Who Did Not Know Joseph: Parashat Sh’mot

Embed from Getty Images  Parashat Sh’mot Exodus 1:1 – 6:1  Each people is responsible for telling its own story. With this new book of the Torah we begin telling our own story as a people. But in telling our own story we necessarily  make use of another people’s story. And, as we tell our story, we come to witness the trajectories of two nations, one on the rise and one in descent. The children of Israel multiply and increase and flourish for a time, becoming ever stronger. Although they must suffer persecution and oppression, they endure and their spirit miraculously survives. This is an inspiring story and it is our story as the Jewish people, a story we tell and retell in our Torah readings and at our festival gatherings. Mostly we are interested in telling the story of the other nation, Egypt, only as it bears upon our own. We are neither Egyptians nor Egyptologists. The once mighty empire that was Egypt has not survived and it is of relevance for us only for the role it plays as the villain in our own story. Continue reading

Gathering In: Parashat Vay’hi


Parashat Vay’hi
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

And Jacob finished charging his sons, and he gathered his feet to the bed and he expired and he was gathered to his people. And Joseph fell upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. 
(Gen. 49:33 – 50:1)

Jacob has completed what he needed to do. He has given his sons much to remember and much to think about. Then he both gathers himself together and lets himself go. He draws his aged body up onto the bed and then gives up his life. The narrator tells us that his own “gathering” (va-ye’esof) of himself – perhaps into a fetal ball – is paralleled by the “gathering (- va-ye’asef) to his people.” Jacob is somehow accepted into the overarching collectivity of  those connected to him who have preceded him into death and those who will follow him in life and death. In Auden’s phrase about Yeats’ death, “The current of his feeling failed; he became. his admirers.” There is a sense of deliberate acceptance of death as a moment in an ongoing flow of time and memory.
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Sons and Fathers: Parashat Vayigash

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Parashat Vayigash
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

What would Father do?

This is a question that sometimes faces a person when they need to make an important and difficult decision. The influence of a father on a child can be enduring, overcoming time and space and even life itself. In a time of need a son or daughter – no matter how old they are at the moment – may reach back toward their parent for guidance and support.

After Joseph and his brothers are all reunited and reconciled in Egypt, it is time for the beloved son to be reunited with his beloved father. So Joseph sends for his father Jacob, beckoning him to descend to Egypt so that he may enjoy Joseph’s support and protection.
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Fly on the Wall: Parashat Miqetz/Hanukah/Rosh Hodesh


Parashat Miqetz/Hanukah/Rosh Hodesh
Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

What makes a person speak up instead of keeping silent? What makes a person remember after years of forgetting? What makes a person keep a promise when it is so easy to betray it?

The Chief Butler in Pharaoh’s court has been silent and forgetful. It has been two years since he was restored to his position of authority and since he made a promise to use his restored position to benefit the forlorn Joseph, stuck in a dungeon. It has been two long years for Joseph, waiting to be remembered, while, for the Butler, time has just breezed by as he has gone about his duties to the monarch and the court.

But, when Pharaoh has a dream that he cannot understand, this somehow changes the Butler’s consciousness and brings him to remember Joseph and speak up on his behalf. What was it that changed the Butler’s mind and soul?
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Overcoming Jacob: Parashat Vayeshev


Parashat Vayeshev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

The longest story of any of our early founding ancestors, the story of Joseph and his brothers, begins in this week’s Torah portion and continues to the very end of the book of Genesis. It is a very rich and complex story, with many parts. After Joseph is disposed of by the brothers, sold into slavery, conveyed down to Egypt, the Torah’s attention shifts to tell of an adventure – or mis-adventure – of Judah. (We have dealt with this story before. See Sparks for last year and for 2012.) This episode seems to be a tangential sub-plot. After telling this episode will the Torah return to Joseph’s story in earnest.
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Hammering it Out: Parashat Vayishlah


Parashat Vayishlah
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

And he said, ‘No longer will your name be said to be Jacob, but, rather, Israel. For you have striven with the Almighty and with people and you have prevailed.
(Gen. 32:29)

Jacob’s name is changed to “Israel” by a heavenly angel, who seems to say that the name Jacob will fall away and be replaced. Yet, immediately following that dramatic statement our Patriarch is referred to by the name “Jacob,” and the text continues to use the Jacob-name for quite a stretch of narrative. I have suggested (- see last year’s Torah Sparks for this portion) that the effect of getting the name of Israel is to change the meaning of the name Jacob. The name no longer connotes deception. Jacob/Israel is the one who struggles and prevails.

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Two Camps: Parashat Vayetze


Parashat Vayetze 
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

The beautiful story of Jacob’s dream, in which he sees a ladder reaching from earth all the way to heaven, with God’s angels streaming up and down upon it, has captured the imagination of readers for millennia. That story opens our Torah portion. Less noticed is the story of Jacob’s meeting with angels that closes our portion. After Jacob endures a stressful encounter with his father-in-law, Laban, he is able to resume his journey home: “And Jacob went on his way, and angels of the Almighty encountered him (va-yifg`u bo). And Jacob, when he saw them, said, ‘This is the encampment of the Almighty!’ And he called that place Mahanayim (Two Camps).” (Gen. 32:2-3)
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Dream of Fields: Parashat Toldot

Parashat Toldot 

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

And Esau became a man knowing the hunt, a man of the field…And Isaac loved Esau.
(Gen. 25:27-28)

Where do blessings come from? Where do they go? What is their source of power? What is their effect?

While our tradition mandates that we pronounce blessings of all kinds and for all kinds of reasons, the blessings that we utter, as we bless God, invariably begin “Barukh attah Adanai… – You, Eternal God, abound in blessing.” Thus, the blessings originated by our tradition proclaim God to be the origin of blessing. And we pray incessantly that we may be the ones blessed.
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Win-Win: Parashat Hayyei Sarah


Parashat Hayyei Sarah 
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

– Well, he’s going to need a grave now. That’s for sure. It’s a shame about the old lady, Sarah. Dying all alone like that. Now I hear that Abraham is coming in to Hebron. He’s heard that she died and whaddaya bet that he’s going to want to bury her right here? He’ll want a grave. The question is, do we, as the Elders of the Sons of Het, let him have one? We’ll go around the circle. What do you say?

– I say – Why? He’s not one of us. He’s a stranger. He’s strange, in general. He moves around and leaves his wife all alone?

– You’re right, he moves around. He’s never really learned our ways. He’s never settled anywhere permanent. He’s a drifter. He doesn’t have a piece of land to his name.

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Rescue: Parashat Vayera

Parashat Vayera 

Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

“For what is the world without rescue, but a wasteland and a worthless peril?”
-Sebastian Barry

If you ask me why I did it, I really couldn’t tell you.

We were watching the storm. It was like nothing we had ever seen before. Like all hell had broken loose. Sin City, as we call it, was burning and melting away. And Gomorrah, too. Like two flaming torches in the midst of a sandstorm.

We saw the winds and the sulfur downpours moving right toward us. Screaming was all around us, man and beast alike. We did our best, some of us, to take everything inside. But my neighbor just crouched down and wailed that it was no use. It was all over. Couldn’t we see the great market of Sodom pulverized just a little ways from us? And we were next. What good would our locked doors and shutters be?

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