Saturday, December 30, 2006

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Parsha - Vayechi

Right or Left?

In our Torah portion Yosef brings his two sons to his father for a blessing. “Yosef took the two boys. He placed Efraim to his right, (to Yisrael’s left), and Menashe to his left, (Yisrael’s right). … Yisrael reached out with his right hand and placed it on Efraim’s head, though he was the younger. He placed his left hand on Menashe’s head. He deliberately crossed his hands, even though Menashe was the firstborn. … and said ‘He too will attain greatness. But his younger brother will become even greater’....” (Genesis 48; 13-14).
There are several questions to be asked on this section. Why does the Torah explain in such detail the position of the two boys. Is there not a simpler way that we could have been informed that Ya’akov gave Efraim the greater blessing? Secondly, why did Ya’akov change the order to bless the younger son over the elder? Surely he knew from his own experiences with his brother Esav the dangers in reversing the order of blessings. And finally, when Yosef questions his father about the order Ya’akov doesn’t seem to answer him, but simply restate what he had done.
Rashi explains that though Menashe and Efraim were brothers, they were involved in very different endeavours. Menashe spent his time in the court of Pharaoh, acting as Yosef’s interpreter (Rashi on 42; 23), whereas Efraim was involved in full-time Torah learning (48; 1). Their lifestyles complemented each other, and they had a partnership that allowed them to share the material and spiritual gains equally. Yosef knew that both of these were worthy pursuits, but it seems from their names that he felt that Efraim’s Torah learning was more important for their long term survival. “Yosef named the first-born Menashe ‘because G-d has made me forget my troubles and even my father’s house’. He named the second Efraim - ‘Because G-d has made me fruitful’. (41; 51-2). On the face of it Efraim represented the future, while Menashe severed Yosef’s links with the past. However, on a slightly deeper level we could see these two names as also showing the different approaches to serving G-d in Israel and outside of Israel respectively. In Israel Yosef and his brothers were shepherds. They worked the land and, though they also learnt ‘Torah’ from their father and grandfather, their physical relationship with the Land was paramount. In Egypt Yosef felt that the emphasis must be on Torah learning to retain the close connection with G-d. Yosef embodied the concept of Torah Im Derech Eretz, (Torah combined with living in the material world), but his priority was always the Torah.
Therefore the Torah tells us that when Yosef approached Ya’akov, Efraim was on his right, symbolising the superiority of Torah outside of Israel. However, the blessing they were to receive, which was really for the time when the Jews returned to Israel, Yosef envisaged a return to the dominance of Menashe’s lifestyle, and intended Ya’akov to give him the blessing of the ‘right hand’.
Ya’akov’s response was that even in Israel Torah must still be placed before Derech Eretz. According to Rashi, Ya’akov’s response “He too will attain greatness. But his younger brother will become even greater.” refers not to numbers, but the leaders of the nation who will be descended from the two boys. The greatness of Menashe is that Gidon will come from him. The Bible introduces us to Gidon “as he was threshing wheat by the winepress...” (Judges 6; 11). His success as a saviour of Israel was based on the fact that he was a working person, not a great Torah scholar. Yet he merited to have miracles performed on his behalf because of his dedication to G-d and Israel. However, Efraim’s descendant was Yehoshua, who was even greater. It was he who led the Jews into the Land of Israel, though he was primarily a Torah scholar and teacher, not a warrior or worker (although he was also very capable in the battlefield as we see from the war against Amalek, where he led the troops, and most of the book of Yehoshua which lists his battle campaigns).
Thus Yosef thought that the primary need for Torah was a temporary necessity of life outside of Israel, which would be reversed upon the Jew’s return to Israel. However, Ya’akov demonstrated through his order of blessing that even in Israel precedence must be accorded to Torah learning, which would remain the prerequisite for physical and material prosperity.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Sedley

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

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Secret Messages and Physical Protection

The Torah tells us that at first Ya’akov refused to believe his sons that Yosef was alive. Only when “they related the words that Yosef had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him” then “the spirit of their father Ya’akov was revived” (Genesis 45; 27). With the words and the wagons, Yosef managed to convey the conclusive message to his father that he was alive, which carried more weight than the words of the other brothers. The Torah does not tell us what the secret code words were that Yosef sent to his father, but Rashi (on verse 27) cites the Talmud which explains the riddle of the wagons. “He gave them a sign. When Yosef last saw his father he had been learning the section of egla arufa (the calf used as atonement when a corpse is discovered and the murderer cannot be found) with him.” The Hebrew word for wagon (agala), is the same root as the word for calf (egla), therefore when Ya’akov saw the wagons he realised that it must be a message from Yosef, and not an impostor.
There are two problems with this interpretation of the message from Yosef. Firstly, how did Ya’akov know to interpret the wagons as a play on words of the final section he had learnt with his son. After 22 years how could Yosef even be sure that his father would remember what their final words together were? Secondly, if we look at the preceding section we find that the wagons were not sent at Yosef’s initiative, but at the directive of Pharaoh. “Pharaoh told Yosef ... ‘Now you are instructed to do the following: take wagons from Egypt for your small children and wives, and also use them for your father....’ ... Yosef gave them wagons according to Pharaoh's instructions, and he also provided them with food for the journey.”
The egla arufa calf is not a sacrifice, but a form of atonement brought by the heads of a city which is nearest to where a dead body is found. There is an elaborate public ceremony involving the Sanhedrin who must come from Jerusalem to measure distances and oversee the procedure. The whole event is intended as a very public message, not only to the unknown murderer, but to those who didn’t do enough to prevent the murder taking place. “The elders shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilt blood, and our eyes have not witnessed it’.” (Deuteronomy 21; 7). Obviously they were not the murderers, but they are nevertheless responsible for allowing a wayfarer to pass through their city, without offering lodgings for the night and an entourage to protect them on their journey.
When Ya’akov sent Yosef to his brothers before they sold him the Torah states, “He sent him from the valley of Chevron” (Genesis 37; 14). This means that Ya’akov accompanied his son part of the way to Shechem in an attempt to prevent any danger befalling him. This is what the Talmud means when it states that the last portion they studied together was the egla arufa. Ya’akov was involved in teaching his son the importance of accompanying someone on a journey in order that they arrive at their destination safely. Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that Ya’akov never found out that it was the brothers who sold Yosef, and assumed that Yosef had become lost on the journey, and was kidnapped by others. So when Ya’akov saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to bring him to Egypt he understood that Yosef was offering him safe passage - the message of the egla arufa. It was more than a play on words, Yosef was literally giving his father the same message that he had learnt from him when they last saw each other.
The first person in the Torah who made a point of sending an entourage to accompany a traveller was the Pharaoh of Avraham’s time (probably an ancestor of Yosef’s Pharaoh). “Pharaoh put men in charge of Avram, and they sent him on his way along with his wife and all that was his.” (ibid. 12; 20). This then is the paradigm for the message of the egla arufa. Even though it was Pharaoh who instructed the wagons to be sent to Ya’akov, he was continuing with his family tradition of accompanying travellers. Therefore the Torah uses seemingly redundant words, “Yosef gave them wagons according to Pharaoh's instructions.” This too was what Yosef was telling his father. The new Pharaoh is like his grandfather, and provides protection for those who come into his realm.

Shabbat Shalom

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

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D'var Torah for Parshat Miketz.

Choice and Responsibility

Pharaoh summons Yosef from the dungeon and tells him, ‘I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it. I have heard say of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it’. Yosef answers, ‘Not from me (biladai). G-d will answer Pharaoh’ (Genesis XLI; 15-16). With Yosef’s first word to Pharaoh, biladai, he states his credo. Whatever happens, good or bad, it is G-d who is running the show. Therefore if G-d gave Pharaoh a glimpse of the future through a dream, He will also provide an interpreter to explain it. If Yosef has been divinely chosen to fulfil that task then he will be given the insight to do so, if not someone else will be found who will interpret it.
Yosef’s whole life was affected by factors beyond his control, and at each step of the journey he understood that this was the Divine plan, and therefore he should make the best of the situation, without questioning. His two dreams led to the brothers selling him, Potiphar’s wife’s false accusations led to him being imprisoned as a slave in a foreign land. Unquestioningly Yosef tried to do what was required of him in each situation, and he saw G-d’s blessing on everything that he did. Similarly he knew that G-d has many messengers to perform His will. If G-d chose Yosef to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams he was only acting as G-d’s agent. The only time that Yosef tried to take control of his destiny was when he asked the butler to remember him to Pharaoh after he was reinstated to his duty. Rashi explains (40; 23) that because Yosef placed his trust in a person rather than in G-d, he had to remain in jail for a further two years. We are commanded to serve G-d in everything that we do, but whether we achieve the results we had hoped for is not in our control. To expect to be in control of our destiny shows a lack in our faith in G-d. The Mishna summarises this idea beautifully, “It is not for you to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it” (Avos 2; 21).
This also explains why Yosef never sent word back to his father that he was alive in Egypt. Even if he was unable to do so while a slave, or in prison, why did Yosef not end Ya’akov’s mourning upon his appointment as viceroy? The Midrash states that when the brothers sold Yosef they made a decree of excommunication on anyone who would reveal the truth to Ya’akov. Since Reuven and Binyamin were not with them, and Yosef did not take part, they needed a tenth for the minyan to give the decree validity. Therefore they included G-d as the ‘tenth’, which is why He never revealed the truth to Ya’akov prophetically. Yosef understood that if the Divine plan called for Ya’akov to remain in mourning for the 22 years until he was reunited with his son, then Yosef himself would have been powerless to inform him until the plan was complete.
There is a Yiddish saying to the effect that ‘people plan and G-d laughs’. We have no idea what lies in store for us or how events will pan out. In these areas we have no free choice, and all we can do is rely on G-d that everything is for the best. Our free choice lies only in how we make use of the opportunities which G-d has given us. We are commanded to follow His commandments to the best of our abilities, and try to live up to our potential. Everything else is ‘not from us’. This idea which was personified by Yosef can be very comforting. If we attribute our successes to G-d and acknowledge that we are only acting as His emissaries, then we are also not culpable if events don’t work out as we had planned. Those things that we consider failures often lie in areas which are beyond our control. The only failure for which we must take responsibility is not trying our best, or doing as much as we could. Judaism considers failure or success not on the outcomes, which is the yardstick of Western culture, but on the effort which we put into doing our best.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

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Chanukah Sameach
Rabbi Sedley

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enjoy your doughnuts and dreidles!

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Any Dream Will Do

Yosef is described in our Torah portion as ‘the dreamer’ (Genesis 37; 19). This is clearly a reference to his two dreams which he described to his father and brothers, in which they symbolically became subservient to him. Dreams were the cause of the brothers’ jealousy of Yosef, and the reason for his sale into slavery. Yet it was also because of dreams that Yosef was freed from jail and elevated to become the viceroy of Egypt. The end of our portion describes the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and the baker. Yosef interprets these dreams correctly. Then the opening of next week’s portion describes Pharaoh’s dream of the impending fat and lean years. Yosef is let out of jail and through his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream he becomes second in command over all of Egypt. Thus the fulfilment of Yosef’s dream comes about through the dreams of others. It thus seems that the appellation ‘the dreamer’ is an appropriate one.
Being the dreamer gives Yosef a close link with his father, Ya’akov, who is also famous for his dream. When Ya’akov fled from his brother Esav, he had the famous dream of the angels going up and down the ladder, and he saw G-d standing over him. That event changed his life, and as a result of that dream, he began his transformation from Ya’akov, who stole the blessings, to Yisrael, who rightfully earned those blessings. In this light we can interpret the opening of our portion, “These are the descendants of Ya’akov, Yosef...” (ibid. 2). Though he had twelve sons, it was Yosef the dreamer who was the continuation of the dream of Ya’akov.
The Torah explains Ya’akov’s favouritism towards Yosef “because he was the child of his old age (ben zikunim)” (ibid.). This phrase demands interpretation, since it was Binyamin, not Yosef who was Ya’akov’s youngest child. Therefore Rashi explains, based on Onkelos’ commentary, that the phrase ben zikunim can be interpreted as ‘child of wisdom’. This means that Ya’akov passed on to Yosef the Torah that he had learnt from the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever (where he went for 22 years before going to live with Lavan - see Rashi to 28; 9). Obviously growing up in the home of Yitzchak and Avraham, Ya’akov had learnt Torah all his life, but there seems to be something unique about the Torah of Shem and Ever which enables a person to become a dreamer. Before Ya’akov’s dream the Torah tells us “he slept there”. Rashi comments that “he slept there, but for the preceding 22 years in the Yeshiva of Ever he had not slept at night”. Similarly with Yosef, two verses after stating that Ya’akov taught him the Torah of Shem and Ever we read of his dream.
However, there is a fundamental difference between the dream of Ya’akov and the dreams of Yosef. Ya’akov dreamt of the world-to-come, where G-d is perceived as ‘standing over him’. The Midrash explains the angels climbing up the ladder in terms of each nation’s ascendance to world domination, then their subsequent downfall. Yosef’s dreams, and those he interprets, all deal with the physical world, and were fulfilled in the space of a relatively few years. Ya’akov, as the last ‘patriarch’ of the Jewish nation dreamed of the history of the world, and the role of the Jews in it. Yosef dreamt of himself, and the people and nations surrounding him. Ya’akov’s dream occurred in the ‘house of G-d’, the future site of the Temple, and contained no falsehood. Yosef’s dream did not take place in such a grand location, and did contain certain elements that were not entirely true.
The Talmud (Chagiga 5b) states: G-d said, ‘Even though I have hidden My face from the world, through dreams I will communicate’. We could describe Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple as taking place in a dream. Without the Temple and prophecy we lack a direct avenue of communication with G-d. Therefore we live in the ‘night’ of a dreamworld. The first festival which commemorates exile and G-d being hidden is Purim, when the name of the heroine, Ester, means ‘hidden’. G-d’s name does not appear anywhere in the text of the Megillah, and we see throughout the story the hidden hand of G-d. However, the next historical festival, Chanukah is even more dreamlike. Not only does G-d’s name not occur, but there is no direct mention of the festival or laws in any of the books of the Bible. The story itself is hidden and confused in the strands of history.
Yet Chanukah also provides us with the light to survive the darkness of exile. With the light of the Chanukah miracle we are able to at least glimpse the path that will lead is through our dreamlike existence in exile, and show us the way to the ultimate light of the Messianic era. As a nation we must undergo the trials and tribulations of Yosef’s dreams until ultimately we arrive at the revelation of Ya’akov’s dream, when the whole world will perceive G-d standing over, and everyone will exclaim that “this is none other than the house of G-d”.

Click here for a pdf file of the d'var Torah (which can be printed)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

short vort

Here is a link to the short vort for this week (Vayishlach) which I did for Darche Noam (if you are on their mailing list you will get an e-mail with the link anyway). I don't know how many of the other Rabbis manage to get Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader into their short vorts (though I suppose Star Wars is particularly relevant to this week's parsha).
Here is the link:

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Time for Reflection

This is the d'var Torah that I gave to the Scottish Parliament many moons ago (Wednesday 26 January 2000 to be precise). You can see it on the official record of the parliament

Not very good, but what would you have said. E-mail me your topic of choice for the Scottish Parliament (religious, not political please).

Time for Reflection

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): Our time for reflection today will be led by Rabbi David Sedley of the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation.
Rabbi David Sedley: I am honoured to have been chosen as the representative of the Scottish Jewish community to offer the time for reflection. The desire by the Parliament of Scotland to involve religious leaders of all faiths is a tribute to the openness of Scottish society, and its encouragement of pluralism. Scots should be proud of their long history of tolerance towards other religious communities, and of the safe haven that they have offered when doors were closed in other parts of the world.
Yesterday the country celebrated Burns day. I suppose that as Rabbie Burns is unable to attend today, it is appropriate to have another Rabbi to offer the opening prayer in his place. In his poem, "How can my poor heart be glad", Burns's wish is that the brotherhood of man will bring about peace. The last verse reads:
"Peace, thy olive wand extendAnd bid wild War his ravage end;Man with brother man to meet,And as brother kindly greet!"
The concepts of peace and brotherhood are universal goals and ideals. Peace is one of the three pillars that the world stands upon, as the Mishna states:
"The world stands on three things, on justice, on truth and on peace."
Peace is the foundation upon which all other blessings are built, for without peace, physical and spiritual prosperity are meaningless.
The Hebrew word for peace is shalom, which according to Judaism is one of the many names of God. It is also used as a greeting, in place of both hello and goodbye. I suppose that that can cause confusion, as we do not know whether we are coming or going, but it also serves as a constant reminder that the most important kind of peace is one that occurs in our daily interaction with others.
The prophet Isaiah tells us:
"I will create a new expression of the lips, 'Peace, peace,
both for far and near, says the Lord'."
That teaches us that there are two kinds of peace: one which operates on a national or global level, but another, equally important, which is near, and occurs on a daily basis in our interactions with others.
The peace and welfare of their host nation is always important to Jews, as Jeremiah commanded us in the name of God:
"Seek the peace of the city into which I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray to the Lord for it. For in its peace shall you have peace."
In the Bible, Aharon helped his brother Moses to free the Jews from slavery in Egypt and lead them through the desert. The Mishna describes him as one who personified peace:
"Hillel used to say, 'Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace'."
I would therefore like to conclude with the priestly blessing, which God commanded Aharon and his descendants to confer upon the nation:
"Yevarech'cha Adonai v'Yishmerecha, Ya'er Adonai Panaiv Ailecha Vichunech, Yissa Adonai Panaiv Ailecha v'Yasem Lecha Shalom".
May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord turn His face to you and give you peace.