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    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.


    Blessing God with “Baruch” – Ask the Rabbi

    November 11th, 2018

    Q. Why do we say Baruch Attah – “Blessed are You, Lord”? How can humans bless God?

    A. There are two views:

    1. We are not blessing Him: He is blessing us.

    Baruch is an adjective with the grammatical form of rachum v’channun, two words which say that God is the source of all mercy and grace.

    The word therefore means “You, God, are the source of all blessings”.

    2. We are indeed blessing or praising Him in acknowledgment that He has given us the task of sharing with others the boons He gives us.


    Little time left – Tol’dot

    November 4th, 2018

    Isaac on his deathbed, painting by G. Flinck, 1638

    The sidra tells the sad story of Isaac being old and blind and not knowing when his death would come.

    The commentator Radak thinks that Isaac’s realisation that his days were numbered was more than the usual fear of dying. Isaac had things left to do and he wasn’t certain that he had the time to do them.

    What was it that he so much wished to do?

    To give Esau, his favourite son, a last blessing.

    Another commentator, Chiz’kuni, has a variation on this view. He says that Isaac realised that Esau had sold Jacob his birthright; though the father possibly admitted that Esau had acted impetuously and irresponsibly, he was anxious to give Esau a gift that would not end up in Jacob’s hands.

    Without getting into family dynamics, we see that Isaac is an example of the person who doesn’t get round to doing things promptly.

    The sages say, “When a mitzvah comes to your hand, don’t let it get stale” (M’chilta Bo).


    Code red – Tol’dot

    November 4th, 2018

    Why did Esau want Jacob’s soup?

    What attracted him was ha-adom ha-adom hazeh, “this red stuff”.

    It couldn’t have been the taste that interested him because he hadn’t yet tasted a morsel. Maybe it was the aroma, but of that we can’t be certain. He had a ruddy complexion, but that probably had no connection with the food.

    The real attraction must have been the colour of the soup, and indeed history gave him the nickname of Adom, “Red” (Rashbam).

    What’s so special about the colour red? It denotes blood.

    Esau loved gory things. He was a gory man. Shedding blood gave him a feeling of excitement.

    The prophet Habbakuk said, “Woe to him that builds a town through blood” (2:12). We know from elsewhere in the Torah that blood symbolises life (Deut. 12:23).

    Esau was a bloodthirsty man. Taking life gave him his kicks. Jacob on the other hand was a peace-loving student who enjoyed cooking.

    The fact that he chose to make red soup was simply because of the availability of red lentils. He didn’t give a moment’s thought to the symbolism of blood.