Much has happened since I last wrote to you. It seems only yesterday I was wishing all of you a sweet year, a year of health, happiness and success. On Rosh Hashanah I asked each of you “What’s In Your Torah?” and challenged you to share your answers in tangible ways to strengthen and grow Bet Chaverim. And now we find ourselves awash in a sea of grief and confusion. The murder of 11 of our people here in the United States has left us all shaken and angry. “What’s In Your Torah?” speaks to the importance of community, support, sharing and thankfulness, qualities we need now more than ever in these troubling times. I ask all of you to join me, Rabbi Emily and Bet Chaverim this Friday evening for an inspiring Erev Shabbat, to stand spiritually with the people of Squirrel Hill and Jews everywhere and to shout a resounding “NO!” to those who would rid the world of our proud and ancient heritage.
November is a busy month in the Torah, starting with the death of Abraham’s beloved Sarah and ending with the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, setting the stage for the enslavement and redemption of our people. In Chayei Sarah, our first matriarch passes and is buried in the Cave of Machpelah. In one of his last of many instances of “being a mensch,” Abraham refuses to accept the burial place as a gift and insists on paying retail! Through the efforts of Abraham’s major domo, Isaac takes Rebecca as his wife. Abraham passes away and the Torah says that Isaac and Ishmael together buried him in the Cave of Machpelah.
Having been banished by his father so many years ago, and perhaps bearing anger at his brother for that, Ishmael reconciles with Isaac to share their common grief in the loss of their father.
The next parshah tells the story of Jacob and Esau, the selling of the birthright, Rebecca and Jacob’s subterfuge in securing the blessing of the first-born and Esau’s fury at Jacob for “cheating” him out of that blessing. Esau swears to kill Jacob and forces him to flee for his life. In the middle of the chapter we find perhaps the roots of modern anti-Semitism – contention over wells revitalized by Isaac for his flocks between his community and the neighboring Philistines.
The third parshah in November, Vayyetze, tells the story of Rachel and Leah, Jacob’s service to Laban as payment for their hands in marriage, Laban’s unsuccessful attempts to cheat Jacob and Jacob’s success as a shepherd. This last results in Jacob and his family leaving Laban’s community and returning to his father, beside himself with worry that his brother still harbors rage against him.
The final chapter of the month begins with the climactic meeting between Jacob and Esau. The brothers reconcile in a dramatic encounter, thus ending the third of the bible’s first four brother vs. brother conflicts. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin and Isaac dies, with Jacob and Esau sharing their grief together and burying their father. Esau goes on to establish the kingdom of Edom, a people who figure prominently later in Jewish history, as we shall see.
Why am I telling you all of this? November is the month of Thanksgiving and the Torah speaks eloquently about family, community and faith. All things to be thankful for. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, even Esau and Ishmael, all draw strength from their loved ones and from God, and in two instances, come together in a time of tragedy to bury old resentments and draw strength from being together. So I say to you, look into your Torah and reach out to those you love, tell them you love them and take this opportunity to forgive and reconcile.
The Sephardic Haftorah for the last parshah of November is the Book of Obadiah. And here is where the narrative of the Torah comes full circle. For you trivia buffs, the Book of Obadiah is the shortest book in the bible at 21 lines. For you Broadway musical fans, Obadiah is the given name of Sky Masterson, the hero of Guys and Dolls. But I digress. Edom, the nation that Esau sires, returns in the time of Nebuchadnezzar to help the Babylonians defeat Judah. According to legend, they not only were pivotal in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple but went out of their way to slaughter as many Jews as they could during the attack. In an eloquent and soaring discourse, Obadiah contrasts the conceit and pride of the Edomites with the faith and righteousness of Israel. You will never triumph over us no matter what you do, he says, because we have the principles and faith of God on our side. We are stronger than you because of what’s in our Torah. Many people and individuals have played the role of Edom in our history and the gunman in Squirrel Hill is only the latest (and unfortunately, probably not the last).
As Obadiah says:
And the house of Jacob shall be a fire,
And the house of Joseph a flame,
And the house of Esau for stubble,
And they shall kindle in them, and devour them;
And there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau;
For the Lord hath spoken.
This month of November, starting out as one more skirmish with the Edomites, ends with a holiday of thankfulness and appreciation for what we have as families, communities and the Jewish people.
I hope to see all of you Friday night to welcome again the Sabbath Queen.