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.
Parashat Vayera (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
After the “bang!” – the traumatic story of the Binding of Isaac (Aqedah)- our Torah portion concludes with a “whimper,” telling us that Abraham received a report of the births of a number of relatives in far-off Mesopotamia. The last names are of unknown people: Tevah, Gaham, Tahash and Ma`akhah. (Gen. 22:24) And we will never hear of them again.
This section is not completely obscure, though. Included in the birth announcements, as readers have noticed, is the name of Rebecca, later to become Isaac’s wife. The commentator, Rashi, remarks: “All these kinship lines are written only for this verse [that tells of Rebecca’s birth].” But Rashi’s comment does not explain why it was necessary to include all the seemingly superfluous information. Couldn’t the Torah have been selective, as it so often is, and only mention the birth of the one significant person? The whole section could have been reduced to one verse: “After these things, Abraham was told that Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel, was born.”
Parashat Lekh Lekha (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Our Torah portion is accompanied by a prophetic reading – haftarah (- “concluding reading”), as is every Torah portion. Each haftarah was chosen long ago, selected from a vast prophetic literature. It devolved on later generations to try to ascertain why each specific reading was matched with the Torah portion. Often the connection is clear and far-reaching. But sometimes the connections are less obvious.
Our Etz Hayim edition is blessed with a commentary on the haftarot by the eminent scholar, Michael Fishbane, that always discusses the relation between the haftarah and its Torah reading. The relation between the two is not only one of development of the earlier text (Torah) by the later text (haftarah). Reading the haftarah can also awaken us to themes and issues in the Torah reading that we otherwise might have passed over. Thus, aside from the connections that Prof. Fishbane points out, I believe that a reading of our haftarah this week can alert us to an element in our parashah that we might have ignored.
Parashat No`ah (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
How he survived was a miracle. No. How he survived was by shutting his mouth and keeping quiet. No, it was still a miracle, after all. After all that criminality, after all that hatred, and that violence and that thieving and killing, it was a miracle that they didn’t take him and cut his silent throat. He saw it all, but he didn’t say a word. The wood stolen right out from under him. Silence. The neighbor’s cow slaughtered right before his eyes. Silence. The neighbor bludgeoned. Not a word from his lips.
Parashat B’reshit (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Our biological clocks generally give us a sense of a new beginning with the morning light, and, with darkness we sense the day’s end. But our tradition has reversed this order in its definition of when a day starts and when it concludes. Instead the day begins with the onset of darkness and ends with the waning of the light. We take this order from the Biblical refrain that ends the description of the creation of each day: “And it was evening, and it was morning, one day” and “the second day,” etc. (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31)
Sh’mini Atzeret/Simhat Torah/V’zot Ha-b’rakhah (5780 – 2019)
The beginning of the new year is marked with so many holy days. Now we are reaching their end, the end of the beginning. The annual cycle of Torah portions, begun last year also comes to an end, not at the end of the last year, but at the beginning of this new year. And then we begin once more. We are meant to pay attention to endings and beginnings and to consider how each may also be its opposite. Continue reading
Parashat Haazinu/Sukkot (5780 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52
This reading often directly precedes the festival of Sukkot, the Harvest Festival. References to nature abound in this reading. They range from the unspoiled, God-given phenomena of rain and dew and go on to include the produce of human cultivation of the soil. Late in the song of Ha’azinu we find the paradoxical image of “the vine of Sodom, the vineyard of Gomorrah,” where these cities of iniquity are seen as sources of rotten fruit. We have moved from nature to civilization, but civilization as a source of corruption and wrong-doing.
Thus, without stating it explicitly, our Torah portion tells of the vulnerability of nature, available to people to use as they see fit, subject to manipulation and transformation at the hands of humans. Will this usage be for good or for ill? Will nature be enhanced or destroyed? Only we have the answers.