Bilhah and the man who mistook his wife for his bed

The last sidra in Genesis brings the denouement of the narratives of the rivalries in the founding family down the generations.  Many of the themes we have seen in earlier texts return to be developed or reworked so that a number of outstanding threads can be tied off. Both Jacob and Joseph will die in this sidra, the deaths and burials of the patriarchs and matriarchs will be recalled as Jacob requests he be buried not in Egypt but in the Cave of Machpela where all but Rachel have been laid to rest. There is a deathbed blessing where the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are blessed in a scene resonant of the blessings of Jacob and Esau by their father Isaac.  Except here the process of the blessing is explicit, both boys are present together, as is their father who tries to correct Jacob when he offers the ‘senior’ blessing to the younger boy. Jacob, whose eyes are now as dim as his own father’s had been, knows exactly what he is doing and refuses to be corrected, instead offering a blessing that harks back to the words given to his own mother when she enquired of God why she was in such pain – “[the older] also shall become a people, and shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.”

Reference is made to the dream Jacob had as a young man leaving Canaan where he encountered God and received the covenantal blessing, and the struggle at the Ford of Jabok when he received the name “Israel”. And then he calls his other sons to his bedside to offer them words of – well, words that are described traditionally as blessing, but seem to me to be words of challenge and bluntly painful truth. In the text, only Joseph and his two sons are the recipients of a beracha, the verbal root is not used for any of Jacobs other sons.

I had set myself the task of writing about the women who often hide in plain sight in the weekly sidra. Sadly in Vayechi, the matriarchs are all mentioned, but only in terms of their burials. There are two other women alluded to in the text –the mother of Ephraim and Manasseh,  Osnat/Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On (see https://rabbisylviarothschild.com/2016/12/30/miketz-the-strange-case-of-the-disappearing-women-2/ to read about her) and Bilhah, the maid of Rachel who also bears sons with Jacob on behalf of Rachel and whose status seems to move around in the texts . While she is not named here, the event between Reuben and her years earlier are recalled to devastating effect on Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, who should have been taking his place as the next link in the generational chain, but who is set aside instead, leaving the field clear for Joseph instead.

When we first meet Bilhah in Paddan Aram she is a servant maid: shifcha   השִׁפְחָ  belonging  to Laban and given by him to his younger daughter Rachel on her marriage, just as Zilpah had been given to Leah. (Gen 29:29)

When Rachel fears she will not be able to conceive a child, she gives Bilhah her שִׁפְחָה to Jacob as a wife – isha  הלְאִשָּׁ (Gen 30:3ff), and Bilhah has again been described in this passage as her maid, while  using a different word אֲמָתִי – a servant even less respected in the household than a shifcha.  The word shifcha is used again when Jacob divides his family across the ford of Jabok while fearing what Esau might do to them and her status with Zilpah and their sons is defined when they are put at the head of the procession, in the most danger. After Rachel’s death the narrative refers to her as פִּילֶגֶשׁ – pilegesh, often translated as concubine, but having real legal and social status, and therefore more correctly seen as a kind of secondary wife.

Bilhah herself never speaks. Yet as the mother of Dan and Naftali – albeit as a surrogate for Rachel – she is an ancestress. Even with the surrogacy/adoption process of her children, she and Zilpah (Leah’s maid) are still described as wives of Jacob (for eg Gen 37:2) but they are essentially only seen in relationship to their children. Her relationship with Rachel is coldly transactional from Rachel’s viewpoint. We don’t of course have any record of Bilhah’s feelings. So when Leah names the sons born to Zilpah there is at least some joy in the names and rationales she chooses (Gad= Fortune has come; Asher = happiness) but when Rachel names the sons born to Bilhah there is no such pleasure (Dan=God has judged me; Naftali=I have wrestled with my sister and won) so it seems that poor Bilhah really is only an object to those around her, her body to be used by both Jacob and by Rachel.

Bilhah is surely a candidate for being one of the saddest women in bible. And things only get worse for her after Rachel’s death. She now belongs to Jacob (she is his pilegesh) and in an almost entirely animal dynamic, Reuben his oldest son decides to stage a challenge to the older man by having sex with her.

The text in Genesis 35 is brief, but we can read into it if we look carefully:

 וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֔ן וַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵֽ֑ל   פ

  וַיִּהְי֥וּ בְנֵי־יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר:

“And Israel dwelt in that land, and Reuven went, and he bedded Bilhah the pilegesh/secondary wife of his father, and Israel heard      [break in the text but not in the sentence]

and the sons of Jacob were twelve.”

Why is there a physical break in the written text? What is it telling us is missing in the story?

What does Israel hear – can it be the screams of pain and distress by the woman Bilhah who has been so victimised by his arrogant eldest son? There is no story of kindness between them as in the story of Dinah and Shechem that is often called rape – so just how terrible must this abuse of power been that poor Bilhah had to endure? And why is her protest erased?

Nothing is said at the time, at least insofar as the text reveals, but Jacob clearly does not forget, and so in our portion this week reference is made in his deathbed words to Reuben.

 רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣רִי אַ֔תָּה כֹּחִ֖י וְרֵאשִׁ֣ית אוֹנִ֑י יֶ֥תֶר שְׂאֵ֖ת וְיֶ֥תֶר עָֽז: פַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֨יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה:

“Reuben, you are my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you have not the excellency; because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it–he went up to my couch!”

I don’t know what I find more appalling. The act of Reuben who mindlessly slept with/raped a woman because he wanted to challenge his father and lay claim to his wife, or the ultimate response (after a long silence) by Jacob, who does not even name the woman, but refers to her as “my couch” יצוע, . To these men she is not a person, not a human being at all, but a possession akin to a beautiful piece of furniture whose only function is to show the status of its owner.  When Jacob tells Reuben that he no longer has the status and promise of the eldest son because of this action, it is because ‘hilalta’ – you have profaned/defiled – not the woman but his bed.  And the fact that he repeats the image of his bed being misused, (almost in a staged aside of disbelief at the actions of his son), only makes it clearer to us just how they ignore and erase the act done to this woman – she is either ‘mishk’vei avicha’ the beds of your father (the place where he has sex) or y’tzui – my couch.        Again contrast with the story of Dinah when Shimon and Levi justify their own horrific violence against Shechem with the question that hangs at the end “shall they treat our sister like a prostitute?” Yet here, there is no avenging the act done to Bilhah – she may be the mother to two of their brothers, yet she is less than nothing to them.

Bad as this text is in its erasure of Bilhah and her pain and outrage, sadly there is a tradition which goes on to blame her for Reuben’s act.

In the pseudopigrapha – specifically the text “the Testament of Reuben” we find the need to besmirch and defame Bilhah is given free rein. Written possibly in the second Temple period it follows the literary conceit of a farewell address written by the sons of Jacob. The words ascribed to Reuben tell his descendants not to be sexually profligate in youth as he had been when he slept with his father’s wife, as he had been struck by an illness and only the prayers of his father had saved him. He continues:

Pay no heed to the face of a woman, nor associate with another man’s wife, nor meddle with affairs of womankind. For if I had not seen Bilhah bathing in a covered place, I would not have fallen into this great iniquity. For my mind taking in the thought of the woman’s nakedness, suffered me not to sleep until I had wrought the abominable thing. For while Jacob our father had gone to Isaac his father, when we were in Eder, near to Ephrat in Bethlehem, Bilhah became drunk and was asleep uncovered in her chamber. Having therefore gone in and beheld nakedness, I wrought the impiety without her perceiving it, and leaving her sleeping I departed.”

There are echoes here of Noah, of Lot and his daughters, of David and Batsheva. But whereas they were not held responsible for their actions, here Bilhah bathed where she could be seen, got drunk, slept in a lewd position and was not even aware of the rape – shades of what used to be called “contributory negligence”.

Rabbinic literature does not only not help Bilhah, but it seems more concerned with protecting the reputation of Reuben, even while explaining why the status that should have been his went to Judah. The Mishnah (Megillah 4:10) suggest that the verse should not be translated when read out in the synagogue, so that the people who did not know Hebrew would not learn about it.  Talmud (BT Shabbat 55b) has R.Shmuel bar Nachman quoting R. Jonathan and saying “Anyone who says that Reuben sinned is wrong, for it is said “now the sons of Jacob were twelve” so all were equal [in sin]..and when bible says he slept with Bilhah the concubine of his father, it means only that he moved his father’s bed without permission and scripture ascribes blame AS IF he had slept with her.” The rabbis are falling over themselves to find Reuben innocent of the terrible act that bible records quite bluntly. They are unaware of either the person or of the plight of Bilhah. How true it is that we don’t notice what is not important to us, but make our world only out of what we see and care about.

Bilhah is the ultimate victim – only her name and those of her two sons are known and recorded. Her life of service begins with being owned by Laban, then Rachel, then Jacob, then Reuben. What else happens to her? Who knows – no one seems to have cared.

Occasionally there is a move towards adding Bilhah and Zilpah to the matriarchs in our prayers. I have always been ambivalent about this, as neither of the women has any relationship with God or prayer that might add to ours. But I am pressingly aware that Bilhah and Zilpah bore and mothered sons to Jacob, they are the ur-ancestors of the twelve tribes just as the ancestors we name. And their story is as much part of our history. A real violence has been done to them – and in particular to Bilhah who is objectified beyond any awareness of her humanity. Her story must once again be told and the gross act of abuse condemned. It is said that the Shechinah weeps over the exile of the children of Israel. The weeping of Bilhah abused at the hands of those same children must also be heard and acknowledged.

Kedoshim: increasing kiddush hashem and diminishing hillul hashem.

It has long been the habit to refer to all the Jews who historically were killed for adhering to their faith in times of persecution as having died “al Kiddush Hashem” and this idea has also become attached to the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah – they have become kedoshim through their deaths and are  elevated to the status of martyrdom.  I understand the comfort that may be derived by those who mourn their murdered family and friends to see their status as that of kedoshim, but I have always found this slide of the terminology to be problematic. To me martyrdom should be a conscious choice. To me their murder is a Hillul Hashem, and no holiness can be found within it, only in the responses both at the time and afterwards to protest, to remember, to mourn, to live on.

I am uncomfortable also in the loss of the full name of Yom haShoah, which is actually “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah”— literally the “Day of (remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism.” All choice has been removed from our remembering – both the lack of choice of those who were rounded up and unable to protest, and the powerful choices made by those who did protest, or who were partisans or who hid themselves or others from the evil around them.  By diminishing the heroism, by diminishing the choices people made from their own humanity and their ethical imperatives, it seems to be we lose out on Kiddush Hashem as people are able to bring it about. Instead we focus on the Hillul Hashem of those who mindlessly or not destroyed the hopes and lives of so many and we coat the victims in martyrdom as if to bring honour to their destinies.

Yom HaShoah was created to remember those we have defined as kedoshim either through martyrdom or through protecting God’s creation when others were trying to destroy it, and the date was chosen by the Government of Israel to remember them. It is no coincidence that the date chosen by the politicians was out of sync from the date that would have been chosen by rabbinic tradition, and instead of being placed on a traditional day of mourning such as tenth Tevet or Tisha b’Av it was placed a week before the celebration of the Israel Independence Day – Yom ha’Atzma’ut. This placing has led to a connection in the minds of many, that the outcome of the murder of the 6 million is the creation of the modern State of Israel.

For me this is deeply problematic. Not only does it submerge the many prior years of political Zionism that worked to create a Jewish state, but it builds the state on the martyrdom of the ‘kedoshim’, many of whom were not natural Zionists in life.  In so doing, it changes the nature of the contract with the land we have had since this Torah text was given – that we have the land of Israel because God has given it to us, and we have a responsibility to live on it in a way that promotes Kiddush Hashem. Sidra Kedoshim makes clear that our continued living on the land of Israel depends on our living lives of kedoshim, ethical lives where the vulnerable are protected, the land is cared for, and where a lived awareness of the focussed attention of God and the desire to behave as God would wish us to do should always be part of our daily routines. By making the idea of ‘kedoshim’ the historical foundation of the State rather than the aspiration of the contemporary society we reduce the imperative to behave in holiness. And that is dangerous, for if we are not acting to promote Kiddush Hashem we run the risk of sliding into its shadow, of Hillul Hashem. If we believe we have an entitlement not given to us by Torah but by the deaths of innocents then we can easily act from that sense of entitlement, and we forget the conditions given here in Leviticus that the land will not tolerate our bad behaviour.

The rabbis of the Talmud spoke of being kedoshim as living in such a way as to imitate the divine qualities of mercy and kindness.  They specifically ruled out imitating the parallel divine attribute of strict justice often seen as working in balance with divine mercy and which may impose conditions for the way the mercy might be applied. They are advocating undiscriminating kindness to others in order both to achieve kedoshim and to increase the presence of God in the world. I am reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote “when I was young I used to admire clever people, now I am older I admire kind people” and I hope that beyond admiration, we remember the vulnerable and the powerless and those who sought to help and protect them, and in remembering our own experience of helplessness and oppression we too strive to increase kindness in our world.

 

Chanukah Readings: It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Bible tells us that the first thing that God did having created the heavens and the earth was to utter the words “Let there be light”, and there was light. God saw the light was good, and God divided the light from the darkness, and so began the ordering of a world which would ultimately sustain and nourish humanity, and they in turn would work with God to continue the process of perfecting creation.

Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, comes to remind us of the need to continue that work, even though it might sometimes seem that the darkness is all enveloping, and the world has reverted to the state of primordial chaos filled with terrifying uncontrolled forces that is contained in the phrase “tohu va’vohu”

Just as light was the catalyst for the world to develop into a place where we could live and thrive, so too light is the response we must make when faced with a darkening world. Just as bible commands that a light was to be continually burning in the tent of meeting outside the veil of testimony, and the priesthood had to tend to it evening and morning in order to keep it in good order as an eternal statute for the generations, (Exodus 27:20 and Lev 24:2) so too we need our ner tamid, our continually tended and burning light, to remind us not only of God’s compassionate and watchful presence in the world, but also of our obligation to bring God’s presence further into the world. As the book of Proverbs tells us,” Ki ner mitzvah, v’torah or : the commandment is a lamp and torah is light” – to act as God wishes us to act brings light into our world. (6:23)

Chanukah, like all festivals of light, comes in the winter darkness to remind us that the glow of even a small candle can alleviate the deep darkness, and as the Talmud reminds us “the candle of one person can bring light to many people” (Shabbat 122a)

There are many small candles lit in the world, many people doing good work in creative and imaginative ways, tending to the ner tamid, keeping the light of hope alive. Our High Holy Day confession includes the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair” and I must confess that each time I read the news of what is happening in the world, the way so many people are terrorised and terrified, violently murdered or imprisoned or forced to live hand to mouth, treated without compassion or empathy, uprooted and fleeing for their lives or stuck in a societal stratum below any human dignity, I give in, for a while, to despair. And when I see how governments oppress and harass their own people whom they are supposed to protect and support, close their eyes to the pain of their public and to the social justice values of civil society I succumb to frustration and fury that “they” are misusing their power so freely, unchallenged and unrestrained. And I come close to despair.

But then I remember those many people and organisations, those many small candles lit and tended to, which challenge the dejection and despondency and allow me to hope, to connect, to believe that the prophetic values of the Hebrew bible are not only alive and well, but are fighting back hard to be heard and to be seen, to bring light back into the world

So here are eight organisations of civil society in Israel who bring me hope. Eight organisations in whose light we see God’s light, who speak out for justice because, like Rav Kook, they do not have the power to keep silent. One for each of the nights of Chanukah: as you light the small flame of each candle, remember the words of Isaiah “I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do for them, and not forsake them.” (42:16)

 

First Night of Chanukah:   Tag Meir – The Tag of Light

Founded in Jerusalem in 2011 in response to Tag Mechir (price tag), this is the largest grassroots organisation in Israel that works against hate crime and religious racism in Israel. Transcending religious divides, Tag Meir is an umbrella organisation for a coalition of groups who support and campaign for democratic and Jewish value of justice for all the people. It protests violence and responds to victims of violence. Tag Meir’s mission is to connect different groups in Israeli society in the battle to eradicate racism and violence, and to educate for tolerance and empathy, as well as creating public events to raise and amplify the voice of those committed to democratic values. They offer Israelis the chance to voice their opposition to violence, to publicise it to all who need to hear, from Government to the victims themselves. They hold demonstrations and vigils, they pay condolence calls to victims of terror, they repaint over racist graffiti, they offer material support to religious places defaced. They meet with politicians and decision makers to end incitement and inflammatory rhetoric. Their motto : Or Bimkom Terror – Light instead of terror.http://www.tagmeiren.media-sb.co.il/

 

tag meir

Second night of Chanukah :   The Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre in Akko

The vision and life’s work of Mohammed Fahili, this is the only Jewish- Arab Community Centre in Israel. It began in 1985 as a simple after-school club run by volunteers and located in the communal bomb shelter of a poor neighbourhood, this was part of an effort by the local Jewish and Arab residents to improve their living environment.  In 1991 the Clore Israel Foundation funded the construction of a purpose-built community centre.

The Centre’s aim is to provide high-quality, low-cost activities for Akko’s residents regardless of ethnicity or ability to pay. It functions as an important part of the community, offering enrichment programmes from infants to pensioners, allowing the people of Akko to meet over shared interests and needs, informally connecting people and building strong relationships. Many of the children that they cater for are from large, poor families and are vulnerable to the dangers of street life.  They help combat school drop-out by offering extra-curricular activities and programmes, nurturing Akko’s children to help them achieve a future. They also offer vital programmes for women and a cultural club for pensioners from the Former Soviet Union.

The Centre is an independent, voluntarily funded, not-for-profit, non-political and unaffiliated organisation.  It is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations from people who believe in the importance of their work in creating a better future in the region.

 

Fahili himself is an inspiration a candle in a dark room. With courage, humility and perseverance he has created an oasis of hope, a meeting place, a model for how Israeli society can be. http://ajcenter.org.il/

fahili

 

 

Third night of Chanukah:  Hiddush For Religious Freedom and Equality

Founded in 2009, Hiddush works through advocacy and public education to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Taking as its platform the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which states “”The State of Israel … will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion … it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience” Hiddush is a partnership between Israeli Jews and World Jewry to ensure that this guarantee remains at the centre of the Israeli Government’s policy.
www.hiddush.org

 

 

Fourth Night of Chanukah:  YTheater Project Jerusalem

Founded in September 2009 in Jerusalem, this is the Israeli-Palestinian Community Theatre for a Change. YTheater engages Israelis and Palestinians together in a creative process of empowerment and responsibility. Using activist community theatre methods, it builds relationships, nurtures civic virtues, and helps the participants to work together strategically. YTheater runs workshops for Jewish, Arab, and Anglo youth and young adults to empower leadership.

 

“We are Palestinians and Israelis. Our lives and world-views usually exclude one another. We agree about almost nothing.   We are positioned in opposition. Our souls are on the line. We burn with the passion of the Middle East. We grope for new pathways – to break through impasses, to un-lock the grid of violence, and to mend what is broken. Creating theatre is our shared language; the stage is our meeting point. We are Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druze who collaborate. We struggle, we do not whitewash. We face difference and difficulty with caring and respect. Awe for life feeds our commitment to persevere, to create, to pry open our own hearts and the hearts of our audiences and participants. YTheater Project Jerusalem explores, interprets and innovates. We delve deeply into our behaviour, traditions, and societies.  We critique, provoke, and even, humbly, propose.In a region raw with conflict and pain, we rehearse for better life together. We are contributing to the infrastructure for better Palestinian and Israeli civil society.  YTheater builds relationships that heighten confidence and active will toward peace.”       Website    http://ytheater.org

 

 

Fifth night of Chanukah:        The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, founded in 1998, is Israel’s leading organization protecting the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. For over 15 years Hotline staff and volunteers have been visiting Israel’s immigration detention centres to monitor conditions, meet with detainees and provide paralegal intervention and legal representation. We represent some of the most vulnerable people in Israel and advocate for government policies consistent with a just, equal and democratic Israel.

By combining client advocacy with impact litigation, policy initiatives and public outreach, we aim to achieve broad-based, systematic improvements in policies and practices ensuring that the human rights of migrants in Israel are respected.

Their main activities are Crisis Intervention, Legal Action and Public Policy and Education.       Website http://hotline.org.il/en/about-us/

Sixth Night of Chanukah: The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality

In 1997, a group of concerned Arab and Jewish residents of the Negev (the southern desert region of Israel) established the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality to provide a framework for Jewish-Arab collaborative efforts in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence. The Forum, also known as “Dukium” in Hebrew, is unique in being the only Arab-Jewish organization established in the Negev that remains focused solely on the specific problems confronting the Negev.

The Forum’s activities and projects are based on the principle of Arab-Jewish cooperation and among their members are leaders of the Negev Arab community and academics. As a joint Jewish-Arab group we maintain a balance and equal partnership in the bodies of the organization as well as in the decision-making processes.

NCF is engaged in a wide range of grassroots activities. They have worked with community leaders in “unrecognized” Bedouin villages to deliver vital basic services to their communities. In the spirit of coexistence, Bedouin residents and Jewish volunteers work together to provide clean water, nursery schools, access roads and rubbish removal systems to over a dozen villages.

In collaboration with other NGOs, the NCF has filed legal petitions against discriminatory practices affecting Bedouin communities in the Negev. For example, as a result of a joint petition submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005, the government agreed to properly dispose of sewage flowing through Um Batin. Other petitions have led to the establishment of health clinics in ten unrecognized villages and to the prohibition of toxic crop spraying.   Website www.Dukium.org

Seventh Night of Chanukah:    Breaking the Silence

“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavour to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

We collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who, like us, have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000, and hold lectures, house meetings, and other public events which bring to light the reality in the Territories through the voice of former combatants. We also conduct tours in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills region, with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.

Founded in March 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has since acquired a special standing in the eyes of the Israeli public and in the media, as it is unique in giving voice to the experience of soldiers. To date, the organization has collected testimonies from over a 1,000 soldiers who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories.”

 

Eighth Night of Chanukah:        Shomrei Mishpat: Rabbis for Human Rights

“Founded in 1988, Rabbis for Human Rights is the only rabbinic voice in Israel that is explicitly dedicated to human rights. Representing over 100 Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students from different streams of Judaism, we derive our authority from our Jewish tradition and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our mission is to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations, and to pressure the State institutions to redress these injustices. In a time in which a nationalist and isolationist understanding of Jewish tradition is heard frequently and loudly, Rabbis for Human Rights give expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.

RHR works primarily in the following 4 fields:

Socioeconomic Justice Work in Israel:

Rights of the Poor: RHR focuses on raising awareness and lobbying the Knesset for better economic rights for impoverished Israelis at the national level. At the local level, our Rights Centre in Hadera helps hundreds of Jews and Arab citizens obtain socioeconomic rights that have been denied to them, and run empowerment and advocacy groups of local Arab and Jewish citizens  from the Hadera area who focus and advocate for policy changes of their choosing.

Rights to Public Housing: RHR provides legal representation for public housing tenants in Beit She’an, Beersheva, and Hadera whose housing does not meet their needs or who are facing eviction.

 

Human Rights Work in the Occupied Territories: For example the Olive Tree Campaign: RHR works year round with Palestinian farmers from several dozen villages in the Occupied Territories, to ensure that they can regularly access their agricultural lands, often denied to them because of their proximity to Israeli settlements.. During Tu B’shvat, we purchase and bring hundreds of Israeli and international volunteers together with Palestinians to plant some 2,500 olive trees in areas where settlers have cut, uprooted and/or burned trees in acts of vandalism and arson.

Challenging Land Confiscation in the Occupied Territories: RHR works to legally prevent or reverse the takeover of Palestinian lands in Area C, and ensure that Palestinian farmers can safely access those lands. We continually monitor the implementation of previous rulings on land access issues.

Promoting Human Rights Education in Israel: RHR works in 12 pre-military academies, exposing every year some 600 young Israelis to our human rights teachings based on our rabbinic interpretation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We believe that teaching human rights to young people who then continue onto their army service better equips them to deal humanely with the realities on the ground.

 

Human Rights Yeshivas: For more than a decade, RHR has been teaching about human rights and Judaism to Israeli university students. We currently run 2 human rights yeshivas, with a total of 40 participants. Students who participate in the program receive a stipend, and intern in a human rights or social change organization in order to understand more deeply the challenges facing Israeli society.”

 

RHR_logo_for-Site

 

LIGHTING THE CHANUKAH CANDLES: BLESSINGS

Candles are added to the Chanukiah from right to left but are lit from left to right.

(On the Shabbat of Chanukah, light the Chanukah lights first and only then the Shabbat candles)

Light the shamash first, then use it to kindle the rest of the Hanukkah lights. As you do, say or sing:

Baruch atah Adonai ,Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah   Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy through doing the mitzvot, and commands us to light the lights of Chanukah.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she-asah nissim la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem Baz’man hazeh. Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

 

And on the first night only, add the blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she’hecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

 

As you light the other lights (or after you have finished lighting) recite the following:

Hanerot halalu anu madlikin / Al ha’te’shu’ot v’al ha-nissim v’al ha’nifla’ot, Sheh’aseeta la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem biz’man hazeh/ Al y’dei kohaneh’cha ha’kedoshim; V’chol sh’monat Y’mei Chanukah Hanerot halalu kodesh hem, V’ein lanu reshut le’hishtameish ba’hen/ Ela lirotan bilvad, k’dei lehodot ul’haleil le’shimcha hagadol Al nisse’cha Ve’al niflotecha Ve’al yeshu’ote’cha.

We kindle these lights to commemorate the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our ancestors, in those days at this time, through Your holy priests. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your saving acts.

 

Eight Other Readings about Light and Mitzvot

 

“We live in a dark time. In a world ravaged by war, prejudice, disease, and now, an economic crisis that will put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of suffering. We need to bring more light. And to bring the light, we need to become the Maccabees- a people of faith who believed that liberty is worth fighting for, that human dignity is worth fighting for, and that justice is worth fighting for.” (Rabbi Sid Schwarz)

 

 

“If you offer your compassion to the hungry and you feed the famished creatures, then your light will shine in the darkness and your gloom will be like noonday” Isaiah 58:10

 

“When you think about someone or something that inspires you, the expression with the word נֵר would be Ner Le-Raglav- נֵר לְרַגְּלָיו. Literally, the expression means “a candle by his leg” but the contextual English translation for this expression would be “guideline” or “guiding principle.” I would add to this the meaning of “someone that you can follow”,  as it appears in Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” “נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר לִנְתִיבָתִי.”

 

“According to the Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds interpretation of the Bible, the passage in Genesis follows a major destruction of the world previous to our own. The light mentioned in Genesis 1:3 was a supernatural light that had the power to repair elements of the previously destroyed world. Day one of creation records the day when this supernatural light of repair was introduced into our current world. Day two records the start of the repair of the atmosphere and water. Day three describes the completion of the repair of the atmosphere and water and the repair of plant life. Day four describes the repair of the Earth’s relationship to the Sun, Moon, and stars. Day five describes the repair of marine life and winged creatures. Day six describes the repair of land animals and man.

 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

 

But the path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shines more and more unto the perfect day. (Proverbs 4.18)

 

“The Holy One said to Israel “My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us, you and I go and give light to Zion. Arise, give light, for your light has come (Isaiah 60:1)” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 21:1)

 

mattot massei – a modern take on the cities of refuge

first written 2009.

ImageStaring out of the window in the media-briefing centre in Sderot, looking at a huge and ugly concrete wall right outside, I read the word ‘miklat’ and for a moment I was surprised. I know the word from bible rather than ulpan, where the arei miklat, the cities of refuge, are created. As our bus had entered the town, we were given a briefing – in the event of a rocket coming over from Gaza, if you are still on the bus, get down into the passageway and hope. If not, then run like crazy for one of the bomb shelters that are dotted every few yards – the miklat.

Miklat is a word that is repeated ten times in the 34 verses we read today. A miklat is a place of safety, a place of escape, a sheltering place.  Reading today’s portion my mind immediately went back to the experience in Israel – where one didn’t feel very safe nor sheltered. Seeing the word then on the shelters all over the Sderot area, and seeing the words now in this sidra, the two experiences come together. The words for refuge, the designation of the cities of refuge “arei miklat”, of “miklato” (the refuge of the innocent manslayer) — are tied up in Modern Israeli experience as bomb shelter or air raid shelter, the hoped for asylums from the constant and unpredictable attacks on the people there.

In fact the tradition of signing the areas of refuge, something I found so remarkable and so distressing in the unexceptional and stolid nature of those constructions everywhere in Sderot, has long and honourable roots.  The Talmud records that: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’acov said: The words miklat, miklat [refuge, refuge] were inscribed at crossroads, so that the [inadvertent] manslayer might see them and turn in the right direction.” (BT Makkot 10b)

The Cities of Refuge were towns in the Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judah at which the perpetrators of manslaughter – done without malice or forethought – could claim the right of asylum; These manslayers were not enemies of those they had killed, nor had they intended to hurt them, but they had killed them by accident, and outside of these cities, blood vengeance against such perpetrators was allowed by law. The Torah names just six cities as being a city of refuge: Golan, Ramot-Gilad, and Bosor, on the east of the Jordan River, and Kedesh (on the Lebanese border), Shechem, and Hebron on the western side.

Just listing the names of the arei-miklat is a poignant experience. Almost all of these places are in disputed political geography today, and far from being places of calm or sanctuary.  While on sabbatical I spent some time in Israel – in particular a day in the south Hebron hills and in the city of Hebron itself. The tension and aggression in the area was palpable, and rather than have ‘miklat miklat’ signposted at crossroads, there were checkpoints and watchtowers, and in the city closed streets and terrible graffiti. It was the very opposite of a place of refuge.

What was the purpose of providing the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge?

The author of Sefer Ha-Chinuch suggests three reasons for a manslayer to flee to a city of refuge (positive commandment 410):

The first is “So that he regret his deed, suffering the pain of exile, which is almost like the pain of death, for a person becomes separated from his loved ones and the land of his birth, and must live out his days among strangers.”

Secondly “there is an element of improving the world … for it saves him from the blood avenger killing him when he did not willfully do wrong, for his act was unwitting.”

And finally  “There is yet another benefit:  so that the relatives of the person who was killed not have to constantly see the killer in the place where the unfortunate act was committed, for all the ways of the Torah are for peace and tranquility.”

Pain and suffering reflect the emotional state of the manslayer, protecting him from the blood avenger shows concern for his safety and physical preservation, and distancing him from the relatives of the person killed brings about an improvement in society, keeping the family of the person killed from having to see the person who shed his blood, at least for a certain period of time.

Rabbi Judah Zoldan asks “Aside from these explanations, there are several other issues that should be considered: what other understanding and view of the value of life will the manslayer have when he leaves the city of refuge, upon the death of the high priest?  What does the manslayer do with his life for the period that he resides in the city of refuge?  Does he learn and internalize a different view of the value of life and of a person’s responsibilities for his actions?  What rehabilitative process does the manslayer experience there, and under whose guidance?

        From the time I spent in Sderot and in Hebron, these questions have been haunting me. I saw both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living, not in cities of refuge, but in cities of pain, trapped geographically and spiritually in what can only be described as a living hell.  There are, it seems, few innocent manslayers here, but mostly people who are to some extent complicit in the events. Be they suicide bombers prepared to blow themselves up alongside people from the ‘other’ population, or settlers appropriating land for their ideology of triumphant nationalism; be they eighteen year old kids in the IDF not questioning their orders, or the rabbis who write up the terms of engagement against the other, everyone it seems is adding to the heat of events.  There is little reflection, slight repentance, no improving of the world. Rehabilitation and the development of a different view of the value of life is noted mainly for its absence.  And yet –

While I was in the Hebron hills I met a man called Ezra Nawi. He is a Jewish Israeli man, an Iraqi born in Basra, whose trade in life is plumber. He is also a human rights activist, and with persistent non-violent activity he helps the local population to stay on their lands. The day I met him, he was constructing some kind of solar powered electrical generator with what appeared to be some string, some metal, and other Heath Robinson materials, for a family of Arabs whose settlement was being continually disrupted, even though they had papers dating back to the Ottoman times to prove the land was theirs.  There is a video on You Tube of him protesting the treatment meted out to his friends, and what is the most sad for me is him calling out to the border police “I was also a soldier but I did not demolish houses….The only thing that will be left here is hatred, only hatred will be left here”, as an Arab woman screams out “May God never forgive you. May God destroy you”

        The original cities of refuge were designed to keep society safe, to palliate the effect of the blood relative having the power – and obligation – to avenge the death of an individual.  The manslayer who had not killed intentionally, who did not have an animus towards the one who died, was able to find a place of peace within the Levitical cities, and to stay there in safety reflecting upon the results of their actions.  It was designed to bring about peace, rather than allow a feud to build up between families. It was designed to remove the hatred from the situation, taking the hated one away from those who could not bear to see him, taking the thoughtless one to a place of thoughtfulness.

        There are many many peace activists in Israel, Jewish and Arab people who take refuge not in places but in their own integrity, who try to bring about a better world by seeing this one as it really is and imposing the values of the truly religious individual upon it – noticing and valuing the other, noticing when our side gets it wrong, witnessing the conflict peacefully. Alongside Ezra Nawi there is Rabbis for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence – an organization of young Israeli soldiers who are confronting Israeli society with what is being done in their name; Ta’ayush, (2004)  (Arabic for “life in common”), a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership. They say of themselves “A future of equality, justice and peace begins today, between us, through concrete, daily actions of solidarity to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and to achieve full civil equality for all Israeli citizens.”  There is MachsomWatch, in existence since 2001,  an organisation of peace activist Israeli women against the Israeli Occupation of the territories and the systematic repression of the Palestinian nation. They call for Palestinian freedom of movement within their own territory and for an end to the Occupation that destroys Palestinian society and inflicts grievous harm on Israeli society. 

The cities of refuge may be gone, transformed into cities of dispute. Nowadays the only places of miklat are bomb shelters reminding everyone of how much the hatred has grown, how rampant and chaotic the response to it. But there are at least anshei miklat – people who provide a kind of refuge when all around are causing pain and sorrow. Through them I hope that the lands of Israel and of Palestine will soon find true refuge from the terror that stalks them day and night, and that the refuge all of us seek will be found as a result of their actions.  They need our support and our active help. Please do find out more about them and offer them some miklat that we can provide – to know that they are not forgotten and not uncared for. To know that the image of God is not hiding in this world, but is out and about in the work of all of us who choose to do it.

Parashat Va’era

There is so much packed into this sidra – where to begin? Is it with the conundrum of the name of God as presented here? The new and different kind of relationship that God has with Moses in comparison with the Patriarchs? The insight into Moses’ speech difficulties? The hardening of the resolve of Pharaoh by God – and for what purpose? The sudden placing of the genealogy interrupting the narrative flow? The terrible plagues inflicted on the Egyptians? The most amazing (to me, the mother of a primary school child) that the plague of lice could not be repeated by the powerful magicians who could copy other plagues?

One line spoke to me more this year than any other – Moses repeats the words of God who tells the people “I am YHVH and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments, and I will take you to Me for  a people and I will be your God, and you will know that I am the Eternal your God who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians and I will bring you in to the land concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I will give it to you for a heritage, I am YHVH” and the people “did not listen to Moses because of impatience of spirit and [their] difficult work” (6:6-9)

Literally the words “kotzer ruach” mean shortness of breath or limited spirit and could mean, as Rashi understands it, that they were physically finding breathing hard, presumably because of the severity of the work they had to do. But I find Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s translation as “impatience” more satisfactory. They did not listen to what Moses was saying because they were operating in a different emotional environment, they were focussed only on the here and now, they could not see beyond the next task to be achieved.  Short termism was all they could manage. The Jews were slaves – and had been for some generations – in a land named Mitzraim, “the doubly narrow place”. They had  become habituated to their surroundings and their lives, they had learned how to survive, and that skill was all about having narrow horizons themselves. They could not possibly imagine a future, let alone a future in a different world where they would be quite different themselves. The generation of the exodus were emotionally and intellectually locked down, they suffered failure of imagination as well as failure of faith, their one imperative was to keep their heads down and keep doing what they had always done. They would allow themselves no awareness outside this behaviour. They just wanted to survive but it seems they no longer knew why it was important to survive or what they were surviving in order to become.

This view of “kotzer ruach” of narrowness of spirit and failure to dream of a better future is one that comes into sharp focus for me as I watch the run up to the Israeli elections. The many shifting coalitions as people jockey for votes, the offerings of quick fixes rather than thoughtful change, the lack of focus on life -critical issues in favour of trivial ones, the refusal to engage with the peace process, the social pressures facing so many of the people, the financial pressures that can surely not be sustained, it is depressing to sit here watching a country I love suffering from kotzer ruach, taking short breaths that allow it to continue from moment to moment, but having lost direction, belief, imagination, purpose. In 1897 Theodor Herzl famously wrote “im tirtzu, ein zo agada; ve’im lo tirtzu, agada hi ve’agada tisha’er’,: ‘If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay”. Because he and others thought and planned and imagined and dreamed, a Jewish State was born, but it requires the thinking and planning and imagination and dreaming of its current leadership for it to continue to be what it was set up to be: “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” (Declaration of Independence 1948) (1)

Moses offered hope and deep meaning to the Children of Israel, who could not listen to  him or understand what he was offering and so missed a vital opportunity to not only survive but to thrive as a people of God. I hope and pray that we will not suffer such a failure of imagination and will again, and that those who are able to vote in the coming election will make their voices heard for good, so that the promise “I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God, and you will know that I am the Eternal your God” with all that that extraordinary relationship of covenant and obligation can mean, will happen in our day.

 

(1)  taken from http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Declaration+of+Establishment+of+State+of+Israel.htm

Tenth of Tevet – the day of remembering those who died in the Shoah

Today is the tenth of Tevet, an historic day of mourning for the Jewish people for it is the date on which in 588 BCE Nebuchadnezzar responded to King Zedekiah’s rebellion and besieged the city of Jerusalem (2Kings 25:1-2), and bible also records that the word of God came to Ezekiel telling him “”O mortal, write for yourself the name of this day, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem”  (Ezekiel 24: 2).  Exile to Babylon became certain from this date, even though the city held out for some time, falling three years later when on 17th Tammuz the city walls were breached and three weeks after that on the 9th Av the Temple was destroyed. By the time of Zechariah (c520 BCE) the custom of fasting on this day was established.

While this fast was originally a response to the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel for seventy years, it was never seen as only the commemoration of an historic response, but also a response to the suffering of the people. Because of this, and because of the Talmudic dictum that “Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, Bad things come to pass on an unlucky day” (Ta’anit 29a), the tenth of Tevet became seen as an appropriate day on which to commemorate all who died in the Shoah, particularly all those whose date of death was unknown. In 1949 the Israeli Chief Rabbinate declared that “the day on which the first churban (destruction) commenced should become a memorial day also for the last churban,” and two years later this became the official date for the yahrzeit of those who have no recorded date of death.

Yet the Government of Israel chose a different date to commemorate the events of the Shoah, “Yom Ha’Zikaron le Shoah ve la’Gevurah” The Day of Remembering the Shoah and Heroism was passed in Israeli law in 1953 and was originally chosen to be observed on the 14th Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – clearly the Gevurah, the Heroism, was to be a major component of the observing of this day, a deliberate and explicit way to counter the “lambs to the slaughter” accusations of the victimhood of the Jewish people.

There were a number of problems with this date – the month of Nisan is traditionally a month of joy, associated with redemption and Pesach, and to hold a day of mourning in it cut across customs and norms. Particularly, the 14th Nisan is just before Seder night and so the date was moved to the 27th Nisan, which means that it is now observed the week before Yom ha’Atzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day.

And this is where I become uncomfortable. I have always found the link of a week between Yom HaShoah to Yom Ha’Atzma’ut means that we link the two dates in an improper way. The yearning by the Jewish people for their own land once more is millennia old. The practical developments for this to happen began many years before the Shoah, with the work of the Zionist movement which grew out of growing anti-Semitism in post enlightenment Europe. While the events of the Shoah may or may not have had an effect on the speed the establishment of the State of Israel, it does not rest fundamentally upon it – the ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are deeper, longer, and far more complex than it being a response out of the guilt of Europe to solve the “Jewish Question”.  The linkage between the Shoah and the State of Israel has also led to a corrupted narrative that the Jews of the Diaspora were by definition weak and helpless, negating the rich traditions of learning, art, science and being of the Jews who lived in Europe for so many generations.

To have this date on the tenth of Tevet rather than in Nisan would not only realign our observance to traditional timing, it would mean that we would remember all those who died in the Shoah the week after finishing celebrating Chanukah, a festival that grew out of militaristic triumph and that was reinterpreted by rabbinic tradition with the addition of a miracle to become a religious reminder that even in dark times God is with us. To remember our unknown dead, and all those who died at the hands of a great power bent on destroying us just one week after we celebrate the victory of those who fought a great power bent on destroying the particularity of the Jewish people would give us a better sense of perspective. We would be reminded that no battle is ever won for all time and we need to remain aware of the need to combat evil wherever we find it;, that however clever our military strategies we also need to be aware of the reason for our continued existence – that we are a people of God whose work is to increase holiness in the world, just as we increase the level of holiness through the days of Chanukah.  

The naming of Jacob and a midrash on Israel – Parashat Vayishlach

Twice in this sidra we are told about the name given to Jacob. The first time happens at the Ford of Yabok after he has wrestled all night before meeting his brother Esau again. At his demand as the dawn rises he requests a blessing and his name Jacob is changed to Israel, (Vayomer: lo Ya’akov yei’ameir od shimcha, ki im Yisrael, ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with people, and have prevailed.’  (Genesis 32:28-29)

The second time is a few chapters later, when having met Esau he has reached Beit El, the place we are told was the scene of his original meeting with God when, having fled his family after cheating Esau of the birthright blessing he dreamed of a ladder from heaven to earth and made his deal with God should he come back safely to his own land. This time we are clear about who is doing the naming, but with less clarity about what the new name is supposed to mean:  “Vayomer Elohim lo, shimcha Ya’akov. Lo yikarei  shimcha od Ya’akov ki im Yisrael yihyeh sh’mecha, Vayikra et sh’mo Yisrael” And God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, your name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be your name. And God called his name Israel”

So the first time we have a reason for the name given to Jacob – albeit one that is a bit of a stretch for our imaginations – by a shadowy figure who may or may not really be there; And a few chapters later we have certainty that his name is given to him by God but no reason given for the name.

The names Jacob and Israel have been the focus of much discussion and debate over the generations – after all we call ourselves B’nei Ya’akov – the children not of Abraham or Isaac, but of Jacob; our pleople and land are named Israel and any other name would seem unthinkable.  We descend in a very intimate way from this naming; we take the identities as our own, we describe ourselves as a people who struggle with God and who survive.

Much of the debate centres around the interchangeability or not of the two names and what they indicate in each context. Everywhere else in bible when your name is changed it is changed forever and there is no going back to the old one. Your name signifies a central essence, it is you and you are it, be it description, aspiration or significant memory, names in bible describe what that person most essentially and existentially is. Yet here we have a patriarch whose name is changed by God in dramatic circumstances with the words “your name shall no longer be Jacob”, who continues to be called by his original name as well as the new name throughout the text until his death.

Let us look a little closer at the names. Ya’akov/Jacob means to be curved, like a heel (and the pun works in English as well as in Hebrew).  In truth, Jacob is a bit of a heel, someone perfectly able to treat his twin brother without real respect, pulling him back in order to gain advantage. Israel means – well what does it mean? Bible tells us it means one who has struggled with God, though etymologically it would make more sense to be from Yashar El – the one whom God straightens out.

Bible though has a different interest to that of etymologists and does not need to follow the rules of grammar in the way that we might expect it to. It wants to tell us something important. Jacob has struggled with God and with Humankind and has “tuchal” – variously understood as “prevailed”, “been able, continued. So the name is given – Yod, S/hin, Reish, Alef, Lamed.

Taking this word apart, in the full knowledge that Jacob has not only wrestled with God (Elohim) but also with Humankind (Anashim) we can see that the word begins with the word for human being – Ish, and ends with the name for God – El. And what is left in the middle is the letter Reish. The name can be understood as signifying something of the relationship between God and Humanity; the letter Reish is the bridge between the two, the place of the wrestling and struggling which is the pathway to God.

What is this connecting letter, the Reish? Well it comes almost at the end of the Hebrew alphabet, but its meaning is primarily to do with beginning – it is connected to the word Rosh meaning ‘head’ or Rishon -‘beginning’.  The word ‘Reish’ is also part of the very first word of Torah, Bereishit, famously translated as ‘in the beginning’ but actually part of a very ambiguous phrase – it could mean “with Reishit God created….”  or even “for the sake of Reishit God created” and the rabbinic traditional exegetical process then develops to understand “Reishit” as meaning “Wisdom”. And what is true Wisdom? Surely it is Torah. So Jacob becoming Israel could be seen as the realigning (from the curvature of the heel to the straightening of yashar) of the relationship between God and humanity through Reish, through new beginnings or through Torah.

Two events happen in between the two texts about the renaming of Jacob.

One is the meeting and reconciliation with his brother Esau, after which Jacob continues his journey to Canaan and Esau back to his own land.

The second event is the story of Dinah and the Prince of Shechem, where Jacob is passive and his sons unleash horrible violence upon the Shechemites when they are recovering from their circumcisions in order to be able to marry into the family of Jacob. Jacob is passive but he does speak and act at the end – He accuses Shimon and Levi of putting himself and his family into danger by their actions and he follows God’s imperative to go to Beit El and to fulfil his vow made there when he had woken from his dream of the ladder. Jacob takes all the idolatrous artefacts from his household and buries them in Shechem, and then he brings his newly cleansed household to Beit El ready to start his new life in the Land.  It is at this point that God names him once more.

In each of these stories there is one common thread – at first Jacob is passive and then reactive to the immediate circumstance, then he eventually  does act to try to do the right thing, and then he moves on.

The letter Reish is written as a curve, rather like a person with head bent over. It is often mistaken for the letter Dalet which is all sharp angles and straight lines. It has been noted that the Reish symbolises the one who searches out a number of directions, bending and swaying around, while the Dalet looks neither right nor left but moves onwards to its destination. If the Reish in Israel is the bridge between humanity and God, the process that takes the one to the other, then it makes a lot of sense that this letter is chosen, the one that bends and sways, the one that symbolises new beginnings and uncertainties, fresh starts and reservations. For that is what we always do, we feel our way through life uncertainly, responding as best we can with what we know, making mistakes. We make mistakes but then we make another new beginning. We use our heads and increase our wisdom as we experience our lives, and we hope that this life journey will eventually bring us closer to God.

Jacob becomes Israel but stays Jacob till his death. He does not prevail, instead he increases in his ability to live life even while making mistakes.  Scripture is right to see both his reality (Jacob) and his aspiration (Israel) alongside each other, for sometimes one is expressed and sometimes the other. We don’t find holiness in one moment or with one action – holiness is the sum of all our actions and the way we learn from them and change because of them.  Jews are certainly Israel in that we struggle with God and with people as did Jacob. But I would take issue with the understanding of “tuchal” as meaning we prevail in the struggle. Rather I would rather see that verb in its more primary meaning of being able. We struggle to bridge many gaps in life, we struggle to build a bridge between the heavens and the earth, between aspiration and reality, between people who find each other difficult – and the naming of Jacob reminds us that each failure, as well as each success, can bring us closer to forming that bridge, and making it secure.