Shabbat Vayishlah

Friday, December 1 - Candles @ 4:10pm
December 2 - Havdalah @ 5:05pm

Jacob's life was dogged by one crisis after another. He had to escape from Esau. He fled to his uncle Laban who cheated him time and again. He had to escape from his crutches. Before he could get home, he risked an encounter with his brother. When he arrived back in Canaan he encamped near Shehem. His daughter Dina went out to visit the local women and was raped. Her two brothers Simon and Levi attacked the town in reprisal and massacred the population to the disgust of their father.

Jacob believed it had happened because his sons had been influenced by the pagan atmosphere of Laban they had grown up in. And after Shehem he moved on to Bethel where he wanted to live in his own spiritual cocoon. He insisted his sons get rid of all the trappings of idolatry they had accumulated. But it was clear he had not succeeded in entirely removing the negativity of Laban from his sons.

Rachel died. And then the Torah tells us that Reuben, his first born, slept with Jacob’s concubine Bilhaa. Some Midrashim suggest he did not actually sleep with her. Others say that this was an act of protest because as a son of Leah, he expected his father would “promote” her to the position of favored wife and instead he preferred Rachel’s maidservant.

Once again, a son of Jacob acts against his father’s wishes and tries to undermine his authority. And this explains why Reuben was demoted and Judah took his place. But it also underlines the tension between Jacob and his sons that will culminate in the Joseph affair.

All this explains the struggle Jacob had trying to contain and educate his children in an alien environment. We think we have difficulty. But the Torah reassures us that it has always been this way. Even the greatest of our forefathers had to struggle to pass on his values and educate his children to follow in his footsteps.


Shabbat Vayeytzey

Friday, November 24th - Candles @ 4:12pm
November 25th - Havdalah @ 5:06pm

Jacob runs away from Canaan back to Haran where his mother’s family lives. There he falls in love with his cousin Rahel and marries her (after being tricked into marrying Leah first). Between the two wives and two concubines, he father’s eleven sons as he works for Lavan his father in law for twenty-one years. His relationship with his father in law is fraught and eventually he takes his wives and children and flees back towards Canaan.

Lavan pursues them and in addition to recriminating over why Jacob left in secret, he asks for his teraphim, idols, household gods back. Jacob has no idea that Rahel had stolen them. Why did she steal them? Was it because they were all brought up in a house where they worshipped idols? Didn’t Jacob have a say in their upbringing? One Midrash suggests she only stole them to prevent her father worshipping them. Which sounds a little weak because Lavan could easily have found or made new ones.

Later on when Jacob arrives in Canaan he commands his sons to “get rid of the alien gods they have” (35:2). Where did they get those gods from? From Haran or from Shehem in Canaan itself which they had sacked? From the case of Rahel it seems obvious that both in Haran and even in Canaan, the alien culture had affected them all. And now Jacob had to work extra hard to protect his family from these influences.

In a way this is the challenge that faces us all. Wherever we live nowadays, in Israel or the Diaspora, there are “alien” values and influences. We are all infected one way or another and we have to try hard to limit those external values. Even so as with Jacob’s sons this doesn’t mean we can completely exclude the external. But without ensuring our homes offer a strong alternative, we cannot ensure a Jewish future.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Shabbat Toldot

Candles - Friday November 17th @ 4:16pm
Havdalah - November 18th @ 5:10pm

Mevarhin Rosh Hodesh Kislev

The Ahgravi family invites everyone to a special Younger Generation Kiddush this coming Shabbat @ 11:45am. Please invite your friends.

The story of Rebecca arranging for Jacob to get the family blessing over Esav is the main theme of this week’s reading. But there is another subplot that continues from last week when Rebecca was chosen to be the wife of Isaac. Although it was an arranged marriage, it worked out well; they fell in love.

Esav is forty years old when he marries a Hittite/Canaanite woman (who ironically was called Yehudit). He was not young. His decision was probably not a rash one. But he will have known how much emphasis his grandfather had put on finding a good woman for Isaac. But neither Isaac nor Rebecca were happy with his choice. Perhaps because although his wife had what sounds like a very Jewish name, it was only a name. It did not reflect the kind of person she really was. That was what they objected to. This is prelude to the question of who would be the better to carry on the religious tradition of Abraham and Isaac.

Later on Rebecca says to her husband that she doesn't want Jacob, who they are now both cultivating to become to the heir to Abraham’s tradition, to marry a local girl, because she is disgusted by their behavior. Having a Jewish name means nothing if you don't behave like a Jewish person should.

When Esav hears this, he finally realizes he needs a different kind of wife. So he now goes to Ishmael, his uncle, for a wife instead of taking a Canaanite woman. This helps him reconcile with his parents and his brother.

The importance of a good marriage is emphasized so many times, it is not a coincidence. Sharing the moral and traditional values that are crucial for a successful marriage that will then pass those values on to the next generation. Whom you choose for a wife (or a husband) is one of the crucial themes in the Torah.


Shabbat Hayei Sarah

Candles - Friday 10th November @ 4:22pm
Havdalah - November 11th @ 5:16pm

After the death of Abraham’s wife Sarah and his negotiation for the Cave of Mahpela as a family burial site, most of the Torah reading this week is devoted the journey of Abraham’s servant and manager, Eliezer of Damascus, to find a wife for Isaac. The journey takes him to Haran where he finds Rebecca. He negotiates with her family and brings her back to Canaan to marry Isaac.

She arrives towards evening and sees Isaac coming towards her from Be’er LeChai Roi, the name of the well where Hagar and Ishmael were living. It seems that after Sarah’s death the brothers were reconciled and lived next to each other. Isaac meets her, takes her home to replace his mother, marries her and then, notice the sequence, falls in love with her. Falling in love is an important sub plot of this week’s reading, directly and indirectly.

Abraham then marries again. Her name is Keturah and she gives birth to six other sons. All of whom establish important dynasties. But then we are told that Abraham had others sons by his concubines. Who are they? Did the Torah mean that they were Keturah’s children and Keturah was not a wife but a concubine? Silence. Either way the Torah tells us that Abraham settled his affairs by leaving his empire to Isaac. As for the rest of his children he gave them presents and he sent them east so that they would not compete or threaten Isaac and one assumes Ishmael.

The Midrash makes an amazing assumption. That Keturah is really Hagar. For as long as Sarah was alive she kept her distance out of respect. But because she loved Abraham she did not remarry and waited until the moment she could be reconciled. It is a highly romantic idea linked to a meaning of the name Keturah, which could mean sweet-smelling, like incense, but could also come from the word for what we call a chastity belt. She kept herself under lock and key, so to speak, until Abraham, her one true love was free to marry her. It is a testament to true love that can overcome all difficulties and obstacles.

Abraham was a romantic. But he was also a practical man. He knew he had to make suitable arrangements in order to avoid conflict. He had already taken care of Ishmael. Now of Isaac. But he also made sure all his other sons were provided for (we don’t know if he had any daughters). His was the ideal combination of cold wisdom and romantic passion.


Shabbat Vayeyra

Friday, November 3rd - Candles @ 5:29pm
November 4th - Havdala @ 6:23pm

Did God really want or expect Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? I don’t think so, because the Torah says very clearly at the start of the episode that this was a test of Abraham. But many people have wondered why God would want to test Abraham as if God did not know how loyal he was and as if God had not already commanded human beings not to kill other human beings, whether murder or human sacrifice.

There are two crucial messages here. The first is that a person can be so passionately committed to an idea, to a belief that he would be prepared to do anything. Just look at those murderous, inhuman Jihadis. Religion that goes to such extremes is neither a religion nor the will of God.

The Torah distinguishes between Mishpat, the Law, and Tseddek, doing the right thing. We need both. Law is crucial, both civil and spiritual. But there are times when the law is too rigid and inhuman and only an inner sense of what is right can decide what to do. That is why in Jewish law if your boss or senior officer commands you to do something you feel is immoral, you must resist. On the other hand, if we only go by what we feel to be right, our feelings can mislead us and even corrupt us. We need Law too.

This whole narrative explains why it was not enough for Abraham to feel close to God and why it was necessary to have a Constitution, given on Sinai, to ensure that no one used God as an excuse for something inhuman.

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