Vayetzei : the lessons of Jacob’s hat

Many years ago an older colleague explained to me the origin of religious Jews covering their heads with this remark – “It comes from parashat Vayetzei, where we are told ‘Vayetzei Yaakov – Jacob went out’ – you don’t think he went out without a hat do you?

It isn’t exactly a joke, nor of course is it a real proof-text for a religious behaviour. But it does shine a light onto a process that we often disregard – the bridge between biblical text and religious expression.

First let me get out of the way the reality that the practise of covering the head – either at all times, or during prayer, or during prayer and study of torah – does not come from parashat vayetzei, though its history and origin is somewhat mysterious and there is no actual mitzvah to do this – it is custom and practise rather than commandment

Mishnah Sanhedrin, chapter ten, includes the teaching “These have no share in the World to Come: (Olam haBa): One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah.”

Now this is interesting. Nowhere in fact does Torah teach of the physical resurrection of the dead. The closest texts are Isaiah 26:19 (Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, You who dwell in the dust!— For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the shades come to life.) and Daniel 12:2 “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence”

Yet from these poetic and figurative expressions comes, by the early Talmudic period, the rabbinic idea not only that physical resurrection is possible, but that anyone who does not believe in it forfeits their place in the world to come. The idea is also embedded in the Amidah prayer,in the gevurot blessing, which references the power of God to give life to the dead six times in a fairly short blessing, and which was probably written early in the 1st century BCE.

Another maxim from the same colleague – the more answers rabbinic tradition gives to a question, the more we know that there is no single answer to the question and each response is an attempt to make sense of a problem. So when we see the idea of God giving life to the dead six times in one blessing we can see the determination that this must become authoritative belief, leading us to see that at the point the amidah was written, it clearly was not yet a stable principle of faith.

So when we look at the mishna Sanhedrin 10:1 again, we see that it is an interpolation into an otherwise strictly legal text. It is demanding that three principles are mandatory, the red lines of the argument. Phrased in a way that says “all Jews achieve olam haba except Jews doing these three things” reads to me rather like the apocryphal note in the margin of a sermon – “argument weak, shout louder”.

The principle of belief in the dead living once more is ambiguous – is this something that will only happen at the end of days? Is it physical resurrection? Is it the continuation of the self, the soul? Is it something we can nuance – that the dead live on in our memories, in our actions, that the actions they did while living are impactful after their death?

It is the later part of the statement that has caused many more problems for us – What do we mean when we say that Torah is from heaven (min hashamayim)? What did the rabbis of the mishnah mean by it?

This idea has proved to be one of the most difficult and controversial ones of rabbinic Judaism.  While Maimonides coded the idea into his thirteen principles of faith, which have become de rigeur for a section of the Jewish world  – the eighth principle is “ I believe by complete faith that the whole Torah now found in our hands was the exact same one given to Moses, may peace rest upon him.”

But what does this mean? What did Maimonides mean by “Torah” or by “given to Moses”  It is unlikely that he meant that God literally dictated the entire text of the five books of Moses to Moses at Sinai.

Maimonides was a product of his time.  The time in which he lived was a time when Christians, Muslims and Karaite Jews were all challenging the Jewish world, his thirteen principles were a formulation to argue against people saying that the Jews had altered torah to exclude references to their religions, and against the idea that Torah could be added to and rewritten.

Each of us are products of our time. Each of us swim in a sea of habit and shared assumptions we barely notice, and a sea of change and challenge we notice all too easily and which either cause us to retreat behind the assumptions we cannot see to challenge, or to venture out and have to deal with the dissonance.

Most Jews think that covering the head with kippah or streimel, cap or bowler hat – is a religious act mandated from Torah. It is not. It does not appear in Talmud either except in one comment in tractate Kiddushin which also suggests that one should not walk fully upright – both of them referring to an awareness of the glory of God in the world of which we should be in awe at all times, and another in tractate Shabbat that suggests that covering the head /being aware of the presence of God – might have a tangible effect on behaviour.

Head covering seems to have come about as a response to the world around us, where covering or uncovering the head showed respect to a greater power. Indeed when I was young I often saw people doffing their cap in the presence of those they perceived to be their social superiors, or removing hats as a funeral cortege passed by. Why do Jews put a hat on when the rest of the world takes it off? Davka. Why do we think the custom has the force of law – because we are used to it, we no longer notice its origin in social constructs.  The same is true when we try to distort the concept of torah min hashamayim. Torah from God – mediated through human beings – this was the standard understanding until Maimonides forced the issue into one of orthodox belief, putting people inside or outside Judaism.

Jacob went out – and of course he put on his hat. But the question today is – would any of the many different streams of the orthodox world recognise him as being part of the community of Klal Yisrael?  Would they see a Jew under that hat?

 

 

Vayetzei: The Importance of Awe

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. He has a sense of wonder, and he expresses it:  “How full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”

The phrase “Ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I   grew  up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.

The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message- Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.

Secondly it was made clear that awe is a necessary instinct;  God is beyond our comprehension or reason, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for.  We have lost the ability to be shocked.”

Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.

In Judaism, ‘Believing’ is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement.  The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told in my rabbinate that someone doesn’t really believe in God;  the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.

When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.

Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will” (RSGB Machzor p 312)

 

One of the lessons from this sidra is how easy it is not to notice how close God can be to us if we do not choose to open ourselves to the possibility.  And we sometimes need help to do this. Beautiful places, whether natural or built by human beings, can help us catch the numinous. Too narrow a focus on what we are doing, our goals and aspirations, our desire not to look back – all can stop us being aware and in the moment.

The ability to be shocked, to notice and to understand the implications of what has become normalised – this is the skill we need to nurture. The ability to be moved by what we see and hear, rather than to blot it out or cover it with our own inner monologue. Jacob left his comfort zone when he left his home, and only then did he meet God. We may not need to leave our homes, but we too need to go out as he did – vayetzei – and begin to pay attention to all we have ignored.bradford interior

 

 

 

 

 

Vayetzei: Rachel and Leah show us a thing or too, but we have to look closely to notice

This sidra is rich in narrative tales. Fleeing from the anger of Esau at the theft of his blessing,  Jacob goes to Haran. On the way he dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. God appears to him and promises him protection, children, and the land on which he is lying. Jacob vows that if God fulfils the promise, God will be his God.

Falling in love with his cousin Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban he offers to work for seven years in order to marry her, but Laban has two daughters and he switches the bride so that Jacob unknowingly marries Leah.  Told that the older has precedence over the younger  Jacob agrees he will marry Rachel a week later, and work another seven years for her.

Leah bears Jacob four sons, but Rachel does not conceive and so gives her maidservant Bilhah as a concubine. Bilhah conceives two sons then Leah gives Jacob her maidservant Zilpah who also has two sons. Leah bears three more children, two sons and a daughter (Dina).  Rachel finally conceives and has a son, Joseph.

Wishing to return home Jacob agrees with Laban that he will be to build a flock for himself from the herds of Laban as recompense for his twenty years of service, and uses selective breeding in order to build a huge herd. Then, while Laban is away, they flee towards Canaan. But before leaving Rachel quietly steals the household idols. . Laban pursues them but is warned in a dream not to take revenge. A search for the idols proves fruitless as Rachel hides them and claims ritual uncleanness. Jacob promises Laban that whoever took the idols will die. Jacob and Laban make a peace agreement between themselves.

Jacob left Canaan a tricksy but vulnerable young man, exiled to the homeland of his mother for his own safety. By the end of the sidra he is still pretty tricksy and still somewhat vulnerable, but he is also wealthy and the patriarch of a large family of his own.

He leaves Haran, not because his mother has finally sent for him as she promised all those years ago, but because he is increasingly aware of the fragility of his situation.  Married to the two daughters of his uncle Laban and father to eleven sons and at least one daughter, one might think that he has deep roots in the area, but no – he is the object of suspicion and mistrust. He overhears the sons of Laban saying: ‘Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s; and of that which was our father’s has he gotten all this wealth.’  Laban too no longer responds to him as he had before. So God tells him: “Return to the land of your forbears, and to your birthplace; and I will be with you.’

What Jacob does then is very interesting – he calls both sisters out to the fields where his flocks of animals are (calling Rachel before Leah) and he seems to justify to them what he wants to do. He tells them that Laban has changed towards him, but that he has always been a good servant to their father even though Laban had mocked him and continually altered the wages due to him. But God had been steadfastly with Jacob and had organised that whatever Laban had agreed with Jacob in payment had surprisingly turned out in Jacob’s favour so that Jacob had been able to build up a large herd of animals from Laban’s flock. He goes so far as to say that God had ‘redeemed’ the animals and given them to Jacob. (31:9) and that an angel had drawn his attention to the vow at Beit El, and how God had been true to this vow, and that now it was time to go home to the land of his birth.

The sisters appear to believe both in the covenant made with God, and that it was God who had given their husband the great wealth he had amassed.

They  answer together (the verb is singular indicating the unity of the response)  and this reply is revealing.

“And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him: ‘Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not accounted by him as strangers? For he has sold us, and has also quite devoured our price. For all the riches which God has taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s. Now then, whatsoever God has said to you, do.’

וַתַּ֤עַן רָחֵל֙ וְלֵאָ֔ה וַתֹּאמַ֖רְנָה ל֑וֹ הַע֥וֹד לָ֛נוּ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַֽחֲלָ֖ה בְּבֵ֥ית אָבִֽינוּ:  הֲל֧וֹא נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת נֶחְשַׁ֥בְנוּ ל֖וֹ כִּ֣י מְכָרָ֑נוּ וַיֹּ֥אכַל גַּם־אָכ֖וֹל אֶת־כַּסְפֵּֽנוּ: כִּ֣י כָל־הָעֹ֗שֶׁר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֤יל אֱלֹהִים֙ מֵֽאָבִ֔ינוּ לָ֥נוּ ה֖וּא וּלְבָנֵ֑ינוּ וְעַתָּ֗ה כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֧ר אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֵלֶ֖יךָ עֲשֵֽׂה:

The sons of Laban had clearly been disgruntled that Jacob was managing to breed a wonderful flock for himself from their father’s animals, his payment for the years of work, although this had not been negotiated in advance – indeed Jacob had originally offered to work in order to marry Rachel.

But the daughters of Laban also had a view about the transaction between their father and their husband. They had been hoping for some inheritance it seems, some part of their father’s wealth; but it has become clear that this was a vain hope, there would be no wealth coming their way. It is not entirely clear whether this is because Laban has been impoverished by the actions of Jacob or whether they had finally understood the way their father used his money to take power, promising but never delivering, changing the terms of the deal on a whim – that while they might continue to hope for it their father would simply not give them anything.

And worse than this, Laban has not behaved properly in the matter of their marriage – they would have expected there to be a dowry for each of them, monies that should be spent on them. While it is true that Jacob came without much wealth, but he worked an unusual and substantial number of years for each woman, earning Laban serious income. That wealth was not put aside for the use of the women; instead Laban had consumed it immediately, leaving nothing for the daughters. He has treated them as possessions and not as family and the women are not happy. They throw in their lot with Jacob and with his God, understanding that God has rebalanced the wealth, taking what should anyway have been theirs from their father and giving it to them and to their children.

Their final phrase: “v’ata, kol asher amar Elohim elecha, aseh” is redolent. It is a foretaste of Sinai when the people say , kol asher dibber Adonai na’aseh (Exodus 19:8) – All that God tells us we shall do.” It echoes the narrative that reminds us that Moses followed the instructions of his father in law Yitro just before Sinai (Exodus 18:24) when we are told that “va’ya’as kol asher amar” – Moses listened to the words of his father in law and did everything that he had said”. It echoes too the instruction to Abraham anxious that he has been told to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, when God says to him “All that Sarah says to you, obey her voice : kol asher tomar elecha Sarah, shma b’kolah”

Rachel and Leah are not only giving permission, they are giving instructions – “whatever God tells you to do, then you must do it”. It is quite a different relationship than Jacob had had before with God, when he had woken from his dream aware of the presence of God, yet still with enough bravado to hold God to account – “IF you do everything you say and IF you bring me back safely, THEN you can be my God”.

Rachel and Leah are serious protagonists in Jacob’s leaving Haran and returning to Canaan. They are not simply ‘the household’ – indeed they are resisting staying in a place where they are in danger of having to be subservient to their father.

Jacob collects his household and his wealth, puts his wives and sons on camels, and taking advantage of Laban’s absence he sets off for his homeland. But the real action that follows is that of Rachel – she takes the teraphim, the household Gods that we are specifically told were her father’s.

Did she take them for spite? Did she take them because she believed in them? Did she take them because she feared being homesick, or in order to prevent Laban from invoking those gods against her husband and family? Did she take them as a symbol of the inheritance she knew she was not going to receive?  This last question interests me most, for the possession of the teraphim seems to have indicated that the owner would then also possess the power and benefits of the first born in terms of property inheritance. (see Nuzi Tablet Gadd 51 pub 1926 CJ Gadd)

Just as Jacob had stolen the birth right of his first-born brother Esau, Rachel symbolically steals the birth right of her brothers. She is no passive figure here but is looking out for the rights of her children and grandchildren into the future.  She hides the teraphim successfully, taking control of her destiny, and Laban is unable to find them. It is her moment of triumph, safeguarding the future, until she is undermined unwittingly by her husband Jacob. For sadly the tale ends badly, she will die giving birth to her second son Benjamin as in protesting his own innocence Jacob has unwittingly brought a curse down upon her.

When first we read the sidra of Vayetzei we see the powerful chemistry between Rachel and Jacob, we see the terrible pain of Leah who wants her husband to love her and who each time is rejected, we see the usage of the two women concubines Bilhah and Zilpah. It takes a while to look beneath that first appearance of women as objects  and see the subversion and the taking control that is going on.

Rachel hides the teraphim under the saddle of the camel and says to her father “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise up before you; for the manner of women is upon me.’ And he searched, but he did not find the teraphim.”

Ki lo uchal lakum mipanecha, ki derech nashim li, vay’hapess v’lo matza et hateraphim

כִּ֣י ל֤וֹא אוּכַל֙ לָק֣וּם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּי־דֶ֥רֶךְ נָשִׁ֖ים לִ֑י וַיְחַפֵּ֕שׂ וְלֹ֥א מָצָ֖א

אֶת־הַתְּרָפִֽים:

She says to him that she is not able to rise up before him. This can be read two ways – that she cannot get up because she has her period (though why that should stop her getting up is unclear), or that she is unable to rise before him for another reason – and the one she gives is that she has her period. But could it be that she does not want to pay him the honour of rising before him – she is simply unable to offer him such respect now she has seen him for what he is and has rejected him?

He searches, but he does not find the teraphim. Hers is the last place they could be hidden, everywhere else has already been searched. She is unable to show him any respect, he in turn does not find either the teraphim or the reason she does not want to show him any regard. He is blind to any symbolism or deeper meaning, and the control – and the teraphim – remain in Rachel’s hands.

I heard someone recently describe the actions of the women in Genesis as manipulative, devious and unscrupulous. This in response to studying the actions of Jacob’s mother Rebecca, who organised for him to get the blessing by use of clothing and cooking.  The women in bible are indeed active in getting the narrative moving, they sometimes cause it to take an unusual path, they sometimes second guess God, they sometimes even nudge God into long delayed action. But this is not devious or unscrupulous or any negative connotation – the women in bible are active, creative, powerful and thoughtful. They hear the voice of God and they see the hand of God. That the text records their actions, albeit with the spotlight frequently turned away, is important. And it is important that in this generation we return the spotlight to those players who are not always seen on the stage, for they are our models and our matriarchs and they deserve our attention.

 

 

Vayetzei: Jacob throws his hat into the ring and sets the scene for some mad hattery

Many years ago I heard that the mitzvah of Jewish men covering their heads came from this sidra Vayetzei. “But where in Vayetzei does the text speak of headcoverings?” I asked. The response was both humorous and instructive. I was told “It begins “Vayetzei Yaakov” “And Jacob went out”. And surely he would not go out without wearing a hat”

Now it might cause a groan, but it also shows up a few different ways of treating text in Jewish tradition. Firstly the need to find a biblical source to underpin a cherished practise – in this case head covering for which there is no such explicit source. Secondly the willingness to read back into the text in order to root an established view. Thirdly the willingness to use whatever it takes to make a point,

In bible, the only people mandated to wear a head covering were the priests when they were ministering in the Temple – the high priest wore a mitznefet, a kind of mitre, and the ordinary priests a migba’at, which is often translated as a turban. By Talmudic times it was clearly an option for men to cover their heads, though women were less free not to do so (“Men sometimes cover their heads and sometimes not; but women’s hair is always covered, and children are always bareheaded.” Nedarim 30b). Children were also not always bare headed – there is a story in Tractate Shabbat about R. Nachman b Isaac whose mother was told by astrologers, Your son will be a thief. [So] she did not let him [be] bareheaded, saying to him, ‘Cover your head so that the fear of heaven may be upon you, and pray [for mercy]’.

The story is about Israel not being governed by astrological forces; instead we make our own choices, and so R Nachman’s mother made him cover his head to remind him of the authority that is located in the heavens (ie wearing a kippah would remind him always of God and so he would not behave badly), but there is a twist in the tale. Because she had not made explicit the reason for his wearing kippah, it had no effect on his behaviour. “One day he was sitting and studying under a palm tree; temptation overcame him, he climbed up and bit off a cluster [of dates] with his teeth” (Shabbat 156b)

Head covering today has become de rigueur for religious Jews. While there is not only no biblical source, there is not even a consensus from the medieval commentators and codifiers as to when and where it is appropriate or necessary to wear kippah, and yet – Jacob went out, and he must have been wearing a hat.

The headcovering in modern times is a signal to others of Jewish status, and a badge that declares the political and denominational attachments of the wearer. The language of head coverings is almost as complex and nuanced as the old fashioned language of flowers. Do you wear a kippah nearer the front or nearer the back of the head? Is it suede or crocheted, satin or velvet or cotton? Is it large or small? Decorated or plain? Black or with colours? Do you use obvious hairpins or Velcro? Do you wear a hat over your kippah? A baseball cap? A streimel? People will know from these small differences if you are a Zionist, a yeshiva bochur, traditional religious, frum, progressive, chareidi….. They will be able to tell whether you are from old school traditions, or follow a more modern line. Your kippah will pigeon hole you in the Jewish world quicker than your accent will betray your class in the UK.

And then of course there is the modern phenomenon of people wearing their allegiances not so much in the coded way of material/size/colour/placement – we now have the rise of the kippah decorated in the colours of the football team of your choice, with their crest and logo, with the name of the team worked around the edge. This version of wearing the heart on the sleeve leads to some pretty robust conversations between young men as they scorn the team whose colours and brand is worn with pride by their friend.

The covering of the head, so unnecessary in biblical times except for the active priesthood, but taken up by some in Talmudic times as an act of piety and in order to remind the wearer of the presence of God, to inculcate a sense of ‘yirat shamayim/ awe of heaven’ has become not so much a prop for spiritual awareness as a prop to advertise to others something less than spiritual. Be it adherence to a particularly introverted and orthodox sect or to show a particularly secular passion for team sports, it now functions as a flag of identity.

There used to be an advert in the UK in the 1930’s which famously stated “if you want to get ahead, get a hat” It was written by Charles Sydney Catlin, who had apparently showed this statement mocked up as a poster in a job interview. He didn’t get the job, but somehow his slogan found its way into the world of headgear advertising, and he used the story as a reminder of the importance of safeguarding one’s work.

The story resonates with the story of headcoverings in Judaism. Just as the really important reason for wearing kippah is as a reminder to the self of context in the world, that there is a Divine presence who sees everything and notices everything – yet it has become a way of signalling one’s identity to others, and the awe of heaven is often far from the consciousness of the regular kippah wearer, so the cleverness of the slogan and its focus on appropriate head gear in order to ‘fit in’ has overlaid the history of the man whose work was taken from him without credit.

We see the surface, we forget the deeper meanings and truths that the surface is pointing to. We signal to others about our affiliations and forget to signal to ourselves the one important affiliation – to fulfil the covenantal relationship with the ever living God.

kippot serugot

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.

Vayeitzei – Filled with Awe we encounter God

bradford synagogue doorwaybradfordshul outside

ark 2

bradford shul
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. And he was overawed and said “how full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”
The phrase “ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I grew up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.
The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message-
Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.
And Secondly that awe is a necessary instinct, God is, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for. We have lost the ability to be shocked.” Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.
In Judaism, believing is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement. The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.
I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told that someone doesn’t really believe in God, the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.
When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.
Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will”

parashat vayetzei

Vayetzei 

Every so often someone asks about the word “mizpah”, found in this sidra, because it appears on a piece of jewellery sold in a national chain of shops.

When the sidra Vayetzei begins, Jacob is effectively running for his life, leaving home and family in Beer Sheba, and going towards unknown relations in Haran.  A frightened and homesick young man, uncertain of what the future will bring, he stops alone by a roadside at night and dreams the dream which is to sustain him throughout his life – he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven to earth, and there on that ladder he encounters God.  By the time the sidra ends, much of the trickery which caused him to leave home will have been reflected into his own life – his father in law will have deceived him with his bride (the mirror image of his own deceiving of his father), the older will not be passed over for the younger (as was done when he took the blessing meant for his older brother.)    After 20 years Jacob is returning home a wealthy and confident man, no longer alone but with a substantial entourage, and of course also as a husband and father.  Relations with his father in law have been marked by abuse and mistrust, and at the end of the sidra Jacob makes good his escape, only to be chased by Laban who is searching for the stolen household gods, and who doesn’t want this young kinsman to leave and take with him both family and family wealth.  The two make a pact finally, neither of them happy about the other but both unable to do anything further about it.  The pact is marked by a mound of stones, named in both the Hebrew of  Jacob (Galeid)  and the Aramaic of Laban (y’gar sahadoota) ,  and then it is suddenly named again ‘Mitzpah’, because Laban  said  “May the Eternal watch between you and me when we are out of sight of each other,  if you ill- treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters  – though no one else be about, remember the Eternal God will be a witness between you and me” (31:49).

Mitzpah then is not a blessing but a warning.  Far from being a token designating eternal love, it is more a sort of token of eternal mistrust.  Yet there it is to be found on the pages of well known catalogue store under the rubric  “His and Hers split pendant set”, along with other split pendants with such inscriptions as “Our Hearts beat as One”, and even the famous speech of Ruth to Naomi “where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God”.

One wonders what the designers of this jewellery, and also the many people who actually buy it would think, if they realised that the apparently romantic message in fact is a barely coded warning between two known tricksters that whatever they do, even in secret when no one is around to observe them, the truth will be known to God, who will most certainly judge them.

The whole business set me wondering about the things we wear to remind us of what is important to us.

Traditionally Jews wear  certain things to remind us of the biblical commandments – tefillin in the daily morning service which contain paragraphs from bible reminding us of the obligation to love God and to teach our children to do so too;  or tallit with the corner fringes knotted to remind us of the 613 commandments said to be in Torah, many of which deal with how to behave towards others –  but even these reminders can become habitual so that we don’t really think of the meaning of these commandments which are designed to shape our behaviour to be holy – to behave against our own selfish needs or interests in favour of Imagebettering our world, developing creation along with God. We could do though with something to jolt us out of our daily existence, something to remind us that God is there in everything we do and everything we see.  The traditional system of blessings said before we do any action has much to commend it, the whole system of time bound mitzvot marking our days and our weeks, of shabbatot and festivals, they are all designed as ‘signs’ to remind us of our partnership with the Creator and our responsibilities to God, but few of us today have the kind of lives which would make all these signs meaningful.  Thinking about it, maybe we should all buy one of those pendants which say MIZPAH, not as a declaration of love for another, but to remind ourselves that all the twists and turns of our lives, all our petty temptations and deceits and actions and inactions, they may all be hidden from our fellow human beings, but will never be hidden from God, who will ultimately judge us.  Everything we say and everything we do, at home or outside, whatever time of day – we should do in the certain knowledge and fear that it will not be forgotten.  That would certainly add a different dimension to our lives!