This week’s Torah portion presents the first wave of plagues against Pharaoh and the Egyptians. At the beginning of the Torah reading Gd talks to Moses tracing His relationship back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Gd points out to Moshe that He is more open to Moshe than He had been to his forefathers. This link between Moshe and Gd is allows Moshe to fully act as an agent of redemption and miracles.
There are parallels and contrasts between the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus. The most glaring contrast is the role of family in the two books. There are many stories of brothers and their relationships with each other.
Cain murders his brother Abel. Isaac is kept away from his half brother Ishmael. Jacob and Esau have a relationship founded on deceit.
The other story we all know is the jealousy of Jacob’s 10 sons toward his favourite child, Joseph.
At first they plan to kill Joseph but then soften their stance and merely sell him into slavery. Of course, slavery was probably a death sentence.
That is the family dynamic in the history of the fledgling Jewish nation. Abraham was selected to lead a new people who would follow Gd’s laws and ethics. The story we read in Va’Era, this week’s parsha, is about Abraham’s descendants enslaved in Egypt, but with a change in that family dynamic.
In the Book of Shemot we are introduced to Moshe, a man who risks everything to save his brethren. He is not jealous or arrogant and welcomes his brother Aaron as an equal. Aaron, three years older than Moshe, takes the lesser role, allowing his younger brother to lead the way. The two men accept Gd’s direction. Their partnership allows them to stand before the ruler of Egypt and free their brethren. Later Miriam, their sister, joins and becomes a leader in her own right.
It is a beautiful contrast to the painful relationships in the Book of Genesis. It is a lesson that if we act as caring partners, and work in cooperation for the good of the community/ city/ country/ world, we can make monumental changers for freedom and equality.
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For the last number of weeks we have been reading about our ancestors, Jacob’s children. More specifically, we have read about Joseph’s trajectory from favoured son at home, to being a slave, and then to becoming viceroy of all Egypt. By the time he was thirty years old Joseph ruled Egypt. He ran the finances and oversaw all of Egypt’s policies.
In this week’s Torah reading Joseph’s brothers still did not know that the leader they were speaking to was their brother. This parsha begins just after Benjamin had been “framed”. Joseph’s personal silver chalice had been “planted” in Benjamin’s belongings, and the Israelite brothers had been told that Benjamin would become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction. Joseph was playing a game with his brothers.
Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother, c. 1896-1902
by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Judah, the same brother who decades earlier had suggested that Joseph be sold rather than be killed, stepped forward and begged for understanding. He poured out his heart, recounting the family history to the great Egyptian before him. Judah hoped that by telling this leader of his father’s frailty the leader may accept Judah as a slave rather than take his youngest brother.
Joseph could carry on the charade no longer. He cleared all the Egyptian attendants from the room. The text says, “And no man stood with him while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And his voice cried out with weeping, and Egypt heard…” Joseph forgave his brothers. He feasted with them, gave them gifts of clothing and food, and convinced them to return to Egypt and live in comfort. He told them how to get land so they could raise cattle.
Although the story had begun many years earlier with fraternal jealousy, the brothers reunited and rebuilt their family. This was contrary to the patterns we had seen before. Cain killed his brother Abel. Isaac grew up without his brother Ishmael. Jacob and Esau never truly reconciled. In this story we see Joseph and Judah build the unified family which would become a nation.
Reunited by Laya Crust
The haftarah features the prophet Ezekiel. He lived from around 622 BCE – 570 BCE and was among the 8,000 Jews exiled to Babylonia. God told Ezekiel to take two beautiful branches, carve phrases on them and display them. One branch represented the nation of Judah and the other represented Joseph’s lineage, the nation of Ephraim. Ezekiel wrote phrases about the two Jewish nations onto the branches and held the two branches together. The action was to indicate that just as the branches could be rejoined, the Israelites could be reunited and grow together as one unified nation.
photo by Yoni Lightstone, tour guide
Ezekiel also told them that God would gather them from among all the nations and bring them back to their own land. The text reads, “Behold I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them to their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel.” (v. 21, 22)
Both readings are about unity. In every era and in every generation there are disagreements between different sectors of Jews. We are stronger as a united people. I hope we can learn to discuss, consider, and be united for the benefit of all.
The painting “Reunited”, showing Ezekiel writing on a branch, is one of the images in my forthcoming book, “ILLUMINATIONS: The Art of Haftarah”. Stay tuned for more information!
The last number of weeks we have been reading about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Jacob was the proud father of 12 sons and one daughter, and moved his family from Padan Aram back to Canaan. In this week’s Torah reading we find out more about the dynmics in Jacob’s family.
Jacob left his father-in-law’s home a wealthy man with huge herds of cattle and flocks of goats. The sons were shepherds. Joseph was favoured by Jacob, and was given a beautiful coat. While his brothers were out iin the hot fields for days at a time Joseph stayed at home with their father. There was a lot of jealousy for more than one reason.
At one point in this week’s Torah portion Joseph was sent out to the fields to look for his brothers and report back to Yaakov (Jacob). They had gone to Shechem with their flocks, and then traveled further. Joseph went to Shechem but couldn’t find them. A man- we suspect that he was an angel- redirected Joseph to Dothan. The brothers saw him approaching. To paraphrase Maurice Sendak, they “made mischief of one kind and another”. They threw Joseph into a pit and gave him to Midianite traders who then sold him to Ishmaelite traders.
I’ve often wondered about the brothers out in the fields, sleeping and eating there. What did they have for lunch? What were they eating as Joseph approached? Many Israeli cookbooks feature eggplant recipes, and I thought- could the brothers have enjoyed something like roasted eggplant?
Roasted Eggplant with Silan and Tomatoes
1 medium eggplant 1 – 2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbsp. raw tehina 1- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. yogurt sprigs of fresh parsley, cilantro or hyssop leaves
1 tomato halved, cored, and diced 1 crushed clove of garlic
1Tbsp. silan or dark honey sea salt and crushed pepper to taste
Bake the eggplant. You can roast it over a bonfire, a gas flame or, as I have here, an electric element. It gives a wonderful smokey flavour.
Slice in half and drizzle with tehina, yogurt, silan (or honey), olive oil and lemon juice. Season with salt, pepper, and garlic. Garnish with parsley, cilantro or hyssop.
The roasted eggplant is delicious with warmed or toasted pita and a good glass of beer. (P.S. To be honest, the brothers wouldn’t have been eating eggplant or tomato. Eggplants are indigenous to India and tomatoes to South America. But, they are popular in Israel now! )
Enjoy, and Shabbat Shalom.
This illustration for the parsha VaYeishev is based on a beautiful panel from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The haggadah was created in 1350 Spain, and has beautiful paintings illustrating the Bible from the story of Creation to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This particular image shows the brothers selling Joseph to Ishmaelite traders. Joseph is portrayed as a young boy begging his brothers not to sell him.
I have created pictures for each haftarah and parsha of the year and am currently working on a book, showcasing each painting. Stay tuned for updates! Please always feel free to comment. Pass the posting to your friends. If you like my blog sign up and “Follow” me. You will receive the current blog by e-mail.
This week’s Torah reading takes us on Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) journey through the country of Edom towards Bethlehem and Efrat. He was a successful man. He had huge flocks, 2 wives, 2 concubines, 11 sons and a daughter, yet he was nervous. He knew he had to travel through his brother’s landholdings but did not want to face his twin because of their unresolved history. Would Esau be angry at Yaakov? Did Esau still want to kill his brother?
The narrative begins with Yaakov sending messengers to his brother, announcing his approach. The report came back that Esau was coming to meet Yaakov, accompanied by 400 men. Yaakov, frightened and anxious, sent his messengers ahead with many expensive gifts. He sent his family to the far side of the Jabok River for safety and he himself slept on the closer side of the river, possibly to be on the alert for any attack.
A man came and wrestled with him through the night. Finally at dawn the stranger told Yaakov to let him go. Yaakov demanded that the man give him a blessing and the blessing came in the guise of a new name- Yisrael, “because you have striven with beings Divine and human” (כּי שׂרית עם אלהים ועם אנשׁים).
Golden Haggadah, c. 1320
Who was the man Yaakov fought with? An angel sent by Gd? An adversarial angel representing Esau? Or was it an inner battle that Yaakov was struggling within himself? At the end of the battle Yaakov had a new name and an injury that stayed with him the rest of his life.
Yaakov’s name has many meanings. It can mean follow, heel, or deceive. When he was born Yaakov followed his brother into the world, holding on to Esau’s heel. As they grew up he deceived his brother and his father, and in turn was deceived by his father-in-law.
He left Canaan to avoid confrontation with Esau and to seek a wife. Many years later he left Lavan’s estate in the night, also hoping to avoid confrontation. He may have been a successful man in terms of his career but he was afraid to face the consequences of his actions.
Yaakov couldn’t avoid wrestling with the angel and he refused to give up or give in to the aggressor. He was given a name that represented his strength and position.
by Gustave Dore, 1855
The night of struggle heralded a new beginning. He faced himself and the enemy across from him. That incident strengthened him in his role as leader of a nation. He could carry on and deal with whatever life put in front of him. The struggle with the immortal being took place between sending a message to Esau and actually facing him. Maybe the fight itself influenced Yaakov’s interaction with Esau.
These days we are facing anti-Semitic attacks- verbal and physical, hurtful and deadly, overt and covert, on a frightening level. We are witnessing anti-Semitism from the British elections to UN resolutions, to terrorist attacks in kosher grocery stores and in synagogues, and unconscionable displays of hatred against Israel and Jews on campuses. Like Yaakov we have to face our fears rather than run away from them. Strength as a people and a nation is the only way to combat the hatred.
Like Yaakov let’s struggle with the adversaries and stand firm for what is right. May we see peace soon,
The Torah reading For “Lech Lecha” begins, “Gd said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation’…” (Gen. 12:1)
Three weeks ago we read about the creation of the world and the creation of humanity. There were problems. Adam and Eve, the first people, did not listen to Gd’s instructions and were punished. The first children were Cain and Abel. From feelings of anger, jealousy, and shame Cain killed his brother. The negative behaviours of humanity increased until Gd decided to wash the world clean and start again.
Noah, a righteous man was chosen to restart the community of mankind. But once again murder and disrespect became rampant in the civilization. Rather than destroy the world again Gd chose Abraham and Sarah to become the ancestors of a new and righteous nation.
In Genesis chapter 13 there is a description of a quarrel between Abraham’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The men were arguing over the grazing fields for their cattle. The situation could easily have gotten out of hand but Abraham used calm and wisdom to find a solution. “There should be no quarrel between you and me, and your herdsman and mine, for we are close kin. The whole land lies before you! Please, part from me. If you go north I will turn south and if you turn south, I will turn north.” (Gen. 13:8,9)
Abraham was the patriarch and Lot’s uncle. It would have been acceptable for him to choose the best land for himself. Alternatively, there could have been a skirmish over ownership of the grazing lands. Abraham’s approach was an example of insight and sympathy delivered with respect, attributes of a good leader.
In Toronto the week leading up to November 11, Remembrance Day, is Holocaust Education Week. There are hundreds of films, talks and presentations throughout the city and neighbouring communities. Millions and millions of people were exterminated because of horrible arrogance and the lack of respect or acceptance of difference. The presentations address heroism, compassion, anger, and resolution.
The understanding and calm Abraham displayed is a model we can take forward to our interactions. If everyone looked at the person across from him/her and said: “What is on their mind? How can I understand them and communicate my position respectfully?”, maybe strikes, fights, and wars could be avoided.
I guess the lesson we can learn is very basic. Everyone has their own story. Everyone has their own approach. By explaining ourselves and listening to others, problems can be solved respectfully, without anger or bloodshed.
May you have a week of joy, peace and understanding.
The story of Noah is a favourite for children’s book illustrators. (I will include a list of some of my favourite Noah’s Ark books at the end of this blog.)
A dove and a raven have leading roles, and we can imagine all kinds of fantastic exotic and not so exotic animals tumbling out of the ark. Coming out in a disorderly fashion (they’ve been cooped up for a looooong time) they smell the fresh air and gaze at the beautiful rainbow in the sky. They accept and appreciate Gd’s promise that there will never again be a flood that will destroy the world. And long-suffering Noah who has worried about his family and cared for the animals is now free to plant vegetables and fruit groves.
We think of it as a joyful story but in truth, it is a very heavy one.
Noah lived in the tenth generation after the creation of the world. His father named him Noah נח, from the verb ינחם, comfort or console. During that time people behaved sinfully and with moral depravity. But Noah was, as mentioned, a righteous man, and at the beginning of this week’s parsha it says that Noah walked with Gd.
Noah was told to gather two of each animal, a male and a female. He was told to build an ark. He was told to gather his wife, his sons, and his daughters-in-law, and to go into the ark with them. All the animals came to him. Then Noah, his family, and the animals went into the ark and made themselves somewhat comfy.
There has been much discussion about whether or not Noah was truly a righteous man, or whether he was only righteous when compared to the others of his generation. Looking at the basic text we notice that Noah did not take initiative. Although he didn’t do immoral things he didn’t reach out to others in order to model his behaviour. He built the ark but didn’t ask questions. He was told to put animals into the ark but he himself didn’t gather them. Instead, they came to him. He may have walked with Gd, but he didn’t talk with Gd, as did his ancestor Adam or his descendant Abraham. The first time he spoke in the text is when he cursed his son Ham.
The story of Noah is a story of isolation. Noah was isolated from the society around him. He was a righteous man who walked a righteous path. His lifestyle was foreign to those around him. He seems to have been isolated fro his family as well. When he boarded the ark he walked on “with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives”. (Gen. 7:7) This is notable because he didn’t walk with his wife. He walked with his sons.
After the flood, when the waters had receded, Gd told Noah to “Get out of the ark with your wife, your sons, and their wives”. (Gen. 8:16) Gd specifically enjoined Noah to partner with his wife, his helpmate, his עזר כנגדו. But once again “Noah went out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives”. (Gen. 8:18) The text continues stating that the animals “departed from the ark in family groups“. (Gen. 8:19) So it seems that Noah kept himself isolated emotionally from his wife and this was passed on to his sons. It doesn’t say they departed from the ark in family groups.
The Book of Genesis is a description of the beginning of our universe and our nation. Our religion is family and community-based. The stories in Genesis chart the growing pains of family and community. Noah may not have been a communicator or a man who cared about his family and his legacy. But he knew what was moral and what was not and ran his household in that way. That is what Gd saw in him as the progenitor of the new nation.
Noah’s standards of behaviour were passed down through the generations to Abraham, also a man who walked with Gd. In addition, Abraham cared about his wife, his sons, and the strangers who passed by his tent.
When we read the delightful Noah’s ark books to our children and grandchildren we leave out the dark parts. But Noah faced that darkness, lived through it, and was able to expose the light enough for Abraham to take on the next chapter of our legacy.
Book of Jonah ; Prophet-either 8th C. BCE or 4th C. BCE
Yom Kippur is a day many of us face with feelings of awe, fear, and discomfort. We go to synagogue surrounded by other people, people who are fasting and praying, but that doesn’t necessarily make us feel more confident. The reason is that Yom Kippur, of all days in the year, is a day that we are alone facing ourselves and facing Gd.
We read the Book of Jonah in its entirety on Yom Kippur in the afternoon. From storms at sea to getting swallowed by a “whale” to a gourd that blossoms in one night, there are many unusual events. The best known event is depicted in the lyrical painting above. We see two sailors in a merchant ship. They have thrown Jonah over the side of the boat and he’s being swallowed by a giant fish. It is based on an illustration from the Kennicott Bible, Spain, 1476, painted by Joseph ibn Hayyim.
The narrative concerns the prophet Jonah disregarding God’s orders to warn the sinning people of Nineveh of Gd’s forthcoming punishment. In contrast to the prophet disobeying Gd, the non-Jews of Nineveh heed Him. Jonah is angry that they were forgiven, angry enough to challenge Gd to kill him.
Jonah says, “I know that you are a compassionate and gracious Gd, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, Lord, take my life for I would rather die than live.” Gd listens to Jonah’s anger and answers him.
There are a few lessons taught in this haftarah. One is self-realization. We have to face ourselves and our weaknesses in order to correct ourselves and correct our mistakes. Another is facing responsibility and not running from it. And another lesson is the right of all people to live just lives- whether they are like us or choose a different lifestyle or belief system.
And there is the lesson of forgiveness. Gd created humankind and is waiting to see the goodness and uprightness of humanity.
Jonah was upset when “his” gourd withered up. The gourd was a metaphor for God’s relationship with humanity. If Jonah was sad at the loss of “his” gourd- which he didn’t create, how much more would God be bereaved by the destruction of an entire community? The lesson can also teach empathy and forgiveness. Jonah had to realize that the people of Nineveh had as much right to repent and live as he, Jonah had.
On Yom Kippur we have 25 hours in which we pray, reflect and think. We have the time to consider our relationships and our behaviours. Yom Kippur is a gift for self contemplation, for forgiveness, and acceptance. We have to face our weaknesses and decide on how to fix those weaknesses, and then we can forgive ourselves..
This is a great opportunity to speak to our children or friends and reflect on how, if we are a little more forgiving, patient, and understanding, we can make the world a better place.
Have a meaningful day in synagogue and G’mar Chatima Tova- may the coming year be one of health, peace, and blessings.