Forth Light Weekly Sedra
Following the Revelation at Sinai, the people approach Moses and ask that he become an intermediary between them and G-d. While they now understand that G-d can speak to humans, it is not an experience they wish to repeat. Moses tells them not to be afraid and that G-d has come: נַסּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶ֔ם which either means to test them or to elevate them. In this context, one could say that here the word means to elevate. G-d spoke to the Jewish people in order to raise them up and bring them close to Him by means of the Torah. Yet many of the commentators take a different approach. They see the word as implying some sort of test, one, which by being afraid of the Revelation, the Jews in some way failed. Even though the Torah seems to indicate that G-d was not displeased by their awe of Him, a strong midrashic tradition maintains that Moses, at least, was. If we combine the two meanings of the word נַסּ֣וֹת, we can maybe gain a deeper understanding of this idea. The Idea of the Revelation was to elevate the people and bring them closer to G-d. The test was whether they would be able or want to continue with this closeness. The answer, in this case, was no. Essentially, they answered ‘it was nice and nice that it was’. They reacted with fear rather than desire. It is true that hearing the voice of G-d is an awe inspiring experience that produces a certain necessary fear of G-d, and it is this that G-d is seen approving of.
On the other hand to remain at that level needs something more. It needs a passion for G-d and Torah and it is this that the Midrash finds lacking. While Moses certainly agrees with G-d that being in awe of the Divine is a worthy trait, in the people’s fearful reaction to G-d’s Revelation, he senses that an opportunity has been lost. A possibility of a different type of relationship based on desire and passion, rather than only duty and awe, has been squandered. This understanding of this passage is extremely important for these generations. In the past, much emphasis was put on fear of G-d and ideas of reward and punishment. This was especially true in many of the philosophical and mystical works of the Middle Ages. It reflected the religious context of the time. Today, however, such admonitions simply do not speak to people. Jews will not be cowed or frightened into keeping the Torah: they need to be seduced. A Judaism without passion simply based on tradition or fear of consequences has no appeal today. One based on commitment and love born of understanding is what people will connect to. That attitude to Torah, indeed, is the basis of the Messianic age. By instilling in our generation a passion for Torah based on knowledge, we are not only saving Judaism for the future, but reclaiming the opportunity lost by our ancestors when they recoiled from the original Revelation.
There are two main stories that make up the Parshah this week. One is the crossing of the Reed Sea and the other is the arrival of the Manna. These narratives may seem on the surface very different but actually are connected by an underlying theme. In both the Crossing of the Sea and the laws regarding the Manna, the Israelites were required to put their trust in G-d. As they stood by the shore of the sea with the Egyptians behind them, they had to have the faith to go forward into the sea at Moses’ command, trusting that something would happen to save them. With regards to the Manna, they were required to not leave anything over for the next day, trusting that the Manna would return in the morning. In a similar vein they had to believe that the Manna would not fall on Shabbat and prepare food for the next day on Friday. Admittedly, this was easier, as they had already received a double portion for Shabbat. In all these cases, they had to trust the assurances of Moses, speaking in the name of G-d, that things would work out. This was not easy. According to tradition it took one individual to take the plunge before the sea split and the others followed. In both cases concerning the Manna, there were people that did not listen to Moses and kept over some Manna or went out on Shabbat to look for it. It is interesting that the Parshah begins with the requital for such trust.
Joseph believed that the Jews would eventually leave Egypt and asked that his remains be taken with them when they did. We are told how indeed when they left, Israelites did take Joseph’s bones with them. One wonders whether Moses, when the people had doubts about the future, pointed to these bones as evidence that trust in G-d actually pays off. If we look at these two main narratives in the Parshah we see that one deals with a moment of supreme national crisis while the other concerns far more mundane, though no less important, matters of sustenance. This juxtaposition teaches us an important lesson. It is easier sometimes to trust in G-d during major crises, like war or serious illness. The acute nature of the event leads to a stripping away of our normal illusions and often enables us to see more clearly where our true support lies. To do this in daily life, in such matters of earning a living, can be much harder. That is maybe why, in the daily Amidah, before we get to the requests concerning the large things like the ingathering of the exiles or the rebuilding of Jerusalem, we ask for things like health and sustenance. Once we trust G-d to help us with the basic things of life, we may be more able to have hope concerning the greater, national, issues. And once we trust G-d in our daily lives we may also merit to see His redemption universally.
The story of the Exodus reaches its climax. All the Firstborn of Egypt are killed and the Jews are finally freed. Egypt lies in ruins, its people traumatised. It is this event that we are bidden to remember everyday and celebrate every Pesach. Yet should we be celebrating an event that caused a whole nation to suffer? In the rather peculiar stage rendition of the film ‘Prince of Egypt’, the writers have Moses apologising for acting as he did at the request of a brutal divinity. In a complete distortion of the text and history, the victims are turned into criminals and the persecutors into the oppressed.
Putting aside the rather weird thought processes of some West End script writers, is it not true that our freedom did .involve the suffering of the Egyptians? Could not G-d have arranged things some other way, such as miraculously transporting all the Israelites out of Egypt. This question is even more pertinent when it comes to the possession of the Land of Israel, which involved the conquest of the Canaanite cities or other such events in Jewish history, such as Purim, which involved slaughter of thousands our enemies. The simple answer is that G-d works through humans in achieving His purposes. If the Jews are to be freed or have a land, as far as possible natural means need to be used. This does involve the suffering of our enemies but that is simply the way the world is set up. Indeed, G-d ideally wants us to be instruments of our own redemption, even if it involves us getting our hands dirty.
This was actually true in during the Exodus as well. Even though the Israelites were not capable of physically fighting at that stage, they were required to resist. This was a basic component of the paschal sacrifice. Earlier, when speaking to Pharaoh, Moses had explained the need to travel to the wilderness by the negative reaction of the Egyptian population to the Israelites sacrificing sheep, which the Egyptians held sacred in front of them. Yet that is precisely what G-d now commands the Israelites to do. They are to emphasises the powerlessness of the subdued Egyptians by flaunting in their eyes the ability to wound their most sacred religious feelings with impunity. Thus the Jews, also, must take part in the fight against the Egyptians.
>All of this teaches us an important lesson. If we wish to have freedom, security, justice, this things cannot be won without a fight and in that fight people will get will get hurt. In a lot of the public discourse today there is a naivete about what it takes to keep us safe in our beds at night. We expect the security forces to keep us secure but don’t care to look to closely at the methods required to achieve this. Judaism by the story of the Exodus, Purim and other events puts it right in front of our faces and forces us to take ownership of it.
The introduction to the Parshah has been the subject of great controversy, especially in the modern period. In it, G-d tells Moses that he appeared to the patriarchs as El Shaddai or G-d Almighty but his name Hashem or the ‘four lettered name’, was not made known to them. Commentators have struggled with this verse, as the name Hashem is used frequently in the patriarchal narratives and even by the patriarchs themselves. Modern biblical criticism has seen traditionally this verse as proof that the Torah was written by several authors who used different Divine names, so the author of this narrative must have been different to the author of the texts in Genesis that used Hashem.. Contemporary scholars have generally rejected this division of the Torah based on names of G-d, but the difficulty still remains.
Rashi interprets the statement as signifying that G-d made promises to the patriarchs using the name G-d Almighty, but the fulfilment of those promises, signified by the name Hashem, they did not experience. He now, however, going to fulfil these promises, which is why He is revealing Himself by this ‘four lettered name’. If we examine this issue more closely, we can see that the text itself supports this type of approach. If we analyse the narratives in Genesis we can see that that the name most commonly used in G-d’s revelations to the patriarchs is indeed El Shaddai, especially to Abraham. Later G-d normally introduces himself as the G-d of the fathers, as he indeed initially does to Moses. Only once, does G-d Himself use the name Hashem when talking to a patriarch, and that is at the ‘Covenant of the Pieces’, when specifically presaging the exile and redemption in Egypt. Indeed, the few times the patriarchs address G-d by the ‘four lettered name’,it seems to be in the context of recalling G-d’s promises to them, such as when Jacob is facing his confrontation with Esau and prays for Divine assistance.
Thus we can see that Rashi’s comment and other traditional explanations of this verse are both based on grammatical analysis of the word ‘made known’ and a close reading of the texts in Genesis. They did not need to introduce fanciful concepts of different authors based on different Divine names, something that a close examination of the text simply doesn’t support. This highlights a general problem with classic modern biblical criticism. It asks good questions, most of which however been already asked centuries earlier. The answers, however, are rubbish. As Hertz points out, if the meaning of the verse ids actually that G-d is revealing a new name unknown to the patriarchs or presumably to their descendants, how will that help Moses in his mission. It directly contradicts his earlier worry about the people not knowing G-d’s name!
Rather, biblical critics came up with a seemingly simple theory which in reality doesn’t work and solves nothing. The traditional explanation, on the other hand, is based on a close reading and understanding of the text and, if understood properly, provides a good explanation of the verse. This is but one example of the unsatisfactory nature of classic biblical criticism and the need to take it the a very large grain of salt.
In the synopsis of the Exodus story from Deuteronomy which we read on Seder night, it is written וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים which is normally translated as ‘the Egyptians were evil to us’ but actually can be better understood as the ‘Egyptians made us seem evil’. This can be seen at the beginning of our Parshah when Pharaoh suddenly declares the Israelites are a security threat and therefore need to be dealt with. Persecution always begins with delegitimisation. As it was in the first exile of the Jewish people, so it has been throughout history. Jews have learnt the hard way that words can kill. While these verbal assaults have taken various force, none has been more damaging or lasting than that perpetuated by Christianity.
It is impossible to conceive of the litany of physical assaults on Jews over the centuries, including the Holocaust, without the delegitimisation of Jews and Judaism by Christianity. This goes back to the gospels, where Jewish leaders and often Jews in general, are portrayed as the enemy. The most insidious feature of this delegitimisation is the wholesale identity theft of Judaism by Christianity. Not only are Christians now the new Israel and Jews rejected, but Jewish texts and narratives are misread to support the story.
This can be clearly seen in the nativity story where a passage from Isaiah is wilfully mistranslated to create a virgin birth and the story of Moses and the Exodus is used to manufacture the tale of Herod (another Jewish villain), seeking to kill all the male babies (sound familiar) and the holy family fleeing to Egypt, in a re-narration of the Egyptian slavery. Thus are Jews rejected and Jewish stories made Christian. Despite the welcome rejection by mainstream Christian denominations, especially Catholics, of this identity substitution, the Christian assault on Judaism continues unabated. Not only does intense Christian missionary activity specifically targeted at Jews continue uncondemned by mainstream churches, but it uses exactly the same type of identity theft pioneered in the gospels.
A brief search on the internet will discover Christian Haggadahs, Rabbis, Parshah talks and so on. None of this has anything to do with genuine Christian identity but is a method of suborning Judaism and authentic Jewish life. This of course has recently culminated in the uncovering of ‘deep sleeper’ Christian missionaries disguised as Orthodox Jews. A religion that has to stoop to using secret service tactics to win converts cannot have very convincing arguments. If the Churches are serious in their rejection of supersessionism, then all this must be roundly condemned and fought. If not, then Christian professions of friendship are just that, and Jews are justified in believing that nothing much has changed since the nativity stories were written.
When Jacob is about to bless Joseph’s grandchildren, he suddenly seems not to recognise them, asking who are these? This seems rather strange, as he has just adopted them, making them full tribes along with his other sons. Something else obviously is going on here. There could be various explanations. One is that the two young men were dressed as Egyptian princes and Jacob did not recognise them. The midrash gives a deeper explanation. Jacob saw in his heightened spiritual state that wicked kings would come from the tribes descended from these two boys, Jerobam, Ahab and Yehu, and his inspiration temporarily left him. His question is thus, who are these descendants of mine from whom will issue such evil? He is taken aback by this disturbing vision and struggles to connect it with Joseph’s sons. If we connect these two explanations, we can possibly understand that Jacob, in seeing before him two boys who appear completely Egyptian, sees the spectre of assimilation. He further perceives the long term negative effects of the Egyptian exile, corrupting the future of Israel even in its own land. The negative influence of Jews living in the Diaspora is thus not only confined to Jews living outside Israel but also can negatively affect the moral well being of an independent Jewish state. The longer Jews stay in the Diaspora, the worse and more lasting this damage is. As the Rabbis said, if the Jews had stayed in Egypt a moment longer, they would have been lost forever. Thus, from a religious point of view, Jews living in exile is on the one hand sometimes necessary and on the other, dangerous to Jewish life and identity. The prophet Ezekiel expresses this most clearly. On the one hand, G-d states that the Jews needed to be exiled for their sins and to save themselves from being totally corrupted.
Just as a machine which becomes dirty and clogged with filth needs to be taken apart and cleaned, so did the Jewish people need to be scattered in order to be purified. Conversely, exile itself, as well as causing G-d reputational damage, exposes the Jews to the negative influences of their host societies. As in the case of the Jews in Egypt, the threat of assimilation and negative culture threaten to overwhelm Jewish life and identity. Therefore, the return of Jews to their land and especially Jewish sovereignty may occur even if the Jewish people are not really worthy in order to prevent a worse outcome. This concept, examined in light of modern Jewish history, may provide a non-messianic explanation for the return of Jewish sovereignty in our day. This is indeed the narrative adopted by Rabbi Yehudah Heinkin. Despite the rosy hagiographic vision of pre-Holocaust Jewry we are often presented with the reality was very different. Rampant assimilation, intermarriage and apostasy, including in the heartlands of European Jewry, meant that Judaism was on the road to nowhere. People at the time talked openly of the end of the Jewish people. In such a scenario, the return of Jews to sovereignty in their own land can be understood as G-d working to save the Jews from being overwhelmed before it was too late. Israel was created, as Rabbi Henkin puts it, in order to give the Jews ‘the strength to repent’ before they were totally lost. This concept has important ramifications for how we see Israel today. Rather than necessarily on a straight or even meandering road to the inevitable final redemption, we have been given a chance to save ourselves. As chances can either be exploited or wasted, this places upon us a tremendous responsibility not to squander this one.
When Joseph sends his brothers back to their father, with the news of his being alive and important, he tells the brothers not to ‘tirgzu badarekh’. This phrase can be explained in various ways, such as ‘don’t be troubled by the way’, or ‘don’t fall out on the way’, or ‘don’t be afraid on the way’. The commentators take two main approaches in interpreting Joseph’s words to his brothers. One is that held by Rashi, which sees it as an attempt by Joseph to prevent his revelation of himself from creating more division in the family. He tells the brothers not to engage in mutual recriminations concerning how they treated him. Instead of blaming each other for his fate they should rejoice, as he does, in the eventual outcome, which has resulted in them having security in a time of famine. The second approach is that taken by the Ramban, who sees Joseph as trying to assure the brothers of his protection on the way. Even though they will be travelling laden with riches, Joseph tells them not to fear attack as his reputation will protect them. No-one will dare to attack the caravan of the viceroy of Egypt. How do these very different interpretations of the same short phrase connect to each other? Is it possible that Joseph is saying both of these things in one statement? Surely the protection afforded by his position is based on the brothers’ relationship with him, and ultimately each other.
If they are now going to spend the whole journey arguing about their past relationship with Joseph, will this not undermine the very relationship that is the basis of their safety? The unity of the family is a prerequisite for the security of being part of Joseph’s extended household. At the end of the Tanakh we find another group of people travelling back to Israel under the protection of a powerful patron, or rather two patrons. Ezra and his entourage travel under the protection of the Persian monarch but without escorts. Ezra is embarrassed to ask for physical protection as this would undermine the reputation of their true patron, G-d. But this Divine protection is based on the internal unity of this group. If they fought among themselves they could not expect G-d to protect them. The Sages explain the military success of Ahab, one of the worst kings of Israel, as being due to the fact that even though they served idols they were united. In order to be regarded as part of G-d’s household, we must act as one family, not as a rabble of quarrelling tribes and sects. If we want protection against our external enemies, we must not regard members of the family with different views as internal enemies. Jewish unity is the essential prerequisite for Jewish security.
One of the striking features of Joseph’s rise to power is his total attribution of his success to G-d. Both in his appearance before Pharaoh, the naming of his children and his reconciliation with his brothers, Joseph avers any personal credit for his situation but clearly sees in it the hand of the Divine. This is in despite of the fact that, unlike his patriarchal ancestors, G-d never directly speaks to him, and Joseph is not regarded by the Torah or later Jewish thought as a prophet. Everything he does could be explained as a result of his personal acumen and industry but he attributes it all to G-d. This understanding of Joseph’s career fits nicely into an important concept concerning the celebration of Chanukah. The Maharal of Prague in his famous essay of Chanukah, interrogates the role of the miracle of the oil in the establishment of Chanukah. Surely, in line with Jewish tradition concerning other festivals, we establish a day of celebration in order to commemorate a victory over our enemies or being saved from danger, not in simply being able to perform a certain mitzvah. It is clear therefore that Chanukah primarily celebrates the victory over the Greeks and the subsequent ability to practice Judaism in freedom. What then, the Maharal asks, is the role of or necessity for the miracle of the oil and the primary mitzvah of the festival, lighting candles? His answer connects us to the attitude of Joseph. Because the victory of the Hasmoneans was not accompanied by direct Divine intervention, as in the Exodus, but seemingly took place through normal military means, one might have thought G-d was absent from the story. The miracle of the oil, coming as it did directly following the victory, provided the proof of Divine involvement.
The oil that lasted longer than it should has symbolised G-d’s presence not only in the Temple but in the armies of Israel, demonstrating that G-d was also behind the military victory. Just like Joseph, if we look behind the surface reasons for events, we can perceive the hand of G-d. Maybe, this is one of the reasons that Chanukah is the most ‘weekday’ of the major festivals. Unlike other festivals, there is no prohibition of work or requirement for special meals. We continue with our ordinary routine but add some prayers to the service and, of course, light candles every evening. The specialness of these days is found precisely in the fact that they are mostly ordinary. Just as the small candles light up the surrounding darkness, they serve to teach us that the light of G-d can also be found in the seeming ordinariness of normal life and events.
In the Pesach Haggadah, we interpret the verse in Deuteronomy ‘arami oved avi’ as an Aramean wished to destroy my father, and explain that this refers to Laban. The commentators have given various explanations as to how exactly Laban sought to destroy Jacob and how this led to the descent to Egypt, referred to in the same passage. One explanation has a direct connection to the situation described at the beginning of the Parshah. We are told that Joseph as a young lad of seventeen hung out with the children of the maidservants. He furthermore brought gossip about the other brothers to their father(according to Rashi the reference is to the children of Leah). We see the children of Leah on one side, led by Reuben or Judah, and on the other side the children of Rachel and the maidservants, clearly led by Joseph. This situation, of two increasingly hostile factions within the family of Jacob, leads to increasing discord, the sale of Joseph and thus the eventual descent to Egypt. It is this situation which is the basis of the idea that Laban tried to destroy Jacob. By his deception on Jacob’s wedding night, swapping Rachel for Leah, he caused the family to consist of two wives and two concubines, which eventually form into the two hostile camps described above. These two camps not only led to the exile in Egypt but also to the subsequent division of the united monarchy and the destruction of the first Jewish state.
Indeed, it could be said that the damage done by Laban’s deception almost destroyed Jacob and the House of Israel. If we look more closely at these two camps, we see something very interesting. At first sight it could seem that they are the insiders and the outsiders. The children of Leah are older and a coherent group that, as we see from the sale of Joseph, clearly dominate the family. Joseph clearly associates himself with the outsiders, the children of the maidservants, who, according to the Rabbis, are mistreated by the others. Yet Joseph, as the Torah explain, is his father’s favourite, and clearly not an outsider. The giving to Joseph of a special garment and his dreams of domination, clearly indicate the possibility that the outsider group, led by him, might be planning to take control. This fills the children of Leah with dread and, seeking to cut off this threat at its source, they remove Joseph from the scene. This is repeated in the times of Solomon and his successor when dissatisfaction with Judean dominance of the state is mishandled, leading to the breakup of the state. Similarly, the Hasmonean kingdom, arising from the victory of Hanukah, was directly destroyed by factional struggles for power. The lesson from all this is clear. If we want a strong united Jewish people and Jewish state, we need to avoid factionalism and resolve our differences without forming ourselves into mutual hostile groups, whose conflict serves no one but those who wish to destroy us.
During the encounter between Jacob and Esau, in the course of which Jacob presents his family, one person is conspicuous by their absence. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is missing from the roll call of those introduced to Esau. The Rabbis pick up on this absence and the Midrash narrates that Jacob hid her in a trunk in order to stop Esau laying his eyes on her and getting romantic ideas. For this action, however, the Midrash rather surprisingly, criticises Jacob. Esau becoming romantically involved with Dinah might have been good for Esau and caused an improvement in his behaviour. As a consequence of preventing this possibility, continues the Midrash, Jacob had to experience the taking of his daughter by Shechem, related in the next section. How should we understand this rather strange assertion? In an interesting 1943 essay by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, he distinguishes between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism. The first sees the human moral obligation extending equally to all humans and societies, whereas the latter sees our primary moral obligation to our specific community. At stake in this dichotomy is to what extent our actions on behalf of our specific community or society need to take into account the consequences for other societies and communities. To use a contemporary example, to what extent does the obligation of Israel to act in order to provide security and well being for its citizens also need to encompass the security and well being of others affected by those actions outside the Israeli community.
To return to our Parshah, we may say that in hiding Dinah in a box in order to prevent her having any relationship with his brother, Jacob was adopting a strictly communitarian approach, while the Midrash in criticising his actions is presenting a more cosmopolitan argument. Most of us, I suspect, would tend to see Jacob’s approach as the more sensible while regarding the Midrashic argument as naive. What is the normative Jewish approach and can it bridge the gap between these two extremes? I believe it can be found in the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers that ‘if I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself what am I?’ Judaism would contend that cosmopolitanism must of necessity be based on communitarianism. Without looking after your specific society, you can not help others. Without caring for the specific it is impossible to extend that concern to the general. All attempts to build justice and equality universally without first building them in one society are doomed to failure. Only by first building one, or even several, just and equal societies that succeed in surviving and prospering in an otherwise unjust world, can this model then be applied more widely. Any attempt to prematurely apply these principles more widely at the expense of the security of those specific model societies, will not lead to universal peace and justice but the collapse of those societies and no peace and justice anywhere. That is why Jews have also regarded the moral path as first defending themselves and then extending that defence to others. Supposedly super moral, dead Jews, cannot help anyone.
The love triangle between Jacob, Rachel and Leah is one of the most tragic and yet important stories in the Torah. Jacob loves Rachel but is forced to marry Leah as well. Leah is desperate for her husband’s love and Rachel for children but Rachel gets the love and Leah the children. It seems that G-d is deliberately giving each of the sisters what the other wants. Through this competition, of course, the Jewish people are born. What is the lesson we are meant to learn from this narrative and what relevance does it have for us today? The answer lies in the incident that transforms the relationship between the sisters and seems to also finally lead to Rachel having children. Leah’s eldest son Reuben finds some mandrakes (according to Rashi, jasmine), which were regarded as a fertility drug and gives them to his mother. Rachel, desperate to become pregnant, asks for some. Leah retorts that ‘is it not enough that you stole my husband that you also wish to take my son’s mandrakes?’ Rachel could make a cutting remark about who stole whose husband, but she does not. Instead she offers up one of her scheduled nights with Jacob (who seems to have no say in the matter), in return for the mandrakes. What is happening here?
Rachel, who is caught up in her own pain and resentment with her sister for firstly, taking her place on what was meant to be her wedding night and then giving Jacob children, hears for the first time her sister’s narrative. Finally understanding her sister’s pain and sense of rejection, she is able to relinquish some of what she has in order to help her sister and vice versa. This then breaks the Gordian knot of this tangled relationship and enables the establishment of a healthier family dynamic, probably much to Jacob’s relief. By hearing the other’s narrative, the two sides were able to understand where the other was coming from and move towards her. This process is essential in any dispute resolution procedure whether individual, communal or international. I remember hearing how Israeli and Palestinian children, were asked to draw what they saw out of their window and were astounded. Both sides suddenly realised that they had the same fears of each other and the same sense of insecurity. That, surely is a vital prerequisite for any hope of reconciliation. Too often we refuse to listen to each other’s stories, fearing that it will undermine our own identity. Yet only by doing so can we, like Rachel and Leah, truly create a different relationship and a different future.
The confrontation between Jacob and Esau is often presented as a contest between spirituality and materialism. Esau is the materialist only interested in the sensual pleasures and willing to sacrifice more intangible spiritual benefits for their satisfaction. Jacob, on the other hand, is the spiritual studious one who understands the value of non-material assets. A closer examination of the text, however, reveals a more nuanced picture. The blessings Jacob desired from his father, which were meant by Isaac for Esau, are all material, economic and political. Only when Isaac sends Jacob away to Haran does he bless him with the spiritual ‘blessing of Abraham’. Furthermore when forcing Esau to relinquish his birthright for food he has cooked, Jacob shows a keen appreciation of material advantage. Where in this story is the famed hospitality of an Abraham? Surely charity starts at home! Rather, what we can see is a relationship between the brothers and indeed in the family that we may call transactional. Isaac is said to favour Esau because he provides him with game, Jacob uses his brother’s hunger to extract a heavy price and Jacob’s only concern with stealing his brother’s blessing relates to the consequences of being caught out. This transactional approach to the world in the end leads to the break up of the family.
Only when Jacob is prepared to turn this model on its head by sending Esau gifts which Esau tries to refuse, is fraternal reconciliation somewhat achieved. Thus the essential issue between Jacob and Esau, and indeed even between Esau, and Isaac seems to revolve around a transactional approach to each other. If this understanding is correct, it contains an important lesson for us today. Many of the challenges we face in the world today are caused precisely by this attitude. Is not the climate emergency the result of our exploitative approach to nature? Is not the global income and well-being disparity the consequence of our transactional approach to others and our consumptive approach to economics? Surely, then, the answer to the problems facing the world is not more of the same but a fundamental reappraisal of the economic, political and social systems under which we live. If we know that carrying on as we are will lead to environmental and social catastrophe, surely we are able to find a better way? Since a greener, more just world, will clearly be better for all of us in so many ways, what are we waiting for? When Jacob was faced with the consequences of his transactional approach to his brother, he understood the necessity for change and turned from a taker to a giver. As we increasingly face the dire consequences of our own transactional society, should we not follow his example?
The majority of our Parshah is taken up with the story of Eliezer’s search for a wife for Isaac. The Torah describes at great length the test Eliezer sets in order to discern the right girl, the operation of that test and the recounting of the incident to Rebecca’s family. There are many questions concerning this incident, including the nature and suitability of the test Eliezer arranged. Yet, there is a far more basic question, why was a test necessary at all? Abraham instructs Eliezer to go to his family in Aram and bring a wife for Isaac. The primary concern for Abraham was that his son should not marry a Canaanite but rather someone from his family. Abraham certainly knew about the situation of his family in Aram, as the Torah tells us at the end of the last Parshah that he was so informed. Therefore Eliezer had exactly the information he needed to proceed to fulfil his master’s instructions. Therefore, why was it necessary for him to devise an additional test to discern the right partner for Isaac? There is no simple answer to this question but I would like to propose one based on Eliezer’s own situation. Eliezer is not a member of the family of Abraham but rather his most faithful follower, who has been converted to Abraham’s mission not by family ties but by the content of the message. For him, perhaps more than for Abraham, character is more important than family. He is not prepared to entrust Isaac to any woman, simply because she comes from the right family. The most important thing is that she has the right qualities to be a partner with Isaac in carrying on Abraham and Sarah’s mission, a cause to which Eliezer has also dedicated his life. He thus devises a test which he hopes will, with G-d’s help enable him to discern precisely those all important character traits. What lesson can this understanding of this incident impart to us? As Jews being ‘part of the family’ is important. Often being part of the precise part of the family we identify with, can also be important. How someone dresses or how they daven our what they eat or do not eat, may be important factors in deciding how we relate to them. Yet Eliezer reminds us that appearances can be deceptive. A seemingly religious person can be a cheat and someone who seems externally dodgy may be full of kindness. We should never base or judgements about, or our relationships with others, solely on an external appraisal but rather on a closer acquaintance and deeper investigation. As Eliezer teaches us, appearances do not tell the whole story.
The story of Abraham and Sarah is in the main contained in two parshiot of the Torah, Lech L’cha which we read last week and this week’s Parshah, Vayera. These two readings highlight two different aspects of their lives. In what we read last week Abraham is concerned mainly for his own family and their future. His interactions with others, whether Pharaoh or the kings, are prompted by their impact on him or his relatives. This week, however, we encounter a very different story. From the beginning of the Parshah, Abraham is concerned with others, personally entertaining wayfarers with a sumptuous meal. Next we see him standing up for the people of Sodom, threatened with destruction by G-d. He prays for Avimelech and his family and then agrees to a treaty with him. In contrast to the more inward looking Abraham we saw last week, we encounter an expansive, outgoing character concerned with the welfare of those around him, even the sinners of Sodom. How do we understand these two aspects of Abraham’s character and what lessons may we Jews draw from this today? If we look at last week’s Parshah we can see that Abraham was seeking to establish himself. His main concern was ensuring the security and future of his family and mission. At the end of the Parshah, after being promised the Land and having Ishmael, he is promised another son who will carry on his legacy. With the future now seemingly secure, he has the space to look outwards and interact expansively and positively with the world around him.
But only because he had first secured his own physical and spiritual future was he able to help others. This perspective of Abraham’s life offers an important lesson for his descendants. Judaism is both universalistic and particularistic, inward and outward looking. Achieving the correct balance between these two orientations has been a constant challenge throughout Jewish history. Abraham’s experience gives us a pointer. Before one can help others one must first be secure yourself. Both physically and spiritually a Jewish people whose position is precarious will not only look after themselves but end up failing others. In order to be a light unto the nations, we first must strengthen the light within us. Thus as Jews it is not a betrayal of our universal mission to campaign on issues of ant-Semitism or the security of Israel but the prerequisite for it. Jewish schools are not an impediment to Jewish ethical and moral influence on the wider society but are the necessary foundation to enable it to occur. Ignorant, insecure Jews cannot be a light to others.The same is true for the individual. There are those who the moment they obtain a bit of Jewish learning immediately want to teach others. This a mistake. You first need to build up your own base of learning and then, when you have a mature understanding, convey that to others. Seeking to teach others on the basis of a few shiurim or books read will not help your pupils but only confuse them. Thus, while it may seem unusual at first sight, the division of Abraham’s life into an interior and exterior phase is actually the correct way of proceeding and one we should emulate.
After Abraham returns from defeating the four kings who had captured Lot, he is greeted by the king of Sodom, whose property and people he has also rescued. The king of Sodom offers him the spoils but Abraham refuses to accept anything from the Sodomite. However, while refusing to take anything for himself, he makes an exception in respect of his neighbours and allies Aner and Eshkol and their followers who had assisted him in his expedition. From this we learn an important principle. Abraham was entitled to take a share of the property of Sodom he had rescued by his efforts, but wanting to be independent and not at all associated with the wicked Sodomites, refused. Yet he did not extend this principled refusal to his allies. He had no right to inflict his heightened religious sensibilities on others, and left to them the choice whether to accept the reward. This principle applies to religious life in general. People may have certain religious sensibilities but that does not mean that they have the right to inconvenience, far less endanger, the lives of others. Your personal religious needs do not trump others’ rights and treating others with respect and taking account of their sensibilities is also an important religious value. Furthermore, insisting on the maintenance of your particular religious strictures to the detriment of others may often create a hilul hashem or profanation of G-d’s name, a cardinal religious transgression that far outweighs other religious sensibilities. An obvious example is the behaviour of certain people who for reasons of modesty do not wish to look at or sit next to women. This reluctance is often also a product of a sheltered upbringing where they are generally prevented from coming in contact with non-familial women. When faced with having to do so, such as on a plane or bus, how should they behave? According to the example set by Abraham, they should if they want look down, read a book or close their eyes for the duration of the encounter. That can be respected by others as conforming to their personal heightened sense of modesty. What they should not do is inconvenience everyone else by demanding other people move so they do not have to sit next to a woman. That is not being religious but being selfish and not in accordance with the values of the Torah or of Abraham. If they are unable to deal with the world outside their religious community then they should not leave it. If they do leave it, they should show the basic respect the Torah demands we show to others and not use religious observance as an excuse for doing otherwise. In other words they should learn from the sensitive and respectful behaviour of Abraham.
Humanity corrupts their way on the earth and G-d decides to destroy them. Noach, a righteous man in a wicked world, is chosen to be saved and builds an ark which outlasts the Divinely dispatched flood. These are the basic outlines of the story which sees Noach as separate and distinct from his generation. Yet an interesting Jewish tradition, with practical halakhic consequences, tells a different story. It is well known that children should mourn for their parents for twelve months but only say kaddish after them for eleven months. Less well known is that the basis of this time period derives from the story of the flood. By a careful reading of the verses, it can be deduced that the duration of the flood was a full year of twelve months. Now, in Jewish thought all punishment, including that of hereafter, is regarded as rehabilitative, thus having a fixed duration. Reasoning that there were few generations more wicked that that of the flood, who were annihilated by G-d for their behaviour, the Rabbis decided that the maximum duration of punishment in the hereafter is twelve months. However, since we do not generally regard our parents or relatives as completely wicked, we only say the kaddish on their behalf for eleven months, for surely by then they will have received any possible chastisement they deserved. Except this analogy is not so simple. The generation of the flood did not actually suffer for twelve months but surely perished in the first forty days of intensive rainfall. Those who did suffer for a year, until the waters receded, were Noach and his family cooped up in the Ark with a load of animals. So it is from the travails of Noach that we learn the twelve month limit of posthumous punishment. This indicates that Noach was meant to be chastised in some way, even while he was being saved. In other words, Noach’s conduct was not totally without reproach. This idea chimes with the opinion of those commentators who see Noach’s acquiescence in G-d’s plan as not a sign of righteousness but rather is reprehensible. Unlike Abraham or Moses, when told of G-d’s destructive intent, he is silent. For doing nothing, therefore, he was forced to suffer for a year in the Ark and endure a lifetime afterwards in a ruined and empty world, echoing with the silent screams of the perished multitudes. The lesson for us is clear. We learn the limit of punishment of the wicked not only from those who acted wrongly but from those who failed to act. Wickedness can exist not only in activity and speech but also in inactivity and silence. Noach was so unable to live with himself that he sought escape in the oblivion of inebriation. If we today are silent in face of the destruction that threatens our planet, how will we live with ourselves?