Monday, December 12, 2011

VaYechi 5772 Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

On this occasion, I summarised a wonderful drashah by Rabbi Yosef Jacobson, which appears on the website. Do go and read it, it is terrific.
The question that Rabbi Jacobson asks and then answers is: 
Why did Jacob not choose his eldest son Reuben to be King of Israel - why did he choose his fourth son, Judah,  instead? 
The Rabbi does not give the usual reason, that it was because Reuben had slept with his concubine Bilhah. Rashi and other sages agree that Reuben did not do so, that he was in fact an intensly spiritual person trying to live his life well. Less well-known stories from Midrash are quoted, fascinating in the way family stories often are.
 In his footnotes at the end, Rabbi Jacobson acknowledges two wise men for some of the ideas he expresses: the Lubavitcher rebbe, which is no surprise, but also Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, for whom I am developping a fondness since reading his book on religious diversity.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

VaYetze 5772

A most moving parashah...This drashah is a bit uneven - there are two parts to it - one is little more than quotations from a respected teacher, and the other is a personal story relating to France and the Holocaust.

In the first part of this very rich parashah, Jacob lays himself down to sleep, his head resting on a stone, and he dreams. In his dream, a ladder appears and "its head" in Hebrew rosho, the top of the ladder, reaches to the sky. And the angels of God went up and down it.

What meaning does this have for us? How have our sages interpreted this?

The Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says in a commentary on this parashah (which appears on his website The Office of the Chief Rabbi) that this dream influenced the shape of all our prayers. I quote from his drashah of two years ago (5770): " It is one of the great dreams of the Bible." He describes how  Jacob, "afraid and alone" finds himself in an in-between space [...] "between the home he is escaping from and the destination he has not yet reached, between the known danger of his brother Esau from whom he is in flight, and the unknown danger of Laban..[...].Jacob has his most intense experiences alone, at night, isolated and vulnerable, in the middle of a journey."
 "There are many interpretations given by the sages and commentators, but the simplest is that it has to do with the encounter between the human soul and G-d, the encounter later generations knew as prayer.

"When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely G-d is in this place, and I did not know it." ...[he] said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d; this is the gate of heaven."
"The synagogue is the house of G-d.Prayer is the gate of heaven. And when we have truly prayed, the most profound result is that we too are conscious of the feeling: "Surely G-d is in this place, and I did not know it."
Rabbi Sacks sugggests that this vision had a profound influence on Jewish prayer. Examining it, we can see that its shape precisely matches the idea of a ladder on which angels ascend and descend."
 He says that Jewish liturgy often has a three-fold structure of a) ascent - b) standing in the presence - and c) descent. An example is the morning prayer which starts with the Pisukei di zimrah, psalms in preparation for prayer - then moves on to prayer as such, with the Shema and the three blessings which surround it, and the Amidah, the standing prayer - and ends with a series of concluding prayers, a sort of winding down. The Ashrei is traditionally said both in the rising and in the falling sections, and its meaning is "Happy are those who sit in Your house" Ashrei Yoshvei Beitecha. This is given as an asmachtah, as support to the statement in the Talmud, in Berakhot 32b that "the early pious men used to wait for an hour before praying, then they would pray for an hour, and then they would wait for a further hour."  Prayer was not to be entered into lightly.

And now a personal connection with this parashah:

As we have seen, it contains the words Ma norah hamakom ha zeh, how awesome is this place, which is what Jacob says when he wakes up, and then - "God was here and I did not know it" Modern Hebrew translates norah as terrible, but that is not the meaning in the parashah.

As a child, I spent my teenage years in a small town called Thann, in the Alsace, which is the part of France near the German border. The town was just large enough to have its own cathedral. And there was a synagogue too, not far from the cathedral, but it remained closed and silent because apart from us - my parents, my two sisters and myself - there was only one other Jewish family in town. The synagogue was a testimony to the once thriving community. I was hardly aware of its existence at the time.

But on my latest trip to France a few years ago, I returned to Thann to see the synagogue, still locked and in a state of disrepair, and as I had learnt Hebrew in the mean time, I could read the words above the lintel: Mah norah hamakom ha zeh.

The place seemed indeed terrible, and not awesome, a reminder of what or rather who, was absent, a reminder of all those who had been killed in the Holocaust. Then, a few days later, touring the region, it happened that a very old Jew in one of the surrounding villages told me about his war-time experiences, his own survival and that of others. He said that most of the French Jews had survived World War II: many had left the village before the Second World War, well before Hitler.

When the Jews became emancipated towards the end of the 19th century, when they acquired the status of full citizens, and were allowed to study at university and to live in the towns, many of them went to live in the nearby big town, which is Strasbourg, and they became doctors and lawyers and well-to-do businessmen. This contributed greatly to the emptying of the synagogues in the region. Those that remained fled to the free part of France as the Germans advanced.

If you check check it up, you'll find that the percentage of French Jews who died as a result of the Holocaust was about 25%, still a large number for there were many Jews in France, but a much smaller percentage then say Poland, or Lithuania, where the number reached 80 or 90%. The French looked after their Jews, smuggled them into safety. France is a large country with some areas like the Auvergne, which is largely uninhabited.  A jewish family could go an live in a small vilage lost among the mountains and no one would be the wiser.  Many of those deported from France to the East were actually Jews from other countries, refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe who had fetched up in France and were unable to go any further.

Nevertheless I did discover something disturbing about France and the Holocaust, later on, via the Internet: before living in this little town of Thann, when I was a small child, my parents lived in a hamlet in the hills of the Vosges, in a place called Wesserling. I found out a few years ago - also by chance - that it had been the location of a concentration camp. Not an extermination camp. But a place where a large number of people suffered and died - not just Jews. I imagine that my parents knew. They never mentioned it. No one else ever mentioned it either.

And so facts appear and disappear. One can see something and not understand at all what it is one is seeing. In one case, I thought something was due to the Holocaust and it mostly wasn't. And in another, I had thought of a place as innocent, when it had a history of cruelty and bloodshed. We think we know, and we don't. Knowledge is an uncertain thing. It seems worthwhile to try and remember this.