This week we continue the story of the patriarchs. We focus on Jacob, his night of wrestling with an angel, the reconciliation with his brother Esau, the death of his favorite wife Rachel in childbirth, and the continuation of his line. We learn about Jacob’s twelve sons – the men who would found the twelve tribes – but nothing in the genealogy speaks about his daughter Dinah. We only know of her existence because of a short story in the midst of this week’s parashah.

It tells us that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter was taken by Shechem, a foreign ruler and raped. Shechem then wants to marry Dinah and he approaches her family for permission. Two of Dinah’s brothers say that he can marry Dinah and, even better, all of his tribe can marry Israelite women, provided they are circumcised. Shechem’s father, in a feat of great persuasion, convinces the men of his tribe to be circumcised. While they are still in pain from their operations, Dinah’s brothers slaughter all the men of the tribe to avenge the violation that was perpetrated upon her. For this action they are condemned by their father. Later, when he bestows blessings on his sons, their blessing is more rebuke than gift.

The rape of Dinah and the subsequent actions of her brothers make for a disturbing and difficult episode in the Torah — not only for the facts it reveals, but also for the content of the story. We hear nothing from Dinah. We do not know how she feels, or what her response was to the violation. We do not know her story, other than through the eyes of her brothers. Indeed, it seems that the episode is not recounted to teach us about Dinah, but rather to cast a light upon her brothers’ actions. Even her father Jacob, upon hearing what happened to Dinah, is silent. It is only after her brothers attack Shechem and his people that Jacob speaks, and it is only to chastise his sons for putting them in danger. Dinah has no voice in the story. Her position and perspective are subverted, and the horror of what happened to her swept to the side. Some commentators even cast blame upon Dinah — both for what happened to her, and for causing her brothers to behave as they did. If she had not been out walking alone amongst the people, they argue, none of this would have happened.

What a tragically familiar story: violence perpetrated against women, their voices silenced, blame cast upon them for the crimes committed against the victim, with the perpetrators excused and their crimes justified. The home is supposed to be a safe haven — a place of protection, comfort and love. Instead for so many people, and particularly for women and children, home is in fact a place of fear and terror. Home is the place where they are least safe. We need to turn domestic violence statistics around. We need to make changes — to give women a voice so that, unlike Dinah, we can hear their stories. We need to know their suffering so that we can try to soothe their pain and heal their wounds. We must work to ensure that no person – woman, child or man – suffers violence at the hand of their partner, parent, or family member. Let’s pledge today, for Dinah, for those who have lost their lives, for those who have been hurt and suffered for all of us, to stand up, condemn family violence wherever it occurs and make homes safe havens for all people.

In this week’s parasha we continue the saga of Jacob. Last Shabbat we left him saying goodbye to his family as he fled for his life after deceiving his brother and stealing his birthright and blessing. In parashat Vayetzei we find Jacob alone for the first time. The man who enjoyed being inside with his mother has been cast into the harsh wilderness. Now, finally, Jacob will have to make decisions for himself, he will have to shape his own destiny, he will begin the journey to discover who he really is. At this crucial juncture Jacob rests for the night beneath the stars and he has a dream. He sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending upon it.

Many commentators have offered suggestions about the meaning of the ladder, the angels and the lessons they teach us. The angels ascending and descending on the ladder represent Jacob’s heritage; his grandfather and his father. Abraham, Jacob’s father, was a man of action and of the earth. He was someone who took hold of life and his destiny and shaped it the way he wanted it to be. Isaac however, was very different. He was less concerned with matters of the earth and more with the heavens. Events happened to Isaac and he remained passive and quiet. In his narrative there is little dialogue from him and his concerns seem to be for another realm. Therefore, the angels going up the ladder from the earth represent Abraham, man of action, man of this place and the angels coming down the ladder represent Isaac, man of the heavens, and Jacob is the ladder linking the two. Jacob finds the balance between the two realms, he is the connection which enables the heavens and the earth to touch. And perhaps it is because Jacob could provide this link that he merits the honor of becoming Israel.

The message of our parashah is to try and become like Jacob, linking heaven and earth through our deeds, our actions and our thoughts. Reaching always for the heavens whilst remaining grounded on the earth in the here and now. Every time we recite a blessing we elevate the mundane to the holy and we become that ladder, turning everyday moments into times of holiness and blessing. May we continue to help heaven and earth touch in the kiss of our deeds so that we, like Jacob, can exclaim “God was in this place!”

How do we follow in our ancestors’ footsteps and still express our own individuality? This week’s Torah reading enlightens us on this question. We read about Isaac redigging the wells of his father, Abraham. These wells were stopped up after the death of Abraham and now, Isaac undertakes to reopen them.

The process is not easy, there is resistance from others living in the area and it is hard work, both physically and from the perspective of negotiation.

After many attempts, Isaac and his workers strike ‘living waters’ and gain a peaceful settlement with their neighbors. This well is given the name Rechovot, which literally means ‘spaciousness’. (Today the Weizman Institue of Science is located in Rechovot).

Psychologist Estelle Frankel, in her book, Sacred Therapy, explains that many of our Torah ancestors were sheperds and shepherdesses, who were involved in digging and maintaining wells. The well was a meeting place in ancient times, as well as a source of life.

When Torah speaks of wells it is not only referring to wells of water but metaphorically to the deep inner wellsprings of spiritual wisdom — the wisdom of the unconscious that wells up from the depth of our being.

The root of the Hebrew word for well is be’er, which also means to ‘clarify’. Thus through digging into the wisdom of our ancestors, we access our source and clarify the depths of our being. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Lieb (1847–1905), Gerer Rebbe, pointed out that ‘digging the wells of our ancestors and finding life-giving water suggests that Torah, which is referred to as water, can give us our spiritual nourishment. Digging into the teachings of the generations of sages all the way back to the Torah, is a process by which we access our ‘inner point’, nekudah pnimit. This inner point being our individual well-spiring of inspiration and light that nourishes the soul.

It is through resting on the foundations of the past and exploring them, that we find our own inner point, our true individuality. The very nature of Torah study is tied into this process of renewal.

As we dig into the wellsprings of ancient wisdom, to see it through our own eyes and understand it with our own heart and mind, we have a feeling of rejuvenation.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924–2014), founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, describes the wellspring of our ancestors and the need for redigging as being similar to the skill we need for driving. As we move forward (into the future), we must also keep an eye on the rear view mirror (the past).

It is interesting that Isaac calls the well rechovot ‘expanse’, considering the action needed was to dig deep. Perhaps it is because having depth gives us the ability to expand (R. Avraham Leader, Jerusalem). The deeper the roots of a tree, the more the branches can expand.

This week we are invited to reflect on our ability to connect with the wisdom of our ancestors, in a way that can nourish the soul.

Judaism appreciates strong, courageous, visionary women. This week we read of two of them, our ancestral mothers, Sarah and Rivkah. We don’t know all that much about Sarah, whose death we read about this week, and whose story is inextricably intertwined with Abraham’s. She is by his side as they leave from Haran for the Land of Canaan; she works her magic with Pharaoh during the famine that forces the two to flee from the land of Canaan to Egypt; she offers her handmaid Hagar to him in order to help fulfill the promise that Abraham should be the father of a great nation in the land, after which she receives the prophecy that she shall be the mother of that great nation that will inherit the land. To this day, those who convert to Judaism are known as the children of Abraham and Sarah, the founders of our covenantal people.

With Sarah’s death at the beginning of this parashah, Abraham knows that he must find a wife for his solitary son Isaac, a woman who will be the next matriarch for our people. As Abraham’s servant embarks on his search for the right woman he prays for guidance in the selection process. Rivkah fulfils the imprecation of Abraham’s servant:

Let the maiden to whom I say ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink and I will also water your camels’ — let her be the one whom You have decreed for your servant Isaac.”

Rivkah is a woman of gracious giving. The blessing given her by her family as she sets out to fulfill her role in the covenantal promise is the one we give to our brides at the bedeken ceremony to this day: “O sister, may you grow into thousands of myriads…” In next week’s parashah we will see that Rivkah is the one woman in the Torah with whom God speaks directly; we will see that just as the fulfillment of the brit, the covenant, was dependent upon Sarah, so too, it is dependent on Rivkah. While men seem to claim most of the limelight, subtly, it is our matriarchs who ultimately shape the destiny of our people.

In a sense, these days, nothing has changed. The men tend to grab the headlines, seem to be “making the important decisions”, “doing the important work”, but that is all a matter of perception. Yes, for the most part, men to this day run government, control armies, lead the boards of corporations. But life is ultimately lived and best expressed from the ground up, from the family and the community on through to society. Truly, women today follow in the footsteps of our first matriarchs we hear of in this week’s Parashah, Sarah and Rivkah, who guided their family and thus our people with courage, love, generosity and wisdom.

This week in parashat Vayera, we continue the story of Abraham and his family and we are confronted with scenes of family conflict and drama. Abraham does not demonstrate the most exemplary of parenting skills as he expels Hagar and their son Ishmael to the harsh wilderness, and takes his son Isaac and almost sacrifices him to God. There is conflict between Sarah and Hagar, there is some kind of disturbance between the brothers, Ishmael and Isaac; brothers, wives, parents, children, all arguing and disagreeing. There is trauma and dissent in this small family and once again the Torah shows us that our patriarchs and our matriarchs – in fact, all the biblical figures – are flawed characters. They are human and, like us, they make mistakes; they say the wrong thing and they struggle with their relationships. They act from places of anger and hurt, they feel scared and alone. We can all find a little of ourselves in them, and that is what makes them such powerful and important role models — because they are not perfect. We learn from them how to behave and how not to behave; we learn that everyone, even our great heroes, sometimes acts in ways that are not just or right, and we learn from their mistakes and as well as from their triumphs. We not only learn from the figures from whom we trace our ancestry and heritage, but from everyone in the Torah. Each of their stories are honored and remembered alongside ours.

Rabbi David Segal wrote so eloquently in his Torah commentary this week:

We read repeatedly about God’s special love for B’nai Yisrael, the people of Israel, our unique covenant and our election to receive God’s word. But we also read about God’s revelation to others outside the community of Israel. Noah precedes Abraham and receives both blessing and law. Hagar, in this week’s portion, receives God’s direct blessing and protection after her expulsion. It is striking that our tradition would preserve stories of God’s special revelation to outsiders. These examples remind us that we have no monopoly on God’s blessing; no exclusive claim on God’s word. We have our special, sacred text; others have theirs. Pluralistic truth should lead us to humility, for God transcends religion. It should also call us to responsibility, to respect and protect the divine word in every tradition and the divine image in every person — our fellow Jews, our neighbours and the strangers in our midst.” (Rabbi David Segal “Protecting the Divine Image in Everyone” in Ten Minutes of Torah: Reform Voices of Torah, 26th October 2015)

Our story is interwoven with all the stories in the Torah and we can learn, understand and grow from each of the people we encounter, their relationships to each other and to God. Stories are powerful sources of learning and growing — they remind us how alike we are and how much we have to learn from one another. I pray that we can always see the Divine in each person and that we continue to hear and learn our stories.

This week we read the call to Abraham to leave his homeland, his birthplace and everything he has known to follow God. Abraham, the faithful servant, obeys the command from God and he packs up his household and heads off to distant lands. The commentators of the Torah note that Abraham and many of the other patriarchs are sent on journeys. They travel far from the familiar and the secure to challenge themselves in new and different ways. For many, there was little choice: a famine, a drought, escaping from a brother who is trying to kill you for betraying him, a call from God, but whatever the circumstance each was called and like Abraham, they left. So why a journey? What was the purpose of their travel? Was it more than the chance to send back a postcard saying “having a great time, wish you were here?”

The commentaries note the unusual wording at the beginning of the portion: “lech lecha” If the Torah merely wanted to tell Abraham to “go” it could have just said “lech” but instead it adds “lecha” The Torah never uses two words when it could use one so what is the meaning of the extra word? The rabbinic commentators say that it is no accident and it must be to teach us something. Lech lecha can be translated as “go to yourself” meaning “go to become who you are going to be.” This rendering suggests that Abraham needed to go in order for him to become who he was going to be. If we look at all the people who journeyed, each of them was changed by their experience, it shaped who they were to become. The challenges they faced by being away from the familiar comfort of home, helped them to grow into the human beings they would become. It was certainly true for Abraham. His leaving shaped the man he was to be, standing up for justice, caring about the wandering, displaced people, welcoming strangers. He knew what it was like to be alone in a strange land with none of the safety nets about him. He knew what it meant to receive hospitality and care when faced with adversity. Until embarking on his journey, Abraham had lived a sheltered, relatively privileged existence. He had land and servants, he was settled and happy. But when God uprooted him, sent him out, leaving behind his support systems, his comfort zone, he found himself at the mercy of others. And from that time he knew what it was like to be homeless, to be a wanderer, at the mercy of those around him. Abraham was blessed, he never went without, but his time being uprooted from the familiar taught him the importance of treating the stranger with compassion and warmth, giving them a welcoming embrace.

Abraham could not have known that would be the outcome of his journey but it shaped the person he would become. And for many of us, adversity and trials, much as we wish we could have avoided them, have helped to make us who we are. Our journeys through life, like Abraham’s, are a mixture of dark and light. We face challenges and adversity as well as moments of joy and happiness. We cannot know what the next day will bring. Our calling is to find a way to move forward from the dark places and become the light in the world, to understand that nobody’s path is a smooth one, all of us will have to weather the storms of life. I pray that we can all walk the path finding moments and ways to be the light and to becoming who we are going to be, and to emulate Abraham’s compassion and hospitality this Shabbat and during each and every Shabbat.

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 — 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.


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