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    Making an appearance – Va’era

    January 19th, 2020

    The Torah reading this week commences with God telling the people how He made His Presence perceptible to their ancestors.

    Even though He says (Ex. 6:2) va’era, “I was seen”, He cannot be indicating that He made Himself visible, since He has no material form or shape. Targum Onkelos tells us that He means to say, “I revealed Myself”.

    The term “to perceive” does not necessarily mean “to be seen with the eyes”, but “to perceive with the heart and mind”. The people knew He was there and knew they were in His Presence.

    The Torah says that He made His existence and nature known by means of His name.

    In early times He was known as E-l Shaddai, “the powerful God”. People perceived the majesty of the world and the greatness of its forces and energies, and they knew that there was a powerful Creator.

    Now, with the Hebrew settlement in Egypt and the imposition of bondage by the Egyptians, they were ready to perceive the name which we spell Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, generally translated “The Lord”. This name derives from a root that means to be. (The Name, as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig say in their German translation of the Bible, literally means “The Existent One”). Tradition says that it denotes God as the source of mercy.

    Knowing this name meant that the people had an assurance that God saw (i.e. perceived) their pain and promised to uphold and support them and bring them out of slavery.


    Equal partners – Va’era

    January 19th, 2020

    Moses & Aaron, by Hans Sebald Beham, 16th century

    The readings at this time of the year constantly involve both brothers, Moses and Aaron.

    With rare exceptions the two of them have a good relationship. Neither is superior to the other; each has his own role, his own status, his own historical significance.

    The rabbis point out (Mechilta, Bo) that sometimes the Torah puts Moses’ name first and sometimes Aaron’s. Occasionally they rotate in tasks: some of the ten plagues are brought about by Aaron, some by Moses.

    Each, however, has his own expertise: Aaron is more of a diplomat, Moses is more of an orator. On the whole they are partners.

    Another example of the phenomenon of equal billing is the duty that a child has towards its parents – sometimes the Torah mentions the father first, sometimes the mother.

    Probably the same would be true of husband and wife – sometimes they are referred to as Avraham and Sarah, sometimes Sarah and Avraham.

    The old habit of calling a married woman something like Mrs John Smith, as if the wife has no individual personality, has long since gone.

    Amongst some groups it is still common – e.g. in wedding invitations – to refer to “Reb Avraham Cohen and his wife”, but in time this too will go. Both partners are essential to the relationship.


    Names & generations – Sh’mot

    January 12th, 2020

    The German Jewish Bible scholar Benno Jacob notes that the Book of Exodus begins, “These are the names of the Children of Israel,” not, as we might have expected, “These are the generations of the Children of Israel”.

    Is there a difference between names and generations?

    Benno Jacob relates the distinction to the patriarch Jacob. He thinks that generations = Jacob, the physical man who thinks of his progeny and their material needs, whilst names = Israel, the spiritual sire who struggles with his soul and thinks of his family’s faith.

    The rabbis say that when Jacob became Israel and lay on his death bed he wanted his family to say Shema Yisra’el, “Listen, Father Israel: we believe in God, the One True God of heaven and earth.”


    Jacob & the Jewish quarter – Vayyechi

    January 5th, 2020

    Map of ancient Egypt

    Big European cities often highlight their old Jewish Quarter on the local tourist circuit. Rome, Prague, Vienna and Budapest are prime examples. Remnants of old synagogues and Jewish shops are visible and visited but mostly as mere sites of antiquity.

    Every now and then you find an active synagogue, a kosher restaurant and a handful of Jewish food stores, but generally there are few signs of viable Jewish life. What happened to the local Jews is well known: today’s Jews are mostly tourists.

    There are abandoned Jewish districts in a number of Middle Eastern localities too, though they are harder and more dangerous for Jews to visit.

    The origin of Jewish districts can probably be traced to this week’s Torah portion. Joseph, after years of struggle, had ended up as a high official in Egypt and had brought his father and family to settle near him in Goshen.

    Though the Bible shows how Jacob put a brave front on his move to Egypt, saying he wanted to see Joseph while he still could, he must have felt ill at ease. He probably realised as the family didn’t that having a pleasant Jewish Quarter to live in was all right for the moment, but who knew what might happen years later?

    A new Pharaoh could change the official policy towards the Jews and having a compact Jewish presence in one main neighbourhood could turn out to be a curse. That sounds like a warning against feeling over-secure.


    Unstable like water – Vayyechi

    January 5th, 2020

    Chapter 49 of Genesis brings us the shrewd summing up of the sons of Jacob by their old father.

    Of Reuben he says pachaz kamayim (Gen. 49:4), which the translations usually render “unstable like water”. The word pachaz is rare and difficult to interpret.

    Maybe Jacob is saying that Reuben had no firm conscience or principles but, like water that overflows and goes everywhere, he acted on the spur of the moment and without thought of the consequences.

    Maybe this is what Rashi has in mind when he says that Reuben was like water in that he rushed into things and was out of control.

    The Torah goes on with a warning to Reuben: al totar, which could be telling the young man that he would gain no advantage out of his actions.

    The Targum Onkelos quotes a further tradition, that because Reuben did seemingly immoral things that he should have avoided, he would forfeit the extra portion he would normally have received as the oldest son.

    From this episode we – in our own generation and whatever our circumstances – can learn the lesson that we should think things through carefully before taking any action and should not be impetuous.