Torah Portion: Ha’azinu (Listen) – Deuteronomy 32:1 – 52

“This week we read the Song of Moses, one of Moses’ final speeches to the Children of Israel before his death. The only other words Moses speaks to the nation after this are the words of blessing in Deuteronomy Chapter 33.

But in Deuteronomy Chapter 32, Moses composes a long poem in which he praises G-d, discusses His relationship with His people and reviews historical events, some of which are revealed prophetically to him but have not yet occurred.

I would like to focus on two verses, each of which carry messages which speak to me in an especially relevant way.

“Remember the days of old, understand the years of each generation” (Deut. 32:7). Moses instructs his people to remember their history. In referring to the days of old, he hearkens back as far as Creation – remember the events of the universe from its very beginnings. Understanding the years of a generation implies a deeper comprehension of events, of people, of their actions and the consequences of those actions.

Moses understands what so few people understand today – that we are unable to understand our present if we don’t understand our past. If we don’t understand the ways of nature and the origins of the universe, and especially the fact that the universe was created by G-d, we will never be able to comprehend our role as human beings – to serve our Creator.

And if we don’t evaluate the events of history, the expectations G-d has from the Jewish people and from all peoples, His judgment over them and the consequences of our actions, then we will be doomed to failure every time.

The second verse that I find meaningful is Deut. 32:15 “And Yeshurun (a name for Israel) grew fat and kicked…then he forsake G-d who created him.” When life is good and blessings are abundant – then it is easy for Israel to forsake G-d, to forget that the source of our blessings is His generosity. When we are in trouble, it is natural to cry out for help. But when things are good, we tend to brag and attribute our success to our efforts alone. We forget that it is G-d who has blessed us, that it is He who created us, and to Him we owe our gratitude.

If all of Israel, if all of the world, would turn to Him in the height of our prosperity, the world would be a better place. The western world is a wealthy world and a secular world indeed.

If all of Israel remembered the lessons of history with regard to our conflict with the Arabs, and if our entire nation remembered that it is G-d who has created us and who is responsible for our blessings, we would all hold on to the gift He has given us and never let go. We would all treasure Biblical Israel forever.”

– Sondra Oster Baras, CFOIC, Samaria, Israel

Today in Australia (September 7th 2013) we have a National Election. We have been greatly blessed here and just like Israel, we have forgotten the source of our blessings. As we vote, we demonstrate as a nation whether we still have any small sense and appreciation of our Creator and His Grace towards us.

While it is difficult to choose who to vote for, as we are all imperfect men and woman, as are the political parties, there are though still some clear choices in who NOT to vote for.

We should not vote for those who reject the sanctity of life (through supporting abortion and euthanasia for example). Also we should not vote for those who would support such people and such parties (with their preferences for example).

May HaShem have mercy on us!

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Darkness Cannot Drive Out Darkness

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness …” – Martin Luther King

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” – James Arthur Baldwin

To be free, you have to let go of hate.

And I suspect, as the quote from James Arthur Baldwin argues, that letting go of hate does initially open your heart to pain.

Yet, to be free you need to forgive those who have persecuted you. This does mean you need to accept and acknowledge the pain, yet remembering the hurt and accepting the pain is a process and a journey. It is a journey of release; of letting it out and letting it go.

Forgiveness does not meant forgetfulness; it does not mean forgetting the injustice or persecution that you have endured, but it does often mean remembering it so that you don’t re-live it, and remembering it so that you can be more empathetic towards others who may suffer similarly to how you may have suffered.

Such remembering is then a positive memory, a memory that no longer has pain attached to it. This can take considerable time. It doesn’t happen over-night, but is a journey that is best taken in company.

While you still feel pain, you are still suffering injury and therefore you have not fully freed yourself of the past, you are still, to a degree at least, living in it.

When you let those who have hurt you define you (by placing you in this position of pain), you have clearly not achieved liberty.

Hatred and freedom cannot co-exist. Anger and bitterness are the fruit of unforgiveness – if you still feel these powerful emotions, then you are still harbouring some un-forgiveness.

In a world devoid of God there is no justice and hence no true hope for restitution, for fairness and ultimate redemption. When you have a relationship with God and you recognize that He will ultimately bring Justice tempered always with Grace, you can then release your pain to Him, and then truly find freedom.

True freedom though may not be what you think it is. True freedom is the liberty and choice to seek the best for you, for your family; for your community and for your nation & your world. This is also the essence of ‘tikkun olam’ (repairing the world).

The best is a deep and abiding relationship with your Creator. Such a relationship involves loving your heavenly Father with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and this in turn means loving your neighbor as yourself. If you love God you will love His commandments. When you love His commandments, His Torah (divine instructions), you will walk in the Way (Psalms 119).

Be free – let go of hate!

To go deeper please check out: Freedom & the Law and Amazing Grace

* This short blog post was inspired by a great article on this weeks Torah Portion – see ‘Letting Go of Hate’ by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks – http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/167470055.html

Deeds matter more than creeds

Prof Paul Johnson:
“… another characteristic of Judaism: the relative absence of dogmatic theology. … Their view of God is very simple and clear (he’s comparing it with the huge problems of dogmas and innumerable heresies within Hellenistic Christianity). Some Jewish scholars argue that there is (also) in fact, a lot of dogma in Judaism.

That is true in the sense that there are many negative prohibitions – chiefly against idolatry. But the Jews usually avoided the positive dogmas which the vanity of theologians tends to create and which are the source of so much trouble.  They never adopted, for instance , the idea of Original Sin. Of all the ancient peoples, the Jews were perhaps the least interested in death, and this saved them from a host of problems. It is true that belief in the resurrection ansd the afterlife was the main distinguishing mark of Pharisaism, and thus a fundament of rabbinic Judaism. Indeed the first definite statement of dogma in the whole of Judaism, in the Mishnah, deals with this: ‘All Israel share in the world to come except the one who says resurrection has no origin in the Law’. But the Jews had a way of concentrating on life and pushing death – and its dogmas – intro the background.”

The first creed of Judaism (Gaon around 900 CE) did not come into acceptance until Judaism was some 2500 years old! Even Maimonides 13 articles of faith, which have given ‘little rise to controversy’ have not been ‘endorsed by any authoritative body’.

“Judaism is not so much about doctrine – that is taken for granted – as behaviour; the code matters more than the creed.”

Quote from Johnson, ‘A History of the Jews’, p 161 

Or as put in the Mishnah: “Deeds matter more than Creeds”.

While Prof. Paul Johnson is a Roman Catholic, I doubt that few, even Jewish historians (and I love the work of Rabbi Ken Spiro), have given as good a history of the Jewish people as Prof. Johnson – he clearly loves the Jewish people; he explains the rise of both anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred so well, and he shows how dependent the entire world really has been on the wisdom and endeavours of the Jewish people.

His book should be read by all Jews (to encourage and uplift them) and by all Gentiles to enlighten them!

It is a big book – it took me awhile to digest but it was so worth it. 

The only time he goes a little wrong in my opinion, is when he tries to explain certain Christian perspectives rather than any Jewish ones!

His personal website is: http://pauljohnsonarchives.org/

The Great Craftsman and Father

Torah Portion: Trumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) – the making of the Tabernacle:

“How many are your works, Lord; in wisdom You made them all” (Ps. 104: 24).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the word “wisdom” here – as in the many times it occurs in the account of the making of the tabernacle – means, “precise, exact craftsmanship” (see Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, III:54).

For some 40+ years now Physicists have been increasingly demonstrating that the creation of the Universe is extremely, mind-numbingly precise. In 1973-74 Brandon Carter, a British mathematician proposed that the universe appears “designed” for the sake of human life.

More than a century of astronomy and physics research has yielded this unexpected observation: the emergence of humans and human civilization requires physical constants, laws, and properties that fall within certain extremely narrow ranges—and this truth applies not only to the cosmos as a whole but also to the galaxy, planetary system, and the planet humans occupy.

This proposal and understanding is now called The Anthropic Principle. To state the principle more dramatically, a preponderance of physical evidence points to humanity as the central theme of the cosmos (for more on this see my 4 part series on Intelligent Design at www.circumcisedheart.info ).

But note also from Ps 104:24 the importance of order, of precision, of exactness. This Universe, with us human beings as its central focus, has been created with such incredible care.

We have also been created in the image of the Creator Himself. That is, He has instilled within us, the power to create, and to create with precision and great care as well.

So if we are to be all that we have been designed to be, we too need to align ourselves with our creative wisdom; with our ability and natural affinity for the creation of order. When we align our lives with the order and instructions (laws) of our Creator, then we separate ourselves from the creation that was not ‘made in His image’ and we in turn approach holiness (separation to God). order 2

The Almighty is Spirit and is so far above and beyond our limited minds that it is very hard to fully grasp His ‘wisdom’, His order and precision.

In describing the Tabernacle in such precise detail though and promising to dwell or live amongst the children of Israel (“They are to make me a sanctuary, so that I may live among them.” – Ex 25:8), the Almighty not only enables the Jewish people to emulate His creative precision and order in their creating of this ‘meeting place’, but he practically and dramatically aligns Himself with them.

The call to build a Tabernacle may seem very strange though, as we know that the Almighty can not be contained within this Universe; and also that He is already everywhere within this Universe as well!

In Psalm 24:1 we read “The earth is YHVH’s and the fullness thereof, …”

We also read in Isaiah 6:3 “And one called to another and said: Holy, holy, holy is YHVH of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

That is, everything is God’s and God is in everything. So how can we give Him anything and how can he dwell in a Tabernacle made with human hands?

Part of the answer to the question of everything already belonging to God, is that there is one thing that does not belong to Him, and that is the ‘fear of heaven’. The Almighty has given us the gift of free will. It is always our choice as to whether we give Him our hearts; whether we ‘circumcise’ our hearts. Whenever we give gifts to God (as per Ex 25:2), the real gift is not the object but the repentant and obedient heart that does the giving.

So the Tabernacle enabled the Jewish people to demonstrate their ‘circumcised hearts’.

May I also suggest though, that when we consider the background of these slaves in Egypt, we can imagine how they would have struggled for a great many years to accept the presence and protection of their God throughout this ordeal. Now, He has rescued them from Egypt; He has demonstrated His awesome power and bestowed great blessings upon them. But they are perhaps still reprehensive and anxious like small children. They may need much assurance and comfort.

So how can this loving Father demonstrate on a daily basis that He truly is with His people?

He can create a place amongst them, where in a physical as well as spiritual manner, the people can see and sense His presence; His protection, salvation and love. More than the daily miracle of the Manna, the glory of God emanating from the Tabernacle presents a visible and tangible reminder of His presence.

As usual, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings this all out most eloquently in his Torah Portion here –http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/139679273.html

The Rarity of Repentance

One of the rarest of people are those who learn to fully and totally repent, especially where this has involved a reversal of character.

If you are a strong, independent and very capable individual it is perhaps even harder to recognize your error, to recognize when you have wronged someone (and hence, in a sense, the Almighty, because all are made in His image). Sometimes we even need some serious help – see for example the story of King David in 2 Samuel 12.

If we love God, we are to love our neighbour (see Leb 19:18 and Gal 5:14). In fact the 10 Commandments, the 10 Words, sum this up – the first 5 declare what we should do if we love God and the second 5 the very basics of how we should act if we love our neighbour. (See ‘Living the Way: The Path of the Circumcised Heart’ and ‘Siblings of the King: Living in the Will of the Father’ for more on this – both at http://www.circumcisedheart.info)

Implicit in the whole Bible is the idea that one man’s sin however small, affects the entire word, however imperceptibly.

On the bigger scale we have the famous Jewish saying, based on the story of Cain and Abel and the ‘blood’ being plural in Hebrew (‘the bloods of your brother cry out from the ground’), that states that:

Save a man; save a world. Destroy a man; destroy a world”

This also lead to the Jewish appreciation that a wise man must give his wisdom to the community in the same way a man blessed with wealth/riches should also do so. Put simply, it is a sin not to serve – all have talents; all are called to use those talents to help repair or better the world (Tikkun HaOlam).

Thus, the community also must take responsibility to address wrong and protest against evil. However, if one is mistaken and protests unjustly and publicly against someone, then this is seen as the use of the ‘evil language’ (Lashon HaRa), and is a serious mistake. To destroy anyones reputation wilfully and unjustly is a great sin.

Thus we can see some tension here. The challenge of speaking out against wrong, yet doing so with great care, especially where it is possible we might be mistaken in our understanding.

This leads us to this weeks Torah Portion and to the amazing way in which Tamar was able to address Judah’s sin in a manner that did not wilfully and unjustly harm his reputation, but rather lead him to great repentance and even it appears, to change his very character in some way.

Rabbi Sacks addresses this brilliantly – I have posted his whole article below along with the link to it at aish.com.

Vayigash(Genesis 44:18-47:27) – Choice and Change – by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The sequence from Bereishit 37 to 50 is the longest unbroken narrative in the Torah, and there can be no doubt who its hero is: Joseph. The story begins and ends with him. We see him as a child, beloved – even spoiled – by his father; as an adolescent dreamer, resented by his brothers; as a slave, then a prisoner, in Egypt; then as the second most powerful figure in the greatest empire of the ancient world. At every stage, the narrative revolves around him and his impact on others. He dominates the last third of Bereishit, casting his shadow on everything else. From almost the beginning, he seems destined for greatness.

Yet history did not turn out that way. To the contrary, it is another brother who, in the fullness of time, leaves his mark on the Jewish people. Indeed, we bear his name. The covenantal family has been known by several names. One isIvri, “Hebrew” (possibly related to the ancient apiru), meaning “outsider, stranger, nomad, one who wanders from place to place.” That is how Abraham and his children were known to others. The second is Yisrael, derived from Jacob’s new name after he “wrestled with G-d and with man and prevailed.” After the division of the kingdom and the conquest of the North by the Assyrians, however, they became known as Yehudim or Jews, for it was the tribe of Judah who dominated the kingdom of the South, and they who survived the Babylonian exile. So it was not Joseph but Judah who conferred his identity on the people, Judah who became the ancestor of Israel’s greatest king, David, Judah from whom the messiah will be born. Why Judah, not Joseph? The answer undoubtedly lies in the beginning of Vayigash, as the two brothers confront one another, and Judah pleads for Benjamin’s release.

The clue lies many chapters back, at the beginning of the Joseph story. It is there we find that it was Judah who proposed selling Joseph into slavery:

Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let’s sell him to the Arabs and not harm him with our own hands. After all – he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. (37:26-27)

This is a speech of monstrous callousness. There is no word about the evil of murder, merely pragmatic calculation (“What will we gain”). At the very moment he calls Joseph “our own flesh and blood” he is proposing selling him as a slave. Judah has none of the tragic nobility of Reuben who, alone of the brothers, sees that what they are doing is wrong, and makes an attempt to save him (it fails). At this point, Judah is the last person from whom we expect great things.

However, Judah – more than anyone else in the Torah – changes. The man we see all these years later it not what he was then. Then he was prepared to see his brother sold into slavery. Now he is prepared to suffer that fate himself rather than see Benjamin held as a slave. As he says to Joseph:

“Now, my lord, let me remain in place of the boy as your lordship’s slave, and let him go with his brothers. How can I return to my father without the boy? I could not bear to see the misery which my father would suffer.” (44:33-34)

It is a precise reversal of character. Callousness has been replaced with concern. Indifference to his brother’s fate has been transformed into courage on his behalf. He is willing to suffer what he once inflicted on Joseph so that the same fate should not befall Benjamin. At this point Joseph reveals his identity. We know why. Judah has passed the test that Joseph has carefully constructed for him. Joseph wants to know if Judah has changed. He has.

This is a highly significant moment in the history of the human spirit. Judah is the first penitent – the first baal teshuvah – in the Torah. Where did it come from, this change in his character? For that, we have to backtrack to chapter 38 – the story of Tamar. Tamar, we recall, had married Judah’s two elder sons, both of whom had died, leaving her a childless widow. Judah, fearing that his third son would share their fate, withheld him from her – thus leaving her unable to remarry and have children. Once she understands her situation, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute. Judah sleeps with her. She becomes pregnant. Judah, unaware of the disguise, concludes that she must have had a forbidden relationship and orders her to be put to death. At this point, Tamar – who, while disguised, had taken Judah’s seal, cord and staff as a pledge – send them to Judah with a message: “The father of my child is the man to whom these belong.”

Judah now understands the whole story. Not only has he placed Tamar in an impossible situation of living widowhood, and not only is he the father of her child, but he also realises that she has behaved with extraordinary discretion in revealing the truth without shaming him (it is from this act of Tamar’s that we derive the rule that “one should rather throw oneself into a fiery furnace than shame someone else in public”). Tamar is the heroine of the story, but it has one significant consequence. Judah admits he was wrong. “She was more righteous than I,” he says. This is the first time in the Torah someone acknowledges their own guilt. It is also the turning point in Judah’s life. Here is born that ability to recognise one’s own wrongdoing, to feel remorse, and to change – the complex phenomenon known as teshuvah – that later leads to the great scene in Vayigash, where Judah is capable of turning his earlier behaviour on its head and doing the opposite of what he had once done before. Judah is ish teshuvah, penitential man.

We now understand the significance of his name. The verb lehodot means two things. It means “to thank,” which is what Leah has in mind when she gives Judah, her fourth son, his name: “this time I will thank the Lord.” However, it also means, “to admit, acknowledge.” The biblical term vidui, “confession,” – then and now part of the process of teshuvah, and according to Maimonides its key element – comes from the same root. Judah means “he who acknowledged his sin.”

We now also understand one of the fundamental axioms of teshuvah: “Rabbi Abbahu said: In the place where penitents stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand” (Berachot 34b). His prooftext is the verse from Isaiah (57: 19), “Peace, peace to him that was far and to him that is near.” The verse puts one who “was far” ahead of one who “is near.” As the Talmud makes clear, however, Rabbi Abbahu’s reading is by no means uncontroversial. Rabbi Jochanan interprets “far” as “far from sin” rather than “far from G-d.” The real proof is Judah. Judah is a penitent, the first in the Torah. Joseph is consistently known to tradition as ha-tzaddik, “the righteous.” Joseph became mishneh le-melekh, “second to the king.” Judah, however, became the father of Israel’s kings. Where the penitent Judah stands, even the perfectly righteous Joseph cannot stand. However great an individual may be in virtue of his or her natural character, greater still is one who is capable of growth and change. That is the power of penitence, and it began with Judah.

– from http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/183700211.html

Leaving and Returning: Climbing the Mountain and Returning to Repair the World

This weeks Torah Portion is Parshah Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3). It contains the stories of Jacob’s leaving his family to live in the land of Laban and then returning to the land of Canaan to fulfil his destiny and continue the process of creating the Jewish People, a people called to be a Light to the Gentiles.

Rabbi Moshe Avraham Kempinksi has written an excellent article on this Torah Portion this week. In this article is states that “ There will be many times, that the people of Israel will need to leave the comfort of their spiritual existence and venture into the dangers of coping with a world that is both dangerous and menacing”. How true is this statement in this day and age!

This also reminded me of an article by Rabbi Ari Kahn which I quoted last month in my blog ‘Abraham, the Father of the faithful’:

Similarly, for the Jewish People to have an impact on the world, we must first disengage, separate ourselves, and fully explore our unique relationship with God.

There will be times when we must wrest ourselves away from our deep involvement, even our responsibility for the world. We must climb lofty mountains, even engage in divinely-mandated, though seemingly paradoxical, behavior. But we must always remember that eventually we must come down from the mountain, re-engage, return to the people that we left at the foot of the mountain. We must find the language and establish the relationship that will allow us to share with them what we learned at the summit.

The way we can accomplish our universal responsibility is by first becoming separate, different – as holy as we can possibly become. Only this will enable us to fulfill our mission of tikkun olam, to enlighten, to educate, to heal and repair the world.”

– See https://globaltruthinternational.com/2012/10/25/abraham-the-father-of-the-faithful/

I think this rings true for all of us. We all need to take time out, to recharge our batteries, to re-connect with the Almighty, so that we can return to the fray, to the challenges of engaging with the world and trying to positively impact it.

Clearly our Maker knew this and so He created a special Day, the Sabbath for this very purpose. What a thoughtful and loving Father, Creator and King we have!

Moshe’s article is so good that I would really encourage you to read it in full. I have copied it below to make this easy for you:

Vayetze: Going Out (Israel National News – Published: Thursday, November 22, 2012 4:48 PM)

“And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”The Torah portion of VaYeitze begins with Jacob leaving one place ands with him leaving another. Yet the two words used to describe each “leaving” are vastly different.

When Jacob is leaving the land of Canaan,he is fleeing from his house. He was escaping from a brother who was set to kill him. He was running from a father who may have lost some measure of faith and confidence in his son. He was leaving without knowing when he was to return. And he was leaving into a land of the unknown, and into a future filled with challenges and doubt.

The verse tells us ” And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went ( VaYeitzeh) to Haran.”( Genesis 28:10) In the midst of Jacob’s running away from Esau he sees the vision of the ladder to the heavens in a dream. In this vision he is promised by G-d , great things.

And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”( ibid :15)

When he returns from the land of Laban we read; “. So Jacob rose (vaYakam) , and he lifted up his sons and his wives upon the camels.” (ibid 31:17) This too occurs connected to a dream. Yet in Haran, it was a very different sort of dream.

And it came to pass at the time the animals came into heat, that I lifted my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the he goats that mounted the animals were ringed, speckled, and striped.”( ibid 31:10) As opposed to the spiritual dream of angels that he dreamt while still in the land, here Jacob dreams about physical goats and material acquisitions. The materialistic seduction of Chutz LeAretz- Exile – seems to have begun to affect Jacob as well. He understands that he needs to leave.

What is to be learned from those two differing words, Vayeitzeh ( and he went out) and Vayakam( and he arose) ?

When we read in the book of Deuteronomy, of G-d’s instructions regarding the going out to war .The verse reads: “Ki Teitzei LaMilchamah – If you shall go out to wage war against your enemy.” (Deuteronomy 21:10) The verse could have simply been, “If you shall wage war?”

The Torah wants us to remember that warfare is not harmonious with our inner essence. In order to go to war you must exit your oasis of spiritual and holy comfort. Yet his must be done only with the purpose of achieving goals of spiritual and national importance.

We see his again with Noah when G-d commands him the following;” ‘Go forth( Tzeh) from the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee. … be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.’ ( Genesis 8:16-17).

We see it as well with Jacob’s leaving of the land of his forefathers. Jacob was destined to begin the creation of the Jewish people in the land of Haran. That necessarily involved the spiritual pain of VaYeitzeh.

That is not the case when Jacob leaves Haran. When he leaves the land of Lavan , he is escaping the quagmire of materialism, falsehood and idolatry. In order to do this he must rise up (VaKam) . He must gather his spiritual strength and courage in order to be able to continue to fulfill his destiny in the land of his forefathers.

There will be many times, that the people of Israel will need to leave the comfort of their spiritual existence and venture into the dangers of coping with a world that is both dangerous and menacing. That is what we learn from Jacob’s leaving and his returning. That is what going out to war- ki teitze el hamilchama teaches us. If one’s purpose and goal remains clear ,then the continuation of the verse becomes a promise “. If you go out to war against your enemies,… and Hashem, your G-d, will deliver him into your hands...”( Deuteronomy 21:10)

When this piece was being written, it was still unclear if the Israeli defense forces were compelled to enter gaza or not. Yet the courage of going out from their homes and the courage of entering battles that need to be fought will hopefully bring about the Divine promise of protection. And either way, it is only a matter of time before they do.

It is just as Hashem promised Jacob in his personal “going out”.

“And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.” – see http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/12477#.UK8rNY6ZQsm

For more on the last scripture quoted and the restoration of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel I recommend the article ‘Israel: Return in Belief or Unbelief’ at circumcisedheart.info.

Isaac and Rebekah: A Failure to Communicate?

At the heart of the world is the family. At the heart of the family is the relationship between a husband and wife.

This relationship is the foundation upon which a family is built, children are raised and they in turn become contributing adults and normally marry and become parents and begin the whole cycle over again.

For a marital relationship  to work well, good communication is vital and yet, there are few courses that offer the in-depth and strenuous training needed for couples to enter into a relationship with the communication skills needed to cope with the inevitable tensions and relationship break-downs that occur.

No marriage is immune (or at least I am not aware of any). Few, if any couples, begin a marriage with perfect skills in communication. Effective, supportive and helpful communication is easy when times are good; when the full bloom of the relationship is in its ascendancy. When the inevitable disagreements arrive and the tension and separation occurs, good communication is difficult. If the tension escalates; normally the emotional separation grows and the barrier to effective resolution rises and begins to seem insurmountable.

A wall is built up, a dividing wall of pain and misunderstanding, of hurt and frustration and fear. How is this dividing wall to be torn down, but even more importantly, how can the communication skills be improved so that it rarely begins to build in the first place?

Well-developed communication skills are needed in great measure. It is at this point that we all need guidance. This guidance surely includes an appreciation of how serious the consequences can be to relationship breakdown and poor communication, even while the marriage remains intact.

This brings me to this weeks Torah Portion, Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9). In this parshah, we read about the deception of Rebekah.

While some may search hard to excuse Rebekah’s apparently immoral and unethical behaviour, on reading and reflecting on the narrative here, most would feel that Rebekah acted in a deceptive manner. Rather than try to find excuses for her behaviour, let us instead accept it at face value and ask the question, what can we learn from this mistake of Rebekah’s? What lead to this inappropriate behaviour and what life lessons should it teach us.

There is a link below to a brilliant article from Chief Rabbi Sacks of London about this very situation. He argues that there was most likely a power/position imbalance in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah that made it difficult for Rebekah to be as direct and up-front with Isaac as she should have been. This meant she kept things to herself and when suddenly faced with a potential calamity in her eyes, her reaction was underhanded instead of open and trusting.

Isaac was much older than Rebekah when they met and married. It was also some 20 years before Rebekah fell pregnant with her first babies, the twins Esau and Jacob. And yet, Isaac knew the promises that the Almighty had made to his father Abraham, that through him (Isaac) would come a great nation. The tension of these barren 20 years would have had some impact and perhaps negatively affected their communication and harmony.

Add to this the great, yet troubling message that Rebekah received while pregnant: “And the LORD said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” – Gen 25:23.

It appears she never shared this prophecy with Isaac. So when the time of the blessings arrives, it is quite possible that there was a significant communication barrier, a dividing wall, between Rebekah and Isaac, and therefore she looked for an ‘easy way out’.

I would suggest that there are at least two central lessons we can take away from this:

1)   Honesty and good communication are central to all relationships and in particular to the relationship at the centre of this world, the marriage;

2)   We can often learn more from the imperfect lives of the great characters of the Bible, than from the explicit teachings contained therein. Often, it is the mistakes that the Biblical heroes make that help us to better see ourselves reflected in their human frailty, and in turn, this enables us to reject their mistakes and instead turn from error to truth, from distance to close communication, and heal our relationships. I believe an appreciation of the conflict of the ‘good’ and ‘evil inclinations’ also helps with this – see the 2 part series of podcasts on the Hebraic Mindset for some more details on this – at http://aubreyandpaul.podomatic.com/

The great Chief Rabbi of London, Lord Sacks explains this all brilliantly in his blog post ‘The Tragedy of Good Intentions’, which I strongly recommend – at Aish.com –  http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/134230588.html

Update: 2nd December 2016

Since writing this short reflection over 4 years ago, I have revisited this Torah Portion and few times and read a number of books that discuss these events surrounding Rebekah (including Gary Rendsburg’s brilliant ‘The Redaction of Genesis’ and Rabbi Sacks great ‘Not in God’s Name’.

I wrote a couple of articles related to insights gained from Gary’s book – see Feeling for Rebekah – http://circumcisedheart.info/Feeling for Rebekah.pdf

I have also read a number of books on marriage, and now would argue that the best book on marital relationships that I have ever read (of 10’s of books on Marriage and Divorce), is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s ‘Kosher Lust: Love is Not The Answer’.

I strongly recommend all three books!