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.

Into history’s stage walks Avram with his wife Sarai and the members of their extended family at the beginning of this week’s parasha. God calls to Avram, “Go forth … to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” This is the beginning of the covenant, or brit, specific between God and our people. Prior to

this, God had made a covenant with all humanity after Noah: no longer to destroy the world again. How would God then respond to an ever misguided humanity, given this constraint of “not being able to start all over again.” The answer is through Avram and his people. They are to establish a model society, in a land dedicated to God’s purpose. This week’s parasha and next tells the story of Avram.

While given this incredible promise and challenge, Avram realises it does not come easily. First there is a famine in the land and he and Sarai must descend into Egypt, where their lives are at risk. Upon return, his shepherds and those of his nephew Lot’s quarrel and he must resolve the problem by dividing the land. Then Lot is kidnapped and Avram must go to war to rescue him. His place in the land tenuous, his age advancing, he queries how he will know that the promise is being fulfilled. In a mysterious vision God confirms that the promise indeed will be fulfilled, the brit of land and people, but first they will suffer hardship and servitude. Avram and Sarai, still being childless, resort to having a child, Ishmael, son of Sarai’s handmaid, Hagar. Finally, God asks Avram to circumcise himself and the males of his household as a sign of the covenant and as a precursor to having a child with Sarah. Avraham and Sarah have new names at the end of the parashah, but still have not had their child and await God’s further intervention. Does God intervene in humanity’s affairs in this way? Some believe so fully.

Others do not. For the latter, how can this story be understood? By handing down this story, one generation to the next, our ancestors handed us an important mission. The earth has gone through its various extinctions of animal life and transformations of consciousness. Our ancestors perceived that ultimate perfection of creation was in our hands; that to “start the game all over again” when it wasn’t going “our way” is actually childish. Whether God is real or a human construct, God’s decision to “stick with the rules” and not start a new game places enormous responsibility on humans. Our ancestors were the first ready to pick up the cudgel. As this parashah indicates, with cudgel comes struggle. It has never been – and it will never be – easy to be a faith people. Yet our first ancestors, Avraham and Sarah, set us on our path: to be covenanted to a higher purpose, which they called the service of God. As God in Judaism is understood as Creator, Revealer and Redeemer, this becomes our task: to preserve our creation, to search for deeper truth and meaning in life, and to bring justice to this world.

Parashat Noach

This week in our parasha we read the stories of Noah and his ark and the Tower of Babel, both great Sunday School favorites and stories most of us encountered for the first time as children. We know the tales but rarely do we go beyond the animals marching into the ark two by two, Noah, usually with a long, grey beard and a staff standing at the door of his ark, the dove, the raven and the rainbow in the sky. We remember the great tower stretching to the heavens and all the people being confounded, unable to communicate as new languages come into the world and people are scattered to the earth’s four corners. Great, fanciful stories but what deeper teaching do they reveal for us? What links the stories together and what can we learn from them?

On one level, perhaps the stories are about humanity’s domination over nature, our concern with the material world, with consuming and ruling over all others. Maybe the link is the concept of humanity taking and reaping from the land without taking time to consider the effects and to give back. If we view the stories in this way, then they become cautionary tales of the destruction and damage we can do through our self centered domination of the world and people around us. Shabbat is the antidote to this ailment, this malady which is rife in our societies where we seek dominion over all before us, working to tame the world around us. The Shabbat comes to remind us to step back from the consumerism, from the relentless pursuit of bigger, better and more, and instead to dwell in a place of harmony and peace with the universe and with ourselves.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on Shabbat especially we care for the seed of eternity planted within the soul. The world has our hands but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the soul.

The Sabbath

Shabbat is our gift, our time to step back from the world and tend to matters of the spirit. On Shabbat we are reminded of what is most important; the relationships we share, the connections between people, the beauty of the world and nature, being in harmony with the earth and not in competition with it. We create our own sanctuary of peace, a time for contemplation, rest, rejuvenation. A time to consider what is most important and to connect with ourselves, the earth and the people around us. Shabbat is a precious gift which is presented to us each week and this week especially, we join together as a community to celebrate and affirm what is important. Instead of trying to subdue the world and those around us, we strive to be in harmony and connect with the earth and people.

May we all have a Shabbat of rest, of joy, hope, peace, love and harmony.

Parashat Bereshit

“By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Genesis 3:19)

A group of twelve year old are studying the Book of Jonah, each one of them taking on the part of one of the characters in the book, from Jonah, the sailors and the king of Nineveh, to God and the big fish which had swallowed Jonah.

The closing verses leave the class perplexed – what kind of story ends with the protagonist angry and disillusioned, the Almighty posing a question that remains unanswered: “And should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” The frustration of the young people is palpable.

So I set them a task. Here are four brief chapters that tell the story of the prophet Jonah. Now imagine the missing chapter. How does the book really conclude? How is this exchange between Jonah and God resolved? The class moves reluctantly into groups; they take time to assign characters to themselves and to talk about the way the story might have continued.

But slowly short scenes of the chapter begin to emerge. God and Jonah are, at least, still talking to each other. In one group, God has given Jonah some seeds to plant. He sprinkles them over the ground; now he is digging the earth, laboring furiously to make them grow, praying for rain, and God, standing on a plastic chair looks on, arms folded, waiting to see whether Her prophet has really understood the lessons of Nineveh.

It is an evocative scene. The group looks at me for approbation. Did they realize, as their scene unfolded, the biblical echoes of Genesis reverberating throughout this short drama? The man and woman sent out of the Garden of Eden to labor by the sweat of their brow in order to provide food for themselves? Noah after the flood planting a vineyard?

It is obvious that Jonah must learn his lesson and purpose, not only through God’s words, but through his work. Like Adam and Noah, Jonah too must experience the labor of planting seeds, nurturing growth in order fully to comprehend the nature of God’s compassion for his people.

The little group of young people had managed to translate those closing words of the Book of Jonah into a lesson, not only for Jonah, but for all humanity. It is in our labor to provide for ourselves and others that we find purpose and meaning and through which we can fulfill our potential. Jonah will only understand God’s compassion and solicitude for the suffering of creation, when, rather than leaving it to others, he has labored to create something himself.


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