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  • 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. www.lightoftorah.net 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.

  • An Ancient Love Story

    How do you choose a spouse in marriage? What qualities do you seek? What virtues do you hope and pray for your children to find in their husband or wife? One source of wisdom on this matter is chapter 24 of Genesis. This may come as a surprise to many Christians. But it is no surprise to our Jewish counterparts who are familiar with interpretative traditions that have been milking the Hebrew Scriptures for spiritual insight even before Christianity came to be. Let’s explore a little of this traditional wisdom passed down through millennia of biblical reflection. In Genesis 24 we have the story of Abraham’s quest to find a wife for his son Isaac. With heartfelt instructions Abraham sends his most trusted servant to the land of his birth. There, at a well, the servant approaches his match-making task with a surprising strategy. Surveying the scene where women gather at the well, he prays to the Lord: “Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have decreed for your servant Isaac” (Genesis 24:14). Are you uncomfortable with this match-making strategy? Some rabbinic commentators also harbour reservations. Yet others draw positive lessons from this ancient text. The servant’s prayer (the first instance of spontaneous, personal prayer that appears in the Bible) gives rise to a character test. His search for Isaac’s wife prioritizes not external beauty and good family connections, but inner qualities of virtue. Really, he is testing for the prized virtue of hospitality to strangers, a quality boldly celebrated by the Talmud where it says, “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence” [Shab.127a]. How does Rebekah fare in this test of character? Look closely at the text. The sages ponder the details that describe Rebekah’s actions. She has to ‘lower’ her jar (presumably a heavy jar sitting on her shoulder). She responds ‘quickly’ to his request and runs to the well after offering (without needing to be asked) to draw water for his camels. The text tells us that she ‘went down’ and ‘came up’ from the spring, so presumably it was some distance. She does this multiple times in order to slake the thirst of ‘all his camels’—and verse 10 tells us there are ten of them! Further, the text explicitly states that she draws water until the camels have finished drinking. Have you ever watered a camel after a desert trek? I am told it takes 25 gallons (94 litres)! Why all this detail? Through a spirited, creative process of reflection, the sages conclude that Rebekah is exceedingly energetic in deeds of loving kindness, hospitable to strangers and compassionate to all living creatures. Are not these attractive qualities in a potential spouse? Of course, there is more to the story of Rebekah and Isaac’s love story. Genesis 24 begins shortly after the death of Sarah (Isaac’s mother) and closes with Rebekah entering Sarah’s tent to be with Isaac. In reading this ancient narrative I find myself remembering the day my grandfather died. That same day his twentieth great-grandchild was born into our family. The circle of life... it is beautiful, natural, insistent, and the ordinary way by which God speaks to us. The Hebrew scriptures are full of ‘earthy’ accounts of life and death, courtship and marriage, pregnancy and birth, family loving and feuding... Through stories like these, God’s word addresses us in the depths of our humanity, in our familial joys and struggles. • Bibliography: Frankl, The Five Books of Miriam (New York, 1998); JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, 1989); Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (New York: Lambda); Schorsch, Canon Without Closure (New York, 2007). Scripture: JPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2012. www.lightoftorah.net 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 Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 - 25:18), 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.

  • What was Sodom's sin?

    ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and how very grave their sin!’ (Genesis 18:20). Exactly what was the sin of the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that led to their destruction, according to the Book of Genesis?[1] In the popular view it is usually seen as sexual sin. Indeed, 19:1-11 points to lust and sexual abuse.[2] Abraham’s nephew, Lot, has just offered hospitality to two mysterious visitors and suddenly there is an aggressive mob of townsfolk at his door, demanding to have their way with his house-guests. In order to appease them and protect his visitors, Lot offers his daughters to the mob instead. Hardly a noble solution! Interestingly, in response to the question ‘What was the great sin of Sodom that earned its destruction?’ Jewish storytelling traditions (midrash) reply that it was social inequity, mistreatment of the poor. Now where does the Bible suggest that? Approaching the Scriptures as a unity, the Jewish sages draw attention to the prophet Ezekiel: ‘This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy’ (Ezekiel 16:49). Notice how the Jewish sages manoeuvre their way through the Bible, freely associating diverse passages. It is a creative method, grounded in vast knowledge of the whole of Scripture and, as we shall see, in the detail of the Hebrew text. Through a play on Hebrew words, the sages say that the ‘outcry’ in 18:20 which the text describes as ‘great’ (rabbah) is the cry of a maiden (ribah). In the imaginative tellings of the midrash, the laws of Sodom issued the death penalty for anyone who assisted the poor. When a certain young woman fed a hungry person, her compassion was exposed as a crime and she was put to a horrible death by fire. It was her cry that God heard, the cry of a just person performing a deed of kindness, that brought down a whole system of state-sanctioned savagery. ‘Said Rabbi Levi, God said “Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden [ribah] does not permit Me to keep silent.”’ [3] Thus, the midrash teaches that each individual is endowed with the power and responsibility to stand up and make a difference to society. Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish scholar, puts it this way: ‘If a person...performs one good deed, he has weighted the scales in his own favour and that of the world’s and brought salvation.’ [4] When Jewish storytelling traditions point to a woman whose action determines the fate of Sodom, it expresses a truth embodied in the lives of real women, men and children who have shaped the course of history. The same point is taken up in a creative interpretation of Abraham’s attempt to save Sodom: ‘Suppose there are fifty righteous in the city’ (Genesis 18:24). As Abraham enters into negotiations with God, the sages ponder the superfluous addition of the phrase ‘in the city’ when it is obvious he is talking about the city of Sodom. What is the word of God trying to say to us through this repetition? They conclude: this implies that the righteous ones (for whom the city might be saved) are public in their witness. They are not good people keeping their heads down, safe in their homes, fitting in with the surrounding culture. They are out there in the public eye (‘in the city’), putting themselves at risk, boldly challenging the unjust status quo. Important contemporary challenges resound in this ancient story! • Notes: 1. Sources consulted: Bialik and Ravnitzky, eds., The Book of Legends (New York, 1992); Freedman and Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Genesis (New York: Soncino, 1983); Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994). Scripture: NRSV. 2. ‘That we may know them’ (19:5) suggests the knowledge of sexual intimacy. 3. Genesis Rabbah XLIX, 6-7 4. Quoted in Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, 174. Photo: Shutterstock. © Teresa Pirola, 2011. www.lightoftorah.net 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 Vayeira (Genesis 18:1 - 22:24), 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.

  • At Home with Sarah

    The biblical matriarch Sarah is loved and revered in Jewish tradition. Yet this does not mean she is perfect or beyond critique. A great strength of traditional Jewish biblical interpretation is its capacity to embrace both the greatness and fragility of the human condition. Let’s explore this with reference to the complex domestic life of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 16. [1] As we enter the story both Abram and Sarai [these are their names at this stage of the narrative] are both a great age and still childless, a fact which Abram has already pointed out to God in 15:2-6. While God reassures Abram, who seems content to wait on God, in chapter 16 Sarai is proactive in devising a solution. And Sarai said to Abram, "You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. (Gen. 16:2) Sarai’s solution to the dilemma of her barrenness may surprise us, removed as we are from the social norms of an ancient culture. But allowing for this, the detail of the conversation and events in 16:1-6 is revealing: "I shall obtain children". The Hebrew text does not actually use the word for children. Literally it reads, "I shall be built up"—presumably in the sense of establishing a family. Abram listens to Sarai. She has authority in the home. [Note, too, that the name of the child of his and Hagar’s union will be Ishmael: ‘let God listen’.] Abram waits for Sarai to act. She takes and gives Hagar to Abram. In verse 3 both Sarai and Hagar are referred to as wife. Sarai, it seems, hasn’t given up on her own marital relationship, even as she generously makes way for another. Yet despite Sarai’s intentions, things do not go well. Hagar despises the one who raised her status, interpreting Sarai’s barrenness as ethical failure. Hurt, jealousy, resentment, power-plays... What is going on? How do you interpret the text? In the face of Hagar’s judgment, Sarai reacts badly. Very badly. In fact, she seems to blame Abram, even though the whole plan was her idea. Of what does she accuse him? The text isn’t explicit, so the sages creatively read-between-the-lines. For Rashi [2] her accusations in verse 5 could be read like this: ‘When you prayed to God about our childlessness you prayed only for yourself! And when you hear my being disgraced by Hagar, you don’t speak up, you are silent!’ By now we may be wondering: is the conflict really about Sarai and Hagar, or is it the projected tensions between Sarai and Abram? Abram, a fearless character with powerful negotiation skills, here adopts the tactic of avoidance. "You deal with it," he tells Sarai, once again deferring to her authority. The result is that Hagar is mistreated [i.e., "overworked" according to Rashi; "treated as a slave" according to other commentators] to the point where she runs away. Remember: wandering the desert alone can be a death sentence. In just six verses, a noble plan to help God fulfil a divine promise has resulted in domestic warfare and an endangered life! When it comes to pondering Sarai’s poor treatment of Hagar the Jewish sages are tough judges. They allow no excuses for her mistreatment of the Egyptian slave, even though Sarai is elderly, suffering, and provoked by Hagar’s disrespect. Why the harsh critique? Can you think of reasons for her being held accountable? Then again, perhaps you feel inclined to defend Sarai. With reference to the text, bring your perspective to the discussion. • 1. Works consulted: Goldstein, ed., The Women’s Torah Commentary (Woodstock, 2000); Herczeg, ed., The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary (New York, 1999); Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994). Scripture: NRSV. 2. Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac): 11th c. French scholar revered as the ‘prince’ of Jewish Torah commentators. © Teresa Pirola, 2011. www.lightoftorah.net 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 Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12:1 - 17:27), 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.

  • After the Flood

    This week is an opportunity to extend our knowledge of a familiar bible story, perhaps known since childhood: Noah’s ark. We may already be familiar with what God said to Noah before the building of the ark. We can readily recall that God expressed heartbreaking disappointment in the wickedness of the human race and revealed the divine plan to 'start over' with the earth through a flood. But what were God’s words to Noah after the flood, after Noah and his family and animals had come out of the ark? Read them for yourself in Genesis 9:1-17. What were God’s words to Noah after the flood? After Noah and his family and animals had come out of the ark? God’s post-flood speech can be divided into three parts: God commands, God makes a covenant, God gives a sign of that covenant. Note that the words that begin each section are also used to end each section. God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Read Gen. 9:1-7). Then God said to Noah and to his sons...”I’m establishing my covenant with you and your descendants...” (Read Gen.9:8-12). I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant...” (Read Gen. 9:13-17). Having created the world in Gen.1, God sets out to re-establish the world in Gen. 9. What do you notice as you compare these two stories? Perhaps you noted the similarity of some of the creation language, and that in each case God establishes the human race from a single human being. Both Adam and Noah are blessed and commanded to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ Noah, however, is given an additional set of commandments prohibiting unlawful killing. Most importantly, while the relationship between God and Adam is presumed, God enters into a covenantal relationship with Noah and his descendants, promising that never again will a flood destroy the earth. What else in the text caught your attention? And what of the rainbow? Why might this be chosen as the sign of the covenant? Many have sought a meaning in its shape and colour. One Light of Torah reader, for instance, remarks that he has always viewed the rainbow’s reach across the sky as suggesting the connection between heaven and earth, a fitting sign of God’s reconciliation with humanity. When we delve into the tradition, we find the idea, recalled by the medieval Jewish Torah scholar Ramban, that the shape of the rainbow resembles an archer’s bow. When an arrow is released, the bow faces a certain way. If we imagine an angry God shooting arrows at the earth (as suggested by Psalm 144:6), the bow would face a different direction to what we see in a rainbow. Thus the rainbow signifies that an era of peace displaces retribution and anger. Ramban himself, however, is not satisfied with this explanation. After all, humankind has not changed its ways all that much. Rather than speculate about the rainbow’s form or colour he prefers to focus on the fact that, as stated in the text, it is given as an assurance of God’s unfathomable mercy despite human sin. • Table topic: When did you first hear the story of Noah's ark? Can you place this story in the context of your personal history? Despite the disturbing actions of God in this Torah portion, Noah’s ark is ultimately a story about a compassionate God who does not give up on rebellious human beings. Do you agree? Bibliography: Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (SanFrancisco: Harper Collins, 2001); Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York: Lambda, 1994). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. www.lightoftorah.net This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use with acknowledgement of author/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 Noach (Genesis 6:9 - 11:32), 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.

  • Cain's Choice

    The story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) is a tale of sibling rivalry of archetypal significance. Have you ever stopped to consider what led to Cain’s murderous action in the field? Two brothers. Same parents. What went wrong that led to the death of Abel? The collective wisdom in Jewish tradition offers interesting insights. Let’s join some of the Torah scholars in their discussions: [1] ‘And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard’ (Gen. 4:4-5). Why are Cain and his offering unacceptable? The text doesn’t say outright, but the creative reflections of the sages find a reason. According to Rashi,[2] the fruit of the ground brought by Cain in verse 3 was ‘from the poorest’ of fruits. Contrast this with verse 4: ‘the firstlings’ of Abel’s flock, ‘their fat portions’. Note too that Abel brings from ‘his’ flock, whereas Cain’s gift is ‘the’ fruit. Reading into this subtle difference the sages claim that Abel gives something closely identified with himself, whereas Cain makes no such personal sacrifice. See how a close reading of the text—attention to a single contrasting word—can affect our interpretation and draw us into the sacred story. If we follow this line of reasoning, then, in relation to his brother’s gift Cain’s effort is shown up as inadequate. It is not a question of talent, but generosity, care, respectful effort. Where more was reasonably expected, Cain falls short, and this does not escape God’s attention. Cain, you could say, is ‘caught out’ by God. What should be the response of one who is ‘caught out’; whose poor behaviour is exposed by someone with the authority to make the judgment? Surely it should be to admit and correct the error according to one’s abilities. But Cain responds differently. ‘Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell’ (Gen. 4:5). He is consumed by a rage that is written all over his face. ‘The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?’ (Gen. 4:5). From a certain angle, God’s question appears as an annoying reference to the obvious. But, to the sages, no detail is meaningless. The Italian Torah scholar Sforno [3] explains it this way: ‘And why is your countenance fallen? If a fault can be remedied it is not right to bewail the past, but one should strive to mend matters for the future.’ In this light, we can detect both a warning and encouragement in the words of Genesis that follow: ‘If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it’ (Gen. 4:7). In other words: Cain, own up to your actions. Your mistake isn’t dire; you can be forgiven. But if you don’t, greater sin will follow. With freewill comes a critical choice: to take responsibility for poor behaviour, to repent and make better choices in future, or to continue the destructive path and play the ‘blame game.’ We know how Cain chose: ‘Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him’ (Gen. 4:8). What began as one poor choice ends in homicide and estrangement from God. Yet, as the sages interpret, the path was not inevitable. Things could have been different. And how different things could be in our own society. If only... • For reflection: Consider Cain and Abel stories in the world today. What timeless wisdom does this Torah passage offer? 1. Works consulted: Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (SanFrancisco, 2001); Herczeg, ed., The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary (New York, 1995, 1999); Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994). Scripture: NRSV. 2. Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac): 11th century French scholar revered as the ‘prince’ of Jewish Torah commentators. 3. Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno: Italian-Jewish bible scholar, Talmudist, physician; d. 1550 Photo: Shutterstock. Marble statue of Caïn by Henri Vidal, 1896, Jardins des Tuileries, Paris. ©Teresa Pirola, 2012 lightoftorah.net Non-commercial reproduction permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download 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 Bereshit (Genesis 1:1 - 6:8), the Torah portion read on the first Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Download the latest version of the (free) Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

  • Hidden Meanings

    As we draw near to the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, we find a striking example of biblical poetry traditionally referred to as ‘the Song of Moses’ (32:1-43). It is Moses’ final instructions to the Israelites, reminding them of their covenantal obligations after settling in the promised land. Read the poem. Observe the grandeur of the imagery, emotion and lofty thoughts. Then let's focus on the concluding verses (44-47), with the aid of the teaching of Nehama Leibowitz. 1 “Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people..." (Deut. 32:44) "When Moses had finished reciting all these words to all Israel..." (32:45) “Take to heart all the words that I am giving... diligently observe all the words of this law. This is no trifling matter for you but rather your very life” (32:46-47). The repetition is clear, indicated by our italics (added) . But what is the significance of the emphasis on ‘all’ the words? If we can appreciate that the Torah is like poetry, its meaning hidden in the details, then we can appreciate Moses’ insistence that the Israelites attend to ‘all’ the words. If the people are to grasp the true depths of God’s word, they must make the time and effort to study its intricacies. The Torah does not reveal its riches in a casual glance or a quick ‘cram’ session, but requires a lifelong process of dedicated patient learning, including its application to life. The Torah does not reveal its riches in a casual glance or a quick ‘cram’ session, but requires a lifelong process of patient learning... A reader may object: but some parts of the Torah can seem rather tedious and nonsensical! The sages are strong in their opinion that if we don’t find meaning there, then it is our own fault! Why? Answers one Talmudic source: “Because you do not labour in the Torah” (Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 1.1). Do you agree with the sages? What is your reaction to their challenge? In the Talmud we find the opinion that it is a form of vanity to suggest that Torah is a waste of time. The sages cite the poor conduct of the king of Judah, Menasseh, who would poke fun at words of Torah saying: “Had Moses nothing better to do but record in the Torah that: ‘And Lotan’s sister was Timna’; ‘and Timna was concubine to Eliphaz’ (Gen.36:22;12)!” The sages are unimpressed by such mockery. In their reply, they demonstrate how a great lesson flows from this brief reference to Timna. According to one tradition, Timna, a noblewoman and sister to one of Esau’s chiefs, seeks to become part of Israel. But she is rejected by the Patriarchs, and so relinquishes her noble status to become the concubine of Eliphaz, saying, “Better for me to be a handmaiden to this nation [Israel], than a noblewoman of [the chiefs of Esau].”2 Timna bears a son, Amalek, who later causes suffering for Israel, which the sages view as divine retribution. Says Rashi, “They should not have repelled her, but should have accepted her, since she came to shelter under the wings of the divine presence.” So... Timna: a marginal detail, or a compelling moral lesson? Can you think of another example of an insight based on a ‘minor’ detail in the text? Can you appreciate Moses’ insistence that we take to heart ‘all the words’? In this light, discuss the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. Notes 1. This leaflet is based on the teaching of Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (New York: Lambda, 1996), 351-356. Nehama Leibowitz was a highly influential Torah teacher in 20th century Israel, with a passion for teaching Torah to 'everyday' people of all walks of life. Learn more about Nehama Leibowitz. 2. Midrash Tannaim on Deut.32:47. Compare with the midrash as told in TB Sanhedrin 99b. Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use is 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 Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Download the latest version of the (free) Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

  • LETTING GO

    As the Book of Deuteronomy moves towards its conclusion, Moses prepares for his death and bids his people farewell. His leadership has brought the Israelites this far, to the plains of Moab. Now it is Joshua who will lead the people forward, across the Jordan, into the land promised by God. Read chapter 31 of Deuteronomy, with particular attention to the first nine verses, then let's engage with some insights from Jewish tradition, as well as your own. Were you touched by the human sensitivities of these final scenes of the Torah? The time has come for Moses—the great prophet, leader, intimate of God, father-mother to Israel—to let go of everything: his authority, his ‘job’, his Israelite family, his dream of entering the promised land, and even his life. Was there something in this chapter that particularly resonated in you? How does this sacred text speak to you? I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the Lord has told me, ‘You shall not cross over this Jordan.’ (Deuteronomy 31:2). A more literal translation of the Hebrew reads: 'I am no longer able to go-out and to come-in’. According to Rashi,[1] Moses is referring to his diminished prophetic powers. Whereas once his face shone in the radiance of the divine presence as he received the Lord’s teachings in full clarity, now his ability to interpret the Torah is weakened. Say the Jewish sages, the light of the sun is dimmed. And as it dims, Joshua’s face shines like the moon. Joshua is not Moses, whose prophetic role was unique. Yet his time for leadership has come, and now it is the Lord himself, not Moses, who instructs Joshua (see v.14). What is Moses’ reaction to all this? Where the Torah hints, the Midrash [2] elaborates. The Torah tells us (v.7) that Moses declares his unreserved support for Joshua. Yet the imaginative stories of the midrash describe how Moses’ willingness to relinquish leadership, like his willingness to accept death, is not instantaneous - it is a gradual letting go. In one midrashic passage he bargains with the Lord: “Master of the universe, if I must die [to vacate my post] for Joshua, let me be his disciple [in my remaining hours].” The Lord agrees, so Moses goes to where Joshua is teaching Torah and becomes his student. Continues the midrash, “At that session, the tradition of wisdom was taken away from Moses and given to Joshua.” Later, Joshua receives a revelation in a pillar of cloud. “After the cloud departed, Moses went over to Joshua and asked, ‘What did the Word say to you?’ Joshua replied, ‘When the Word used to reveal itself to you, did I know what it said to you?’ In that instant, Moses cried out in anguish and said, ‘Rather a hundred deaths than a single pang of envy. Master of universes, until now I sought life. But now my soul is surrendered to you.'" Thus did Moses become reconciled to his dying. For the sages, the final scenes of the Torah portray Moses as both heroic and fragile; humble yet touched by envy; whole-hearted despite inner struggle. In your own personal 'midrashic' reflections, what questions and insights emerge as you ‘read between the lines’ of the sacred text? • Notes: [1] Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, known as Rashi: 11th century Torah scholar. [2] Midrash: Jewish storytelling traditions that imaginatively explore the biblical narrative and enrich one's interpretative grasp of the text. Bibliography: Bialik and Ravnitzky, eds. The Book of Legends (New York, 1992); Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York, 1995). Herczeg, trans., The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary (New York, 2011); Munk, The Call of the Torah, vol. 5 (New York, 1995); Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. 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 Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Download the latest version of the (free) Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

  • 10 Life Lessons: Rosh Hashanah - Jewish New Year

    Shana Tova U'Metuka Festival greetings to Jewish friends for Rosh Hashanah, and a wish for all the goodness and sweetness of the new year. As this blog post is being written, Jewish communities have entered the festival of Rosh Hashanah - Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the 'birthday of the world'. Front and centre is the conviction that God, Creator and Sovereign of the world, continues to renew creation and calls human beings to account for their decisions and actions. Despite the fragility of our lives, we are expected to live the gift of each day to the fullest. Thus, the sound of the shofar (ram's horn) on Rosh Hashanah might be described as a 'wake-up' call. Rosh Hashanah leads into an extended period of introspection and self-examination, known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance, which climaxes ten days later with Yom Kippur ('Day of Atonement'), a solemn day of fasting and repentance, girded by a deep trust in God's mercy. So what are some of the key messages of Rosh Hashanah? What insights from Jewish tradition can also inspire other peoples of faith and good will? The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020), an English rabbi, scholar and author - widely respected as a faith leader by people of many traditions - articulated the following Ten Themes. According to the teaching of Jonathan Sacks, Rosh Hashanah instills an awareness that: Life is short, but it is a gift from God, to be lived as a free response to the God of freedom. Life is inherently meaningful, however life is not easy and too often involves immense suffering. Yet, because God never leaves us, life can still be sweet; and what we create with our lives is our greatest work of art. In life, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. God asks great things of us and, by responding to this call, we discover our own greatness. Paradoxically, human beings are both dust and spirit. We are formed from the dust of the earth and the living breath of God (Genesis 2:7). This brief summary is gleaned from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "What Rosh Hashanah says to us", at The Rabbi Sacks Legacy website. The link takes you to a family-friendly version of his teaching that lends itself to a meaningful discussion around a family or community dining table. In a spirit of interfaith solidarity, perhaps this is something we Christians could undertake this week, mindful of this Jewish festival period and how much we can learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters and their traditions. A closing prayer May the memory and work of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was an internationally acclaimed faith leader, continue to bless the world and be a beacon of moral guidance. And we pray for Jewish people everywhere during their High Holy Days - for continuing vitality and strength in their covenantal life with God, and for safety, health and happiness for their families and communities.

  • Blessed are your comings and your goings

    In this reflection we explore rabbinic thought patterns and the insights of Jewish commentators concerning a single verse of Scripture: “Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings” (Deut. 28:6). Intrigued by this text and its bounty of meanings, the sages of old saw something odd about this verse. Surely, they reasoned, the word order should be reversed. On a typical day, a person is seen going out from home and only later coming back in. The text should read, "Blessed shall you be in your goings and your comings". Yet instead it refers to 'comings and goings' (in that order). What is the Torah saying through this choice of wording? Ponder this with a friend. How do you reply? In the Talmud, Rabbi Yohana interprets our verse like this: “Just as your coming into this world was without sin, so be your going out of the world without sin.”[1] In other words, the blessings relate to the experience of birth and death, entering and departing the world. Convinced? Not all the sages are. Yes, the explanation might hold in the case of an individual, but this text is addressed to a whole nation. Astruc offers an alternative view.[2] In blessing the people, Moses was assuring them of divine guidance as they entered, 'came into', the promised land. But he was also reassuring them that this blessing would never leave them. Even if they sinned and 'went out' (were exiled) from the land as a result of sin, the Lord would never abandon them. The covenant would remain. Do you find this view more plausible? Yet even Astruc’s creative interpretation poses difficulties for the attentive reader. Look at the context of this verse. The blessings listed have a concrete, material quality to them. They are about finding comfort in plentiful crops, a safe home, a healthy family. Thus the Midrash [3] may offer a better explanation: our verse refers to a person’s daily business affairs — “your coming in for business and your going out for business” —or one’s worldly affairs in general. Wait a minute! Is the Torah suggesting a crass ‘God will make you rich’ theology’? No. Listen to what the Ha’amek Davar has to say: “You will be blessed in all these material things when you go into them and leave them. They will not defile or seduce you; but the blessing of the Lord will stand by you to enable you to overcome all temptation.” [4] So then, the blessing is not wealth, but virtue. As you strive to be faithful, the Lord will help you to be faithful, even amidst those worldly dealings which can threaten to distract you from your focus on the Lord. For the Lord has made you a holy people, and your relationship with God permeates every moment of your life. Note the variety of interpretations arising from a single verse of Torah. In fact, Jewish tradition speaks of the "seventy faces of Torah". No one interpretation can exhaust the possibilities of meaning to be found in the sacred text, for the word of God has infinite depths. Where is your own voice in this conversation? On what points do you agree or disagree with the sages? Can you appreciate the lively spirit of debate by which Jewish interpreters sharpen their approach as they engage with the text ? Prayerfully, and creatively attentive to the text, what insights can you discover? • 1.Bava Mezia, 107. 2. Solomon Astruc, late 14th c. Spain. 3. Midrash Devarim, VII, 5. 4. Ha’amek Davar is a commentary by a Torah scholar of Belarus known as the Netziv (1817-1893). Bibliography: Eskenazi and Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Freedman and Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah (London/New York, 1983); Leibowitz, New Studies in Devarim (New York: Lambda, 1996); Scripture: NJPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. 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 Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8), the Torah portion read for 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.

  • Concern for the Bride

    In Deuteronomy 21-24 we come across a number of laws that reflect a concern for the welfare of women. For example: “When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt for one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married” (Deut. 24:5). According to this verse, military service is delayed by one year in order to allow a bride spousal companionship. Interestingly, here the rationale for the law favours the woman. Elsewhere, in Deut. 20:7, the same rule is described in terms of the man’s interests. [Note: according to Jewish law this exemption did not apply in warfare considered defensive/obligatory, as opposed to ‘optional’ e.g., initiated by the king for economic reasons.] In Deuteronomy we also read of a law which allows time for a female taken captive in war to mourn the loss of her family before an Israelite is allowed to marry her (21:10-14). We read, too, of laws which prescribe punishment for a husband who tries to defame his wife (22:18-19) and which protect the inheritance rights of a firstborn son when his mother falls from her husband’s favour (21:15-17). There is also a law which places restrictions on a man who divorces his wife and later wants to remarry her (24:1). Examining texts like these in the light of other biblical and extra-biblical texts, scholars speculate that marriage and divorce laws in ancient Israel accommodated a range of complexities. Study of these and other verses from Deuteronomy, has led one contemporary Jewish commentator to conclude: “Deuteronomy generally displays a high regard for the dignity of women. They are neither property nor domestics to be abused and discarded, but persons entitled to rights and respect.”[1] Then again, other Jewish commentators [2] are more likely to remind us that the reality for women of those times was a far cry from a situation of gender equality as we would understand it today. E.g., a woman found not to be a virgin when she is married can be stoned to death (22:13-21). [Whether this actually occurred is another question. Talmudic students are familiar with early rabbinic legal adjustments which made capital punishment virtually impossible.] Both Jewish opinions draw on the same bible text, but each takes up a different emphasis. Like Christianity, Judaism has evolved over the centuries and reshaped many of its attitudes and practices, including those concerning women. Tensions over 'conservative' versus 'feminist' interpretations of biblical texts are as alive today in Jewish circles as they are in Christian circles! In our own reading of the bible, it is important to be aware of such developments lest a superficial reading feed anti-Jewish stereotypes. On this last point, Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar, doesn’t hesitate to challenge widespread Christian misconceptions. One example she takes up is the popular ‘feminist Jesus’, a Jesus who is said to have ‘liberated’ women against a culture of “early Judaism [that] was so misogynistic that it made the Taliban look progressive by comparison.” Historical-critical enquiry simply does not support this damning view of the Judaism of Jesus’ day, says Levine. “Judaism of this period was not an egalitarian utopia, but nor was it in general a system that ‘cast out’ women, children, the poor and sick...”[3] For further reading see AJ Levine, The Misunderstood Jew (New York: HarperCollins, 2006). Bibliography: Eskenazi and Weiss, The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary (New York, 2008); JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, 1996); Levine and Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford, 2011); Schorsch, Canon Without Closure (New York, 2007). Scripture: JPS. (1) Schorsch, 611. (2) Eskenazi and Weiss, 1188. (3) Levine & Brettler, 502-3 © 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 Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19), the Torah portion read for 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.

  • An Unsolved Homicide

    “If, in the land that the LORD your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known...” (Deuteronomy 21:1). In the case of an unsolved homicide—a corpse in a field, no suspect, no witnesses—Deuteronomy 21 describes a religious ritual to atone for the sin against the slain man. The ritual involves a heifer over which the elders of the nearest town make certain pronouncements, witnessed by the priests of the same town. Read Deuteronomy 21:1-9 and ponder the text with a friend. How are we to understand this puzzling, even disturbing, religious ritual? Let's listen to some Jewish voices across the centuries: We begin with Maimonides who cites a pragmatic reason for the ritual. “The investigation, the procession of the elders, the measuring and the taking of the heifer, make people talk about it, and by making the event public, the murderer may be found out...” [1] But if publicity is vital, why doesn’t the Torah name a busy part of town as the place of ritual, instead of a wadi “which is not tilled or sown” (v.4)? Besides, objects Nahmanides,[2] detection of a murderer does not atone for the deed. The question remains: how can this ritual be ‘cleansing’ of sin? And why would the town’s elders need to declare themselves innocent if they are not guilty of the crime? Continue to ponder the text. Perhaps your reflections led you to consider the representative role of the elders and priests. Their declaration, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done” (v.7) is a statement about how the community conducts its affairs, for which its leadership is held responsible. The Talmud stresses the duty of the townsfolk to ensure the welfare of a person as he departs the town. Was the victim allowed to leave the town without food and unescorted, defenceless against bandits, wild beasts and the harsh natural elements? No! declare the elders. We would never have consciously allowed such a situation. We are not that kind of town![3] In fact, argues Abravanel,[4] this ritual is designed to be a wake-up call to the community. Too often people become complacent. What do they care about a dead man lying in a field? They have families to feed and jobs to work. The drama of the ‘broken heifer’ ritual ensures that life does stop momentarily, that the life of this one person—created in the image of God—is noticed, and that the community pauses to examine its duty of care, each person’s responsibility for his/her neighbour. The Jerusalem Talmud [5] draws an additional insight from this Torah text. ‘This blood’ in verse 7 can be understood to refer not only to the victim, but also to the perpetrator who shed the blood. Perhaps, reason the sages, one man attacked the other in an act of desperation born of extreme poverty. Mindful of such a scenario, the declaration of the elders is reminding the community of its duty of care that no one must be allowed to remain in poverty. Reflection Think of an incident which led you to pause to consider your duty of care. Can our Torah passage speak to this experience? What public rituals do we have today that encourage a sense of moral responsibility for one another? 1. Maimonides (12th century), Guide for the Perplexed III, Ch 40. 2. 13th c. Spain. 3. Rashi’s view (11th c. France). 4. 15th c. Spain. 5. There are two compilations of the Talmud, one compiled in Babylon, the other in Israel. The Babylonian Talmud is the more extensive work. Bibliography: Eskenazi and Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Herczeg, trans., The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary (New York: Mesorah, 2011); Leibowitz, New Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996); Munk, The Call of the Torah, vol. 5 (New York, 1995). Scripture: NJPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. 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 Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9), 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.

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