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  • 'You Shall Not Oppress a Stranger'

    The obligation to treat the ‘stranger’ with justice resonates powerfully in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Jewish sages are sensitive to this, noting that it is the most frequently quoted of all the commandments in the Torah, more often than the commandment to love God. Let’s look at this teaching on the treatment of strangers in Exodus 22:20; 23:9. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Two very similar verses. Traditional Jewish approaches to Scripture teach us to greet the repetition in the text with a lively curiosity and prayerful imagination. We are alerted to a subtle difference between the verses. Can you see it? Why does the Torah add, in the second quotation, “for you know the feelings of the stranger”? Rashi and Ramban—two great medieval Torah scholars—were fascinated by this subtle variation. Echoing an earlier tradition, Rashi says that these two verses in the Torah reveal two different motives for treating the stranger justly. The first verse suggests a motivation guided by self-preservation: Don’t insult the stranger or you will find yourself being insulted in return! Ramban gives another pragmatic interpretation: You may think the stranger is defenceless, but watch out! Oppress him and you will find others coming to his defence, just as God came to your aid when you were powerless in Egypt. Ramban’s reasoning is particularly apt in light of Exodus 22:22-33 which speaks of how God’s “anger will burn” against the one who persecutes the stranger, widow or orphan. And what is the motive suggested by the second quotation? Rashi sums it up, “How hard it is for him when they oppress him.” He appeals to the historical memory of the Exodus deeply engraved upon the consciousness of the people of Israel. It is the memory of past suffering and the consequent liberation that will move the heart to have compassion for the stranger and ensure that the humanitarian rule is faithfully observed. Commentators wonder what led Rashi to include the motive defined by self-interest when the altruistic, loving motive is clearly morally superior. In answer: because Rashi understands human frailty. An appeal to love and memory is not enough to contain the aggressive inclinations of some people. Indeed, the memory of past suffering can at times lead people to seek compensation by lording power over others as soon as the opportunity arises. What do you think of Rashi’s interpretation? Can you appreciate how his approach to Scripture brings to light insightful questions and issues from textual details which at first glance appear insignificant? Reflection Reflect on the place of the ‘stranger’ in your life’s journey. What ‘strangers’ have you met, befriended, or perhaps avoided? Have you ever felt like a stranger yourself? What does this Torah portion teach you? • Bibliography: Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem, 1996); Herczeg, trans./ed., Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (New York, 1999); Scripture: NJPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2012. | Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted 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. This week, we continue with the Book of Exodus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 - 24:18), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • Five Ways to Avoid Anti-Judaism this Lent

    Astute Christian homilists and teachers know that one of the challenges of ‘breaking open’ the Scriptures during Lent, and especially Holy Week, is to do so without inadvertently wandering onto well-worn paths of anti-Jewish messaging. The accusation that “the Jews killed Jesus” — with its manifold expressions and violent consequences — is, tragically, a fact of Christian history, with shockwaves still felt in the present. Great strides have been taken by Churches, over more than half a century, to cleanse Christian thought-patterns of the distortions of anti-Jewish sentiment and to foster an attitude of respect for Jews and Judaism. The ground-breaking fruits of the Second Vatican Council and the legacy of Pope John Paul II are solid evidence of this. But old habits die hard. Subtle bias continues to crop up in preaching and teaching, as in, for example, the mention of “Jews” and “Judaism” solely or predominantly as a contrast to the ministry of Jesus, without reference to the Jewishness of Jesus himself and the Jewish scriptures and traditions that shaped his person and mission. No offence to present-day Judaism is intended; yet the centuries-long influence of anti-Jewish tropes found in Christianity make us susceptible to perpetuating past problems, and therefore the harm done to Jewish communities, in the present. With this challenge in mind, the following points and resources are highlighted to assist with Lenten preparations: 1. Become acquainted with the topic at hand. If new to the topic, a quick way to grasp the central issue is to read James Martin SJ’s short piece, “No, the Jews did not kill Jesus” in America magazine, 1 April 2022 (subscription may be required). Martin directs his readers to an engaging book by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006). Also, an excellent introductory series of short (20 min) video presentations by leading scholars in the field of Jewish-Christian relations, “Presenting the Passion without Blaming the Jews”, can be freely accessed at the website of the International Council of Christians and Jews. 2. Become familiar with proposed solutions and situate your response. Scholars themselves grapple with the dilemma of how to interpret problematic Scripture texts which appear to cast “Jews” in a negative light. Again, Amy-Jill Levine is important reading in this regard, e.g.: “Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews: Avoiding Anti-Judaism at Easter” (ABC Religion & Ethics, 2 April 2015). Faced with the array of scholarly responses, faith educators and pastoral practitioners must find their own ground, nuancing their approach over time as the issues continue to be studied. What is important is to make a start in consciously communicating the gospel in fresh ways, freed from the vestiges of classical anti-Judaism. 3. Create a plan for Lent, especially Holy Week. This is where the rubber hits the road. Plan how you will create a formation opportunity this Lent that will alert your own parishioners or students to the problem of anti-Judaism in Christianity and enable them to digest the passion reading with sensitivity to the Jewish-Christian relationship and to the authentic gospel proclamation for their lives. For example, a short statement could be read before the reading of the Passion, immediately prior to the liturgy or incorporated into a homily. It could also be printed in a parish bulletin or liturgical aid. A sample text might include statements such as these: As we prepare to hear the Passion of our Lord proclaimed, we are mindful that the Gospel account is not a simple history or biography of the life of Jesus. Rather, it is a text with theological intent, and arose in a complex first-century environment that was in a state of turmoil socially, politically and religiously. Negative references to certain Jews or Judaism should never be interpreted as a collective condemnation or denigration of the Jewish people, for this is neither the message of the Gospel nor the teaching of the Church. Sadly, anti-Judaism and antisemitism have been given expression by Christians for many centuries. Historically, this was fuelled by distorted preaching on the passion narrative, including the unjust accusation that “the Jews killed Jesus” and a lamentable ignorance about Judaism and key Jewish beliefs, or worse, deliberate misrepresentation. Correcting these aberrations, and healing the deep wounds caused by Christian antagonism toward and persecution of Jews, is an essential building block for our Christian commitments today. At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church taught that “what happened in [Jesus’] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” and that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.” The Council continued: “Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of humanity and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.” (Nostra Aetate, 4) We pray that, as we receive the proclamation of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, our hearts and minds will be cleansed of any lingering anti-Jewish misconceptions in our Christian culture and be receptive to the true depths of God’s all-embracing love to which the word of God testifies. A further step in a pastoral plan for Holy Week could be to urge “passion play” organisers in the parish/school/diocese to read the guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion”. This document provides historical and theological context for dramatic presentations of the passion, including pointers for avoiding the creation of harmful caricatures — such as Jewish leaders dressed in black or portrayed in stereotypical ways. The challenge of interpreting the passion narrative without flirting with anti-Jewish tropes could also be included as a focus of discussion for Lenten groups, bible studies, book clubs, teacher in-services, clergy conferences and other formation activities, drawing on one or more of the resources listed here. Further, if creatively interpreting the Stations of the Cross, consider devoting a station to “sorrow for the sins of Christians against the Jewish people”, drawing on words similar to those prayed by Pope John Paul II during his iconic visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on 26 March 2000. 4. Commit to an ongoing learning curve. Beyond Lent, make a personal and professional commitment to ongoing education about the history of antisemitism in Christianity and the Church’s post-conciliar path of reconciliation with the Jewish people. If this seems like a daunting task, let’s make it manageable and achievable. Resolve to digest at least one helpful publication each Lent that elucidates the issues at stake. Consolidate and build upon your learning, year by year. A few suggestions follow: Guidelines on these matters have been issued by the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews, such as: Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, No. 4 (1974) and Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985). These and many more official ecclesial documents can be found at the online library of the Centre of Councils of Christians and Jews, Dialogika. For a work by a number of contributing Christian and Jewish scholars, see Philip Cunningham, ed., Pondering the Passion: What’s at Stake for Christians and Jews? (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). See, too, Philip Cunningham’s newly published guide for educators and clergy, Maxims for Mutuality: Principles for Catholic Theology, Education and Preaching about Jews and Judaism (New York/Mahwah, NJ Paulist Press, 2022). A small book, with big insights. In the Australian context, the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion offer a number of helpful video presentations to assist our awareness and handling of difficult bible texts. A pastorally-oriented work by Marilyn Salmon, Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) offers pulpit advice for preachers. A must for one’s day-to-day reference shelf is Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), which includes the contributions of some 80 Jewish scholars. 5. Share helpful resources and educate others. Finally, whichever useful article/book you read, video you view or website you consult, share it! Pass it on to parishioners, students, colleagues, friends with a word of personal recommendation. Your own testimony has impact on those in your sphere of influence. You can make a real difference. Through practical steps like these, Catholics, in concert with the efforts of the broader Christian community, can put a united ‘hand to the plough’ to ensure that the goals of ecclesial reform initiated by Vatican II with respect to Christian-Jewish relations are applied and realised in the daily workings of dioceses, parishes, classrooms, seminaries, homes and other places of formation. This is no mere theoretical exercise or optional ‘extra’. The healing of the Christian-Jewish relationship is a gospel imperative in our time, with real bearing on Jewish communities. Consider it collective Christian Lenten reparation for Jewish lives adversely affected and, in millions of cases, destroyed by forces which included the direct or indirect influence of anti-Judaism and antisemitism emanating from Christian sources; for it was this influence that prevented or muted an effective moral resistance from Churches to the evil of Hitler’s Third Reich. The Holocaust should never have happened, should never have been possible, in lands that had been 'Christianised' for centuries. But it did. And this fact presents an ongoing focus for Christian examination of conscience and sober reflection on how we think, speak and act in relation to the Jewish people. We cannot undo the past, but we can take steps to shape the present and future. The annual rhythms of the Lenten season, and Holy Week in particular, present a vital opportunity to do so. By Teresa Pirola, a Sydney-based freelance writer and Catholic faith educator. (c) Teresa Pirola, 2023. This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use with acknowledgment of author and website: Photo: stockcreations | shutterstock

  • Exodus Interrupted

    Read Exodus 6:1—7:7 slowly, carefully, and preferably with a friend. The narrative describes God preparing Moses for the great event of liberation from Egypt. The dialogue between God and Moses is intense. But you will notice that it is suddenly interrupted in 6:14 by a genealogy, after which their dialogue resumes. Notice how the dialogue between God and Moses is suddenly interrupted in 6:14 by a genealogy, after which the dialogue resumes. What is the point of this interruption? What is the point of this interruption? Certainly, family trees are common in the Bible, but why now? And why does it not provide a full list of Jacob’s descendants (for after naming the households of Reuben, Simeon, Levi it stops)? Is this simply an editorial accident in the text? These are some of the intriguing questions raised by Jewish commentators. Join the conversation, bringing your own observations and questions. Remember that in Light of Torah we work with traditional Jewish approaches to Scripture, and so we apply ourselves prayerfully and imaginatively to excavating God’s word in search of spiritual meanings buried within the text. What did you find? In the midrash (Jewish storytelling traditions), the voice of Rabbi Ya’akov focuses on 6:13 and the meaning of “He commanded them” (or “he gave them orders”, NRSV). The order to be given to Pharaoh is clear. But what was the order for the Israelites? The text doesn’t say, but the midrash concludes that God was calling for the involvement of the Israelite leaders and it is for this reason that the text begins naming the heads of tribes. Following this midrashic lead, then, we can imagine Moses and Aaron going from house to house, calling for partners in the liberation to follow. Despairing of a response from the tribe of Reuben, they move on to the tribe of Simeon. Unsuccessful there, they seek support from their own tribe, the Levites. At this point the genealogy stops, suggesting—say some Torah commentators—that Moses and Aaron recognise their aloneness in this mission. For “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit” (6:9). The truth dawns: it is just the two of them...and God. At this point Moses’ dialogue with the Lord continues; but note the shift compared to that which preceded the genealogy. This time Moses is not sent to speak to the Israelites, he is simply told to confront Pharaoh with precisely the words that God places in his mouth. God’s proactive role is more pronounced and Moses’ role as God’s prophet is emphasised. This is not going to be a humanly orchestrated uprising. This is going to be a divine showdown where God acts decisively, gratuitously, for the sake of his people. The drama builds, and God is leading the way... Where do you find yourself in this sacred story? Can you relate it to an experience of call-and-response in your own life’s journey? Bibliography: Lichtenstein, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People (New Jersey, 2008); Sarna, ed., JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, 1991); Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (New York: Mesorah, 1999). Scripture: JPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of the Light of Torah 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. This week, we continue with the Book of Exodus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Vaeira (Exodus 6:2 - 9:35), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • An Awakening for Moses

    This week, we commence the Book of Exodus and select this verse as our focus: "Now it was some years later, Moshe grew up; he went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers" (Exodus 2:11, Fox). When we first encounter Moses in Chapter 2 of Exodus, he is a helpless child hidden among the reeds on the bank of the river. Within 16 verses, he has been saved, raised as an Egyptian prince and has fled to Midian. Having just intervened to kill an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave, he now flees in order to save his own life. Ever wonder why Moses turned his back on his place of privilege to stand in solidarity with the enslaved Hebrews? The text simply reads, “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor” (2:11, NRSV. Compare with Everett Fox’s translation above). Surely it was a familiar sight to Moses. What made this time different? From the sages of old, to Torah scholars and students of our own day, many have pondered this passage. According to Rashi,[1] Moses “focused his eyes and heart to share their distress.” Rashi’s interpretation, says one commentator,[2] takes into account the use of the Hebrew words ra’ah (‘to see’) and be (‘in’). Thus, the text can read, “he looked into their burdens.” Says an Australian student of Torah,[3] “What strikes me about Rashi’s interpretation is that Moses saw their suffering not only with his eyes, but also with his heart.” Did Moses act so strongly because he saw with ‘eyes of the heart’? Then again, can we pass too quickly over the violence of his response? Ponder this passage and join in the Torah discussion. Moses refuses to stand by in the face of injustice, but he is not the only one to do this. The courageous disobedience of women is also a key theme in these first chapters of Exodus. We find a Levite woman who hides her son amongst the reeds, thus dangerously contradicting Pharaoh’s edict. The infant’s sister (Miriam) colludes in this challenge to Pharaoh’s authority. Then Pharaoh’s daughter finds and saves the baby, willingly contravening the authority of her father. Each of these brave and proactive women creates a ripple of defiance that will swell into the movement of the exodus. The emerging message might be understood as this: it requires only one person to take a stand against injustice for the river of liberation to start flowing. In the Talmud we find this saying: “Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua says: The earth rests on one pillar, and a righteous person is its name, as it is stated: 'But a righteous person is the foundation of the world' (Proverbs 10:25).” (Chagigah, 12b). Reflection Describe a time when you saw something or someone with ‘eyes of the heart,’ or when you ‘looked into the burden’ of another. Who is a ‘Moses figure’ in our own times? How can we teach our children to be obedient to God and ‘disobedient’ to the pressures of malevolent influences? Creatively entering into the narrative of this week’s Torah portion, and drawing upon your life experience, express your view as to what might have been going on within the mind and heart of Moses as he made the transition from ‘prince of Egypt’ to ‘liberator of slaves.’ Notes: 1. Rashi: esteemed Torah scholar; 11th century 2. Nehama Leibowitz, 1996. 3. Mark David Walsh, Bat Kol parashah commentary, 2007. Bibliography: Herczeg, ed., Rashi: Commentary on the Torah, Vol.2 (New York: Mesorah, 1999); Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem, 1996); parashah commentaries of Bat Kol Institute, 2007; Sefaria website: © Teresa Pirola, 2013. This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use with acknowledgement of Light of Torah 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. This week, we commence the Book of Exodus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Shemot (Exodus 1:1 - 6:1), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom!

  • 25 Homiletic tips for Next Christmas, 2023

    Can Christians find the words to honour Judaism at Christmas time? Jesus was born a Jew. He was born in the first century of the common era, in the midst of Jewish family life, steeped in the traditions of Israel as expressed in the cultural customs of Jews of his day. Scripture tells us that his place of birth was “in Bethlehem of Judea” (Mt 2:1; 2:5, NRSV), the town linked to David, Israel’s great king, and that he was circumcised on the eighth day (Lk 2:21), in keeping with Jewish ritual practice. From infancy, Jesus’ very body was marked by the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. In the ‘hidden years’ of his childhood and adolescence, Jesus would be raised in the teachings of Torah. He would learn that he belonged to a people with a magnificent calling, who had received “the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises” (Rom 9:4). Nearly two thousand years later, the Second Vatican Council would reiterate these words of St Paul regarding his Jewish kin; words that continue: “theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh"… (Rom 9:4-5).[1] What does all this tell us? Jewish people, Jewish kinship, Jewish traditions and Jewish sacred texts are integral to the Christian telling of the nativity of Jesus Christ. The universalist claims of Christian faith do not eclipse the particularities through which God’s Word is revealed. Christ did not enter our world “like a meteor that falls to the earth and is devoid of any connection with human history”.[2] Rather, Jesus was born in a specific time and place, embraced as the kin of an identifiable people, living in their ancient homeland, whose collective memory is expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures and passed down generationally, from parent to child. Thus, Christian self-understanding remains profoundly linked to the story and faith of Israel. Put starkly, we Christians cannot know who we are, without turning to the Jews (cf. Isa 2:3; Jn 4:22; CCC, 528 [3]). Our deepest memory is the memory of Israel.[4] Christian self-understanding remains profoundly linked to the story and faith of Israel. I felt moved to write this reflection after perusing a sample of 25 recently-published Christmas messages emanating from Catholic leaders across Australia. Surprisingly, the word “Jew” or any related term (Judaism/Hebrew/Israel) could be found in only three of the 25 messages, employed mostly in a positive or neutral sense, although one referred to “Jewish leaders” conspiring to bring about Jesus’ crucifixion. I hasten to add that all 25 messages (typically a page or a 4-minute video) also spoke words of wisdom, insight, pastoral concern and unquestionable goodwill. Indeed, in the exercise of digesting them all in one sitting, I marvelled at the rich diversity of personality, spirituality, catechetical focus, pastoral style and sensitivity to local concerns. Still, the overall silence regarding the Jewishness of Jesus in these and other high-level Catholic messages at this time of year is troubling. It reveals a wider pastoral concern: that we Christians need help in expressing the Jewish content of the Nativity story and the mystery of the Incarnation, in a way that honours the story of Israel, and that shows gratitude for Jewish covenantal fidelity, without supersessionist intent and without allowing modern-day geo-political disputes to stifle the voice of scripture and faith. The chosen focus for many a Christmas message is contemporary social and justice issues: the nearness of God to us amidst flood, fire, war, climate change, pandemic and every manner of human suffering. This is a vital point and usually beautifully articulated. Yet, as Scripture attests, there is no Emmanuel, God-with-us, without the mystery of Israel, the long-attested historical involvement of Jewish lives in the designs of God. For us — as for the shepherds, angels and magi — this calls for wonder, praise and gratitude. If there is ever a time for Christians to speak warmly and respectfully of Jewish tradition and of the magnificence of the history of Israel (with all its struggles and ambiguities that are part of every human community), surely it is the season of Christmas, as we contemplate the fact of a Jewish child, the miracle of God’s presence “according to the flesh”, and a salvific revelation that would be inconceivable without the story of the people of the Covenant centre-stage in our Scriptures. If there is ever a time for Christians to highlight the irrevocable, steadfast love of God for Israel, a truth that pervades the Hebrew Scriptures and grounds the Christian proclamation, surely it is at Christmas when we open our hearts to divine love Incarnate. Without appropriating Judaism for supersessionist purposes, there are words by which Christians (and not only church leaders) can honour the enduring witness of Jewish communities to God’s faithfulness, then and now. Twenty-five suggestions follow this article, any one of which could be woven into a Christmas message, homily, catechesis or conversation. It is important that we do this, not only for reasons relating to historical and biblical perspectives that define Christian identity, but also in response to the Church’s call to reconcile with the Jewish people. Our post-conciliar, post-Nostra Aetate task is to heal the tragic legacy of centuries of Christian antisemitism that sought to deny Jesus’ Jewishness, to portray Israel solely in terms of infidelity and as an obsolete religion replaced (superseded) by the Church. Even a few carefully chosen words in a Christmas message can contribute to the healing of the relationship between Christians and Jews and give expression to the reality of ‘God-with-us’. Homiletic tips for Christmas 2023 Twenty-five statements that acknowledge the Jewish roots of Christianity and the enduring covenantal life of the Jewish people: The child in the manger is a Jewish child. Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist, Joseph and Mary were Jews; the Apostles, “as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people” (Nostra Aetate, 4). Jesus is “born under the law” (Gal 4:4, NRSV), that is, born as a Jew, and circumcised on the eighth day (see Lk 2:21; CCC, 527). Jesus is presented in Scripture as deeply ‘familied’: he is a descendant of Abraham, a son of Israel, a son of David, son of Mary and, according to Christian testimony, Son of God. Like so many Jewish parents, then and now, Mary and Joseph envelop the infant child Jesus in familial love, and in the faith stories and ancestral traditions of the Jewish people. “Jesus, a son of the Chosen People, was born, lived and died a Jew (cf. Rom 9:4-5). Mary, his Mother, likewise invites us to rediscover the Jewish roots of Christianity. These close bonds are a unique treasure of which Christians are proud and for which they are indebted to the Chosen People.”[5] “Christ, the Son of God, became flesh in a people, a faith tradition and a culture which, if better known, can only enrich the understanding of the Christian faith.”[6] Through Christian eyes, Jesus is unique as the Messiah and the Son of God. But let’s not remove him from his history or isolate him from his kin. To be a Jew is to be ‘familied’ to other Jews and Jesus is of “Abraham’s stock” (cf. Nostra Aetate, 4; Mt 1). This newborn child, Jesus, will soon be circumcised on the eighth day; his very body will be marked with the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. According to Christian faith claims, Jesus is the promised one of Israel. He is the Messiah who lights the way of justice and peace, in continuity with the prophets and Scriptures of Israel. “Jesus' human identity is determined on the basis of his bond with the people of Israel, with the dynasty of David and his descent from Abraham.”[7] “One cannot understand Jesus’ teaching or that of his disciples without situating it within the Jewish horizon in the context of the living tradition of Israel; one would understand his teachings even less so if they were seen in opposition to this tradition.”[8] “From her origins, the Church has well understood that the Incarnation is rooted in history and, consequently, she has fully accepted Christ's insertion into the history of the People of Israel. She has regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as the perennially valid Word of God, addressed to her as well as to the children of Israel.”[9] “Actually, it is impossible fully to express the mystery of Christ without reference to the Old Testament.”[10] The Hebrew Scriptures take shape in the life of Israel and continue to be interpreted, lived and held as sacred by Jewish communities today. Jesus was grounded, literally, in his Jewish homeland – his feet made footprints in the soil of Nazareth, splashed in the Sea of Galilee and trudged rocky trails going up to Jerusalem. “Thus [Jesus] became an authentic son of Israel, deeply rooted in his own people's long history.”[11] Pope John Paul II reminded us that “that the Church of Christ discovers her ‘bond’ with Judaism by ‘searching into her own mystery’ (cf. Nostra Aetate, 4)”.[12] As we contemplate the Nativity scene and the mystery of the One who “pitched his tent among us” (Jn 1.14), we cannot but encounter the time-honoured story of Israel and our indebtedness to the Jewish people. Watch any Nativity play and notice that, until the entrance of the magi, almost every character is a Jew. The coming of the magi “means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Saviour of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament (cf. Jn 4:22; Mt 2:4-6).”[13] “The Christian must know that by belonging to Christ he [or she] has become ‘Abraham's offspring’ (Gal 3:29) and has been grafted onto a cultivated olive tree (cf. Rom 11:17-24), that is, included among the People of Israel, to ‘share the richness of the olive tree’ (Rom 11:17).” A Christian who has this firm conviction “can no longer allow for Jews as such to be despised, or worse, ill-treated.”[14] Jesus was born into a troubled and dangerous world, of a people who knew persecution, suffering and exile. Sadly, still today, antisemitism persists in the world. The Christmas message of ‘God-with-us’ calls us to solidarity with vulnerable humanity, and to stand against every form of racism, antisemitism, bigotry and prejudice. We Christians are committed to living the Christmas message of peace to all, even as we look expectantly towards that future Day when Christ will come again, bringing all things to completion. We also know that God continues to steadfastly love and walk with the Jewish people, who offer a distinctive Jewish witness to the word of God as the reign of God unfolds on earth. In this way, Jews and Christians together participate in God’s saving activity in the present, and they share messianic hope, albeit understood in different ways. At Christmas time, as we Christians ‘dig deep’ into our 2000-year-old collective memory, we must surely find immense gratitude in our hearts for the Jewish people, then and now - for the gift of their Scriptures, their belief in the God who saves, their families and Torah traditions, and their immense contributions to the world. Notes: [1] As quoted by Nostra Aetate, 4, accessed at the Vatican website; emphasis added. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from ecclesial documents in this article are from the Dialogika website of the Council of Centres on Jewish-Christian Relations. [2] Pope John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, 11 April 1997. [3] The coming of the magi “means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Saviour of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 528, Vatican website). [4] The term “Israel” has multiple meanings. It can refer to the name given to the patriarch Jacob in the bible, or to one of the twelve tribes issuing from his descendants, or to the biblical land, or to the political nation state named Israel (either in its ancient or modern context). “Israel” is also a theological reference to the Jewish people, from their origins in history to their ultimate destiny in accord with God’s design, and this is how it is used in this article unless the context indicates otherwise. [5] Pope Benedict XVI, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 14 September 2012, 20. [6] Benedict XVI, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 21. [7] John Paul II, Address to the PBC, 11 April 1997. [8] Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews, “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable”, 10 December 2015, 14. [9] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997. [10] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997. [11] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997. [12] John Paul II, Synagogue of Rome, 13 April 1986. [13] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 528, Vatican website. [14] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997. By Teresa Pirola, ThD, a Sydney-based writer and faith educator. Published January 2023 by This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use with acknowledgement of author and website.

  • Jacob Blesses his Grandchildren

    As the Book of Genesis draws to its conclusion, in chapter 48 we find a poignant deathbed scene. The elderly Jacob shares final words with his favourite son Joseph and he blesses his two grandsons, Manasseh and Ephraim. The scene is filled with emotion: hugs and kisses, whispered words of endearment, and a blessing summoned from the last of a grandfather’s remaining strength. But wait! Something isn’t quite right. Jacob is overturning the usual custom of blessing, placing his right hand on the younger grandson instead of the elder. When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it was wrong... (Gen. 48:14). Joseph reacts swiftly when he realizes that his elderly father’s blessing is about to favour the younger over the elder. Is his concern simply for protocol or is there another reason? And is Jacob’s action intentional, or is his eyesight the problem? Of what earlier scenes in Genesis does this remind you? Read chapter 48 for yourself, and join in this Torah discussion. Perhaps Joseph—and you too—are recalling the multiple crises in Jacob’s life which were triggered by the favouring of the younger over the elder. Let’s revisit them here: The deception that led Isaac to bless Jacob instead of Esau created familial havoc, forcing Jacob into exile. [Gen. 27] Jacob’s choice of Rachel over Leah led to deception by Laban and bitter feelings between sisters. [Gen. 29] Jacob’s favoring of his son Joseph over his older sons led to the envy of the brothers and a family tragedy [Gen. 37] And now, in blessing his grandsons, Jacob wants to show favor to the younger?! Has history taught him nothing? Is this the start of another family feud? And yet in 48:19 Jacob seems fully aware of what he is doing. How do you interpret this scene? What deeper meaning lies in this Torah passage? In the Torah commentary of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, [1] we find a key that points to the meaning of the grandsons’ names. Let’s recall Gen. 41:50-52: Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning ‘God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.’ And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, ‘God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.’ Each name expresses something of Joseph’s mindset. At the birth of Manasseh, his first son, Joseph is emerging from a painful ordeal inflicted upon him by his brothers. He is ready to forget his Hebrew origins. But by the time Ephraim, his second son, is born, Joseph is beginning to hanker for his Hebrew roots. He recognizes that Egypt is the place of his success, but it is not his homeland. It is a place of exile, ‘the land of my affliction’. Looking ahead to the book of Exodus we know that this is the start of the long, dark exile of which the Lord had forewarned Jacob (46:4). Manasseh and Ephraim are the first grandchildren to be born in this exile. In favouring Ephraim, then, Jacob’s blessing signals an important message to future generations. Those tempted to assimilate or lose hope are urged to never forget their homeland - or their God. This reflection holds profound meaning for the Jewish people, with their long history as a people whose very identity is linked with the sacredness of the land. At other levels, too, the Torah invites reflection on the deep ‘forgettings’ and ‘rememberings’ in life, and how they lead towards, or away from, one’s God-given destiny. At this point in your life, are you ‘at home’ or in ‘exile’? 1. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2009). Jonathan Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for 22 years and a respected religious leader internationally. Scripture: NJPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2011. Reproduction permitted 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. The reflection above refers to Parasha Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. It concludes our annual reading of the Book of Genesis. Next week, on our Light of Torah journey, we commence the Book of Exodus.

  • Joseph, Jacob and a Tragic Misunderstanding

    The story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers is one of the great dramas of the book of Genesis, and Judah’s passionate speech (44:18-34) is a turning point. Until now, Joseph has concealed his true identity from his brothers while putting them through a test of character. Have they changed? Or are they still the same brothers who once robbed him of his freedom and almost his life? Judah’s plea, declaring his willingness to give his own life in order to save their little brother Benjamin, brings the matter to a head. Joseph is deeply moved, and pronounces the words: ‘I am Joseph your brother...’ (45:4). Yet in this moment of revelation Joseph asks a puzzling question: ‘Is my father still alive?’ (45:3). It is puzzling because he already knows his father is alive (42:13). Is there something else underlying his emotionally charged enquiry? Which raises another question: Why has Joseph made no attempt to contact his father all this time? At best it is surprising; at worst it seems cruel. How can we explain this omission? Why has Joseph made no attempt to contact his father all this time? Steeped in the creative interpretative traditions of Judaism, we find contemporary commentator Rabbi Jonathan Sacks with an intriguing explanation as follows:[1] Joseph did not contact his father, says Sacks, because did not trust his father; for it was Jacob who sent Joseph to his brothers in the fields on that fateful day of his betrayal (37:13-14). Think about it: Jacob must have been aware of his sons’ hostility toward Joseph. Jacob himself knew the wrath of a brother, even fleeing for his life from Esau. Twenty years later, he still feared Esau might kill him. Why then did he send young Joseph—alone and defenceless—to his older, hostile brothers that day, out in the fields, away from the public eye? You may object: surely Jacob was not knowingly sending Joseph to his death! As readers of Genesis we are privy to the fact that Jacob is inconsolable since losing Joseph. But does Joseph know this? While brooding in an Egyptian prison, might Joseph have imagined his father to have deliberately put him in harm’s way? But why would Jacob want to endanger his favoured son? Can the text support a reason? Rabbi Sacks points to the verses immediately preceding Jacob’s sending of Joseph. Joseph’s dream (37:9-11) angers his brothers and earns the rebuke of his father who ‘kept the matter in mind’ (v.11). From previous events in Genesis we can presume that Joseph knows the force of his father’s anger. He would have seen that Jacob is capable of virtually terminating his relationship with his three eldest sons—Reuben, Simeon and Levi— because of their wrongdoings. Even on his deathbed Jacob cannot bring himself to bless them (49:3-7). Could it be that a tragic misunderstanding is at work: that Joseph actually believes his father to be so angry as to cast him off and wish him dead? No wonder he did not contact Jacob. But now this false belief is shattered, for Judah’s speech contains vital information: their father has mourned Joseph all these years (44:27-29). A terrible weight is lifted from Joseph. To his inner question, Did my father really love me? he can answer, Yes!! Thus, says the text, Joseph breaks into a wail heard through the palace (45:2). His next question is about his father. This interpretation allows us to probe this story of reconciliation at a number of levels. It certainly shows the importance of keeping communication lines open, especially during times of conflict. If Joseph had reached out to contact his father, then this tragic misunderstanding might have been cleared up earlier. Fortunately, there is still time for father and son to embrace. But what would have happened if the elderly Jacob had already died? Continue to ponder this story through the lens of your own life and the tasks of reconciliation in the world today. • 1. Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2009), 315-322. Photo: Shutterstock © Teresa Pirola, 2011. Reproduction permitted 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 Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 - 47:27), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle.

  • Jacob's Decision

    In this week’s Torah portion Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy food while their own land is in the grip of famine. However he does not send Benjamin. Having already lost his son Joseph, Jacob is determined to protect Benjamin, his youngest. In Egypt the brothers meet Joseph (although they do not recognize him) who is now in a position of power. Joseph taunts them in a dangerous game, demanding that they fetch Benjamin in return for protection and food. Is Jacob’s heart about to be broken all over again? Read the story in 42:1-43:14, with particular attention to the character of Jacob. Having read the story in Gen. 42:1-43:14, share some initial reactions to the text. In particular, which verses reveal something of Jacob’s inner anguish? E.g., read 42:4 in the light of the preceding verses. See, too, 42:36-38. The family is desperate for food, but still Jacob will not part with Benjamin. What does this suggest about the family dynamics? Attuned to the rabbinic sensitivity to detail, let us now undertake an even closer reading of the text. Compare 42:2 (“Go down that way and buy us provisions from there, that we may live and not die”) with Jacob’s instruction in 43:2 (“Go back and buy us a bit of food”). Did you notice the qualification “a bit”? There is nothing to suggest the famine has eased. On the contrary, “the famine bore heavily on the land” (43:1) and their supplies are depleted. Why would Jacob say, “a bit of food”? In this tiny textual inclusion did you hear the deeper pathos of the scene? Jacob, say some Jewish Torah commentators, is clutching at straws. Perhaps if his family asks for little, the powerful man in Egypt will likewise lower his cruel expectations and spare Benjamin. Judah, however, confronts his father with the cold hard facts of the situation. Re-read Judah’s reply in 43:3-5. Reflect on his angry statement in 43:6-7. What point is there in apportioning blame? What good can a family row about past events possibly achieve? It changes nothing of their grim predicament and only postpones the one choice that has any hope of saving them all from death by starvation. Notice how a careful reading of the text reveals the Torah’s emotional intensity. Notice how a careful reading of the text reveals the Torah’s emotional intensity. Did you note, too, how the text suddenly switches to using Jacob’s ‘other’ name: Israel? (Recall Gen.32:29: “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel...for you have wrestled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed.”) Why might it do this? After another intervention by Judah, Jacob (Israel) ends his procrastination and gives the order for Benjamin’s departure to Egypt. He is decisive, and yet... can we still hear strains of desperation resounding in 43:11-14? Ponder the human complexities When Joseph eventually meets Benjamin, the Torah tells us: “He looked up and saw his [full] brother Benjamin, his mother’s son” (43:29). We are reminded that Rachel was the mother of both Benjamin and Joseph. Rachel, who died in Gen.35:19, was Jacob’s great love. (Revisit their love story in Genesis 29.) Perhaps this is part of the reason why Jacob’s heart clung to Joseph and Benjamin. By contrast, little concern seems to be shown for Simeon who is being held in Egyptian captivity while Jacob procrastinates! Think about the difficult, even heart-breaking decisions which must be made at times in family life. In what way does this Torah portion speak to your life? • Bibliography: Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994). Scripture quotations: Chaim Stern (trans., 1999) in Eskenazi & Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008). © Teresa Pirola, 2013. Reproduction permitted 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 Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1 - 44:17), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle The eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah this year commences on the evening of 18 December 2022 and closes on the evening of 26 December 2022, coinciding with the seasons of Advent and Christmas in many Christian Churches.

  • What are you Seeking?

    Chapter 37 of Genesis begins the saga of Jacob and his children. We soon learn that seventeen year old Joseph is the favoured, gifted child, the dreamer who is given a special robe (‘of many colours’ say some translations). But he is also perceived as lording his gifts over others (37:2-9). His brothers hate him for it, and even his doting father is concerned (37:10-11). One day, Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers who are pasturing sheep at Shechem. On his way Joseph meets a man who asks him a question and points him in the direction of his brothers. What happens next is a complete breakdown in family relations. Joseph is betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, and taken to Egypt. While tragic, it is also a decisive turning point in the story of God’s chosen people. As Genesis unfolds, Joseph’s path ultimately saves his family from death during a famine. It also leads to the enslavement of future generations... giving way to the epic events of Exodus. All this you can read in Genesis. Of particular interest here, however, is the stranger who Joseph encounters on his way to that fateful meeting with his brothers. A man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ ‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said. (Genesis 37:15-16) Who is this unnamed man who appears out of nowhere and disappears from the story just as elusively? Why does the Torah record this conversation? Consisting of just two verses, the conversation is easy to overlook. Yet, as the Jewish sages are so fond of demonstrating, when we ‘slow down’ our bible reading and ponder even tiny details, God’s word surprises us with powerful meanings. Where else does an unnamed man enter the bible story? In Genesis 32 Jacob wrestles with a mystery man, sometimes thought to be an angelic being. Is the man who questions Joseph also a divine representative? Is there more to his question “What are you seeking?” than immediately apparent? Is this a question to be answered by the reader? The text tells us that Jacob sends Joseph “from the valley of Hebron” (37:14). ‘But isn’t Hebron on a mountain?’ asks Rashi, the 11th century Torah scholar. Why would the Torah describe it as a valley? Rashi answers that the text signifies that from this moment the depths of God’s designs are being realized. In fact, the Hebrew words for ‘valley’ (e’mek), ‘profound’ (a’mok), ‘deep’ (o’mek) share the same root. Why is this such a significant moment? Humanly speaking, it is significant for Joseph. From the status of a spoilt teenager found ‘wandering’ [another translation: ‘blundering’] in the fields, he begins the painful journey to maturity, even rising to power in Pharaoh’s household. Will he find what he is truly seeking? On another level, this moment is highly significant for the history of Israel. As the sages observe: On this day, the exile of Egypt began. The day Jacob unknowingly sends Joseph to near-death at the hands of his brothers, events are set in motion that will lead the Israelites to exile in Egypt and their consequent liberation which remains central to Jewish faith, and to Christian faith too. In what appears as chance encounters, God’s designs are perfected. By now we can see that Joseph’s encounter with a divine figure signifies a dramatic ‘pause’ in the sacred story. The Torah affords us a moment to ‘catch our breath’ and reflect on the hand of God guiding human events. Are we awake to the sacred ‘pauses’ in our own lives? • Reflection: Sometimes people appear in our lives for a short time, they awaken us to important truths, open doors, point the way...Then they are gone, leaving us with a sense of being in a ‘new’ place and on a divinely ordained journey. Have you had an experience like this? Bibliography: Herczeg, ed., The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary (New York, 1999); Munk, The Call of the Torah (New York, 1994). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2011. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted 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 Vayishev (Genesis 37:1 - 40:23), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom! The eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah this year commences on the evening of 18 December 2022, coinciding with the beginning of the season of Advent in many Christian Churches.

  • Dinah

    It is hard to think of a more disturbing passage in the Torah than the rape of Dinah and the bloodbath that follows as described in Genesis 34. It seems that there are no ‘winners’ in this story. All the characters are either violated or guilty of violation and murder. While various commentators shine a light on this or that part of the text, a satisfying explanation that brings holistic ‘meaning’ to the story eludes us. Humble and helpless before the mystery of God’s sacred word, let us bravely enter the story of Genesis 34. Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, never speaks in the Bible. Yet her brief and tragic appearance in the story of Jacob’s family cannot be ignored. If nothing else, perhaps the story calls for honest acknowledgement of the human dysfunction and contradictions to be found even amidst good and blessed families, societies and religions. We will make no attempt to solve the ethical dilemmas raised here. Rather, we will familiarise ourselves with the story itself (many Christians are unaware that Jacob even had a daughter) and some of the observations found in traditional Jewish commentary. For instance: Dinah “went out” to visit the local women (v.1). Although she appears free to travel independently, her safety is not assured. Some traditional opinions have judged Dinah unfavourably for setting out on an unchaperoned journey! Shechem’s crime is described (v.7) using the powerful Hebrew term nevalah, i.e., an offence of such magnitude that it threatens to destroy Israelite society. The revenge planned by Jacob’s sons is marked by deceit. Jacob—whose own life has been marked by deceit—is silent (v.5) and passive in the face of this plan. The story ends abruptly (30-31) with no clear positive result; no one is blessed, no gain is recorded. Share your own observations after a careful reading of the text. Nehama Leibowitz, one of the great Torah teachers of the 20th century in Israel, draws our attention to the subtle contradictions between the way Shechem and Hamor address Jacob and how they address their own townspeople. E.g.: “Get me this girl as a wife” (v.4) | “My son longs for your daughter” (v.8) “Give your daughters to us” (v.9) | “we will take their daughters to ourselves as wives” (v.21) Continue to compare verses 9-10 with 21-23. Note especially what is said to the people of Shechem but not said to Jacob: “Their cattle and substance and all their beasts shall be ours...” (v.23). It seems that deception is being played out by both parties to the negotiation. But where is Dinah in this story? And where is God? Continue to prayerfully, sensitively explore this Torah text, sharing your insights and questions with your havrutah partner (your partner in Torah discussions). • Reflection Who are the ‘Dinahs’ of our twenty-first century? What ‘Shechem events’ are part of our world today? What further thoughts, questions, insights arose as you reflected on this Torah passage? In the midrash Although the Torah does not tell us what happened to Dinah ultimately, Jewish storytelling traditions that accompany the Torah do. One tradition [see Bereshit Rabbah] suggests that Dinah was reluctant to leave Shechem’s house (“Where shall I carry my shame?”) and did so only after her brother Simeon agreed to marry her. Accordingly, the unnamed Canaanite woman who bears Simeon a son (Gen. 46:10), is thought to be Dinah, described as a ‘Canaanite’ because of her intimacy with Shechem. A meaning given to Dinah's name is "judgement that gives rise to justice". What further thoughts does this evoke? Bibliography: Eskenazi & Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Freedman (trans.), Midrash Rabbah: Genesis (New York, 1983); Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994); Sarna, ed., The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, 1989). Scripture: NJPS. © 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 the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from Jewish tradition. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43), the Torah portion read on this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom! Download the latest version of the (free) Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

  • The Morning After the Wedding

    "Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears” (Genesis 29:11). Thus begins the passionate and troubled love affair between Jacob and Rachel. Jacob has just fled to the land of Haran to escape the wrath of his brother Esau whom he has deceived by stealing his birthright (Genesis 27). In Haran he finds his relative Laban and agrees to work for him. Chapter 29 of Genesis tells how Jacob comes to marry both of Laban’s daughters: Leah the elder, and Rachel the younger. Let’s begin our discussion here by giving particular attention to Jacob’s first marriage in Genesis 29:1-29. “In the morning, look—it was Leah!” (Genesis 29:25). Jacob wakes after his wedding night to find himself deceived. He believed he had married and was sleeping with Rachel but instead her older sister Leah has been substituted. Jacob confronts his father-in-law, Laban, and we are sympathetic to his distressed cry: “Why did you deceive me?” (29:25). The Jewish sages who have reflected on this passage over centuries have long detected a certain divine retribution in this event. After all, wasn’t it Jacob who once caused deception and havoc in family life (Genesis 27)? Let’s examine our text through the eyes of a 16th century rabbi, Eliezer Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi is particularly interested in Laban’s curt response to Jacob’s distress: “This is not done in our region, to give the younger before the firstborn” (29:26). Ashkenazi notes two subtleties. First, Laban is an aggressive person, so why doesn’t he use a stronger argument, i.e., “It is never done” rather than the milder “This is not done in our region”? Also, Leah and Rachel have been previously described as ‘the elder’ and ‘the younger’ (v.16). Why does Laban describe them as ‘the younger’ and ‘the firstborn’? Why is a different Hebrew word inserted here to refer to Leah? [Note: not all English translations show this difference, translating as ‘elder’ in both cases. In fact, 29:26 uses the same Hebrew word as found in Genesis 27:19 “I am Esau, your firstborn.”] So what is Laban really saying to Jacob? Ashkenazi paraphrases his response this way: ‘It is true in your place perhaps such things are done, that the younger is given precedence over the firstborn, and that his portion is taken away and given to another, and the younger is given the name of “firstborn.” But such things are not done “in our country to give the younger before the firstborn.”’[1] In other words, Laban is confronting Jacob with the matter of Jacob’s deception of his elder brother Esau who was robbed of his paternal blessing and inheritance (Genesis 27). Whether or not he is aware of it, Laban is dealing out divine justice. The Jewish sages are not afraid to acknowledge the weaknesses of even the most chosen and blessed of God’s children. They see in the Torah a potent lesson: our actions have consequences. Our flawed decisions do not prevent God’s designs from being realized, but neither are we excused from dealing with their aftermath. In Jacob’s case, while he caused deception, he ultimately became a victim of deception. A topic for journaling, prayer or sharing: Think of a poor or questionable decision of yours in the past which has had difficult consequences in the present. How have you dealt with this event? What healing has occurred, or still needs to occur? Can you appreciate the hand of God in and through this part of your life’s story? • 1. See Leibowitz's commentary, p.324. Bibliography: Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994); Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York, 2006); Sarna, ed., JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, 1989). Scripture: Plaut. Photo: Shutterstock. © Teresa Pirola, 2012. 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 the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from Jewish tradition. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10 - 32:3), the Torah portion read on this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom! Download the latest version of the (free) Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

  • A Complicated Family

    The relationship between Jacob and Esau is a colourful saga within the larger family story that fills the book of Genesis. By this stage of the narrative, Abraham and Sarah have both died and the attention turns to the next generation: Isaac and his wife Rebekah. After a difficult pregnancy Rebekah, gives birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob, with Esau emerging from the womb ahead of his brother. When we meet them in adulthood, the tensions between the brothers are exacerbated by their strong-minded (manipulative?) mother and their relatively passive (weak?) father. From chapter 27 tensions build as Jacob and his mother conspire in a plan of deceit. By posing as Esau, Jacob tricks his elderly blind father into blessing him with the paternal blessing which would ordinarily go to the firstborn (Esau). When the trickery is revealed, all hell breaks loose. The episode closes with Jacob fleeing for his life before Esau’s wrath. If at first glance the family dynamic appears complex (dysfunctional?), the interpretative traditions of Judaism search the sacred text for deeper insights. For example, when we read the text carefully with the help of Jewish commentators, we note that Jacob is blessed by his father not once but twice; the first time under the pretext of being Esau, and the second with his true identity in full view just before he flees his homeland. 1. Blessing intended for Esau: “May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine...” (See Gen. 27:27-29). 2. Blessing for Jacob: “May God Almighty bless you and make your fruitful... May he give to you the blessing of Abraham... so that you may take possession of the land...” (See Gen. 28:3-4). The contrast between the blessings is striking. The first (meant for Esau) promises material prosperity. But it does not mention the divine promises made to Abraham, including the election of a people accompanied by a land-promise. These are part of the second blessing, clearly meant for Jacob. It would appear that even if Esau hadn’t been denied his blessing, he still would not have received the Abrahamic mission. The Torah seems to suggest that the promise given to Abraham is to pass through Jacob, not Esau; raising the question: is this what their parents understood all along? Of course, the intentions of Rebekah are explicit. In her engineering of the sequence of events she boldly expresses her view that Jacob must be the one to carry the Abrahamic promise. But what about Isaac? Is he really as blind as he makes out? (Note the drawn-out sequence in 27:19-26 where he repeatedly questions his son’s identity.) Does he, like Rebekah, understand Jacob to be the chosen one, but can’t bring himself to admit it? Is it a case of going along with the charade, reluctantly giving a muted blessing, followed by the fuller blessing only when denial is no longer tenable? Over centuries of Jewish biblical reflection we find the sages discussing Isaac’s ‘dim eyes.’ One opinion is that his vision is impaired in a spiritual sense. Favouring his firstborn and wanting to comply with the conventions of natural birthright, Isaac ‘turns a blind eye’ to the unexpected choices of God. According to Abravanel: “His affection for Esau blinded him to his faults... His powers of judgment grew dim and he was not able to see reality.” [1] Do you agree? Of course, you may be wondering why Esau is deemed so unsuitable. (A whole topic of discussion in itself.) The text certainly invites questions about parental insight and divine intentions. What do you make of the family and spiritual dynamics in this Torah portion? Open your Bible and join the discussion! • 1. Abravanel: 15th century Spanish Jewish scholar. Quoted in Leibowitz, 275. Bibliography: Freedman and Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Genesis (New York: Soncino, 1983); Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994); Plaut, The Torah. A Modern Commentary (New York, 2006). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2012. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted 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 the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from Jewish tradition. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Toledot (Genesis 25:19 - 28:9), the Torah portion read on this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom! Download the latest version of the (free) Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

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