Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Vayishlach: Yaacov's Journey to Yisrael

About to face his brother for the first time since he 'stole' the blessings twenty years earlier, Yaacov finds himself alone and wrestling with a stranger. Even while he ultimately receives a blessing and a new name (Yisrael), he doesn’t leave the encounter unscathed. This week we focused on this struggle, and looked at its contemporary relevance for us, the children of Yisrael

Two major stories in Yaacov's life – gaining the birthright from Esav and obtaining the blessings from his father - involve him having to 'become' Esav (by making red soup, or by dressing up in Esav's clothes ). This feeling - of being unable to distinguish between what Eric Fromm calls 'having' and 'being' - accompanies Yaacov all of his life until the fateful night at the river Jabok where he battles with his self conscious and replays the fateful question 'what is your name'.

This time, rather than responding 'I am Esav', Yaacov responds with his correct name, and 'in a symbolic rectification and reversal of his previous denial of self identification, Jacob has replayed the moment that encapsulated his relinquishing of his moral autonomy' (Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob)

He is now able to receive a new name - one of wrestling with God and with man. Similarly, we, as descendents of Yisrael, have a duty to be prepared to wrestle with both man and God (or His texts) if the situation demands it.

Click here for the source sheet, here for the audio recording (right click to download)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Vayetze: Of Dreams, Ladders and Vows

Parshat Vayetze begins with a dream of a ladder and Yaacov's first revelatory experience with God and continues with our forefather's oath/request for seemingly mundane issues - bread to eat and clothes to wear.

Traditional commentators describe the angels ascending the ladder as different nations, each one signifying a different exile of the Jewish people. One more contemporary explanation is brought by Elie Wiesel who writes that "in his dream, Yaacov saw a ladder whose top reached into heaven. It still exists. There are those who have seen it, somewhere in Poland, at the side of an out-of-the-way railroad station. And an entire people were climbing, climbing towards the clouds on fire. Such was the nature of the dread, our ancestor Yaacov must have felt” .

Yaacov's mundane oath meanwhile is turned by the Midrash into something more meaningful. Requests for bread, clothes and other physical things are turned into requests to be protected from lashon harah, gilui arayot, murder and idolatry.

However, ironically, it is those very things (lashon hara etc) that end up happening to Yaacov's family.

We ended with a comment from Yeshayahu Leibowitz who argues that those negative things that happen to Yaacov are due to him obtaining the blessings in a crooked way. Even though it was his destiny to receive them, Leibowitz writes, the way in which he acquired them has significant consequences.

How might this idea - that even if we deserve something it still matters how we achieve it - be relevant to us on a personal or national level?

Click here for the
source sheet and the audio recording.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Toldot: Of Blessings and Blindness

The key part of Toldot revolves around Yitzchak's blindness which makes him unable to distinguish between his two sons and which ultimately facilitates his blessing of both Yaacov and Esav (and Yaacov again).

The Rabbis provide several reasons for this blindness, the most noteworthy being that it forms part of the traumatic aftermath of the Akeida (by the way, blindness due to trauma isn’t solely a Rabbinic thought. In her book, the Beginnings of Desire, Aviva Zornberg relates that female survivors of the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia later went blind in old age).

The discussion ended over a long passage from Israeli educator Shai Zarchi who compares Yitzchak's blindness with that of his father's, Avraham, who is forced to blind / numb himself to the love of his son in order to carry out God's command at the Akeida.

Zarchi argues that Avraham and Yitzchak represent two different generations and ends with the question of whether we today can find our own synthesis between these different (yet necessary) blindness's.

Click here for an old post I wrote on Zarchi and the Akeida.

Click here for the audio recording and the source sheet (scribd and powerpoint)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Chayei Sarah: After these things (Kierkegaard and the Akeida)

The Akeida may have ended without Yitzchak being physically sacrificed, but the story is followed by 'after these things' Avraham's brother having many children, Sarah dying, Yitzchak dissapearing from the narrative. Neither Avraham and his son, nor Avraham and God speak to eachother 'after these things'

This week - Chayeh Sarah - we tried to tease out how the relationships between the main protagonists in the story - Avraham, Isaac, God, Sarah - changes following the Akeida.

In this context, we read four 'modern midrashim' by Danish 19th century theologian Soren Kierkegaard who describes Avraham as appraoaching the Akeida with fear and trembling, torn between the Divine command to sacrifice his son, and the moral command to refrain. He also touches on how the event effects the faith of Avraham and Isaac in God as well as their interpersonal relationship.

His four stories reveal a side to the Akeida hinted at by the text itself and some traditional commentaries, yet also touches on layers beyond them.

Other thinkers on the text included Bereshit Rabbah, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Aviva Zornberg, Elie Wiesel and Israeli poet Tet Carmi.

Click here for the source sheet and the audio recording.