Parashat Va’era (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
God must persuade Moses and Aaron to persist in their efforts to liberate their people, even though they have met with initial failure. After God repeats this command regarding the people of Israel and Pharaoh the Torah stops the story to begin a genealogical list. The list begins with Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob and proceeds through the next two sons, Shimon and Levi. But it does not include the rest of the sons. It concludes with Levi so as to give a fuller background to Moses and Aaron, members of the Levite tribe. (Ex. 6:14-27) Continue reading
Parashat Sh’mot (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Moses, a Hebrew survivor, formerly an Egyptian prince, and now a refugee shepherd in the wilderness of Midian, is called upon by God to become the leader of his enslaved people, the Israelites. In the longest conversation between a human being and God to be recorded in the Torah, Moses keeps on arguing against God’s call. He tries to get out of the mission that God has chosen for him.
In our own times of trouble and uncertainty, it is intriguing to read how one person tries to wriggle out of his responsibility to do something on behalf of those who are suffering. As the Torah devotes so much space to documenting the attempts by a person to evade their responsibility, perhaps that extended effort might prompt us to self-reflection. “Is this something that applies to any of us?” – we may wonder with discomfort.
Parashat Vayehi (5780 – 2020)
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
The Book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph after he makes his brothers pledge that, when God shall remember them and take them out of Egypt, they will remember him and take his bones back to Israel for burial. I have discussed aspects of the significance of this pledge and act in previous years. (See Sparks for 2015, 2016, 2017)
One thing is clear to Joseph, the family and the reader – Egypt is not really their home. They must eventually return to Canaan. So, as we ponder whether the brothers and their descendants will remember Joseph at that future time, we might ask ourselves a simple question: Why didn’t the brothers simply return to their homes in the land of Israel right after Joseph’s death? What held them back? The famine years had long passed and they were free to go, not yet enslaved to the next Pharaoh. We can understand that Joseph was stuck in Egypt because of his high position in Pharaoh’s court. But, once he died, why didn’t the brothers seize the opportunity to go back home?
Parashat Vayigash (5780 – 2020)
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
[Note: In this essay on the Torah portion I share some thoughts concerning current events and problems, so this essay is considerably longer than usual.]
How do you recognize a Jew?
This question became, in later times, a lens through which to read a crucial moment in the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, as told in this week’s Torah reading. And the question haunts us today.
After an emotional appeal for mercy from Judah, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself, not as an Egyptian vizier, but as his brothers’ long lost brother, a Hebrew like them. The brothers are astounded: “And his brothers could not respond to him, for they were very shocked before him. And Joseph said: ‘Come closer to me,’ and they drew near.” (Gen. 45:3-4) Continuing to speak to them, he says, “Look! Your eyes and Benjamin’s eyes can see that it is my mouth that speaks to you.” (v. 12) The unreality of this man speaking to them as their brother is almost impossible for Jacob’s sons to take in. Nor can they believe that Joseph is not intent on avenging himself against them. So Joseph seeks to draw them close. And he says a Biblical version of “Read my lips!” as he promises to care for them and not punish them.
Parashat Miqetz/Hanukah (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
Joseph is raised from the dungeon to face Pharaoh in Pharaoh’s time of need. This scene, as with the entire Joseph novella, is subtly and richly packed with psychological and interpersonal elements that are sometimes ignored as we are swept along by the main plot lines of the story. But a close reading of the exchanges between the exalted ruler and the lowly “Hebrew lad, a slave” (Gen. 41:12) can help us appreciate this drama even more.
Parashat Vayeshev/Hanukah (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
In this Torah portion we follow Joseph along the ups and downs in his roller-coaster life. Favored by his father and once so hopeful about his shining future, he has been thrown into the pit by his brothers to be sold into slavery. But then he succeeded in gaining respected standing in the house of a high Egyptian official. But, then he is been betrayed by his master’s wife and brought to his lowest point.
“And Joseph’s master took him and put him in the prison, the place where the imprisoned of the king were imprisoned, and he stayed there in the prison.” (Gen. 39:20) This verse repeatedly mentions a prison and imprisonment. This is the punishment that Joseph suffered at the hands of his Egyptian master after the master’s wife falsely accused Joseph of trying to harass her sexually.
Parashat Vayishlah (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
How did it happen that the sons of Jacob, our founding ancestors, proved to be such miserable specimens?
They deviously perpetrate a bloody massacre against innocent people, ostensibly to defend the honor of their sister, Dinah. And they stubbornly show no remorse, refusing to hear their father’s admonitions. (Gen. 34) The Torah makes it as clear as can be that they were deeply in the wrong. For example, these brothers, so adamant, now, about the imperative of family solidarity, later will betray their own brother, Joseph, when they get the chance.
Parashat Vayetze (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Jacob has a vision of God and says – “Indeed there is God in this place, and I did not know.” (Gen. 28:16) This declaration is extraordinary and unique. Of all the Biblical figures who have heard or seen God before Jacob – in whatever place or circumstance – not one, until Jacob, has ever said – I did not know that God was in this place. With Jacob we encounter for the first time a crack in the Biblical assurance that it is unremarkable that God can speak or appear to anyone at any time. What is the source of Jacob’s surprise, his expression of previous ignorance and his declaration that now he knows better?
Parashat Toldot (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Our Torah portion picks up some twenty years after last week’s story. Isaac and Rebecca have been married for twenty years, but they are still childless. After Isaac entreats God on his wife’s behalf, she conceives. But Rebecca’s pregnancy is painful, torn by turmoil within. “And she said, ‘If it is thus, then why am I?’ and she went to seek out the Eternal.” (Gen. 25:22) The next verse tells us that God answered her and explained why she felt such strife within her womb.
Parashat Hayyei Sarah/Thanksgiving (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
So where is God in our Torah reading? After a Torah portion, last week, that was saturated with Divine appearances, announcements, negotiations and commands, in this week’s reading God is completely silent.