In this week’s parasha, we find the origin of a custom practised by mourners, usually carried out just before the funeral of their loved one commences. At this time, the clergy officiating takes a sharp blade and cuts the cloth of each of the direct mourners (child, sibling, spouse, parent), allowing the mourning to expand that cut into a noticeable tear. The mourners then read out the prayer for learning unfortunate or bad news (Baruch Ata … . Dayan Ha’emet – Blessed is God, the true Judge). This process is known as “k’riah” (tearing).

The first mention of this custom takes place after Joseph’s brothers conspire to kill him. Reuben instructs them not to harm him or kill him, so they throw him into a pit and later sell him to some Ishmaelites. Reuben returns to the pit where Joseph is supposed to be, and finds that he is not there. He tears his clothes, and when he returns to his brothers, he says; “The boy is gone! Now what am I to do?”. A little later, we find the more infamous mention of this custom, when the brothers take Joseph’s coat, they dip it in the blood of a kid goat that they slaughter, and then they present it to Jacob, who recognizes the coat as Joseph’s, and he tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and begins to mourn the loss of his son.

Reuben’s actions seem driven by a fear of what could be, perhaps of uncertainty – he is looking for answers. Jacob’s actions are a direct response to hearing the terrible news, that his son has been killed. He feels a deep sense of loss, he isn’t looking for answers. His physical actions are a direct expression of the grief he feels, and they allow him to release some of the agony and heartbreak he experiences.

The halachic and historical requirement is to tear enough to expose one’s heart. In doing so, the physical centre of our existence is exposed, in addition to the emotional pain we feel in our heart. We feel vulnerable, perhaps even defenseless. An integral part of our life has been removed, and we are hurting.

When dealing with grief, we typically go through different stages in processing that grief. One of the defined early stages is anger, which is what Jacob intensely demonstrates when his sons report to him what has happened to Joseph. He aggressively tears his clothes, he expresses his grief through this physical action, to help him process what has happened.

Some psychoanalysts say that anger is a component of all mourning, and that one of the key functions of the mourning process is to work through and dissipate the anger, which historically was expressed through the symbolic, and often aggressive act of tearing one’s cloth.

However, humans don’t always follow the pre-defined order of events. Anger is listed as an early stage of mourning, but some people may not feel the anger, or want to express it when told to do so. Therefore, the mourner may not want to engage in a public (or other) expression of anger at the time we perform the k’riah. They may only enter that stage later in the mourning process.

And even though k’riah was how our biblical ancestors expressed the anger of their loss, it is not necessarily the chosen method for today’s society. It is, however, a reminder that the process of mourning contains a number of fixed rituals that represent tradition and emotion, community and observance, grief and support.

It is not solely about following that which has been prescribed for the sake of adhering to a process or ritual, but rather about a much wider acknowledgment that grieving is a process that is made up of several rituals and responses. It is not a single moment in time, but a multitude of different experiences and emotions.

Emphasizing the importance of our ritual practices, whilst allowing mourners to process their grief in a way and at a time that they feel is appropriate, is essential to the continuation of both, as well as the impact of their relevance in our society


After many years away, Jacob undertakes the journey back to his parents’ home, in Canaan. As a young man, he left Isaac and Rebecca’s home fleeing for his life, having tricked his brother, Esau, out of the blessing of the first-born. Since that time, Jacob had lived close to his uncle, he had worked hard, married and had children. Now he realized it was time to travel back to his family home, to Isaac (Rebecca had passed away). He journeyed together with his wives, concubines, children, servants and herds of various animals.

The journey home was not just a physical one but a spiritual one too. On the way he was destined to meet his brother Esau, whom he had not seen since he fled for his life all those years back. This time as mature adults they were to meet and confront the entanglements of the past.

Part way home, Jacob was advised that Esau was traveling towards him with 400 men. Jacob was terrified and sent word that he meant no harm, he also sent peace offerings to Esau in the form of herds of sheep, goats and cattle. The night before Jacob was to finally meet Esau, he separated himself from his family, so as to protect them. He crossed a river and slept in the wilderness alone. The last time we heard of Jacob sleeping in the desert, he had a vision of a ladder spanning heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending.

This time, Jacob is confronted by an angel who wrestles with him throughout the night. Jacob is wounded in the thigh during the struggle but by morning he prevails. He does not let the angel go until he is given a blessing and a new name: Israel. Israel literally means “the one who wrestles with God”.

After this encounter, Israel (or Jacob) meets his brother Esau and they are united in a peaceful way, for a short while. They part, and Israel continues the difficult journey and reaches home.

To summarize various commentaries of our sages, in particular Hasidic ones, this Torah reading invites us to consider what we are journeying towards in our lives and identify something from our past we need to make peace with, or come to terms with. We don’t need to look too hard, these issues come to us and confront us regularly.

This week, you are invited reflect on something you are striving to achieve and ask yourself whether there is something from your past that needs to be addressed to help you move forwards.

Jews received the name Israel by virtue of being descendants of Jacob, Israel, the “God Wrestler”. Let’s reflect on what we are wrestling with as individuals and as a community. Let’s not wait till Yom Kipur to consider making amends with people and issues from our past.

May each of us be blessed to know that struggling is part of being human and that accepting to face the struggle is part of the solution. We might be a little wounded when we face our ‘wrestling angel’ and our past, but it can lead to great insights and healings.

Lately, when I read the news, the impression I have is there is just one depressing story after another. One could be forgiven for thinking that the world is consumed in hate and threatening to tear itself apart at the seams. The Korean Peninsula is threatening to erupt into war, Zimbabwe is descending into chaos, migrants are on the move in desperate search for a safe haven, and those are just a few of the headlines dominating the news.

In spite of how depressing or upsetting the news of the day can be, if we look beyond the madness, beyond the hate, we find kernels of love and justice. The recent plebiscite here in Australia over marriage equality is another example of people overcoming their doubt and fear to give hope and justice to all. The darkness of the ones who only focus on themselves is illuminated by those who expand their view beyond themselves.

We read in this week’s parashah, Va-Yetzei, Bereshit 28:16-17:

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!”

Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” Rashi, the famous medieval commentator, explains the verse by translating it literally – and I, I did not know. The double emphasis on the word “I” serves to illustrate how much we can miss when we focus on ourselves. When so much gears around a selfish I, then you never will know the true awe that is around you.

God is in our midst, and we only need to pause to recognise it. This week, I will be sitting down with several friends for the feast of Thanksgiving. It is customary to go around the table and everyone to say something they are thankful for. Once a year, we pause and force ourselves to come up with something positive; something that we elevate and not take for granted; something that pushes us to think of something other than ourselves.

I pray that like Jacob, we are able to find the kernel of positivity that shines through the darkness. That idea that moves us from the present self-centred perception, to one that encompasses the awe that is clearly around us, if we would only open our eyes.

Because the Torah reflects life itself, one does not find stories of harmonious families, where every member simply and always loves the other. In the second generation of humankind, Cain kills his brother Abel. In the second generation of Jewish history, Isaac and Ishmael have conflict. It seems that sibling rivalry is at least as old as the Torah itself. However, why does the Torah, a moral, ethical and religious code, explicitly describe the dysfunctional dimensions of so many of our role models? This week’s parasha raises the question again.

Toldot focuses upon the story of Esau – a physical, brash and impulsive hunter – and Jacob, more cerebral, gentle, thoughtful and patient but also an opportunist and a problem-solver. From their earliest days in their mother’s womb, they fight with one another. In their early years, they squabble over the family’s birthright, to which Esau as the oldest son is legally entitled, but sells cheaply to an opportunistic Jacob. Then, as their father ages, Jacob, spurred on by his mother, tricks his father to receive his father’s blessing. Principles of goodness and justice make us question Jacob’s behaviour, yet he is one of our three patriarchs acknowledged during every prayer service. Esau, on the other hand, is mentioned only these early stories, and then in later parts of the Bible as the forerunner or our enemies, Edom and Amalek. While the Torah describes this unhealthy family conflict, it seems to favour Jacob over Esau, seemingly siding with an apparent wrongdoer over his victim.

The Torah must be teaching something beyond the problem of sibling rivalry – it seems that its focus is the notion of automatic privilege by status, particularly the automatic transfer of a special birthright to every oldest son, regardless of who that son may be. The Torah is not afraid to reject and replace such traditions when they no longer make sense. While the biological status of a first-born son has unique status known as the “bachor”, the Torah rejects biology as the sole definer of one’s worth. A person’s birthright does not presuppose ones ‘life-right’. The Torah cares more about how we live our lives, as opposed to what one deserves due to an inherited status. In this way, we understand that Torah is a living Torah, and its teachings must adapt to circumstances of our time.

When we trace the life of Jacob, he never repeats the same mistake or wrong more than once. He also allows others in his family to forgive and to be forgiven. By doing this, he establishes his right as a progenitor of the Jewish people. We must live our lives in a manner that is worthy of our inheritance, including modifying and changing ancient traditions when they no longer serve families and communities of love and kindness we are called to create as a core principle of Torah.

This week’s parashah is almost “book-ended” by two prominent deaths. The first is that of Sarah, our first matriarch. While the name of the parashah, Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah) doesn’t directly imply that it deals with the end of her life, it is an appropriate reminder that death is a part of the human life cycle.

One of the first things Abraham does after Sarah’s passing is to acquire a burial site for her, which he buys from the Hittites, whose land he is living on. The Hittites offer to give Abraham any land he chooses for Sarah’s burial, but Abraham insists on purchasing the land, and a specific piece of land, the cave of Machpelah. Effectively, Abraham has entered into a commercial agreement – he has paid the full land value of 400 shekels of silver, and acquired the property he wants to bury his wife in.

At the beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha, God tells Abraham to leave his native land, and to go to a land that God will show him. Later in the same parashah, God makes a covenant with Abraham, assigning the land referred to earlier, to Abraham’s descendants. 

Ironically, therefore, Abraham is purchasing land for burial use, in a land that his descendants have been promised.

However, Abraham has identified himself as a “resident alien”, clearly recognizing that nothing there actually belongs to him. In biblical terms, the land referred to will only form part of his descendants’ legacy several centuries later.

Moreover, he has chosen not to accept a gift of land, nor bargain on the price – he pays the full value of the land to Ephron, who owns the land.

Abraham wants to ensure that the burial site he has chosen will remain as a burial site, so he acquires a legally-sanctioned and permanent security over the land. No one can say that he got the land for less than it’s worth, he did not receive any favors in this regard.

Abraham wants to make sure that following her death, Sarah’s funeral arrangements and her final resting place are arranged appropriately, so that she is looked after and respected, just as she looked after him and his family while she was alive.

Abraham recognizes that death is a part of life, and that we need to ensure we take appropriate steps to honor our loved ones, just as we would want to be honored and respected when our time comes. Sarah was a stalwart and a role model not only for her family, but also for the generations that followed, and she is still today.

Abraham takes extra steps to ensure that Sarah’s life is honored in the most appropriate manner. He acquires a place for his wife’s burial, honoring and perpetuating her memory.

Toward the end of the parashah, we learn of Abraham’s death and his subsequent burial, the other “book-end” I referred to earlier. Just as the actions he took in ensuring Sarah’s burial were carried out with the highest amount of reverence and respect for her, he receives the same respect from his family, further allowing Sarah’s legacy of a warm and caring woman to live on.

One of the key teachings in this parashah, therefore, is to understand our place in the unfolding of life. We may have big dreams, our own “Promised Land” for which we strive – yet the lesson of our ancestors is that even if we may not achieve all for which we dream, we must maintain our vision and do our best walk that path. Further, each of us has been bequeathed the promise of the initial brit of our ancestors: to be part of a special people, with a Promised Land and a mission to bring justice and goodness to this world.

So we take responsibility for being a link in the chain of tradition, remembering, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We must not be despondent when world, social or economic factors deter us from accomplishing our goals. Rather, like Abraham and Sarah we must continue to “walk before God”, never losing our vision, never being deterred from our purpose.

This week in our parashah we read the continuing story of our ancestor Abraham and from the series of vignettes about him, we learn how to behave and establish a number of important mitzvot. We open with Abraham sitting in the doorway of his tent in companionable silence with God. The commentators say that God is visiting Abraham after his circumcision, demonstrating and modeling the mitzvah of visiting the sick. Then Abraham notices three strangers walking through the desert heat, he leaves God and races to tend to their needs, welcoming them and sharing food and drink. From this story we learn the importance of the mitzvah of hospitality, welcoming strangers and guests into our homes. And finally Lot, Abraham’s nephew is kidnapped and Abraham races to rescue him establishing the mitzvah of redeeming captives. But then comes an incredibly significant story from which we derive the understanding of a minyan being ten people.

God opens the story asking, “should I tell My servant Abraham what I am about to do?” Just like the story of Noah, God is about to rain destruction upon a group of people and this time God is questioning whether or not to tell Abraham. God revealed to Noah what was going to happen and Noah said nothing, Noah followed God’s instructions, did not question, he was a faithful and dutiful servant. The Torah says over and over “just as God instructed, so Noah did.” But this time God is not sure, should Abraham know what is about to happen or should God keep it from him? How will he react?

God decides to tell Abraham and unlike Noah, Abraham argues with God’s decision. Abraham says: “Would the God of righteousness so act? Destroying the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham confronts God, calls God to account. And God responds that if Abraham can find fifty righteous people in the cities, then God will not destroy them. They bargain further and Abraham convinces God to agree to ten people. If there are ten righteous people in the cities, they will not be destroyed. God then destroys the cities so we assume there was not ten people who met the righteousness standard. And it is from this story we derive the principle that a minyan is ten people.

So what is so magical about that number? Ten is the number of a community, when there are ten people gathered, that is enough to form a community. Ten people can make a difference, ten people can make change, ten people can influence others. If there were ten righteous in the cities then there would have been enough people to bring the principles of goodness into those cities, it would have been enough to provide hope that change could happen, that others might follow and also do right.

Ten people coming together, behaving in a manner which is good can bring about change. It can also offer support and comfort, bring blessings to those around. When ten people gather, magic can happen, together they can bring a new tomorrow, comfort, strength and blessing. May we all know the blessings of community and be strengthened by those around us.

How many glass ceilings have you set for yourself? This week’s Torah reading begins with the word lech, ‘go’ or ‘walk’. Sages consider human beings as ‘walkers’, they need to keep moving, improving themselves, evolving, in order to reach their potential. In a way, we are metaphorically like a river, when the water is stagnant it attracts disease, when water is flowing, it is healthy.

The Sefat Emet, a rabbi from 19th Century Eastern Europe, teaches that we always have the opportunity to evolve. We have the ability to change things within ourselves and in our lives. It is the principle of lech, being a ‘walker’. Just as the morning prayers state that God constantly renews the world each day: mechadesh kol yom tamid, so each person has the opportunity to renew themselves each day.

We have unconscious limitations that have accumulated over the years, and this week we are invited to reflect on them and see if they restrict us from being who we want to be. For example, you might feel that you are not artistic, but you actually love art and would love to explore that possibility. This week is the week to question that limit you have placed on yourself. Also, ask yourself, what are the subconscious messages I have received from my family – both positive and negative? In the Torah, God says to Abraham – “Go forth…from your ancestral home to the land I will show you.” One of the ways of understanding this instruction, is that Abraham (and each of us) is being asked to consider the messages and habits we have received from our family and to consider which serve us well and which might serve us better if we modified them? What is the “land” that God will show you?

The 13th Century Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, states that lech lecha, is an invitation to contemplate the depths of yourself and find the authentic you, informed (but not controlled) by what others think. This is the level of you that is your essence – it is “the land that God will show you”. Where does your essence what to lead you, and what are the ruts and routines that have kept you stuck?

In the words of Rabbi Moses Zacutto in 18the Century Italy: “Lech lecha (‘go forth into yourself’) is addressed to every person. You must search and discover the root of your soul, so that you can fulfill it and restore it to its source, its essence. The more you fulfill yourself, the closer you approach God.”

Finally God says to Abraham, “be a blessing” ve-heyeh bracha. The word used for ‘be’ is ve-heye, spelled in Hebrew: V-H-Y-H. . The Hasidic Rebbe, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, writes that this is significant because the name for God, Y-H-V-H and the word for ‘be’ have the same letters in different order. There is a mystical way of understanding the divine name where Y-H stands for God and V-H for humanity. In this understanding of the divine name, God and humanity are partners in stewarding the earth.

Thru this evocative use of the name Y-H-V-H, Levi Yizchak teaches that we are called by God to reconfigure reality to such an extent that God’s most sacred name be “misspelled”, with human beings (V-H) preceding God (Y-H). God wants us to take the lead and be active partners in the world. With the inspiration of this week’s Torah reading, may each of us be even more of a blessing to others, to ourselves and to the world. May we remember that we are always evolving and that change is possible. Ve-heyeh bracha, may you be a blessing.