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    The Ramban method – Vayyishlach

    November 18th, 2018

    The meeting of Jacob & Esau, by Francesco Hayez

    The Torah portion that we read this Shabbat begins in an atmosphere of tension.

    The brothers Jacob and Esau are about to meet again after many years of estrangement. Jacob wants to create a good climate for their meeting, so he sends messengers ahead of him.

    Ramban says that this is what a person should always do, prepare so well for an encounter that any possible tension will have dissipated in advance.

    Ramban’s advice motivated an experience I had some years ago. As chairman of a committee I knew that there was a dispute between two committee members, so the day before a scheduled meeting I had an off-the-record chat with the two of them and we ended up agreed and smiling.

    When the committee had its meeting all went well and there were no fireworks – the Ramban method at work!

    Ramban’s advice applies not only between human beings but between man and God.

    The prophet Amos says (4:12), “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” This is what we do when we say the central prayer, the Amidah.

    We praise God for what He has done for us and our ancestors, and only then do we formulate our petitions.

    One might ask, “Does God really need to be praised before we pray to Him? Is He really susceptible to His creatures’ praises?”

    The answer isn’t that our praises make Him any greater or happier, but they identify who it is that we are addressing in prayer – the tried and true God who has brought such meaning to our lives.


    Gid Hanasheh – Vayyishlach

    November 18th, 2018

    Jacob & the angel, by Gustave Doré, 1855

    Jacob emerged limping after his tussle with an unnamed assailant who was probably the symbol of Esau. To recall the pain Jacob suffered in his thigh, Jews do not eat an animal’s gid ha-nasheh, “the sinew that shrank”.

    Dayan Grunfeld points out that the event that motivated this prohibition must have been important enough to justify being symbolically present throughout the ages.

    Grunfeld’s explanation is that Jacob’s struggle with the assailant “is a prototype of the struggle which goes on throughout history between the moral law represented by Jacob and brutal force as championed by Esau… a symbol of our nation which will never be defeated by the materially stronger force of Esau, although it may, like our ancestor, suffer from wounds and temporary afflictions on its journey through history” (“The Jewish Dietary Laws”, vol. 1, pages 19-20).

    There are additional laws of kashrut which show the difference between Judaism and other cultures. As against our prohibition of mixing milk and meat (Ex. 23:19 and 34:26, and Deut. 14:21), the 14th century BCE Ras Shamra texts say, “Seethe a kid in milk”.

    Defying heathen ways is not the only explanation. Some think eating milk and meat together caused disease. Others say it is ethically repugnant to boil a kid in its mother’s milk and we must not do what is repugnant.


    Choosing your own religious observances – Ask the Rabbi

    November 18th, 2018

    Q. A friend told me that Jews can choose their own mixture of religious observances. Is this correct?

    A. In theory no, because every Jew should observe all the mitzvot.

    But in practice we all do tend to have our own emphases.

    Some people are more philosophical, some concentrate on the moral laws, some stress the details of the practical mitzvot, some make a great deal of the Jewish Friday night and the festivals (or some of them).

    The real question is where we go from there… not whether we are good at this or that aspect of Jewish belief and practice, but whether our Judaism can become dynamic and what we can add to what we do at present.


    Why go home? – Vayyetzei

    November 11th, 2018

    Jacob & his family leave Haran, by Charles Foster, 1897

    Jacob is told by God to make his way back home (Gen. 31:7).

    He tells his wives that he and they are going, but he first gives a different explanation: “Though I have served your father with all my energy, he has constantly deceived me”.

    Only after this statement does he say anything about God speaking to him and commanding him to return to Canaan.

    Why Jacob resorts to this roundabout approach needs to be examined, all the more so since he himself is a pious man who would obey HaShem regardless of any material considerations.

    However, Rachel and Leah probably need the extra reason for leaving their father’s house.

    They know what sort of person their father is, but they still hope that if they stay nearby and remain loyal to him, they will one day inherit some of his estate.

    Jacob is hinting to them not to rely on this hope. Laban can swindle them too. They have to realise that he cannot be trusted. They have to go to Canaan, not only because God said so, but also because it is in their own best interests.

    As usual the Torah has a message for all ages and generations when it records this discussion.

    Human beings often store up hopes that may in the end prove quite illusory.

    If God and one’s conscience tell us to move on we must not let ourselves be held back by dreams of gaining an inheritance or winning the lottery.

    The dreams can blow up in our faces and we will be left feeling sorry for ourselves for the rest of our lives.


    Remaining unscathed – Vayyetzei

    November 11th, 2018

    Jacob talks with Laban, Foster Bible Pictures 1897

    The 31st chapter of B’reshit describes life with Laban.

    He changed Jacob’s wages ten times. Who could trust a man like that?

    No integrity – sticking to a promise even if he found circumstances had become more difficult (Psalm 15 extols the person who “changeth not”).

    No honesty – more interested in what he could get for himself than what he could do for other people (the Ten Commandments have a trenchant sentence about how to treat your servant).

    No humanity or concern for his family’s good name – his own children wondered whether they still had “a portion and inheritance in our father’s house” (Gen. 31: 14-16).

    No wonder the rabbinic sages put into Jacob’s mouth the rhyming words, Im Lavan gar’ti v’taryag mitzvot shamar’ti – “I lived with Laban but I kept the 613 commandments”.

    The tzaddik never has an easy time in a wicked environment; the mark of a good person is that they remain unscathed by what’s around them.