Weekly Davar: Vayechi 2021

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

When Jacob was taken to be buried in Israel, his body was accompanied by a very large retinue of both his family and pretty much every Egyptian dignitary. Large funerals are an interesting concept. But why? The person is gone. Surely, it makes no difference to them what type of send-off they get?

Judaism believes that it does.

The rabbis tell us that eulogies must be said at a funeral. And the purpose of those eulogies is to make people cry.

Now that’s an interesting concept, particularly in this country. The aim at most funerals that I seem to go to is for everyone, including the mourners, to ‘be strong’ and NOT cry. The Jewish concept, however, is very much to cry. And the goal of a eulogy is to help with that. Because crying honours the person who has gone. When people cry, it means they cared about the person; it matters to them that the person is no longer here; they feel a hole in their lives that this person once filled. That honours the person – they made a difference in the world. More meaningfully than even the most eloquent words could express, crying demonstrates clearly that the person made their mark in the world. And public crying is the most powerful demonstration of that – because it says that I have been so touched by this person, they mattered so much to me, their loss is so keenly felt – that my inhibitions break down and I express my vulnerability for all to see.

That’s crying and it’s a beautiful thing at a funeral and a shiva (Jewish house of mourning). It’s natural, normal and deeply respectful to cry for someone we love. It always amazes me that people would want to repress something so touching and so beautiful. Personally, I loved crying for my parents and my wife when they passed – and still do.

But still, why show respect for someone who has gone? It makes no difference to them.

I have two thoughts on this. One works even for an atheist, the other is for someone who believes in God.

Firstly, we cry in respect for the feeling of love that we had for the person. It is not for the person; it is for us. We honour the beautiful and meaningful relationship that we had with this person. We are grateful to life for sharing this special human being with us and we express that feeling of gratitude best through tears. There is an underlying joy in such mourning, but it remains mourning.

But the second point is my main one. It is my firm belief that a soul, whilst departing this realm of existence, does not die. It is still alive in a purely spiritual realm (and you can try to conceive of how that might work as much as you like but you still won’t have any more understanding than I have, i.e. none of the details). As such, I believe that a soul is somehow still aware of us, even if we are not aware of it. I don’t mean that it looks down on us from on high, or in heaven. I think that is all metaphorical. I think that it retains some sort of spiritual connection with our own spiritual experience. It is something (I don’t want to use a particular verb, such as comforting, pleasurable, beneficial….. because that would be presumptuous of me, but fill in your own blank if you like) for that soul to know that we care, that it is beloved and missed. And hence, I believe that crying, or rather the deep and passionate feeling that accompanies it, honours the soul of the person that we have loved in this world and will love, more fully than ever before, once reunited after we have also left this world.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

This portion tells the story of Jacob’s final blessing to his children, his demise and his burial. In his final moments of prophetic vision, Jacob is able to discern the time of the Messianic Era. He wishes to reveal the details to his children, but is prevented from doing so by God.

Jacob dies and is mummified for the journey to Israel. He is taken to Hebron and buried with full Egyptian honours.

Weekly Davar: Vayigash 2021

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Davar Thought

During the 22-year disappearance of Joseph, Jacob fell into what I can only describe as a depression. The Rabbis tell us that as a result, he lost his ability to receive prophecy. Prophecy, in Judaism, is a connection to the spiritual world such that one has access to concealed truths. The rabbis tell us that in contrast to Jacob, Isaac, his father, did not lose his prophecy and hence knew that Joseph was alive and well in Egypt. Jacob’s depression blinded him to reality – as depression often does. Were he not depressed, he would have seen that there was actually nothing to be depressed about because Joseph was not actually dead! But that’s true with each and every depression. It is the state of mind shaping the perception of reality rather than the reality shaping the state of mind.

The Rabbis tell us, as a general rule, that one cannot access prophecy when depressed. Because connection to God is only available in a state of joy. Misery drags us down such that we lose our connection to the spiritual world and then all seems lost. In a certain way, misery is a self fulfilling prophecy. Life looks no good to us; so we feel hopeless and lost; so we don’t invest in life; and life without investment produces no fruits.

Joy is also self fulfilling. We feel uplifted and elated. So we are eager to invest and engage in life. And a life invested and engaged in produces the goodness that satisfies us.

When we are feeling down, it’s easy to blame life and circumstance. But that’s never the case. It’s simply that upset thinking about life is causing us to withdraw and as we withdraw, life starts to unravel. But the great thing about this is that it’s never a problem to ravel it up again. As soon as we stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start to engage again, life gets back on its feet. It’s a beautiful world in that way – we get out of it whatever we invest into it. There is always fruit to our labour, as long as we are patient. If we withdraw, life indeed, has nothing to offer. If we engage, life offers us bounty beyond measure.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

This portion is packed with emotion and intrigue. We left off last week with Joseph’s pronouncement that he was keeping Benjamin as a slave. Judah steps forward to challenge the decision and offers himself instead. The two most powerful brothers each stand their ground. With neither willing to give an inch, the tension is palpable. Finally, Joseph, overcome with emotion, can hold out no longer. He clears the room and reveals his identity to his brothers. They are, understandably, quite shocked. Joseph sends a message to his father who leaves immediately to be reunited with is favourite son.

Jacob meets Pharaoh and settles with his family in the Goshen district of Egypt, the first Jewish ghetto – in suburbia of course! As the famine continues, Joseph buys up all of the property in Egypt for Pharaoh in return for grain.

Weekly Davar: Vayeshev 2021

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

The ultimate test that Joseph faced, considered perhaps the greatest challenge faced by anyone in the entire Bible, was that of Potiphar’s wife.

A quick reminder of the story…..

Joseph is a teenage slave in Egypt. Cut off from his family, he has no support system. His master’s wife is the most beautiful woman in all of Egypt and has married for position, not love. And this stereotypical, unloved Mrs Robinson of antiquity, falls head over heels for the handsome young slave in her home; and will stop at nothing to have him. It’s surely worthy of a Netflix Original.

Repeatedly, Joseph rebuts her advances. Until, finally, she contrives for them to be alone in the house together and she literally throws herself at him….a teenager, away from family, friends and all means of support. He could so easily have fallen into her arms and got away with it. And yet, he said ‘no’. But the Rabbis do tell us that had it not been for a vision of Joseph’s father, Jacob, appearing before him, he would have succumbed. At the end of the day, we are all human after all.

As an aside, I say that he could have ‘got away with it’ but that would only have been in his own mind. I’ve been around long enough to realise that one never ‘gets away with it’. Relationships are always much more complicated than sex alone and I’ve seen so many times that the chickens always, ALWAYS come home to roost in the end.

It’s interesting to me, though, that the Torah sees the most challenging of all tests to be in the area of sexual relations. I guess maybe it’s not surprising, because each of us very well knows the power of the animal that exists inside of us. But it’s interesting, nevertheless, that the Torah points it out. Not an existential challenge of faith, not suffering, not honesty or integrity….but the base animalistic challenge of sex can often be the greatest challenge of all. For even the most enlightened of human beings.

That should humble us, firstly, lest we believe that we have risen so far above our fellow creatures in this world. We most certainly have not. Over and over again, the most likely circumstance to bring down politicians, clergy and businesspeople, monarchs and great lords alike, as well as the ‘simple man’ on the street, is sex, the basest of animal instincts.

I could easily wax lyrical with puritanism, over here, most especially as it might be expected of an Orthodox rabbi, but I actually want to take the reverse perspective.

Given that even Joseph, the only man in the Bible accoladed as ‘the righteous’, would have succumbed without external intervention, I think we need to be very understanding of human frailty. I’m not trying to justify the mistakes that people make – most especially when others are hurt in the process. However, we need to be careful not to be so quick to judge those who make mistakes that we may well make ourselves in similar circumstances. As the ‘Good Book’ says, ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. I, for one, do my best to remember that I am very human. And that others are just like me. I make mistakes and so does everyone else. I get lost in the face of life’s challenges and so does everyone else. And, so, I’m all for giving people a chance to take responsibility for their mistakes and move past them, rather than condemning them unconditionally, even if only in the courtroom of my own mind.

To be clear, I’m not saying anything that is wrong is anything other than wrong. I’m saying that people do wrong things and when we give them a chance to take responsibility for what they have done and pick themselves up, rather than condemning them, they usually do better than when we come down harshly with self-righteous puritanical ‘values’.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

This is the famous story of Joseph and his brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt. Favouritism, jealousy, passion, lust and betrayal. It’s all in there with much, much more. Well worth a read. This week’s portion and the next are my absolute favourites.