Bereshit / פרשת

Torah Portion: Genesis 1:1 - 6:8

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

When God began to create heaven and earth...

Notice that the translation begins with the word "when God began" and not "In the beginning" as we often hear. However, If we are going to truly be accurate we should say "In a beginning". Without going too deep into biblical Hebrew grammar suffice it to say that the reason it literally means "In a" and not "In the" has to do with how tradition vocalizes the word. The theological implications of this subtle difference are not insignificant.

Translating bereishit "In the beginning" implies an absolute beginning to the creation of the universe. Whereas translating it literally, "In a beginning" or even "When God began" suggests something profoundly different. If the Torah is describing A beginning, not THE, beginning, it raises a lot of the questions.

What were or are the other beginnings? Do we actually live in a multiverse? Multiverse refers to the theory that hypothetically there are multiple universes, including the one in which we live. What became of the other worlds that were created? Or are they going to be created after ours? What are the implications if there were, are or will be other universes?

And all of this from just the first letter of the first word of the Torah!


Noah / פרשת נח

Torah Portion: Genesis 6:9 - 11:32

אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ

This is the line of Noah.—Noah was righteous; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—

This verse presents us with a number of difficult to answer questions. 
- What does it mean that Noah was "righteous"? 
- What does it mean that he was "blameless"? 
- Why is it important that "blameless is qualified by "in his age"? 
- What does "walked with God" mean? 
- Is there a reason Noah's name is mentioned twice in row instead of using the pronoun "he"? (Typically whenever a word is doubled in the Torah it is significant.) 
- Is there significance to the fact that Noah is mentioned by name three times in this one verse? 
- What is the purpose for telling us "this is the line of Noah" when the Torah already introduced us to his family line in Genesis 5.32? 
- What is the meaning of Noah's name?

Even a cursory attempt to answer all of these questions would require a book length response. Instead I am just going to address the meaning of Noah's name. Noah (Noach) in Hebrew means 'rest'. The meaning of this name is explained in Genesis 5.29: "And he named Noah, saying,"This one will provide us with relief from our work and from the toil of our hands...". It is not clear how or if the name relates to the story of the flood.

Hmm, of these eight questions only one can be answered based on what we've already read. Like with any good cliff hanger, you'll have to stay tuned for the answers to the other seven questions.


Lech Lecha / פרשת לך־לך

Torah Portion: Genesis 12:1 - 17:27

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

And YHVH said to Abram...

The name of this week's portion comes from YHVH's instruction to Abram: "go forth" or in Hebrew, lech lecha. As evocative as these two words are, I want to draw your attention instead to the fact that the Torah calls our man Abram, not Abraham. Since we are just now meeting him we don't know yet that during his rise to fame his name will change to Abraham.

So let's have some fun with Abram using gematria. Gematria is way of delving into a word or phrase by first calculating the numeric value of its letters. Then we look for any connections between the number and an idea that sheds light on our original word(s).

Abram is spelled aleph (1) , bet (2), reish (200) and mem (40) giving us 1 + 2 + 200 + 40 = 243. I couldn't find anything significant about this number so I added another step and added each of the integers in 243 together and got 2+4+3 = 9. Now we've got something to work with.

Nine is the number most closely associated with birth because of the 9 months of pregnancy. Abram along with Sari are giving birth to a new nation of people. The first nine numbers make up the "square of Solomon". (see above) The numbers total 15 when added up, down or diagonally. 15 corresponds with God, yod (10) + hey (5).

In light of this numeric analysis the name Abram hardly seems random.


Vayera / פרשת וירא

Torah Portion: Genesis 18:1 - 22:24

וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃

The Lord appeared to him before the terebinths of Memre.

A quick definition search suggests that terebinth is a Mediterranean tree, Pistacia terebinthus, of the cashew family. However, the Hebrew word translated as terebinth is actually oak. Why the difference between the Hebrew and the translation? If you are interested in exploring this question I recommend clicking on this link. It will take you to a great, short article in the Jewish Forward.

In any case, the general understanding is that the terebinths of Memre refer to some sort of grove of trees either owned by someone named Memre or part of a place by that name. However, there are other non literal possibilities for the meaning of memre that, frankly, I think are more interesting. For example, the root of memre in Hebrew, Ugaritic, Arabic and Aramaic, are all similar. In those other languages memre means something more like to bless and strengthen. Thus, perhaps memre is alluding to God blessing Abram and God's promise to him "strengthen" by creating a great nation to flow from him.

Memre may also be related to the verb מור (mur), which means to change. Perhaps this is inviting readers to prepare for or anticipate changes that will soon take place to Abram. Finally, memre may be related to the noun מור (mur), which means bitter. Does this foreshadow bitter times ahead for Abram and Sari?

Once we grant ourselves permission to read Torah as literature, and not history or words to be taken literally, can we truly begin to see why it is so amazing, complex and beautiful.

Chayei Sarah / פרשת חיי שרה

Torah Portion: Genesis 23.1-25.18

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃

Sarah's lifetime - the span of her life - came to one hundred and twenty and seven years.

The portion opens with a somewhat unusual way of describing Sarah's age. Instead of simply writing out one hundred and twenty seven the Torah breaks it out into each of the three numbers: one hundred and twenty and seven. The obvious question is why. However, this is not really a very good question because we simply never know why anything is the way it is in the Torah. A more interesting question is what meaning can we extract from it. This sort of inquiry is potentially more reflective, insightful and intimate.

I polled my colleagues on what they thought was significant about the way Sarah's age was written. One response that I liked suggested that even at the fullness of 127 years Sarah retained something of her youthfulness and even some her child-like qualities. I liked this because it suggested to me that even as we age (and hopefully become mature and wise) it is good for us to be in touch with elements of our youthful personality. In this spirit, I like to think of myself as fifty and nine. The fifty year old me is responsible, serious and otherwise adult. The nine year old me likes to play, fantasize, and dream. As Gail put it, we're not really the sum of our years, as much as we are a compilation of the fractions of them.


Toldot / פרשת תולדות

Torah Portion: Genesis 25:19 - 28:9

וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־יִצְחָֽק׃

This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham gave birth to Isaac.

What is interesting about this week's opening verse is that the Torah says it was Abraham that gave birth to a son. There are lots of extraordinary events described in the Bible but a man giving birth to a child is not one of them.  Yes, it is true that the convention of using begot to refer to a man generating offspring could explain this phrasing. But that's too simple and boring.

There is a midrash that suggests a different explanation. According to the midrash between the time that Sarah left the control of Pharaoh and when she came under the authority of Abimelech, Isaac was conceived. (see Genesis, chapter 20). Whereupon people asserted: “It is hardly likely that this old man could father a son, she must have conceived either from Pharaoh or Abimelech.” In fact, Abraham also had some misgivings. What did the Holy One do? He ordered the angel responsible for the formation of embryos to fashion this embryo in the exact likeness of his father, so that everyone would be forced to acknowledge that he was Abraham’s son.

Crazy, right? Well not so quick. There is something called the paternal-resemblance hypothesis. The maternity of a baby is hard to refute, not so for paternity. Therefore, according to this theory, a new born baby will tend to look like the father in because otherwise the father might refuse to accept responsibility for the infant and accuse his spouse of infidelity. In other words, the ancient midrash seems to be on to something. Although couched in rabbinic imagery this may well be the first written reference to the paternal-resemblance hypothesis. I think this is cool.


Parashat Vayetzei / פרשת ויצא

Genesis 28:10 - 32:3

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה.

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran

This week's Torah portion describes Jacob's journey to Haran, the land of his grandfather Abraham's family. Jacob will eventually remain stuck in Haran for nearly twenty years. I use the word stuck intentionally.

Haran means both the name of a place and it is a biblical word for anger. I think it is intentional double entendre. Arguably, Jacob's forced tenure in Haran is a lmetaphor implying that he was entrapped by anger. Was it his anger at having to flee his home? Or was it Esau's anger at him that kept in Haran? Either way, this Torah portion suggests the holding power of anger. To be sure, anger can be empowering. Years ago I authored a workbook for teens called Harnessing the Power of Anger. Unfortunately, more often than not anger is a trap that imprisons us just as securely as any jail cell.


Vayeshlach / פרשת וישלח

Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃ 
Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

Angels are familiar characters in jewish religious literature and imagery. In the Torah angels appear frequently and in very important supportive roles. However, they are often disguised to both the characters in the Torah and to us the readers. This is because the word for angels melachim/מַלְאָכִים֙also means messengers. Unnamed messengers in the Torah are almost always also angels!

When angels (melachim/מַלְאָכִים֙) are mentioned in the Torah, like in the opening line of this week's Torah portion, they always come disguised as ordinary messengers delivering divine messages. This is the case when the melachim/מַלְאָכִים֙ visit Abraham and Sarah to inform them that Sarah will become pregnant (Gen. 18:2).

I love the idea of blending messenger with angel plus anonymity. Encounters with unnamed people who are really divine messengers significantly alter the arc of the narrative. To me this closely mirrors real life. I know that encounters with anonymous people have bent the arc of my life story in ways I never expected. What unexpected encounters with relative strangers impacted your life?

Vayeshev / פרשת וישב

Genesis 37:1-40:23

וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן׃

Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.

What strikes me in this verse is that Isaac, Jacob's father is not mentioned.  Abraham sojourned in the Canaan.  Jacob settled in Canaan.  Yet Isaac who was born in Canaan and never left is not mentioned!  Applying the principle that nothing in the Torah is unimportant what might this lacuna in the text teach us?

Perhaps one possibility is that from a story tellers point of view lives that  are seemingly stable and secure are not terribly interesting.  Another possibility is that Isaac's settled life sandwiched between his father's and son's peregrinations serves as a reminder to us that stability and security are impermanent.  Maybe the lack of reference to Isaac is just a continuation of his mysterious life. 

Miketz / פרשת מקץ

Genesis 41:1 - 44:17

וַיְהִ֕י מִקֵּ֖ץ שְׁנָתַ֣יִם יָמִ֑ים וּפַרְעֹ֣ה חֹלֵ֔ם וְהִנֵּ֖ה עֹמֵ֥ד עַל־הַיְאֹֽר׃

After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile,

Dreams occur frequently in the Torah as they do in our lives.  Not surprisingly, Judaism takes dreams seriously.  In fact, dreaming is considered to be akin to prophecy.  Interestingly, according to the Talmud the prophetic meaning of a dream and its subsequent fulfillment is according to the interpretation that is granted to it. Thus, whether a dream is a positive or negative sign is subject to how it is interpreted. According to the Talmud, not interpreting a dream is like not reading a letter.

Judaism has a ritual related to interpreting dreams.  It is called hatovat chalom, which literally means making the dream a good one.  According to an authoritative text on Jewish law and practice here is how it works:

If a person experiences a bad dream that disturbs her and causes anxiety, that morning she should conduct a ritual called "Hatavat Chalom" which has the power to transform the dream from an ominous sign of future events into a favorable one. This ritual entails assembling three friends and reciting certain texts and verses that have to do with peace and change.  After the completing the ritual the person should give some money to charity, so as to eliminate entirely any potentially harmful effects of the frightening dream.

By the way, a person who is requested to participate in a Hatavat Chalom should not refuse, as it is considered a great mitzvah to help calm a friend's fears.

Vayigash / פרשת ויגש

Genesis 44:18 - 47:27

וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּאמֶר֮ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִי֒ יְדַבֶּר־נָ֨א עַבְדְּךָ֤ דָבָר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י וְאַל־יִ֥חַר אַפְּךָ֖ בְּעַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֥י כָמ֖וֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹֽה׃

Then Judah came close to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh”.

The obvious "him" that Judah came close to was Joseph (see Gen. chap 44:14).  However, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, also known as Esh Kodesh (20th c.), suggested that the "him" is  actually God.  He is not conflating God and Joseph. Rather, he is suggesting that Judah first needed to feel close to God, or in other words, to feel God's presence close at hand before he could cudgel up  the courage to speak openly and forthrightly to Joseph. 

Theologically the idea of wanting to feel God's closeness while undertaking a challenge resonates with a lot of people.  Indeed, seeking closeness with God  is the essence of the sacrificial system we will read about in the book of Leviticus.  In Hebrew the word for sacrifice is  karbon.  The root of karbon is ק,ר,ב which literally means to come close.  At the heart of religious life is not the performance of rituals and the adherence to arcane rules, but rather seeking closeness to God.

Adhering more closely to the literal meaning of "Judah came close to him" I see another lesson.  Often we prefer to have distance between ourselves and someone we need to confront or challenge.  It is easier, after all, to do this through an email or text than face to face. However, this distancing only depersonalizes the interaction.  In my humanistic religious theology to depersonalize is to exclude God.  In this context, I don't think of God as noun or numinous presence but rather as holy purpose or righteous intent.  Whether seeking God's presence for courage and strength or to humanize a situation striving for closeness is better than creating distance.


Parashat Vayechi  / פרשת ויחי

Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֤י יְמֵֽי־יַעֲקֹב֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָֽה׃

Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.

Is it coincidence or providential that Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery and now the Torah tells us Jacob lived in Egypt for the same period of time?  I'll let you answer this question based on your own theological inclinations.  In the meanwhile, I'm curious to know more about the #17.

Seventeen is the seventh in the series of prime numbers; 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, **17**.  Subsequently it partakes of and intensifies the significance of the numbers seven . Moreover, seventeen is the sum of seven and ten, two power numbers is Jewish numerology (gematria),  Seven represents wholeness (think Shabbat) and ten (and the tenth letter yod) divinity.

Here are some other interesting factoids about the number seventeen.  The floods back in the days of Noah commenced on the 17th of the second month. The ark eventually came to rest on the 17th day of the seventh month.  Yom Kippur is on the seventh day of the tenth month.  In Roman numerals an anagram XVII offers VIXI which in Latin means “I have lived”.  Joseph lived for 17 years under his father Jacob's roof. Later, Jacob lived for 17 years under the protection of his beloved son Joseph.

As we end 2017 and the book of Genesis here are some questions you might enjoy exploring.  What were your first seventeen years like?  How was your seventeenth year? What was happening for you seventeen years ago?  What do you hope the next seventeen yours bring you?

© Copyright Rabbi Howard A Cohen