Sanhedrin 108b: “Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their wives [OT:$i):w $yi)]” (Genesis 7:2). Is there marriage between animals? Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani says that Rabbi Yonatan says: The reference is to those animals with which the transgression of relations with another species was not performed. Therefore, the Torah underscores that the animals that entered the ark were husband and wife.

Animals that were too big either boarded when they were pups, or were tied up to run or swim behind the boat:

Genesis Rabbah 31:13: The wild ox did not enter the ark, but his whelps did. Rabbi Nehemiah said: Neither he nor his whelps, but Noah tied them to the ark and they ran behind.

And the phoenix? About the phoenix is the best story of all:

Talmud Sanhedrin 108b: With regard to the phoenix, my father found it lying in its compartment on the side of the ark. He said to the bird: Do you not want food? The bird said to him: I saw that you were busy, and I said I would not trouble you. Noah replied to the bird: May it be God’s will that you shall not die and the blessing was realized.

What are we to make of these tales, other than a rabbinic rejoinder to their Jewish mothers? If our tradition is willing to take such great care with the fantastic and the seemingly superfluous, how much the more so with important matters!

Join us next Saturday morning for Torah Study at 9:00am in the WRJ Room.

Two Minutes of Torah Study – Bereshit

Each of us is created in the image of God, we read in this week’s Torah portion.

Our sages demonstrate the preeminence of this verse when they debate its place in the hierarchy of scripture. In the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Nedarim, we read: “The greatest principle in Torah,” says Rabbi Akiva, is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” His student, Ben-Azzai, says it’s not so: “A greater principle is that every single person is created in the image of God.”

Our love, our respect, our obligation to our fellow human being is not measured by the love of ourself. Even if indifferent to our own lot or wrapped in the devastation of self-loathing, we must not ignore the plight of our neighbor whose Divine image commands dignity and respect and safety.

On this Shabbat, the Jewish community, the American community, marks one year after the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. We remember the eleven souls, eleven sparks of the Divine, returned to their creator before their time here on earth was finished, before their acts of kindness were finished, before their expressions of love to their family and friends were complete. We grieve for them and for the many others whose lives have been tragically ended by expressions of sinat chinam, of baseless hate. We recount their names, we retell their stories, out of love and respect and our promise not to ignore their fate nor the plight of others like them in our country.

We remember:

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger

Each was created in the image of God and each died in the sanctification of God, and their memories are a constant reminder of our obligation to see God in every single person, even those — and especially those — with whom we disagree.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – V’zot Habracha

This week, we read from the very end of the book of Deuteronomy, the potion called Zot HaBrachah – this is the blessing. This portion often gets short shrift as it is read during our Simchat Torah celebration along with the first lines of the book of Genesis; as we both end and begin the Torah Cycle reading once again. 

It is an interesting portion in itself: Moses’ last words to the people before his death. Our reading begins: This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died. (Deut. 33:1)  Moses knows the end is near; and it seems that he wants to make an impression on those who have come to hear his message. The midrash imagines him saying, 

[I know I will die soon…but] Wait until I bless Israel. All my life, they have had no pleasant experiences with me, for I constantly rebuked them and admonished them not to fear God and fulfill the commandments. I do not wish to leave this world before I have blessed them. (Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzburg, Vol. III, p. 452)

Moses doesn’t want the people to remember him only as the unbending disciplinarian upholding correct behavior and thought. He wants to be remembered as kind, compassionate, understanding and capable of delivering words of blessing. However, as much as he wants to speak words of blessing, soon after he begins to speak, the focus of the text shifts to a third person narrative and we are left wondering who exactly is speaking. The text says: When Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. (Deut. 33:4). The commentators wonder who ‘us’ is…..the men? The women? All of the people of Israel? Only those present? All who are yet to come?

Ramban, a 13th century Spanish commentator draws our attention to the second half of the verse noting that it says the congregation of Jacob, instead of the House of Jacob. The reason? Many will join Jacob in the generations to come. Each will receive his spiritual heritage as they become a part of the people of Israel. The community will be richer because of its diversity. So too with us. Just like the biblical community, ours is one made up of some born into Judaism, some who have chosen Judaism, and some who are exploring where they fit. Thus, these words are meant for everyone; we are all a part of the ‘congregation of Jacob.’ The words of blessing are for us all.