Torah Portion - Conservative
BY HILLEL GRUENBERG, for JTS
Israel: Between Tears and Songs
Beshallah holds special importance for me and my family—it was the parashah of the week of my son Zeke’s bris three years ago, and that of the week of my wedding to Yael two years before that. Under the huppah, my rabbi (and brother-in-law) Aaron Brusso referenced the Zohar’s likening of the parting of the Red Sea to a wedding for having weeping on one side of the event and singing on the other (Zohar 2:170b). Between the tears and songs, however, lies the Children of Israel’s experience of actually traversing a supernaturally divided sea, one of immense physical insecurity as they walk in the sea knowing that at any moment, the “waters that were to them a wall from their right and their left” (Exod. 14:22, 27), והמים להם חומה מימינם ומשמאלם could come down, crash, literally liquidating everything in their midst. However, this physical insecurity is only one part of the equation.
BY JOEL ALTER, JTS
Miracles of Biblical and Everyday Proportions
Last week, God pummeled Egypt unprecedentedly with hail:
The LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire streamed down to the ground, as the LORD rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. The hail was very heavy—fire flashing in the midst of the hail—such as had not fallen on the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. (Exod. 9:23–24)
On the combination of fire and ice, Ibn Ezra comments that this was “a wonder within a wonder.”
As this week’s portion opens, Moses and Aaron announce:
BY MIRIAM LIEBMAN for JTS
REDEEMING THE PLAGUES
Every year at the Passover seder, there is a brief pause in the chaos when everyone dips a finger in their cup of wine and spills a single drop for each of the ten plagues. We are spilling wine to remind ourselves that although the plagues served as miracles for us, those miracles came at the expense of others. That moment of reflection comes to a quick end when so many seder tables begin to sing upbeat melodies listing each of the plagues and reminding ourselves of our own redemption and the miraculous acts God performed in order to take us out of Egypt. But what does it really mean for us that our redemption comes at the expense of others’ suffering?
BY ARNOLD M. EISEN, JTS
Summoning a People
Two very different stories about who we are as Jews are forcefully presented in the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus. One of them—captured in the Hebrew title of the book, Shemot or “Names”—declares that we are the Children of Israel: a nation, a people, defined in the first instance and forever after by our ancestors and the paths they travelled. The other story teaches that we are disciples of Moses, the human protagonist of the book, and, like him, are servants of the God Who called to Moses out of the Burning Bush and bound us in covenant at Sinai.
BY DEBORAH MILLER, JTS
Can We Grow?
Family relationships are often complicated, but the family of Jacob is a particularly jumbled mess. In this week’s parashah, the story has hints and echoes of a decades-long, tangled skein of family dynamics. We see these in two particularly problematic scenes in this parashah. Both scenes illustrate William Faulkner’s truism that “the past is never dead. It's not even past.” And in this story, we see how the past leaks into the future.
BY ZOHAR ATKINS for JTS
Hearing Our Own Stories
Although we know how it ends, this week’s Torah reading can be, by turns, anxiety-provoking, cathartic, and unsettling. We know a reconciliation between the brothers will take place, but we don’t fully understand how. We know a peace deal will be reached, but we suspect that, like all new agreements, its character will be tenuous, fragile, and ad hoc, its consensus constructed atop a minefield of lingering resentments and fundamentally conflicting narratives.
BY ARNOLD M. EISEN, JTS
Joseph, Hanukkah, and the Dilemmas of Assimilation
Ruminations about assimilation come naturally to Jews in North America during the winter holiday season. How much should a parent insist that Hanukkah is part of public school celebrations that give students a heavy dose of Christmas? How often should one remind store clerks who innocently ask Jewish children which gifts they hope to receive from Santa this year that there are other faiths observed in our communities, and other holidays? Intermarried couples are familiar with conversations about having a Christmas tree at home, or going to midnight mass, or allowing their kids to open gifts Christmas morning under the tree at their cousins’ home. The Hanukkah story is the perfect stimulus for such reflections, especially when read, as some historians do, not as a conflict between Jews and a tyrannical government, but as a dispute among Jews themselves over which Greek customs are acceptable and which cross the line to assimilation or apostasy.
BY EITAN FISHBANE, JTS
Yosef: A Light in the Darkness
Parashat Vayeshev takes us deep into the pain and alienation of being human, of yearning from a low place of darkness and suffering. And yet the narrative also conveys the power of hope—a longing for God and redemption, for spiritual and moral healing in our human relationships.
This week’s parashah crystallizes the dysfunctional family dynamics that are evident throughout the book of Genesis—the fraught father-son relationships, the painful intergenerational wounds of favoritism, the anger and resentment between siblings, and, deep down, the simple desire to be loved. Although we may cringe at the violence of the brothers toward Yosef, the narrative of Vayeshev also opens our hearts to the pain these sons felt at their father’s rejection—his greatest love reserved for Yosef: וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו (“Yisrael [i.e., Ya’akov] loved Yosef most of all his sons”) (Gen. 37:3).