All posts by Jeremy

Mikkeitz

Let’s face it, Joseph was a bit of a pain as a young lad. Snitching on your brothers, especially when they are bigger, older and more numerous than you, is not wise. To follow such behaviour  by telling them your dreams in which all eleven brothers, plus your father and mother in one dream, seemed to be bowing down before you, related, what’s more, without so much as a self-deprecating intro or summing-up, these are not things which are likely to endear you to them, or to anyone, for that matter. Small surprise that Joseph was not greatly loved by his older siblings. By the time he is sold into slavery, however, a profound change is working away inside him. Thus, when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him, he refuses her solicitations. The reasons he gives, to his great credit, have nothing to do with concern for his own wellbeing and everything to do with loyalty, gratitude and righteousness. To give in to the importunate lady would be a sin against his master and against God. Falsely accused and condemned, Joseph quickly rises to prominence again, this time as a kind of prison warder, and he seems more concerned with the welfare of his fellow prisoners than with enforcing a harsh regime. Noticing, one morning, that two of them are unhappy, he tries to help. After the fortunate chief wine steward and unfortunate chief baker tell him that they each had a dream they don’t understand, in complete contrast to the boy who had declared his own dreams as though they were a mark of his own greatness, he prefaces his explanation with the words, “Interpretations are God’s business.” 

Which brings us to Mikkeitz. Summoned into the Pharaoh’s presence and asked to interpret his troubling dreams, Joseph again attributes any insight he might have to God: “It is not in my power. But God may provide an answer concerning Pharaoh’s fortune.” 

Joseph’s own moral development prefigures that of his brothers later in the story, as they repent and make amends for their previous cruelty towards him. Among the brothers, Judah shines out for his sincerity and courage, qualities which have themselves been heralded in the previous sedra in the episode of his daughter-in-law Tamar. 

There is much to ponder here and to help us do this most unponderously Adam Feldman will be leading us at this Saturday’s service, beginning at 10:30.

Va-yishlach

As Jacob prepared his family to meet his brother Esau, whom he hadn’t seen for twenty years and of whom he was mortally afraid, did he realise that his seven sons were destined to be the founders of seven of the future tribes of Israel? He had by then experienced several encounters with God and with his angels, most recently on the night before he met Esau. God had told him that he would honour his covenant with Abraham and Isaac through him, so clearly his sons also had a significant role to play, but was it already known to Jacob that Reuben and the rest would actually be the tribal founders? 

I expect you have already stopped reading, as you beat your heads in desperation at the idiotic mistake of the writer. Seven sons! What can the fool mean? Well, I mean that we tend to think of Jacob as having two wives, Leah and Rachel, and Leah had given birth to six sons and one daughter. Rachel had by then given birth to one son, so seven sons and one daughter altogether. Yes, but there were also the sons born to Bilhah, handmaid to Rachel and to Zilpah, handmaid to Leah. Just as Sarah had done with Hagar, Rachel has Bilhah give birth on her lap so that it would be as if the baby were hers and, later, Leah followed suit. Be the convention as may, it clearly states,

“She gave him her handmaid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob came to her. Bilhah became pregnant ad gave birth to Jacob’s son… Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah became pregnant again and had a second son by Jacob.”

Later, similar language is used with respect to Zilpah. Both handmaids bore sons to Jacob and were given to him as wives. They are mothers to Dan, who, years later in Egypt, Jacob will bless as a settler of seashores, a harbour for ships, to Naphtali, a deer, running free, who delivers words of beauty, to Asher, from whom will come the richest foods and the king’s delights, and to Gad, who will pursue raiders, and whose descendants will be bravely among the vanguard of the army when Joshua leads it across the Jordan into the Promised Land. 

Some say that Zilpah and Bilhah were also daughters to Laban. Whether or not they were, they were clearly considered fit to give birth to children of the covenant. As such, we can only imagine them to have been good mothers. Even assuming that Leah and Rachel were foremost in the maternal care of the four sons, their handmaids would not have remained uninvolved. They must have loved their sons, nursed them, talked to them, been there for them through their childhood. Interestingly, their names are so similar, as if they were in some way sisters and part of the same spirit. So I say, let us not forget Zilpah and Bilhah. Let us celebrate them together with Rachel and Leah. They, too, are imoteinu.

As Jacob prepared his family of four wives and twelve children to meet his brother Esau, what forebodings filled their minds? How will the meeting go and what lessons will emerge? To find out, come along this Saturday at 10:30. Harvey Kurzfield will be there to lead and enlighten us. 

Tol’dot

There’s this man. When he was born, he grabbed his twin brother’s heel. Two peas in a pod? They were more like a wasp and a hornet. When he was a young man, he bought his brother’s birthright in exchange for a paltry mess of lentil stew. A few years later, he conspired with his mother to steal his brother’s blessing, making a fool of his father in the process. He ran away and married two women but preferred the younger over the older. He tricked his uncle who kept him for twenty years with a kind of magic. He spoiled one of his sons so much he helped make his other sons jealous to the point of murder.

There’s this man. He was studious and reflective from an early age. He had divine visions, wrestling with God, or an angel, or himself, and gained inspiration and wisdom. He turned his uncle’s treachery and exploitative meanness back on him. He took extreme care of his numerous family. He sought and gained forgiveness from his brother.  He joined with his brother to bury and mourn his father. He reprimanded two of his sons when they took murderous revenge on a whole city. Before he died, he gave each of his sons a special blessing. He was faithful to God.

These men are Jacob, our father, our special father. To join him as he embarks on the first stage of his long life, join us all this Saturday at 10:30. Adam Feldman will be doing the introductions.

Va-yeira

What I like about our heroes is that they are not too heroic. To a man and to a woman, they are admirable, even great, but each one with his or her faults. Jacob was a man of vision, but he was also a trickster and spoiled his second youngest son.  His mother Rebecca was kind and had a sense of destiny, but she helped Jacob trick his father. Isaac perhaps cared too much for his stomach. Moses, our great leader and teacher, humble, and devoted to his people and to mission, lost his temper more than once. Our greatest, most valiant, poetic and loyal of kings engineered the death of one of his soldiers to gratify his selfish desire. What’s more he showed scant mercy to some of those who made lesser mistakes. Did he have to kill the poor young man who, begged by Saul to put him out of his wounded misery, and so caught in a terrible quandary, after much pleading, gave into the king’s demand? Even Elijah, a prophet so honoured that we pour him a cup of wine every year during the Seder, failed to recognise the true nature of God when Hashem ‘appeared’ not in a a ferocious wind, nor in the earthquake that followed, and nor in the fire that followed this, but, rather, in a still, small voice.

We have not reached any of these figures yet. This week we come to the second of three parashot dedicated to Abraham and Sarah, our first grandfather and grandmother. Like those who will follow, this wonderful couple, combining between them hospitality, wisdom, faith, generosity to strangers and peace making skills, not to mention love of one another, have nonetheless their faults. Abraham foolishly repeats the lie about Sarah being his sister, despite being rebuked for doing it the first time. He fails to protect his son Ishmael from his wife’s jealousy, itself no credit to Sarah. Ah yes, our heroes are not saints. They do not stare out at us, beatifically filled with luminous purity, devoid of all sin or weakness. Their eyes are human and their heart are too. They are not perfect. Which is fine, just perfect. 

This week Abraham and Sarah are camped in the Plains of Mamre, waiting for us to arrive at their tent and partake of their hospitality. To lead us there, we have a new Sh’liach Tsibbur, namely Sharim Atilano. Come along this Saturday at 10:30 and lend Sharim your support. 

Noach

It take just two parashot, or eleven chapters, for God to create the universe, equip the earth with the means to support life, populate this earth with living creatures, bring forth humanity, test its first representatives, establish the principle of mortality, judge the world and flood it, repopulate it and, finally, to ensure that diversity rules over monoculture by humbling the hubris of the builders of Babel. It then takes ten parashot, eighty chapters, to weave the story of a small family, beginning with Abraham setting forth from his father’s home and culminating with Jacob, his twelve sons and daughter and their children settled in Egypt. It takes a further forty-two parashot (a very large number of chapters indeed!) to lead a small people through the desert and, by way of its righteous, devoted and selfless leader, prepare the people for statehood and a holy mission. It just shows that, if you want to do a job well, you need to spend your time over it –  in this case not cosmic or historic, but ‘personal’ time.

Of course, you’ll be relieved to hear me say, before condemning me for sacrilege, that God does not do anything badly and certainly does not make a mistake. Adam and Eve are not failures. Cain may be evil, but he did not live, or even kill, for nothing. The Flood was not a frenzied rubbing out of a blackboard full of errors of calculation, and the Tower of Babel was not a worthless episode of overweening ambition. Bereshit and Noach serve to prepare the ground for a wonderful human experiment: the making of a covenant between the supreme power and a small family grown into a small nation, so that a model of civilisation, human relations and reverence for life and for the divine could take form.

To hear more about Noach and Babel, come along this Saturday at 10:30 when Harvey Kurtfield will endeavour to ensure that we are neither drowned nor thrown off a tower, but rather guided to a future based on wisdom and understanding.