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Bereishit (Genesis) 5781Parshat Bereishit
In commenting on the narrative of creation the Rabbis in the Midrash tell two stories that at first sight may seem like fanciful myths but are in fact contain a deep philosophical understanding of the nature of the universe. They noted that while G-d commanded that fruit trees should bear fruit, the next verse merely states that the earth brought forth trees bearing fruit, omitting the word fruit. G-d, they postulated, commanded that the bark of the tree should also have the taste of its fruit, but the earth rebelled and only the fruit not the bark had the correct taste. Later on, they noted it states that G-d created the two great lights but then calls them a great light and a small light. They again posited that the sun and moon were meant to be the same size but the moon complained that this equality wouldn’t work, so G-d reduced the size of the moon. What are we to make of these stories? What message were our sages trying to convey to us? If we look at them carefully we see that they tell of an original plan for creation that went wrong. Ideally, a the body of a tree should faithfully reflect the fruit it bears, the two luminaries of day and night should be of equal size. Yet in reality this was not possible. The original Divine plan when it came into contact with physical reality had to adapt to the inherent imperfection of the material world. This is a process described in kabbalistic terminology as the ‘Breaking of the Vessels’. The world by its very nature is imperfect and couldn’t be otherwise. But there is also an important moral understanding behind this concept concerning the role of humanity. The world is created with imperfections in order for us to perfect it. We are deliberately placed in a flawed environment because it is our job to correct the flaws. That is part of the Divine wisdom behind the nature of the universe. Indeed, according to Jewish mystical thought, our ability and responsibility to repair the defects of creation extend beyond this world to the very structure of the universe. Thus what the Rabbis are telling us in these midrashim is that we should not be perturbed when we live in a world that seems to us to be not quite right, where we have to deal with epidemics and other such issues for example. That is the way the world is meant to be in order that we can have a role in healing it. So as we continue top face our current predicament the first chapter of the Torah teaches us not to be astounded at such occurrences, rather to understand that they exist precisely in order for us to overcome them.Parshat Noach
Because of the wickedness of humanity G-d resolves to bring a flood to destroy the world and begin again with Noah. The Torah in describing the degenerate state of human affairs uses two different words hamas and hashchata. The first is generally translated as violence and the second as corruption, so ‘humanity corrupted their way on the earth and the earth was filled with violence because of them’. The Rabbis generally saw hamas as referring to robbery and hashchata to sexual promiscuity. But if we examine the root meaning of these two words we can discover an indictment of the generation of the flood that is relevant for our own. Hamas actually means an uncontrolled desire for the possessions of others and the belief that you have the right to acquire them by any means. It is summed up in the statement of the Mishna ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine’. In this world view I should have anything I want if I can obtain it, no matter what the price to others. Hashchata really means destruction or vandalism. It is the wanton destruction of the world around us as illustrated in the prohibition of the Torah to destroy fruit trees in war. Bal taschit then becomes a general prohibition on wantonly destroying anything. In this light we can see the true sin of the flood generation. They were consumed with an uncontrolled desire for acquisition and use of resources both material and human. This led to them totally disregarding the basic rights of others, whether animal or human. People’s possessions or their bodies were fair game if you were strong enough to use them to satisfy your desires. This in turn led to the destruction of society and nature inevitably leading to the complete destruction of the world in the environmental catastrophe of the flood. This may sound somewhat familiar. Our generation and those preceding have also had an unquenchable desire to use resources, both material and human, to create ever more wealth to satisfy our need for ever more possessions. We thus have depleted the natural world of its resources and led to the degradation of our own environment. Unregulated capitalistic exploitation has led to vast discrepancies of wealth, health and education, that threaten to tear about society and cause conflict between nations. All of this is inexorably leading to an environmental catastrophe from which no one will emerge the winner if anyone survives at all. The pursuit of hamas and hashchata in our generation threatens to lead to the same result as it did in the generation of the flood. The Rabbis say that Noah spent 120 years building the ark in order to warn his generation of the impending catastrophe, they did not listen and were swept into oblivion. We have far less than that time to change our ways before it is to late. Will we maybe, this time, take heed?Parshat lech L’cha
When examining the story of Abraham, his mission seems to contain an internal contradiction. On the one hand, he is told that he ‘through you all the families of the earth will be blessed’. On the other hand his family story is one of exclusion and selection. Ishmael and Esau are not included in this blessing. Abraham is told that his posterity will be continued through Isaac, not Ishmael, and Isaac blesses Jacob, not Esau, with the ‘blessing of Abraham’. I believe that the key to solving this paradox lies in a comment of Rashi on the very phrase ‘all the families of the earth will be blessed’. He states that while there are other interpretations the plain meaning is that a father will say to his son ‘be like Abraham’. The simple meaning of this is that he should follow in the ways of Abraham. The blessing of Abraham to the world is that they should follow his example and ‘engage in justice and charity’ as G-d describes Abraham’s activity. Thus the universal inheritance of Abraham is not the specific promises of progeny and land, which are reserved for his descendants through Isaac and Jacob but his ethical inheritance that is available to all who follow his path. Unfortunately, Ishmael and Esau misunderstood this point and thought they also had a right to the other inheritance of Abraham. Christianity and Islam, also made the same mistake. Not content with the ethical inheritance of Abraham, they sought to also take on the mantle of G-d’s election of people and land and thus replace the Jews. Not only did this lead to the denigration of and the persecution of, G-d’s actual chosen people but the combination of a universalist outlook with the idea of particular election led to untold tragedy. This combination of universalism and particularism led to the idea of only one true religion, resulting in intolerance, persecution and genocide. In seeking to succeed to the particular inheritance of Abraham reserved for his actual descendants, Christianity and Islam actually forfeited in many ways the universalist inheritance of justice and charity and in the name of ‘Abraham’s’ religion, perpetuated injustice and cruelty. Thus the illegitimate attempt to supersede the Jews as the inheritors of Abraham, led to the practical abandonment of much of the his ethical inheritance. Only, when Christianity and Islam renounce their claims to the particularistic inheritance of Abraham can they truly embrace his universal heritage and themselves truly become a blessing to the world.Parshat Haye Sarah
When negotiating with his his Hittite neighbours over a burial plot for Sarah, Abraham uses two different expressions to describe himself. He says that he is ‘ger v’toshav imachem’ ‘a stranger and settler among you’. These two terms seem to contradict each other. On the one hand a ger is a stranger or temporary resident. On the other toshav, coming from the root to sit or dwell, seems to imply permanency. Rashi picks up on this discrepancy and links it to the ambivalent status of Abraham. On the one hand he is a stranger among them but if they don’t want to sell then G-d has already promised him the Land, so it is his anyway. This comment brings out the complicated relationship Jews have with the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Land of Israel. The strictures found in the Torah regarding the Canaanites, don’t apply to other peoples, especially those who are monotheists and follow a moral code. On the one hand the Land of Israel is given by G-d to the Jewish people, on the other we have a moral obligation to treat others living there fairly. That is what we learn from Abraham’s words. Even though the Land is by rights ours we will still pay fairly for it and not just take it. This indeed was the opinion of Rabbi Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel who stated that even though the Land was really ours it was correct that the Zionist movement paid high prices for purchasing it. But if the other people in the Land reject our right to be there and seek to prevent us for living buying land there then we can state unequivocally that G-d has given the land to us and we do not need their permission to exist there. Thus, when the other inhabitants of the land seek to stop us living there and indeed attack us we have the right and duty to not only defend us but take land away from them. This indeed, is of course what occurred. Despite the fair purchase of land at often exorbitant prices the Arab inhabitants refused to accept any Jewish presence in the land and sought to drive us from it. In the course of the battle that followed much more land fell in to our hands. In such circumstances we have no obligation to return or pay for any of it, for the whole Land is ours by right. This is what, according to Rashi, Abraham is saying to his neighbours. If you treat fairly with me I will act as if the Land is yours and buy it from it. If, however, you treat me unjustly, then the Land is mine by right and I will act accordingly. Thus, we are neither thieves nor conquerors. Despite our right to the Land we should treat all its inhabitants fairly, if they do the same to us. If not, the Land is ours and we will know to act in the necessary fashion, so they should be warned.Parshat Toldot
The main theme of our Parshah is the conflict between Esau and Jacob. This conflict is portrayed as beginning in the womb, as Rashi comments: ‘they were struggling over the inheritance of two worlds’ or as the Rabbis put it if one is up the other is down and visa versa. What is this fundamental struggle between the two brothers, which as we saw at the end of last week’s Parshah, does not apply to the relationship with Isaac and Ishmael. If we follow the traditional view that Ishmael stands for Arab and Islamic civilisation and Esau for Christian or Western civilisation, we can begin to understand this conflict. While Jews and Muslims have many differences, their basic approach to life and religion is similar. Through there religious practices they seek to sanctify this world and there is no or minimal, history of asceticism or monasticism in our traditions. Very different is the classic position of Greek thought and traditional Christianity that was, in many ways, its heir. Augustinian theology that formed the basis both for the Catholic church and the Protestant revolt against it, had a very different view of the world. This world is essentially evil and the way to the ‘City of G-d’ (as his most famous work was titled) was to reject the world and concentrate on things of the spirit. This attitude indeed went back to Paul who made a distinction between the ‘covenant of the flesh’ and that of the spirit. Jews were rejected precisely because they clung to the covenant of flesh, namely the practical mitzvot while Christians had progressed to a more spiritual religious dispensation. Thus while Judaism believes in sanctifying the world through the practice of commandments that elevate physical activities, Christianity regarded such an approach as mistaken and even evil. Thus the practices of circumcision, keeping Shabbat or eating kosher were regarded as illegitimate and in converted Jews or other Christians punished harshly by the church. This basic dispute between two irreconcilable world views is foreshadowed in the struggle between Esau and Jacob narrated in the Parshah. It is still alive and well today even in those regarded as friends of the Jewish community. At a civic reception once when I was looking for the kosher food, this person said to me that ‘of course we Christians have gone beyond that’. This also plays out in attitudes to Israel. We cannot understand nor combat some Christian positions on Israel without understanding the spiritualisation of concepts such as the biblical promise of the Land. This does mean we cannot and should not seek to have good relations with the Christian churches. But as we do so we must understand, especially in areas were there are disputes, the diametrically opposed world views we are starting from.