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The covenant, or brit, promised to our patriarchal ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, has two parts. They will found a great nation who will inherit the land. Yet, at the beginning of this parasha, Va’Yetzei, Jacob has fled from the promised land, childless. Twenty years pass before Ya’akov can return to the land; in the meantime he will begin to build the nation, which will be known by his other name, Israel. In parasha Va’yetzei, 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. Now Ya’akov brings a dozen new children into the world in a few verses. Ya’akov, 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 substitute the older and less attractive Leah.

Seven days later Jacob and Rachel wed, Jacob having pledged to work another seven years for the right to marry Rachel. The Torah tells us that “Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.”; a rivalry between brothers is mirrored by a rivalry between sisters. The sisters compete to provide Jacob 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, Jacob and the world. It is one of the few times in the Torah that the voice of the woman is acknowledged. The names Leah gives her children provide insight into the plight of the one less attractive, less loved.

The names Leah chooses 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. Jacob desired her younger sister; her father has duped Jacob into marrying her. She is the victim in the process and receives God’s compassion for her plight, becoming the mother of more children than Jacob’s three other wives combined. Eventually, she will be buried by Jacob’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. It is only when we do this that we can fulfill the promise of the covenant, to be a great people, to live in the Promised Land.

This week as we read Parashat Toldot, we find one of the most poignant and tragic moments in the Torah. Jacob has, with his mother’s help and guidance, deceived Isaac so that he gives the blessing intended for his older son Esau, to his younger son, Jacob. When Esau comes inside and approaches his father’s death bed, he discovers what has happened. He cries an agonized cry and then asks what has happened. Isaac explains that he has given his blessing to Jacob. Esau begins to sob and he asks: “Is there not a blessing for me too father?” In those few words we find a son seeking approval, blessing, love from his beloved father and his father has nothing to give him. Eventually, Isaac blesses Esau but his words are harsh and far less than what he gave Jacob a few moments before.

The rabbis of the tradition were as disturbed by this episode as we are today. How can a father treat his son that way? How can a mother be complicit in a deception which favors one son over another? Where is the justice? It seems there is none. But the rabbinic commentators are not satisfied with that answer and they seek to demonize Esau so that the actions of his family are justified. There are midrashim which say that Esau, even in the womb, was an idolator, he moved and kicked whenever his mother passed a pagan temple. They argue that Esau did not care about the future, his birthright or his legacy, that his desires were base and his actions all motivated by the lowest of impulses. They suggest he was not the person who could take on the mantle of leadership and be the progenitor of a great nation. So, through a process of interpretation the rabbis justify the harsh treatment of one son over another by creating a dynamic of good and evil.

How much are we seeing this today: the need to paint every picture in black and white, good and evil? The polarization of people and issues is creating a world which is divided and filled with hate and suffering. Humans are complex creatures, Judaism tells us that within each of us is the drive for both good and bad, we have many shades of grey and when we seek to classify people and categorize them it leads only to the suffering and pain that we see in the story of Esau and Jacob. It is easier to put people in a box, to justify our actions towards them, to use our words to label others but when we fail to see the nuances, to truly try and understand others, we are not really seeing them.

Last week in Israel a Progressive congregation in Ra’anana was vandalized. Graffiti was written on the outside of the building with hateful words from Torah and death threats against prominent Reform Jews in Israel and in America. Tragically, the hate crime was perpetrated by Jews and was incited by rabbis and other prominent Jewish leaders pedaling a message of hate against Jews who choose to practice their religion differently from them. Just as with Esau in the Torah, they have demonized the other to the extent that they justify acts of violence and hatred against them. Anat Hoffman, a passionate advocate for Progressive Judaism wrote: “I have never lost my resolve to continue doing what I believe is right but the idea that someone would want to kill me over a difference in religious practice is really beyond comprehension.”

It is time for us to call out the hateful speech, to not allow words which demonize those who are not like us to go unchallenged, and we need to look at our own discourse and ensure it is always from a place of respectful disagreement, not only seeing the black and white but also the shades of grey. If we do so, we can create a world of peace and harmony rather than one of conflict, division and pain.

Part of the joy of reading the Torah is finding the nuances of the narratives. The text has been put together with such care and attention to detail that even a cursory reading reveals hidden meanings and hints of more profound understanding. There are examples in this week as well as the last two week’s parashiot. On the surface, there are some seemingly needless descriptive verses in the Bible.

From two weeks ago, Parashat Lekh Lekha: Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Get out from your country and from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”

From last week, Parashat Vayera: Then he [God] said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.”

And from this week’s Chayei Sarah: “And Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years old; these were the years of the life of Sarah.”

Why are these verses included in their detail? Wouldn’t it have been sufficient for God to simply say to Abraham, “Get out from your country?” Or “Take Isaac?” Or to tell us that Sarah was 127 years old? There is an axiom accepted by Jews, that there are no superfluous words in the Bible; every word has a meaning. So then, what is the meaning here?

One famous interpretation from the midrash of this sequence of Sarah’s age is that she was as innocent at 7 years as she was at 20, and as beautiful at 20 as she was at 100.

Delving deeper, what is the point of making us, the reader, work to understand our text? Would it not be simpler or easier to have the text read as plainly as possible? Perhaps, it is coming to teach us that too often we take certain details for granted. We come to know someone so well that we forget that they are more than what is there on the surface. They are made up of more than just a collection of facts or where they are from or how old they are. The Bible could be telling us that people are complex collections of their entire existence and that to truly know someone is to engage in those details.

Similarly, in our lives and extending out from people to issues in the world around us, it is not enough to look at the broad strokes and be satisfied. Life is complex and we should embrace that complexity. Issues, just as people, are not to be boiled down to a simple collection of facts or a summary. Our Jewish souls demand that we engage as much as possible, in our lives, in our relationships and in our tradition.

When confronted by an issue or person, strive to delve deeper, below the surface, to see what more there is. Pick up on the clues that give that hint of a deeper understanding, and accept that nuance as a blessing.

In what is arguably the first time bread is referred to in the Torah, alluding to what we know as bread, a part of a meal, Abraham greets the three men who had come to visit, and he runs into the tent to Sarah, and he says; “Quick, three se’ahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!”. This is, of course, part of the preparation of the meal for the three men.

Through this story, and many others that follow, dealing with hospitality, sustenance, and thanksgiving, bread has become an integral part of the Jewish food scene. While the challah that is based on the mannah the Israelites ate in the desert is primarily for Shabbat and Chagim, bread (not just challah) is what is considered to be the meal.

The Shulchan Aruch (in Orech Chayim) teaches us that one is not obligated to recite Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) unless one eats a minimum of a Kezayit (lit. the size of a large olive) of bread. According to the Shulchan Aruch, a meal is not considered a meal, unless the blessing for bread (Hamotzi) is recited, which means bread is the key focus of the meal.

Linking hospitality, sustenance and giving thanks is a wonderful way for us to show that we have a duty to care for others, that they (and we) need to eat, and equally as important, we should be grateful for having the opportunity to engage in the meal, and spend time with family and friends (some of whom may have been strangers to us just a short while ago).

From a Jewish perspective, the term “breaking bread” is used in reference to the Hamotzi recited at the beginning of a meal. It’s the way we start the meal, the way that we invite others to join us. It links the hospitality to the sustenance. Breaking bread allows the meal to begin.

What Abraham and Sarah focus on when the three men arrive at their tent, their home, teaches us that inviting someone into your house to share a meal is more than just a mitzvah, more than just something nice to do for someone else. They know that these men travelled for some time to get there, they need sustenance.

What the Torah (through the Shulchan Aruch and other sources) teaches us, is that when we are fortunate enough to share these times, we should acknowledge our good fortune, and remember that not everyone is as fortunate as we are.

And while we are learning about bread and Torah, there is a passage in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) that says: “Im ein kemach, ein Torah, v’im ein Torah, ein kemach” – If there is no flour (meaning substance/food), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. Without food, we cannot connect to Torah, and without Torah, there is no nourishment.

May our hospitality know no bounds, may our tables be the centre point of connecting to each other and Torah, and may we always express gratitude for what we have.

This week our Torah portion focuses in on the story of Abraham. We are
introduced to this man of faith when God calls to him and says: “Lech Lecha”
“Go, leave” and commands him to leave his homeland, his birth place, his
father’s house and to go to a land which God will show him. So Abraham, man
of faith, packs up his household, his wife and his nephew and heads off on his
journey. It has always intrigued me that God was very specific about the places
Abraham was to leave, his land, his birth place and his father’s house, but God
was much more hazy about where Abraham was going, God just says, “go to the place I will show you.” Why is God so obtuse about the destination?
Some of the commentators say that this was one of the tests of Abraham’s
faith; to see if he was willing to follow God even though he did not know
the destination. Others suggest that the eventual end of his travels was not
important, what was significant was the journey. And herein perhaps lies some
of the power and the message of this story.

The expression God uses to send Abraham on his journey “lech lecha” is
unusual. God could have just said: “lech” meaning “go” why add “lecha?”
The word lecha means “to yourself” rendering the passage “go to yourself”
and that is the heart of the command. Abraham is invited to go on a journey
of discovery, to find out who he is and on such a journey nobody knows the
ultimate destination and indeed the destination is not as important as the
travel. Sometimes in order to become all that we are we have to leave the
familiar, separate from the routine of life and be challenged. Abraham was
transformed by his journey and it shaped who he was as a human being.
Many of us do not have the opportunity to walk away from our lives and chase
an uncertain future. We have obligations and responsibilities which prevent
us taking the life-changing journey of Abraham. But we do have the chance
every week to step back from our lives, take stock and contemplate where we
are going: the Shabbat. Every Shabbat we are invited to take time away from
the stresses and pressures of our lives to think and just be. On Shabbat we
connect with each other and the world in a way which is not possible during
the week, we step outside of our lives and for 25 hours we rest and reflect, we
go on a journey. This week we are encouraged to experience the joys of Shabbat and like Abraham to “lech lecha,” to go on that journey to ourselves. But this is not once in a lifetime, or once a year, Shabbat comes every week and it is a beautiful
opportunity to take stock and touch a small piece of eternity to think about the
path we are travelling and the journey we are walking through life.
I hope that this Shabbat is for all of us to journey to ourselves and connect with
each other and community.

Do we wish to strive for the middle mark or for excellence? This is one of the questions before us as we begin the stories of creation again. One of the ways we perceive the genius of our sages is seen in how they develop the calendar and the scriptural readings in relation to that. We all know we have just concluded the month of Tishrei, with all its festivals focusing us to be the best we can be. Yet the opening stories of the Torah immediately highlight that striving for excellence is not necessarily the human way.

Last week we opened with the story of Adam, the original earthling from the earth. Having eaten, like his wife, from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad, he is confronted by God concerning his choice of action. God asks, “Where are you?” Adam responds, he was afraid and so he hid. God further asks if Adam ate of the tree of knowledge, to which he replies, “The woman You put at my side – she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” Blame and excuse before acknowledgment. God then queries the woman who says, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.” Blame and excuse before acknowledgment. Perhaps it is no wonder that of their first two sons, one will murder the other, and ten generations later God see that “great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.”

Into this dire situation steps the hero of this week’s story, Noah. He lives in a world perhaps not too different than ours. “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.” Refugees fleeing from war, human slavery, rape, domestic violence, child abuse, let alone corruption, abuse of power and no accepting of responsibility. At least Noah was according to our story, “a righteous man, blameless in his age.” So God calls Noah to build an ark, and Noah complies. Noah sees what is wrong with humanity and builds the ark to take him, his three sons and all their wives, along with animals for the future as the society around him is exterminated. Are they really the only eight innocents among all humanity? Some have suggested that the phrase “blameless in his age” means that compared to the others, Noah was blameless, yet he still did not have that striving for excellence needed to help repair humanity. He complies with God’s call but does nothing to improve the situation. He does not intervene to prevent wrongdoing, he does not try to rehabilitate or guide those who have strayed, he does not try to save the innocent. He saves himself and his family – and another ten generations later humanity will be scattered over the entire earth, one people unable to communicate with another.

Adam and Eve, the ones who hide from responsibility, who place blame on others before. Noah, the one who saves himself, who does not teach, guide, bring change. Thus, a new model is needed, and at the very end of the week we will hear of the birth of Avram, a man who will show humanity a very different way of acting in times of crisis and in days of darkness. We will see that when the call comes to him that he is a man of action, of taking responsibility, of challenging evil, of effecting change – even with God. Corruption and lawlessness is often part of the world in which we live – are we more like Adam, Noah or Avram?

Our Jewish lives are governed by cycles. The daily cycle leads to a weekly cycle, follows on to a monthly cycle, which builds towards a yearly cycle. One way in which we measure this yearly cycle is through the reading of the Torah. So, once again we have arrived at the beginning.

This coming Shabbat, we begin the cycle of the Torah anew when we read Parashat Bereshit. There are many ideas about the beginning of our story, from the philosophical (what existed before God created the world) to the historical/theologicial (how am I to read this story when it conflicts with what I know to be true in a scientific sense).

We can also look at it from a midrashic perspective. Our rabbis have asked the question; why does the Torah begin with the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet? Surely, it would make much more sense for the text to have started with the letter aleph, the first letter! There have been several reasons brought forth by the rabbinic commentators throughout the ages; for example, that aleph, which has the numerical value of one, represents God. One of the more compelling ones I’ve come across gives a fresh take on what the letter aleph represents. In the vast majority of cases, the letter aleph is synonymous with the number one and thus God. But, what if the letter aleph was not representing God, but ourselves? The letter which we must master is ourselves. We are the aleph.

What does this mean? As we have just come out of the High Holiday Season, we have spent the better part of a month looking inward, reflecting and coming to terms with ourselves and all that we have done in the past year. It is a marathon session of internal struggle that, hopefully leads to a clearer picture of who you want to be in the coming year. It is precisely at that moment, when the holidays finish, that we immediately set to work.

To assist us in that work, the Torah, our great instruction manual, is restarted. Because we have done the preliminary work, the aleph, then and only then, can we move on to bet. We are reminded to not let the hard work of the past month go to waste. There is a step by step progression, like the letters of the aleph bet, that will lead us on the right path. All we must do is continue putting one foot forward in front of the other and continue the work we started over a month ago.