Archive for Novembre de 2012

Parashah Vayishlach

Coming of Age


Parashat Vayishlach contains particularly dramatic moments for our patriarch Jacob. Married twice and now blessed with eleven children, Jacob receives word that his brother Esau is approaching with four hundred troops. Jacob cannot know what Esau’s intentions will be. The last time that Jacob saw Esau, Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him a blessing that had been reserved for Esau. Following that fateful moment, Esau promised that he would kill Jacob the next time the two met.


Fearing the worst, Jacob takes his wives, maid-servants, and children across the River Jabbok. Left alone, he wrestles with an unknown figure until daybreak, an encounter that leaves both the socket of his hip strained and Jacob himself blessed with the new name of Israel. Commentators offer a variety of intriguing questions regarding this “unknown figure.” Does Jacob wrestle with himself, with another human being, or is he actually wrestling an angel or God directly?


We may never know the answer to this question, but what we do know is that Jacob appears changed. Until now, Jacob has fled from destination to destination, has promised that he will believe in God only when God guides him back to the land of his forefathers, and has been duped time and time again by Laban. But as Esau approaches, Jacob appears, for the first time, to accept responsibility for his own actions and for the lives of others. He shows concern for his children, dividing them between Rachel and Leah and the two maid-servants. And then he steps forward, bowing respectfully in the presence of his brother. Jacob offers Esau gifts and presents, and acknowledges that God has given him many blessings, including his children. Our ancient sages believed that every word in the Torah was connected to the words and stories that came before and after. They called this concept s’muchin. Being that Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure on the banks of the River Jabbok just prior to achieving reconciliation with Esau, we are safe to assume that the occasion of the struggle leads directly into the healing of the brothers’ relationship.


In our own lives, true personal growth comes when we are willing to struggle with the events of our lives, to question ourselves, to feel doubt and anxiety, and to wonder about the presence of God in our midst. When we stand idly and allow life to pass us by, our lives remain stagnant and monotonous. The process of leading a reflective, introspective life helps us to grow. Such a task is incumbent upon the people of Israel, for the name Israel (Yisrael in Hebrew) means “one who wrestles with God.” And when we emerge from our soul-searching more aware of our surroundings, more cognizant of the needs of other people, and more convinced of the importance of introspection, we will, like Jacob, truly have come of age.  


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Parashah Vayetze

Connecting Heaven and Earth


In this week’s parashah 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. An interesting interpretation of this passage and its meaning suggests that 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!”

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The Torah as A Revolutionary Manifesto

In the Torah, it being a story reflective of life itself, one does not find 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 do not get on. 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?

Toledot 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. Even from their earliest days in their mother’s womb, they fight with one another. Throughout their early years, they squabble over their father’s birthright. Esau, as the oldest son, is legally entitled to this birthright. Yet the story ends with Jacob, at least through opportunism, receiving it.

The stereotype of goodness and justice demands that Jacob’s opportunism should be punishable, is rewarded, and acknowledged as one of our three patriarchs 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. What is going on?

Our Torah is a revolutionary document. It has no qualms acknowledging ancient norms, such as the automatic transfer of a special birthright to every oldest son, regardless of who that son may be. On the other hand, 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.

The sanctity and volatility of family is inherent throughout the Torah. Yet the Torah appreciates that biology by itself cannot sustain a family. Each person’s birth-right is to be part of a family. Each person’s ‘life-right’ is to determine the quality of that family. When ancient laws impose rights on the undeserving, our Torah revolutionized social practice by taking them away. 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. May we not take our birthright as Jews for granted, but 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. 

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Our Shabbat Table”: The Mitzvah of Hospitality


The opening stories of Bereshit present us with a series of morality tales, from Cain’s “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” to Noah’s being “a righteous man in his generation.” Abraham, introduced to the story last week, is charged “to be blameless and walk in front of God”. As our ultimate role model he stands for the qualities of justice, compassion and humility that are seen through the various tales told of him. This week’s parashah, Vayera, presents one of our most important obligations, that of “hachnasat orchim”, welcoming guests, or hospitality.  


The mitzvah of hospitality is presented through two stories.  In the first, Avraham, just after he has performed the mitzvah of circumcision on himself and his household, is sitting in front of his tent “in the heat of the  day”.  Instead of recuperating indoors in the shade, he is so committed to making sure any wayfarers are taken care of that he waits with intention outside. The story tells us that “Abraham runs to greet them”, welcomes them and then says “Let a little water be brought, bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves…” He then runs to the tent, has Sarah prepare cakes of the finest flour while he runs and sacrifices and prepares an animal for a feast, waiting on them while they eat. From this story we learn the extent to which we are to go to provide for the physical and emotional comfort of our guests – in a sense, no trouble is too big.  Moreover, we are to seek out guests, inviting people into our homes, especially those traveling through the community or those who would otherwise be alone.


In contrast to this example comes the story of Sodom. The sin of Sodom is not as has been so misunderstood, the word that comes from the town, but rather the inhabitants’ lack of hospitality. The townspeople want to violate the same men who have come to Abraham; only his nephew Lot provides them hospitality. Again, the message of the Torah is that we are  to provide our utmost for strangers and guests.


Unfortunately, many of us do not have the same wherewithal of either Abraham or Lot or our ancient ancestors. It is a great mitzvah to open one’s home, and this is why we always encourage members of this congregation to do so; We still encourage people to call the Synagogue and place yourselves on a roster to have a couple of people in your home on the occasional Shabbat – as a congregation, we could have at least one or two homes open each Shabbat that way. However, we as a congregation will also endeavor to open our “home” as well: This year we celebrate our 5th year of having pot luck Shabbat brunch at the synagogue (strictly vegetarian and Kosher wine) so that anyone who wishes a place to share a Shabbat meal may do so at Temple Beth Shalom, joining “Our Shabbat Table” after services.

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