Weekly Words of Torah

Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields

Executive Director of WLCJ

ewolintz-fields@wlcj.org

 

 

December 4, 2021

Parashat Miketz – Rosh Chodesh Tevet – Hanukkah – Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7

The haftarah that is B’yachad with Parashat Miketz when it is Shabbat Hanukkah is from Zechariah 2:14-4:7. Most Ashkenazic congregations do not add verses from other haftarot. Sephardic congregations add the first and last verse of the Shabbat Rosh Chodesh haftarah. In the haftarah, Zechariah sees in his vision a menorah with seven lamps. God is the source of our light, warmth, understanding, and enlightenment. The menorah gives off God’s light to illuminate our world. May this Hanukkah bring light into our lives. Zechariah states that God dwells amongst us. (Zechariah 2:14). Let us pray that God dwells amongst us, and that we treat each other as we are each God. Zechariah’s name means “God remembered.” The haftarah commences by telling Israel to shout loudly to be saved from exile among its enemies. May God remember us all for good. The haftarah also commences by declaring “Shout for joy/gladness.” May each day of Hanukkah bring us much joy and gladness. In addition to the obvious connection to Hanukkah, with the discussion of the menorah, another connection to Hanukkah is the last verse of the haftarah and the victory of the Maccabees. Zerubbabel will not build the Temple with his own might and power, but rather by the virtue of the spirit of God. Similarly, the Maccabees did not win their battle due to their own might and power, but because God fought their battles. In the haftarah, there is a miracle that the olives pressed themselves and automatically refilled the menorah. Sound familiar? The legend associated with the Maccabees involved miracles and olives. The Maccabees cleaned the Temple and discovered that they had enough oil to last one day, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight days. May we have much joy and gladness each day of Hanukkah and appreciate the miracles in our daily lives.

November 27, 2021

Parashat Vayeshev – Haftarah – Amos 2:6 – 3:8 

In the Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph tells his dreams, which some see as prophecies, to his brothers who do not want to hear them. Clothing is an important symbol in both the Torah and haftarah. In the Torah reading, Joseph, the favorite child of his father Jacob, is given the coat of many colors. This gift makes Joseph’s brothers very jealous. Both the Torah and the haftarah provide shocking examples of hard-hearted behavior. In the Torah Reading, Genesis 37:24-25, Joseph’s brothers ate after they threw Joseph in a pit. According to a midrash, a rabbinic legend, the brothers moved away from the pit, so as not to hear Joseph’s calls for help. A central theme in both the Torah and haftarah, is the issue of personal responsibility. Reuben understands in Genesis 37:30 that as the oldest in the family, he should have protected his younger brother Joseph. He realizes that he will be held responsible for Joseph’s fate by their father Jacob. In verses 38:1-11, Judah neglects his responsibilities towards Tamar, his daughter-in-law. On the other hand, Tamar does all that she can to fulfill her responsibility to continue the family line, even possibly risking her own life (Genesis 38:12-30). The Torah reading is filled with examples of people being punished measure for measure for the sins of their past. For example, Jacob’s parents played favorites with their sons, ultimately hurting them both. Jacob plays favorites among his sons, ultimately hurting them all. Jacob lied to his father Isaac and Jacob’s sons lied to him. The blood of a goat is used to trick Jacob into thinking that Joseph was dead. Jacob had used a goatskin to fool his own father Isaac into thinking that he was his brother Esau. The coat of many colors is used to trick Jacob into thinking that Joseph was dead. Joseph’s brother, Judah, is later tricked by the clothes that Tamar wears. Joseph’s brothers show his bloody coat of many colors to Jacob, and ask him if he can “recognize this.” Tamar later sends Judah’s staff back to him, and asks “recognize this”. Both the Torah reading and the haftarah provide examples of how you cannot stop a good person from doing good. In the Torah reading, Joseph was a tzaddik, a righteous person, who was turned into a slave by his brothers. Furthermore, there is an example in the Torah reading, of a tzadikah, a righteous woman, Tamar, who lowered herself in order to fulfill her mission. 

In the haftarah that is paired b’yachad together with Parashat Vayeshev, Amos 2:6 – 3:8, Amos has a message from God that the people do not want to hear. In the haftarah, Amos states that even the mighty will be stripped naked of the garments that give them strength. In the haftarah the children of Israel insensitively exploited the poor and profited from their exploitation. In the haftarah, the children of Israel neglect their responsibility to protect the poor. Amos takes his responsibility to publicize God’s words very seriously, even if the others do not want to hear the message. Amos 3:2 states that God will call Israel to account for all its sins – and there are many examples how this statement holds true in our Torah reading. In the haftarah, prophets and Nazarites are tzadikim, righteous people, who are robbed of their power and in effect enslaved by the Israelites. The prophets emerge victorious, because after all, we continue to read the books of the Prophets and are generally influenced by their ideas even until today. The self-control of the nazarites in the haftarah stands in opposition to the self-indulgent behavior of Judah, Joseph’s brothers. 

 

November 13, 2021

Parashat Vayetzei – Haftarah – Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (Ashkenazic)
Hosea 11:7 – 12:12 (Sephardic) 

Parashat Vayetzei begins by stating in Genesis 27, that Jacob had to flee his home because his brother Esau wanted to kill him for having stolen his blessing. Jacob asks God to provide for his needs, be with him, guard him (שמר) and help him come back in peace (Genesis 28:15, 20 and also 31:29). God was a support and guide to Jacob during hard times (Genesis 28:15). In the Torah reading, Jacob served seven years for Rachel (Genesis 29:20), and was given Leah instead. He then served seven more years for Rachel. Leah, Rachel and their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, were the mothers of all Jacob’s children, the ancestors to the entire people, the children of Israel, b’nai yisrael. In Genesis 31:30, household gods appear in the story without outright condemnation. Laban, Rachel and Leah’s father, owns Idols. Rachel steals those idols to take with her when she leaves her father’s house to move to Canaan. Her theft seems to be condemned by Jacob and Laban, but the ownership of those household Idols itself, does not seem to be condemned. In the Torah reading Laban objects to Jacob having left secretively and protests that if only Jacob had told him his plans, “I would have sent you off b’simchah.” B’simchah is usually translated as “with joy,” or “with willingness, alacrity, enthusiasm and generosity.”

The Ashkenazic Haftarah that goes b’yachad, together with Parashat Vayetzei is from Hosea 12:13 – 14:10. The haftarah begins by stating that Jacob served for one wife, and for another wife, he guarded. The haftarah continues to state that one prophet God brought Israel out of Egypt, and another prophet guarded them. Prophets and wife seem to be described in parallel fashion: how Jacob took wives, but not what the wives did for him is compared to what prophets did for God, but not how God acquired them. Wives gave birth to the people, Moses the prophet helped “deliver” the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt and the other prophet “mothered” them until they developed into a nation. Jacob immediately loved Rachel and was willing to serve her father to earn the right to marry her. Jacob acquired Rachel by acting as a servant. In contrast, the prophets were called by God to serve God. Moses is often referred to as “the Servants of God.” Hosea 12:13 refers to Jacob’s need to flee from his home and sojourn in Aram, where he earned his wives by guarding (שמר) the sheep. Hosea 12:14 continues by saying that God assigned prophets to guard (שמר) Israel when they came up from Egypt and when they lived in Israel. Hosea encourages the Israelites to consider God their only source of help (Hosea 12:14 and 13:4-9). Idols are condemned by Hosea (13:1-2).

In the haftarah (14:5), we learned that if the prophet could convince Israel to stop sinning and repent God, would love Israel generously (נדבה). The haftarah (14:5) says that God will love Israel generously. The haftarah’s term (נדבה) generously and the Torah reading’s term b’simchah have very similar meaning. The word disgrace (חרפה) appears in the Torah reading and in the haftarah. In the Torah reading, Rachel has been childless and suffered shame for many years because of it. In Genesis 30:22-23 she finally has a child and says “God has taken away my disgrace.” In the haftarah, since Ephraim has brought disgrace upon God through Ephraim’s sins, God will pay Ephraim back for the disgrace. The word שובה shuva meaning “return,” appears in both the haftarah and the Torah reading (Hosea 14:2 and Genesis 28:15 and 21, 29:3, 31:3 and 13). The word שובה shuva also forms the basis for the Hebrew word “repentance.” To repent, then is to return. This implies that those who have sinned were once in the right place, but have strayed.

The Sephardic Haftarah that is often read b’yachad together with Parashat Vayetzei is from Hosea 11:7 – 12:12. Furthermore, this haftarah is read by some Ashkenazim for next week’s Torah Reading, Parashat Vayishlach. Before Jacob leaves the Land, God promises in Genesis 28;15, to bring him back to the Land, which God does in Genesis 31:3. According to Hosea, God will call the exiled Israelites from exile to return to their Land (Hosea 11:10-11). Hosea 12:3 states that Jacob was punished according to his deeds. Beth El is mentioned in Parshat Vayetzei (Genesis 28:19 and 31:13) as well as in the haftarah, Hosea 12:5. In Parashat Vayetzei, Jacob kisses Rachel and cries (Genesis 29:11). In the haftarah, it is stated that Jacob fought with an angel and wept (Hosea 12:3-5).

 

November 6, 2021

Parashat Toldot – Haftarah – Malachi 1:1-2:7

In Parashat Toldot, we read about two parents each having their favorite child, and the competition between Jacob and Esau for their father Isaac’s blessing. The family becomes split by the competition, each parent taking a different child’s side. Rebecca favored Jacob and Isaac favored Esau, to be Isaac’s heir. Rebecca tells Jacob to lie to his father and to take Esau’s blessing from him. Jacob worries that he will be found out and will be cursed. Rebecca responds that the curse will be on her (Genesis 27:13). Genesis 25:34 states that Esau despised (ויבז –va’yivaz) his birthright. We read in Genesis 26:5, God promised many blessings to Abraham and Isaac because Abraham guarded God’s commandments, laws, and teachings.

The Haftarah that is read b’yachad, together with Parashat Toldot is from Malachi 1:1- 2:7, we read that God prefers Israel (Jacob) to Edom (Esau). The Haftarah begins by stating that Edom, a descendant of Esau, will be destroyed, they will never recover, but Israel or Jacob will continue to exist. However, despite the fact that Israel survives, they are insecure about God’s love and needs reassurance. The same word, (ויבזva’yivaz) is used in the Haftarah to say that the priests of Israel despised the table of Adonai (Malachi 1:6-7 and 1:12). We see in the haftarah that the priests, who are responsible for teaching God’s laws, lie and cheat by exchanging the people’s good quality sacrifices for bad ones. In return, God curses the priests (Malachi 1:14). In the final verse of the Haftarah, the priests are reminded that their role is to guard and teach God’s teachings.

 

October 30, 2021

Parashat Chayyei Sarah – I Kings 1:1-31

In Parashat Chayyei Sarah, deals with the deaths of both Sarah and Abraham, and takes place in Abrarham’s tent, which he is old and dying, described as “old in advanced years” (Genesis 24:1), and is not able to travel himself to find a wife for his son Isaac, so he sends his servant instead to choose a wife. A young woman is sought to become Isaac’s wife, and again bring life back into Sarah’s tent. The servant knows how daunting a task it will be to choose a wife for Isaac. The servant creates a type of rubric, for the eligible woman will complete, in order to be a worthy wife for Isaac. Abraham is concerned about which of his sons will succeed him as leader of his family and inherit his fortune. Abraham hopes for an orderly transfer of his fortune and leadership. Our Torah Reading depicts a failure of the law of primogeniture, the right of the eldest child to inherit the leadership role in the family. Isaac, not the first born, takes over Abraham’s position, and not the first born son, Ishmael.

In the Haftarah that goes b’yachad, together with Parashat Chayyei Sarah, from I Kings 1:1-31, takes place in the King’s palace, when King David is old and dying, described as “old in advanced years” (I Kings 1:1), and his impending death is inevitable. King David can no longer do things for himself, like keeping himself warm. A young woman is sought to bring comfort to King David, as he lies on his deathbed. There is a very daunting task to fulfill in the Haftarah – appointing a successor to King David. This task is actually a divine mission, which will be undertaken by Nathan and Bathsheva, and they worry that they will not succeed, but they do create a plan, and carry it out, without waiting for Divine intervention. King David wants an orderly transfer of his fortune and leadership to his son Solomon and arranges for Solomon to be anointed king before David dies. The Hafarah is an example in the Bible which shows the failure of the law of promingeniture.

 

October 23, 2021

Parashat Vayera – II Kings 4:1-37 

In Parashat Vayera, we see the value of hospitality, when Abraham welcomes three visits to his home, who promise that Sarah, a barren woman, with an old husband, Abraham, will have a child. Sarah responds to this news by laughing. Hagar cries to God that she fears that her son Ishmael will die of thirst in the desert, but God opens Hagar’s eyes and shows her a well. A child is in danger in the Torah reading; Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac. After the binding of Isaac, Abraham is depicted as a God fearing man. (Genesis 22:12). The Torah reading shows how much parents value their children. Abraham protests to God on behalf of the innocent, when he hears that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

In the Haftarah that goes b’yachad, together with Parashat Vayera, from II Kings 4:1-37, a barren woman is also promised a child, to which the Shunammite woman responds by accusing Elisha of lying to her. However, the Shunammite woman is hospitable to Elisah. The widow cries to Elisha that she and her sons will not have any food, and that she only has a little bit of oil left, in one bottle. Elisha shows her that she has an endless amount of oil, which will provide for her family’s needs. In the Haftarah, the first set of sons is almost taken away from their mother to be slaves to someone to a credit collector. In the second story in the Haftarah, the son dies and is revived by the prophet Elisha. The woman in the first story refers to her deceased husband as a God fearing man (II Kings 4:1). The Haftarah shows how much parents value their children. Elisah is very upset by God’s decision to have the young boy die, and Elisha revives the boy back to life.

 

October 16, 2021

Parashat Lekh Lekha – Isaiah 40:27-41:16 

In Parashat Lekh Lekha, Avram is commanded by God to leave his father’s home, and go to a new place that he does not know. In the Midrash, Rabbinic Legend, Avram is depicted as destroying his father’s idols. Avram is fearful that the kings he just defeated (Genesis 14) would retaliate and seek revenge against him. God tells Avram, “Fear not, Avram, I am a shield for you” (Genesis 15:1). God tells Avram that his descendants will spend 400 years in exile serving other people. God is referring to the time the children of Israel will spend as slaves in Egypt. One might wonder if the children of Israel knew that their slavery would eventually end after 400 years, as God had told Avram. God selects Abraham from all the people on earth to father a new nation dedicated to God.

In the Haftarah for Parashat Lekh Lekha, from Isaiah 40:27-41:16, the people are preparing for a difficult move. In Isaiah 40:18-20 and 41:6-7, we read about idols and idol makers. We read in Isaiah 41:10 and 41:14, that God tells the Israelites, “Fear not.” In the Haftarah (Isaiah 41:1-5), God invites the nations to try to argue who controls history. The prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 41:18 calls Israel “My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, seed of Abraham, my friend.” Both the Torah and Haftarah indicate that God chose Israel, and the fate of the people of Israel depends on their allegiance to God.

There is a reference in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 21a, which explains another reason why Parashat Lekh Lekh is read together with the haftarah from Isaiah 40:27-41:16. It is stated in this talmudic passage that the dust and straw of Isaiah 41:2 refers to Abraham’s ability to throw dust and straw stubble into the air and have them turn into swords and arrows. A midrash teaches that in Genesis 14:4, Abraham went to battle against the four kings, taking with him his army of 318 men and explains how Abraham provided weapons to his troops.

 

October 9, 2021

Parashat Noach  – Isaiah 54:1-55:5

In both Parashat Noach and its Haftarah from Isaiah 54:1-55:5, God acts with justice and mercy. In the story of Noah, God destroys the world with the great flood, but God spares Noah and his family, and promises never to destroy the world again. Both the Torah and Haftarah Readings present complementary models of righteousness. Noah’s righteousness is based on personal purity and God-centered living. In Isaiah, we read about those who follow God by establishing their city through creating models of a community built on collective righteousness, and tzedakah, and doing acts of loving kindness.

In the story of Noah, water is the agent of destruction and wine is a vehicle of sin. In the Torah reading, water causes death, although typically water is needed to sustain life.  In Parashat Noach, wine is the vehicle of sin, although typically in Judaism wine is considered a source of joy. God forewarns Noah about the flood that will occur, and Noah survives to tell about the flood. In the Haftarah, water, wine, and milk are represented as life-giving liquids (Isaiah 55:1). Isaiah 54:15-16 states that Israel is in exile, but God predicts their imminent return to their land. Israel will live through the events and survive to witness and testify to God’s prediction and God’s control of the events. God exiles the Israelites and allows Jerusalem to be destroyed, but is now ready to return the people to a rebuilt city. In Isaiah 54:9-11, Israel is compared to Noah. Israel is about to return from exile and God has to comfort Israel and reassure her (Isaiah 54:4,5, 14). God promises in Isaiah 54:9, “For this to Me is like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.” God’s promise to Noah in Genesis 8:21 says, “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind… nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”  

In Genesis 11:1- 9, we read the story of the Tower of Babel, in which different languages developed as a way to scatter the people. They will all understand that God is the only God. Even if everyone agreed that there is only one God, it would still be possible to worship that one God in different ways.