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  • Why was Jacob Afraid?

    Today’s Torah portion appears to bring the saga of Jacob’s sons to a happy conclusion. In a tearful reunion, Joseph reveals himself as their brother and immediately arranges that Jacob be brought to Egypt along with his entire progeny. In this way, the family will find protection and survive the famine. Jacob is overjoyed to learn that Joseph is alive and eagerly makes his way to him. Read the story in chapters 45 and 46. During the journey to Egypt, however, God speaks to Jacob in a dream. God’s message is one of reassurance... or is it? Read carefully 46:1-7, then join in conversation with the Jewish sages. God addressed Israel in a night vision, saying, “Jacob! Jacob! ... I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt” (Gen. 46:2-3). Abravanel (15th c. Torah commentator) poses the question: Why would God say “Do not be afraid” when there is no suggestion that Jacob was fearful about going to Egypt? Indeed, the text mentions only his joyful eagerness to be reunited with Joseph. How might you respond to Abravanel’s question? Says one student of Torah: “After all the tragedy endured by Jacob, including the way Joseph has been ‘toying’ with his family, it is not surprising that Jacob might be fearful of their future in Egypt.” We can wonder, too, why Joseph, for all his emotion and familial concern, doesn’t make the trek to Canaan to greet his elderly father. But if these factors cause Jacob anxiety, why doesn’t the text explicitly portray his fear? Are we being reminded that God knows what lies deep and unspoken in the heart of the believer? An alternative approach can be taken by exploring the reference to Jacob’s father, Isaac (verses 1, 3). It prompts us to recall a previous passage (Genesis 26:2) where God explicitly tells Isaac NOT to go to Egypt. In this view, Jacob is afraid of dishonoring the memory of his father’s obedience to God. Is this interpretation convincing to you? A further interpretation emerges in a 13th century Jewish commentary (Hizkuni) echoing a midrash: “Jacob was afraid and said: Now that I am about to go down to Egypt the days are at hand foretold by my forefathers regarding the decree of bondage and affliction on my seed in a land not their own.” [1] We know previously from Gen.15:13-14, as well as from the drama to follow in the Book of Exodus, that what began as a survival plan and family reunion in Egypt will amount, 400 years later, to the slavery of the Hebrews under Egyptian rule. It will take God’s intervention through Moses to bring the descendants of Jacob back to Canaan, the land of their ancestors. Perhaps, then, the Torah alludes to Jacob’s ‘greater vision’. He sees beyond the joy of family reunion and the comforts of Egypt, and is concerned for the destiny of his people, their fidelity to God, their ties with their God-given homeland. As Rashi (11th c.) puts it: Jacob “was distressed because he had been obliged to leave the homeland.” [2] Continue to discuss in the light of this interpretation. As I contemplate the future, what fears do I harbor, for my children, grandchildren, my community, my church? Do I allow God to speak to these fears in my life of prayer? • 1) Quoted in Leibowitz, 501. 2) ibid. Bibliography: Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York: Lambda. 1994); Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (URJ Press, 2006). Scripture: Plaut.

  • Joseph stands his ground

    Have you ever been placed in a situation where your life, career or a relationship hung in the balance? A moment when your next choice of words or behavior could have dire consequences? That’s the kind of moment that Joseph finds himself in Genesis 41. Sold into slavery by his brothers and imprisoned in an Egyptian dungeon, suddenly Joseph finds himself with a chance at freedom. His talent for dream-interpretation has been noticed, and he has been brought before Pharaoh to interpret a dream which has been troubling the Egyptian king. There is no doubt that this is a critical moment for Joseph. So much is at risk! Will he find favor with Pharaoh and save his skin? Or will he be returned to jail? Read their interaction in Genesis 41:14-36. Can you sense the pressure of the moment? Look carefully at Joseph’s reply to Pharaoh in 41:16, 25-32. A recurring theme threads its way through the text. Repetition catches the attention of traditional Jewish interpreters who ponder its significance. In this case it leads some commentators to conclude that this is a fine moment in Joseph’s life. Why? Because he stands in the midst of an antagonistic, pagan environment and courageously invokes the name of God. Can you pick the repetition? Verse 16: “Not I,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” Verse 26: “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is going to do.” Verse 28: “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is going to do.” Verse 32: “...the event is already determined by God, and God will shortly bring it about.” Clearly, for Joseph, God is active and center stage. God is the one who does, who reveals, who determines and who brings to pass. But is Joseph displaying strong faith or simply being a smart strategist? If we delve a little further back into this story we find our thread of repetition in other situations as well: To his master’s wife who tries to seduce him Joseph says: “How could I do anything so wicked, and sin against God?” (39:9). And to his fellow prisoners who are troubled by their dreams he says, “Are not interpretations God’s business?” (40:8). It can be argued, then, that Joseph is a God-fearing Israelite, who chooses to openly proclaim the God of his people in the presence of Pharaoh. Fortunately for Joseph, his reply meets with Pharaoh’s favor (“Can we find anyone else endowed with the spirit of God, like him?” 41:38). It even brings Pharaoh to a certain recognition of the God of Israel, for he now approaches Joseph not simply as an expert on dreams but as a collaborator with God. (“Since God has given you knowledge of all this...” 41:39). The king of Egypt for the first time defers to the King of kings. Think about it: · How difficult is it to bear witness to your faith, to your church, or simply to be true to yourself, in a potentially hostile environment? · Share an experience where you were faced with a ‘Joseph before Pharaoh’ moment. · What are some of the ordinary ways you ‘invoke the name of God’ in daily life? • Sources: Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994); Goldstein, ed., The Women’s Torah Commentary (Woodstock, 2000). Scripture: NJB.

  • December Lights

    In December both Christians and Jews hold candle-lighting rituals. Christian families light the Advent wreath candles on the Sundays leading to Christmas, while Jewish families light a candle for each of the eight days of Hanukkah. Christians are familiar with Advent candles. But why do Jews light candles at Hanukkah, and why should we Christians be interested in this practice? Is it simply a case of building good relations with people of other religions (always an important task) or is there something more that speaks to us in our life of faith? Hanukkah means ‘dedication.’ This festival takes us back to the 2nd century BCE and recalls the re-dedication of the Jerusalem temple following the Maccabean uprising. The books of 1 & 2 Maccabees tell this story as the persecution of the Jewish population: forced conversions, brutal punishments, and defilement of the temple as a powerful Greek Hellenistic culture threatened to suppress Judaism. The text includes the gripping tales of Maccabean resistance and heroic martyrs, such as a Jewish mother and her seven sons who accepted torture and death rather than renounce the religious practices of their ancestors (2 Maccabees 7). According to rabbinic tradition, when the Maccabeans reclaimed the temple and lit the temple menorah (lamp stand), a miracle occurred: amidst the ruins they could find only a small quantity of pure oil, enough for one day of light, yet the menorah stayed alight for eight days. In the miracle of the cruse of oil, commentators note the courage of the Jews to attempt to light the menorah in the first place. Why bother when it seemed that the oil would not last beyond a day? The act of lamp-lighting indicates resilient hope and persistent faith. In Hanukkah there is much to inspire Christians. We might ponder the idea that were it not for the reality that Hanukkah represents, had not the Jewish people prevailed time and again in history in the face of forces bent on their destruction, there would be no Jewish communities to carry on the traditions of their faith, to be a light to the nations. There would be no child Jesus born and raised in the teachings of the Torah. There would be no Christmas. At a time of year when we Christians remember the coming of Christ, the nearness of a Jewish festival (Hanukkah) can remind us that the little family in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago were faithful Jews who celebrated the festivals of their tradition according to the customs of their day. Each in its unique way, Advent and Hanukkah engender a spirit of renewal. Remembering the re-dedication of the ancient temple, Jews today approach Hanukkah as a time for spiritual re-dedication of their lives. Meanwhile, Christians at Advent prepare their hearts to celebrate the sacred mysteries of the Christmas season. Jewish-Christian reconciliation was a key teaching of the Second Vatican Council. To respect the significance of our Jewish friends lighting Hanukkah candles, while we Christians light Advent candles, is one expression of this ongoing call to renewal.

  • Brotherly reunion? Or battleground?

    "Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau” (Genesis 32:4.) As Genesis 32 opens, Jacob, with his entourage of wives, children, handmaids, household staff, animals and treasures, is traveling back to his homeland, to Canaan. He has just spent twenty years working for his uncle, Laban, and now leaves as an economic success. But what awaits him at home? His father, Isaac, is still alive; his mother, Rebecca, is probably already dead; and now he is distressed by news that, “Your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him” (Genesis 32:7). Why is Jacob distressed by this news? The text does not say, but inspired by traditional Jewish approaches to the sacred text we can imaginatively and prayerfully engage with the biblical story, even ‘reading between the lines’ of the text. After reading the story in Genesis 32:4-24, let’s begin our reflection by recalling what we know about the two brothers. Jacob is the favorite of his mother, Rebekah. He is a homebody who becomes a schemer and steals the birthright of his elder twin brother. Esau is a man of the outdoors, quick tempered, a hunter-gatherer. He is the favorite of his father, Isaac. At their last meeting he was furious with Jacob, his final words being: When the time is right, I will kill my brother Jacob! (see Genesis 27:41) We can well imagine that Jacob is frightened by Esau’s approach; that he fears for his life and for the safety of his household. Yes, his brother may be coming to greet him; but, then again, he might be coming to kill him! For Jacob, who has a history of being a schemer, quick thinking is called for. Let’s imagine what could be going through his mind: I need a plan. Is this the time to try to heal old wounds? Maybe I can set the scene for reconciliation. I have the financial resources to do it. I’ll show him I’m a man of means. I’ll shower him with gifts from my ample supplies. That should soften his heart. And, just perhaps, Esau might even be coming to say ‘let bygones be bygones’. But, then again, suppose he’s not. Why is he coming to meet me with four hundred men? I need a plan to deal with the worst-case scenario. And, after twenty years with Uncle Laban, the shrewd wheel-dealer, I’ve learned a few tricks. I’ll divide my entourage and my treasures into two camps, and have them move out separately. If Esau attacks one, perhaps the other camp will escape and survive... When you imaginatively, prayerfully and ‘playfully’ enter into this scene, anticipating a meeting between two estranged brothers, what do you see; what insights emerge? Do you smell reconciliation in the air, or is it battle plans? Can you relate to the complexities of the moment? Have you experienced estrangement and reconciliation in your own family or community life? What dilemmas have you encountered in the reconciliation process? What do you think of Jacob’s handling of the situation? What counsel would you give him? The story of Jacob and Esau’s reunion in Genesis 32 certainly displays elements of both hope and distrust, progress and uneasiness, and in this tension the Torah masterfully captures the challenges and risks of taking steps to reconciliation. Read the story for yourself, and enter the Torah conversation resonating through the generations and alive for today. • Bibliography: Munk, The Call of the Torah (New York, 1994); Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parashah (New York, 1988). Scripture: JPS.

  • Jacob's Ladder

    Our Torah reflection this week, from Chapter 28 of Genesis, opens with Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, fleeing to Haran having just deceived his father and his brother and caused a great upset in the family. In Haran he will fall in love, marry and start his own family; but for now he is on a solo journey. Our discussion today will focus on Jacob’s dream of a heavenly staircase or ladder. It has a powerful impact on him. Read the story in Gen. 28:10-22. “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (28:12). In traditional Jewish methods of biblical interpretation, attention to every detail of the text, including the order of words, is paramount. Did you notice what might have caught the attention of the sages in the above passage? Why, they wondered, does the Torah say that the angels ascended before saying that they descended. If angels of God come from heaven, wouldn’t we expect the text to say that they descended the ladder first, then ascended afterwards? With a prayerful imagination, ponder this question as you re-read these verses and those around it. Some rabbinic commentaries view the angels in highly symbolic terms. A simpler and even more intriguing explanation, however, is offered by Rashi, the esteemed 11th century Jewish Torah scholar. According to Rashi’s explanation (which echoes the midrash), the angels of God have specific assignments. Those that operate in the Land of Israel do not leave that area. So when Jacob departed from his homeland and headed for Haran, these angels ascended to heaven first and other angels then descended to escort him outside the Land of Israel. Perhaps our 21st century western minds register some discomfort with Rashi’s explanation! But remember that our task here is to uncover spiritual meaning in the text and to appreciate the wisdom of the great tradition. In this light, surely Rashi’s explanation offers a profound insight into the constancy of God’s protection. Wherever our life’s journey takes us—into new geographical areas, new experiences, new challenges—God sends us help, and not just ‘any’ help, but assistance personally tailored to our unique circumstances; and not only from angelic messengers, but from special people who enter our lives at critical moments and show us the way forward with their loving care and guidance. It is a comforting thought, and one based in our faith in God’s providence, that as our lives change, divine assistance is attentively moving with us from beginning to end. How beautifully this is expressed in the Christian funeral rite where we pray for the deceased: “May the angels lead you into paradise...and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.” • Reflection: Catholics celebrate the feast of Guardian Angels on 2 October. Consider this feast in the light of today’s Torah reflection. Share an experience of God’s protection and care during your life. Name special people who have been part of that memory. Bibliography: Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York: Lambda); Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York, 2006); Schermann & Zlotowitz, eds., Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (New York, 1999). Scripture: NRSV.

  • Living Water, Living Tradition

    Genesis 26 tells a story from the adult life of Isaac. It is a story strikingly similar to a story about his father, Abraham, in Genesis 20. Like his father, Isaac receives the Lord’s blessing and prospers. Like Abraham he goes to the land of Gerar to escape famine and has a similar exchange with the local king. Like his father he digs wells and finds water... Read chapter 26, especially verses 1-18, and prayerfully ponder the details of the sacred text. After sharing your initial observations of Chapter 26 with a friend, let’s focus on a puzzling statement found in v.15: “Now the Philistines had filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” (Gen. 26:15). Water is essential to sustaining life in the desert. The Philistines were as dependent as Isaac’s family on water for their survival. Why would they go to such lengths to block the wells, even having them ‘filled with earth’ which would effectively make them difficult to find again? Generations of Torah students have been intrigued by this question. What thoughts and insights do you bring to the discussion? The sheer insanity of the Philistines’ action has led some commentators to conclude that the story of the wells carries intense symbolism. As the patriarchs laboured to release life-sustaining water out of parched ground, they were also creating a flow of living faith in the midst of a land of idol worshippers. The action of the Philistines, then, symbolises the forces of hard-heartedness that seek to stop the lifegiving action of God, with deathly consequences. But what evidence from the text and tradition support this interpretation? Carefully revisit the text before reading on. “Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham...and he gave them the names that his father had given them” (v.18). Isaac digs for water, but not indiscriminately. He operates in the footsteps of Abraham, honouring the ways of his father. According to Jewish storytelling traditions, just as Abraham had named certain places with titles that reflected his relationship with God (see Gen. 21:31; 22:14), Abraham had named the wells in a similar fashion. Thus, in eradicating the wells the Philistines were attempting to extinguish the very mention of the God of Abraham. Amidst opposition, Isaac is persistent in recovering both the wells and their names. Like his father, his efforts bring forth what the Hebrew text calls mayim hayim: ‘living water.’ This is followed immediately by the Lord’s appearance to Isaac: “I am the God of your father Abraham...” with the added divine assurance, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (v.24). For reflection: Isaac sought to be faithful to the religious traditions of his father. What challenges have you experienced in your efforts to remain faithful to the traditions of your ancestors? A fragile relationship exists between human harmony and availability of the earth’s natural resources. Discuss in the light of Genesis 26. • Bibliography: Eskenazi & Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York: Lambda); Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York, 2006). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Toledot (Genesis 25:19 - 28:9), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom! Download your free Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

  • 'Night of Broken Glass': Remembrance & Responsibility

    “Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned also” — Heinrich Heine, German critic and poet (1797-1856) This quote strikes a chilling chord as Jewish communities and others mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’), the night of 9 November 1938 when a Nazi rampage caused massive destruction of Jewish communities in Germany and Austria. In the absence of international protest, Kristallnacht marked a critical step in the movement of Nazi policy towards the ‘Final Solution.’ Particularly sobering is that the anniversary of Kristallnacht recalls a specific moment in history when there was still time for people to speak up; a moment which passed all too silently. As the adage goes, evil triumphed because good people did nothing. When I imagine the morning after Kristallnacht, I picture (from eye-witness accounts) Jewish children walking through streets of shattered glass, while others mourn their dead parents, or gape in horror at razed synagogues and incinerated Torah scrolls. But I also know that for most people in the world the day after Kristallnacht was ‘business as usual.’ A day with enough of one’s own problems to be taking notice of the plight of the Jews ‘over there’. And I admit that, in a certain sense, I can understand this reaction. After all, the daily tasks of life are difficult, busy, all-consuming. And who am I to think that I can make a difference in complex political events on the other side of the world? Surely they need to be dealt with by somebody more knowledgeable, smarter, wealthier, more powerful than I. Enter William Cooper: an Indigenous Australian, in his late seventies, living in Melbourne in 1938. In the context of the times, he was hardly the image of power. His Aboriginal identity meant he wasn’t even considered an Australian citizen. Yet when William Cooper woke to the news of Kristallnacht in November 1938 he responded by organizing a protest march. With supporters he walked to the German Consulate and attempted to deliver a petition (which was rejected), decrying the persecution of Jews. His initiative was formally acknowledged at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in December 2010 with the establishment of the Chair for the Study of Resistance during the Holocaust, in tribute to William Cooper. The William Cooper story has a number of fascinating angles to it, including the sheer nerve of Cooper himself. If an elderly, disenfranchised, indigenous Australian living in Melbourne in 1938 can take a stand against one of the most murderous regimes in history, then you and I have just been stripped of every excuse to avoid ‘getting involved’ in other people’s problems. I am not suggesting that William Cooper rolled out of bed one day and did something completely out of character. He led a life of activism, campaigning for the rights of Indigenous Australians as well as other oppressed groups. But this only underscores the point: here was a man whose life embodied a commitment to justice, never seeing the reforms for which he strived. Cooper died in 1941. Each year on 9 November, the anniversary of Kristallnacht calls for attention to our ongoing relationship with the Jewish people. It is a moment when people of every culture and creed can join together to say ‘never again’ to antisemitism and to every form of destruction of human dignity. It is a call to personal responsibility for the human family. For Australians in particular, William Cooper has made it the anniversary to declare: 'no excuses’.

  • So, why did the Lord visit Abraham?

    “The Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot” (Gen: 18:1). Just one verse into this Bible story (Genesis 18:1-15) and the Jewish sages of old were already probing and puzzling over the text. What do you think caught their attention? ‘The day grew hot.’ Why would this apparently irrelevant detail be mentioned? Look closely. . . The Lord 'appeared’ (v.1), yet there is no indication that the Lord appears to say or do anything special as is the usual case (e.g., “The Lord appeared and said to so-and-so...”). Nor is Abraham doing anything special to warrant a divine appearance. He is not calling out to God or offering a sacrifice. He is just, well... sitting. Then there is the ambiguous use of pronouns: ‘he,’ ‘him.’ Although 18:1 is the opening of a new chapter, it reads as if it is continuing a previous story. And what is the preceding story? The account of Abraham’s circumcision. In fact, one rabbinic view regards the divine appearance as the grand conclusion to the story of Abraham’s circumcision, rather than the opener to the hospitality story which follows. There are, of course other rabbinic interpretations, but let’s stay with this one and follow it a little further. Ask yourself: why would God be showing up, now, at this moment, if there is no divine command to be issued, no blessing to give, no message to be delivered? Rashi (11th c. Torah commentator), echoing other voices in the tradition, teaches that on this occasion God visits Abraham, not for the purpose of an important declaration or commissioning, but simply out of personal concern. For, having just been circumcised, Abraham is physically recuperating: R’Chama the son of Chanina said: It was the third day since his circumcision, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, came and inquired about [Abraham’s] welfare. Of course, this explanation is not meant to be taken literally, yet what a tender, imaginative portrayal of God’s personal compassion and care for a faithful man. Sometimes this interpretation is used to affirm the importance of visiting the sick, for this is what God did for Abraham. So then, this divine appearance, unlike so many others recorded in the Torah, is not a means to an end, but is given for its own sake; much like friends who get together, not always to accomplish a practical purpose, but simply for the pleasure and comfort of being in each others’ presence. The text tells us “The day grew hot” (18:1). Rashi teaches that God even “bought the sun out of its sheath” so that Abraham would not be troubled by guests, because no one travels during the hottest part of the day. But then, seeing that Abraham was lonely for company, he “brought the angels to him in the form of men.” One story from the midrash (Jewish storytelling traditions) suggests that Abraham was not only physically aggrieved by his circumcision but also experiencing emotional turmoil over the thought that the sign of the covenant might lead to his isolation. “Now that I am circumcised, perhaps [travellers] will no longer visit me?” [Genesis Rabbah 48,9]. To this, God offers reassurance through a divine visitation! As much as these imaginative interpretations make us smile, they also massage our minds and refresh our spirit. We might ask: Has God ever ‘appeared’ to me when I was physically/emotionally/spiritually vulnerable? How might Rashi’s interpretation of Gen.18:1 enrich the way I live my life? • Sources: Freedman and Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Genesis (London, 1983); Herczeg, ed., Rashi: The Torah with Rashi’s Commentary, Sapirstein ed. (New York, 1999); Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994); Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, 1989).

  • Abraham goes forth

    The figure of Abraham is central to our Torah reflections this week (Genesis 12:1 - 17:27). Actually, as the story opens he is called Abram. Only later, in 17:5, will God change his name to Abraham. Read as much of the Torah portion as you can. It is an engaging narrative! Our intense focus, however, will be on those dramatic opening words of commissioning in Genesis 12:1. “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (12:1). “Lekh lekha...” The Hebrew term can be variously translated: Go, go forth, travel, leave. These words introduce the story of one man whose decision to step out and follow a divine call changes the course of history. Not only does this mark the beginnings of Judaism, but from here two other faiths claiming Abrahamic roots will emerge: Christianity and Islam. Exactly what is it about this story that justifies its religious centrality? Who and what have led to this critical moment? If you have been reading Genesis to this point, you will recall the saga of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood. Against the backdrop of these characters and their behavior, what can you say about Abraham’s entrance centre-stage? Perhaps you noticed that the moral fibre of each of the previous characters displays serious flaws. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a contemporary Jewish Torah commentator, observes that their flaw in common is evasion or abdication of responsibility. Do you agree? Think back on the preceding chapters of Genesis. Pool your knowledge with a havrutah partner (discussion/sparring partner). Revisit parts of Genesis if you need to recall a particular scene. Sacks, drawing on the interpretative traditions of Judaism, describes the character of Abraham from the moment of call through the chapters that follow. Unlike Adam (who blames Eve who blames the serpent), Abraham accepts personal responsibility in adhering to God’s word. (See 12:4) Unlike Cain (‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ 4:9) Abraham accepts moral responsibility, rescuing his brother’s son, Lot (Gen.14). Unlike Noah (who is silent when God announces the destruction of humanity), Abraham prays for the inhabitants of Sodom and asks God to spare them (Gen. 18). He accepts collective responsibility. In other words, Abraham, in resisting excuses and in his wholehearted response to the summons to ‘Go forth’ to a new land, charts a radical path in the history of humankind, one defined by a personal free choice to follow God without hesitation or reserve. • Reflection: Lekh lekha... Go forth... According to one Jewish (Hassidic) interpretation, Lekh lekha means “Go to yourself,” i.e., find that deep freedom planted within every human being, and set your moral compass from there. What excuses sometimes deter me when God says, “Go forth...”? Do my personal choices come from that deep place of inner freedom where I am truly ‘myself’ before God? Bibliography: Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2006); Sacks, Covenant and Conversation (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2009). Scripture: NRSV.

  • Noah Alone

    So, you think you know the story of Noah’s Ark? So did I until I began reading it with the help of traditional Jewish insights. The rabbis have taught me to slow down my reading, to pay attention to the surprising details of the text. Spread over four chapters in Genesis 6-9, there is a lot to ponder about the Great Flood. Take, for instance, Gen. 7:16. Have you ever noticed that this verse suggests that it was the Lord, not Noah, who shut the door of the ark behind its last passenger as the flood set in? After all that building on Noah’s part, the Lord closes the door. Why is this subtle point recorded? Does it really matter? What deeper spiritual meaning can be discerned here? By becoming attuned to the rabbinic mindset that savors the tiny details of God’s Word we discover fascinating gateways to contemplation and discussion. I will leave it to you to ponder the closing of the door of the ark. Let’s turn our attention here to the flood waters themselves. The rise of the waters in Genesis 7 finds dramatic telling through the use of repetition: The waters increased... (v.17) The waters swelled and increased exceedingly upon the earth...(v.18) When the waters had swelled exceedingly, yes exceedingly upon the earth... (v.19) Fifteen cubits upward swelled the waters... (v.20)1 With each rising level, something happens: the ark is lifted (v.17), it floats (v.18), the mountains are covered (v.19) and covered in a final way (v.20). Imaginatively ponder these verses. How does God’s Word speak to you through the dramatic images, repeated words, rhythmic phrasing? Biblical scholars remind us of two things that sharpen our appreciation of this scene. First, in the ancient view of the universe, the earth existed in a kind of habitable bubble holding back waters above and below. Now the ground ruptures, the skies crack open (see 7.11), the waters break through and the very structure of the universe is compromised. This is not just rain, it is cosmic crisis! Secondly, while we usually think of the ark as a boat, in biblical terms it is a rectangular box. It floats, but it has no rudder or sail. The fragility of Noah’s ark at the mercy of the elements is underscored. And as if to drive home the utter helplessness of the situation, after describing the death of all living things (7:21-23) the text presents this curious phrase: Noah alone remained... (7:23). It is curious because in the next breath we read, ‘and those who were with him in the Ark.’ Clearly Noah is not the only living human. Why then the reference to ‘only Noah’? This question fired the discussion of the rabbis. How does it fire yours? What in particular about Noah is being suggested here? The great Torah scholar known as Rashi2 refers to a Jewish storytelling tradition (midrash) which, in its playful way, notes that the sound of the Hebrew word for ‘only’ (akh) is that of a person coughing or retching. In a creative leap, the midrash concludes that the phrase ‘only Noah’ is a reference to Noah’s diminished health. Why diminished? Because it takes a great deal of energy to care for an ark full of animals in the midst of cosmic catastrophe! (Apparently Noah was not only exhausted but bleeding from wounds inflicted by a hungry lion!) As we smile at the midrash we should not dismiss its depths. Notice how a single Hebrew word leads the rabbinic mind into a whole area of contemplation: the arduous effort and personal wellbeing of Noah during a great crisis. Taking up this midrashic lead we might well ask: what is my experience of enduring a great crisis? Do I identify with the ‘aloneness’ of Noah hinted at by verse 7:23? Am I exhausted and wounded through my labours to be faithful? Floods, after all, are real, and Noah’s Ark is a powerful symbol for many kinds of human crises: physical, moral, spiritual. • 1. English translation by E. Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995). 2. Rashi (11th c. France) discusses a midrashic text in Sanhedrin 108b, Tanchuma Yashan 14. See Herczeg, ed., The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary (New York: Mesorah, 1999).

  • Which Adam? Which Eve?

    In the opening two chapters of Genesis the reader finds two different accounts of the creation of humankind. What are we to make of these differences? Read the two accounts closely in Genesis chapters 1 & 2, preferably with a friend, and with a pencil or highlighter to underline and circle key words, ideas, repetitions and poetic elements that strike you as unusual or interesting. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it...” (Gen. 1:27-28) So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (Gen. 2:21-22) What do you notice as you compare the two stories of the creation of humankind? How would you describe the persona of Adam/Eve 1 compared to Adam/Eve 2? Perhaps you noted that Adam 1 is characterized by a decisive commissioning to ‘subdue’ the earth. He, along with his female counterpart, is a man of action, productivity, initiative. He is empowered by God to call the shots, in control of himself and his environment. Adam 2, on the other hand, although given authority over the animals, is immediately led into an experience of sacrifice and surrender. He is overpowered by God as he succumbs to sleep and relinquishes part of his own body in the creation of woman. Do you agree with these observations? What else did you observe in the text? How might we explain or reconcile these different Adams/Eves? If we were examining Genesis from an historical viewpoint we might suggest that the two stories represent two distinct storytelling traditions preserved in the text. But let’s set aside such theories here and hear instead from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, an esteemed Torah scholar of the 20th century, who interprets Genesis with a compelling synthesis of traditional biblical wisdom and modern religious anthropology. According to Soloveitchik, in these Torah texts we see two kinds of instincts in the human person, both willed by God. God wants us to be both active and submissive, victory-bent and humble, disciplined and docile. Enshrined in our existence is a creative tension between self-expression and covenantal relationship; individuality and community. Thus Genesis reveals something of the mysterious, complex depths and paradoxes of the human person, setting humankind apart in the order of creation. • Table topic: Integrating the diverse qualities of the two Adams is the great challenge of human and spiritual growth. Can you name somebody who exhibits this integration? Discuss the challenge that Genesis 1-2 poses in your life. Do you most resemble Adam/Eve 1 or 2? Can you recognize the tension mentioned above in other biblical stories (e.g., the gospel story of Mary and Martha, Lk.10:38-42)? Bibliography: Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1965). Scripture: NRSV

  • rejoicing in the torah!

    Can Christian awareness of the Jewish festival Simchat Torah ('Rejoicing in the Torah') enliven their own Christian Bible reading? What is Simchat Torah? Simchat Torah (‘Rejoicing in the Torah’) is a one-day Jewish festival that comes at the end of the seven-day festival of Sukkot. In Israel the day coincides with another holiday called Shemini Atzeret (‘the Eighth Day of the Assembly’). Outside Israel the two holidays are treated as separate days. The focus of Simchat Torah is the centrality of Torah. For Jewish communities it marks the very last day of the annual Torah reading cycle. The next day, the cycle of Torah readings begins all over again with Genesis 1:1. In synagogues, Simchat Torah is celebrated with joyful dancing with the Torah. The conclusion of the Book of Deuteronomy is read in the synagogue followed by the opening words of the Book of Genesis. Thus there is an unbroken continuation of the annual cycle of Torah readings. Christian awareness Can awareness of Simchat Torah help our Christian Bible reading? Certainly, it can serve as a reminder of the centrality of Scripture in our own Christian lives and, in particular, the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures (our 'Old Testament’ or ‘First Testament’). Further, it deepens our appreciation of the unbreakable link between God, Torah and the Jewish people, and of the fact that Jesus himself was formed by the Torah traditions of Israel. "By taking part in the synagogue celebrations where the Old Testament texts were read and commented upon, Jesus also came humanly to know these texts; he nourished his mind and heart with them, using them in prayer and as an inspiration for his actions. Thus he became an authentic son of Israel, deeply rooted in his own people’s long history. - Pope John Paul II, Rome, 11 April 1997 Further, for those partaking in the annual Light of Torah journey and making their way through the ‘five books of Moses,’ the festival of Simchat Torah is a good time to take stock and review your Torah learning. This review is ideally done with your havrutah partner and others who have shared in your Torah learning. Gather over a meal, or a celebratory drink, and, together, remember your journey from Genesis to Deuteronomy, its ups and downs, progress and setbacks... how you set out, what you knew then, what you know now... how your attitudes (to Scripture, Tradition, life, faith, Judaism, Christianity) have been shaped in the company of the sacred text, Israel’s sages, and your Torah companions. 1. Deepest insight Name a treasured insight which the Torah revealed to you during this past year. How was it revealed; i.e., through what story, verse, commentator, method? 2. Favorite character Which biblical character especially came ‘alive’ for you? What about their personality and story captured your heart, thoughts, imagination? 3. Burning question The questions arising from our reading draw us into God’s Word. What is one question that continues to intrigue you? 4. Greatest difficulty Torah study is challenging for many reasons. What was one difficulty or obstacle you encountered? 5. Happiest moment Jewish tradition speaks of ‘rejoicing in the Torah’ (Simchat Torah). Share one of the joys of your Torah journey.

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