To connect people with different visions of life

To connect people with different visions of life

Thoughts on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

Menachem Mirski

Shabbat has come – our most precious day of the week. Along with Her, we receive the two ministering angels (malachei hasharet) familiarized in the song Shalom Aleichem. We know from Hassidic tradition that one of the angels is a “good” angel and the other one “bad”. Malachei hasharet represents the opportunity of Shabbat: we can reach the heavens on this precious day or we can neglect it completely and not celebrate Shabbat. Shabbat is a celebration, both to honor God’s day of rest after the creation of our universe and a weekly reminder of our delivery from slavery. Albert Einstein said, “freedom, in any case, is only possible by constantly struggling for it.” Yes, the struggle to relax, break free from day to day commitments and celebrate Shabbat is our freedom. The life of a Jew that neglects Shabbat is a life that leads him back to Egypt. As with all freedom if we do not cultivate it then we can lose it.

Studying Talmud I found illustrations of our two angels a different context:

Ilfa and Rabbi Yochanan studied Torah together and they became very hard-pressed for money. They said: Let us get up and go and engage in business, and we will fulfill, with regard to ourselves, the verse: “There shall be no needy among you”. (Deuteronomy 15:4). They went and sat under a dilapidated wall and were eating bread, when two ministering angels – malachei hashareit – arrived. Rabbi Yochanan heard one angel saying to the other: Let us knock this wall down upon them and kill them, as they abandon eternal life (i.e. of Torah study) and engage in temporal life (for their own sustenance). The other angel said to him: Leave them, as there is one of them whose great time has yet to come. […] Rabbi Yochanan said to Ilfa: Did the Master hear anything? Ilfa said to him: No. Rabbi Yochanan said to himself: Since I heard the angels and Ilfa did not hear, I can learn from this that it is I whose time of achievement stands before me. Rabbi Yochanan said to Ilfa: I will return home and fulfill with regard to myself the contrary verse: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Rabbi Yochanan returned to the study hall, and Ilfa did not return, but went to engage in business instead. By the time that Ilfa came back from his business travels, Rabbi Yochanan had been appointed head of the academy, and his financial situation had improved.

In this week’s Torah we have Betzalel, a very young and incredibly talented man who was appointed to design everything needed for the Mishkan. The Torah speaks that:

[God] has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of designer’s craft and to give directions. (Ex 35:31-34)

Now, follow me while I connect these two stories.

Batzelel was the grandson of Hur. According to the Midrash, the Israelites came first to Hur to make the golden calf – BEFORE Aaron. Hur rebuked them and refused to help, so they murdered him.  Hur’s uncle, Aaron, witnessed this and is said to have thought, “If I don’t help them they will kill me, too. Hur was God’s prophet and I am God’s priest. If they murder the prophet and the priest their sin will be unforgivable.” He therefore decided to help them, to minimize their sin. (Vayikra Rabba 10:3)

Do you see what these two stories have in common? How about the two characters – Hur and Rabbi Yohannan? They were both devoted to the Torah and they made their sacrifices for the Torah. Hur paid the highest price, with his life. Rabbi Yohanan followed his rabbinc calling, even though the economic reality of time was very difficult. They both were rewarded; Rabbi Yohana was appointed the head of academy and became Rosh Yeshiva. Hur was rewarded posthumously through his grandson, Betzalel, who was given the honor of designing the dwelling place for the Holy One.

But let’s go back to the Torah verses from our Talmudic story. The verses:

There shall be no needy among you […]

(Deuteronomy 15:4)

and

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land […]

(Deuteronomy 15:11)

refer to the two ends of the social spectrum, the two ends of it that should be connected and never detached from each other. Both, socially – people should understand the needs and dreams of others and psychologically – within ourselves we need to find necessary balance and not fall for the extremes. There will always be people who will, even recklessly risking their life, choose their paramount values above everything else or simply follow what they believe no matter what. And there will always be people who will sacrifice everything they believe on the altar of temporariness and usefulness. What we need is to make these ends come a bit closer to each other, or at least to establish good communication and possibility of cooperation between them. If this works properly, the need for sacrifices, especially the painful ones, is much decreased, and nobody has to pay the highest price because some other people are just impatient and need to have what they want immediately, no matter what, like the Israelities wanting the god-like figure to show off before other peoples.

Rabbi Yochanan became the head of the academy and earned eternal life on the pages of Talmud. We don’t know much about Ilfa’s success in business but we know that his teachings are also found in Talmud, both Bavli and Yerushalmi. We even find Rabbi Yochanan quoting his teachings.

Ilfa and Rabbi Johanan, before their ways departed, once studied Torah together and shared a meal with each other under the dilapidated wall. That is something many of us have experienced at some point in our life. And these are moments worth remembering because it brings us all closer, even our life paths distanced us from each other.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Parashat Beshalach

Love for Freedom is Born of the Hardships of Life

Thoughts on Parashat Beshalach

 Menachem Mirski

Difficult realities create strong people. If they are smart and righteous enough they build better reality for their children. As the time and development progresses, the new generations do not have to face the harsh reality their grandparents faced. Life, in general, becomes easier and more pleasant. Over time, an easy and pleasant life tends to create people that are less strong or simply weak – after all, they didn’t live through difficult times. They tend to be narcissistic, entitled and often believe that every little discomfort is oppression and a danger to their freedom. In fact, they are the first to fall into slavery, because they would rather give up their freedoms than face harsh reality in which they could only count on themselves.

In our parasha for this week, Israelites, after departing from Egypt, face two battles: the first one with Egyptians, the second one with Amalekites. But in fact, the Israelites do not fight the first battle – God fights for them, performing miracles and defeats the Egyptians by drowning their chariots in the Sea of Reeds. There are several rabbinic explanations for why this happened. Ibn Ezra points out that the Israelite generation that left Egypt, despite being armed, was unfit to fight their masters:

They had been trained from youth to bear the Egyptian yoke, and suffered feelings of inferiority. How then could they fight their masters? They were indolent and untrained in warfare.

Another explanation, given by Chasam Sofer, says that it would have been unethical for the Children of Israel to kill the Egyptians themselves. The Torah here teaches us proper conduct. The Israelites did not fight the Egyptians face to face because of the haven they had found in Egypt throughout the hundreds of years they had dwelled in that land. Egypt was what it was, but other places might have been worse. Another lesson given by Chasam Sofer is that we must not wield an avenging sword when we are on the land that is not ours.

Another battle Israel fights is the battle with Amalekites. Here the situation is different. The Israelites, led by Joshua, fight the enemy face to face and the Eternal One only supports them:

Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set. And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword. (Ex 17:10-13)

One of the reasons Israel had to fight this battle alone was because the Israelites, for the fourth time already, were murmuring against Moses and doubting God’s protection. Literally, the minute they say “Is the LORD present among us or not?” (Ex 17:7) Amalek comes and starts attacking them. It is a form of punishment. But this punishment is meant to bring blessing. From now on, the Israelites must become independent and wage their wars themselves, only with God’s help. It is the beginning of their transformation from a weak people with slave mentality to a nation that is strong, capable of self-defense, self-governance and independence.

The entire desert experience is thus aimed. Harsh realities Israelites face from now on serve for physical and spiritual cleansing. Israelites need to get rid of their weaknesses and their slave, victimhood mentality. It is precisely this mentality that causes them to blame Moses and Aharon for every misfortune they face in the desert. They expected Moses to be like Pharaoh in their minds: an Almighty tyrant who, at the cost of their freedom, provides them with livelihoods. That’s why whenever Moses disappointed them they wanted to immediately go back to Egypt. But Moses was not like Pharaoh, he was the opposite: he was not a tyrant, he gave them freedom. He did not constantly satisfy their needs, in fact he exposed them to a really harsh reality. But at the same time he opened up opportunities for them so that they could, with their own effort, satisfy them themselves. Rambam summarizes the desert experience of the Israelites as follows:

God wisely led them around the desert until they had learned courage. As is known, the austere life of the desert, without human comforts and conveniences, such as bathing and the like, make one brave, while a luxurious existence fosters cowardliness. There in the desert, a generation was born, unaccustomed to degradation and slavery.

According to Rambam, a fighting spirit and love of freedom develop from toil and hardship, from lack of pleasures and conveniences of life. This is why God led His people through the desert before bringing them into the Land.

It is the harsh conditions and overcoming challenges that bring great joys in human life. The feeling of satisfaction that stems from it stays with us forever, shapes our mindset and our views.

The danger of falling into slavery never goes away. There are enough tyrants and potential tyrants in the world. Let us be careful, they always make great promises and guarantee to help us and meet our basic needs. This is their hallmark and they often succeed in that. Our freedom comes from meeting our own needs, from toiling the land for ourselves, from taking nothing.

The only thing they want from us is our freedom. But we will never give it away as long as we take care of ourselves, as long as we are strong, capable of self-defense, self-governance and independence. As long as we do this we will always be free.

Shabbat shalom

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Ritual memory – the beauty of Judaism

Ritual memory – the beauty of Judaism

Thoughts on parashat Bo

Menachem Mirski

I have always been struck how Judaism is a study in discipline, at the root, a lesson on how to live one’s life. The Torah is rich with life lessons interwoven in stories, practices, repetition and rhetoric. Perhaps the most telling example of this is the practice of Pesach. In parashat Bo, God lays out the 7-day syllabus that we all recognize and have recreated for over 3500 years:

This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you. You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. (Ex 12:14-17)

According to the biblical record, all these regulations were revealed to Moses and Aharon in the land of Egypt, just before the Exodus of the Israelites. Imagine the discipline involved in recreating such instructions for every family in Judaism each year for over 3500 years… think about that the next time you are in a meeting or organizing a potluck. Talk about discipline!

Isn’t that clever? Why such detailed delineation of what we should do, day by day, meal by meal and course by course? Because Judaism is genius at using the tools of cognitive psychology to instill the lessons and memories of the Torah. Memory is formed and solidified by repetition, by acting out, by representation to objects; and what are the celebrations of Pesach if not a manifestation of all of these. Through the course of 3500 years, through pogroms, exoduses, expulsions, and the Shoah we still keep our religion alive and the reason is partially due to the fact that Judaism inherently uses all these practical cognitive tools to almost “imprint” these “shared” memories. I don’t mean shared memories in the Jungian way, but instead, by recreating our events, as delineated in the Torah, repetitively, until we all share this memory and know that our fathers and forefathers did as well.

Religion is our nation’s collective memory that lives on in our rituals. Our rituals consistently include reading and studying our sacred books which perpetuates our collective memory and makes us engage deeper and deeper into our rituals, studying more and more. The beauty of Judaism is that we have so much literature that there is no end to studying it. This literature contains moral, philosophical and existential reflection, as well as poetry and stories containing great wisdom. Continuous studying and implementation of that which we study is the essence of being a religious Jew – a religious Jew is someone who never stops studying and practicing. The more we study the more nuanced is our knowledge. The more we practice ritual the more integrated into our lives is our knowledge. That is the uniqueness of our tradition and its beauty.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Truth vs Peace

Truth vs Peace

Thoughts on Parashat Vayehi

Menachem Mirski

“No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth”, said Plato. “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it”, said Voltaire. “The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for”, said Bob Marley.

Is telling the truth always good or necessary? Is telling the lies always wrong? Many books were written on these topics, many people have tried to give an ultimate answer to it. Soon after this problem seems to be resolved there comes another answer to it. Also our Torah portion for this week touches this subject. It tells us the story of Joseph’s brothers who openly lie to him:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. (Gen 50:15-17)

Joseph cried because he immediately noticed that his brothers were lying. This lie was nothing compared to what they had done to him when they sold him to Egypt many years earlier. In his eyes, the brothers’ lie was a rather pathetic expression of their fear, helplessness and sense of guilt. How do we know about this? The rabbis give us some hints. According to Rabbi Luzatto:

He understood that the brothers had instructed the messenger what to say; otherwise Jacob would have told himself. Joseph therefore wept at seeing the tragic state of his brothers, going in fear of their lives and forced to such shifts to stave off his vengeance.

There is no reason to believe that the brothers told their father the truth about the sale of Joseph: the Torah does not mention that Jacob found out about it. Nahmanides explains it as follows:

It seems to me that the plain meaning of the test is that Jacob was never told of the sale of Joseph by his brothers, but imagined that he got lost in the fields and was sold by his finders to Egypt. His brothers did not wish to divulge their misconduct, especially, for fear of his curse and anger. […] Had Jacob known it all the time, they should have begged their father to command Joseph to forgive them […].

The idea that Joseph himself told his father about it also seems improbable. First, he had forgiven his brothers and saw a divine plan in it. So he had no reason to take revenge on his brothers, and it would be revenge to disclose this information to his father, Jacob.

I have already mentioned several times the well-known comment that the family stories in the Book of Genesis are predominantly the stories of dysfunctional families; that these stories often tell us how not to deal with each other and that they capture aspects of ethics that are very difficult to codify into a moral or religious law.

However, let us consider what the case of the lies of Joseph’s brothers will look like in the context of the ethics of Judaism. The Torah does not absolutely forbid lying as such. The 9th commandment of the Decalogue, lo taane ve’reacha ed shaker, commonly translated as You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, is restricted to bearing a false testimony in order to harm someone. Its literal meaning is: You shall not answer your neighbor, false witness! A false witness is one whose testimony may even be theoretically true, but has no basis in his experience, e.g. they say that they have seen something but in fact only heard about it, etc. The rabbis, however, put many restrictions on what we can say to others: for example, revealing private information about others (gossip – rekhillut) even if true, is prohibited, unless revealing this information can protect someone else from abuse or harm. Obviously, deliberately misleading others (geneivat da’at) through “smooth speech” or seductive language is a violation of Jewish norms of speech and prohibited (however, trying to persuade the people who are informed that they are being persuaded to buy or believe something is not considered misleading and it is allowed.)

So what do the rabbis say about our story? One of them, Rabbenu Bahya Ibn Pakuda, tells us that we may deviate from the literal truth in order to preserve peace between people. Joseph brothers, tormented by their sense of guilt, felt their lives were in mortal danger. Our Sages regarded their conduct as warranted on the principle that truth has sometimes to be subordinated to more important values.

Some say that this means that truth, no matter how important, is not an absolute value and sometimes it must give way to other values and two of them sometimes are more important: peace and life. I believe that this opinion confuses the truth as such, understood by philosophers as accurate cognitive representation of reality with the mere act of ‘telling the truth’ assessed from the perspective of ethics. Telling the truth is sometimes inconvenient, sometimes gravely dangerous but sometimes necessary, even if it ensues sacrifices and sufferings, necessary to begin something new, to say goodbye to something we don’t want anymore or to put reality back on track which I wish everyone in the New Year 2021!

Shabbat shalom

 

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Miketz

Truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism

Thoughts on parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

One definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. While there is a lot of truth to this rather amusing statement, I challenge this conclusion. It would be absolutely true if we had full control over the results of our actions and over other factors that influence those results, however, we have no such control. Additionally, we don’t get everything right the first time we try – so repeating it again, might in fact produce a different result. The same is true of risk-taking situations: these situations, by definition, do not guarantee the desired results. Therefore, at the onset, the truth of the statement is limited.

In this week’s Torah portion, we come across a story that seems quite puzzling in light of the ending of the previous Torah portion. As you may remember, in last week’s parashah, Joseph interprets the dream of the chief cupbearer and predicted correctly that he would be released from prison and regain his former position. Joseph asked the cupbearer not to forget about him. And while he had proof that Joseph interpreted the dream correctly the cupbearer did nothing. But in this week’s Torah portion the situation is completely different. Joseph again interpreted a dream, in order to get out of prison, and in fact, had a different result. Here is what follows after Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream:

The plan pleased Pharaoh and all his courtiers. And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.” And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, “Abrek!” Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt. (Gen 41:37-43)

How did Pharaoh, unlike the cupbearer, come to believe Joseph when there was no way of proving his interpretation? The dream was about a rather distant future. What was the criteria of truth here? Why did Joseph achieve a different result? Why did Pharaoh listen to this message, from the lowest among the lowest in the social hierarchy, while ignoring his court magicians? Why were the magicians’ explanations not convincing while Josephs were?

We do not know, we can only speculate. We know from my previous sermons that Joseph was seen as truthful and sincere. Perhaps the magicians interpreted the dream in such a way as to please the Pharaoh, but Pharaoh who was quite disturbed by it, didn’t “buy” their “positive” interpretation, while Joseph’s was perceived, in the blink of an eye, as more sincere and truthful and thus more believable. Additionally, Joseph’s interpretation was pragmatic, he immediately gave Pharaoh practical advice on how to deal with the coming famine. Another factor that may have been appealing in Joseph’s response is that he, as a Hebrew, a stranger in the land of Egypt, had at heart, the future of that land. This is also an expression of pragmatism, but what is crucial here is that it is a sign of Joseph’s impartiality.

Let me say it again: truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism. These are values that we should consistently support and work towards. Not only because untruthfulness, partiality and detachment abound. But because these three values sometimes are in conflict. Pragmatism can mean, and often does mean, being partial. It can also mean silence on topics that need to be addressed openly. I don’t think I need to give any examples here – there are many of them in various areas of our life: in our professional and private life, at work, at home or in our relationships. Similarly being truthful at all costs is also not wise. We know well that not every thought has to be expressed the minute we think it. Not every message or email has to be delivered the minute it is written. We need to be thoughtful about things. What I’m advocating for is to have all these three – truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism – in our hierarchy of values and strive to always find the right balance among them and their consequences.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

VAYESHEV

VAYESHEV

  For Beit Warszawa.  12th. December 2020.

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

This week’s sidra starts off with a calm, reassuring verse about Jacob feeling at last that he can settle down in peace in the land where his fathers were only wandering foreigners. ”Vayeshev Ya’akov  be’Eretz megurey Aviv, beEretz Canaan.” It is, sadly, about the last calm verse in the whole sidra. Ironically, before the chapter is over Joseph, the son whom Jacob favours over the others, has managed to annoy everybody by spouting on about dreams of grandeur, his half-brothers have decided to take matters into their own hands rather than relying on God, they have kidnapped him and – the details get a little confused as to who sold whom to whom for how much but it doesn’t really matter, suddenly Joseph is NOT dwelling in the land where his father is living and where his grandfather was a sojourner but is himself now a stranger in a strange land – not just that but a powerless slave, bought and sold like a Thing, an object. For Jacob, living in the land but without his beloved son is also only half a life.

In chapter 35 he and his estranged twin brother Esau – who has also had five sons from three wives but somehow without the same sibling stresses – have buried together their father Isaac in Hebron – and ironically this part of the family – now called the Edomites – LEAVE the land. In 36:4 Esau ”took his wives and sons and daughters and all the ‘souls of his house’ (an echo here of the phrase used of Abraham and Sarah in 12:5) and all his beasts and possessions which he had acquired in Canaan and went to another land away from his brother Jacob; for it was not possible for them to dwell together in ”the land of their wanderings” – so they headed east to what became known as ‘Edom’ after the nickname for Esau, ‘the red one’ – what we would now call the Kingdom of Jordan. Esau voluntarily and sensibly separates to avoid potential conflict, an echo of the division earlier between Abraham and Lot, or between Jacob and Avimelech, when their flocks and herds get too extensive as to be able to share the same scarce resources of land and water. How strange and how convenient – Jacob, who had been so afraid of Esau as he returned from Haran in chapter 32, who had sent gifts ahead, and who later in chapter 33 first encounters Esau at last then lies to him, saying he will follow but instead thinking he can settle in Shechem, buy land, stop wandering – undergoes the embarrassment (to put it mildly) of two of his sons massacring the inhabitants of Shechem (chapter 34) but is now in 37:1 able to relax because all his external threats have politely removed themselves – only to be confronted now by the internal tensions which split his family apart.

It is rare that anyone looks at this context, which is why I make no apology for citing at length from last week’s sidra. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The sons of Jacob are not stupid and they have seen how their father lies to his own brother, they must know the story also of how their father was prepared to trick his own father Isaac and pretend to be someone else, their uncle. (Come to that, they must know how their Grandmother Rivka encouraged their father to perform the intrigue and then they must have heard how Mother Leah (mother of six of them) tricked Mother Rachel (mother of Joseph and Benjamin) by agreeing to get married off to their father first – thus asserting  the first-born Daughter’s rights.) So when they in turn come to conspire to deprive their brother Joseph of any first-born rights and privileges, or when they come together to trick their father with a piece of bloodstained clothing (which they themselves had stained!) one is entitled to ask where they had first learned of these modes of behaviour.

Then suddenly in chapter 38 we get a total change of scene but essentially another story concerned with the rights and inheritances of the first-born. Judah marries a local girl in Canaan – well, this is what it means to be a resident and no longer a sojourner here! – and has a son Er, then another Onan,  then a third Shelach. Just like that. No lengthy problems with infertility. Now Jacob has become a grandfather, though we get no mention of any contact, we get no mention of Er being the first-born grandson or any privileges. All we read is that Judah takes a wife for Er – presumably also a local girl, not one of his nieces? – Tamar, the date palm. Er, however, comes to an Er-ly grave. What to do? Since he was the first born, it is important to keep his lineage intact and so Tamar is simply married off to Onan with the intention that Onan should provide a son for his deceased brother. In terms of the context of how brothers have cheated brothers until now so as to prevent them getting any status and inheritance, it can hardly be described as surprising that Onan decides not to perform his duty – the later term is ‘levirate marriage’ although it is Judah, not Levi, who first organises it. (Actually this is just a bad pun, the word ‘Levir‘ is Latin not Hebrew and just means ‘brother-in-law’). So Onan leaves the scene abruptly as well. Which leaves Tamar as a double-widow stuck waiting until her remaining brother-in-law is old enough to step up to the plate. In the meantime her mother-in-law Shua also dies and Judah, now a lonely widower, seeks some comfort on a commercial basis. Tamar takes advantage of this, disguises herself (so Judah does not realise he is with a ‘blind Date’) and at last she is made pregnant – albeit by her father-in-law, not her brother-in-law. Judah is furious at her ”infidelity” – (in fact she is not married any more, just betrothed to the third son) until he is publicly embarrassed by her, as she fights to save herself from execution. And the result is – oh no! – ANOTHER pair of quarrelling twins, Peretz and Zerah.

What on earth is the Torah trying to tell us with this chapter? Which is not one that appears prominently in Children’s Bibles.

In the meantime Joseph is facing his own temptations and troubles in Egypt where he is bought by the Chief of Police whose wife takes a fancy to him and makes false accusations when he does NOT succumb to her pressures and pleadings. (I would say ”her charms” except that the Torah never tells us that she was attractive, only that Joseph was…. and using the ‘argument from silence’ there is an implication that she is childless and maybe, like Tamar, she is also simply desperate to get pregnant from anyone who is around when her busy husband is always away fighting the Pharaoh’s enemies; Why would she take the risk otherwise?) In case one might think he could not sink any lower, from being a slave he now becomes an imprisoned slave. Once more he interprets dreams – this time not his own – and he is proved correct, for one of his fellow prisoners is executed whereas the other is amnestied and liberated – but, despite having promised to put in a good word for Joseph, he neglects to do so.

    What a long and tortuous journey we have come from chapter 37 verse 1 to chapter 40 verse 23! Jacob thought he was settled at last, but first his favourite son disappears, presumed killed, then his fourth son loses two sons of his own and unwittingly conceives two sons who will also be his grandsons…. and Joseph in Egypt is stuck in a stinking jail. Later we will define ourselves as ”the children of Jacob” or ”the children of Israel” (Jacob’s alternate name) but truly, one wonders whether this is the sort of family one can be proud of, or whether one would rather keep quiet about one’s origins….

What can we learn from all this?

First – to be careful. It is at precisely the moment when one feels one can relax, that one has eliminated another ethnic group from the country, that the next catastrophe can hit!

Secondly – to be modest. Our ancestors were not the sort of people whom one can hold up as models of moral integrity, of filial love, of sibling solidarity, of ethics and spirituality. When one works with people one soon learns that the majority of abuse and violence – including sexual – occurs within the home, within families. Those politicians and fundamentalist clergy who trumpet ”Family Values!” as a solution to all modern problems should be aware of that. Often one feels  they have never actually read the book they hold up so eagerly. Admittedly some of the families described in these chapters would be described more as ‘patchwork’ and ‘extended’ but all are dysfunctional.

Thirdly – to be aware that there MIGHT be a long-term divine plan behind so much of what happens. It is clearly God’s plan that Jacob and his family should come to settle to Egypt – at the end of chapter 46 and in 47:6 they come to ”dwell, settle”, ”yashvu ba’aretz Goshen”  – the same word as our sidra ”Vayeshev” began. God had already told Abraham that his descendants would have to go to a foreign land and serve there….. In 15:13 God told Abraham that his descendants would serve another people four hundred years in a foreign land, but in 17:8 had also told Abraham that his descendants would inherit the ”eretz megurecha, Eretz Canaan”, the ”land of your wanderings, the land of Canaan”. The text is full of these echoes and resonances and word-plays which form a background surrounding structure to the narrative and there is always a danger that if one focusses on just one sidra at a time one will overlook these parallels and this context.

Then – Peretz will be mentioned again in 46:12 as one of the family of Judah who come to Egypt as a refugee from a land stricken by famine but, much more significantly, in Ruth 4 he is listed as one of the ancestors of Boaz and hence of King David….. which means that David, who is also a younger son who has to outshine his older brothers, who will also have many competitive sons by several wives (some of  them even his own!) will be himself a descendant from someone born under exceptional circumstances in this sidra. (Plus a Moabite mother). Was this the divine plan already? Why else is this chapter inserted?

The story will continue. Don’t miss next week’s exciting episode! (Spoiler alert – Joseph gets out of jail! His brothers will come to buy grain from state warehouses, whereas their own descendants will later have to build yet more warehouses….) But never forget that each episode is precisely that – just one part of a lengthy story, one which has (thank God!) not ended yet…..

 

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

 

Vayetze

The Ladder of History

Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze

Menachem Mirski

We live in a world that is so deeply divided ideologically that it is commonplace to rationalize the concept that people live in different, parallel realities. We see ideas of tolerance and pluralism, that were born from the Enlightenment, proliferated during the last 20 years – expressed in slogans like “agree to disagree” or, attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” – mean little to nothing today. What happened to our Enlightenment values? What caused these deep ideological rifts that pierce so many Western societies?

While there are many answers to these questions, it is possible that postmodernism, by deconstructing everything, also deconstructed what was good and valuable in our culture, and now we are living in a time of another “re-evaluation of already re-evaluated values”. It is also possible that much of this “ideological rupture” is a delusion due to the fact that most of our political debate takes place on the Internet. Debate on the internet fuels division and radicalism because it is a place where people have no external stop signs or limits and does not require anyone to take responsibility for their words. All of that has an impact “outside the matrix”.

A wider perspective might see this disorder as an intrinsic orderly process of birth, decay and rebirth, and not only is nature subject to this order but also the world of spirit and ideas.

In this week’s Torah portion we have the story of Jacob, who on his way from Beersheba to Haran has his famous dream about a ladder and angels wandering on it:

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Avraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land on which thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed (Gen 28:12-13).

In Midrash Tanhuma we have a very interesting interpretation of Jacob’s dream:

“And behold the angels of God are ascending and descending”: These are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed Jacob our father. The Prince of Babylon ascended seventy steps and descended, Media, fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred steps and descended, Edom ascended and no one knows how many! In that our Jacob was afraid and said: Peradventure, this one has no descend? Said the Holy One, blessed be He to him: “Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob… neither be dismayed, O Israel”. Even if thou seest him, so to speak, ascend and sit by Me, thence will I bring him down! As it is stated (Obadiah 1:4): “Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.”

According to this Midrash, Jacob’s dream depicts the rise and fall of nations, empires and cultures in the arena of world history. The fact that this knowledge was revealed to the father of the Jewish people is not surprising. The last mentioned empire, Edom, in rabbinic mind, represents the Roman Empire and its political successors. The author of this Midrash lived in the period of the Roman Empire and had not yet witnessed its decline, so it is no wonder that Edom only ascended. However, the way it is told seems to suggest that the final fate of Edom will be the same as that of any other empire.

Empires rise and fall, and as such, one may predict that just as the Greeks and the Romans fell, so too will the empire known as the “Western World.” I’m not a prophet and I don’t know what will happen, however, from the Jewish theological point of view, where God is a master of history, we know this depends entirely on God. God revealed to Jacob the nature of this historical process; nevertheless He is above nature, He is its ultimate ruler. To what extent is this process dependent on us? It seems that it is dependent on us human beings only to the extent we are able to influence God and His decisions. So, nobody knows. But according to Deuteronomistic doctrine of reward and punishment which we express everyday in our Shma God is more favorable to us when we are righteous. Thus being righteous and having good faith can’t hurt.

Whether it happens or not, the collapse of the West does not have to be immediate, spectacular or complete. It is very possible that it could be a kind of hybridization of different cultures and political systems which ultimately may positively contribute to the development of the whole world. Uniting us all rather than destroying.

The idea of humanity as a single human race is at the heart of our tradition: we are all created in the image of God. Ideas of a great unity of humankind were expressed by our prophets. According to Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6) at the end of times all the people will become Jewish. The vision of Micah is, however, a bit different:

Thus He will judge among the many peoples, And arbitrate for the multitude of nations, However distant; And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war; But every man shall sit Under his grapevine or fig tree With no one to disturb him. For it was the LORD of Hosts who spoke. Though all the peoples walk Each in the names of its gods, We will walk In the name of the LORD our God Forever and ever. (Micah 4:3-5)

A future where the nations will live in peace and all will retain their distinctiveness and their identity. Relying on common sense and above all my faith in God I would say the following: this vision can not come true until we treat each other respectfully. Unfortunately, we do not. The division among us is apparent on all possible levels and ranges between individuals to family to community to globally. We see the hatred, slander, defamation, demonization, applying group responsibility, contempt, revenge, resentment, self-hatred, bigotry and intolerance everyday and everywhere. In our tradition, hatred, slander and defamation are serious sins and they often start with smaller offenses, like mockery and insults, which, like everything evil, can escalate to unimaginable magnitudes.

We must avoid mocking people who think differently, not to mention treating someone with contempt. Let us remember that people who have a different vision of the world, have the same human nature – they are in the image of God. By insulting them we insult God. We also shouldn’t treat each other as objects – for example, like computers that can be reprogrammed (ideas of this kind are sometimes expressed at the ends of the political spectrum). First, we shouldn’t do it because people, good or vile, should not be treated as objects. Second, because it has the opposite effect: people cannot be reprogrammed. Attempting to do so can only result in retaliation and aggression. If a group in power has a significant advantage over another ideological group and forces its opponents to submit then resentment will arise and like a time bomb will explode when a defensive group comes to power in the future. Treating people as objects is then not only immoral: it is senseless and dangerous.

Let us treat each other with respect and control our impulses of anger. While they may be natural they are the source and fuel for many of the bad things mentioned above. Moral ideas, such as respecting each other, self-control, and many others, like not slandering or deceiving each other, are present in all cultures. These are fundamental and universal values: they are not culturally relative. It is so because they are the foundations of every civilized human society. Had they not developed within society they wouldn’t have survived, let alone thrived. The fact that they are present in all cultures is a strong foundation for the belief that the visions of our prophets are not pipe dreams – their realization is absolutely possible.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

 

 

 

 

Toldot

The Bible is not immoral

Thoughts on parashat Toldot

Menachem Mirski

Some people accuse the Hebrew Bible of containing fiction or idealizing certain events or phenomena, especially when it speaks of incredible or miraculous events. The main problem with this critique is that the Bible contains testimonies that are to a large extent non-falsifiable. The proposed “methods of verification” of the biblical stories often consist in confronting their factual layer with the knowledge about the world we have today, with our contemporary, often well-founded, but still beliefs, about what is possible in the world, what is impossible, what is probable and what is not. This is one of the reasons that this process always fails and that the Bible cannot be fact-checked and approved or disapproved and put in the archive. This is also one of the reasons why the most important question regarding biblical narratives is not whether something really happened or not, but what is the message of the story.

Certainly, the Hebrew Bible does not idealize its human characters: they are often eminent people, with unique qualities, but at the same time are “painfully human”. Our biblical characters are not “idealized heroes”: even the greatest, the most righteous and pious of them, like Moses, had their human flaws: impatience, tendency to anger etc.

This week Torah portion tells the famous story of how Jacob, our forefather, took the birthright of his brother Esau:

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am about to die, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.(Gen 25:29-34)

There are some additional details to this story provided by our biblical commentators. Ibn Ezra, for example, tells us that Esau lived a very hazardous life as a hunter and believed that he might very well die before his father and never enjoy the portion of the first born. That’s why he said I am about to die (hebr. ani holech lamut /Ibn Ezra on Gen 25:32). In another commentary he claims that Esau saw that his father had become poor in his old age and that there was little for him to inherit. Thus he didn’t care about it. (Ibn Ezra on Gen 25:34)

We do not know exactly how much time passed between these events and the actual “taking” of the birthright by Jacob, but from the way the Bible tells this story, as well as many others, it can be inferred that both situations were quite distant in time. After the events described above (Gen 25:29-35), the entire next chapter (Gen 26) tells a story of the famine in Isaac’s land, his journey to Gerar (which was a city or region probably located in the Negev Desert) and his alliance with Abimelech. Isaac settled in Gerara and it seems that he stayed there for at least a few years, if not more. The story ends with the mention that Esau, reaching the age of 40, married two women, Yehudit and Bosmat, and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah. (Gen 26:34-35). Then, the Torah, going back to our birthright story says: When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.” (Gen 27:1) Therefore, we can confidently assume that many years have passed between the reckless consent of Esau to give away his birthright and the plot by Rebecca and Jacob to actually take it over.

What does it mean? This means that the question of the birthright was probably a bone of contention between the brothers and Jacob had been planning this takeover for years, waiting only for the right moment to happen. Especially that they were conceived at the same time and were born the same day, one after another. In biblical times the birthright son was entitled to a double portion (that is, twice as much as any other son) of the father’s inheritance: one portion as a son, the second portion as the new head responsible for the whole family including the care of his mother and unmarried sisters (Gen 48:22, Deut. 21:17). This sheds some additional light on Rebecca and Jacob’s deceptive actions to take Esau away from his birthright: they probably believed that Esau, given his personality and lifestyle, was not fit to be a birthright son. However, the law was the law and there wasn’t a way around it other than cheating.

Thus, Jacob’s and Rebecca’s decision might have been completely reasonable and right, especially in the long run. This does not, however, exonerate them and doesn’t change the fact that their behavior violated ethical standards, at many levels. Yes, Jacob actually got Esau’s consent in this matter, but it was given recklessly and casually, probably many years earlier. But what is absolutely ethically indefensible is plotting against the disabled father and deceiving him to obtain the birthright. The result of these actions was as follows:

Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob. (Gen 27:41)

Why does the Bible tell us these kinds of “embarrassing family stories” and why does tradition pass them on from generation to generation? There are many reasons for it. One of them is that both the Bible and our tradition want to show us a real life of our ancestors, with all its ups and downs, without sweeping anything under the rug. This, in turn, is aimed to guide us to conduct rightly, even through our embarrassment or maybe exactly through it. This is to teach us many things: to critically analyze ethical situations, to sensitize us to the harm of those we have hurt, to remind us of our own imperfections, our own faults, sins, lies, manipulations and deceptions. Perhaps the Bible tells us all these embarrassing stories so that we would feel uncomfortable and accept it with humility. There is nothing wrong about it: we do similar things in our life; our successes contain sometimes some dishonesty and manipulation deep in the background that has never been revealed. Our parasha gives us a radical example of it that we may not forget, to motivate us to correct our behavior in the future.

The Hebrew Bible is not immoral. This confusion often comes from the belief that the Bible allegedly promotes the imitation of its characters. This belief is incorrect: the ethics of the Hebrew Bible is not a role model ethics (as is the case with the Christian New Testament). It is primarily a normative ethics in which moral norms and standards are codified into law. Nevertheless, not all the ethical standards expressed in the Hebrew Bible have been codified, for a simple reason: many of the ethical situations in our lives are too complex and too situational to be codified into law, into a clear set of rules. The Torah is aware of that and thus it also contains general ethical demands, like: And you shall do the right and the good (Deut. 6:18) urging us to use our conscience and to act beyond the letter of the (ethical) law. For this reason we also need biblical stories, which often show us examples of what are the outcomes of unethical behavior, a prime example of which is the story of our parasha.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Chayei Sarah

Age gracefully, time is on your side

Thoughts on parashat Chayei Sarah

Menachem Mirski

What is time? Time is a measure of the variability of all things. Although this definition may not be sufficient, for example, in astrophysics, it is completely sufficient for our human, earthly perspective and living experience.

Life is reborn in cycles. Our imagination, dominated by Euclidean geometry, often gives us a linear vision of time. It is enough to “superimpose one on the other” to get possibly the most adequate vision of time: time is a spiral. This vision corresponds with our everyday experience: each day brings us something new and even if we experience the same things cyclically, the experience is slightly different each time. The same dinner, made according to the same recipe again, will taste slightly different.

Of course, for all these new experiences there comes an end which is ultimately marked by death. The Torah portion this week describes the death of the mother and the father of our nation(s) – Sarah and Abraham. According to midrash Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 31) Sarah died of despair after learning that Abraham had murdered their only son Isaac by sacrificing him on Mount Moriah:

When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, Satan[1] became infuriated. He had not gotten what he desired, which was to thwart the sacrifice of Abraham.  What did he do?  He went to Sarah and asked: “Did you hear what happened in the world?”  She answered, “No.”  He said, “Abraham took Isaac his son and slaughtered him, offering him up on the altar as a sacrifice.” Sarah began to cry, and moan the sound of three wails which correspond to the three blasts of the shofar, and her soul burst forth from her and she died.  Abraham came only to find that she had died. From where had he come? From Mount Moriah.

This midrash sees Sarah’s death as tragic: she died of despair after hearing Satans’ lie. It is interesting, however, that Abraham’s death is quite opposite of Sarah’s:

This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.

Abraham died at a good ripe age, old and content. This is the kind of death we all desire. Is there Jewish wisdom that would help us to “achieve this goal?”.

Yes. Woven into the fabric of Judaism there are many views and values and ideas that help us achieve this contented death. I will try to summarize some of these ideas.

Perhaps first is teaching the younger generation to have respect for the elder generation which starts with honoring parents (Ex 20:12), but also all elders in society, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:32)

We are commanded to respect our elders even if they no longer possess their mental capacities. Traditionally, the source for this teaching is the Ten Commandment tablets that Moses shattered, which were kept alongside the new tablets in the Ark of the Covenant. It teaches that we must continue to respect the elderly, even when they are intellectually “broken.”

The older generations should be credited for what they have done – and they have done quite a bit: they built the entire world in which you live. This awareness is especially salient for those that experience a life of comfort and luxury. Your elders are those that made it happen through their hard work. While there are countless examples one only must think of the state of Israel. At any time, for any reason, we always NOW have a safe haven. This miracle is on the backs of our elders that went to Israel and moved rocks and dug through mud to make this thriving democracy. Tell me, doesn’t just thinking about them bring you deep joy and gratitude? Respect your elders.

While we are commanded to respect our elders – we also have a responsibility as human beings at all stages to do whatever we can to stay mentally clear and physically fit  in order to guide “our” next generation. This commandment can be seen as a two-way street – I will nurture my mental faculties in order to share and inform your generation and you must agree to listen, respect and ultimately do the same to your next generation.

If you are a mid-age person, learn humility and to accept the changes time brings. You can still play sports at any age. You can still be fit and beautiful at any age. But being 60 you won’t beat a 23 years old athlete or 20 years old girl in a beauty contest. Of course this requires you to adapt to changes, but nevertheless, you can thrive. The remedy to defying aging is to constantly revise your habits and customs and not let them dictate completely your lifestyle. This, in its purest form, will prevent ‘spiritual aging’, which only accelerates physical aging, which can happen even in one’s youth. As Baal Shem Tov said once: “Do not forsake me in old age”: let not old age and stagnation rule my habits and customs. While aging brings less physical strength and a slower body, it also brings wisdom, which is a virtue and a blessing.

If you are not an older person, yet, you should remember that mental decline in old age is primarily preventable. You just need to keep working on your intellectual capabilities early enough and keep doing it throughout your life. Then, when you retire, your mind will be clear and you will finally have time to read all the books you have always wanted but have never had time for.

“He removes the speech of men of trust and takes away the sense of the elders.” But when it comes to aged scholars, it is not so. On the contrary, the older they get, the more their mind becomes composed, as it is said: “With aged men comes wisdom, and understanding in length of days.” (Mishnah Kinnim 3:6)

And you will not feel irrelevant and forced to hide away from the world during your “slow years”, which you shouldn’t do, because by doing it you don’t fulfill the purpose of the wisdom that you spent years accumulating and do a disservice to the younger generation that needs and relies on your wisdom.

When our bodies start to age – and this starts pretty early, around 25, we should start growing our spirit. The sooner the better. If we do that, we will have the capacity to overcome the fears of time and be able to be happy and content during our last days. We can grow our spirit in many ways: by learning, by doing moral actions, involving ourselves in intellectual activities, studying and performing art, being involved in social actions, charity and altruism and generally doing what is good beyond your own good.

Spirit, over time, takes some responsibilities of the body. As long as bodies are the dominant forces to animate themselves, they are to a large extent subjected to biology and all kinds of natural laws. Over time this determinism decreases (except time when you are sick) and that’s good news because we are becoming more and more free in our actions, including moral actions, and more aware of everything that determines our actions and their consequences. Talmud delineates the different stages of life: age 30 is for peak physical strength, and age 80 is for peak spiritual strength. In the contemporary, secular world, where physical strength and beauty is emphasized, a person at age 80 is – generally and unfortunately – regarded as having little value. In the Torah world, 80 is prime time!

You should never stop caring about your body and you should never stop caring for your spirit. We grow the spirit in the body and when the body becomes more and more fragile the spirit shall take over the care of the body. If you do all of that, time will not be your enemy, it will be on your side!

Gray hair is a crown of glory; It is attained by the way of righteousness.

(Proverbs 16:31)

 

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

[1] Satan in Judaism is not a physical being ruling the underworld, rather, in the Torah, the word Satan indicates “accuser,” “hinderer” or “tempter.” Satan is therefore more an illusory obstacle in one’s way – such as temptation and evil doings – keeping one from completing the responsibilities of tikkun olam (fixing the world). Satan is the evil inclination to veer off the path of righteousness and faithfulness in God. (Jewish Virtual Library)

Vayera

Vayera

 

Sometimes life has a habit of kicking you just where it hurts most. Just when you have come through a bad experience, maybe a horrifying one that partially weakened you, maybe even partially strengthened you, the next blow comes. The section at the very end of this week’s sidra ‘Vayera’ is one of those moments. Because it’s at the end it may be read or gabbled through as ‘Maftir’ in congregations that have this custom, but otherwise tends to get overlooked.

There is much high drama in this sidra. It starts with the invitation to three passing travellers who are – unbeknown to Abraham – actually angels in disguise, on a mission to check out what is really happening in Sodom. Then comes the well-known bargaining between Abraham and God in which Abraham manages to negotiate God down to just Ten good men in the city – at which point God runs off before he is forced to make any further concessions. Then the melodramatic Chapter 19 in which the angels encounter Abraham’s nephew and adopted heir Lot, the son of his deceased brother Haran, see 11:27-30) and Lot encounters the worst side of his fellow citizens, fire falls from heaven and only some escape…. but ironically Lot, despite being traumatised and alcoholised, is still able to father two sons incestuously without even knowing what he is doing. This is such a contrast to the efforts and the heartbreak that Abraham and his wife Sarah have had to contend with so far. In Chapter 20 Abraham has to go to Gerar, is exceedingly afraid of being murdered so that others can enjoy his wife and resorts to a lie. In a strange scene God appears to Avimelech the King of Gerar in the night and says ‘Hands Off! In 20:17 & 18 God relents of his punishment of infertility on Gerar and suddenly everyone is having children.

In Chapter 21 – finally – the elderly Sarah has a son and now pressurises Abraham into expelling – effectively murdering – Hagar and Ishmael. Avimelech turns up to resolve a border dispute man-to-man; In Chapter 22 God suddenly tells Abraham to bind and sacrifice his remaining son – I trust we know the story, also used as a Rosh Hashanah reading – and after the unexpected anticlimactic climax Abraham returns – seemingly without Isaac, but at least without having killed him – back to Beer Sheva.

It has been a fairly traumatic set of incidents; he assumes he has lost his nephew Lot; he assumes he has lost his first son Ishmael and his mother; he has gone through hell and back just now, deceiving both his wife and his son and probably ruining the relationship to both. (Sarah will die at the beginning of the next chapter, there is no mention of any reconciliation between them, of any conversation at all.) And then – just when things could hardly be worse – ”It was told to Abraham that his surviving brother Nahor and his wife Milka have produced eight sons and a granddaughter, just like that, and another four sons through the concubine!” We don’t know who tells him but the news has come through, davka, right now. Abraham, the failed father, has suddenly become a twelve-fold uncle.

Is this ‘good news’? Well, it is for Nahor who is now a grandfather and of course some of these family members will become important for the patriarchal story – Abraham will in due course marry his son to his great-niece Rebecca (spoiler alert!) – but it throws his own failure as a man, as a husband, as a father into stark relief. Or maybe – and note carefully the wording, it is told that ”Milka the wife of Nahor had borne him eight sons” – by stressing the role of the wife as mother this throws the sharp light onto Sarah, his own wife, who has remained childless until the age of 90 and has never had more than the one son.

Is it just ‘luck’ or is it some form of divine plan? Terach (like Noach) had had three sons: One of them had a son, Lot, and died young; One had no sons, adopted his nephew, went off and – went through the adventures described; One stayed at home and became a real patriarch. We are not told that Nahor was especially good or deserving of such domestic happiness and high social status – it ‘just happened.’ And Abraham, who had been promised by God ”I will make you into a great nation” (12:2) and ”Your seed will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky” (15:5) is entitled to feel by now that God has made rather a fool of him, has not fulfilled those prophecies.

Abraham is of course no longer a young man. This makes it even more surprising that, once he has been widowed at age 137, and has – described as ‘elderly’ in 24:1 – arranged to procure a wife for his son, he remarries and (in 25:1-4) has six more sons, who grow and leave, before he dies thirty-eight years later aged 175. Another unexpected snippet and this time the sons will NOT play any further role in the patriarchal narrative. They will not inherit the covenant. What should we learn from this? That there’s life in the old man yet? That a dry tree can still be full of sap? That one should never give up hope? That it is not good to remain alone after being widowed?

But to return to the end of our sidra: How is Abraham meant to react? With joy? With gratitude to God for his brother’s good fortune? With a quick message of ‘Mazal Tov!‘ sent by courier? Once more the Torah plays its usual trick on us of saying – absolutely Nothing. It is clearly considered important that we have the names of all the boys, of both the mothers, and the granddaughter – but we do not ‘need’ to know how the news came or what impact it had. Or better said – if we DO want to know, we have to fill the gap for ourselves and write a midrash.

Ishmael has also had twelve sons – seemingly all from the same mother – but Abraham will never learn this, because even we are only told in 25:12-16 immediately after Abraham has been buried. And later of course Abraham’s grandson Jacob will also have twelve sons, though only after much anguish and through four different mothers. Twelve seems to be a magic number here. Why twelve? Enough for a football team plus one reserve? Jacob’s twin Esau incidentally will marry two Hittite women (just to annoy his parents) and then his cousin the daughter of Ishmael, and between them have five sons (36:1-4); through Adah one son and six grandsons; through Oholiab three sons; from Basemat one son and four grandsons (Genesis 36:1-19). (If it helps, King Ibn Sa’ud who founded Saudi Arabia in 1932 is said to have had 22 consorts and around 100 children including 45 sons, 36 of whom lived to maturity; but to establish himself he had to depose his father and disempower his five brothers.)

Are we keeping score? The Torah is.

To make matters even more complex it seems that the Covenant, the Brit that God has made with Abraham may only be passed down to One person in each generation. Why, we do not know. Abraham faces the choice of the first-born son from the concubine, or the second son from the wife? Isaac faces the difficult choice of one twin over another, a choice then taken from him by trickery in his old age; Jacob will want to pass it to his eleventh son who happens to be the first son from the favourite wife – but circumstances conspire to prevent this and in the end the covenant will skip a generation and be given instead to Joseph’s second-born.

Is there anything to be learned from these statistics and genealogies? Are they important for any moral lesson? I think it helps to be reminded from time to time that these major biblical characters were really human, that they had issues with their children and their siblings, their nieces and nephews, their cousins, over policy, over inheritances, over succession just like modern potentates; that they had domestic issues and strains which could not always be wiped away by some foreign policy success. We read often of national leaders and we see brief film clips but, unless some smiling glamour-puss is waving in the background, we learn little of these people’s domestic relationships and what else is driving them apart from political ambition and greed. Were they influenced by parents or aunts, are they in rivalry with their siblings, are they carrying crippling worries about their children who do not seem interested in or capable of taking over the reins of power?

By the time this sermon, written on 2nd. November, has been translated and published online a major election will have taken place – I won’t even mention which! – but in fact there have been several in the past weeks in different countries, together with struggles to retain power in places like Belarus, Chechnya, Ukraine, Turkey, Cambodia and elsewhere. Who are these people, who seek to rule? What is going on in their minds, what do they know, what do they not know, under whose influences do they stand? One needs a broader picture. About Abraham we read much, but he remains largely a figure of mystery. And one of the questions, for me, is what he really thought when ”it was told to him” how successful his brother had been.

Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild  2th November 2020

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.