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    Prayer & Revelation – Vayyetzei

    November 22nd, 2020

    One of the great features of the sidra is Jacob’s dream about angels ascending and descending a ladder that joined earth and heaven (Gen. 28:12).

    The Ba’al HaTurim says that the numerical value of sulam, a ladder (if you leave out the vav), is the same as the word Sinai.

    Possibly the analogy delineates two central features of Judaism: prayer and Revelation. In both cases there is a link that joins earth and heaven.

    In prayer the message proceeds from the earth; in Revelation it comes from the heavens.

    In prayer, man seeks God’s downward concern for human problems; in Revelation, God seeks to raise man’s sights upwards to heavenly thoughts.


    How many children is enough? – Vayyetzei

    November 22nd, 2020

    Jacob had an impressive entourage of wives, concubines and a large number of children.

    One of the concubines was Leah’s maid Zilpah. We cannot say that she gave Zilpah to Jacob (Gen. 30:9) in order for him to have children, since Leah had already produced a number of sons. It seems to have been a matter of family power and domestic dynamics.

    According to Ramban, Leah saw prophetically that Jacob would have twelve sons, from whom would eventually emerge the twelve tribes of Israel. Leah wanted to be the matriarch of the majority of the tribes, either through her maidservant or in her own right. Eventually Leah herself had a daughter, Dinah (Gen. 30:21).

    Apart from the question of how many children there would be in the family there is a broader issue – relevant even in our much later age – of why people somehow tend to think that having boys is more significant than having girls. After all, if one is allowed to be cynical, without girls being born there wouldn’t be any boys either.

    But cynicism is not the only consideration. Since children are a gift from God (Psalm 127), it is the Almighty who decides which parents will have a boy and which will have a girl.

    A child has in a sense three parents – father, mother and God.


    Progeny & posterity – Tol’dot

    November 15th, 2020

    The sidra opens with the verse, “This is the progeny of Isaac the son of Abraham – Abraham begot Isaac” (Gen. 25:19).

    Since every word in the Torah is important, why tell us that Abraham begot Isaac when we already know that Isaac was the son of Abraham?

    Rashi explains that we not only need to know who was the father and who was the son, but that they looked like one another.

    When you see father and son (or mother and daughter) together, you see an uncanny likeness between parent and child.

    But once you get to know them you see that there are major differences between them. They each have their own personality, their own habits, their own approaches to life. There is a sameness – and a difference.

    No wonder there is a b’rachah, “Blessed are You who makes everyone different.”

    Each generation has its own problems and challenges. It’s great to learn from your parents’ example and apply it when you can, but don’t try to be a carbon copy of your parents.


    Sitting still in a room – Tol’dot

    November 15th, 2020

    Two brothers, and such a contrast.

    “Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field: Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents” (Gen. 25:27).

    The world seems to prefer Esau as a role model – dashing, dynamic, on the go, looked up to and admired by his contemporaries.

    Jacob is what used to be called a “swot”, curled up with a book, uninterested in sporting prowess or physical pursuits – a person “dwelling in tents”, almost a parasite, doing nothing for society.

    One can leaven both descriptions and find faults in Esau and virtues in Jacob, but to appreciate Jacob it is necessary to ask who it was who achieved the really significant changes and developments in history.

    If the criterion is who marched with the armies and fought the battles, the answer is not Jacob. But it was the Jacobs who dwelt in tents who developed the great ideas that moulded mankind – summed up by Pascal who said, “All the evils of life are due to the fact that man has not learned how to sit still in a room”.

    In the Jewish judgment, contemplative people who sit in a room or dwell in a tent are the ones who make all the difference.


    Bible criticism – Ask the Rabbi

    November 8th, 2020

    Q. How does Judaism handle the claims of Bible critics who question the text and authorship of the Torah?

    A. Judaism reveres the Torah as the word of God.

    Yes, there are non-traditional interpretations that are sometimes quite radical and “hack at the shoots” (Chag. 14b). These interpretations claim to be based on linguistic and historical evidence, though the “evidence” is sometimes disputed and some of its proponents are biased against Judaism and even against religion as a whole.

    Judaism does not object to people asking questions: what it objects to is the claim that the critics have all the answers.

    There is a Jewish tradition called Midrash which derives its name from darash, to seek out. Midrash seeks out the hidden meanings in the text. Its approach is not arrogant and aggressive but loving and patient, knowing that the Divine giver of the Torah works at His own pace and reveals His secrets when and how He chooses.

    The believer heeds Psalm 27:14, “Wait for the Lord” and remembers the advice of the Ethics of the Fathers, “It is not your duty to complete the work – but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2:16).