11/19/2015

Shabbat Vayeytzey

Candles Friday 20th 4:15pm
Havdalah 21st 5:09pm

Yaakov has to run away from home because of Esav’s threat to kill him. But Rivkah knows that if she says that to her husband he might not believe her because of his bias towards to his first born. So she uses the argument that to find a wife for Yaakov, he, like his father before him has to go back to Ur to the family they left behind. The psychology of Rivkah’s interaction with her husband is fascinating. But I am interested here in the idea of the constant returning, in each generation, to the family’s origins and birthplace. Surely if God had commanded Avraham to leave and that the new world would be better, why this need to go back all the time?

We know that back in Ur people were not very nice and were still pagans. Lavan typifies the negative. On the other hand, Rivkah and then Leah and Rachel represent the good. And conversely in the “Promised Land” that Avraham moved to, with its Canaanites, cities of Sodom and Amorah, most of the locals are pretty bad too.

In the constant procession of life, no matter where we go, we are constantly being drawn back to our origins and our earlier loyalties no mater whether in our new situations things are good or not. The challenge we all face is to try to be better human beings wherever we are and whatever the environment. We have to deal with private, personal challenges and with social political ones.

We draw on the past and use it to avoid mistakes and to help us learn. But our origins, however we have left them behind, and regardless of how negative they might have been, are still part of us. The Torah is telling us to recognize and accept our past, and not try to ignore it.

11/12/2015

Shabbat Toldot

Candles Friday 13th 4:20pm
Havdalah 14th 5:15pm

The main narrative this week is the struggle to win Isaac’s blessing. On the face of it Rivkah and Yaakov conspire to deceive Yitzchak so that instead of his blessing going to Esav, it goes to Yaakov. The story is full of hints that Yitzchak really does know that something is not as it should be. But the bigger question is why, when he realizes the deception, does he stand by it instead of retracting and re-issuing the blessing to Esav? Is this a matter of deception or rather of a struggle between human values and Divine (or physical versus cerebral)? In the end Yitchak comes to realize that there is a greater power and purpose.

On a purely physical level Isaac loves Esav as his first born and this love survives Esav’s rejection of many of Yitzchak’s values. Its like a parent’s love for a delinquent child. Esav might be a good leader of a band of brigands and thieves. But Yaakov clearly is a better leader for a tradition of reflection, self control and long term strategy. Indeed ironically Yitzchak here is the champion of physicality and Rivkah of the Divine and the spiritual (after all God has told her that Ya'akov, Jacob, is going to be the greater of the twins).

Everything the Torah has been telling us is about conflicted relationships, between peoples, husbands and wives and, bothers. And love is a crucial ingredient repeated as the core of the relationship between husbands and wives and children. But love is not the only criterion. It is as susceptible to deceit as is the word of God capable of being misunderstood. As ever the Torah advocates balance.

11/05/2015

Shabbat Hayey Sarah

Candles Friday 4:27pm 6th Nov.
Havdalah 7th 5:21pm
Mevarchin Rosh Hodesh Kislev Thursday 12th, Friday 13th

Avraham lives a long and very difficult life. We have seen him have to contend with physical disasters, different rulers and standards, warring armies and conflicts within his marriage and his family. Running through all this is his faith and even there, it misled him into thinking that God wanted him to kill his son Isaac.

This week in the final chapters of his life he has deal with the issues of language, meaning and intent.

Despite the promise that all the land would one day belong to his children, he has to buy a burial cave for his wife from the local Hittite ruler. Ephron says he may have a burial ground for nothing but Avraham realizes he does not really mean it.

Avraham does not want to take a wife for Isaac from the Canaanite tribes. They are going to be displaced precisely because of their immorality. Instead he sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac. He specifically commands him to go back to “my land and my birthplace.” And his only other condition is that Isaac should not go back to live there. He says nothing about his family.

The servant understands that character is the crucial issue. He comes across Rivkah, almost by accident though of course we know it is not. She has all the qualities he knows Avraham wants in daughter in law. And when he starts to negotiate, he tells them that Avraham specifically insisted that he go back to his family for his son’s wife.

Was it the servant’s own initiative, to mention the family, to help seal the deal? Or was the Torah as it often is, concise and brief in conveying Avraham’s request? We cannot know. As with everything in the Torah it is the moral message that matters more than historicity or modern ways of analyzing texts.

Avraham has to deal with every aspect of human life. He has to steer through unknown and unpredictable waters. In a way that we all do today. In doing this he is constantly focusing on the wider issues of how to establish an ethical and spiritual tradition. We will all make mistakes and wrong judgments no matter how careful we are. But if we set our moral and religious goals and always have them mind, we will have a legacy to pass on that we can proud of.