Shabbat Vaeyra

Shabbat Rosh Hodesh Shevat
Candles Friday, January 27 @ 4:48pm
Havdalah 5:45pm

Please join us for a special Kiddush this Shabbat honoring Jahan Ghadamian.
Sponsored by the Ghadamian family. All are welcome.

If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, he had no choice. It wasn’t fair. I have often heard this said. But what do we mean when we talk about God hardening a person’s heart? Maybe it just means that God allows people to make bad decisions.

We are used to an idea of freedom, that we are responsible for our actions and that is why in our societies we punish people who break the law. However, freedom does not mean that there is no compulsion, that there is nothing influencing us. Or that one is completely free of any kind of constraint. Let’s just mention our genes. Some people just seem to have better genes than others. Some seem to be naturally better people than others or more religious and have always been so since birth. Why is that? Why do siblings born into the very same family and brought up equally often turn out so different?

We know about the debate between Nature and nurture. What influences a person most? One’s nature, ones genes, or the way one was educated and brought up? I don't think there is just one answer. Lots of different things affect how we think and behave.

The Torah uses the word KaVeD, we normally translate this as hard, to harden. Literally it means heavy, stubborn, inflexible in different ways. But also, dignity and, respect. Things we may either be born with or develop or come to be appointed to. So the root word KVD can be used to say He (God) hardened his (Pharaoh’s) heart. But it can say that Pharaoh himself hardened his own heart HiKViDor. Or that his heart was heavy KaVed. Hardened, perhaps by society or circumstances. There are so many ways in which we are influenced to make decisions. And God is another way of saying that somethings are in our nature, some in our genes and others the result of conditioning.

Pharaoh had a good reason for not giving in to Moses and Aharon. He was aftr all the Master of his Universe, the head of the most civilized nation of his time. It’s like the Chinese leaders who refused to make any concession to the protestors in Tiananmen Square. Or like Putin who thinks that aggression is the way to exercise power. Do they have no choice? Were they compelled? Or just that they themselves refused to see any other point of view?

The Talmud agrees that someone who has to overcome temptation to do good is regarded much more highly than someone who was good by nature.


Shabbat Shemot

Mevarchin Rosh Hodesh Shevat
Candles 4:40pm January 20th
Havdalah 21st at 5:35

The new Book of Shemot that we start this week has a very important theme that is often overlooked. The crucial role of women in Jewish history and Judaism.

We read about Shifra and Pua the two midwives who defied Pharaoh’s instructions to kill the Israelite male children. Their reward was establishing dynasties within the Children of Israel. It must have taken amazing fortitude and huge risk to find ways of circumventing the orders of an absolute ruler. All the more so, given that there were plenty of men who were unwilling or incapable of such heroism and just looked for an easy way out.

Then we have Zipppora, Moshe’s wife, who takes responsibility for saving her child when it seems Moses neglected his religious duties. Next week we will read about Yochebed and Miriam and their part in defying Pharaoh’s instructions too. And Pharaoh’s daughter herself who also refused to accept her father’s commands.

We learn not just about the role of women in providing the moral strength to stand up to their enemies but also the crucial role of women in preserving family life which is at the core of Jewish survival.

And we also learn that although the rule of law must be obeyed wherever we may be living, if that law is morally wrong, we have a duty to stand up against it.


Shabbat Vayehiy

Candles Friday 13th January 4:31pm
Havdalah 14th 5:27pm

Favoritism runs through the Book of Bereishit. You might say it started with God preferring Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s. God preferring Noah to all the rest. Then Abraham favors Isaac. Isaac favors Esau. Rebecca favors Jacob. Jacob favors Joseph and this week Jacob favors Efraim over Menashe. And the consequences played out over the next 1000 years of Jewish history as the tribes argued and fought, split into two rival states until eventually they merged under the tribe of Judah, to become Jews ( as well as Children of Israel).

The Torah seems to be ambiguous about favoritism. On the one hand, it supports meritocracy, finding the best person for the job. On the other hand, it favors heredity, emphasizing tribal differences, choosing a specific tribe to become priests and later a specific family to provide kings. On the meritocratic level Jews as identified through their mothers as all equal and potential leaders. Anyone can get to the top. On the tribal level as identified through fathers, they provide aristocracies of kings and priests. Only those born to it can lead. This dichotomy runs through the history of mankind.

There are many examples of where the Torah gives alternative possibilities for actions and for models of leadership. Just as the Torah allows for exceptions under extreme conditions to preserve one’s life. Or even though hating violence, it allows for self-defense and even warfare despite detesting taking human life.

People often think the Torah and Jewish Law is rigid. It might be strict and demanding but it usually offers different legal positions and opportunities. That is why there is so much debate in Jewish Law. It is not monolithic or black and white and does indeed allow for many variations. No single approach answers every scenario.


Shabbat Vayigash

Candles January 6th 4:24pm
Havdalah 7th 5:20pm

Special Kiddush this week sponsored by Mr. & Mrs. F. Iny.

It is a feature of the Torah to tell one version of events and then to repeat the narrative in a slightly different way. And often in repeating a narrative, new elements are added which weren’t there the first time.

So, in the beginning chapter of the Torah you have creation described in seven days or phases, each one adding new elements. But in the second chapter the Torah talks about one day and relations, weather, rain, human intervention, agriculture and human relations to animals and other humans. Or when Eliezer goes to find a wife for Isaac, the events are recorded. Then Eliezer repeats them adding points that are new, for example implying that Abraham specifically wanted a member of his family for a daughter in law. Some people like to think this shows that there were different records, different scribes. But it need not. It could instead be making a new point or emphasis.

This week Judah pleads for Benjamin who, Joseph is threatening to keep in jail. The way he tells the narrative of what happened to Joseph and what Isaac said to the brothers about past events is very different to the previous record. Clearly Judah is trying to stress the devotion the brothers have to their father, to their other brothers, particularly Benjamin and the degree of anguish their father has experienced. Was he telling lies or just putting a different emphasis? We can often tell the same story in different ways.

He is of course trying to win over Joseph by asserting the values of respect and love for parents, brotherhood and responsibility. All things that were missing earlier. Yes of course he is hoping to change Joseph’s mind by making them out to be good caring people. But now having gone through the agony of the events, the Torah is also showing us how adversity can bring one to change, by looking at one’s life, and changing our values accordingly, the way they did.