Shabbat Hayey Sarah

Candles Friday 25th
November 4:11pm
Havdalah 26th 5:06pm

Mevarchin Rosh Hodesh Kislev
Thursday December 1st

Life goes on. Yitzhak must have been traumatized by his near sacrifice. His mother has died and now Avraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzhak.

Last week the Torah repeated the story of Avraham telling Sarah to say she was his sister to save them both. First from Pharaoh and then from Avimelech. In each case, there are significant differences that illuminate the background of the cultures they encounter, how facts are interpreted and how information is gathered.

This week we have the story of how Avraham bought the cave at Machpela. Two versions of what happened. Avrahams and Efron’s. Two sides to the negotiations. Then there’s the story of Eliezer’s quest for a wife for his master’s son. Again, two versions. Why does the Torah repeat narratives? It is carelessness? Surely not. Oral traditions are passed on and so are written texts. They always have a purpose, a message and a lesson. Sometimes the subject matter is wars and heroes. Sometimes the triumphs of Kings. Here it is the struggle to follow a spiritual and ethical way of life, one that is determine by God rather than humans.

First the Torah describes the mission, the instructions and the possible outcomes. Then after the events Eliezer repeats the events in talking to Rivkah’s family. There are differences. For example, Avraham says nothing about the test at the well of asking the girls for water. Avraham says nothing about his family whereas Eliezer does.

The commentators suggest that repetitions are intentional. In life, there are always different ways of looking at events. And human beings are different and react differently according to the situations we find ourselves in. There is a difference between Eliezer the servant, obedient to his master. And Eliezer the man, who interprets his master’s wishes and then responds to circumstances, using initiative rather than simply following instructions.

The Torah expects obedience but it also values proactivity and human agency.


Shabbat Vayeyra

Candles November 18th 4:15pm
Havdalah November 19th 5:09pm

Sarai is barren. In a kind of precursor of surrogacy, her maid Hagar gives birth to a child fathered by Avram. Last week we saw the tension rise between mistress and slave, and Hagar runs away.

At a well called Be’er LeChai Roi (a well where I see life), she is reassured by a Divine message that her son, Yishmael, will survive and be a great ma. But meanwhile she should go back and accept her position.

This week matters get worse. When Yitzchak is born, Yishmael makes fun. Sarai thinks he will be a bad influence and asks Avraham to send mother and child away. Avraham resists. Surprising, given his relationship with Sarai. But God tells him to do as she says.

Hagar and Ishmael are sent away. They wander in the desert. One is again surprised that Avraham did not set them up in a safe location or indeed make better provision for them. But one is also surprised that Hagar, thinking that Ishmael is dying, puts him under a bush and goes and sits further away to see what will happen. It sounds very much like Miriam standing from afar to see what happens to baby Moshe. But here it sounds that Hagar is either bereft of feeling or so distressed that she is in a state of denial.

Then she sees the well. The same well as before, B’eer Lechai Roi, and everything ends happily. They set up home there, and Yishmael thrives. Not only, but later on this is the very place where Yitschak comes to live. They are reconciled and get on together.

So the whole thing seems is staged. Hagar knew where she was going. Avraham knew she would be taken care of, and it all ends happily. Until three-and-half-thousand years later!!!


Shabbat Noach

Candles Friday Nov 4th 5:28pm
Havdalah 5th 6:22pm

After the flood, Noah plants a vineyard (Genesis Chapter 9.20). He makes wine, gets drunk and ends up naked on the floor of his tent. His grandson Canaan sees him and runs to tell his father and uncles. They do not want to see their father naked and so they take a sheet between two and walk backwards until they have covered him. When Noah wakes “he realizes what Canaan has done to him.” We are not told what he did. The Midrash suggests a range of salacious possibilities, from rape to castration. Either way Noah curses Canaan. Later, in the Torah, Abraham’s nephew Lot, too, will get drunk and commit incest with his daughters.

On one level this narrative hints as to why the Canaanite tribes were regarded as corrupt and dispossessed by the Israelites. They were sexually corrupt.

But on another level, it tells us of the dangers of alcohol. Whereas the Torah insists on using wine as part of religious ceremonial, it also warns of the dangers of getting drunk.

Sigmund Freud accused Moses of being a killjoy. But Moses allowed alcohol. He just knew its risks and limitations. The Torah wants us to enjoy life but to be aware of what can happen if we do not exercise discretion.

We see in our times how much alcohol is responsible for sexual crimes, particularly at colleges. I suggest it is because if kids are forbidden to drink alcohol, when they do get a chance, they go overboard. But if as in most Jewish families, one is allowed alcohol in moderation and under defined conditions, drunkenness is less prevalent. Similarly, if you are careful with whom you drink, you will be more likely to avoid bad company and less likely to be seduced away from Jewish life.