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    Isaac in the middle – Tol’dot

    November 27th, 2016

    Isaac, from a 1906 Bible card

    Isaac, from a 1906 Bible card

    The three patriarchs go together.

    Their names – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – form the triumvirate on which Jewish history is founded. The Amidah opens by calling on the Almighty as “the God Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”.

    But the three are quite different from each other. The dynamic ones are Abraham and Jacob, whilst Isaac, the one in the middle, is rather quiet and unassertive.

    Even in the Akedah, where his life is at stake, he seems quite lacking in colour and spunk, and the story focusses on his father more than himself.

    It doesn’t seem fair. It can’t be that Judaism deliberately downplayed him. This really is what he was – a man in the middle who went along with what happened.

    One is reminded of a British prime minister who, when asked what gave him a high place in the leadership stakes, simply said it was because of events.

    Applying that criterion to Isaac, let’s ask why he figures so greatly in the Jewish leadership lists, and the answer may be the same, “Events, my boy, events!”

    Yet the events that propelled Isaac into Jewish destiny are not nearly as passive as we might think.

    Not everyone is or needs to be a great visionary like Abraham or a great builder like Jacob. We need the man in the middle, the Isaac who is the continuator of the tradition.


    The cunning hunter – Tol’dot

    November 27th, 2016

    Jacob & Esau, by James Tissot c.1896

    Jacob & Esau, by James Tissot c.1896

    Isaac’s two sons were contrasts.

    Jacob was the studious one who enjoyed his home and his books: The text says he loved his tents (Gen. 25:27), which Radak indicates means that wherever there was a tent of learning, that’s where one would find Jacob.

    Esau, on the other hand, was the “cunning hunter” (Gen. 25:27). Rashbam takes this phrase literally: Esau was the prototype of the macho man who, in later parlance, went in for “huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’”.

    Ibn Ezra thinks the idea of being not only a hunter but cunning is particularly important, since Esau exercised his wiles on deceiving the animal prey and making it easier to capture them.

    But the way the story works out with Esau and Jacob vying to impress their father, it seems more likely that the phrase “cunning hunter” doesn’t only refer to animal targets. It conveys the sense of a man who could flatter and dissemble when it came to other human beings, especially Father Isaac.

    Poor Isaac was old and losing his eyesight – a contrast to the later Moses who even at the end of his life was still vigorous and clear-sighted (Deut. 34). Isaac, on the other hand, was not only taken in by Esau’s wiles but probably wanted to be.

    The boys’ mother Rebekah got Jacob to pretend to be Esau in a superb piece of see-through disguise because she knew how gullible Isaac had become, and she wanted to show that if a patent disguise that covered the smooth arms of Jacob could fool him, all the more so could he be taken in by the smooth talk of Esau.


    Two visions of God – Ask the Rabbi

    November 27th, 2016

    Q. I read that the name HaShem represents the God of Love and the name Elokim is the God of Power. Which is the correct version that should be used?

    Kabbalistic poster GodA. They are correctives of each other.

    God’s power is tempered by His love and His love is disciplined by His power.

    The Zohar says that it is only from the limited human perspective that He seems to have contradictory attributes.

    If we were able to perceive Him more clearly and correctly we would realise that all His attributes live together in harmony.


    Life cycles – Chayyei Sarah

    November 20th, 2016

    Abraham weeps for Sarah, by Marc Chagall

    Abraham weeps for Sarah, by Marc Chagall

    Two major life cycle events figure in this sidra – death and marriage.

    Sarah dies and Abraham buries her in the cave of Machpelah; Eliezer finds a wife for Isaac, and Rebekah and Isaac marry and set up home together.

    Both events are decisive for family and human history.

    If you choose a marriage partner well, you reap the reward of happiness and if you have progeny they determine your destiny. If your death follows a life dedicated to wisdom and decency, you leave behind the mark of having enriched the human race.

    Both events also involve aloneness. Concerning marriage, the Torah begins with the statement, “It is not good for a man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Man needs company and community.

    Concerning death, Franz Rosenzweig points out that this is the decisive moment of aloneness. Other people can be by your side and hold your hand, but death itself is a step that you have to take on your own.

    Yet it does not have to be the sort of loneliness that makes one frightened. In its own way death is also a time for company and community – with God.

    The Bible says, echoed by the final line of Adon Olam, “Into Your hand I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:6).


    How much yichus do you want? – Chayyei Sarah

    November 20th, 2016

    Eliezer & Rebekah at the well, by Gustave Dore

    Eliezer & Rebekah at the well, by Gustave Dore

    Without Abraham’s concern for Isaac to marry someone from the right background, Eliezer would not have needed such a complicated match-making expedition.

    But this is the way that Biblical thinking works: the family a person comes from is an essential ingredient in marital happiness and in building a future.

    Jewish parents still operate on the same principle. I cannot count the times that parents have asked what I know about the background of the boy or girl their offspring is going with.

    I suspect that some young people regarded this as parental interference, but a logical mind would have told them that success in marriage requires some knowledge of the value system with which a potential partner has been brought up.

    As far as Abraham was concerned, he was determined not to allow into the family one of the daughters of the Canaanites.

    Was it that they were nobodies and lacked a good enough lineage to boast about?

    If that were the entire consideration, the person without lineage could have borrowed or anticipated the retort that is said to have been given by a supposed nobody when asked by a snooty person, “And whose descendant are you?” The retort was, “I am nobody’s descendant: I am an ancestor!”

    No; lineage has its place, but what concerned Abraham was the idolatrous and probably unethical values of the Canaanite environment.

    Even so, Eliezer found that there were issues with some of Abraham’s own family such as Laban, and he must have agonised over the question of whether Rebekah would show the better or the not so admirable elements of the family character.