12/25/2014

Shabbat Vayigash

Candles Friday 26th 4:14pm
Havdalah 27th 5:10pm
The Fast of the 10th of Tevet is next Thursday.

I was brought up in a culture where one was taught to avoid being aggressive, not advertise oneself, instead to be modest and self-effacing. The idea of a perfect Englishman was to remain discrete and restrained. The benefit of this is that one does not rush to speak one's mind or to come to conclusions. One thinks before one acts. Of course the disadvantage of such an approach is that you tend to prevaricate or appease, as Britain did with Hitler until it was almost too late. Indeed the Jews of Persia have often been referred to as “the Jews of Silence” because they too preferred not to make waves, living in an alien Shiite culture. So too were the Jews of Russia under Communism. So which is better, to be open, strong, fight for what we believe in, or to be passive and hope things turn out right?

The Torah gives us examples of both. But this week it is Yehudah, the fourth brother, who emerges as the strongest, most forthright defender of the brothers and Benjamin. Whereas Reuven, the first born, the less open, the more compromising, is all but ignored.

We live in a world where compromises are necessary. We are all so interdependent. And yet if we do not fight for our rights, no one else will do it for us.

12/04/2014

Shabbat Vayishlach

Candles December 5th 4:08pm
Havdalah December 6th 5:03pm

The dramatic encounter between Yaakov and Esav has come to be regarded as probably the most significant event in the Torah for relations between Jews and non-Jews. Two brothers compete for love and for a heritage. They part company as enemies. They meet again after many years with anxiety and hesitancy. They finally reconcile but go their separate ways.

Esav in late Talmudic tradition becomes Rome/Christianity and Ishmael becomes Islam even though neither of those people or religions were in existence for hundreds, indeed over a thousand years after the Biblical encounter. Since the Bible could not possibly have had Christianity or Islam in mind, how did this association come about? And should we conclude that just as Yaakov and Esav were eventually reconciled so too the Nations of the World will one day be reconciled to Israel?

“It is a well known rule that Esav will always hate Yaakov.” It's a post Talmudic statement of course that reflects the suffering of Jews in Medieval times particularly at the hands of Jews and Christians and one is obliged to take notice of history. Nowadays that the cries of “death to Jews” is heard again both in Christian and Muslim societies we would be stupid not to take heed and respond.

Even so it would be wrong, both morally and traditionally to think that everyone is like that or that it must always be so. Just as we ourselves have self-hating Jews so too does every other group in society have those who go against the current and can think for themselves.

But the text of the Torah says something more. After the struggle with the Angel it says that Yaakov will now be called “Yisrael” because “you have fought with God and man and have survived.” Just as we have those within our ranks who fight us politically, so too do we have those who struggle with religion, with God. Some of us often find religion a struggle. But we can overcome. So too can others.