Vayetzei: We become who we can imagine and dream we can become.

There is so much deceit in this week’s Torah reading. Deceit and dreaming. Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau, having deceived their father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau, the blessing of the firstborn. He falls in love with Rachel, the younger daughter of his uncle Laban, only to be deceived on the wedding night and given Leah her elder sister instead. In order to achieve the wages owed to him he strikes a deal with Laban which means he can selectively breed a huge flock of animals, something Laban was clearly not expecting. While Laban is away, Jacob sneaks away with Rachel and Leah and his household including a large flock of animals. Rachel steals the household gods and hides them, something she keeps from everyone. When Laban pursues them she lies about having them – a lie that will lead to her own death.  Deception follows dishonesty, it is a sorry read for those who would like to find bible reading an uplifting experience.

And yet – at the same time as all the double dealing and the cheating, something else seems to be happening. Alongside the scheming is a growing sense of God, a sense of awe; an understanding that the individual is neither alone in the world nor irrelevant to it.

The understanding begins as Jacob sleeps, when he senses the presence of God in a lonely isolated place on the road, and perceives that that presence is caring and watchful.  It grows as he learns to love selflessly – Jacob works for fourteen years in order to pay Laban so as to marry the woman he loves. Once his beloved younger wife has a son, Jacob realises it is time for him to go home, he himself is in danger of absorbing too many of the dubious values of his father in law Laban and somewhere deep inside himself he knows that needs to protect this beloved son from doing so also. It turns out that the rather unreliable and devious Jacob we met at the beginning of the sidra is in fact capable of deep love and loyalty; he is rooted in the landscape of his family, his untrustworthy personality and selfish behaviour are not the full measure of the man.

What are the mechanisms that bring about this deeper understanding? They seem to be a combination of dreams and imaginings. Whatever happens on that lonely night by the roadside on the way to Haran, Jacob begins to transform his world. As he sleeps he dreams of angels mounting a ladder to heaven and other angels descending a ladder to the earth. He hears God speak to him, renewing the covenant made between God and Abraham and God and Isaac. He believes the covenant is now also with him. And then he awakes. Torah never clarifies if this is truly a religious encounter or a product of the imagination of Jacob, something of his own that yet provides him with a new understanding and insight. Whatever it is, Jacob begins to understand that God can be present in his life.

Rashi suggests that when Jacob says “The Eternal is present in this place and I, I did not know it”, he means “had I known, I would not have slept in such a holy place. And yet, had he not slept there he would never have known it to be a holy place. So paradoxically, in order to understand the sacredness of the place, Jacob had to trust his own inner self, his own imagination, his own ability to create and transform the world. And this is what brought about a change in him, allowed him to become a better self.

As Jacob dreams, as he imagines possibilities, he begins to form them and make them real. He wakes knowing with certainty now that he is the true inheritor of the blessing, the one with whom the covenant is made. From that moment on he seems to be a different person – one with a purpose beyond his own gratification and enjoyment. While dreaming or imagining the encounter with God, he effectively created the outcome of such an encounter, he became the next possessor of the covenant.  The power of our dreams or imagination should never be dismissed. We become who we can imagine and dream we can become.

Toledot: transitions and generations, the choices we make give birth to the next stage

 וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֹֽה: כג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גֹייִם֙ [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר:

Parashat Toldedot begins with the conception of the twins Esau and Jacob, and their struggle which begins even before their birth as וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים “vayit’rotz’tzu ha’bonim” – usually translated as “the boys wrestled within her” but which equally could be translated as “squeezed themselves together within her”. It ends with the separation of the adult twins as Jacob flees from the righteous anger of his betrayed brother, and Esau marries women from outside of the family group in a doomed attempt to please his parents and provide the next generations.

Toledot usually translates as ‘generations’ and is the word we use for the history of Jewish peoplehood, the generations that follow one after the other.

The word itself comes from the root to give birth, yet we first find it early on in the book of Genesis when God is creating the world: –  אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם:  בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים–אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.:

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Eternal God made earth and heavens. (Gen 2:4).

So this is not simply a word to describe the generations of a family or a people – it is the word that describes transitions from one to the next, from one person to another, one event to both a subsequent one and a consequential one.

This word appears ten times in the Book of Genesis and each time it is used as marking an outcome, a development, a next stage. So the world is created with Toledot: The generations (Toledot) of Adam, Noah, the three sons of Noah, Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and finally of Jacob are all noted in this text. And each generation brings its own perspective and activities, while connected to the generations before. We are given both a break point and a continuation of our history every time the word appears.

Jewish history is that of Toledot – of generations of peoplehood (including in bible the generations of those who are our family, but with whom the bonds have loosened as the ‘covenant generations’ take our focus).

It is also the history of the many times we have a break point alongside a strand of continuation, the choices every generation makes. The verbal root – to give birth – essentially reminds us that every choice we make gives birth to an outcome, to a reaction. Each action will create a reality that will change our world, for better or for worse.

This week we faced an event that feels like a real transition point. The terrible murders of four Israeli men at prayer and the Druze policeman trying to protect them, in place of prayer, the dwelling place of God. Like everyone else I am dizzy with the pain of those brutal and bloody murders of ordinary people in their morning minyan. I am angered at the responses both of the Western press which took a long time to report appropriately, and at the celebrations by some who declared the murderers to be martyrs. Angry and filled with pain it would be easy to escalate the rhetoric, to increase the hatred, to respond as Esau did when he threatened the life of Jacob here in Toledot. Easy, but wrong; terribly terribly wrong.

Parashat Toledot brings us two good lessons for this week. One is that the choices we make in the world give birth to other choices; That the violence suffered easily leads to threats of more violence. That the escalation of events as a tit-for-tat set of responses takes real courage to break into. That we need to take a breath before responding out of our distress and anger. And secondly, the parasha reminds us that our history is that of peoplehood, and that while we might focus on our own direct line of genealogy we are also connected to all peoples. Human beings who are created in the image of God are bonded and connected, squeezed together and struggling for our own space, but ultimately one humanity. Our stories and our lineages may diverge, but we must never lose sight of the rooted connections that exist between us, and make the choices which give birth to the next events, the transitional toledot, with that awareness in mind.

Chayei Sarah: Sarah Imeinu, a flawed and powerful matriarch

The death of Sarah so soon after the binding of Isaac by his father, is ascribed in the midrash as the result of the shock Sarah experienced when she became aware that Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice their son Isaac in order to demonstrate to God his total loyalty, and that God had been prepared to test Abraham with such an ordeal.

God had said to Abraham: take your son, your only one, whom you love…” but the truth is that Isaac was not Abraham’s only son, though he was Sarah’s, HER only one. Abraham still of course, had Ishmael.


Isaac was her miracle child, born to her after years of infertility had merged into menopause, prophesied to her by God, a boy whose name meant laughter, but whose life in the event seemed to have had very little joy in it.

Isaac was the boy who was born to fulfil the promise of huge numbers of descendants. In procuring a son, any son, for Abraham, Sarah had tried to make sure that promise was fulfilled, but in the process had given herself a life with very little laughter and a great deal of unhappiness. She had given her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, but the son born from that union had then had to leave the family as she understood that he presented a danger to Isaac and to his inheritance. Then too, the relationship between Abraham and Sarah was clearly not all it might have been.  We know that Abraham was not with Sarah when she died, and more than that, that they had separate households in separate cities. The Midrash also suggests that love had died between them before the Akedah, when it allows us read that famous command from God as “Take your son, the only one you love, take Isaac…”

Sarah lived for 127 years, and the content of her life was the launch pad for much of later Jewish history.  Her death gives us a stake in the future too, for the negotiations between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite to buy her gravesite provide us not only with an insight into such transactions, but give documentary credibility to the attachment of the Jewish people to the land.  Many is the scriptural literalist who points to this passage and declares – “see we bought this land all this time ago, it is ours.”

It seems to me horribly appropriate that it should have been for Sarah that the land was purchased and the transaction so scrupulously recorded, for it is Sarah who took matters into her own hands when she procured a son for her husband via her handmaid Hagar, and set up a chain of painful rejection and destruction that has never quite been dealt with by any of the protagonists or by their descendents.

It was Sarah who couldn’t wait; who caused the birth of Ishmael and who had him sent away to what she assumed would be his death. It was Sarah whose sad and ironic laughter prefigured the lack of any real laughter in Isaac’s life.

Sarah is a figure who comes from nowhere – her genealogy is not given (exceptional in the biblical context) except for the defensive statement by Abraham that she is his sister.  She is however included in the covenant promise  given to Abraham – it will be her child with him, not Hagar’s to whom the covenant will apply. She is beautiful enough to be wanted by Kings, yet her barrenness makes her beauty somehow irrelevant, and her beauty is seen by Abraham mainly as a threat to his own life should anyone more powerful than him desire her.

Her life is full of journeying, her relationships full of misplaced love, manipulation and pain.

Sarah’s death leaves unfinished and painful circumstances. There is a great hole in the life of her son, who does not meet her again after the terrifying experience with his father, and who later takes his own bride into his mother’s tent, (not his father’s), to be comforted for the loss of his mother. Her husband also mourns her, but having honourably buried her, swiftly remarries, fathering children who will be the ancestors of the surrounding tribes with which Israel will have to deal.  Intriguingly, Keturah, the second wife of Abraham, is equated in the Midrash with Hagar, the repudiated handmaid of Sarah, a way no doubt of dealing with the discomfort of the rabbis with the behaviour of Sarah and Abraham towards this innocent Egyptian maid, yet a resolution which essentially betrays Sarah.

Sarah’s death is too soon, despite her 127 years of full life. She bequeathed a series of family behaviours that took generations to deal with, if not to fully conclude.  Her son was left emotionally disabled by his upbringing, her grandchildren spent years unable to see past their own senses of injustice and betrayal.

Yet for all of this Sarah was a matriarch, she ordered and she sorted and she gave unquestioning loyalty to Abraham and to his perceived destiny.  She travelled with him, leaving her home and her background just as surely as Abraham had done.  She nourished and cared for him, she understood prophesy and indeed is seen as a prophet in her own right, her gifts in that field considered to be greater even than Abraham’s. She heard God’s voice and she spoke with God and she even had the confidence to laugh at God.

The rabbis say that Sarah’s death is announced in such a way (“The lives of Sarah were..and Sarah died”) to bring home the lesson that her life was fully lived and that that was the important thing about her – her death was inevitable but it was her life that counted.  As we remember the stories about her, the bold actions she took on behalf of those she loved, the meddling in history and the protecting of her own, we can begin to understand her and to some extent understand the choices she made. She was matriarch, wife, part of the chain of the covenant; she loved fiercely and maybe acted on that love unwisely. She was sometimes a problem for herself and for those around her, but her life remains a story worth telling from which we can learn. Sarah Imeinu, a brilliant and determined woman whose life was full and complex and left its mark on her descendants, and whose death has also impacted on our history up to the present time.

(image an embroidery of Sarah’s tent on Torah binder by Caroline Ingram)

Va’yera: the multiplicity of ways our world appears to us, the many lenses through which we choose to view it (or not)

So much happens in sidra Va’yera that it is almost impossible to focus in on it, yet could it be that this rich multiplicity of stories is designed to catch our attention by its very unusual amount of action? Right from the first sentence we are being shown more than one reality, and this is captured in the name of the sidra – Va’yera – meaning “and he appeared”.

The narrative begins with God deciding to appear to Abraham, but as soon as we are privy to that information the perspective changes, and through Abraham’s eyes we see three ordinary men travelling in the desert, and requiring hospitality.

Are they divine messengers? Angels? Ordinary people who somehow will carry out a special function?

And where are they? Standing right over him or at a distance which forces him to run over to them to offer this hospitality?

The confusion carries on right through the narratives here. One verse begins with the three speaking, the next has one (human) voice, the one after is clearly described as the speech of God. Sarah, on hearing the news, laughs inside, yet God hears her… Always a multiplicity of perspectives are woven into the story telling, a little like seeing an event through a variety of cameras, in real time and in flashback, from one angle and then another.

Why is the bible telling these stories in this way, sometimes slowing down the motion so we get almost every footstep of the journey to Mt Moriah and the verbatim conversation between father and son, sometimes speeding up so between Hagar leaving her son at a distance so she could weep, and the angel hearing the voice of the boy, there is barely a blink of the eye?

The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah are both taken from this sidra – the first day’s text being the story of the abandonment of Hagar and Ishmael at the insistence of the frightened and jealous Sarah; while on the second day we read of Abraham taking of her own son Isaac up Mt Moriah in a terrifying ceremony apparently done at the insistence of God, after which we find that Isaac never speaks to either parent again. What messages are being conveyed in these choices of torah reading? Why are both taken from Vayera?

Could it be that we are being reminded of the many perspectives involved in understanding an event, that sometimes things are hidden and sometimes they are not; sometimes we understand and sometimes we simply don’t; sometimes people do things for the best intentions and get the worst outcome, and sometimes we do things not with good intentions but because we are afraid or territorial or jealous or determined to second guess God.

Could the rabbis who chose these two contiguous chapters have done so to remind us not only of the close relationship we have with Ishmael, but also of the fact that our perspective is not the only one that is important in the story of who inherits the Covenant God made with Abraham. Indeed that God promises Abraham that he should follow Sarah’s demand because “of the son of the bondwoman I will make a nation, because he is your seed.”(21:13)

The more that we read this sidra, the more the puzzlement grows. What is the sin of Sodom? Why does Lot behave as he does when the visitors come? What do Abraham and Sarah see and understand when the three strangers visit them? Why is God telling Abraham of his intentions with regard to Sodom and allowing Abraham to bargain him out of the plan – but only insofar as God allows. Why does God ‘test’ Abraham with the threatened sacrifice of his remaining son, and does Abraham pass the test or does he fail it?

There are so many perspectives given in this sidra, yet we still cannot encompass what is going on – only become aware of the multiplicity of viewpoints, and the complexity of relationships. Maybe that is the lesson in itself – as we form a view of our world and our role in it, we shouldn’t let ourselves look for simple answers, but always be aware of the many threads in the weave, each holding a truth of its own. And each action we take – be it the frankly terrifying decisions that Abraham makes for his sons, or the tragic actions of Lot’s daughters – each action has a consequence and leads to yet more complexity. On Rosh Hashanah it is important we come face to face with our own history and with the multiplicity of perspectives and lenses through which to view it. The rest of the year we shouldn’t lose the lesson – religion isn’t a matter of good versus bad, there isn’t a battle between the forces of light and those of dark, but in each of us there is a complex mixture of views and perspectives, and the choices that emerge from how we value those views will dictate whether our future will be one of resolution and peace or of continuing struggle. We tell ourselves a story about what is happening in the world or in our lives on a daily, even hourly basis. We should remember in our story telling that ours isn’t the only way to tell the story.