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    Jacob’s new name – Vayyishlach

    December 8th, 2019

    When Jacob was given the name Israel he was told, “You have struggled (sarita) with God and man and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29).

    The new name is an improvement on its predecessor. Jacob – Yaakov – is linked with akov, a heel. It indicates a birth experience, a brother who grabbed at his twin brother’s heel – not a nice characteristic, not a nice name, not a nice reputation to have.

    The original name suggests a person who wanted to supplant his brother’s status; the new name indicates a person who fights and wins in a fair struggle.

    The new name reflects the night-time wrestling of Jacob and his unidentified assailant. Presuming that the assailant was human, the name tells us that Jacob fought with a man.

    But what about the idea of fighting with God? It is possible that, as with a number of other places in the Tanach, “God” in this verse is not to be taken literally. It is a metaphor. It does not refer to the Almighty but has the meaning of “a great, mighty person”.


    Warts & all – Vayyetzei

    December 1st, 2019

    Jacob & Esau, by James Tissot c.1896

    What was Jacob – sinner or saint?

    His early relationship with his brother reveals him in a less than pleasant light. The way he deceives his father is not particularly admirable. His intentions are for the best, but his actions invite criticism.

    However, the Torah (Gen 25:27) calls him ish tam, a sincere, wholehearted man. God blesses him with the name Israel, and from him all of Jewish history descends.

    One thing becomes clear as the story unfolds. There is a principle of middah k’neged middah – “measure for measure”. Jacob the deceiver becomes the victim of deceit. There is also a principle of mesirat nefesh, privation and deprivation, and this is the punishment that follows Jacob for the rest of his life because of the mistakes of his early years.

    Much more important, however, is the fact that despite his failings, Jacob is a man of spiritual and intellectual quality. Despite his problems with people, he always strives to be at one with God, and God is with him wherever he goes.

    The fact is that it is only God who is perfect, not human beings. The great Biblical figures all make their mistakes, and the Torah does not whitewash them. Adam and Eve, Noah, the patriarchs – the text paints them warts and all.

    The main thing is that a person recognises their mistakes, sincerely atones, and determines to resume their spiritual progress despite the setbacks.

    In this thought there is hope for all of us.


    How can I be God? – Vayyetzei

    December 1st, 2019

    Jacob & Rachel at the well, by James Tissot, c. 1896

    Jacob loves Rachel but she has difficulty falling pregnant. She says, “Give me children or I will die” (Gen. 30:1).

    Her loving husband gives an apparently unsympathetic response, in fact more of a retort: “Am I in the stead of God who has denied you the fruit of the womb?”

    The sages try to justify the seemingly harsh tone of Jacob’s reply. They wonder whether Rachel’s original cry was an accusation, blaming her husband for not praying hard enough for her.

    It is impossible to imagine that he had not prayed over and over again. Maybe what he is saying is, “Of course I have prayed, but no-one can force God’s hand. It is inconceivable that He has not heard, but maybe the answer, for the time being at least, is No, and we have to accept the answer in love and patience.”

    As we now know, the story later has a happy ending, and Rachel does fall pregnant – not only once but twice.

    What can we learn from the story, apart from the human dynamic of a distressed wife saying things the wrong way and a pious husband shocked that she should question the Divine will?

    One lesson is that human beings should never expect others to be God or to twist God around their little finger.

    I have to say that there have been times in my life when people thought that I as a rabbi had the power to make the Almighty do something or not do it.

    The occasions were often to do with the weather – “Rabbi, make sure that God gives us good weather for the picnic!” At such times one could be facetious and everyone would end up laughing at human presumptuousness.

    Other times the situation was much more grave and one really prayed hard and yearned that God would send healing or comfort to good people caught up in crisis. Tragically, the answer was not always “Yes”.

    The rabbi knows he does not and cannot control the Creator. If I could control God, I would be God. I have no such pretensions.


    Chronology or character? – Tol’dot

    November 24th, 2019

    Several weeks ago when we read the story of No’ach we found the Torah using the same word, Tol’dot (Gen. 6:9), which we have at the beginning of today’s portion (Gen. 25:19).

    Tol’dot means “offspring” or “generations”. It narrates history. But because its root is y-l-d, which means to produce issue, some of the commentators on Parashat No’ach say that it does not have to be understood as chronology but character.

    It relates metaphorically the actions that emanate from a good person – a righteous person’s deeds, not only their and their descendants’ place in destiny.

    The same goes here where the context is the story of Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. He was a much quieter personality than his father Abraham and his son Jacob, but in his own way he was a righteous person whose deeds deserve praise.


    Does God need our prayers? – Tol’dot

    November 24th, 2019

    The Torah text says that Isaac entreated God on behalf of his barren wife Rivkah (Gen. 25:22). The Targum Onkelos amends the word “entreated” to “prayed”.

    Another change made by Onkelos is to insert the word “before”: i.e. “Isaac prayed before the Lord”. This seems to remove the close physicality of the person who is praying towards the One to whom he is praying.

    In fact it suggests another dimension of prayer, that it brings benefit to the pray-er, not to God. As Maimonides reminds us (Guide to the Perplexed 3:32), God remains pure, perfect and permanent, regardless of whether we pray to Him. Our aim in prayer is to change things in and around ourselves, not to change God.

    Someone once said, “He who rises from prayer as a better person, his prayer has been answered.”