Toledot: It is about seeing—and not seeing.

Our parasha reports how Isaac was tricked by Jacob, taking advantage of his father‘s blindness, into giving him the blessing of the firstborn.  But was Isaac really blind? Was he really not able to notice that it was Jacob and not Esau who stood before him?  History is sometimes made by averting our eyes.  Many people think that miracles are about God working magic.  But according to Genesis miracles are about lifting up the eyes.  They are about opening the eyes and seeing what is already there. So miracles are more about us seeing things rather than God’s magic.  Miracles are about noticing the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

So how do we understand Isaac’s not seeing?  If he is blinded by choice because it is too painful to verbalise what one son is doing to another or how his wife is conspiring against him or how he is favouring one son over another, then what might  the miracle be that he is unable to see? 

The miracle  is in the sequel.  It is in next week’s portion.  That miracle is the dream of a ladder going to heaven.  This miracles occurs because Jacob is now running from Esau.  Such is the history that is created by Isaac
choosing not to see.

We can’t see everything and some things are too painful to see clearly.  The truth must sometimes be concealed and that we must, as a matter of faith, veil our eyes. Our rabbis teach us that we learn from Isaac how to lead a life of faith.  We can look at the world and all its pain.  We can look at our own lives with all the difficulties and say, there is no God; there are no
miracles.  Or, you can see Nature in all its wonderful colours, and say, „I believe!“ Faith is a matter of averting our eyes from our daily pains and seeing instead the sometimes less frequent joys and blessings.  It is about seeing—and not seeing.

Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Adrian M Schell

Knowing that We Are Blessed

As Abraham reached the twilight of his years, our Torah portion informs us that „the Eternal had blessed Abraham in every way“ (Genesis 24:1).

The Rabbis were perplexed by such an assertion. No surprise! Do you know anyone on earth who is blessed with everything? Some people may give the impression that they „have everything.“ But when you scratch the surface you will find that we all carry burdens- physical, emotional, and
financial. We live with disappointment, with pain, with hopes not realised and goals never achieved.

So what about Abraham? As Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides) suggests, Abraham was blessed with riches, possessions, honour, and
longevity (Ramban on Genesis 24:1). What for me is missing in this list is love, family and friendship.

Last weekend, when we were sitting around the tables that were so richly filled with cakes and sweets for the High Tea, and also on Shabbat at the brocha, after the service, I felt that we are a blessed congregation. Not so much because of the food, which was lovely, but because of being a real community, where friendship and togetherness are not only nice terms on paper, but a lived reality.

When the Torah says that the Eternal had blessed Abraham in every way, perhaps it not only meant the many blessings Abrahm enjoyed in his life-time, but also anticipated the many blessings Abraham‘s children—us—would some days enjoy: a rich tradition, friendship and community.

 Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

How can I help?

Our Torah Portion “Noach” reports twice on the downfall of humanity in the eyes of God. In the response to the first, God sends the waters of the flood, which erases all life on earth and God’s answer to the second, the building of the Tower of Bavel, is the dispersion of all humanity to all corners of the earth and the diffusion of language. Both are radical answers to human weakness.

Only with Abraham and later with Moses and the Israelites God opens a different path, away from destruction and punishment, towards a process of learning and self-improvement. God offers help and guidance in form of the Torah and all subsequent teachings of our tradition. Moreover, God becomes a role model for us when looking at each other. Instead of searching for flaws and shortcomings and how we can castigate our neighbour, we should ask the question:

How can I help? How can we make things better?

Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Schell

 

A first thought for 5780 – Shabbat Shuvah

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat that falls between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Our tradition teaches that the gates of repentance are always open, and we are constantly reminded that it is never too late to change one’s ways and start anew. The haftarah for this Shabbat begins, „Shuvah Yisrael…“ (Return, O Israel…). (Hosea 14:2)

That idea of returning, or turning to a different path, permeates the season. What’s significant, perhaps, is not that we are repeatedly given  opportunities to change, but that we need them. None of us is perfect,  there’s always room for improvement. What this Shabbat and Yom Kippur reminds us is that not only can we always return, but also forces us to ask ourselves why we aren’t starting right now. If it’s never too late to begin, it’s also never too early to start.

In my sermon on Rosh HaShanah, I shared with you my thoughts on having hope and feeling gratitude, especially in moments that are difficult for us. Yom Kippur with its laws and regulations to fast and “atone“ is too often understood as a burden, but actually, Yom Kippur is a happy day, reassuring us that the above mentioned change is possible and that God is with us every single moment of our lives. God is stretching out God‘s hand on Yom Kippur, awaiting us at the open gates.

May you all be sealed in the book of life, rewarded for your honesty towards yourself and God. May you gain strength from Yom Kippur to master the tasks that await you in the coming year. May you feel God’s Presence within you always, and never lose faith and trust in God and God‘s people.

Gmar chatima tova!

—Rabbi Adrian M Schell

 

A final thought for 5779

For the last Shabbat in 5779, our Torah comes with one of the readings I love most in the entire year. In parashat Nitzavim we find the following directive: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life.”

But, what does it mean to choose life? It’s not as if we need to be told to live.  Rather, God is telling us that by choosing to follow God’s ways, we are choosing a good life. A blessed life. But this brings us to the age-old question “Why do the wicked prosper?” Why do we see evil people enjoying success in this world while good people struggle?

One of the classic answers is that while evil people may seem to be living it up in this world, they will suffer in the next, while the righteous will receive their reward in the world to come. Earthly pleasures are finite, but spiritual pleasures are infinite. The problem with this answer is that many of us haven’t got the patience to wait for the world to come and see if this is really true. Our struggles are now, and we want relief now.

But maybe the answer isn’t some logical discourse, but a shift in perspective.  A wonderful teaching by our sages says: “Good life is defined not by what you get, but by what you give.” When you look at life this way, the question disappears. It becomes almost irrelevant. No matter how little I have, there is always something I can do—some way I can reach out. By the same token, a life defined by how much you get can never satisfy. No matter how much you have, you always want more and more.

In order to be able to “choose life,” we need to be able to see it—to recognise it as life. This is what the Torah’s command gives us. It’s not really a directive. The point isn’t to tell us what to do, but to show us—to help us hold on to the perspective, to help us see how much more there is to life than we often see at the first moment.

For this Shabbat and these High Holy Days, it is my hope that we will find ways to see so that we can choose the right path for us, our families and society.

Shabbat Shalom and a good start into the New Year

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Shuchat)