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Parashat Tol’dot

5 Nov 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Two sons, disparate in appearance and in character, twins, one reddish all over, as though covered with a hairy mantle, and so named Esau (‘hairy’); his brother following holding Esau’s heel and named Jacob (‘heel’). Esau is a skilful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob is a man who stays indoors. And each one becomes the favourite to his parent: Esau to Isaac and Jacob to Rebekah.

Jacob secures the birthright belonging to Esau in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew and then urged by his mother, goes on to deceive his father, disguising himself as Esau to receive the blessing for the firstborn.

Both Jacob and Esau seem to receive a similar blessing from their father – blessings of abundance and fertility. The earth will be soaked with the dew of heaven and yield its produce from fruitful and rich places. These are fitting blessings as we think of the discussions that are taking place in Glasgow at the UN Climate Change Conference this week and praying for strong and good decisions.

If Esau and Jacob are both to benefit from the fertility and richness of the earth, why then is Jacob (or Rebekah more accurately) so keen to receive the blessing of the firstborn and Esau so bitterly disappointed with the blessing his father has given to him?

Taking a closer look at the two blessings, we discover that Isaac, who is blind, is sensitive to the smell of the clothes that Jacob has donned, the skins of animals that Rebekah has placed in his hands to make him more like Esau. And it is this arresting smell that captures something in Isaac:

    ‘Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Eternal One has blessed.’

Does he know that the son standing before him is Jacob, or does he believe he is Esau – ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau’ (27:22)?  Whatever the answer to this question, the blessing that he gives to this son is one that comes from God: ‘May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine.’

But when he comes to bless Esau, Isaac says more simply: ‘See, your dwelling place shall enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above.’  Why doesn’t Isaac invoke God’s name in this blessing for his firstborn? Surely God’s blessings are manifold; or does Isaac recognise something in Esau that is unworthy of the divine blessing?

It is the second half of the blessings that diverge. Jacob is to rule over nations and be a master to his brothers, receiving the same blessing that God has given to his grandfather Abraham: ‘Cursed be they who curse you, blessed they who bless you’ (27.29).

Esau is to live by his sword and serve his brother and will only be able to break the yoke of subjugation when he can no longer withstand ruthless oppression (according to Rashbam).

I wonder, in the light of current events, whether Isaac’s prophecy here is about those who plunder the goodness of the earth at the expense of those who live in poverty, are oppressed and suffer as collateral damage in times of war. All these things are embedded in the blessing for Esau. He is the innocent victim in this story, like those who are the innocent victims of greed and consumerism in others.

We can, of course, interpret these blessings in a variety of ways to suit our message, but there is no doubt that unlimited power, subjugation and enmity, played out between nations in a land that is rich and plentiful, are going to be harmful to the human race and to the planet.

Jacob may well feel a certain complacency having been blessed; Esau’s weeping is bitter when he realises that the blessing that should be his has been stolen by Jacob.

When we have done weeping for the desperate state of our planet, let us resolve to lighten our footprint on the earth and add our voices to those who want to leave something of the dew of heaven to future generations.

Shabbat shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Jewish Women's Aid Shabbat 

12 Nov 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

What is the purpose of writing? What makes it worth your time and energy to share your thoughts with others? Questions like these have always been in the minds of all great writers.

William Faulkner (1897-1962), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, dedicated his acceptance speech on 10 December 1950 to this question. He reflected on how toxic it is to write from a place of fear rather than from a place of hope:

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” 

Faulkner spoke about the purpose of writing and asserted that the writer’s duty is to help people endure by lifting their hearts. All negative experiences are worth sharing with others if this will lead people to improve lives and make the world a better place.

Today, more than seventy years after Faulkner’s speech, we still live in a dangerous and uncertain world. This week the Jewish community in the UK is dedicating Shabbat services to Jewish Women's Aid.

Liberal Judaism is an official supporter of Jewish Women’s Aid Shabbat, helping to promote awareness of the crucial issues of domestic abuse and sexual violence in our community.

Domestic abuse and sexual violence are not simply ‘women’s issues’ – we are all responsible for making sure that our community confronts and prevents abuse, and is supportive to women.

Please take a moment and study the resources in the JWA toolkit, and increase your understanding of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the Jewish community. You can do this by visiting the website here

Many areas of our life today are far from ideal, safe and fair. Therefore, we should use our time wisely and do everything in our power to speak out, raise awareness and help each other.

Many years after Faulkner, an American writer E.B. White echoed his idea and said that “a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error”; and that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”
Let us become the authors of our lives and do everything we can to make our community and our society an inclusive and safe space for everyone.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Igor

Shabbat Vayishlach  

19 Nov 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Although it is dark by nearly five o’clock here in San Diego, the days are warm, the sky a clear blue and the light radiant, glancing off the Pacific Sea and the inland mountains, making every building, every tree, every bird of paradise that grows in the flowerbeds around the apartment blocks here, bright in form and colour.

On Sunday, we sit on the beach and watch, with other families, the sun sink slowly into the sea, the sky turn violet and apricot before night falls and we return home.

On Wednesday we drive up to Encinitas, a few miles north of the city to visit the Botanic Garden, with its Australian and African Gardens, its collection of bamboo and myriad Mexican varieties of plants and flowers, the Mediterranean Garden with miniature cyclamen growing at the base of the trees and unwieldy cork trees whose bark looks just like the cork from wine bottles, except much bumpier.
Butterflies dart out of the bushes and a hummingbird hovers nearby; it is a peaceful and gentle environment where succulents grow out of the ground and curiously shaped tropical fruit hang from trees in the Fruit Garden.

This botanic garden, like eleven others in Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the UK, is hosting an augmented reality art exhibition, the first exhibition of its kind to be developed in collaboration with botanical gardens around the world, and initiated by the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. The works, by well-known international artists, are ‘augmented’ digitally into the surroundings and context of each garden and experienced differently against the landscape and surroundings of each location. Each installation is digital and can only be viewed on an app on one’s phone, so there is no disturbance or intrusion into the natural surroundings of the gardens – the experience combines seeing the natural environment of the gardens, together with the digital manifestation of the ‘installation.’

I am taken by the commentary on one piece by a New York based artist of German and Mongolian-Chinese descent, Si-Qin, who grew up in Berlin, Beijing and the American South West.  He has created a piece called ‘Biome Gateway 2021’.  On the app, one sees a temple portal to a cave set against the trees and shrubs of the gardens.  We are invited to enter ‘a virtual sacred locus of contemplation’; it is a space that challenges western dualities of ‘organic vs synthetic, natural vs cultural, human vs nonhuman.’  It is part of the artist’s long-term project ‘New Peace’ – ‘a proposal introducing a new secular faith in the face of climate change, global pandemics, and biodiversity collapse.’

Here nature has become a central spiritual value, the only way that the impacts of climate change can be mitigated. Religion is seen as an ‘adaptive system’ that motivates us towards collective action.

This description of Si-Qin’s ‘secular faith’ mirrors in certain ways the ‘adaptive system’ of Liberal Judaism that upholds the central moral and spiritual values of Torah, but is required to adapt to the monumental social and environmental changes of the world. 

Here, in these gardens, a celebration of biodiversity and the human endeavour to preserve what we can of nature, the encroachment of our consumerist and industrial lives is felt acutely and painfully.  We see how the world is meant to be, unharmed by human intrusion and or by the destruction of natural habitats.  The need for all of us to take a step back and adapt and change our way of life is more urgent than ever for the sake of future generations if not for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Favouritism in the Torah and today  

26 Nov 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

This week’s Torah portion Va-yeshev begins with the story of sibling rivalry and favouritism. Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons. The Torah explains this by saying that “he had been born to him in his old age.” (Genesis 37:3) Perhaps the other reason was that he was the first son of his beloved Rachel.

Jacob is not the first in his family to have a favourite child. Abraham loved Isaac more that Ishmael, and Isaac had a soft spot for Esau. Favouritism seems to be the pattern of our ancestors.

In all cases, it divided and split the family. After Abraham sends Ishmael away, the boy’s name disappears from the text, and we do not know much about his life. It seems that Ishmael cuts all connections with his father after his mother Hagar and himself were abandoned in the desert. A generation later, Esau was Isaac’s favourite son. As the result of this, the relationship between the brothers was not friendly; Esau was manipulated by his twin brother. Later Jacob lied to his father and received the firstborn blessing instead of Esau. This week we read the next iteration of the repeating pattern of favouritism in the Jewish founding family – the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Jacob gave his favouritism a visible symbol, the expensive robe or coat of many colours that he had made for him. The sight of this acted as a constant provocation to the brothers. As the result, the brothers hated Joseph and sold him to slavery.

Over and over again in the Torah we read about the self-repeating pattern of favouritism within the Jewish family. At first glance, the lesson is clear – do not have a favourite child.

However, I think there is a deeper teaching in the Torah. We know that in the future Joseph will become a great Egyptian leader, and will go on to help his family survive the famine. We know that shortly after selling Joseph to slavery, his brothers will regret their past animosity towards Joseph and will not repeat their mistake again. In other words, you may begin your life journey with the baggage of your family patterns, but it is where you end your life that matters the most.

Conflicts and traumatic experiences can become our patterns; self-repeating events that burden and harm us. Regardless of how small and insignificant we are at the beginning of our life journeys, and irrespective of family circumstances, social pressures and conditions, we all have inner strength to succeed in life and to overcome our patterns.

We have just learned that at least 27 people have died trying to cross the English Channel in a small boat. This year, more than 25,000 people have made the dangerous journey across the Channel from France to the UK. We were already warned about how unsafe the routes are. It is a repeating pattern and a challenge for our society. If we do not make the routes safer for refugees and the process more compassionate, people will continue to lose their lives. If we do not stop showing favouritism to one group of people over another, the conflict will continue to grow.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said; “We need to remember that societies are strong when they care for the weak. They are rich when they care for the poor. And they are invulnerable when they care for the vulnerable.”

Our ancestors were not born perfect. They had many troubles, negative traits, and destructive family patterns. It is their hard work and the changes they undergo which makes them great ancestors and models of behaviour.

How can we not listen to the cries of refugees? How can we not ask ourselves important questions and make sure that people’s lives are saved? Such questions are not new. Bob Dylan gave them a song:

How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take 'til he knows
That too many people have died?
Let us hope that the answer is not going to be blowing in the wind…

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Igor Zinkov

Mon, 26 February 2024 17 Adar I 5784