Va’eira – Four Stages of Liberation

January 11, 2018
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Va’eira – Four Stages of Liberation

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We are just two weeks removed from the beginning of the  New Year  in accord with the western secular calendar, the one by which a majority of Jewish people worldwide conduct their normal life’s business. Many have  already s broken  the past year New Year’s resolutions; work harder, work less, spend less money, make more money, eat better, exercise more, swear less, etc. In reality the civil New Year is rarely a time for serious reflection, rather a brief interlude in the tumult of life, a short lived celebration that often provides a “farewell tour” for the very behaviors that we have flippantly resolved to abolish, a not too subtle reminder that we really don’t want to change. So we are free only to make the same resolutions a year later, ten pounds heavier and 365 days closer to our expiration date. Much like the ancient pagans, we subscribe to calendar whereby we are presumably bound by the endless cipher of nature’s repetitive cycles, and an unassailable wall of inevitability limits our human potential.

The biblical calendar on the other hand, though cyclical, is seen as an advancing spiral, moving toward the consummation of the Creator’s perfect design. Therefore we are given endless opportunities to redeem and be redeemed. The exodus from Egypt is but the beginning of a journey toward total liberation from any and all limits to our potential as individuals, and the full potential of humanity as a whole. We are free to begin the journey anew at any time; hence we liturgically celebrate Passover in the spring, but relive its urgency throughout the year. Read more »

Shemot – What’s to Know?

January 3, 2018
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Shemot – What’s to Know?

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What is in a name? This is an apropos question since this week’s parsha begins with lots of names. In fact it is called Names or Shemot in Hebrew. It begins v’aleh shemot b’nei yisrael (Exodus 1:1), “these are the names of the sons of Israel.” The narrative then goes on to name each of Israel’s sons by name. It tells how many children and grandchildren, seventy in all, moved down to Egypt and how they prospered and multiplied. The narrative serves as the divine voice, displaying not only a great knowledge of Israel’s prodigy, but an actual concern for them.

This is a direct contrast with the Pharaoh of Egypt. Verse 8 begins, vayakedem melech chadash al mitzraim asher lo yada et yoseph, “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Of course the new Pharaoh would have had knowledge of Joseph and his service to the kingdom, saving it from the ravages of famine and making it the most powerful nation in its ancient world. He would have been raised with this information, as it would have been part of the history and lore of ancient Egypt. So what the meaning of this verse? Read more »

Vayechi – Body and Soul

December 26, 2017
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Vayechi – Body and Soul

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The significance that this week’s parshah, Vayechi,is bookended by two deaths, those of Jacob and Joseph, is both unavoidable and undeniable. But the events concerning the burial of both patriarchs, and the emphasis on their skeletal remains are both enigmatic and intriguing. Both men make their successors swear to lay their bones to rest in the land of Israel, and these promises are ultimately fulfilled.So, what significance can be found in the return of Jacob and Joseph’s bones to the land of Israel?

Perhaps the answer might be found in an interesting alliteration. The Torah is written without nikkudim, the vowel pointing that often helps us to distinguish between similar words. The absence of nikkudim can make for some interesting, and evocative wordplay when reading the text. When the text of the Torah is not vocalized, the word for bones (atzamot) can also be read as essence (atzmut).Also the word for independence (atzma’ut) is derived from the root word for bone (etzem). So the removing of Joseph and Jacob’s bones might be read as a liberation of both their bodies and their spirits, from Egypt. This is of course consistent with the Jewish holistic understanding body, soul and spirit. A liberated body without spirit is only a corpse, while a liberated spirit without body is simply a ghost. Only together, bones and essence, body and soul is liberation of the full human being achieved. Read more »

Vayigash – Family Ties

December 21, 2017
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Vayigash – Family Ties

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It has been said, “blood is thicker than water”. This platitude would suggest that family ties, though frequently tried are stronger than any other relational bonds that might be formed. This is simple proverbial wisdom. After all, no judge would allow the sibling of a defendant to sit on the jury that is empowered to impartially try him or her. And which of us would not suspect a miscarriage of justice if such a situation were to be allowed. Even if the verdict were to go against the defendant, it might suggest severe animosity between the siblings. For as many of us have observed, that when the strong knots of family ties are broken, they are often the most difficult to repair.

Such is the prologue to the intense and profound theatre of today’s parsha. Joseph, who is Israel’s favorite son, sits in judgment of his brothers. These same brothers had many years earlier sold Joseph into slavery, as a jealous response to their father’s privileged treatment of him. Though suffering many years of hardship, providence elevated Joseph to a position of authority, vizier over all of Egypt and second only to Pharaoh. His position is a reward for his God given wisdom, insight and vision that saved Egypt and in effect the surrounding nations from the deadly results of a great famine. After correctly interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph had urged the ruler to prepare for seven years of famine during seven prior years of prosperity. How could he have known that his own brother’s would seek audience before his throne in an effort to purchase food to sustain the lives of themselves, of their father Jacob and their youngest brother Benjamin? And how could they have known that the great man who controlled their very lives was their brother who they had betrayed a lifetime ago? Read more »

Light Over Might

December 14, 2017
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Light Over Might

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One of the primary messages of Chanukah is to avoid assimilation at all costs. But how often do we hear that the Chanukah story is about religious freedom? As if any religion would have been OK, so long as everyone got to choose for him or herself. Is that really true? Can we possibly imagine old Mattathias, leader of the Maccabees, accepting a compromise whereby the east wing of the temple would have offered kosher sacrifice, while, in the spirit of pluralism, the Hellenistic Syrians were featuring pork barbeque on the west side?

Let’s make no mistake; the Maccabees did not fight for religious freedom, but to cleanse the land for the worship of the one true God of Israel. While they fought to end the Greek cultic practices imposed through the military tyranny of Antiochus, the Syrian Greek ruler, they also fought to end the long-felt effects of assimilation. The hard-to-swallow truth is that many Jews then, as today, envied the freedom and fanfare of the nations, and were all too happy to put off the yoke of Torah. The war opposed the attractive popular spectacle of uncircumcised athletes in public sport as much as it did the forced sacrifices to Zeus in the Great Temple. It should not surprise us then that the greatest miracle of Chanukah is not the immediacy of military triumph, but the sustenance of the Divine light. Read more »

Vayeshev – Servants of The Holy Blessing One

December 7, 2017
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Vayeshev – Servants of The Holy Blessing One

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So often it would seem that the focus within American Judaism is on impressive edifices, building funds, synagogue attendance and business protocols – and why not? These values merely mirror those of our everyday lives. Sadly Judaism appears to have forgotten the purpose of Jewish identity. We were not called to be Jews in order to spread borscht belt humor, or believe it or not to give the world the perfect bagel. We were called, and are still enjoined, to be a people of priests, a holy nation. Our mission in the world is to embody a communal life that will concretize God’s highest values, holiness, learning, sensitivity and justice. We are called to be a living testimony of the faithfulness of the Creator, who maintains His creation in love. As we pray every Shabbat, we are summoned to be “servants of the Holy Blessing One.” Read more »