Bo 5778: Is He Unhinged?

Pharaoh is getting flustered, acting erratically and not making much sense. His servants have asked him, “Don’t you realize that Egypt is lost?” One senses that he is rattled by their condescending tone. Then he summons Moses and explodes, “Go, serve the Lord your God–who are the ones to go?” It’s a bit grotesque to watch. This powerful man suddenly has no power, but he hasn’t quite realized it yet. So he resumes interrogating Moses about who exactly is on the roster to worship God. This elicits one of the greatest lines attributed to Moses—“We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe the Lord’s festival.”

In my movie mind, I imagine Moses standing up tall—looking Pharaoh in the eye, and making his proud declaration of intent. All-of-us-are-going. We love reading this text—it shows that Moses, and thus the Torah, and thus Judaism, has an inclusive ideal of worship. Regardless of gender or generation—all Israelites are required to worship God properly. At least that is how we like to read it. But Pharaoh is not stirred. In fact, his response sounds unhinged. He utters three phrases which don’t quite add up to a coherent statement.

JPS renders his confusing response as, “The Lord be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief.” Each year I read this line and wonder what he is trying to say. I’m not alone, of course. Let us consider two Midrashic readings, one quite reasonable and yet incomplete, and the other far more expansive, not quite convincing and yet far more satisfying. Continue reading


Mikketz and Hanukkah 5778: Evading Killing Curses and Accepting Responsibility

Parashat Mikketz ends with Joseph’s elaborate ruse to test his half-brothers and see if they will betray Benjamin just as they had betrayed him. He plants his silver divination goblet in Benjamin’s saddle bags, as well as the silver payment in all of their bags, just as he had done the first time. Haven’t the brothers been to the rodeo before? Why didn’t they learn to check the saddle bags?

I noticed in this reading that the story of the “stolen” goblet refers back not only to the previous grain-buying mission, but also to an earlier incident. During the flight of Jacob and his double family from Laban’s estate, Laban chases after them and his stolen idols, accusing Jacob of robbery, and eliciting an indignant denial. The two incidents are different in many respects. Joseph plants his goblet to incriminate the innocent Benjamin, whereas Rachel steals her father’s idol. Jacob is clearly testing his brothers. It’s less clear what motivates Rachel to grab the household gods. But the two tales are similar in one important aspect. When Jacob hears Laban’s accusation, he rashly proclaims, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” (Gen. 31:32). Not much later he must bury his beloved Rachel by the side of the road. Here in Mikketz, the brothers likewise protest their innocence in stealing Joseph’s goblet, rashly proclaiming, “Whichever of your servants it is found with shall die; the rest of us, moreover, shall become slaves to my lord.” (Gen. 44:9). Continue reading

Vayeshev 5778: From the Depths of Hebron

One wonders what Jacob really knew about the relationship between his sons, just as we wonder about how attentive Isaac had been to his battling boys. Jacob does seems to be on to something once Joseph starts sharing his dreams, and “his father guarded the matter.” Did he, though? In Chapter 37:11, Jacob says to Joseph, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” The verse ends, “So, he sent him from the valley of Hebron.” This verse includes the root SHLM twice—implying the father’s yearning that his favorite son would encounter “peace” with his brothers. How likely was that? Perhaps he was trying to reassure Joseph, who must have been anxious, or perhaps Jacob was deluding himself.

Or perhaps not. There is a dark and fascinating midrash found in Bavli Sotah 11a. Rabbi Hanina b. Pappa plays on the word for valley, עמק, which also means “depth” and considers what, or who, is located beneath Hebron. Rashi on the verse points out that Hebron is in the hill territory—there is no valley there—so what could the “depth of Hebron” mean? The rabbinic answer is that Jacob’s grandparents and parents were buried “deep in Hebron.” In this Midrash, Rabbi Hanina takes the drash a second step and says that Jacob was inspired by the “deep counsel” of the saint buried in Hebron—Abraham—to send Joseph to seek his brothers. Huh? What does Abraham have to do with the conflict between his great-grandsons? Continue reading


VaYishlah 5778: Diminished by Fear

Jacob is afraid to die. He is also afraid to kill, at least according to the Midrashic reading of Genesis 32:8, with its two verbs, he was afraid, and he was anguished. Bereshit Rabba explains, “he was afraid that he would kill [Esau], and anguished that he would be killed.” But even more, Jacob is fearful for the lives of his large family, terrified that they will be slaughtered together, אם על בנים, mother and child, which is such a despondent image that it extends to the animal kingdom in the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird (Deut. 22:6).

Jacob is diminished by his fear. The boy who was always so daring and assertive is reduced to pleading with his brother, and being unresponsive to the crisis surrounding Dina’s abduction and rape. Here he uses the word קטנתי, “I have become small,” which the Bavli reads as a reflection of his diminished reserve of merits (b. Shabbat 32a). According to the Rabbis, merit saves a person, but it is a finite resource. If you escape trouble too often, then you will use up your merits and eventually succumb to danger.

The intrepid boy who once had nothing more than a staff in his hand and a stone for a pillow is now a man of wealth and power, with two households and vast herds—yet he is suddenly vulnerable, anxious, afraid. Esau is only the beginning of his troubles—the real danger lies within his own progeny. When Dina goes out to visit “the daughters of the land,” she destabilizes her father’s patriarchy, as Amy Kalmanofsky shows in her book, Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible. We read this story as a calamity for Dina, but the Torah may be using it to send a message of caution about undermining the patriarch. When Simon and Levi massacre the town of Shekhem, they too undermine Jacob’s status, exposing his weakness—he says that his boys have made him stink and endangered his household—and I am few in number. He is not really fewer now than at the start of the portion, when he felt wealthy and powerful. But he suddenly feels vulnerable. What happened to Jacob? Continue reading


Remembering our teacher, Neil Gillman z”l

Dr. Gillman was a giant presence at JTS for well over a half century, beginning with his arrival from Montreal in the mid-1950s. His ordination was from JTS and his doctorate from Columbia. Rabbi Gillman was a beloved professor of Jewish thought who played a significant role in mentoring generations of students into careers as Jewish clergy, educators and scholars. He served as dean of the JTS Rabbinical School during a period of transition when women’s ordination was being debated. He was an early advocate for egalitarianism, and continued to teach and model a more inclusive vision of Jewish thought and practice throughout his life. He was also a historian of JTS and Conservative Judaism, publishing a popular volume, and working with a committee to articulate the beliefs of our centrist movement in the volume Emet V’Emunah.

When I arrived at JTS in 1989 Dr. Gillman was already a senior figure—he enthralled us with stories about the towering figures of JTS history—Heschel and Kaplan, H.L. Ginsberg and many others. Sitting in his office surrounded by high piles of books, chomping on his pipe, he initiated us into the ancient conversation of Jewish belief. In his book Sacred Fragments he introduced many of us to the thought of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, specifically the concept of “second naivete,” which described the possibility and even need for a post-enlightenment return to mythic structures in religious faith. In other words, one might absorb the truths of historical development—of the earth, of human life, of culture and even of Torah—and yet also live fully within the mythic structures of revelation, redemption and even resurrection. That last theme became increasingly important to him and was the basis of another outstanding book, The Death of Death. In it, he showed how rabbinic Judaism expanded the concept of resurrection as a form of theodicy to justify God following the intolerable catastrophes of the destruction of the second temple, and then the Hadrianic persecutions. He even sat in on a class that I was taking with the visiting professor Peter Schafer—Dr. Gillman was eager to learn from everyone, whether a great scholar or a simple student, a learned Jew or a secular philosopher. In all of this he was a great model for us. Continue reading


Toledot 5778b: Hear the Voice of Rebecca

My go-to expert for Parashat Toledot the past few years has been a student at JTS named Lauren Tuchman. She is a senior in the rabbinical school who teaches frequently on topics of disability and Judaism. This year she was selected to present an ELI talk, which has been recorded and will soon be released to the public.

As a person who is blind, Lauren relates to stories such as this week’s deception of Isaac by Rebecca and Jacob on a personal level. In an essay that she wrote last year for Dr. Joy Ladin, who was teaching at JTS, Lauren imagined herself as Isaac, reading his own story in the Torah and adding an insider’s midrash: Continue reading


Toledot 5778: A Family of Covenant

[Written for the JTS Torah Commentary]

The stories of Genesis are presented as family portraits, but simultaneously they describe the origins of a religious civilization. How did the people of Israel acquire and maintain its distinctive religious mission? Genesis offers not only a window into Israel’s past, but a blueprint for its future. Implicit is an invitation to contribute to this unfolding narrative, attaching the threads of our lives to the tapestry woven by our ancestors.

Viewing one’s story within the scope of Israel’s past and future has significant repercussions. Even the most personal decision—the choice of whom to marry—becomes framed in covenantal terms: Will this marriage maintain the family’s distinct religious identity, or instead lead it to blend into the surrounding culture? This question plays a tense and tragic role within the first families and drives the central drama of Toledot. Continue reading