All posts by Jeremy

Va-yeitzei

Jacob is a trickster. He comes into the world grasping his brother’s heel, as though trying to push past him into the light. Years later, he persuades his bother to sell him his birthright for some lentil soup. When his father is ill and filled with thoughts of death, Jacobs dresses up as his brother, lies to his father and steals the blessing Isaac meant for his elder son. Twenty years on, he fools his uncle by saying that he would be happy to have only the new lambs born with markings and then working some magic so that, against the law of probability, the majority of lambs are indeed born with markings. Tricksters are not uncommon in legend and myth. Here in Britain, we have Beanstalk Jack, who fools first a giant and then his wife in order to steal a bag of money, a singing harp and, finally, a golden egg laying goose. The Greek hero Odysseus comes up with the ruse of the wooden horse to trick the Trojans into believing that the besiegers have abandoned their ten year old siege. The ruse works, when the Greek soldiers hiding in the horse emerge in the night and open the city gates, thus enabling the whole army to enter and destroy the city, its people and a whole civilisation. Both North and South American indigenous people also had stories with tricksters getting the better of demons, nature or, after the conquest by Europeans, of foreign invaders and their gods.  

So what is different about Jacob? Why should we care about him? Why does he become Israel, one who wrestles with the divine? Well, there are several, related reasons. First of all, he is so human. He is not a superhuman hero like Odysseus, nor a divine creature like the native American heroes, nor a fantasy figure like Jack. We care about Jacob and follow his life with intense interest, noting how he grows with time in maturity, wisdom and moral sense. We feel for him as he humbles himself before Esau. It all starts with the dream he has on the way to his uncle’s house of angels ascending and descending a ladder. He is enhanced in spirit and understanding. On the return journey, many years later, he strives with the eternal and grows even more, notwithstanding that for the rest of his life he remains human and prey to human weaknesses. 

Second, the reference points of the story are moral and spiritual. Jacob is chosen to take the covenant forward, precisely because he understands what the covenant entails: a commitment to following God and understanding His ways. 

Third, Jacob’s story does not occur in isolation from the past or future, a mythical, self-contained bubble. Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebecca, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah and the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses is his child, as is Ruth, as is David, as is Elijah, as are we. God’s experiment to ask a people to be His people can only happen because Jacob becomes fit to take forward the achievements of his parents and grandparents. 

For these reasons, and others, we honour Jacob. For these reasons we are Israel. 

And there I must leave it, but you we can all grow in wisdom and understanding by coming this Saturday at 10.00, when Pat Lipert will take us further on Jacob’s journey.

Chayyei Sarah

Usually, when God speaks to Abraham, Abraham responds, argues, even laughs at God’s words. Whenever he is told to do something, however, he simply gets on with it. He leaves his father’s land, circumcises himself and his household, and takes his son Isaac up the mountain for sacrifice. He is the supreme example of faith. Why doesn’t he question God about sacrificing his son? ”It would be sacrilege even to ascribe such an act to you – to kill the innocent with the guilty… Shall the whole world’s Judge not act justly?” are the words he doesn’t say. Abraham, the man who has himself acted justly throughout his life, who has given his nephew Lot the first choice of land when they separate their households and flocks, who has refused to take the spoils of war, who makes treaties of friendship with his neighbours, knows surely that God cannot be less just than him, but he does not question God’s command. Perhaps he senses that Isaac’s sacrifice is a logical impossibility. He has two choices: either he sacrifices Isaac or he doesn’t. If he chooses the latter option, Isaac lives. If he chooses the former, God will stop the sacrifice, as indeed He does.

The Akedah comes near the end of Va-yeira, but we are now come to Chayyei Sarah, in which Abraham buys the only land he will ever own, i.e. a burial place for his wife and, later, for himself. The overall spirit of this parsha is one of beauty and generous feeling set against a weaker, if disturbing, mercenary intent. Abraham willingly pays grasping Ephron over the odds for a burial plot. This transaction between honour and deceit is reflected later on when Abraham’s steward, thought to be Eliezer, meets Rebecca. She is all kindness, not only giving water to Eliezer, but also to his camels and in offering food and shelter to him, his men and their animals. Contrast this behaviour with the hint of greed shown by her brother Laban, who treats the visitors with hospitality, but notices first and foremost the gold ring and bracelets given to Rebecca.

It is, though, the minor character, Eliezer, who perhaps distinguishes himself most, for he is so overcome with joy at meeting Rebecca that he prostrates himself and exclaims, “Blessed be God, Lord of my master Abraham, who has not withdrawn the kindness and truth that He grants to my master.”

Blessed indeed be God, and to take part in blessings, prayers, songs and readings, come to this Shabbat service at 10:30. Harvey Kurzfield of melodious blessings will guide us.

LEch L’cha

‘”Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”‘ This is the beginning of Abraham’s story as we are told it. It is said that, before he set out, he smashed his father’s idols. Abraham and Sarah are so familiar to us that it is easy to overlook a detail of their story which comes right at the end of the momentous preceding parsha of Noah. This is that Abram’s father, Terach, himself leaves his land:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (Haran’s son), and his
daughter-in-law Sarai (Abam’s wife). With them, he left Ur Casdim,
heading towards Canaan. The came as far as Charan and settled there.

Why does Terach leave Ur Casdim? Did he wish to escape from his father’s idols? Whatever the answer, he starts a journey continued by his son and great grandson, his great, great grandchildren and, much later, by a huge group of escaped slaves. The journey has a mysterious symmetry. Abraham’s journey will take him to the promised land. He will leave it and return. Jacob and his children will also leave, after which there will be no return for hundreds of years, hundreds plus forty extra ones because of our lack of faith. Given Abraham’s own goodness and faith, why did God not simply simply send him to the promised land and go from there, with gentle guidance for a few generations while the people multiplied and populated the land? Isaac and Rebecca would add contemplative insights and kindness. Jacob, Leah and Rachel would add shrewdness, bright intelligence, a deep sense of family and ever greater insight into the nature of the divine. Was this not enough to make a holy nation? Well, no, because wisdom is gained only by the slow accretion of experience, knowledge, insight and self-awareness. It cannot be learnt in a day, any more than can advanced Mathematics. Every step of the journey from when Terach led his son, grandson and daughter-in-law out of Ur Casdim to when Joshua led the people over the the river Jordan needed to be taken, taken and understood, taken and remembered. We are still journeying, still remembering, teaching and learning.

Now, what have I forgotten? Oh yes, do come along this Saturday at 10:30 am. Adam Feldman will be leading us on Abraham and Sarah’s way.

Bereshit

This Thursday, 22 Tishri, is Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the day when a circle is completed. On this day, Moses dies and on this day the world is born. Sadness becomes joy when the Torah cycle begins again. At the same time, Joshua becomes the leader and is instructed by God to be of stout heart and to cross the river Jordan. Israel begins a new life.

A new life, but soon the first death takes place, as we hear on the first Shabbat of the new cycle. A brother kills a brother.

Before the murder takes place, God says to Cain, who is angry that his brother’s offering had been preferred to his, “If you do good, will there not be special privilege? And if you do not do good, sin is crouching at the door. It lusts after you, but you can dominate it.”

These words are like a seed within from which the whole of the Torah grows. They encapsulate the moral choice facing humanity and which is so eloquently expressed by Moses in Devarim. “See! Today I have set before you the life and the good and the death and the evil.”

To return to Cain, after the murder, God asks him, Where is your brother Abel?” ”

I do not know,” replies Cain. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer to this is yes. We are one another’s keepers and the stories to come of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, Aaron and Miriam and, much later, of David and Jonathan, all provide good and bad examples of how we treat one another. Israel’s very creation and education are God’s living experiment in learning to care for one another and, by so doing, to honour God.

Don’t miss the beginning of this great journey. Come along this Saturday at 10:30. Liz Berg will be leading the service.