The last four parashiyot in Bereshit deal mostly with the story of Joseph. However, when discussing the parsha of Va-yeishev two weeks ago, Melanie Feldman focussed on the story of Judah embedded in the seemingly more prominent narrative. One could argue that Judah is actually the most impressive character we have come across so far. He is not so virtuous as Abraham, so faithful and meditative as Isaac, so dedicated to God’s initial Covenant with the family of Abraham as Rebecca, but he undergoes real change – change for the better. It is not that he starts out totally bad or nasty. He does not engage in the merciless slaughter of the men of Shechem carried out by brothers Simeon and Levi. Unlike Reuben, he does not engage in illicit relations with one of his step-mothers. Nor does he appear to bay for Joseph’s death. He does suggest, on the other hand, that his younger brother be sold into slavery. He turns his daughter-in-law into a helpless widow, although, having lost his first two sons when married to her, there is surely some excuse for this. The point is that he becomes a better human being, first in recognising Tamara’s plight and blamelessness, second in doing everything he can to protect his youngest brother when the latter is threatened with prison or slavery. He does not think of himself, only of his father and of Benjamin, to the point of volunteering to be enslaved in place of his brother.
We should be proud to be named after Yehuda, to be Yehudi. We are, as Mai Jacobson pointed out last Saturday evening, at the Chanukah party and presentation, named after praise and thanks. ‘Toda’ should be on our lips while we should do our utmost to inspire thanks among others, not to hear it in vanity, but to deserve it in humility.
And even Joseph, who certainly deserves a lot of praise and thanks, has become humble before his brothers, at the same time as he has become most powerful.
We are in for a treat this Saturday. Pat Lipert will be leading the service and Karen Myers will be presenting a derusha. Thank you, both. Come along the rest of you at 10:30 to take part… and thank you, too.
“I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan;
Greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”
Thus laments David on the death in battle of Jonathan and his father, King Saul. Jonathan and David were not actually brothers and it might actually have been better that way to judge from the succession of ‘brothers’ we come across in the Torah. The first ever siblings last only as long as it takes Cain to kill Abel in a rage of jealousy. Ham shames his two brothers, Shem and Japheth. Ishmael apparently taunts his half-brother Isaac. Jacob deceives his brother Esau and comes close to being killed by him in revenge. Jacob’s own sons are infected by rivalry and envy between the eldest ten and the second youngest which also lead the former close to murder. As for sisters, they fare little better in the case of Leah and Rachel. Nor do the rivalry and hostility end with Devarim. The throne of Israel, and later that of Judah, inspires war and fratricide. David’s own son, Absalom, has his brother Abner murdered for having raped his sister Tamar years before, then rebels against his own father. Another brother, Adonijah, tries to usurp Solomon’s place as David’s successor, as his father lies weak and helpless, close to death.
All this unbrotherly brotherness is not mythical stuff. History is full of royal families engaging in fratricide, patricide and filicide. Sadly, too, the world as a whole is full of families broken by jealousy and resentment. So are the patriarchs and matriarchs just like everyone else? Well, a bit yes and quite a lot no. What differentiates them from so many families of myth and history is that they learn moral wisdom, compassion and forgiveness. As we know, Ishmael and Isaac come together as adults to bury their father. Esau and Jacob are reconciled in a most moving scene of generosity and humility and later come together again to bury Isaac. Joseph and his brothers are not only reconciled but united in a spirit of humility, repentance and forgiveness. To return to Jonathan and David, the latter, once he is king, rather than having the former’s son killed as a possible rival to the throne, adopts him as his own.
It is possible to be brothers in arms without being up in arms.
This Saturday marks the return of one of our great service leaders: Adam Feldman. Come along and listen, learn, pray, sing and converse, as the best families should.
We probably all have favourites of one kind or another: a favourite aunt or uncle, a cousin, perhaps a brother or sister whom we somehow gel with better than our other siblings, assuming we have any. We have classmates we prefer over others, a friend who is somehow more special – even, when we are young, favourite soft toys (mine were – still are – a decrepit rabbit and an ancient bear). As for husbands and wives, nowadays there is no polygamy in our faith, at least not sanctioned by the rabbis or the state! Where it has existed, there will surely have been cases of one spouse being the favourite. Is it then altogether surprising that Jacob loved one wife more than the other? In some translations it says that Rachel was more loved than Leah and this is followed by, “The Lord saw that Leah was hated,” but other translations say instead ‘not loved’ (Bereshit XXIX, 31), which is not the same thing. Besides, Jacob had not asked to marry Leah. Perhaps we should not be too hard on him here, although he is certainly at fault later, when he favours Joseph over his other sons, just as Rebecca was in favouring him to the extent of deceiving poor Isaac.
Vayetze brims with narrative, themes, and richness. Come along to explore some of these and to listen to and support another brave heart who will be leading the service for the first time this Saturday, namely John Adelson. The service begins, as usual, at 10:30.
If Abraham had been dealing with the landed gentry and merchants of Falmouth and Penzance, he would have had an easier time of it negotiating for a burial plot for his beloved Sarah. At the beginning of Chapter 8 (‘The Jewish Cemeteries’) in his The Jews of Cornwall – A History, Keith Pearce describes in perceptive detail how important burial and cemeteries are to Jewish communities. The sacred practice of honouring the dead starts, as one would expect, with Abraham. On Sarah’s death, he mourns and weeps for her. He also seeks a secure place to bury her, a place which will become his own grave and that of the patriarchs and matriarchs down to Jacob, Rachel and Leah. Unfortunately, for Abraham, he has to deal with Ephron, the Hittite. While oozing charm and a thick veneer of seeming generosity, Ephron is really out to get whatever he can from the bereaved Abraham and ends up charging him an extortionate price equivalent to many years wages for a worker in those days. Contrast this with the terms under which the Jews of Cornwall obtained their burial grounds in Penzance and Falmouth. The Bassets and other land owners either offered very reasonable or generous terms or didn’t charge at all, despite knowing that in the case of burial plots, it is almost always going to be a seller’s market.
Ephron is not the only calculating character in this week’s parsha. We also meet Laban, the bane of his sister’s life and, in years to come, the bane of his nephew’s. It is not all bad, however. There is happiness and promise in the marriage of Isaac and more fulfilment for Abraham himself. This week, we have another new service leader. Come along on Saturday at 10:30 and lend brave Jenni Zaidi your support and cheer.
Our cat Queenie loves nothing more than to be cradled in the arms of one of the family and to bury his head in the crook of our elbow or in our chest, where he will purr with the utmost contentment. This behaviour is connected to the story of Abraham, which begins this week. To find out how come to the service on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. when the writer of these words will try to explain. He will also lead the service.