Friday, November 28, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Vayetze

           In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, (Gen. 28:10-32:3) Jacob is running away from the wrath of his brother Esau, from whom he has just snatched the birthright and the spiritual legacy of Abraham.  He gets as far as Luz, where he has a most remarkable dream.  “…He dreamt and behold, a ladder was set in the earth and its top reached to heaven, and behold, angels of God ascended and descended upon it”.  Wait a minute.  Ascended and descended?  These are angels of God.  If the top of the ladder is in heaven and the foot on earth, shouldn’t they be first descending from heaven and then ascending?  The commentator Rashi answers this question as follows, “The angels that accompanied him in the Holy Land do not go outside the Holy Land.  They therefore ascended to heaven.  Then the angels of outside the Holy Land descended to accompany him”.  According to Rashi, Jacob gets a new shift of angels, like some sort of angel Pony Express.  (I might add that Rashi must think that angels have an excellent labor union, for it was he who said of our Torah portion a few weeks ago that the reason that three angels visited Abraham is that each angel has only one task, so that one came to comfort Abraham after his circumcision, one to tell Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child, and one to tell of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.) 

            Professor Nehama Leibowitz, in her volume Studies in Genesis, comments, “In other words, man’s experiences in his own country are not to be compared with his situation in a strange land.  To make his way on foreign soil, he needed different guardians from those that protected him in his own birthplace, amidst familiar landmarks.  But wherever he went, Jacob was always furnished with Divine protection.  Rashi’s brief remark fits the picture described in this portion perfectly.  The angels of ‘outside the Holy Land’ accompany Jacob throughout his tribulations, from the moment he leaves Beersheba to his return to Mahanaim after spending twenty years in exile.  There he is again confronted by angels—the guardian angels of the Homeland: ‘And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him’ (Gen. 33:2).

Going away from home is the history of our people.  At God’s bidding, Abraham left his homeland, his land and his father’s house, and began a new nation in the land of Canaan.  Rebecca, Jacob’s mother, left her home in Aram-Naharaim to go with Abraham's’servant to marry Isaac.  Jacob left Beersheva for Haran, and returned to Canaan twenty years later, a changed man.  His sons left Canaan for Egypt and 400 years later his descendants, the fledgling people Israel, left Egypt to wander in the desert for 40 years, and to become the inhabitants of Canaan once more.  Centuries later, exiled from the land by the Babylonians, they left Jerusalem, returning some fifty years later no longer as Israelites, but as Jews.  From the time of the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, every time the Jewish people were forced to leave a place, it is said, the Shechina, the manifestation of God that had dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem, moved on with them.  And, because of the moving on, the changing, the Israelites did not become a dead ancient civilization like others of the ancient near east, but a thriving, changing, thinking religion, culture, and ethnicity which encompasses the world.  Some of the moves were forced, some were anticipated.  Some were reluctant, some joyous.  But all of them were the precursors of growth. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Toldot – Prayers and Blessings

               On this weekend before Thanksgiving Day, when some of the best American family drama occurs, we read the Torah portion Toldot (Gen.25:19-28:9) which might just win the Oscar for Torah portion with the most family drama.

                The twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca vie for the birthright.  Isaac favors Esau, who is the older of the two, and Rebecca recognizes that Jacob, although younger, is better suited to carry on the spiritual legacy of his grandfather Abraham.  Isaac loses his sight in his old age, and thinks he is dying.  He asks Esau to go out and hunt and prepare him a meal, after which he will bestow his blessing upon his firstborn son.  Rebecca thwarts him by sending Jacob in, wearing a goatskin to hide his hairless arms, and fools his father into giving him the blessing of the birthright. .  Jacob, in Esau’s stead, receives a blessing of abundant wealth, sovereignty, the thrall of his brother, and the same blessing God gave to Abraham – that those who curse him will be cursed and those who bless him be blessed.  As soon as Jacob leaves, Esau enters.  Isaac tells Esau that he has already blessed Jacob, and Esau bursts into tears, saying, “Do you onlyl have one blessing?  Bless me!  Me, too, Father!”  And Isaac finds a blessing for Esau as well.

                There are lessons to be learned from both of Isaac’s sons.  Jacob’s life journey will not be an easy one.  He will not be able to return home until he is a grown man with a large family.  He will never see his beloved mother again.  As he tricked his brother, he will be tricked by his uncle Laban.  Esau, too, has a lesson to teach us.  We cannot always live out our parents dream, but we still deserve their blessings and prayers.
                There is so much dramatic action in this Torah portion that we often forget how powerful are the prayers and blessings contained in it.  At this time of Thanksgiving, may those of us who will be with family find harmony, and not acrimony.  May the memory of those who are no longer with us cause us to recall the blessings they brought to our lives.  And may we learn from the example of our Jacob and Esau that winning isn’t everything, and that everyone deserves a blessing.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, (Gen 23:1-25:18) includes the choosing of Rebecca as a wife for Isaac and their meeting, but not in the expected order.  At the beginning of the portion, we learn of Sarah’s death, and after Abraham buys a burial place for her and mourns her, he turns his energies to finding a wife for his son Isaac.  He sends his servant back to his birthplace so that Isaac will marry a woman of Abraham’s own people.  The servant prays to God that he will find the right woman for his master’s son, and devises a test.  He will go to the well, and the first woman who offers to water his camels will be the one that God has chosen.   What follows is according to plan; Rebecca turns out to be the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor and she is eager to go with him and be the mistress of a prosperous and large homestead.  What was not expected was the love that would grow between Isaac and Rebecca.

In The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, Professor Tamara Eskenazi points out that Isaac’s love for Rebecca is the first mention of spousal love in the Torah.  Although Isaac took no active role in the search for his bride, he is smitten when she arrives. “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, he took Rebecca and she became his wife and he loved her” (Gen. 24:67).  Rebecca’s reaction to their meeting is more visceral.  When she and the servant arrive at their destination, she sees Isaac coming to meet them and asks the servant, “Who is this man coming to meet us?” When the servant responds, “He is my master”, Rebecca simply falls off her camel.  Recovering herself, she takes a veil and goes to meet him.  Isaac is the only one of the patriarchs who is monogamous.  Rebecca is all that he needs.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Vayera

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera (Gen. 18:1-22:24) three angels of God come to bring news to Abraham and Sarah.  Even at their advanced age, the messengers tell them, Sarah would bear Abraham a son in the coming year.  This news causes Sarah to laugh with a mixture of wonder, disbelief and joy, and when the child is born the following year, he is called “Yitzchak”, “Isaac” meaning “he shall laugh”.  

But of course Abraham already has a son, Ishmael, born to his concubine Hagar.  Sarah had urged Abraham to impregnate Hagar, thinking she herself would never bear a child.  But now that Sarah has a son, she sees the older boy as a threat to her and to her son.  She demands that Abraham put Hagar and Ishmael out of the household.  Abraham is deeply grieved at this, but when God tells him to heed Sarah’s bidding, he does so.  He puts Hagar and Ishmael out in the wilderness with a loaf of bread and a skin of water.  When the food and water are gone, Hagar, seeing only death as a future for her and the child, puts him under a bush so she doesn’t have to watch him die.  Then an angel comes to her to tell her that the child will grow up and found a great nation.  With this in mind, Hagar lifts up her eyes and sees a well of water.  She fills the skin with water and gives it to the boy to drink.  In the very next sentence, we learn that the boy has grown up, married and become a bowman.

The well that Hagar saw did not appear by magic.  It was there all the time, but in her despair she could not see it.  It was only when she lifted up her eyes that she was able to find the means to her and the boy’s salvation.  The same is true for all of us.  When we think there is no way out, sometimes all we need to do is lift up our eyes.