Torah Study Notes 11-30-13

November 30, 2013
p. 268
The Joseph story is in two parts and the narrative arc moves from a jail cell to a prince of Egypt.
41:1 The gaunt cows eat the fat ones. CJ: But cows are herbivores? Note that the number seven is used more than 500 times in the Torah. See Essay on page 35. The number seven is utilized in Genesis but not in the sense of a week.
41:5 The second dream – this time of grain. P recognizes now that he has had a dream. “His spirit was troubled…” –
41:8 He puts out a call for the soothsayers. It is not likely that the professionals would have any trouble interpreting the dreams. But then what do they do about it?
41:9 The chief cup-bearer recalls a lad in jail who is good at interpreting dreams. This is the cup-bearer who was supposed to put in a good word for Joseph but forgot. This is only the second time in the text that someone is identified as a Hebrew. The etymology of “Hebrew” is obscure – having only been used before with respect to Abraham. Both Sumerian and Babylonian have a similar word referring to “foreigners.” Those who are passing through. Note that “efper” refers to dust – possibly the dust of a traveler or of a herder. “evri” refers to an unkempt person.
41: 17 “Not I – it is God who will account for Pharaoh’s dream.” In short, it is the implementation of the dream that will provide for their well being. SF: We need to set aside time to think about what God is telling us.
41:25 The meaning of the dream revealed by Joseph. Note that God is acting through Joseph whereas in the past he has been present. Here he is only present in the language of Joseph. LL: This is a good example of the role that human beings must play in the outcome of any situation. We know that famines happen but here a solution to famines is developed. PG: Pharaoh knows that he is not divine and wonders what to do in the case of severe famine. The innovation may not be a radical change from past practice that took them from growing season to growing season. Here the thinking is long term and on a larger scale. LL: Is this the first example of social engineering and innovation in the Torah?
41:33 “Let Pharaoh now select a man who is discerning and wise…” Note the connection here to Purim “What shall be done with the man that we wish to honor.” The plan is simple in concept but complex in administration.
41:39 Eureka! Let Joseph do it! He gives his signet ring, dresses him in linen and placed a gold chain around his neck.
41:44 Now Joseph is thirty years old. He traverses the whole land of Egypt. He becomes more Egyptian in order to carry out his mission and be obeyed by the Egyptian people. PG: A hero, as a matter of genre literature, has to come from outside the norms of society. Note the parallels with the story of Moses who rose up through Pharaoh’s household. LLant: It is useful to retain the concept of Jewishness even though you may be subsumed into another society. PG: They were able to retain their essence despite the captivity in Babylon. Consider the work of Judah Halevi in the 11th C. in his book on the Kasars. In the 6th C. their king converted to Judaism and decreed that all of his people were Jewish. Halevi argues that everyone has a soul – even plants but the soul has different components and manifestations. In humans there is intelligence, reason, compassion etc. The part of the soul that can directly connect to God is special to Israel. There is also a midrash that the people who observed Sarah giving birth offered up their own infants to suckle at Sarah’s breast. All who “suckle at the breast of Sarah” are Jewish. The connection to Jewish consciousness is something that can be acquired. It is more than blood. It is a matter of choosing to be Jew. Consider the science of hermeneutics – which is finding the borders and essence of any identification. In Hertzl’s view it was a matter of land and language. Jabotinski differed in the sense that creating a homeland was not enough – he felt that Jews would always be outsiders and would always have to defend themselves. See:


More To Thanksgivukkah Than You May Have Thought

The following article appeared in the Union for Reform Judaism weekly newsletter.

There has been a great deal of interest surrounding the unusual confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah this year. The hype of the “Thanksgivukkah” craze, with humorous ideas for joint holiday celebrations, including menorahs shaped like turkeys (“menurkeys”) and pumpkin latkes, are certainly amusing and witty. However, the intersection of the Thanksgiving and Hanukkah traditions offer far more profound and inspiring links that can add deep meaning to our observance of both beloved festivals.

It has been observed that the common timing of these two holidays underscores the blending of our American and Jewish identities. This has far deeper substance than many people realize. The story of this shared heritage indeed begins with the historical background to the Thanksgiving Story. While the first Jewish settlers in America did not arrive until 1654, two decades after the landing of the Mayflower, the Jewish influence on the Pilgrims, while indirect, was nevertheless profound. In the absence of Jews as objects of bigotry and persecution in England in the early 17th century – the ancient medieval English Jewish community having been driven from the British Isles during the turmoil and fanaticism of the Crusades in 1290 – the small Pilgrim sect filled the void nicely. Because of their distinctive faith and their rejection of the authority of the Bishops, which was considered heresy by the Established Church and treason by the Crown, these “Separatists” were relentlessly persecuted, imprisoned and tortured-enduring the same kind of torments that Jews had always been subject to. When, in 1608, they fled to Holland, long a haven for religious dissenters and minorities, the Pilgrim exiles had their first personal contacts with Jews, and even held worship services in an Amsterdam synagogue before establishing their own church in Leyden. One of their ministers, the Scripture scholar Henry Ainsworth, studied Jewish biblical interpretation with the leading Dutch rabbis. Significantly, like many of the more radical Protestant Reformers, the Pilgrims were deeply grounded in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. As they studied the Scriptures, they came to see themselves as a “New Israel” – not in the traditional context of Christianity supplanting of the covenant, but rather as a personal sense of connection with Jewish history. They saw, in their own oppression and marginalization, deep parallels with the Jewish experience. They believed that they, too, were slaves, fleeing Pharaoh – King James I – crossing the Red Sea of the Atlantic in a pilgrimage toward the Promised Land of the New World. So great an emphasis was placed on the Hebrew Scriptures that the greatest Pilgrim leaders, Elder William Brewster and Governor William Bradford, became devoted students of the Hebrew language so that they could read the Bible in its original text. Attempting to reclaim a simple, “pure” form of Christianity as close as possible to the early Church of Jesus’ time, the Pilgrims sought a model in the traditions of Jewish observance and worship. Most of the legal codes of the Plymouth Colony, as well as its early form of democratic government, were directly based on legislation from the Five Books of Moses, as were many of the Pilgrim’s religious practices. For example, their meticulous observance of Sunday rest and worship was patterned directly on the traditional concept and observance of Shabbat. They used the term “Meeting House,” a direct translation of the Hebrew word for synagogue, Bet Knesset, rather than the term ‘church.’ And, knowing that they observed no holiday not specifically rooted in the Biblical text, it is clear that the inspiration for that first Thanksgiving celebration, in the fall of 1621, was the harvest festival of Sukkot – as ordained in the Torah, in the Book of Leviticus. To this day, any visitor to Plymouth, Massachusetts, can visit not only the famed Rock of the legendary landing, but also Governor Bradford’s grave on Burial Hill, with its Hebrew inscription of his personal motto: Adonai Ezer Chayai, “The Lord is the help of my life.”

If this link to the Pilgrims provides the Jewish tie to Thanksgiving, we also can point to a direct Hanukkah connection this year. December 2 will mark the exact 250th anniversary of the dedication of the famed Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, on the first day of Hanukkah 1763, to commemorate the Maccabees’ rededication of the Temple. This oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States had its own roots in the settlement of the first Jews in New England in 1658, a mere 38 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims in nearby Plymouth. The beautiful sanctuary, a national shrine to religious freedom, remains a striking symbol of our shared American Jewish heritage. It was to this congregation that George Washington wrote his famous 1790 letter, with its immortal declaration that the government of the new United States was committed to moving far beyond mere tolerance in its recognition of the natural rights of every citizen, and would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance.” And in a full-circle link back to the Pilgrims, the painting of the Hebrew text of the Ten Commandments over the Ark in the Touro Synagogue was the work of the local artist Benjamin Howland, a direct descendant of one of the original Mayflower Pilgrim families.

Beyond the lighthearted parodies and recipes of “Thanksgivukkah,” we can approach this unique combined holiday with great pride and gratitude for the rich heritage we share as American Jews. As we kindle the lights of Hanukkah around our Thanksgiving tables this year, we can indeed offer our heartfelt blessings as we recall ‘the wondrous things wrought for our people in days of old at this season…’

Rabbi Howard A. Berman is the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. Rabbi Berman is the rabbi of Central Reform Temple of Boston, as well as the Rabbi Emeritus of Chicago Sinai Congregation.

Torah Study Notes 11-23-13

November 23, 2013
p. 246
The story of Jacob is essentially over. He is settled in the land of Canaan with his twelve sons.
p. 246 Joseph and his coat of many colors. The Game of Thrones picks up on the theme that one of the children is born when his mother dies in childbirth – like Benjamin. Note the reference to “wives” which could be better translated as “Jacob’s woman.” He produces children by “handmaidens.” Here the story of “Israel” becomes the story of Joseph. “The coat of many colors” had meaning to ancient readers – it made him stand out but in a negative way. Joseph is a bit of a brat – much like his father at the same age. There is also a similarity in the “split” of the brothers. With Jacob it was Esau but here it is Joseph and his brothers. LL: It has been said that there are only seven basic stories to tell. SF: What is Jacob doing in dressing Joseph in this coat? He is essentially emasculating him. He afterward has a simmering resentment toward his father. The message of Torah is that we are given opportunities to repeat events and to learn from them.
37:5 Joseph’s dream wherein his brothers sheep bow down to his sheep. The notion of the bundles of wheat is clearly to foreshadow the rest of the story. His tactlessness is a form of naiveté.
37::9 Another dream – the sun moon and eleven stars. In rabbinic literature this has to do with “the spirit of God” – the prophetic ability. Note the passage of this ability from Abraham to Isaac to Joseph and now Joseph. Once the successor has the ability the prior generation no longer has it.
37: 12 Shechem, where Joseph is sent to check on his brothers, is much further north than Hebron. In the heat of the summer the flocks are sent north. “Here I am” has powerful implications and signals that something dramatic is about to happen.
37:15 Joseph asks a stranger where his brothers are. What is the purpose of this passage? There is a sense that the stranger is a divine actor. “I am looking for my brothers.” Is resonant of “Am I my brother’s keeper” from Cain and Able. This could be the beginning of some emotional and intellectual maturity for Joseph. And it makes more horrific the way the brothers turn on him.
37:18 “Here comes that master of dreams.” SF: This seems an excessive reaction to Joseph’s insults. LL: This is resonant of “honor societies” wherein an insult can in fact be the basis of a death sentence. PG: This has more to do with the inevitability of events than honor.
37:21 “Do not shed blood. Throw him in a pit.” Reuben is the oldest and wants to reinforce his position. LL: At the same time it appears that there is recognition of the symbolism of blood – which has significance in the ritual of sacrifice. Blood also plays a significant role in the Cain and Able story – “His blood cries out from the earth.”

Vassar Temple Youth Have Fun and Helping Others!

On November 20th, Vassar Temple teens from our Wednesday night school and Youth Group filled baskets with all the trimmings for Thanksgiving meals for seven local families in need. Food for the baskets was donated by religious school students and their families and members.

It was delightful to see the young people work together — the energy and sense of team, the smiles were awesome. A great experience putting Jewish teachings about tzedakah (righteous giving) and gamilut chasidim (acts of loving kindness) into action! The baskets were filled to overflowing with all sorts of nonperishable Thanksgiving foods, little treats and handmade cards. Each basket, along with a frozen turkey, will be delivered to a family in Hudson River Housing’s program for families who are being transitioned from being homeless to going into their own real, stable apartment. So our project is enabling them to celebrate their first Thanksgiving in their new homes.
Trim 2013D

Torah Study Notes 11-16-13

November 16, 2013
Jacob has gone up to Haran and has been married to both Leah and Rachel
p. 219
32::4 Esau had remained on his father’s land in the Northern Negev. Jacob sends a messenger to him that he is coming back with a large entourage. Now Esau comes to see Jacob with 400 men. See map on page 15. Jacob needs his approval to return and resettle. The Apostle Paul argued that one achieves salvation by faith and not by law. He holds out Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as examples of this because they were pre-Sinai and the law had not yet been given. The Jewish view is that there was law even before Sinai but it was cultural and developing rather than universal. The law, and the creation of a just society, unfolds.
32:8 Jacob divides his flock into two camps. He asks God to protect him from Esau. Remember that Jacob has previously bargained with God over his faith. Now he is claiming the promise –“…though I am unworthy.” LL: I think that we often take these texts too literally when they should be seen through the lens of humor. To be Jewish is to have a strongly developed sense of humor. What would the listener who lived in that legal scheme of primogeniture have thought about someone giving away his rights for a bowl of pottage? They may have laughed.
32:14 Jacob gives Esau a large offering. He has gone from calling upon God to taking his own initiative with a plan. Note he is asking for a pardon for stealing Esau’s blessing.
32: 23 Jacob wrestles with a man. Yet he seeks a blessing. Note his transformation from one who is a weak stay at home to someone who is capable of holding his own in a wrestling match. Even with his hip socket wrenched he does not let go. This account also has very much of a dream quality – that we have already seen in the portion on Jacob’s Ladder. Why did Jacob send everyone away with his possessions so that he was alone? He is the only one who has had a direct experience with God.
32:28 The name Israel is very ambiguous in origin. This can be read that Jacob was made whole from his hip injury or that he was morally “straightened” or that the wrestling becomes figurative for spiritual awakening. LL: This is my favorite passage in the Torah. I love the notion of a people – the Israelites – who spend their lives “wrestling” or trying to understand, God. It is really a process of trying to understand one’s self – the intellectual/spiritual impulse within. What does it mean to “prevail” over God? It must be more than letting God go. Or perhaps it is the movement toward self-reliance.
32:31 This is still part of kashrut today. One may not eat the thigh muscle.
33:1 Esau is coming so Jacob divides up his company into ranks and he bows down to his brother seven times.
33:4 A joyous reunion. Note the dots above the letters in verse four. This is mysterious but suggests something special about the word.

The Bearable Lightness of Jewish Being: A Hanukah Message from Rabbi Golomb

Hanukah begins Wednesday evening, November 27 with the first candle. You should place the Menorah in a location where it can be seen from outside, such as on the ledge or a table by a front window.

Ever wonder why we (Americans) drive on the right side of the road, and the British on the left? There are a number of explanations floating around, mostly having to do with swords and ox carts. Whatever the true historical circumstance, however, we can be confident that it arose out of widespread custom, and then became both practice and law. And thus, we are reminded that some legal norms are not a matter of legislation and/or monarchical fiat, but rather represent popular tradition.

The Jewish observance of Hanukah is a case in point. Over the course of the year, we celebrate a number of sacred occasions: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot/Simhat Torah, Purim, Passover, Shavuot. All of these holidays have their origin in Scripture. To be more precise, all but Purim are mandated (or in the case of Simhat Torah, inferred) in the Torah. Purim comes from the biblical book of Esther. Hanukah, on the other hand, is not to be found in Scripture. The events that generate its observance are rather found in two books (Maccabees I & II) that not only are not biblical but were suppressed, and were only preserved as “hidden books,” or Apocrypha.

The celebration of Hanukah did not present itself as a religious-theological event in the same vein as the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, or the need to account for one’s failings and ask for forgiveness during the 10 Days of Awe. It rather had to break through the strictures and conventions of official custom and practice, and literally present itself to a resistant religious establishment. Little wonder, then, that the Talmud (compiled by the sixth century C.E.) had to ask the question: “Just what is Hanukah?” The Talmudic Sages very well knew that Hanukah was being celebrated by Jews annually in the early winter and with the lighting of lights, but actually did not know why!

Hanukah therefore arose as a popular celebration whose origin and development is buried in unrecorded history. We can nevertheless determine something about its underlying themes and purposes.
First, there is light. The observance of Hanukah asks principally one thing from us: that we light lights on each eve of the holiday. A story is told about a single container of sanctified oil lasting for eight days, but the incident is not recorded in either books of the Maccabees, although both give extensive detail about the restoration and rededication (hanukah) of the Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory. No, Hanukah is a festival of lights precisely because it is the darkest time of the year. Rather than giving in to the darkness, we choose to illuminate the night!

And then there is the Maccabee story itself. While the documentary history of the Jewish revolt against Antiochus and his Hellenistic (Greek) empire might have been suppressed, the basic tale was known. The inhabitants of Judea – Jerusalem and its environs – were put under systematic pressure to live according to the practices and customs of the Greeks. Under the leadership of a priest from Modin, Matethais, and his sons, the people resisted. When an Anitochan army approached, they fought back, achieved an unlikely and stunning victory, restored the partially destroyed Temple, and reasserted their dedication to the One God of Israel.

Sure, the victory is remembered, but what is truly important in the persistence of this celebration is that they fought at all. Individual lives were not at stake. Antiochus, unlike Haman in the Purim story, had no interest in killing anyone. What he wanted was not Jewish lives, but rather the Jewish soul. The underpinning message of Hanukah is: how much do you value being a Jew? What risks are you willing to take in order to preserve your Jewish identity; your own and your children’s children?

Hanukah does not seem to ask very much from us: just a thirty-second ceremony to perform each of eight nights. Actually, however, it asks a great deal. In world in which virtually everyone around us – neighbors, friends, schoolmates and business associates – are engaging in certain ways in order to prepare and celebrate this particular time of year, Jews choose to do something quite different. For eight straight nights, we announce that we are distinct, with our own history and sense of identity. In today’s pluralistic culture, our actions entail very little risk, but they are no less an act of distinction, of even defiance against the pressures and demands of a conforming society.

It is a small act, really: taking a candle and with it, light another candle. It dispels the darkness, however, and reveals a Jewish soul.

Rabbi Paul Golomb

Vassar Temple will celebrate the Tenth Night of Hanukah with its annual Candlelight Shabbat Service on Friday evening, December 6. Dinner at 6:00, and the service at 7:30. You are welcome to bring a Menorah and nine candles for lighting during the service. Follow this link to our Facebook event.

Dedication in Honor and Memory of Past President Seth Erlebacher

On a rainy and chilly Sunday afternoon, November 9, 2013, members of Vassar Temple walked out on a new section of the DC Rail Trail in order to remember Seth Erlebacher and to dedicate a bench in his honor donated by the Temple’s Men’s Club and Sisterhood. At this dedication Rabbi Golomb lead a brief but moving service. And Temple President Bob Abrams read these inspiring remarks:

“As we dedicate this bench in memory of Seth, let us take a moment to remember Seth for his …

Love for his family and friends
Love of Judaism
Love of Vassar Temple

Let’s recall Seth’s leadership …
The way he couraged young families to participate in Temple events.
The way he encouraged our volunteers to take roles in running Temple activities.
The way he engaged our students in Jewish activities before it became a URJ slogan (Campaign for Youth Engagement).
His focus on bringing technology to the temple, such as Visual T’filah.

Following Seth as temple president has been a sincere privilege.
I can’t count the number of times, when a challenge came up that I was trying to resolve, or when things just aren’t going well … I’d stop and ask myself “what would Seth have done?”

I’m sure that many of us have done the same.
We named our Religious School after Seth.
We embrace Seth’s family in our hearts.

This bench will continue to be a reminder of Seth’s memory, here to be seen by many of the walkers and bicyclists who will pass this area. It will allow us to stop, have a seat, enjoy the scenery, and recollect how Seth affected all of our lives.”


Torah Study Notes 11-9-13

November 9, 2013

p. 195

28:10 Jacobs Ladder – there has been considerable discussion about the translation of the Hebrew word for ladder. Clearly a conveyance for going up and down. But there are two Hebrew words – including one for “staircase.”  Why a stone for a pillow? It takes on greater significance as the story moves forward. Note also the generality of the language as to place – it is indeterminate. Note also the comparison of the descendants to dust – rather than stars. There are radically different images. Dust generally has a negative connotation. “…from dust to dust…” SF: What did Jacob do to deserve this blessing from God? PG: But what did Abraham do? Jacob was chosen before he was born.

28:16   “Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”” LL: By “this place” is Jacob referring to the place where he fell asleep – that he now sees with new eyes? Or has he been transported to God’s house and gates? What is the “this” being referred to? LL: I would prefer to think that he is seeing the beauty of the place where he fell asleep with new eyes.  Is “the Gate of Heaven” his dream? An ecstatic state?  There is a great deal of ambiguity here which gives rise to much discussion and analysis. SF : We have a responsibility to bring God into our lives. Jacob assumed that God was back in Beersheba with his father. This teaches that God can be anywhere if the mind is open – in this case via a dream. Now we learn that God is everywhere where there is dust. DC: The “Gate of Heaven” – perhaps indicated by a gesture – could be Jacob himself. i.e. each of us carries God within us and our bodies and inds are the Gates of Heaven.

28:19  Jacob negotiates and lays out preconditions for tithing to God. Jacob is the first biblical figure that we encounter from childhood and therefore have a back- story for. AF: Did Jacob previously act immorally in the birthright story? Is this bargaining with God a continuation of his tendency to be devious? PG: Superficial reaction does not give a clear understanding. The issues here are ones of justice. Is there an overlap between justice and ethics? Are they always the same? Remember that there was a conflict between Isaac and Rebekah as to who should properly receive the blessing and birthright. Since Jacob was chosen by God it could be argued that his actions, prompted by his mother, were proper in that the divine will was carried out.

29:1 Jacob meets Rachel. He rolls off the heavy stone covering the well on his own – showing off. He is now a physical person who has become more like what his father admired in his brother Esau.


Torah Study Notes 2-2-13

November 2, 2013
p. 173
The preceeding portion covers the death of Abraham. This is a self contained account of Isaac.
25:19 Rebekah previously becomes pregnant due to the intercession of God. Here it is a result of Isaac’s plea. Isaac has a relationship with God and can call upon Him.
22: God speaks to Rebekah directly and tells her what will happen with her twins. “Two nations shall branch off from your womb. One people shall prevail over the other; the elder shall serve the younger.” Compare “Shakespeare in Love” where Romeo and Juliet is being performed – and the audience gasps when Romeo announces that he will die. No one in a modern audience is surprised – we all know the ending. This suggests that the birth of twins is a novelty. It is the first record of such a birth in the Torah. Other ancient cultures also imbued the birth of twins with special significance – Castor and Pollux, Romulus and Remus.
24: Esau is first and then Jacob. See footnote 25: Edom means “red” whereas Esau is “covered with a hairy mantle.” Note that Hebrew draws upon Mesopotamian, proto-Arabic, and Syrian – not Egyptian. Also, it is implied here that Abraham is still alive at the time of the birth. Ages become progressively shorter as we progress through the text.
29: Esau trades his birthright for a meal. This is clearly foreshadowing of what is to come but also an apology in the sense that Jacob’s actions would appear justified. This raises the question of the role of woman in the Bible. Is Rebekah in control because she is aware of what is to happen? She favors Jacob because she knows he will be favored by God? Also, compare the roles of Cain and Abel where the herder is preferred to the farmer. Now the farmer, personified by home-body Jacob, is preferred.
26:1 Isaac and Rebekah travel to Gerer where he identifies his wife as his sister “because she is so good looking.” A famous sociologist, Erving Goffman, has written a book on the subject of stigma. See: See also: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
Two examples he gives are the former mental patient and the Jew. Both of these can be encountered without knowledge of their identity. When do you reveal yourself if you are so stigmatized? This is a form of that – Isaac is the foreigner who is venturing into another culture where he and his wife are outsiders. He is trying to decide how to handle this. This later becomes resonant to Jews in the Diaspora.
26:8 Abimelech discovers the truth and proclaims that anyone who touches them will be put to death. Note that in the similar story of Sarah and Abraham there is divine intervention. This is thrice told tale starting with Abraham, Sarai and Pharaoh. Similarly they go into Gerar. Now this. Pharaoh never learns the truth but Abemelech does.