• Toledot

    Breshit

    re-digging the wells of our forefathers

    Jewish tradition attributes a special quality to each of the three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham is associated with chesed, loving-kindness, Isaac with gevura, bravery, and Jacob with emet, truth. Looking at the stories of the Bible, each of these attributions seems strange indeed.

    To the reader of the Bible, it is hard to understand why Abraham, who banished his older son Ishmael from his house and was prepared to sacrifice his second son Isaac, should be associated by Jewish tradition with the quality of kindness. Similarly, it is difficult to fathom why Jacob, who deceived his father and brother Esau in order to obtain his birthright, and was deceived in turn by his uncle Laban and his own sons, should be associated with the quality of truth.

    But strangest of all is the association of Isaac with the quality of gevura, heroism. While Abraham does demonstrate notable acts of kindness, and Jacob does maintain his truthfulness in difficult circumstances, it is hard to find any example of bravery in the stories of Isaac. Indeed, Isaac’s life, lived in the shadow of the terrible trauma of his near-sacrifice by his father Abraham, is one not of heroic action, but of passivity. Not only does Isaac lie passive throughout the drama of the binding of Isaac, but for the rest of his life his fate is dictated by others. His wife is chosen by his father, and his inheritance, contrary to his wishes, is determined by the scheming of his wife Rebecca and son Jacob. In what way then does Isaac merit the label of hero?

    The act which attracts the attention and admiration of the rabbis takes place in this week’s Torah portion. Isaac re-digs the wells of his father Abraham, which had been blocked up by the Philistines. In doing this, Isaac demonstrates personal courage of a very powerful sort. Many of us, note the rabbis, are valiant when it comes to fighting our own battles, and gaining reputations for ourselves. But it takes courage of a very different scale to fight a battle where the credit is not our own, or where we are not blazing our own new path.

    Isaac, who had many reasons to feel that he had spent his life in the shadow of his father Abraham, still found the courage to put aside his own personal agenda, and to perpetuate the legacy of his father Abraham. Not only did he re-dig his father’s wells, but he emphasized his commitment to continuing his father’s legacy. As the Bible tells us: “He called the wells by the same names that his father had called them”.

    What is heroism? For the Rabbis, it is putting personal ambitions aside for a greater goal. In Pirke Avot , the Mishnaic compendium of wisdom, the sage Ben Zoma asks:
    Ezehu gibor ? – “Who is a hero?” His answer: “One who manages to overcome his own temptations”. By putting aside ego and personal ambition, and committing himself to consolidating his father’s legacy, Isaac became worthy of being a model of heroism.

    In many ways our generation parallels that of Isaac. The dramatic events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel were brought about by a remarkable generation. Looking back at the devastation of Europe that they arose from and the paucity of the resources they had at their disposal, we can only feel awe at the scope of their achievement. An air force comprised of planes reassembled from parts left as scrap by the departing British army has become the envy of the Middle East; a foreign ministry that began with a staff of 6 in a two room-office in Tel Aviv now has 93 missions and diplomatic relations with 160 countries. Rather than feeling daunted and inadequate by the scale of previous generation’s successes, the Rabbis’ approach to Isaac suggests that we should recognize that our task is different; it falls to us to consolidate these achievements and build on them. In doing so, the Bible tells us, in this task of re-digging the wells of our predecessors, we too can strive for the attribute of heroism.

    In others’ words

    Israel’s first two Israeli-born Prime Ministers describe the role of the second generation of Israel’s leadership:
    

    “I was fortunate to be the first among Israel’s prime ministers to be born after the establishment of the state. The founding generation struggled to establish the state and build its foundation. Our generation faces other challenges. This is a turning point in our history. During more than 2,000 years of exile, generations of Jews fought and struggled to get back the homeland we lost. Now, after the founding of the state, our main task is to secure, reestablish, and develop the homeland we got back. The torch has been passed on to us, by the generation born with the founding of the state in 1948 and in the 1950s, the generation which broke the siege of the Six Day War and repulsed the joint assault of the Yom Kippur War.
    “We have the responsibility to carry the age-old hope of generations into the next century.”

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 18, 1996

    “The first challenge of Zionism establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was realized by the founding generation. “The challenge before us is to realize the second stage of Zionism and that is establishing the existence of the State of Israel as an outstanding member and the center of the Jewish People’s existence, determining its borders and ensuring its long-range security while maintaining all of the State’s vital interests.”

    Prime Minister Ehud Barak, August 12, 1999

    On a lighter note

    Mr. & Mrs. Goldberg had just got married. On their way to their honeymoon, Mr. Goldberg said to his new wife “Would you have married me if my father hadn’t left me a fortune?”
    “Of course”, she replied sweetly. “I would have married you if anyone had left you a fortune.”

  • Chaye Sara

    Breshit

    the first negotiation

    The negotiation conducted by Abraham for the Cave of Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, is the first negotiation over territory in the Bible. As an example of Middle Eastern negotiations it is remarkable in two ways.

    The first remarkable aspect of the negotiation is that it takes place at all. God has already promised Abraham: “To thy seed have I given this land.” Even the Hittites, from whom Abraham is looking to purchase the plot as a burial place for his wife Sarah, seem to recognize that Abraham has special rights in this place: “You are a mighty prince among us”, they say. “You may bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places.”

    But Abraham is looking for no favours, and insists on striking a commercial deal. And here is the second remarkable aspect of the account: Ephron, the landowner, after offering the plot for free, now makes a high opening demand of 400 shekels of silver. Anyone schooled in Middle Eastern bargaining would expect Abraham to come back with a low counter-offer. But Abraham doesn’t even question the price, and agrees to pay the full amount.
    In refusing to accept preferential treatment, and agreeing to pay the full price for the land, Abraham sets a precedent that is followed on two other occasions in the Bible.

    • When a plague that was threatening the Israelites is stopped, King David is commanded by God to build an altar at the place where the plague ceased. But the field belongs to Ornan the Jebusite. Ornan, like Ephron the Hittite in the story with Abraham, offers the field for free. David’s response: “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price since I will not take that which is yours for the Lord, nor offer burnt offerings without payment” (Chronicles I, 21-24).David pays 600 gold shekels for the field, where the Temple will eventually be built.
    • And the book of Joshua ends on a surprising note, when it describes the burial of the bones of Joseph in the town of Shechem. Notwithstanding the battles and conquests that fill the book, this place, the Bible notes “was land bought by Jacob from the sons of Hamor, father of Shechem, for one hundred kesitas.” (Joshua 24:32).

    It is striking, and not a little troubling, that the very three places which are the subjects of these negotiations – the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem – have till this day been the subject of such bitter dispute and violence.
    But even as the tensions over these areas continue, the three Biblical accounts can perhaps give us an insight into the nature of the bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. For each of these accounts describes not only a transaction, but also the importance of the land to each of the purchasers:

    • For Abraham, the land was important for him, in order to have a permanent resting place, for his wife, himself, and his children after him.
    • For Jacob, it was important to have a place to fulfil his promise to bring Joseph’s bones back home from exile in Egypt.
    • And for David, it was important to have a place to establish an altar, where the Temple would eventually be built.

    These three dimensions of connection to the land have resonated for the Jewish people throughout its history. The land of Israel is many things for us: As with Abraham, it is a place where after years of wandering we can build a permanent home; as with Jacob, it is a place for the ingathering of our exiles; and as with David it is place to establish a spiritual center for the Jewish world.

    In others’ words

    “The land of Israel is precious to me, precious to us, the Jewish people, more than anything. Relinquishing any part of our forefathers’ legacy is heartbreaking, as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea. Every inch of land, every hill and valley, every stream and rock, is saturated with Jewish history, replete with memories… “The Land of Israel is the open Bible, the written testimony, the identity and right of the Jewish people. Under its skies, the prophets of Israel expressed their claims for social justice, and their eternal vision for alliances between peoples, in a world which would know no more war. Its cities, villages, vistas, ridges, deserts and plains preserve as loyal witnesses its ancient Hebrew names.… I say these things to you because they are the essence of my Jewish consciousness, and of my belief in the eternal and unimpeachable right of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel. However, I say this here also to emphasize the immensity of the pain I feel deep in my heart at the recognition that we have to make concessions for the sake of peace between us and our Palestinian neighbors.”

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Address to the United Nations, September 2005

    On a lighter note

    Morrie and Sadie both pass away and go to heaven. There they find that the food is delicious, the wine excellent and the music magnificent. But Morrie is not happy. He turns to Sadie and complains: “If it wasn’t for you and your damned health food, we could have been here years ago!”

  • Vayera

    Breshit

    the stranger among us

    In this week’s Torah reading we are introduced to two very different models of the treatment of strangers, one characterized by openness and hospitality, the other by fear and oppression. In many ways these two models – the society of Mamre and the society of Sodom, the homes respectively of Abraham and his cousin Lot – are still with us today.

    One of the greatest tests of a society is how it treats outsiders, and this portion provides two very contrasting examples.  Abraham, still recovering, the rabbis tell us, from his circumcision at the age of 99, is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the plains of Mamre in the heat of the day, when he sees three strangers approaching. He runs to meet them, begging them to stay. He and his wife Sarah prepare a lavish feast, and wait on the visitors hand and foot.  Before they leave, one of the visitors, who turn out to be angels, tells Abraham that his wife Sarah will shortly have a baby boy who will fulfill the promise of continuity for the Jewish people.

    The treatment of the same visitors at Lot’s house in Sodom could hardly be more different. The visit to Abraham takes place in the heat of the day; the visit to Lot takes place late at night.  While Abraham keeps his door wide open, Lot is forced to close his door fast to protect his visitors from the other residents of Sodom. While Abraham is rewarded with a son for his hospitality, Lot offers to sacrifice his daughters (“who have not yet known a man”) in a desperate attempt to protect his guests from his inhospitable neighbours.  And while Abraham’s wife Sarah laughs, and eventually suckles her own child, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt, as the entire city of Sodom is destroyed in fire and brimstone.

    Taken together, the two stories suggest a simple but radical proposition: societies that welcome outsiders and nurture them ensure their own continuity and flourish; while societies that reject and oppress outsiders sow the seeds of their own destruction.

    The history of the Jewish people as strangers in other peoples’ lands is a striking proof of the truth of this proposition. Societies which have welcomed the Jews and other minorities, which have given them equal rights and the opportunity to develop their skills and to contribute to society, have historically flourished and thrived. Societies which have treated Jews and other minorities with suspicion and disdain, and which have deprived them of basic rights, have in so doing revealed a fundamental weakness at their very core, which has ultimately led to their decline.

    The remarkable consistency with which this pattern has repeated itself throughout Jewish history, with its golden ages and periods of oppression, is a striking fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham about the future of his descendants: “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, shall I curse” (Genesis XII.2).

    After two thousand years of seeing one side of this phenomenon, as visitors in the lands of others, for the past six decades the modern State of Israel has given us the opportunity to experience the other side of the equation. No longer strangers in a strange land, but now masters of our own society, it has fallen to us to face the complex challenge of dealing with the stranger and the visitor in our own midst. And along with the other societies of the world that among whom we have lived over the centuries, we have been witness to the same indelible truth – the strangers that we welcome into our midst, and treat with hospitality and tolerance, prove to be one of our greatest sources of creativity, diversity and strength.

    In others’ words

    “Build your home in such a way that a stranger may feel happy in your midst.”

    Theodore Herzl, Diary

    On a lighter note

    When he is visited by angels, Abraham makes them a lavish feast. After the eating is over, one of the angels stands up and says: “Your wife Sarah will have a baby”. Sarah, hiding in the tent, giggles at the possibility she will have a child at her advanced age. The angel’s few words are actually the first after-dinner speech in the Bible, and till today they can teach us the three essentials of after dinner speaking: First, the speech should be short. Second, it should be pregnant with meaning, and third, it should make someone laugh.

    Heard from Rabbi Chaim Wilschanski

  • Lech Lecha

    Breshit

    the longest journey

    The great journey of the Jewish people, a journey of thousands of years and across much of the world, begins in this week’s Torah reading. It begins with a man, a woman, and a promise. The man is Abraham, the woman is his wife Sarah, and the promise is God’s assurance that they will become a great nation.

    The promise for the future of the Jewish people was given to Abraham in the form of two striking images. In one he was told that his descendants would be as numerous as “the dust of the earth”; in the other, that they would be as many as “the stars of the heavens”.

    The rabbis suggest that this dual image of dust and stars carries within it a message about the future of the Jewish people. This is a people that will live in continual tension – between being held up as a light to the nations, and being trampled on by oppressors like the dust of the earth. And indeed, any observer of Jewish history cannot help be struck by the degree to which Jewish history, with its dramatic swings from golden ages to periods of oppression has reflected this tension.

    Hassidic teachings see the two metaphors as a psychological tool for dealing with the varying circumstances in which the Jewish people finds itself. When we are oppressed, we should remind ourselves of the promise that we will rise to great heights, as the stars of the heavens. But when we achieve periods of comfort and prosperity, we should never forget that only too easily can we become the dust of the earth.

    In similar vein, the Hassidic teacher Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke told his followers: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and discouraged, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “ Bishvili nivra ha’olam . For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “ Ani eifer v’afar . I am but dust and ashes.”

    And perhaps the building of the modern State of Israel permits us to add another layer of interpretation to the promise given to Abraham. For indeed, the remarkable history and development of the State has been one of earth and stars – of working the land, draining the marshes, digging and building, while keeping our eyes ever upwards on the visions and values that have guided our forefathers since the time of Abraham.

    In others’ words

    “When I was first here we had the advantages of the underdog. Now we have the disadvantages of the overdog.”

    Abba Eban, Ambassador to the United Nations

    On a lighter note

    What is the difference between an anti-Semite and a Jew? Ask an anti-Semite, “What do you think of the Jews?” and he will tell you: “They are a disgusting people, they cheat in business, and they think they’re better than everyone else”. “And what about Cohen?” “Cohen’s an exception, an honest man.” And Levine? “He too, is a very fine person.” But ask a Jew what he thinks of the Jews. “God’s chosen people”, he will tell you. “They enrich every society they live in. They are charitable and bright.” “And what about Cohen?” “That crook.” “And Levine?” “That son of a bitch.”

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