OzTorah: Torah reading – Vayyetzei

OzTorah

COMINGS & GOINGS.

The portion begins with the phrase,

“And Jacob went out from Beer Sheva and went to Haran” (Gen. 28:11).

According to Rashi, it would not have been enough to tell us where he went to, Haran, without also informing us where he came from, Beer Sheva. So both his going out and his coming in needed to be specified. This tells us that when a good person leaves a place it is not only worthy of note: it also proves that on your departure, the place you have left is thereby diminished.

Ruins of the biblical city at Tel Be’er Sheva National Park in Israel

It’s a phenomenon that has characterised all the many centuries of Jewish migration. Looking only at the last two centuries when millions of Jews moved from one country to another, we can trace not only the contribution they made to their new homes but also the negative impact their leaving made on the places they came from. Continental Europe is the prime modern example. The culture of the whole of Europe lost its lustre when it lost its Jews.

It’s all very well for European nations to think they can manage without their Jews, but did (and do) they ever think of how much their Jewish communities did for them and how much they lack without the Jews of the past?

 

TWO WAYS OF SAYING THE NAME

One of Jacob’s sons was called Issachar (Gen. 30:18), in Hebrew “Yissachar”. There is an alternative reading, “Yissas’char”.

The problem is caused by the doubling of one of the consonants in the name. Since the Torah text has no vowels or indicative points we are not certain what to do with the double “shin” – or is it a double “sin”, or maybe a “shin” plus a “sin”? Can we ignore one of these letters altogether and leave it out of the reckoning?

There are various guide rules which help the reader, but it is important to note that the verse itself gives a hint of what Issachar’s mother Leah had in mind. The birth of this son led her to feel specially grateful to God and to say, “God has given me my reward (‘s’chari’)”. So “Yissachar” indicates, “yesh sachar”, “there is a reward”. In practice it is so difficult to pronounce a “shin” and a “sin” in succession, as would be the case if we said, “Yish-sachar”, so the “shin” has become absorbed in the “sin” and the name has a double “sin”.

The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) sees theological significance in the words “yesh sachar”, which to him suggest the principle of “sachar va’onesh”, Divine reward and punishment. The question is what really is the question. Are we saying “Human deeds bring reward or punishment from On High”? Or “Do we take every reward as proof that the person has acted righteously and every suffering as evidence that the person has misbehaved”?

If the second version is correct, this is the ancient problem of righteous people who suffer, yet their suffering can’t be evidence of sin, and of wicked people who prosper, which is unfair because it shows that crime does pay. Hence the ethical way of approaching the Biblical passage is to adopt the first version of the question as a warning, “Watch what you do, because you might incur Divine punishment”.

 

THE WELL & THE STONE

Jacob had to leave home. His first night saw him far from any habitation. He lay down to rest with a stone under his head as a pillow. He had a dream about a ladder joining earth to heaven, with angels of God ascending and descending. Morning came, and he resumed his journey to “the land of the children of the east”. There he saw a well with a large stone covering its mouth. When the shepherds wanted water for their flocks they removed the stone, and then they replaced it when they were finished.

Why the stone? The obvious answer is that it protected the water from the sand that was blown about by the wind. The view of Abravanel is that it was to stop unauthorised people from taking the water. It was also a means of protecting animals from falling to their death: Exodus 21:33 imposes liability upon a person who opens or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an animal falls in and dies. It is a basic principle of the Torah that you must not and create a hazard by your actions.

This is of course illustrated by the famous rabbinic story about the man in the boat who was boring a hole under his seat; when the others in the boat tried to stop him, they were told,

“But it’s only under my seat that I’m making a hole!”

This teaching has implications on a number of levels. As well as warning you against digging holes or creating obstructions of a physical kind, it also acts as a warning against deliberately misleading other people, exploiting their ignorance or manipulating their minds. It also warns against leaving deficiencies in the education system, especially in relation to civic duty and ethical principle.

Once upon a time children learned at home how to be decent human beings; the Yiddish phrase was “machen menschen fon kinder”. But today parents are often unsure or confused themselves about what is right and wrong, and children do not get a clear message or example. The school and the system have to take up the slack, otherwise they are leaving holes for children to fall into.

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Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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