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    The oldest brother – Vayyeshev

    November 25th, 2018

    Joseph & his brothers at the pit

    In the Biblical panoply, Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is not one of the leading lights.

    He played a significant role in the fate of his younger brother Joseph. When the other brothers decided that Joseph had to be disposed of, Reuben succeeded in preventing the murder. But we wonder what his real feelings were.

    Deep down, did he share the brothers’ animosity to Joseph, and simply intervene to prevent bloodshed?

    The explanation the Torah gives really leaves the question in limbo. It says Reuben wanted “to deliver him from their hand and to get him back to their father” (Gen. 37:22).

    It sounds like a good idea but maybe it is only a delaying tactic. In Reuben’s mind it might have diffused the ugly situation, but it was only a temporary ploy as we see from the fact that when Reuben went looking for Joseph he couldn’t find him.

    Reuben and the brothers had agreed that instead of killing Joseph they would put him in a pit (where, according to the sages, there were scorpions and snakes – not a pleasant prospect at the best of times).

    While Reuben’s attention was diverted, the brothers had taken Joseph out of the pit and sold him to a caravan of passers-by. If Reuben had really been determined to save Joseph, surely he would have looked for an empty pit that had no snakes and scorpions, and he would have stood guard until the brothers went off on some other errand. So again we wonder about Reuben’s motives.

    The rabbis are not sure how to treat Reuben’s actions or lack of them. Some say that what diverted Reuben’s attention was that he needed to go and daven; others say that when there is an emergency to life or health, it overrides normal religious practices.

    There is no one complete answer, but at least some credit must be given to Reuben for trying.

    Walking, standing & sitting – Vayyeshev

    November 25th, 2018

    The sidra is entitled Vayyeshev, “And he sat”. The context actually requires the translation, “And he settled”.

    Linguistically the two versions are connected even though we would normally say that “to sit” is a temporary action while “to settle” implies a longer time-frame.

    Leaving that problem to the lexicographers, we can go off on a tangent and look at the beginning of the Book of Psalms.

    Psalm 1 contrasts the righteous person with the wicked. The tzaddik is called ashrei, “happy”.

    Samson Raphael Hirsch has a more sophisticated approach. Linking the root aleph-shin-resh to a word that means to step out, he tells us that ashrei indicates a person who has a direction in life.

    The Psalmist says that the person who is ashrei is challenged by three actions – how to walk, how to stand and how to sit.

    Unlike the rasha, the tzaddik does not walk in wicked ways, he does not pause in places where the sinners stand, and he does not sit where the mockers meet.

    In the course of his life’s journey the good person steps forward (“walks”); on the way he does not let himself slow down or stop in exciting or inciting places which threaten to entrap him in evil and sin.

    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.