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This week, as we commemorate Chanukah, our Festival of Light, we will light our candles and begin our eight-day celebration of Chanukah. At the same time darkness has fallen over our world once more with the death of dozens of children in a school in Pakistan, in a world in which so much darkness has already fallen over this last year in particular. The darkness highlights the importance of the work of each of us has in this community. More than ever we must live the lessons of Chanukah, the festival of light; more than ever we must take responsibility to bring light to a world where there is still too much darkness.

Let us reflect on the stories of Chanukah to see how we can do that. Our prayer for Chanukah, “Al HaNisim”, tells us of the background to the story, reminding us of a time of religious persecution and national oppression. “In the days of Matthatias son of Yochanan, the heroic Hasmonean Kohen, and in the days of his sons, a cruel power rose against Your people Israel, demanding that they abandon Your Torah and violate Your mitzvot.” We were forbidden to teach Torah, which opens with the declaration “let there be light”. Light, even in the Torah, is understood as a metaphor for that which is good, for knowledge, perception, wisdom and understanding. To teach Torah, where it says that each and every human being was created in the image of God, each of us divine and equal – was a crime punishable by death. But certain brave individuals, led by the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, refused to let darkness cover the earth.

The word, Chanukah, or dedication, in Hebrew has the same root meaning as the word Chinukh, or education. Our ancestors understood the centrality of education to individuals and society. They established that our first petitionary prayer is the prayer for knowledge, understanding and discernment. They also established the first system for free public education 2,000 years ago – albeit then only for boys. We must not take for granted our privilege of learning, especially in the year in which the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education. Malala said:

This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change. I am here to stand up for their rights, to raise their voice. It is not time to pity them. It is time to take action so it becomes the last time that we see a child deprived of education.”

What we know is that it is not just education, but the curriculum, the vision and values behind the learning that is so central to the lessons learned. Our vision for our congregation is to be a spiritual home for all Jews in this area to sanctify their lives through Jewish practice, sensitive to contemporary society and committed to Jewish tradition, while emphasizing the values of integrity, leadership, inclusiveness, respect and growth.

At our little shul, we teach the light of Torah, the principles of our ancestral tradition. For the prophet Micah it was to do justice, act with loving-kindness and walk humbly with God. For Rabbi Akiva, it was to reference the mitzvah of Torah to “love your neighbour as your yourself.” His predecessor, the great sage Hillel taught, “Be a disciple of Aaron – loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah.” For these prophets, sages and rabbis of old, our greatest teachers, learning Torah – something prohibited during the time of the Maccabean revolt – was about learning principles by which all humanity could live together.

In this week in which darkness descended on our world with dozens of children dead in a school in Pakistan and people hold hostage in a cafe in Sidney, it is important to remember the light that each of us brings by our commitment to learning and teaching. After our winter break, we will have courses of study happening in 2015 for both young and old alike. At CBTBI, we are committed to daily improving the world in which we live. As we learn, we bring light, as we do, we create peace.

The revolt of Chanukah was that first revolt for Chinukh, the right for education, and learning. Let us rededicate ourselves to the spirit of our ancestors whose bravery and foresight we commemorate at this season. Let us learn in order to do, let us learn to be and let us bring the light.

As Jacob settles back in the land of his ancestors, his sons take us to the denouement of the book of Genesis, which for a large part is a detailed response to one of the first questions of the Torah, asked by Cain after killing his brother Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The epic story of Joseph and his brothers begins this week, and in the weeks ahead will lead us in convoluted fashion to the emphatic response, eventually said by Judah to Joseph, that he stands as surety for his brother. Indeed, the lesson “all Israel is responsible one for the other” flows from here. Yet, this week’s parashah reminds us that when it comes to the women in our families, we don’t always stand by them.

The story of Joseph is interrupted by the episode of Judah and Tamar. Judah married the daughter of a local businessman and had three sons. His first son, Er, married a woman named Tamar, but died soon thereafter. Judah had his second son, Onan, marry Tamar and thus fulfill the mitzvah of Yibbum, otherwise known as “Levirate marriage” and described later in Deuteronomy:

When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger, outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall unite with her: take her as his wife and perform the levir’s duty. The first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel.” (Dt. 5-6)

While Onan apparently fulfils the duty of the levir by marrying Tamar, but then violates its central principle as it says clearly in the Torah,

But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and God took his life also” (Gn. 38:9-10)

Judah refuses to give his third son to Tamar, forcing her against tradition to return to her father’s house childless. Eventually through action Judah will refer to as being “more righteous than he” in an interlude between the two of them that leads to the birth of twins, one of whom will be the ancestor of King David.

This little episode reveals how the Torah and tradition, in its focus on “being surety for our brothers” has forgotten we have sisters (and mothers and daughters as well.) Many will know that a word in the English language, “Onanism” (feel free to look it up) has entered our language from this story. It is generally defined as first, “coitus interruptus” and secondly, as masturbation, from interpretations of Onan’s “letting his seed go to waste.” Indeed, the entire rabbinic tradition has many moralistic stories and legal teachings against both of these practices. Sadly, these teachings not just miss the point of the story as clearly told in the Torah, they undermine it as well.

The passage in Deuteronomy discussing Levirate marriage provides the background we need to understand Onan’s actions and transgression. It continues from the point quoted above as follows:

But if the man does not want to marry his brother’s widow, his brother’s widow shall appear before the elders in the gate and declare, ‘My husband’s brother, refuses to establish a name in Israel for his brother, he will not perform the duty of a levir.’ The elders of this town shall then summon him and talk to him. If he insists, saying, ‘I do not want to marry her,’ his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: Thus shall be done Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house. And he shall go in Israel by the name of ‘the family of the unsandeled one.’” (Dt. 25: 7-9)

In other words, Onan was faced with two choices upon the childless death of his brother Er. He could marry Tamar and have a child by her, the first born son taking Er’s inheritance rights, OR he could refuse to do so, and in front of the leaders of the town have his sandal pulled off by Tamar as she spat in his face and gave him the name “the unsandaled one.” Onan instead in private pretends to be fulfilling his duty – only Tamar and he would know that he is not allowing her to fall pregnant – and so “God strikes him dead.”

Clearly this is just one more story in literature about the sexual exploitation of women – sadly one which is clear in the original Torah as to what is the crime of Onan, and one from which the rabbinic tradition has deviated. Interestingly, Rashi comments on the mysterious death of Er: “Er was guilty of the same sin as Onan, of spilling his seed, as it is written regarding Onan, ‘And God… slew him also’ (38:10)–Onan’s death was by the same cause as Er’s. And why did Er spill his seed? So that Tamar should not become pregnant and ruin her beauty” Thus a confusion has come about between the method of the wrong, “spilling the seed”, and the wrong actually perpetrated, which is the sexual exploitation of Tamar.

If only all the verbiage spilt in discussing coitus interruptus and masturbation had been spent on fighting the sexual exploitation of women by men, we may not have the same issues to this day with domestic violence, rape, slavery and so forth. We are not just our brother’s keeper, but also our sister’s, not just for “Israel”, but for all humanity. The Torah’s concern is not how we please our own self, but how we harm another.

This week we read one of the most beautiful and moving moments in the Torah; the reunion of Jacob and his estranged brother Esau. The last time the two were together Jacob feared for his life from the brother he had deceived and wronged. Now, after many years and much growth and change on the part of both, they meet again. The Torah describes the meeting: “Esau ran to greet him (Jacob), he embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him and they wept” (Gen 33:4).

I imagine Esau burying his head against his brother, clinging to him, joining together as they had in the womb of their mother and weeping tears of joy and sorrow, ecstasy and sadness. All the hurt and pain of the years that have passed, all the losses and grief that each have carried with them are shed in the salty tears which streak their cheeks and mingle together. And finally they are at peace. A cover of shalom descends upon them and touches them with its warmth and embrace. In those moments there is shalom, there is wholeness. Twins, two parts of one whole meet and embrace once more, balance and harmony are restored.

In our world today, when each news bulletin seems to bring more tales of horror and terror, brokenness, shattered hopes and dreams, a lack of wholeness, this portion reminds us to have hope. Peace can be made between warring partners, relationships can be repaired, the world can be mended, shalom, peace and wholeness can be restored. We cannot give up hope. Our parashah calls upon us to keep our eyes open in the world to the possibilities before us. To see the signs of goodness, beauty, opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation. Jacob and Esau see the goodness in one another, they remember the ties of family, the importance of peace, of seeing how they are alike and not how they are different. May this Shabbat remind us to look for those things in our world too: to see how we are alike, to find the beauty in one another, to remember that we are all one human family and may we, like Jacob and Esau, soon have shalom, peace and wholeness in our families, our communities, our relationships and our world.

In Parashat Vayetze our ancestral mothers, Leah and Rachel, enter into a contest to have children, as the promise for our family to become a nation begins to blossom. Abraham and Sarah had an only child, Yitzchak. Yitzchak and Rivka have their their twins, Esau and Yaakov who end up in enmity and rivalry. Now Yaakov brings a dozen new children into the world in a few verses. Yaakov, the younger twin, falls in love with the younger sister Rachel. As he tricked his older brother, now his father-in-law tricks him. After working for seven years for the right to marry Rachel, her father Laban substitutes the older and less attractive Leah.

Seven days later Yaakov and Rachel wed, Yaakov having pledged to work another seven years for the right to marry Rachel. The Torah tells us that “Yaakov loved Rachel more than Leah” — a rivalry between brothers is mirrored by a rivalry between sisters. The sisters compete to provide Yaakov with children. In the names they choose for them, they are not trying to establish identities for their children, but rather making statements to God, Yaakov and the world. It is one of the few times in the Torah that the voice of the woman is acknowledged. Leah’s naming gives insight into the plight of the one less attractive, less loved.

The names Leah gives her children reveal the process of healing for one who feels neglected. She names her boys, in order: Reuven—look, a son; Shimon—the Lord has heard me; Levi—attachment; Judah—praise; Issachar—reward; Zebulon—honor; Dinah—judgment. In our times, we tend to give our children names that memorialize loved ones or somehow suit the character of the newborn. But the names of these children, the ones who will become the house of Israel (we are for the most part descended from Judah and Levi), are Leah’s way of communicating what it means to be unloved and then healed. With the first children born to her she feels seen, heard and connected; with the others she acknowledges God’s grace with praise, reward and honor. In the end, naming her daughter Dinah, Leah acknowledges God’s favorable judgment of her, as proved by her life’s story. Leah has been put in an unenviable position. Yaakov desired her younger sister, and her father has duped Yaakov into marrying her. She is the victim of this process and receives God’s compassion for her plight, becoming the mother of more children than Yaakov’s three other wives combined. Eventually, she will be buried by Yaakov’s side in the ancestral tomb in Hebron. Leah’s voice, the voice of the one less loved, teaches us an important Torah.

While Leah benefits from God’s grace in her time of distress and despair, not all of us are so fortunate. But her naming of her children remains a lesson for us as to what we need in our time of trouble and therefore what we need to give when we know of others in theirs: to be seen, to be heard, to be connected. That is what it means to be in a well-functioning community. It is upon us to nurture the other — to look for those isolated, to give them a sense of connection and belonging, to give them the honor and praise they are due.

This week’s parasha highlights the fact that each of us has our own path in life, and thus each relationship between people will be different. We have moved our story forward from our first patriarch, Avraham, and his wife Sarah, to our second patriarch Yitzchak, and his wife Rivkah. Compared to Avraham, Yitzchak is more reserved and constrained. However, in similar circumstances to his father (a barren wife, a famine in the land), he shows his own deep faith. He actually prays for his wife to conceive — and she does. When famine comes, he follows God’s command to stay in the land; when conflict comes, he finds a way of peaceful resolution. While dwarfed by his father who took him up the mountain, Yitzchak shows himself to have faith and clear perceptions.

Rivkah also shows herself to be a unique, strong individual. While Sarah has followed Avraham on his life journey, Rivkah has voluntarily taken her own journey to the Promised Land and entered into relationship with Yitzchak. The Torah clearly states that she spoke directly to God who responded to her (the tradition had difficulty believing God would speak to a woman, so interpreted that Rivkah heard God through an angel). Rivkah is portrayed as a generous, but purposeful, woman who has insight into the spiritual unfolding of the Jewish people.

We hear of the birth of Yitzchak’s and Rivkah’s twins at the opening of this week’s parasha. Esau and Yaakov also have distinct personalities. Esau is the hunter, Yaakov the tent dweller. The famous stories of the “selling of the birthright” and the “deceit of the blessing” show the tension that can occur when people of different behaviours and value come together. It will be a hard journey and struggle for the two brothers, but in a few weeks we will come to understand that difference does not have to lead to domination and defeat, as it seems to in this week’s story. Rather, as each individual grows they come to know their own integrity more deeply and gain a more developed ability to accept the other. While the Torah does not portray that Yaakov and Esau adopt the same values or way of life, they eventually come together in embrace and live in neighbourly relationship.

Just as the brothers’ relationship develops, this week’s parasha also portrays differences in relationship between the parents and their children. At the opening of the parasha, Rivkah’s relationship with Yaakov is one of dynamic, unconditional love (Rivkah loves Yaakov, states the Torah), while Yitzchak’s with Esau is more static and conditional (he loved Esau because of his hunting ability). By the end of the parasha, both agree that Yaakov is the one to carry on the patriarchal covenant of inheriting the land and the nation. These stories teach us that each of us should be allowed to develop along the lines of our innate personality in a creative and loving way, and that the our relationships will also develop and differ. Instead of trying to push square pegs into round holes, we should embrace development and difference as part of the blessing of life.

At 35,000 feet sitting for 4 hrs in that small space between two people, one has not much to do other than thinking about the parashah. This week we read the one portion of the Torah that is named after a woman: Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah”. Ironically, this parashah, which is named for its opening words, actually relates her death and burial. Because the preceding story in the Torah tells of “the binding of Isaac”, the rabbinic tradition has connected these two stories. The ancient sages note that when God calls Abraham to take his son and offer him as a sacrifice, there is no mention that Sarah has been informed. Rather, “Abraham awakes early in the morning” and heads off with his son. The two walk off together to the site of the potential offering. Stopped at the last minute from taking the knife to his son’s throat, the Torah relates that Abraham returns to his home in Be’er Sheva. And what of Isaac? The Torah does not say explicitly. And what of Sarah? We hear of her death. Some commentators have speculated that Sarah dies of the fright she has suffered from her son being taken away and offered as a potential sacrifice; and that Isaac, traumatized, returns to a meditative life in the field. The beauty of Torah, in its lack of detail, is that it enables us to “fill in the blanks” and draw lessons from the story as told.

One thing we recognize is that by this time in her life, Sarah has become silent. Another is that Isaac has become withdrawn. These characters remind us, sadly, of a reality that pervades our contemporary society far too much — the silencing of women, the forcing of our will on children and, in general, situations that cause women and children to seek shelter. This is not to say that our patriarch of blessed memory, Abraham Avinu, was abusive, but rather, we can see the suffering of women and children far too much to this day. In fact back in the time of the Torah, the prime concern for the underprivileged and oppressed is framed in the commandment “to look after the widow and orphan.” As a society, we need to deal proactively to eliminate power structures that disadvantage women and children.

Thus we come to our Synagogue’s Family promise and Peter Pantries as part of CBTBI’s commitment to “doing good deeds to meet community needs”, we will be packing food and supplies for families in need and families looking for shelter. For more information on how to join or how to collaborate contact the office.

These gifts will go a small way towards letting them know that we hear their voices, and that we care.

To best understand the stories of the Torah, one should understand that they are stories. That is, one should read them as ancient morality plays where the focus should move, surprisingly, from God to human. The stories of Avraham need to be understood against the background of the opening myths of Adam and Noah. Adam, “the human prototype”, is created in a universe where both good and evil exist. (Why the universe needs to contain evil is the ultimate question, which can only be answered that infinity must by definition allow for infinite possibilities and permutations.) Once human evolves to having knowledge of both good and evil, an infinite range of choice between the two opens. Not surprisingly, “God despairs” of the choices humans make and decides to “start all over again.”

Noah enters the story as “a righteous man.” However, the story shows him as passive as well. While Adam is disobedient by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Noah is compliant by saving his family and animals to reproduce life after the flood. Yet, post flood, humanity descends into wicked behavior again, as Noah and his descendants have failed to be champions for justice. The notion that “God will no longer destroy the earth by flood again” lets us know that humans now have power over life and death, good and evil, on this planet.

Avraham, the spiritual father of our people, faces constant challenges as to what is right and just. One can question his behavior over the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael as well his taking his son Isaac as a potential sacrifice. Yet, in one of the most well-known passages of Torah literature, God informs Avraham that he “intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah”, for the sins of its inhabitants have come to God’s attention. (According to rabbinic understanding, the sin of Sodom is not what its name has become famous for, but rather its lack of hospitality.) Avraham challenges God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth judge justly?” As a result of their famous negotiation, God accedes to Avraham’s demand to make sure that the innocent are not swept away with the guilty.

This little drama acted out between Avraham and God is meant to be a morality tale for us. Sadly, most of us would still like to blame God for the world’s ills as opposed to taking responsibility for them ourselves. Avraham and Sarah, like us, witness a world in which life is not fair, in which wickedness abounds. They, like us, have choices to make — and in retrospect mistakes will be made. Avraham’s challenge to God – shall not the Judge of all the earth judge justly – is even more a challenge to the generations to come. Judaism teaches that we are God’s agents on earth. The innocent shall not be condemned, nor the guilty acquitted. In our creation, choices between good and bad are constantly in front of us. Goodness and justice are built into the universe, but require human agency to be activated.

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