Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 – 36:43)

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torah portion

Jacob returns to Israel, only to find that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men – not a welcoming party. Jacob appeases Esau, and prays to God for salvation. Ever the pragmatist, however, he prepares for battle also. He has no wish to fight. But neither is he afraid of doing so. Esau, overwhelmed by Jacob’s generosity, welcomes his brother home. 

Jacob’s troubles, however, are far from over. His daughter, Dinah, is raped by the son of a local chieftain, Shchem. Things go from bad to worse as two of his sons, Simeon and Levi take justice into their own hands and single-handedly slaughter the whole tribe. 

Jacob’s wife, Rachel, dies while giving birth to Benjamin, her second son; the portion concludes with a discussion of the family and descendants of Esau. Alas, for Jacob, the worst is yet to come…… Tune in next week.

davar torah

Jacob famously grapples with an angel in this week’s portion and is given the name Israel as a result. The Rabbis tell us that the reason he was alone with angel is because he crossed back over the river Jordan to retrieve some small jugs that he had left behind. One might rightly wonder why an incredibly wealthy man went back, and put himself into some degree of danger, for a few small jugs?

I suggest that there is an underlying and significant attitude here. What we own is a gift from God. It is not ours to simply throw away and waste at will. What God gives us is ours to use, but also to look after. Property is a gift, but also a responsibility; because if we are not responsible for something, we do not value it.  

I further suggest that this is true not just for our personal property but also for our world. 

When God gave Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden, he did so in order that they would “work it and take care of it”. Not only to use but also to look after. This world is humanity’s Garden of Eden; watch a few Richard Attenborough programmes and you will see just how gorgeous and lush our planet is. Contrary to the fantasies of Star Wars and Star Trek, everything else out there is as barren as the Moon. In footballing terms, our planet is Liverpool and the rest of the Universe is not even Accrington Stanley. (Sorry to you non-British out there.)

The key, however, is balance. In the verse above, ‘using’ the Garden of Eden comes before ‘looking after’ it. Using it is the priority; looking after it is an important secondary consideration. As an example, by all means use trees for our needs – that’s what God gave them for. But don’t destroy forests such that they can’t grow back, or plant new forests as you destroy the old ones. As my wife and I drove through Oregon two years ago, I was shocked by an almost constant stream of trucks each carrying twenty or thirty entire tree trunks. It looked like they were deforesting way too quickly. But as we drove further, my wife kept pointing to what must have been hundreds of square miles of forests we were seeing. In fact, I later checked on the Internet and there are as many as five billion trees in Oregon. So, if they cut down 10,000 trees a day, it would take 1,300 years to cut down every tree. By which time the forests would have grown back again four or five times. There are plenty of trees as long as we behave responsibly. And this is true of all resources.

It’s a matter of being sensible. Taking what we need without being greedy – and making sure we do not destroy resources that we cannot somehow replace. Are we getting it right? I don’t know. You find people on both sides of argument and it seems to be a very politicized issue, which always makes it hard to see the wood for the trees (I know that’s not exactly the right idiom but I couldn’t resist….). I see my role as commenting on the principles and values behind our actions. As to whether as individuals, or as a society, we are living up to them or not, I leave for you to consider yourselves. 

Shabbat Shalom 

Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

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