Parshat Bereshit: Valuing LIfe

Parshat Bereshit introduces the idea that all humankind was created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. Ancient and modern interpreters alike view this as a foundational concept about the value of life. 

Rabbi Akiva is cited in Pirkei Avot as teaching that “beloved is the person created in God’s image.” The awareness that we are created in God’s image is a reminder of God’s love for humankind. In another midrash Hillel Hazaken cites this concept as the halakhic source for the mitzvah to care for our physical bodies as he was on his way to wash at the bathhouse. Yet another midrash explains that when we “shame” others, we are in fact shaming the likeness of God. So, the midrashic conception of tzelem Elokim ranges from the imperative to physically care for our bodies, to acting humanely and with love toward others. In other sources, creativity and procreation are seen as enhancing the divine image, while murder is the ultimate diminishing of tzelem Elokim in this world.  

Two contemporary rabbis and great thinkers expand on these ideas. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg defines tzelem Elokim as meaning that humans are created with infinite value, equality and uniqueness which should be used to enhance human relationships and improve the world. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow writes that the concept of the Divine image is the basis for all interpersonal mitzvot, and also teaches us to relate to the physical body and pleasure positively, within the framework of Jewish law. 

Now in particular, as we grapple with loss and with loved ones struggling with emotional well-being, “tzelem Elokim” reminds us of the preciousness of every life and the duty to protect and save lives. May we all find ways to see the tzelem Elokim in ourselves and others. Shabbat Shalom.

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

Healthy Sexuality

Parshat Ki Tetze opens with a disturbing law: when a Jewish man goes to war and desires a foreign woman among the captives, he may take her home on the condition that he waits one month during which her beauty is neglected and must then marry or free her. When seen in its biblical milieu and through the eyes of the midrashic rabbis, this law teaches us a lesson about healthy approaches to sexuality and the necessity of consent, and is particularly relevant for Israeli society this week.

The Torah emphasizes the soldier’s physical desire: He takes her based solely on her physical appearance: he “sees” her, “desires” her. She is known as “eshet yefat to’ar,” a beautiful woman. The woman has no voice or choice. The Torah’s concession to human weakness in allowing this woman to be taken would be unthinkable today and would be deemed a war crime. However, in the context of antiquity, the idea of putting constraints on victorious soldiers was revolutionary and significantly limited wartime rape. The midrash further discourages this behavior. Noting the incongruous placement of this law next to a law regarding polygamy and then the rebelious son (ben sorer u-moreh), the midrash teaches, “one sin leads to another sin.” Meaning, taking the eshet yefat to’ar into one’s house will cause conflict and a catastrophic breakdown of family relationships. It might be permitted, but it is toxic for everyone involved.

The Torah and the midrash were beacons of morality in a world where a female captive had no rights, which thank G-d is no longer the case. They remind us that sexual relations without consent has disastrous effects, and healthy sexuality goes beyond mere physical attraction.

Parshat Bo: Light at Night

Did the Exodus from Egypt take place during the day or night? Why is parshat Bo so ambiguous regarding the timing of this seminal event in the Torah? 

First, God promises to bring the plague against the first-born at around mid-night (“k’chatzot”) after which the people would leave Egypt. Then, God’s promise is fulfilled in the middle of the night (“b’chatzi halayla”). Pharaoh, in response to the suffering, commands Moshe to take the Israelites out in the night. However, Moshe had instructed the people not to leave their homes until the morning. It also states that God took them out of Egypt on “that very day,” understood by some commentaries to mean in full daylight. This tension in the verses – night or day – is also expressed in mishna Berakhot in discussing the mitzvah to remember yetziat mitzrayim. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya teaches that while there is a clear biblical source to remember the Exodus during the day, he was unsure of the source for remembering it at night, until Ben Zoma enlightened him. Hence, the Talmud teaches, the third paragraph of Shema, “Vayomer,” is said at night as well as in the morning, since it contains within it remembrance of the Exodus.

Ramban resolves the ambiguity of the timing of the Exodus as follows: B’nei Yisrael left Egypt in the daytime, so all could see, but the process of geula began at night. Mid-night then is a turning point, when the seeds of potential for redemption begin. This association of mid-night as beginning of the redemption process is reinforced in the midrash about King David, who would learn Torah until mid-night (for protection) and from then on sing songs of praise to God. 

Recounting the Exodus – specifically in tefilla of day as well as night – testifies to the Jewish people’s ability to flourish through periods of light and endure throughout times of darkness. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Va’era: Personal and National Healing

Parshat Va’era contains numerous requests for prayer and healing, surprisingly, from Pharaoh. During the plagues, Pharaoh asks Moshe to pray to God for him. The word which Pharoah repeatedly uses is ויעתר, “to entreat.” An exploration of the various uses of this word in Tanach provides a powerful message about prayer for healing and for current events in Israel.

The first occurrence of ויעתר, entreaty or petitioning of God, is when Yitzchak prays for a child. The Sages debate the deeper meaning of the word ויעתר. One interpretation: Yitzchak’s prayers become more frequent and urgent. Entreaty here means prayer in abundance. Pharaoh, however, does not pray himself, he entreats Moshe to pray. The midrash explains that Pharaoh was too full of pride and arrogance to have his prayers heard. Only Moshe’s pleadings on his behalf could be effective. From this we learn that haughtiness and intractability can block tefillot from being heard. In order to be able to petition God for mercy toward us, we need to be open to modifying our own frame of mind and foster compassion within ourselves. 

These examples are about prayer for individual healing. In Yirmiyahu, the root “עתר” is applied to the healing of the nation of Israel. Even amidst the destruction God promises, “I will heal them and reveal to them abundance (עתרת) of peace and truth.” The midrash learns from this that communal prayer – עתרת – is only heard when there is shalom amongst the people.

The past few weeks in Israel have been filled with genuine uncertainty and protests, alongside extreme and detrimental language, over proposed plans for judicial reforms. The biblical term for entreaty – עתר – provides a model for modern Israel: Effective change and national healing comes about by promoting peaceful debate with a dose of humility. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson 

*Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP) From Times of Israel

Parshat Shemot: On Crying and Redemption

What prompted the redemption from Egypt? One significant word in parshat Shemot marks the turning point from enslavement to freedom.

After years of suffering, b’nei Yisrael cry out (“va-yiz’aku”) from the overwhelming burden of bondage and their cry rose up to God. Then God hears their groan and sees their suffering. What is the significance of this moment? Rashi interprets: God directed His heart to them and no longer remained hidden. Ramban highlights the role of Israel in prompting the ge’ula: Israel’s cry, meaning their prayers, stirred God’s mercy. This is similar to Ramban’s opinion elsewhere, that the epitome of prayer is when one calls out to God in time of distress. Ramban also teaches that the time of ge’ula (redemption) had already passed and the people were not worthy of being redeemed. Yet, their deeply emotive tefilla had the strength to start the redemption process. As Nechama Leibowitz writes, “The sudden and successive re-appearance of the Divine name in the text signaled the end of the period of [God’s] estrangement from the world.” 

This “crying out” recalls another story in Torah, also of nearly lost hope. In Sodom, an outcry – “tze’aka” – reaches God. The midrash teaches that this was the cry of a young maiden, one of Lot’s daughters, who had tried to help and feed a poor man. When the men of Sodom found out and wanted to burn her, her cry was so powerful that it reached God, who then descended to Sodom. God is especially responsive to the outcry of those who are suffering. 

The Torah also instructs us not to oppress the stranger, widow or orphan, because God will immediately hear their outcry. “Tze’aka” demonstrates the power of prayer, no matter how distant God seems. Redemption comes about through tefilla and by fostering the ability to hear the cry of the vulnerable and suffering around us. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Vayechi: On Parenting and Shema

“Ilan, Ilan, with what shall I bless you? …May it be God’s will that all saplings which they plant from you be like you.” -Taanit 5b

As parents, we often hope that our children will choose to follow the path we have chosen in life. Yet, we also want them to grow and become independent. Yacov’s parenting, in parshat Vayechi, provides a model for how to relate to children who may choose different values than our own. 

The parsha contains two moments when Yacov expresses concern about the path his descendents will take in the future. When Yacov meets Yosef’s sons, Menashe and Efrayim, for the first time he asks, “Mi eleh?” “Whose are these?” Rashi explains – they did not look worthy of a bracha. Rabbi Benny Lau suggests that this was because they looked Egyptian and Yacov wondered, how are these related to me? Yet, Yacov decides to bless them nonetheless. How appropriate that this is the bracha with which we bless our children on Friday night. No matter what – we continue to bless them in the hope that they internalize our values and find their way to commitment to Torah. 

Also, in Bereshit 49, Yacov calls his children to gather at his bedside twice. Rashi explains that the repetition is due to the fact that Yacov wished to reveal the future to them, however the Divine presence departed from him. The midrash elaborates: Yacov feared that his children might have a “machloket,” or cause to reject God. His children reassured him by saying “Shema Yisrael (Yacov’s other name), the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Ya’acov, in his relief, answered ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד, “Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom forever and ever.”
The Shema is the greatest statement of our belief in God and yet it is also associated with this dialogue between Ya’acov in his children, an expression of apprehension of what will be in the future. When we recite the Shema we recall this interaction, perhaps with fears of our own. Yet, by saying Shema and “baruch Shem” we strengthen our belief and reinforce our hope for the future. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Vayechi: Posture in Prayer and in Life

What is the purpose of the various movements and bowing in prayer? Parshat Vayigash and hilchot tefilla provide insight for individuals as well as for people in leadership roles.

The midrash notes the emotionally charged word which the Torah uses when Yehuda approaches Yosef: “Vayigash.” Based on other instances of this word Tanach, the midrash suggests 3 possible interpretations of what “vayigash” expressed: as one would approach in battle, an approach from a place of appeasement or, “hagasha l’tefilla,” approach through prayer. The same word, different connotations; and the person would have very different body language.  

The term “hagasha l’tefilla,” appears in the halakhic literature on tefilla as well. The Rema writes (OH 95:1) that when we are about to recite the Amidah prayer, we take 3 steps forward by way of kiruv and hagasha – a sign of coming close and approaching. Separately, Rav teaches in the Talmud: “One who is praying, should bow in the appropriate places.” One should bow when saying “baruch” and stand upright when saying God’s name. Rav Kook explains that these body movements help instill within us the words of tefilla and a balance between feeling humble before God, but not lowering ourselves too much. The Talmud specifies that the High Priest and King are required to bow more frequently in tefilla, to ensure that alongside their power, they remain humble.

In one of the most popular TED talks ever (although subsequently challenged), Amy Cuddy demonstrates the difference in our body language when we feel victorious vs. when we are sad. She argues that standing in a power pose like Wonder Woman actually impacts a person’s hormones and raises his/her confidence level. May we as individuals and may our leaders find the posture to balance humility and confidence in the way we approach Hashem, in the way we interact with each other, and in the way we serve the Jewish people. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Miketz: Truly Seeing

One word appears throughout the story of Yosef and his brothers – הכר – to recognize. The word is first used at the lowest point in their relationship. In   Parshat Miketz however, it marks a turning point in the brothers’ ability to recognize each other’s distress and take steps toward healing.  

First, when Yosef is taken down to Egypt, the brothers deceptively dip his famed coat in animal blood. They then show it to Yacov as evidence of Yosef’s death and ask “haker na?!” “Do you recognize this coat?” Later, Tamar says the exact same words to Yehuda, in an attempt to get him to recognize her suffering and take responsibility for her. 

In parshat Miketz this word is used again, when the brothers come down to Egypt during a famine looking for sustenance. They find themselves standing before Yosef and “Yosef recognized (ויכר) his brothers, but they did not recognize (הכירוהו) him.” In fact, it states twice that Yosef recognized them. Why this contrast? Rashi, citing Bereshit Rabbah, interprets the brothers lack of recognition as referring to the past, when the brothers didn’t recognize and treat Yosef as a brother when he was vulnerable. However, the Torah emphasizes that Yosef rose above the past when he recognizes them and has mercy on them. 

Interestingly, this word is also used in the Mishna Brachot’s teaching about when one can begin to say the Shema in the morning: “from when one can distinguish (משיכיר) between blue and white.” The Talmud brings an alternative to this time indicator: “From the time when one sees his friend at a distance of four cubits away and recognizes him.” Perhaps here, like in the Yosef narrative, “הכר” is being used both literally and figuratively. As the new day begins and daylight dawns, we are encouraged to look around more carefully, and to be cognizant of and caring toward others. Shabbat Shalom /Hanukkah Sameach /Chodesh Tov – Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Vayeshev: On Highs and Lows

Parshat Vayeshev tells the story of a low point for Yacov’s home and family. It also teaches that while there will always be “lows,” and times of distance, there will also be opportunities for growth and re-connection. 

After the Torah describes the jealousy and hatred among the brothers, Yehuda “goes down” away from his family and Yosef is “taken down” to Egypt. Bereshit Rabbah takes note of this recurring word and teaches that these “yeridot” (descents) were purposely juxtaposed. In both cases, Yehuda and Yosef’s descent is also a spiritual decline as they both find themselves far from family and their values. Only by remembering their identity, as sons of Jacob, do they act responsibly and righteously.

Hanukkah too, is a time which spotlights the lows of Jewish assimilation and discord with the Jewish people. The Maccabees were battling fellow Jews who chose Hellenism over Judaism and were willing to abandon core Jewish beliefs and mitzvot. The antidote to this, can be found in the way we light the Hanukkah candles – increasing the light each night, moving upward. The Talmud explains this opinion of Beit Hillel: “One should elevate and not downgrade in matters of holiness.” The ascending lights symbolize the Jewish people’s historical resilience. The mitzvah is deeply connected to the home, where Jewish identity is born and nurtured.

Like Hanukkah candles, the mitzvah to light Shabbat candles also represent the unique role of home and family in Jewish life. Rashi associates Shabbat candles with “shalom bayit.” Moreover, women throughout history developed a custom to say a special prayer for the “goodness and blessings” of their families just after lighting Shabbat candles (traced back to the 13th century). These three sources – the parsha, Hanukkah and this female prayer over Shabbat candles – highlight the potential of home and family in strengthening Jewish identity and sparking spiritual growth. Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah sameach! -Karen Miller Jackson

Vayishlach: Following in the Footsteps of Avot and Imahot

Yacov is often depicted as travelling – “on his way.” The Sages viewed Yacov’s journey, and the experience of the avot in general, as a blueprint and guide for the destiny of the Jewish people throughout history, especially in the diaspora. What about the imahot? Parshat Vayishlach teaches that there is also power and protection to be found in the actions and experiences of the matriarch Rachel. 

Ramban teaches that this parsha has enduring significance for the Jewish people. The phases of Yacov’s relationship with Esau recurs in the relationship between bnei Yisrael and the descendants of Esau. This principle, “ma’aseh avot siman le-banim – the actions of the fathers are a sign to the children,” means history repeats itself. When Jews face external threats, Ramban says that if we are guided by the actions of Yacov in preparing to meet Esau, we too will be saved and protected.

The children of Israel are given another source of protection toward the end of this week’s parsha. When Rachel tragically dies during childbirth, Yacov buries her separately from the family’s burial place “on the way to Efrat.” The midrashim see great significance for future generations in Rachel’s burial place being “along the way.” Pesikta Rabbati teaches that Yacov wanted to bury her in ma’arat ha-machpela, but God refused so that Rachel could pray for Israel while they were in exile, “along the way.” Eicha Rabbah teaches that after the destruction of the beit ha-mikdash, Jeremiah called on the avot to pray for God to have mercy on Israel. None of their requests were accepted. Only Rachel’s prayer, invoking the sacrifices she made in her life, is able to stir God’s mercy.

Like the forefathers, Rachel’s sacrifices in her life and after-life become a symbol of hope for Am Yisrael throughout their historical journey. The midrashic traditions about her burial “along the way” provide a paradigm of “acts of the mothers being a sign and benefit to the children.” Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Vayetzei: Ha-makom & Holy Places

What makes a place holy? A look at the word “ha-makom” (the place) in Torah provides some perspective.

The word ha-makom is repeated throughout the beginning of parshat Vayetze. On Yacov’s journey from Be’ersheva to Haran: “He came upon that place (ba-makom)…” What is that place? Rashi identifies it with the unnamed place in the akedah story: Abraham “looked up and saw the place (ha-makom) from afar,” which was in the land of Moriah. Both avot experience revelation from God there. The beit hamikdash is also referred to as ha-makom in Tanach. Hence, the midrash associates “the place” with Mt. Moriah, in Jerusalem, where the Temple was built. 

However, Yacov called this place Beit-El, formerly called Luz, seemingly not in Jerusalem. Rashbam says it was a place just outside of Luz. Rashi reinforces the interpretation that the place was Mt. Moriah/Jerusalem and suggests several solutions: 1) Yacov’s famous ladder between heaven and earth extended from Be’ersheva to Beit-El and the middle of the slope was opposite Jerusalem. 2) Yacov was in Jerusalem and named it Beit-El, or 3) the ground shrunk and Mt. Moriah was miraculously transported to Luz. 

These interpretations attribute deep meaning and historical-religious significance to the holiest place in Judaism. Yacov may have been in one place, but somehow was connected or transported to “the place” – Jerusalem. Similarly, the Talmud Brachot teaches that (after the Temple was destroyed) the Shekhina resides in a Beit Knesset or wherever people congregate to pray, carry out justice or learn Torah, as God will come and bless us in “all the places where I cause My Name to be mentioned.”

Ha-Makom is also one of the names of God in rabbinic literature. When we study Torah, do justice, and pray facing Jerusalem, we too are drawing on the holiness of Ha-makom and imbuing our spaces and places with holiness. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson 

Parshat Toldot: Long-term Optimism

How does one remain hopeful and optimistic in the face of adversity? Some insight and inspiration can be gleaned from the instances of tefilla in parshat Toldot. 

After twenty years of infertility, prayers and longing to have a child, Rivka becomes pregnant. The word for prayer here – ויעתר –  is unique. It is used twice to mean (1) Yitzchak entreats God and (2) God responds to his plea. This mirroring of language highlights that the tefillot were heard and answered. The Sages debate the deeper meaning of the word ויעתר. One interpretation: Yitzchak’s prayers become more frequent and urgent. Alternatively, it relates to the word for pitchfork (עתר). Just as a pitchfork overturns grain from place to place, so to does tefilla of the righteous change God’s decree from cruelty to mercy. Hence, this tefilla is a model for holding out hope in the face of long-term yearning and challenges.

The commentaries add another dimension to this prayer when they teach that Rivka was an integral part of the tefillot being answered. Yitzchak prays “l’nochach ishto,” in the presence of his wife. The midrash explains that they were both equally devoted and sychronized in their tefillot. Each stood in one corner, but together in the same room, highlighting the strength of davening together. Additionally, Rivka continues praying when pregnant. When the twins struggle inside her womb, she goes to “lidrosh (inquire) of Hashem.” Ramban, based on other instances of this word in Tanach, comments that in this moment of concern and crisis, she prayed to God.

This week Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd and their return to Jerusalem after many centuries – another model of long-term prayers fulfilled. Yet, our beloved Jerusalem and Israel still face challenges and adversity. Rivka and Yitzchak provide a model of tefilla as entreaty and inquiry and as a source of extended optimism as we pray our dreams of peace and security will be fulfilled. Shabbat Shalom & Chodesh tov! -Karen Miller Jackson