Posted on January 16th, 2017

EXODUS 1:1−6:1

D'var Torah By Rabbi ANA BENAY BONNHEIM for

The First Heroes of Exodus

The Book of Exodus opens by creating a picture of the Israelites’ life in Egypt: who was there, where they came from, and what their connections were to the stories of Genesis. Then, we read the famed words, “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). In this single statement, the Torah signals the end of a period of peace and the beginning of an era of oppression and slavery.

The Israelites’ oppression becomes even more profound a few verses later, when Pharaoh orders the killing of all newborn Hebrew boys (Exodus 1:16). This decree foreshadows the ten plagues to come, with their last and most-terrible plague, makat b’chorot, the killing of the firstborn (Exodus 11). But as the Israelites’ period of slavery already included Pharaoh’s order to kill all newborn Hebrew boys, perhaps that last plague should not have come as a surprise.

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Posted on January 9th, 2017

Genesis 47:28-50:26 

D'var Torah By Dr. Ellen M. Umansky for


The Power and Protection of Angels


For as long as I can remember, I have believed in guardian angels. Although such belief wasn’t part of my religious school education or something that my parents or grandparents taught me, since I was a child I’ve thought that I, like everyone else, had someone watching over me, offering guidance and protection. I don’t think that I confessed this belief to anyone. The theology that I was taught by my rational, childhood rabbi did not include angels, much less the reality of a supernatural God. I knew of angels from Christmas movies and from the New Testament, when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is about to have a child. But other than the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:25-30), a figure whom Jacob recognizes to be God, I didn’t know of Jewish texts that describe angels as engaging us in conversation, individual struggle, or prayer. While Jewish tradition did in fact develop the belief “that each person has a protecting angel, even as the people Israel had theirs in the wilderness” (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [NY: URJ Press, 2005], p. 308), such belief wasn’t part of any Jewish traditions that, as a child, I either learned or inherited.

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Posted on January 3rd, 2017

GENESIS 44:18−47:27

D'var Torah By Dr. ELLEN M. UMANSKY for

Revealing Oneself in Order to Heal

As Parashat Vayigash begins, Joseph still has not revealed his identity to his brothers. With Joseph having framed his younger brother Benjamin for stealing his divining goblet, and consequently declaring that as punishment, Benjamin will be enslaved in Egypt, his brother, Judah, now beseeches Joseph to enslave him instead (Genesis 44:33). His plea comes after Judah reminds Joseph that he has an elderly father and describes in detail, why Benjamin did not initially go down to Egypt with the brothers and why, should he not return to Canaan, their father literally would die (Genesis 44:31). Joseph is so moved by Judah’s love for Jacob and Benjamin that he is unable to hold back any longer and after ordering that all but his brothers leave, tells them, in Hebrew, that he is their brother Joseph. He then asks: “Is my father really alive?” (Genesis 45:3). Richard Elliott Friedman notes that Joseph already knows Jacob is alive, for he has asked the brothers this question earlier (Genesis 43:27-28). Acknowledging that contemporary scholars solve this textual inconsistency by viewing Genesis 43:27 and 45:3 as coming from different sources, he nonetheless asks: “Even if this is so, how shall we understand Joseph’s question in the context of the narrative as it stands?” The key, Friedman believes:

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Mikeitz - Hanukkah

Posted on December 26th, 2016

GENESIS 41:1−44:17; Maftir: Numbers 7:54-8:4

D'var Torah By Rabbi EDWIN C. GOLDBERG for

Joseph the Educator

In this week's Torah portion, Mikeitz, Joseph, now the viceroy of Egypt, receives a visit from his brothers who seek relief from the famine in Canaan. While Joseph recognizes them, they don't realize that he is the brother they kidnapped and sold into slavery. This makes sense. They expected him to have died as a poor slave in Egypt long before. There is no reason for them to suspect that the Egyptian VIP who confronts them, speaking through an interpreter, is long-lost Joseph.

Joseph could them kill when he recognizes them. He could embrace them, forgiving them and consoling them to feel no guilt. He does neither. Instead, anticipating King David,1 and later, Hamlet,2 he puts on an act. In his case, he pretends to suspect them of being spies. He imprisons them. Then, he lets them leave and return to Canaan, keeping Simeon as a hostage of sorts. He tells them not to come back without their youngest brother (Benjamin).

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Posted on December 19th, 2016

GENESIS 37:1−40:23

D'var Torah By Dr. Ellen M. Umansky for

Growing Up as the Favorite Son

Parashat Vayeishev introduces the Joseph saga. When it begins, Jacob’s 11th son, Joseph, is a 17-year-old shepherd working in the fields alongside his older brothers. The text’s description of him as a “youth,” na-ar, is apt, both biologically and emotionally. As Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes: “Joseph behaves with the narcissism of youth, with a dangerous unawareness of the inner worlds of others” (Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire [Philadelphia: JPS,1995], p. 253). He consciously tells Jacob malicious tales about the brothers and by wearing the beautiful, multicolored coat (or ornamental tunic) that Jacob has given him, flaunts the fact that he is the favorite son. It is thus not surprising that when Joseph’s brothers see that their father loves him more than they, they come to hate Joseph (Genesis 37:4).

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