This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Jonny Freedman
At the start of this week’s pasha Vayishlach, we read about the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. Jacob faces meeting his brother again with great trepidation. It’s not surprising, as at their last contact, just before Jacob fled, Esau had sworn to kill him for stealing his birthright. Jacob sends out servants to bribe his brother with livestock and riches. The servants return reporting that Esau has 400 men with him. Jacob determines that all is lost and goes so far as to split his camp in to two so one half will survive when Esau inevitably attacks. He then prays to God, claiming unworthiness, but reminding God of God’s promise to make Jacob’s seed immeasurable as the “sand of the sea.” It’s interesting that God doesn’t answer – perhaps he is growing fed up of our patriarch’s Chutzpah – he seems to take, take, take as Beverley so eloquently reminded us in her Drosha last week.
Jacob determines to appease Esau with a succession of extravagant gifts delivered by his servants. After a restless night wrestling with an angel (and probably his own conscience), Jacob finally gets the blessing he had earlier sought from God. Obscurely this is to change his name from Yaacov to Israel, which may have been somewhat of a let down based on what we know of Jacob, but the Torah does not tell us his response.
Adding to our concerns already voiced about Jacob’s character, he ensures the most ‘dispensable’ family members – the handmaids and their children – were in front and his favourites Joseph and Rachel were at the rear.
Astonishingly, in Chapter 33 Vs 4 we read that Esau ran to meet Jacob, embraced him, fell on his neck, kissed him and wept. So reconciliation at last between the two warring brothers….. but was it?
Judaism has quite a lot to say about reconciliation and forgiveness. What we can learn from this is that there is far more to it than kissing and making up. No apology was sought or offered by either brother. We are told that granting forgiveness is a critical part of forgiveness and reconciliation. In his book “The Power of Forgiveness,” Elie Wiesel refers to a Jewish view that in order to be forgiven, one must first admit to wrongful action and apologize. The German government, in response to his request, did indeed issue a formal apology at the Knesset in Israel for its involvement in the Holocaust. As well as the importance of allowing the wrongdoer to atone, we are also commanded to accept someone’s apology in order to facilitate his or her own spiritual development.
Although in our tradition Esau is portrayed as the villain I think that each has a responsibility to seek forgiveness for their actions and/or words.
Another interesting observation is that following this joyous meeting of the two brothers and their clans, we are told that they next meet some years later at their father’s deathbed. So no attempt is made to rebuild their fractured relationship in any ongoing manner. This should be a lesson for all of us as we reflect on the relationships in our own lives that may be in need of repair.
I’m going to leave the final words on Forgiveness and Reconciliation with Nelson Mandela. In his Inaugural speech on becoming President of South Africa in 1994, he sought to heal the wounds of his divided nation. He said – “The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come…. Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon”
This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Beverly Cohen
Here’s the Deal …
The drash in this week’s Masorti ‘Reflections’ declares that “Jacob is a symbol of trust and deep reserves of faith.” I confess find this very hard to understand.
You could argue that Jacob is a bit of a schlemiel. He was unlucky enough to be born second, and so not in line for his father’s blessing. He deceived his father and defrauded his brother – but it wasn’t really his fault: his mother made him do it!
Jacob finds himself alone in the wilderness. He didn’t choose to be there – he had to flee to this wasteland to escape the wrath of his brother. But howsoever he arrived, it was there, alone, that he has a wondrous dream – a ladder from the earth to the heavens, with Angels linking the two. And God, standing beside Jacob, makes an unconditional promise: “I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob was lucky – there were no strings attached to God’s promise. God didn’t ask Jacob for obedience, or for any demonstrations of faith – no tests, no sacrifices as he had asked of Abraham and Isaac.
And how does Jacob respond? He says “If God remains with me; If He protects me on this journey; If He gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear; and If I return safe to my father’s house: [only then] the Lord shall be my God.” What Chutzpah! Who would have the temerity to lay down conditions to God? Jacob appears to be a consummate – or at the very least an audacious – deal-maker. Donald Trump eat your heart out!
However, not all Jacob’s deals are so advantageous: 7 years’ hard labour earns him not Rachel, the love of his life; but Leah with the weak eyes. For most of the 20 years he spends working for his uncle Laban, he seems to be hen-pecked and manipulated – ‘bid and bargained for like beans in a bazaar’: Leah “hires” him from Rachel for the price of a few mandrakes. Laban keeps changing the terms and conditions of Jacob’s service, apparently at whim.
Indeed, this hen-pecking starts well before he stays with Laban. It is at Rebecca’s insistence that Jacob deceives his father and swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright.
So what is Jacob? Arch manipulator or victim of other people’s machinations? Both, I guess.
In a drash on this parsha, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that when Jacob had his dream about the Stairway to Heaven, he was in the middle of a journey from one danger to another. He had left home because Esau had vowed to kill him – and his stay in Laban’s household was to be no bed of roses. According to Sacks, “Jacob is the man who has his deepest spiritual experiences alone, at night in the face of danger and far from home.” He is both the victim and the beneficiary of happenstance: “The Lord is present in this place and I did not know it!”, he says.
In Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio declares “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Admittedly, this pronouncement is laced with pomposity and irony. Nevertheless, you could argue that someone like Solomon was born great; Abraham, Moses and David certainly achieved greatness; but the hapless Jacob had greatness thrust upon him.
Jacob is not so much a hero as one able to make the best of bad situations – even if those difficult situations are of his own making: he is a Survivor.
I started out in my youth believing that the Tanach is a chronicle of heroes and saints and sages, demonstrating the ideals of virtue, faith and wisdom. I was embarrassingly naïve: it has taken me more than 60 years to come to terms with the fact that heroism is found not just in heroes, holiness not just in saints. The Torah celebrates and respects humanity, warts and all. Our patriarchs were not two-dimensional paragons of perfection. Jacob was a flawed, a cracked human being. But, in the words of Leonard Cohen’s achingly poignant song ‘Anthem’: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in — that’s how the light gets in.”
This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Debbie Harris
Paradoxically, this week’s sedra Chayei Sara, “The Life of Sarah” deals entirely with events that occurred after Sarah’s death at the age of 127. This started me thinking about the idea of what we leave behind. What will our legacy be? I’m not talking about some sort of master plan or changing the world. There seems to be perhaps too much change going on at the moment with Brexit, Donald Trump, Ed Balls maybe winning Strictly etc!
But how will I be remembered? What difference can I make? What will my legacy be? There’s the environmental view or looking after the world …
We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
And this, of course, fits in with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam – repairing or healing the world.
Shakespeare obviously had things to say about legacy. In Julius Caesar, Anthony says of Caesar:
The evil that men do lives after them.
On a more positive note Mariana in All’s Well That Ends Wells states:
No legacy is so rich as honesty.
I think that I prefer the author Ray Bradbury’s words:
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched in some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
To me how you act, the way you treat others, the relationships you form, the people you support or help, the beauty that you create whether in music or art or knitting or in your garden or by baking a cake is what’s important. That will have an effect on others and our world and so in some way live on after you.
A very significant relationship begins in this sedra. After Sarah is buried in the Cave of Machpelah, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac. So this is an important job. How to find the right woman to marry Isaac and become the second matriarch of Israel? But the servant, Eliezer had a plan. He made his camels kneel down outside the city of Nahor by a well of water in the evening, which was the time when women went out to draw water.
And then he prayed:
“Let it come to pass that the maiden to whom I shall say, ‘Please, dip down your pitcher that I may drink,’ and she shall say, ‘Drink, and I will give your camels to drink also’—she is the one You have appointed for Your servant Isaac . . .”
Never say that God takes his time. Apparently before Eliezer finishes speaking Rebecca comes along. What’s more she’s very pretty, a virgin, Abraham’s brother’s granddaughter – so she’s family too – and she gives water to the animals so she passes the camel test! So no need for dating websites or Tinder just take your camels to a well!
But seriously I think it’s interesting that Rebecca passes the test because she looks after a stranger – as, of course, Abraham had done with the 3 strangers just a few chapters earlier in Bereshit – and she looks after the stranger’s animals too. I think that it is our individual and collective responsibility to respect and care for others particularly the strangers in our midst.
At this point I could go down the very topical line of looking after our modern day strangers, migrants and refugees, but much has already been said on that, so I’m not planning to go down that path. Some of you will know that that I do some work helping people with benefit claims so I will just say that while the Department for Work and Pensions doesn’t have figures on the number of non-UK nationals claiming benefits there are various estimates which suggest that out of the 5 million people who claim welfare benefits in the UK, only 2% are EU nationals so the idea that loads of Europeans are coming over her and claiming benefits is not the case. By contrast around 55% of welfare spending in the UK is paid to pensioners and I’m going to come back to the idea of looking after the elderly in a minute.
So just sticking with the migrant theme for a moment I’ll just use the words of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg who I think expresses our obligations to those who are less fortunate than ourselves very clearly.
I believe we have a constant responsibility to help our own people, and also to help all who are desperate and suffering, whenever we can. All of us are created in God’s image, words which have little meaning unless we live it out through striving for compassion and justice.
So onto a matter which has become very close to my heart recently – how we both individually and collectively care for older people in our society. I suppose that I have to declare a personal interest. I have parents and parents in law ranging from ages 74 to 84 all fortunately in reasonable health at the moment, but Laurence and I have one sibling each both of whom live abroad so the issue of caring for aging relatives has occurred to us! But in a wider context my work with Citizens Advice, Jewish Care and Home Start has shown me the real issues that there are with our benefits system and the vulnerable people that it fails. I haven’t seen the film, I Daniel Blake, yet but from all that I have heard about it, it does seem to portray how thousands of disabled or elderly people are not supported in the way that they should be.
I think that those of us who live in our generally affluent area would be surprised at the number of people in leafy St Albans who struggle with benefit and debt issues or who need the food bank vouchers that are handed out by St Albans CAB.
1.6 million people or 14% of pensioners in the UK live in poverty and a further 1.2 million pensioners have incomes just above the poverty line. These are mainly people who have paid tax and National Insurance and looked after their families for decades – decent, honest law abiding folk.
More worrying is that many older people are missing out on benefit entitlements. The Government estimates that in 2014-15, £3.5 billion of low-income benefits went unclaimed by older people. This is likely to be due to a combination of reasons including: lack of knowledge about the complicated systems, an assumption they will not be entitled, negative attitudes to claiming, or because people are put off by the processes.
I spend a lot of time at Jewish Care completing Attendance Allowance forms. This is one of the few non-means tested benefits and its available to people over 65 with care needs. Care needs is fairly broadly defined so it could be using a walking stick or frame to get around or using a shower seat or grab rails in the bathroom. It doesn’t mean that you need or already have a carer. Almost all of the people I see wouldn’t have known about this benefit if Jewish Care hadn’t told them about it and they certainly couldn’t have filled in the 31 page form without help. And yet the £55 per week Attendance Allowance might make the difference between them staying in their own home or not, or might pay for a taxi fare so they can get out to a see a friend or relative when they otherwise would not have seen anyone all day.
It is often said that the measure of a civilized society is how it treats vulnerable people and I think that there is also an issue about how we treat or view those who work with vulnerable people. There are thousands of poorly paid care workers – often born outside the UK – working here to look after elderly people in care homes or their own homes. And thousands more family members – husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews looking after older relatives.
I think that we should all really value, respect and admire those caring for the elderly whether in paid work or unpaid family members. We should be supporting those people and older people themselves in whatever ways we can. Maybe giving to or volunteering for a charity. Perhaps looking in on an elderly neighbour. Perhaps being more tolerant to our own older relatives!
Personally I think the government ought to be doing a lot more financially to support care for the elderly especially when families are paying for their own carers or providing care themselves and so saving the Government millions in care home or hospital costs – but let’s not stray too far into politics!
So perhaps we can take from this week’s sedra that our legacy depends on relationships that we form, how we behave, what we are able to create and the practical and emotional support that we give to others including strangers or foreigners in our land – and their camels too!
We all have heard the old joke about the grandson who, when asked about where his grandparents live, he replies: “They live at the airport.” It seems that this reaction of the kid is expressing a common perception that he has about his grandparents, which is a vague, confused idea about them. They are very far removed from him. They seem to play a sporadic role in his life.
Susy and I have been blessed at this moment of our lives with seven fabulous grandchildren, and each one of them has been a font of unending spiritual joy. Our nearness to them, living closely their growth, experiencing their physical and spiritual development, is a source of immense joy for us.
What does it mean and what can one expect to reach when becoming a grandparent?
1. For one, it means to crown one’s life with a certain inner accomplishment. To see them around you and think that they are carrying not just your name, but also your ideals, your traditions and your values, is a wonderful feeling. What better knowledge than to be aware of living your future through them.
2. Moreover, in a certain way, they are our spiritual continuation. They are our immortality since we live in a way through them. In this way, one has passed on to the future and has permitted to forge a connection between our past, all what our parents and grandparents have inspired in us, and, what we pass on. The Olympic torch of that rich past is passed on so that they can now run another generation with a strong foundation. Thus, through us, and because of us, our grandchildren reinforce in us the idea that our lives are having meaning and purpose. Does our life end with us or does it continue through them?
Perfect love sometimes does not come until we are blessed with grandchildren.
Grandparents hold our tiny hands for just a little while, but our
hearts forever. ~ Author Unknown
Susy and I want to express our gratitude for the many years we spent together, sharing moments of true family feeling, moments of prayer and study. You all made our days in St. Albans truly wonderful and unforgettable. May God bless you all with inner peace and may you grow from strength to strength.
This week, as many of you probably know, Rachel and I are expecting our 2nd child. Just like Toby, this one is taking its sweet time, but as a wise person once told me, the baby is exactly on time, we just expected it early!
But it raises for me some thoughts about this week’s parsha, as we start the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, Numbers. The narrative begins with the Israelites still encamped at Mount Sinai as God commands a census to be taken. Why does God need us to be counted? Surely God knows how many of us there were, so why ask for a count? What are the things that we count in our lives? Hours we work? Sleep? Money we make? Books we read? Why do we count things?
One commentary is that we count the things that matter in our lives, or things that are precious to us. It is not enough to have thoughts or feelings to something or someone, such as a spouse, sibling, or child, or a favourite book, card, or perhaps a toy. We take the time to tell them, write to them, or in the case of objects, we arrange them or count them, or to put it in a different way, we give them our attention.
Th e tradition thus is teaching us that even though God surely knew how many of us there were, there was a need to show us and not just take it for granted. We are shown the love and shown the way we should maintain our relationships. Do not simply assume they know, show them. Don’t just count them, make them count!
Parashat B’hukotai (Leviticus 26-27) is famous for the long stretch of curses (26:10-46), which is read barely audibly, because of the terrifying content of the tochehah (reproach, curse). The sense of abandonment by, and distance from, God is overwhelming. One thing that struck me in these passages was how much of the suffering is subjective and psychological: the devastating objective situation is the result or reflection of a mental and spiritual predicament.
Maybe one of the most powerful verses that describe this situation of a person in this respect reads as follows: “I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues.”
Imagine the emotional condition of a person who feels as if he is persecuted by some imaginary force, the sensation of being controlled by certain forces out of a sense of guilt or constant sensation that some spirits are persecuting him or old memories from the past, which recur every so often. The leaf is too real for him and overwhelming scary. These are surely personal and psychological fears that threaten the inner stability of any person – worse than a real enemy or a natural disaster – since they are identified through our eyes and last a specific time.
The divine blessings of justice and compassion and the sense of finding meaning and direction in our lives, will bestow a true sense of inner peace.
Peace, then, is not so much an eschatological reward dropping down from above as it is a state of harmonious living for which we bear responsibility.
May we all be blessed with true blessings of love and family unity, living remarkable memories of the past and walking together towards the future with confidence and trust.
I would also like to wish Adam Axelrod a Mazal Tov on his Bar Mitzvah. Join me as we come together celebrate with Adam and his family this Shabbat.
In our daily interactions with people, there are certain things we say to one another and don’t really expect a sincere answer back. The most obvious example is a simple greeting, where we ask, how are you? More often than not, the response is a canned insincere answer as there usually is an understanding that the asker doesn’t really care and is merely being polite and the respondent is echoing that politeness and giving an appropriate answer of fine, or ok, or something along those lines. Something that conveys the same meaning and sincerity of the question.
Something I like to do, not to put people on the spot, but to actually illustrate my care, is to follow up with a question. I want that person to know that I am genuinely interested in what they have to say and I am not just asking to fill space or to fulfill some social obligation of making conversation. For example, if someone says they’re fine, I will ask why? It is revealing about the human condition that many times the answer to that question is simply, because nothing is bad.
We are conditioned to ignore when things are not going badly and to focus when things go awry. The order of normality is disregarded because it is normal and expected. This pattern is seen in this week’s parsha, Behar. There are a series of blessings and curses, depending on if we follow God’s laws. The rabbis were puzzled as to why the curses far outnumber the blessings. Is it simply because we are human beings and we focus on the negative? We are very specific when detailing things that are not going well, if we are in pain, or suffering a loss. Indeed, when you stub your toe, you exclaim that your toe hurts.
But, what about when things go well? How specific are you? How detailed are you about the joy you experienced? If you have not stubbed your toe and are not in pain, do you detail the lack of pain in your toe? Of course not. That is not the way we communicate.
Indeed, the rabbi’s teach that the Torah is written in the language of the people and therefore, the blessings are written about in a general, yet all-encompassing way and the curses are written in a detailed, yet limited fashion. So, it would be incorrect to see the curses as outnumbering the blessings, as they are extremely constrained, whereas the blessings could be without limit. The text needs to detail the potential ill effects of disobeying God in great detail, but just like our modern communications, if things are going well, the text does not need to convey what that would look like in great detail. In broad generalities, we are given a picture of a society living in harmony with God’s will.
I would also like to wish Alfie Keene a Mazal Tov on his Bar Mitzvah. Join me as we come together celebrate with Alfie and his family this Shabbat.
In Parahsat Emor, we are introduced to a very interesting concept; that of our responsibility of keeping God’s name holy. To illustrate the point, the Torah relates the following story:
“There came out from among the Israelites the son of an Israelite woman and he was the son of an Egyptian man. And the son of the Israelite woman fought in the camp against an Israelite man. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name [of God] in blasphemy and they brought him to Moshe; the name of his mother was Shelomit bat Divri from the tribe of Dan…
“And God spoke to Moshe saying, Take the blasphemer out of the camp, and all those who heard shall place their hands on his head and then the whole congregation shall stone him.
“And say to the Israelites, Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; and one who pronounces the [four-letter] Name of God shall be put to death. The whole congregation shall stone him, both stranger and citizen; for pronouncing the Name, he shall be put to death” (Lev. 24:10-16).
On the surface, this concept could be troubling. We are the protectors of the Name? Us, humans, imperfect? Why would God cede some of that divine responsibility to us? Does this not make God vulnerable? I think yes, it does and I further think, yes, that is absolutely the point. We are told to be a positive influence wherever we go, “A Light unto the Nations.” By our mere presence, we can instill others to holiness. There have been multiple occasions when strangers see me walking on the street and acknowledge me with some comment along the lines of, “Oh, you’re Jewish” or “You’re part of the God’s Chosen People.” The mere sight of my kippah and my Jewishness can inspire others. In the same vein, if I were seen participating or acting in a way that inappropriate, I could run the risk of desecrating the Name of God as well. As we read also in the week’s parsha, ולא תחללו את שם קדשי ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל אני יהוה מקדשכם, “You must not desecrate My holy name; I shall be sanctified amidst the Israelites; I, the Lord, sanctify you.”
Week after week we read in the media about clergy or other public figures who have desecrated the Name through immoral conduct. Sometimes the desecration is a matter of attacking other people, including teachers of Torah in public. Our portion is a reminder that humans have the capacity to destroy not only their own reputation or that of others but even God’s reputation as our source of holiness. As we prepare for Shabbat, let us remember that the capacity to sanctify this day and to make God’s name holy in the world, is entrusted to us. May we each accept this responsibility with awe, with wisdom, with devotion and with love.
We as humans strive to categorise everything around us, to bring order to chaos. Whether that be in our studies of language, nature, history or even religion. Sometimes those classifications are based on obvious patterns and sometimes they are based on permanent status.
In this week’s Parsha, Kedoshim, we are introduced to the holiness code, a set of rules and principles that we are to follow, because “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” We seek to imitate the divine to become holy. In doing so, we seek to recreate the first moments of creation, where God began creation by separating; light from dark, heavens from earth, water from sky and dry land from the sea.
It might seem then that in dividing and classifying things, we are creating a hierarchy of importance, or holiness. This is holy and that is not, therefore the holy object is better than the profane. If we are to be a holy people seeking to imitate God, it would follow then that anyone who does not do this or believe this is somehow less holy than us. This is a dangerous path to walk down, for by devaluing something, or even worse, someone, we take the first steps toward allowing horrible things to happen, whether that be destruction of a thing, or a person. We can rationalise it for they are less than we are, and therefore not worthy of the care and respect something of higher value would receive.
Most often, the opposite of holy is said to be profane. The dichotomy established is a black and white scale: Holy or unholy, sacred or profane and better or worse. Something holy could be made profane through an act of desecration, but something profane could never be made holy. The object will never attain a higher spiritual level than where it is. The body will always be profane as will the conduct of business. However, what if there is another way to see the world? What if it is not so clear cut?
Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook teaches an astounding different take on this categorisation: “There is nothing unholy; there is only the holy and the not yet holy.” An object or activity is not limited to its present status. Thus, it is not holy is good and profane is bad and not even holy and profane are just different, it is holy is good and not yet holy is working on or potential for good. We as a people are commanded to increase the level of holiness in the world, not to categorise and minimise it, but raise it up and expand it. Through study of our heritage and living by its morals and ethics and laws, there is no reason why the profane or mundane activities of food, business and love could not be made holy, just as praying, Shabbat and fasting are. We seek to be holy and make those around us holy, because we seek to be like God. We seek to imitate God not by separating things to make them holy, but instilling in everyone and everything around us a sense of holiness. We seek to understand that there is potential in all whom we meet and all that we do, for we can be holy people.
I pray that we see the inherent potential of all around us and to not allow us or our peers to become trapped in their current states, but to always seek to achieve, grow and attain new heights of holiness.