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    Leaving & living – Vayyetzei

    November 19th, 2017

    The title of the sidra means “And he left”. It begins with Jacob leaving Beer Sheva for Haran.

    Leaving, emigrating, moving to a new country is a constant theme in Jewish history. It was sometimes motivated by hope, ambition and aspiration. Sometimes the move was forced on us by circumstances.

    From Raul Hilberg’s book, The Destruction of the European Jews, we see that there were three such factors:

    One group of oppressors said in effect, “You shall not live amongst us as Jews”. In other words, you can remain only if you abandon Judaism and convert to Christianity.

    Another group said, “You shall not live amongst us”, i.e. even if you convert you have to throw off your Jewish ethnicity and be like everyone else.

    By the time of the Holocaust the policy was, “You shall not live”: nothing will save you, neither conversion nor assimilation. You have to be eliminated.”

    All three policies hit us hard, but in the end none of them worked.

    Being Jewish in either an old or a new land was never easy, but if the gentile world were fair and truthful they would admit that when the Jews lived among them they all benefited.

    As the Torah says in this week’s reading, “All the peoples of the earth shall be blessed by you and your offspring”.


    Jacob’s wives – Vayyetzei

    November 19th, 2017

    Rachel, Leah and Jacob by Raffaello Jacob, 1518-19

    A well known principle is that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kept the Torah even before it was given.

    If this is the case, how could Jacob have married Leah and Rachel, two sisters, the daughters of Laban?

    Indeed the handmaids who became his two additional wives were also daughters of Laban, which only makes the question more difficult.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe examines this issue in detail.

    He quotes Ramban, who thought that Jacob contracted these marriages in Haran and only kept the commandments when in Israel.

    However, this contradicts Rashi, who says that when living with Laban in Haran, Jacob kept all the 613 commandments.

    Another view is that Jacob kept only those rules that were stricter than the earlier Noachide commandments, but the Rebbe thinks this argument is unsatisfactory.

    He prefers to say that the patriarchs accepted the commandments on the level of personal stringency, not necessarily as commands from God. At that stage the observance of the commandments was not a national obligation but a personal commitment expressing individual piety.

    Jacob married Rachel in addition to Leah out of personal concern for her welfare.


    Becoming a rabbi – Ask the rabbi

    November 19th, 2017

    Q. Why did you become a rabbi?

    A. My answer inevitably relates to Australia where I was brought up, so readers without an Australian connection will have to forgive me.

    I came under the influence of two impressive mentors – Dr Samuel Billigheimer, the German professor who introduced me to Jewish study, and Rabbi Jacob Danglow, whose synagogue I attended from early childhood.

    From the one I gained a fascination for Jewish ideas, books and observance and wanted to delve further, without necessarily acquiring a rabbinic title. From the other I derived an interest in spiritual and community leadership.

    In time I came to my own decisions about the rabbinic role and worked out my own priorities, not necessarily following all the rabbi’s ways and views.

    In both I saw religion and urbanity combined in Torah-im-Derech-Eretz, the synthesis of Jewish and worldly culture. Billigheimer gave me the intellectual roots of this approach, linking it to Maimonides.


    The same look – Tol’dot

    November 12th, 2017

    Abraham & Isaac, by Jan Lievens, c.1637

    “These are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham: Abraham begat Isaac” (Gen. 25:19).

    Rashi and Ibn Ezra explain that the double statement is in order to emphasise that father and son looked alike and no-one had the right to think that anyone else was the father.

    The commentators add that the double phrase indicates that Abraham not only bore but reared his son. He gave him lineage and also moral principles. He brought the boy up with beliefs and ethics.

    Whoever looked at Isaac knew that he was in the Abraham tradition.


    Vision, hard work & patience – Tol’dot

    November 12th, 2017

    Isaac and the wells, from a 1906 Bible card

    The Torah reading narrates how the local tribes bitterly resisted the Hebrews.

    Every time that Isaac tried to find water the tribesmen filled the wells with sand. The water would have brought benefit to everyone in the locality but that was too logical for the Gerar tribesmen.

    No wonder Isaac called one well Esek – Contention – and another Sitnah – Enmity.

    Isaac never gave in. Finally there came a day when the tribesmen realised what benefits Isaac would bring them as well as himself and his family.

    Now Isaac was able to dig a well without opposition and call it Rechovot, “space”, because at last the family could develop the area.

    The story shows that vision, hard work and patience pay dividends.