Toledot and Thanksgiving


Parshat Toledot

Genesis 25:19-28:9

This week’s Torah portion is Toledot.  Toledot means generations.  It focuses on the life of Isaac and on the birth of his twin sons Esau and Jacob.  Interesting the Torah portion actually revolves around food! Perhaps that is one of the ironies this week as we celebrate our Thanksgiving feasts.

As the Parasha opens Isaac and Rebekkah like Abraham and Sarah a generation before face a lack of food and must go down to Egypt to survive. And then later in the Parsha, Isaac’s son Jacob cooks a pot of red lentil stew and his hungry hunting brother, Esau trades his inheritance to satiate his immediate hunger.  Esau doesn’t think through the consequences of his ravenous and gluttonous behavior.

There is family strife between the brothers and Jacob deceives his father by masquerading as his brother and receives the blessing and Esau’s plea “Have you no blessing for me father?”  This week’s portion tells of parental favoritism and jealousy and rage between brothers.

The themes of the portion couldn’t be more apropos for the Thanksgiving festivities. For many in our country they have no food to eat. Famine is there every day experience.  We gather to try to feed the hungry but the overwhelming poverty that our nation faces makes this a daunting task.

We feast on food during Thanksgiving and act out our family dramas around our holiday tables.  Families reunite and yet often there is an undercurrent of past hurts and past errors that were never confronted.  Family tensions are brought to the forefront during the holiday season even as people schlep across the miles to reunite!

Yes it sounds like this week’s Torah Portion.

So as you gather around your Thanksgiving table.  Here are some special prayers and readings that you might share together. Place this day in its proper context.  Ratchet down the drama and approach one another with gentleness.  Forgive past hurts and try to forge a foundation of hope and caring together.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Legend of the Five Kernels…
The first winter the Pilgrims spent in their new home was very cold.
Food was in short supply. Some days they had only enough food
for each new person to have five kernels of corn for the day.
Finally spring came. They planted food and it grew. All the Pilgrims did not die.
From then on, when a time of Thanksgiving came around,
the Pilgrims put five kernels of corn on each plate
to remind themselves of their blessings. Let us also remember:

The first kernel reminds us of the autumn beauty around us.
The second kernel reminds us of our love for each other.
The third kernel reminds us of God’s love and care for us.
The fourth kernel reminds us of our friends-especially our Native American
The fifth kernel reminds us that we are a free people.


“Our Creator shall continue to dwell above the sky, and that is where
those on earth will end their thanksgiving.”


thank you God for most this amazing day;
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;
and for everything which is infinite which is yet.

ee  Cummings


“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”



Thanksgiving Day…. is the one day that is purely American.”

  O’Henry 1862-1910

“I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you and be happy.”


A Eulogy for Sarah-Parshat Chayei Sarah

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1-25:28

This week’s Torah portion, although named the life of Sarah opens with news of her death and the purchase of her burial place in the Cave of Machpelah which you can still visit in Hebron, Israel.

Today let us remember our great Mother –Sarah who was first of the four Matriarchs of Sarah.


In Jewish tradition at a funeral we give a hesped.  This corresponds to a eulogy where we share memories, stories and try to reflect on the life of the individual.  However there is a difference between a hesped and a eulogy.  Eulogy comes from the root word for praise and so a eulogy is to praise the life of the deceased.  In Jewish tradition a hesped , really means “tell it like it was”.  So praise is not the major component of our thoughts and remembrances of the deceased.


I imagine that if we were to be at Sarah’s funeral we might hear the following hesped of Sarah.


Dear friends and family we have come today to lay to rest the body of Sarah here in Hebron. Sarah was 127 years old. Her birthday was just a few months ago.  And even though her years were advanced she was sharp as a tack and still lived a full life. She recently came here to Hebron having left her tent in Beershevah.  So her death came as a tragic and sudden shock to us all.  She was the First wife of Abraham, mother of Ishmael and Isaac, blessed by God.  And our hearts go out to all of the family.


Sarah was born in Ur and went to Haran where she grew up with you Abraham.  She was your niece and you married and she followed your dreams-to resettle in Cannan. She was a loyal wife and ran your household with cheer.
Sarah was a strong woman both physically and spiritually.  She was a loyal wife to Abraham. So much so when she knew she couldn’t have children of her own she gave Abraham Hagar her servant so they could have a surrogate mother for their child.  Barrenness didn’t stop Sarah. She was always involved in the family business together bringing more and more people into the fold.


One of the great moments in Sarah’s life was when God changed her name. God had previously done so with her husband whom she first knew as Abram but when he made the solemn commitment to the covenant God proposed, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham.  Sarai’s name was subsequently changed to Sarah upon the promise of her carrying a child.  Both included in this new covenant.


Sarah had a great sense of humor and a hearty laugh.  She kept the whole family on their toes with her cynic’s eye and her spirit of welcome.  She was a good cook.   And she loved to entertain. Often she would host the travelers who stopped by the tent. Abraham you called out to Sarah, “Let us welcome these strangers with cakes and provide water to wash their tired and dusty feet.” And Sarah would rush to make them feel at home. She was a real balabusta!


Once when three special travelers came on their journey they brought unbelievable news they revealed that Sarah would become pregnant at an advanced age.  Sarah wasn’t exactly in the main welcome tent but overheard the men’s conversation.  With her usual cynic’s edge she laughed so heartily that the whole encampment stopped to find out what was going on!  But lo and behold, when the travelers returned a year later Sarah had given birth to her own child, she gave birth at the age of 90 and in honor of that laughter named him Isaac!


She was so blessed that miracles occurred for her.


Isaac you were the apple of her eye.  And she tried to protect you from.  But Sarah’s jealous side came out and sadly she ordered you Abraham to remove your first child Ishmael and his birth mother, Hagar from the household.  I know that this affected the whole family.  I don’t know if Sarah regretted her actions.  But I know one of the reasons she came to Hebron was because she thought you had retaliated by taking Isaac away on your recent trip to Mt. Moriah without telling her.


I know she began to think that sending Ishmael and Hagar out into the wilderness was wrong. She saw how it broke your heart. And it broke her heart. But following God’s call to nearly sacrifice your birth child with her, Isaac brought her great sadness and grief. And it filled her with remorse for what she had done. She felt as if you willing were taking revenge upon her.  Sarah came here to search for you and Isaac.  She came to find Hagar and Ishmael and ask forgiveness. But the news of Isaac’s near sacrifice I think shocked her to death.  She realized how she and her family had been shattered. And it grieved her greatly.


And now we grieve and mourn for her.  We give thanks for her courage to travel to the Promised Land to step into unknown cultures and situations.  We give thanks for her fierceness and following God’s call.  We give thanks for her commitment to hospitality of the strangers. We give thanks for her ability to forgive and to seek forgiveness.  She was truly a pioneer. May her memory live for a blessing.




A New Book: Deuteronomy

Parshat Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:1 -3:22

This week we begin reading the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. Moses begins to retell the story of the Children of Israel. He recounts the journey from Egypt to the eastern shore of the Jordan River. This is the beginning of his final speech to the people, to this group that he has ushered through so many experiences.

God has already told Moses that he will not be able to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. He will not complete the journey but he will accompany the Israelites to the edge and then on Mt. Nebo he will be gathered into God’s embrace and will die there.

But the group that he addresses now is not the group that left Egypt. Our portion tells us that the Children of Israel dwelt 38 years by Kadesh –Barnea which was time for the generation who refused to go up to the Promised Land after the report of the spies (See P arshat Shelach –Lecha in the book of Numbers) to die out. “Thus after you remained at Kadesh all that long time…” (Deut 1:46), Moses says to this people. Who are the people he is addressing? These are actually the children of the generation who left Egypt, the children of those who left slavery. The people Moses is addressing are the children born in the intervening 38 years who have grown up in the wilderness. The opening chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy could be seen as a history lesson for the descendants of the slaves. He is like a grandfather telling the grandchildren family stories, sharing memories of tales of years gone by. These stories will become the shared memories and shared narrative of the next generations.

We Jews do this all the time. Our Passover Seder experience is a retelling and reinactmentof our history so that it becomes ours. Our study of our Torah itself, each weekly reading, is for the story of our ancestors to become our story and our journey. As our tradition teaches, “Bechol Dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’eilu hu yatzah mimitzrayim. In every generation each person is to imagine that he or she went forth from Egypt.”

And so Moses now wants to shape this new generation who will enter the Promised Land and remind them of our traditions, laws and our story-their story, their parents’ story. His last speech will be filled over the next weeks with a recounting of the journey from slavery to the edge of the Promised Land. He will repeat the Commandments and try to inform this generation of the glory of the Holy One as revealed to the generation of their parents. Moses will help this generation who will settle in the Land of Israel and help fulfill the covenantal promise made to Abraham see themselves as a link in this ancient chain.

Today take a moment to think about how your own personal story intersects the story of the Jewish people! Where are you on that continuum? And imagine that you too are the link in the chain of tradition – because you are!

On Journeys- Maase’ei

Parshat Maasei

Numbers 33:1-36:23

We have come to the end of the book of Numbers with this week’s parasha, Maase’ei. It is most often paired with last week’s portion Mattot, but separated in a leap year. The Portion begins with the recounting of the journey of the Children of Israel: “These are the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron” (Num. 33:1).

One rabbinic teacher asks Why does the portion begin with the word “Eileh”? It begins this way because the travels of the Children of Israel would begin with the study of Torah. The Hebrew word “Eileh” =These. But this word introduces important sections of the Torah including, “Eileh HaMishpatim” (These are the statutes in Exodus) “Eileh HaMitzvot” (These are the commandments in Leviticus), Eileh HaDevarim (These are the words in Deuteronomy).

One way to understand the opening of this Torah portion is to imagine that the march toward the Promised Land began with the study of Torah. In fact our tradition would teach that the Promised Land is the ability to study Torah. As it says in Mishnah Peah –The Study of Torah is equal to all of the mitzvot!

The emphasis on the study of Jewish ideas, principles and texts is to edify the soul and the spirit. The emphasis on Jewish study in our tradition is to elevate the mind and the heart and the work that you do daily in the world. Sadly, for most Jews if they studied Jewish ideas it stopped at Bar or Bat Mitzvah, often leaving you with a 13 year olds’ perspective of Jewish life.

So if you haven’t explored the meaning of life, the meaning of your life through Jewish texts or ideas, philosophy or mysticism I encourage you to encounter as an adult the richness of our tradition. If

the Children of Israel could study before they went on their way marching toward the Promised Land we

might take some time to shape our own lives on our journey through our week! It will help frame your day and your life in a deeper and more meaningful way.

L’olam Ya’asok Adam BaTorah V’Achar Kach Yeitzei La’Derech”; A person should make sure to learn Torah before embarking on any journey.

Bli Neder- without taking a vow: Mattot

Parshat Mattot

Numbers30:2 -32:42

It is summer and families gather for wedding celebrations. In most wedding celebrations everyone looks forward to the couples’ vows.  Will they write their own? Will they use traditional vows?  Of course the vow is their pledge of loyalty and love.  But the idea of a vow is not one that is part of a traditional Jewish wedding because vows are frowned upon by Jewish tradition!


In fact in a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony there are no vows.  Only the giving of the ring!


A neder, or vow is seen as a solemn obligation that has the same weight and same importance as Jewish law!  This week’s Torah portion, Mattot, addresses making a vow. “If a man makes a vow to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”


The Sages of the Talmud recognized that vows were often difficult to keep and many times people made them in haste.  Because Judaism believes in the power of words, the Sages discouraged the making of vows because so many people had trouble with them. And so our tradition frowns upon making a neder or vow.   The Talmud even states: “Even when one fulfills a vow he is called wicked.”  (Ned 22a) .  Judaism wants to make it difficult to make a vow and discourages making vows.


If you have made a vow you can be released from it by going to a Bet Din, a panel of 3 Jews who ask the person: “Had you known the consequences would you have made the vow?”  And if you say “No”, then they have the ability to remove it from you.  Another way to remove the vow is to go directly to a Torah Chacham, or sage can also help remove a vow.  In our Torah portion, Mattot,  we also learn that women have a different process than a man concerning vows because she must have the ascent of her father (if still young in her father’s house) or her husband if married to a man.  If she is divorced or widowed (the Torah can’t imagine a single independent woman!) her vow stands on her word alone.


But the most common way to remove vows said in haste or rash vows is annually at the High Holy Days. First on Rosh Hashanah is a ceremony called “Hatarat Nedarim”.  This is done on the morning before the Holiday and the Beit Din or court of three releases you from your unfulfilled vows of the previous year. In Sephardic communities, it is customary to repeal one’s vows twice each year: forty days before Rosh Hashanah, on the 19th of Av; and forty days before Yom Kippur, on the 1st of Elul.)


And then the evening of Yom Kippur  we are released from  vows through the Kol Nidre prayer.  But the Kol Nidre prayer does not release us from vows concerning others.  It only releases us from personal vows that we made that we again haven’t fulfilled.  This is the way of making sure that if you didn’t perform the ceremony on Rosh Hashanah you won’t enter the year with the “sin” of unfulfilled vows.

Each of these was our Sages’ way of discouraging reciting vows and then finding that you can’t fulfill them. Brilliant really if you think about it. Perhaps this is our Sages’ way of keeping us from guilt when we don’t fulfill a pledge! So before you in a moment of emotion of joy or of grief make a vow, think twice about what our tradition says about making a vow.

Hearing the News: Pincus

Parshat Pincus

Numbers 25:10-30:1

There are no more dreaded words from the doctor, ‘There’s nothing more that I can do.”  For the doctor who has exhausted her medical expertise in the efforts to heal a patient it is a moment of anguish.  For the patient who hears those words-the world and time stop.  For the family and friends of the patient often the sense of helplessness is overwhelming.  A terminal illness brings the date of death into stronger focus. While we can never know for sure when a person will die the sense that there is no more hope for recovery brings that reality into sharper focus.  Hearing a pronouncement that the end is immanent changes everything. When all options are exhausted at some point acceptance of death must be confronted.

This is what happens to Moses in this week’s portion, Parshat Pincus. While he doesn’t have a terminal illness, God does tell Moses that the time has come.  His death is imminent.  “And God said to Moses,  “Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was” (Num. 27:12-13).  This is Moses’ death sentence.

This is the man who has carried the burden of the People Israel from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land.  He can see it and dream about it but can never reach it.  What must Moses have felt in that moment when God said, “No?” The Torah doesn’t say.  Was he angry at God? At himself for losing his temper in front of the Children of Israel and hitting the rock to bring forth water to quench their thirst? This of course is the reason God gives for not letting Moses into the Promised Land.  “For in the Wilderness of Zin when the community was contentious you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water. Those are the Waters of Meribath Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin” (Num. 27:14). Moses struck the rock rather than speak to it.  He was impatient and tired of the complaints of the people. And his impatience led him to act rashly.

What did Moses feel when God told him he would die outside the Promised Land?  Was he like a terminal patient whose doctor informs him that the end is near?

But this moment in the Torah affirms Moses’ humanity.  He has in some ways done a super human job. He has confronted kings and gods.  He has carried the people to this moment. He has led and cajoled, taught and shepherded.  He has shaped slaves into a nation. But his death is a reminder to all that he is mortal.

Midrash Petirat Moshe is a small collection of aggadic midrash on the final chapters of the Torah about the hours before Moses’ death.  He pleads and begs to no avail. The angels and God are present in this Midrash as Moses’ takes his final breaths surrounded by the heavenly family!

If only that were true for all of us as we take our own last breath. Moses is not alone even as he is dying. And that is the challenge for all of us: to stand by our loved ones, our family and our friends even when the end is near.  Not to run away or be scared of death. To be a vessel of kindness when hope for recovery is no longer manufactured, that is our challenge.



Blessing and Curses in the World:Balak

Parshat Balak

Numbers 22:2 -25:9

This week’s portion features one of the few talking animals in the Bible: a talking donkey!  Balaam a divine interpreter and astrologer is sent for by the King of Moab to curse the Israelites who are on their way to the Promised Land.  After trying to get out of the task, God tells Balaam to go to the king.  On the way to Moab to an audience with King Balak the donkey sees an angel of God with a sword in his hand.  The donkey swerves into a field. Of course, Balaam cannot see the angel at this time and beats the donkey trying to turn her back onto the road.
The angel again appears to the donkey and presses against the wall squeezing the foot of her master, Balaam.  Again, Balaam beats the donkey.  And a third time the angel blocks the donkey’s way and the donkey simply lays down in the road.  Balaam is completely enraged and beats the donkey even more.

This is when the donkey wryly and sarcastically turns to her master, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?  Balaam says, “You have made a mockery of me” and he threatens to kill the donkey if he had a sword.  The donkey reminds Balaam that he has been a loyal servant and asks, “have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”   Balaam could only answer, “No”.
At this moment God revealed the angel with the sword to Balaam.   And the Angel confronts Balaam about his treatment of the donkey and says to the diviner “If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.”


This is a tale within the larger tale of Balaam who is set to task by the Moabite king to curse the Israelites, but God turns his curses into blessings.  He is supposed to be a prophet but yet he can’t see what is holy, including this angel of God.

He is supposed to have power to see the divine in everything. And yet, Balaam can’t see the divine spirit in the animal that has served him for so long.


This story is a precursor to let us know that he is a false prophet.


But it is a story that teaches us so much more.  It teaches us to open our eyes.  We think we see clearly the road before us but we have to be sensitive and careful to see the divine working in the world, whether in the beast of burden or in ourselves.


The story teaches us that God works through us in the world. The way we treat one another and the way we treat even the lowly donkey must be done with godliness in mind.

So this week turn curses into blessings-and open your eyes to the divine in the world and yourself.