Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeishev December 8, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

Haftorah reading:  Amos 2:6 – 3:8

There is something extremely curious about the birth of a giraffe.  The mother gives birth standing up.  When the baby giraffe emerges from her womb, it literally drops to the ground, landing hard on its back.  The newborn will lay there almost motionless until after a few seconds, onlookers are shocked to see the mother give her baby a swift kick, a kick strong enough to knock the baby head over hooves.
Why does she do that? Because she wants the newborn to get up on its feet. Somehow, the baby giraffe understands what his mother wants and struggles to get up, but after a feeble try, gives us and drops back to the ground.
Boom! A second hearty kick from the mother rolls the young one over several more times. The newborn tries again to prop itself up again on its spindly legs, and finally manages to stand upright.
But before the viewers can breathe a sigh of relief, the mother kicks the baby off its feet again!  The zoo keeper explains to the onlookers: ‘The mother wants her baby to remember how it got up.  In the wilderness where they live, if the baby doesn’t quickly get up and follow the herd, it will be picked off by predators.’ The swift kick is necessary for the baby’s life!
Perhaps we all have something in common with a baby giraffe.  Have you ever been kicked off your feet?  Have you been kicked while you were down? And have you been kicked by the very people from whom you expected kindness and understanding?
All of us have times in life when we get side-swiped by circumstances or side-lined by harsh judgments from those we most expect to stand by us. How we respond in those moments reveals the truth about what we really believe about God, about His plan for our life and about the meaning of our faith.
In this week’s Torah reading we drop in on Joseph at 17-years of age. As we open to Gen. 37:3, Joseph’s life is good and his future looks bright! But he is about to be kicked off his feet. He is about to be kicked hard while he is down. And the ones doing the kicking are his own family.
Yet somehow, Joseph managed to avoid the very thing that had consumed his brothers—the emotional stronghold of bitter jealousy. Somehow, Joseph faced trauma and the high-jacking of his dreams without becoming bitter; for his brothers, it’s a very different story. There’s a deep message for us all right here.
Bitterness is seething anger that hardens into a rebellious, vengeful conclusion. An unforgiving spirit lets anger take hold: anger over circumstances, anger at your spouse, at your children, your employer, whoever. If we embrace it, coddle it, dwell on it, it quietly takes over our entire life.  We feel entitled to hate the person, justified to desire their ruin, and energized to seek their downfall. That is the story of Joseph’s brothers. How did it happen?
Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons and when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than them, they hated him and could not speak a civil word to him.  Why was Joseph Jacob’s favorite? There are several reasons. Joseph was Rachel’s firstborn, Jacob most beloved wife. Rachel had died about a year before, so it is natural that Jacob would transfer his affection to their son. And Joseph was born late in Jacob’s life, giving the old man a special joy. Rightly or wrongly, Jacob cherished Joseph in ways he hadn’t shown to his other sons, and Joseph was hated for it. The brothers were jealous of his relationship with their father.
“And he made him a robe of many colors.” Jacob exercised his fatherly privilege and chose to appoint his firstborn son by Rachel as his heir.  He skipped his other nine sons and selected the youngest at that time. The symbol of the birthright was a special tunic. The Hebrew words used to describe this coat or tunic suggest that it was richly ornamented, but the most important detail the Hebrew gives us is that it was long-sleeved and extended to Joseph’s ankles.  Why is that important?  The tunics worn by working men in that day were sleeveless and stopped at the knees. A long-sleeved, tailored garment was worn by a manager, someone who had been put in charge, and was therefore exempt from the work himself. So the coat was a symbol of position. The brothers were jealous of his position. 
Verse 5 tells us: Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. In v. 6-8, Joseph tells his brothers that they were all in the field binding sheaves of grain when suddenly his sheaf rose up and their sheaves gathered around and bowed down. You don’t have to be brilliant to figure out the meaning of that dream, do you?

Verses 9-11: Joseph had a second dream, this time with different symbols, but with the same meaning. His dad heard Joseph’s dream and thought it was a joke, but his brother’s didn’t. Verse eleven reports that his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

Now if your little brother had a crazy dream, you wouldn’t get jealous unless you really believed God was speaking to him.  The very fact that Joseph’s dreams provoked such violent jealousy testifies that the brothers believed the dream! They believed that God was speaking to their younger brother.  So the brothers were jealous of God’s favor on Joseph.

Self-pity, jealousy and anger finally pushed the brothers over a dangerous line. They were mad at their father for his favoritism. They were mad at God for the good things that were coming to their brother and not to them. There was only one way to get back at them both: they would take away the darling object of affection.

The first plan suggested was ‘Let’s kill him.’ Reuben, the oldest, inserts a voice of reason and suggests instead, ‘Let’s throw him into that pit over there.’  In the end, when a caravan of slave traders comes by, they haul Joseph up from the pit and sell him into slavery, wash their hands of the troublemaker and sit down for lunch!  Problem solved…or so they thought.

It appeared to be ‘problem solved’ for some years but you all know how it ends.

Our purpose right now, however, is to focus on the early part of the story.  What does it say to us?

In Tune with Torah this week = We need to ask ourselves some pretty confrontational questions.

Do I have an issue with jealousy?  Do I have any bitterness in my heart towards someone who enjoys a relationship that I wish I had?  Am I jealous of another’s position or promotion?  Do my emotions get riled up when someone gets more favor than I do at work or in my community?

Jealousy kills spiritual growth; it is a poison of the worst kind to our souls.

Our choice is pretty clear: do we go the way of Joseph who guarded his heart against bitterness? Or do we go the way of his brothers whose bitterness poisoned their lives for years?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Shemini April 21, 2017

Torah reading:  Leviticus 9-11

Haftorah reading: 2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17

When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, uncovering himself in the eyes of his servants’ maids, as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!” David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people, Israel. I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these maids you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.   2 Sam. 6:20-23


Remember that David was a simple shepherd boy – a teenager – when the prophet Samuel was sent to anoint him the next king of Israel. At the time, Saul was reigning over Israel and when David killed Goliath, he won the king’s favor.  However, that didn’t last long for Saul became exceedingly jealous of David and his abilities as the commander of his army. Eventually David becomes King and Jerusalem becomes his city, The City of David.

In I Samuel 18 there’s an interesting verse that bears on this week’s reading: “When Saul saw and knew that the LORD was with David, and that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved him, Saul became still more afraid of him, and he remained his enemy the rest of his days.”  (vs. 28-29)  Saul gave his daughter in marriage to David but Saul’s jealousy and fear of David continue until we read in 1 Samuel 25:44 that Saul gives his daughter who was married to David to another man by the name of Palti.

After the death of Saul, David decides he wants his first wife, Michal, back and sends one of his men to escort her back to David’s palace (2 Samuel 3:14-22). Talk about dysfunctional relationships!

This complicated relationship between David and Michael continues to the point where in this week’s Haftorah, we get this description of David taking the ark into the city Jerusalem, his City, the city of David.

David was wearing an ephod or the priestly garments as he danced with all his might before the LORD – a dance of worship, of celebrating the goodness of God, of recognizing God’s power and glory.  David worshiped with everything in him.

When he got home afterwards, Mrs. Michal had her critical speech ready and memorized! In essence she says to her husband, the king, ‘You sure made a fool of yourself today!’

Why did Michal speak so harshly to David?

There may be several reasons but here at least are a few.

Remember that she loved David and had been his first wife.  When her father tore her from him and gave her to another man because of his own (Saul’s) jealousy, perhaps she felt abandoned that David did not come after her and rescue her from this new ‘husband’ right away.  Perhaps she struggled with resentment against both her father and her husband and if that resentment festered in her, bitterness would have developed and this was the moment it poured out of her onto David.

Alternatively, could there have been some tension between the ‘wife born into royalty’ and the lowly shepherd become king? Was that the reason behind accusing him of being ‘undignified’? In modern terminology would she be calling him a ‘peasant’, ‘a country bumpkin’?

David’s answer is to point out that what he was doing, he was doing for the LORD.

It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” (vs. 21-22)

David makes it quite clear to his wife that his dancing is a perfectly acceptable form of celebrating the God He loves so ardently. Though he was King of Israel, David celebrated with abandon the One Who is King of the Universe and lets Michal know in no uncertain terms that nothing she says will keep him from passionate worship of the LORD.

Good for him!

The verse that follows is ominous and one can’t escape the connection.  Michael, daughter of Saul, had no child to the day of her death.  (Vs. 23) In biblical times, infertility was seen as one of the worst judgments of the LORD against a woman.

It was not wise to criticize the one doing the dancing!  It is never wise to criticize another person’s expressions of love and devotion to the LORD, even if it’s not ‘your style’ of worship.  The worship is not addressed to you!  It’s addressed to the Holy One of Israel.  Who are we to criticize how another person worships Him?

Notice 2 Samuel 6: 16 Then it happened as the ark of the LORD came into the city of David that Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; she despised him in her heart. (emphasis added)

That word despised has synonyms such as hated, loathed and detested. There can little doubt that her ardent love for David had gone cold. But somehow, I don’t think her verbal attack was only about the dancing, do you?  Resentment had been simmering under the surface for a long time.

King David reckoned himself small in comparison to the God of Israel and cared little for the opinions of men. If the maids had noticed his zeal and passion for God, well then, he was fine with that.  ‘May it inspire them to passionate love for God!’ would have been his way of looking at the situation – radically different from Michael’s.

Is there more here for us to glean so many centuries later?
Are you convinced that what God thinks of you is what really matters in life?  Or like Michal, are you overly conscious of ‘what others might think’ if you stand strong in your faith and its expression?

Michal would have been an extremely brave or extremely cheesed off woman to confront the king in the way she did. But with her upbringing her own view she saw David because of his dancing as a ‘vulgar fellow’.

In society today we encounter opposition to our faith in God, to our celebration of Him.  The secular mind calls it foolishness.  Like Michal they have their ‘reasons’, but there is NO ‘reason’ for you or I to be moved or weakened in our faith by the opinions of other people.

Was David wrong to dance, to celebrate before the Lord? This was a King who had seen the power of God in his life. He knew what it was to sense the ‘joy of the Lord’ for it was this king who had written Psalm 16 which ends with these words: ‘In your presence is fulness of joy and at Your right hand, there are pleasures forevermore.’ vs. 11

In Tune with Torah this week = Is the presence of the LORD real in your life? Do you know that you know that He is with you? That He loves you with an unconditional love? That His attitude toward you is one of blessing?  Joy is much more than a feeling; it is an attitude of life fueled by an abiding awareness of God’s personal love for you!

May your joy in Him increase this Shabbat and throughout the rest of your life.

Shabbat Shalom


Weekly Torah Commentary – Ki Tetzei September 16, 2016

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Do not hate an Edomite, because he is your brother.
Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land. (Deut. 23:8)


Two verses in this week’s portion deal with the prohibition to hate.  The portion deals with so many other issues that it’s easy to miss this commandment – do not hate.

But why these particular two verses?

The Egyptians of Moses’ day had enslaved the Israelites, “embittered their lives”, subjected them to a ruthless regime of intensely hard labor and forced them to eat the bread of affliction. They had embarked on a program of attempted genocide, Pharaoh commanding his people to throw “every male [Israelite] child born, into the river” (Ex. 1:22). And God tells the next generation of Israelites: ‘do not hate’?

It’s as if none of this had happened, as if the Israelites owed the Egyptians a debt of gratitude for their hospitality. Yet Moses and the people were where they were only because they were escaping from Egyptian persecution. Nor did he want the people to forget it.  It is commanded in the Torah that every year on Passover we are to remember what the Egyptians did.  But why? So we would never succumb to enslaving others.

What is really at stake here with these two verses cuts to the very heart of what is about to happen to the children of Israel.  It is nearly time to enter the Land and Moses knows that in order to live in freedom, you must let go of hatred. A free and moral society cannot be built by people consumed with hatred and resentment.  It just doesn’t work.

Bitterness, resentment, humiliation, a sense of injustice, the desire to inflict injury on your former persecutors are all evidences of a profound lack of freedom. Those who hold on to anger against their persecutors remain captives.  They may be ‘free’ externally but the soul is in captivity and poisons the mind and the emotions.  Anyone who allows their ‘enemy’ or ‘persecutor’ to define who they are has no understanding of freedom.

What Moses is telling them is that they must live with the past, but not in the past.

Hatred and freedom cannot coexist.  To create and maintain a non-persecuting society out of people who have been persecuted, the chains of the past must be broken; memory robbed of its sting; and pain re-directed into constructive purpose and the determination to build a different future.

Hatred projects our conflicts onto someone else whom we can blame but only at the cost of denying our own responsibility. That was Moses’ message to those who were about to enter the promised land: that a free society can be built only by people who accept the responsibility of freedom; by a people who are not defined by what they hate but by what they dream and work for.  This was the insightful message of Dr. Martin Luther King, among others.  Dr. King once said: Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness.  How right he was…and still is.

People who hate harbor a permanent feeling of injury, a feeling that is out of all proportion to reality.  In their subconscious a perverse feeling convinces them that they alone possess the truth, that they are some kind of superhumans, and thus deserve the world’s complete recognition and submissiveness. They want to be the center of the world and become deeply, even violently irritated when those around them do not recognize them as such.

They are like spoiled or badly brought up children who think their mother exists only to wait on their every whim and who throw a tantrum if she occasionally does something else, like spending time with her other children, her husband, a book or her work. They interpret it as a personal attack instead of normal living.

Ultimately the hater is obsessed with himself.

Some have suggested that those who hate suffer from an inferiority complex.  Actually the opposite is true: the hater is so sure of his own superiority that hate is the only response to those who do not affirm or appreciate his self-generated true worth.  A serious face, a quickness to take offense, strong language, shouting, the inability to step outside himself and see his own foolishness – these are typical of one who hates.

Our Torah portion this week enjoins us: Do not hate... Rather choose the way of the prophet who said ‘The joy of the LORD is your strength.’  Nehemiah 8:10

In Tune with Torah this week = is there any hate in your heart towards anyone?  If so, this is the time to acknowledge it, repent of it, ask God for freedom from it and determine to change your attitude for the truth is this: Hatred kills the one who harbors it; only love and peace bring health and well-being, physically as well as spiritually.

Shabbat shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayigash Dec. 18, 2015

Genesis 44:18-47:27

In this dramatic reading, Joseph and his brothers are finally united.  It is the first biblical record of forgiveness between family members and has much to say to us, not only about forgiveness but also about reconciliation.  They are not the same thing.

Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. From one perspective, forgiveness is a form of voluntary ‘suffering’. Look at it this way.

If a friend hurts your reputation with gossip or unkind words, you have two choices: ‘pay’ them back with a cold shoulder, with unkind words about them to others, or refusing to reconcile with them.  Or you forgive, and you absorb the suffering yourself.  Someone always pays every debt.

Forgiveness is a promise first, to refrain from retribution or revenge and secondly, to deny yourself the luxury of brooding or obsessing over the wrong that was done.  Forgiveness does not excuse the misbehavior of the other person, but it does recognize that all humanity is flawed and therefore you choose to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  We all need forgiveness at various times throughout our lives so give it freely and you will reap it back in abundance.

In revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph freely expressed his forgiveness.  In fact, he went so far as to free them from the burden of guilt by saying, “it was not you, but God, who sent me here…”

But, you may ask, if he was so ready to forgive them, why did he treat them harshly when they first went down to Egypt?  This is where we learn about reconciliation.  You can forgive someone for an offense without reconciling with them.  In fact, reconciliation often takes some time depending on the nature of the offense.  Because you forgive someone who betrayed you, for example, doesn’t mean you have to trust them immediately.  That’s what we see displayed in Joseph’s actions.

Had his brothers truly changed? Or were they still quarrelsome and cantankerous? Joseph put them through a series of tests designed to reveal their character, the ultimate one being the encounter with his brother, Judah, in Genesis 44:18-34.  Judah – the one who originally suggested selling Joseph – now humbly pleads for mercy regarding Benjamin and even offers himself to take Benjamin’s place.  That was the moment when Joseph knew that his brother’s repentance was real.  And so the very next verse, Gen. 45:1, says “Joseph could stand it no longer…”and putting everyone out of the room he cries out, “I am Joseph!”  Though he had forgiven them long ago, at this moment they are reconciled.  Joseph could trust them again.  Why? Because when faced with the opportunity to abandon (betray) Benjamin as they had betrayed him, they refused to do so and instead begged for mercy.

Joseph never lost his hope for a restored and healed relationship with his brothers and reunion with his father.  But Joseph was wise enough to know that while forgiveness can be given – even at a distance from the offender – reconciliation requires a rebuilding of trust.  The tests he put his brothers through paved the way for full reconciliation.

We have all been hurt and we have all hurt others. If we refuse to forgive, we damage our own souls.  (Even the Mayo Clinic has published articles on the negative effects to one’s physical and mental health of harboring resentment and bitterness.)  The Torah – indeed – all of Scripture exhorts to forgive one another.  But that’s the first step.  The next is reconciliation.  Depending on the offense, it can take a little time or a lot of time. There will always be a need for patience on the road to reconciliation. What matters is that like Joseph we never give up hope.

In Tune with Torah this week = Are you holding on to any resentment or bitterness? Do you harbor a coldness, an irritability toward someone? Are you refusing to ‘let go’ of past hurts? Do you justify your negative attitude and anger towards someone?  If any of these questions elicit a ‘yes’, don’t you think it’s time to move on? To mend broken relationships? To cleanse your own soul of the damaging effects of nursing old wounds? May God help us all to move closer to unity and peace within our families and communities.

Shabbat shalom.





Weekly Torah Commentary — Ki Tetzei August 28, 2015

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

In this week’s Torah lesson we encounter the greatest number of commandments listed in a single reading. Among them is the following: Do not hate an Edomite, because he is your brother. Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land. (Deut. 23:8)

We may read that verse casually but think about the context. Moses delivers this commandment to the children of former slaves. The generation about to enter the Promised Land are the offspring of those whom Moses led out of slavery in Egypt, those who stood at Mt. Sinai and saw the glory of God on the mountain. The experiences of their parents and grandparents are vivid memories. And of all things, God through Moses commands them (doesn’t suggest mind you but commands) to forsake hatred toward the very ones who had enslaved and abused their forefathers. They’d imposed hard labor on them, threw scores of their male infants into the Nile and made their lives difficult beyond our understanding.

Yet 40 years later, Moses utters this commandment as if none of those atrocities had happened! In fact, he implies that the children of Israel owed the Egyptians a debt of gratitude for their hospitality!! Isn’t this the same Moses who at the command of God instructed the Israelites to observe the Passover every year to remember what they’d been through and celebrate their divine deliverance? Why would God give such a commandment?

The answer is as simple as it is profound. To be free, you must let go of hate. The children of the former slaves must not continue in a slavery mentality for mental and emotional chains are the most devastating of all.

Hatred, bitterness, resentment, rage and the urge to ‘get even’ betray a profound lack of understanding regarding true freedom. What Moses is teaching them is that while they must remember the past, they must not live in it. Anyone who allows the past to define who they are in the present has not yet been set free.

When the Torah commands “you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt” it never intends the remembrance as justification for hatred or revenge. Rather it is always to urge the children of Israel to learn from what they experienced and never impose the same on others but instead to build a compassionate and just society.

The message repeated several times: Don’t subject others to hard labor or impose burdens such as your fathers endured. Be careful to remember the rest and freedom of every seventh day. Give generously to the poor. Let them eat from the leftovers of the harvest. Share your blessings with others. Don’t deprive people of their livelihood, etc.

The framework of the Torah is built on this principle: you know in your heart what it feels like to be the victim of persecution, therefore do not persecute others.

“Remember” – not to live in the past but to prevent its repetition at your own hands.

To experience what God calls freedom, the enslaved must be able to let go of antagonism to his former master.

Hatred and freedom cannot coexist. To create a non-persecuting society out of people who have been persecuted, the chains of the past must be broken; memories must transform into constructive outlets that serve to build a different future.

Freedom requires the abandonment of hate, because hate is the abdication of freedom. It projects our conflicts onto someone or something else we can then blame, refusing to accept personal responsibility for the present. Moses’ message to those who were about to enter the promised land: that a free society can be built only by people who define themselves by love of God, not hatred of the other.

In Tune with Torah this week = how much do we let ourselves be defined by our past instead of learning from it and moving on into the future free of negativity, bitterness and hatred? Forgiveness and letting go is a fundamental requisite for experiencing the freedom God created us to enjoy.

Shabbat Shalom