11/27/2014

Shabbat Vayetzey

Candles Friday 4.12pm
Havdalah 5.15pm

Last week we read about what looked like Jacob taking advantage of Esav when he exchanged soup for the birthright. And then Jacob and his mother deceive Isaac in order to receive Isaac’s blessing even though God had already promised it to Jacob.

This has often created difficulties for the commentators and one of the main responses is that in this week’s reading we see Jacob being deceived himself when Laban “misleads” him over whether he was to marry Leah or Rachel. There is a principle in the Talmud “The way one treats people is the way you will be treated back.” But that cuts both ways.

Whatever way one may be inclined to criticize Jacob, the measure of a great leader is his ability to deal with his opponents in the appropriate way even if it might not have been the way he personally would have chosen to act.

The truth is that Esav did not care about his birthright. Even so he would never have accepted that Jacob was a more God fearing person. Indeed he claims wrongly that Jacob stole it. When he did not. It was the blessing he gained by devious means. Even so Isaac refused to retract it when he discovered it was Jacob he had given it to, not Esav.

Yet Jacob pays Laban back for his deception and the cycle continues. In the end Jacob breaks that cycle when he returns home and makes peace with Esav. In the end Jacob gained nothing materially and Esav inherited all his father’s property. So clearly he was not out to gain financially.

There are two conclusions. One is that if you are dealing with dishonest people always be on your guard and you may need to deal differently to the way you normally do. The other is that one can always make amends. It’s never too late to change.

11/20/2014

Shabbat Toldot

Mevarchin Rosh Hodesh Kislev
Candles Friday 21st November 4.13pm
Havdalah 22nd 5.10pm

Here’s a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest “ Good wombs have borne bad sons.” I can’t think of a more apposite quote for this week’s Torah reading. Rivkah our saintly mother produced twins, one good, Yaakov, and the other bad “Esav.” Both had the same parents, the same upbringing and yet they turned our very differently.

In Shakespeare’s day it was an argument between “Nature and Nurture.” In our day we argue as to whether the Genes or the Environment have a greater impact on how our children turn out.

There are lots of experiments that show that identical twins separated at birth still show common traits years later and conversely we have all come across families in which children turn out very differently, one disciplined and ambitious, the other lazy, indulgent and self-absorbed. And of course we have also come across families where everyone is self-motivated and others where everyone turns out to be a bum.

But was Esav such a bad guy? Sure he was a physical, passionate person, given to rash, ill-considered actions. Not the best man to lead a tribe that believed in deferring gratification and taking a longer view.

But, he was a loyal devoted son to his father, desperately wanted his blessing and only threatened to kill Yaakov after he got the blessing through subterfuge. Esav saw his parents did not like his choice of women so he tried to do better the second time round. And he and Yaakov made up in the end and both helped bury their parents. It is hard to say that Esav was completely bad person.

The moral is that you can never tell. Good parents do their best but there are never guarantees. That's so for life in general. If we do our best we will have more opportunities to succeed.

But even pious Jews at prayer, wearing talit and tefillin can still be hacked to death by barbarians as we saw in Har Nof this week. There are no guarantees. But we must still try our best.

11/13/2014

Shabbat Chayey Sarah

November 14th Candles 4:19pm
November 15th Havdalah 5:13pm

This week’s reading from the Torah starts off by recording Sarah’s death and then goes on to say that “Avraham came to mourn her and to cry over her.”

In general there are two very different processes involved when someone dies. First comes the shock of the loss and then the adjustment. Sometimes the shock is so great that the adjustment takes a very long time. Psychologically there are so many different levels of loss. Each one affects us differently. There is no single way or responding and no fixed time it takes to get over the shock and adjust.

In the Jewish tradition we have two very different processes, the private and the public. The first is the formal, the burial, the Shiva that lasts for seven days, the most intense ritual where the community gathers round to give moral support, to take care of the mourners as they try to come to terms with their loss. Then the Shiva forces us to formalizes the mourning and give it communal expression. This is followed by a thirty day period of less strict mourning when we return to normal daily activity and this second degree of mourning lasts for a year in the case of our parents.

The public, formal, periods of mourning have a different function to the personal loss which cannot really be dealt with in a public way. Dealing with loss takes time. The Talmud implies that it takes a whole year before ones heart adjusts to loss.

In Avraham’s case it seems he goes through the formal mourning, the hesped, first and then cries over his loss after that. This seems counter intuitive. Surely one cries first and then adjusts. It seems to me that the Torah is saying that one simply has to get a grip on oneself in order to arrange all the things necessary for burial and cope with the communal mourning and only then, perhaps when one is alone can one really begin the process of crying that leads to healing.

May we be spared sadness and be blessed with joy.