Joseph for Israel, Joseph for All: Mikketz/Hanukkah

Who is Joseph deep within? As the Hebrew youth rises from enslavement to privilege, from refugee status to rulership, what remains of his core identity? This question is central to the story of Joseph’s life, and is also tied to the festival of Hanukkah, with which Parashat Mikketz is always associated. The Hanukkah story begins with…

Driving Out the Darkness: Vayeshev 5776

On a weekly basis, and sometimes every day, we hear of horrid incidents when a person’s internal state of jealousy, anger or hatred is expressed in violence. Until that moment there is the possibility that their rage may subside or be sublimated in a non-destructive fashion. That decision point, when a person either pushes back at…

Jacob the Refugee: Vayetze 5776

It’s not just that Jacob is a refugee when he arrives at the well near Haran; he also has a presumptuous attitude. This much is apparent from the first sentences that he utters to the local men. Calling out to them with a tone of familiarity, “My brothers, where are you from?” he proceeds to criticize and…

A Full Bellied Blessing: Toledot

Some stories are rich with visual imagery, while others resound with song. But it is fragrance, specifically the smell of savory food, which infuses Parashat Toledot. Food plays an essential role in several pivotal scenes. It is with a pot of lentil stew that Jacob purchases Esau’s birthright, and it is with a steak dinner…

Sweetening the Bitter Waters: VaYishlah 5776

Between the split sea and the fiery mountain, Israel is a wounded, frightened people.  True, they have been emancipated from four centuries of enslavement, but they are not entirely free. Like many who have endured trauma, they are prone to extreme reactions, rejoicing with song at the sea, but exploding with bitter complaints and accusations just…

The Light of Compassion Shines from Within: Shabbat Hanukkah 5775

Around JTS when we cite Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we refer to the great twentieth century theologian who fled Europe during the Holocaust and spent his final decades teaching Torah at JTS, writing a remarkable series of books that continue to inspire a diverse array of Jewish and Christian thinkers, and practicing social justice activism…

Jacob’s Refusal to be Comforted: VaYeshev 5775

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” is one of Shakespeare’s great lines in Hamlet (Act III, Sc. II). Ironically, the queen’s fervent vow that she would never remarry should her husband die comes across as suspicious, and false. So too whenever we witness a histrionic protestation, somewhere in the back of our mind is the…

Two Camps of Contemporary Jewry: VaYishlah 5775

“And Jacob split the people with him…into two camps…saying ‘if Esau comes upon one camp and smites it, the other camp will be a remnant.’” The ancient sages discerned that Jacob prepared for his fraught fraternal encounter with three strategies—with gifts, with prayer and with battle preparations. He sent generous gifts to placate Esau, he…

Poverty, Race, and Thanksgiving: Vayetze 5775

And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted his voice and wept (Gen. 29:11, R. Alter trans.). Why is Jacob crying? The simplest explanation would seem to be relief. After fleeing in terror from his enraged brother, experiencing strange visions in the night, and vowing anxiously to repay God if he ever makes it home, Jacob has…

Isaac’s Midlife Premonition of Death: Toledot 5775

Did you ever notice the strange thing that Isaac says to Esau in sending his elder son out to hunt for his blessing? Isaac has gone blind in his old age, but what troubles him most is uncertainty about his death. He said, behold, I have aged, and I know not the day of my death (27:2). He…

Bringing the God of Heaven Back to Earth: Hayei Sarah 5775

Where is Abraham, the paragon of compassion, when we need him most? Reading the news this week, when antagonists in the holy land have succeeded in spewing hatred in newly violent ways, let’s think about Abraham, the symbol of compassion, of חסד, and try to embody his grace for the sake of all of his…

Laughter Lost by our Wounded Warriors: Vayera 5775

What became of laughter in the home of our first family? Abraham fell down laughing when he got the news that he and Sarah would finally have a child. Sarah too greeted the annunciation with laughter (it never feels fair that only Sarah was criticized for laughing). Even at an advanced age, and after a…