Archive for Novembre de 2017

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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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