Category Archives: Dvar Torah

Shemini Atseret – In Search of Joy & Gratitude

Sedra of the Week: Shemini Atzeret

Rabbi Jeff Berger looks ahead to this week’s portion of the Torah

Tefillat Geshem: The Prayer for Rain | My Jewish Learning

Shemini Atzeret has a dual identity. It falls on the eighth day, immediately after Succot. It is a festival in its own right, but without rituals. Yet, like Succot, our prayers refer to it as ‘the time of our happiness’ (zeman simhateinu).

One tradition identified in the Talmud is to recite the Prayer for Rain (Tefillat Geshem) in the Shemini Atzeret Musaf service. 

From ancient times, water was perceived as a precious resource for all living beings, even if in Britain we take it for granted. By contrast, from 2014 to 2019, Israel experienced a drought exceeding anything in its past 100 years. 

In a Mediterranean climate with a few months of rain at best, Tefillat HaGeshem was a way to beseech God to provide precipitation during the winter months. When rains were delayed, leaders instituted a series of public fasts.

Andalusian poet Salomon Ibn Gabirol beautifully articulated our dependence on rain in his poem Shifat Revivim with the refrain. “Open now Your treasure, give life to all into whom You’ve breathed a soul, by causing the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

Atzeret means ‘gathering’. We also refer to Shavuot as Hag HaAtzeret. The Babylonian Talmud informs us that just as Shavuot comes 50 days after Pesach, Shemini Atzeret was intended to come 50 days after Sukkot, but God had compassion on Jewish farmers, not requiring of them another pilgrimage during the rainy season.

Shemini Atzeret thus inspires joy and gratitude. We seldom appreciate what we have until it’s absent or lost. The past months have shown how blessed we are. 

As winter approaches, practising gratitude allows us to see things as they exist, not as we might wish them to be. Rather than lamenting what we’ve lost, Shemini Atzeret dually teaches us to find joy in what we have and to be thankful.

  •  Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at rabbijefflondon


Sedra of the week:
Naso – Nobility with Responsibility

Naso – Nobility with Responsibility

Most of the year, Jews around the world read the same parsha. But this week we read Naso, while in Israel they have moved ahead to Beha’alotekha, because the second day of Shavuot coincided with Shabbat.

Naso, meaning “to lift up” or “to appoint”, begins with the designation of the Levi tribe to their respective duties in transporting the disassembled Mishkan (Tabernacle). A variation of the word also appears toward the end of the parsha in describing the gifts brought prior to the Tabernacle dedication by the 12 princes (Nasi – “one who is elevated”, plural Nesi’im).

Rashi explains the Nesi’im had been tribal leaders in Egypt. When Pharaoh sought someone to blame, they took the beating. Through the merit of their suffering, they were privileged to bring these dedication offerings.

Nasi therefore implies “nobility combined with responsibility” in a role that gives purpose to previous suffering and connection to the wider community.

We are in the easing stage of the Covid-19 lockdown, beginning to assess the landscape of how we’ll continue as an Anglo-Jewish community. Early in the crisis, our Jewish leadership heard that noble call and created a relief fund.

Naso reminds us it’s important for all of us to come forward with gifts. Where we may wish to reduce contributions, those who are capable should do their best this year to keep or exceed the same level of giving to the charities of our choice.

The future tense variation of the Naso verb occurs in the Priestly Blessing within the parsha, which states: “(Yisa) May God lift you up and grant you peace!”

Through our re-dedication efforts, may the Almighty grant us a safe return to communal life and to peace.

Click here for link to Jewish News article

Parshat Shelakh-Lekha

Parshat Shelakh-Lekha is the 4th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 13-15. It begins with the appointment of 12 spies, missioned to tour the promised land of Canaan. Forty days later they returned with samples of its produce and a 10-2 decision to the negative – the land couldn’t be conquered. Shocked, the people cried in despair and complained to Moshe and to G-d. Only Joshua and Caleb defended the campaign.

Their cries triggered a punishment from G-d that all men 20-years and older would die off in the Wilderness during the ensuing 40 years, and only their wives and children would merit entering Canaan. Deeply remorseful the following day, a band from Bnei Yisrael attempted to ascend without G-d’s help and were struck-down by the Amalekites and Canaanites.

The parasha continues with Laws of Sacrifices brought once the people enter Canaan, and the meal offerings & wine libations that accompanied each animal. This was followed by the laws of Taking Hallah from dough before bread was baked and giving it as Terumah to G-d; and by Laws of the Inadvertent Sin offering brought by the community or by an individual.

Shelakh-Lekha ends with the story of the man who gathered wood on Shabbat and was put to death by stoning, and with the command to put wool- and blue-dyed threads on the fringes of your four-cornered garments.

Comment: The enormous remorse which sometimes follows a sin can be as bad if not worse than the original transgression. An example can be found in Parashat Shelakh-Lekha where Bnei Yisrael slander the Land of Canaan and are punished to die in the desert.

The first reaction of Bnei Yisrael the morning after hearing G-d’s decree, was despair. The remorseful among them decided immediately to attempt ascent into Canaan, even though it was against G-d’s wishes. Ignoring Moshe’s warnings, and taking matters into their own hands, they died by their own initiative in a violent battle with Amalek and Canaan.

Some may argue that it’s better to challenge the odds than to wait for the inevitable. Perhaps they intended their remorse as a form of repentance before G-d and expected to be forgiven. For what would be the sense of living in the desert, if there was no chance to inherit the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

Indeed, seen through this lens, the incident of Korah’s rebellion in next week’s parasha also makes sense. Relying on Moshe was no longer viable if all they could expect was to wander aimlessly in the desert ‘killing time’ until ‘their time’ would come. Choosing new leadership would seem a way to resolve their troubles.

Perhaps this is a subtle viewpoint, but there are two powerful messages that resonate with truth. First, up until now Bnei Yisrael committed a number of transgressions, including the sin of the Golden Calf, but it was only slander that undid them. How immense is the power of words to cause pain and suffering to others!

Second, Bnei Yisrael’s sin in slandering the Land of Canaan was compounded by their expressed-wish to return to Egypt, showing an all-too-familiar pattern that when a situation gets difficult, we react by looking backwards and laying blame on our leaders.

In a week when we’ve seen this country mired in regret, with a return to terrible incidents of racial hatred and verbal assault, perhaps we can remind ourselves, that our only choice is to move forward in Hope, rather than to look back, lament the past and try to scapegoat those weaker than ourselves.

A More Detailed Look at the Parasha

G-d told Moshe to send men to tour the land of Cana’an, one representing each tribe. Moshe dispatched them from the Paran Wilderness. They were:

Reuven – Sha’mu’ah ben Zakur                                             Shimon – Shafat ben Hori

Yehudah – Kaleb ben Yefuneh                                               Yisakhar – Yigal ben Yosef

Ephraim – Hoshea ben Nun (Yehoshua)                               Binyamin – Palti ben Rafu

Zevulun – Gadiel ben Sodi                                                     Menashe – Gadi ben Susi

Dan – Amiel ben Gemali                                                        Asher – Setur ben Mikhael

Naftali – Nakhbi ben Vofsi                                                      Gad – Ge’u’el ben Makhi

Moshe told them to enter from the Negev and ascend to the mountains; to spy out the land, to see whether the people were strong or weak, few or many; whether the land was good or bad, whether the cities were fortified or open; was the land fertile or not; were there trees and that they should bring back of their fruits. They went during the grape harvest season.

They ascended and toured the land from Desert Sin to Rehav and Hamat. From the Negev they reached Hebron where the giants Akhiman, Sheishai & Talmai lived. At Eshkol Valley they cut a cluster of grapes plus pomegranates and figs; returning finally after 40 days to meet Moshe, Aharon and the congregation of Bnei Yisrael who were at Kedaisha.

Showing their fruits, they reported it was a land flowing with milk and honey and these were samples of its fecundity. However, the land’s inhabitants was strong and its cities fortified. The Amalekites were in the south, the Hittites, Jabusites and Amorites dwelt in mountains and the Canaanites occupied the coast and riverbanks.

Kaleb tried to rally the people by charging them to ‘ascend and inherit the land; it was possible’. But the other spies, denied it possible to defeat the current occupants. Instead, they slandered the land saying it ‘consumed its inhabitants’; the people were strong-natured and ‘descendants of giants’ lived there.

That night, the nation lifted its voice in wailing, complaining to Moshe and Aharon, ‘it would have been better for us to die in Egypt or in the Wilderness, why did G-d bring us here so that our wives and children would waste away? It would be better to return to Egypt.’ Some decided to appoint a new head and head back to Egypt.

Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces; Joshua and Kaleb tore their clothing and rebuked the people claiming it was a good land. ‘Should G-d wish, we would take it! Rather, beware not to rebel against G-d, the inhabitants will be our bread, their shield has been removed and G-d is with us – do not despair.’ But, the nation wanted to stone them, until suddenly G-d’s presence appeared.

G-d spoke to Moshe asking ‘how long will this people vex Me; will they refuse to believe in Me after all the miracles they’ve seen? Let me destroy them with pestilence and make of you a great nation!’ Moshe replied if the Egyptians heard G-d took this people from their midst – who beheld G-d eye-to-eye, and were escorted constantly by pillars of cloud and of fire – smiting them as one, they would conclude it was G-d’s inability to bring have them inherit the land that caused them to be slaughtered in the desert.

Moshe evoked the formula for repentance (taught to him by G-d) seeking forgiveness for Bnei Yisrael. And G-d forgave them. But ‘those who witnessed the miracles of Egypt and tested Me 10-times in the wilderness’, they wouldn’t see the Promised Land. Only Kaleb would be worthy. Because the Amalekites and Canaanites were in the valley, the following day Bnei Yisrael would turn back to the wilderness and travel by way of the Reed Sea.

G-d told Moshe and Aharon that Bnei Yisrael would be punished measure-for-measure for their complaints. Other than Kaleb ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua bin Nun, all men 20-years and older would die in the Wilderness, not meriting to enter the Land of Canaan. Only their wives and children, would know the land their father’s despised. One year for each day of touring, they would wander 40-years in the desert until the last had died-off. As for the spies that brought the bad report, they would die by plague immediately.

Regretting their fate, some rose early the next morning to attempt entering the land. Moshe warned them not to transgress G-d’s decision and risk falling into the hands of their enemies since G-d would not be with them. But they persisted and were struck down by the mountain-dwelling Amalekites and Canaanites.

[Abruptly the Torah changes topics]

G-d tells Moshe that when the people eventually enter the land and offer sacrifices; a lamb should be accompanied by a meal offering of 1/10th eipha fine flour mixed with a quarter hin of oil, along with a quarter hin of wine as a libation for their Olah or Zevakh offerings. Each ram should be accompanied by 2/10th eipha fine flour mixed with a third hin of oil, along with a third hin of wine as a libation. If the offering was a bull, the meal offering would be 3/10th eipha fine flour mixed with a half hin of oil, along with a half hin of wine as a libation

These quantities were to be brought for each offering. Both the permanent resident and the long-term stranger were obliged by the same laws; for citizen and non-citizen alike.

When entering the land and baking your bread, just as you separate a portion while the grain is on the threshing floor, so too must you take from the dough and give it to the Almighty.

Should you collectively err and not perform all the mitsvot Moshe taught you, if the congregation faltered, they would bring a bull as a burnt offering and a goat for a sin offering along with their meal offerings and libations. The Kohen would affect atonement for the people and for the strangers in their midst.

If an individual were to sin, they’d bring a one-year-old goat as a sin offering. Here too, the law was the same for the resident as well as the stranger. But, if one deliberately sinned against G-d, they’d be cut off from the nation. For they despise the word of G-d, flaunting the mitsvot.

A man gathered wood on Shabbat and was brought before Moshe and Aharon by those who saw him. He was placed in prison until judgment was passed. G-d told Moshe the man should be stoned to death outside the encampment. The congregation did to him as G-d had commanded.

G-d spoke with Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael to place fringes on the four corners of their garments in perpetuity. And, among the strings should be a blue thread. When you see them it will remind you of all G-d’s commandments, preventing you from following the passions of your heart and perversions of your eyes. In order that you remember G-d’s commands and remain holy to G-d. ‘For I am the Lord your G-d who took you from Egypt to become your G-d.

Parshat BeHa’alotekha

Parshat BeHa’alotekha is the 3rd in the Book of Numbers (Chapters 8-12). It begins with the command for Aharon to light the menorah, adding the induction of the Levites into Mishkan service, the celebration of Pesah in the Wilderness and the laws of Pesah Sheni.

Next is the directive role of the Cloud of Glory which appeared above the Mishkan; when it lifted they were to travel and where it set, they would again encamp. A pair of silver trumpets were made and given to the Kohanim to use for signalling when to gather, break camp, get ready for war or celebrate the festivals.

Bnei Yisrael’s first attempt to travel as a nation soon led to complaints for food. Moshe complained of being overwhelmed by the burden of leadership and G-d instructed deputising 70 Elders to share the task. A Divine wind then miraculously blew-in enough quail to feed the entire nation for a month.

BeHa’alotekha ends with Miriam and Aharon slandering their brother Moshe, and Miriam’s punishment of spiritual leprosy and 7-days quarantine outside the camp.


Comment: It’s hard for humans to fully entrust G-d to provide us with our daily needs.

Some would argue we shouldn’t trouble G-d with such relatively inconsequential, selfish requests but that instead it’s our duty to go out and make our way in the world through initiative and talent. For that reason we train our children ethically, send them to school to be educated, cheer their successes and offer encouragement at their set-backs.

From the beginning of time when the first man and woman were created, they were placed in an idyllic environment called the Garden of Eden. Given everything they might possibly want and restricted only to not eating the fruit of a single tree; that restriction was too much to withstand. And so, they were cast out into a world where they had to eat by the sweat of their brow and give birth in pain.

The story of the second half of Bamidbar from Chapter 11 onwards, recalls that first unsuccessful struggle. Given every positive opportunity, Bnei Yisrael simply had to remain calm and show their gratitude to G-d. Sadly, BeHa’alotekha is the turning point for the host of troubles Bnei Yisrael would experience before reaching the Land of Cana’an.

What should have been an 11-day journey, according to Ramban, instead would take 40-years and encompass the death of the entire adult generation of those freed from Egyptian slavery. It’s a tragic story of self-inflicted failure that, up until this week’s Parasha, seemed entirely avoidable.

There was manna, there was hierarchical order, families were together and G-d’s presence was resident in the respective camps. Would that Bnei Yisrael have realised their immense blessings and refrained from complaining in disgust and through distrust! They’d been at the base of Sinai for a year, why only now after they began marching did they complain for meat?

Looking at the use of the Hebrew wording, the opening verses of the Parasha refer to Aharon ‘ascending’ to light the Menorah. Equally, the lengthy section explaining their travel instructions uses the same verb form (la’alot) to ascend. Achieving trust in the Almighty can only occur when we look upward in the ascent, not when mired in a descending mind-set.

It’s hard for humans to fully entrust G-d to provide us with our daily needs. Nor are we advocating total dependence to an irrational degree, but each of us can certainly reflect on how we relate to and allocate time to meeting our physical and spiritual needs and ask ourselves the question, have we struck the correct balance? Is our vision set in an upward ascent? If not, how should we go about making a change?

A More Detailed Look at the Parasha

Aharon was commanded to light the 7 candles in the golden Menorah; an image of its base and branches was shown to Moshe at Sinai.

Moshe was commanded by G-d to purify the Leviim initiating them in place of the first-born into the service of the Mishkan. They were sprinkled with Hatat (purification) waters, their bodies fully shaven and their clothing washed. Two bullocks as sacrifices – one a burnt-offering and one a sin-offering – were prepared with a meal-offering of fine flour.

Brought to the Tent of Meeting, Bnei Yisrael pressed their hands on the Leviim. Aharon made them a wave-offering, inducting them to perform the service of G-d. The Leviim then placed their hands on the two animals designated for sacrifice. Standing before the Kohanim the Leviiim thus became segregated from among Bnei Yisrael.

‘For on the day G-d struck the Egyptian first born, the Israelite first-born belonged to the Me’. The Leviim were given to the Kohanim to serve in the Mishkan, representing Bnei Yisrael, effecting atonement for their sins. Aharon carried out this duty for them; the Leviim were charged to serve in the Mishkan from age 25-50.

G-d told Moshe to instruct the people on the 14th day of the 1st month to bring a Pesah offering. There were some who were ritually impure on that day who protested being left out. Moshe entreated their patience while consulting with G-d what should be done.

They, and anyone in future generations who was Tameh or traveling and unable to bring their sacrifice, were instructed to observe the festive requirements of bringing their Pesah offering and eating it with matsah and marror on the 14th day of the 2nd month instead; those able to participate on the original date of Pesah in Nisan who deliberately opted out would be culpable for punishment.

On the day the Mishkan was erected it was covered by a cloud during the day and at night by a fire. This became perennial. When the cloud lifted from the Mishkan it was a sign to travel and where it settled was a sign to again encamp.

There were times when the cloud remained for a longer period and there were times when it alighted after only a few days; or for only one evening to the next day or for a few days or a month. When the Cloud lifted the people travelled and when it settled they stopped.

G-d told Moshe to make two silver trumpets for signalling the congregation. They would be used for breaking camp; when blown they would call the people to the Tent of Meeting. If blown once, they would summon the Princes; if blown as an alarm, they would signal the beginning of movement from the East, a second alarm would signal movement in the South. The Kohanim were responsible for blowing them; they were used to signal war evoking G-d’s mercy and protection and, during the special sacrifices they were blown to announce festivals and new moons – causing Bnei Yisrael to be remembered before G-d.

On the 20th day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year, the first national embarkation from Sinai toward the Pa’aran wilderness began. The 3 tribes under the Flag of Judah stirred first, the Mishkan was taken down and the frame was carried by the Levite sons Gershon & Merrari. They were followed by Flag Reuben, then the sons of Kehat carrying the Mishkan vessels (leaving Gershon & Merrari enough time to reconstruct the Mishkan before they encamped again); the last two Flags of Ephraim and Dan followed.

Reu’el the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law, was invited to accompany them on their first journey but declined, preferring to return to his homeland. Moshe asked him to reconsider, not to abandon them but to be the eyes of the nation, promising him benefit in the new land. They travelled 3 days and the Ark travelled 3 days in front of them seeking where they would next rest.

When they carried the Ark, Moshe called G-d to scatter their enemies, and when they rested, he said, ‘Return Oh G-d unto Israel’s tens of thousands of families’. [These words are used in synagogues today when either opening and/or closing the Ark.]

The nation began murmuring – the first complaint led to a fire breaking out in their midst but Moshe prayed and it abated, and the place was named accordingly. The second complaint raised by a mixed multitude was a lust; nostalgically remembering the delicacies of Egypt, they complained for meat, fish, cucumbers, melon, leeks, onions and garlic; claiming their life force had become dehydrated by the manna. Though they gathered, ground, beat, cooked or tried baking it, the result was the same – the manna tasted like oil-cake.

Moshe heard the crying of families standing at the entrance to their tents and knew their ingratitude would anger G-d. Overwhelmed, he blamed G-d of mistreating him and begged to be killed rather than continue bearing the burden of this people.

G-d told Moshe to gather 70 elders in front of the Tent of Meeting to be empowered from the spirit that Moshe bore; to no longer be alone. Moshe told the nation to sanctify themselves for the following day G-d would provide them enough meat to last a month – until they were sick of it. In disbelief, Moshe asked G-d where so much meat could come from, and G-d replied ‘is the hand of the Lord limited?’

Moshe went out to inform the people what G-d said about the meat and to gather 70 elders. G-d descended in a Cloud and caused the spirit of prophecy to rest on the 70 briefly. There were two who didn’t go to the Tent, Eldad & Meidad, who also prophesised within the camp. Joshua reported them to Moshe asking that they be stopped. Moshe appreciated Joshua’s jealousy but replied he wouldn’t mind if the entire people became prophets.

A wind blew and quail arrived in such abundance to cover the ground for a day’s distance in either direction. The people gathered for 2 days amassing vast quantities around the camp. But those who ate the quail were struck by a plague while the meat was still between their teeth. The place was named Kivrot-HaTeavah (Grave of Lust). The nation travelled on to Hatserot.

The Parasha ends with Miriam and Aharon slandering their brother over a Kushite woman. They asked each other, ‘does G-d only speak with Moshe?’ And G-d heard, saying Moshe was the humblest of all men on the earth.

Suddenly all three were called into the Cloud in front of the Tent of Meeting, where G-d chastised Miriam and Aharon; spelling out the favoured Divine relationship with Moshe. When the Cloud left, Miriam was found stricken with Spiritual Leprosy. Aharon begged Moshe to save her; Moshe prayed for her to be healed; then she was sent out of the camp for 7 days. The nation waited for her to return, afterwards they travelled from Hatseirot to Pa’aran.

Parshat Bamidbar

Parshat Bamidbar is the 1st in the Book of Numbers (Chapters 1-4). It is made up of an exhaustive census of Bnei Yisrael and the Tribe of Levi taken on the 1st day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year after the exodus from Egypt.

Following G-d’s command to take a census, leaders were enlisted and each tribe counted according to heads of households and their families. A second description of how the tribes encamped around and marched (with the Mishkan in the centre) followed.

G-d told Moshe to exclude the Levites from the tally, for they would have a unique role. A third census counted just the tribe of Levi and a fourth totalled the number of first-born among the other tribes – the numbers were nearly identical – the surplus of first-born being redeemed for 5 Shekels per person. In Naso, a fifth census was taken to determine the working-age Levites responsible for transporting the Mishkan.

For a detailed list of the numbers by tribe, encampment and household, click here.

Comment: Shavuoth celebrates the anniversary of G-d’s revelation at Sinai. The Torah is called the ‘5 Books of Moses’. In the way the chapters are divided into books we find many interesting patterns. Genesis & Exodus describe a quasi-chronological experience. The middle book, Leviticus, concerns the pathway to achieving a sacred life. And the final two, Numbers and Deuteronomy, return to the national narrative leading to Bnei Yisrael’s arrival at the border of Cana’an.

If, like a filled-pastry, we assume the centre holds the best part – the most emphasis and importance, than the historical sections on both sides must somehow embellish this.

Further, there’s an unusual disconnect between the English and Hebrew names of Bamidbar. In Hebrew the word means ‘in the desert,’ but in English it’s known as the Book of Numbers. Our sages from the Middle Ages enjoined us that the Torah was given in the Midbar for a reason – because unless we’re able to free our minds of worldly concerns, the Torah’s principles would be indiscernible to us. Just as a wilderness is empty of materialism, so too must we avoid bringing in our own agendas.

Put differently, unless we empty ourselves of ego-involvement, there would be no room to experience G-d-centered wisdom. And yet, the physical world beckons us to count, to number and to quantify.

So how do we reconcile these competing influences – an egoless approach in a materialistic-driven world? Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness had their issues – they were a stiff-necked people whose behaviour often disappointed or angered G-d. How are we 3,300 years later going to be better?

Judaism uses the idea of ‘Generations’ to discuss the passage of time. As we’re commanded during Pesah that each generation should see itself as having been redeemed from slavery, so too must we answer the question how each generation related to receiving the Torah.

No doubt we must have our basic physical needs met. It’s when we’re ready to put our ideas and ideals above our basic creature comforts that we begin to rise above our innate selfishness. That’s the point when the spirituality and transcendent principles of Torah are uncovered – like an oasis in the desert – and start to come into focus. Please take advantage of the opportunity Shavuoth presents!

Hayei Sarah

SummaryHayei Sarah is the 5th parasha in the Book of Bereishith. It records the final acts in the life of Abraham the Patriarch. The main stories both involve negotiations; purchasing a burial plot for Sarah and finding a wife for Isaac.

1st Aliyah: Sarah lived to be 127 years old, dying in Hebron. Unprepared for her demise, Abraham sat in mourning before beginning a 3-step negotiation to purchase burial ground. He called on the local tribe of Het who welcomed him with honour making all their land available. Next, he asked just for the double cave (Ma’arat HaMah’pela) owned by Efron ben Tsohar who offered the field and the cave ‘for free’. Realising Efron’s true intent to sell a much larger piece of land, Abraham agreed the exorbitant price of 400 silver shekels.

2nd Aliyah: In an extended description of ownership transfer, Abraham waited until the cave was in his possession before burying Sarah. Concerned by his own mortality, next he set out to find a wife for Isaac. His elderly servant (Eliezer) was sworn not to take of the women of Cana’an, but instead to return to Abraham’s birthplace to find a suitable bride. Abraham called on the Almighty to send an Angel to aid the servant’s success. Should the woman not agree to relocate to Cana’an, the oath would lapse.

3rd Aliyah: The servant left in a caravan of 10 camels to the town of Nahor arriving at a well as they were drawing water for the evening. Stipulating to the Almighty thathesed (kindness) would identify the girl destined to marry Isaac, his prediction soon unfolded exactly as conceived. The woman would offer water to him and his animals and be of the correct lineage.

As Rebekah descended to the well with her water jug, he ran to ask for a drink. She offered it then proceeded to water his camels. Giving her a gold ring and two gold bracelets, he enquired of her family and if there was place in her home for overnight guests. Discovering Rebekah was a grand-daughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, he bowed in thanks to the Almighty.

4th Aliyah: Astounded by his rapid success, the servant continued to bless G-d as Rebekah’s brother Laban rushed out to greet and welcome him into their home. They found place for the camels to rest and a feast was prepared. Before eating, the servant insisted on re-telling his miraculous story – from being dispatched by Abraham to giving Rebekah the jewelry, concluding again with praises for the Almighty. He then asked if the family would consent to Rebekah becoming Isaac’s wife, and when they agreed, he bowed once more to the Almighty.

5th Aliyah: More gifts were distributed to Rebekah, her brother and mother, then they all ate, drank and went to bed. In the morning the servant asked permission to leave immediately with Rebekah. But there was some hesitation, until it was agreed to ask Rebekah – who consented. They headed back to Cana’an with Rebekah, her nursemaid, the servant and his retinue. On the threshold of leaving her homeland, the family blessed Rebekah to become the mother of myriads.

They journeyed without incident until reaching the Negev where Isaac was going to meditate in the fields. Spying her future husband from the distance, Rebekah covered her face with a veil. Isaac, who was Informed of all that occurred, brought Rebekah into his mother’s tent where they became husband and wife. Isaac loved Rebekah finding solace from his mother’s death.

6th Aliyah: Abraham had a concubine who bore him 6 additional sons. To avoid future argument, he gave Isaac the inheritance and sent the remaining children away, laden with gifts, during his lifetime. Abraham died aged 175 and was buried by Isaac and Ishmael in the Ma’arat HaMah’pela. G-d blessed Isaac who continued to live in Be’er La’hai Ro’i.

7th Aliyah: Ha’yei Sarah concludes with the list of Ishmael’s 12 descendants. Ishmael died aged 137 having dwelled across a vast territory spread from Egypt to Assyria.

Comment: There’s a well-known saying that ‘we live life forward but only understand it when looking backward’. Those fortunate to be born in an affluent western culture, are raised on the notion that we can become anything our hearts desire.

As children, we see our lives as a clean sheet of paper waiting to write-in the details. Choices are made for us by those who care most deeply for our well-being; what schools to attend, sports to take-up, volunteer activities to be a part of. Eventually, as we get older, the weight of those decisions and experiences refines further our next set of choices. What university will we attend, whom will we marry, where will we settle to live, when will we begin having children. And, once again, that sets into place a new set of choices.

But, for most of us, it’s only decades later, recognising ‘the days of the years of our lives’ are limited, that we begin to weigh what is important and what legacy we wish passed forward to the next generation. Those brave enough to glance back at the different stages to take an assessment will ask how have we used our precious blessings and to whom have we made a difference.

In Parshat Ha’yei Sarah, Abraham was faced with the need to take stock, to find a place of rest that would honour his late wife and to put into motion a trans-generational means for conveying G-d’s promises. To our great surprise, the person entrusted to succeed Abraham was not Isaac but Rebekah. Her embodiment ofHesed in a culture focused on personal gain, made her the genuine choice to continue G-d’s Providence – to help found a nation that would bring spirituality to an unrefined world.


SummaryVaYera is the 4th parasha in the Book of Bereishith and the second to focus on the life of Abraham and Sarah. It contains the last 4 ‘Tests of Faith’ Abraham endured and the Divine promise to make Abraham a great nation establishing his legacy and direct lineage.

The first Aliyah describes Abraham’s legendary hospitality offered to three Angels, how despite still recuperating from his circumcision, he ran to invite them into his tent to serve them a banquet of fresh meat and flat cakes. One of the Angels informed Sarah would bear a child. She laughed nervously, causing the Almighty to chide Abraham over her disbelief.

The second Aliyah carries on the Angel’s rebuke of Sarah for laughing. Perhaps offended by her denial, they abruptly continued on their mission. G-d and Abraham then entered an audacious ‘negotiation’ about the fate of the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah. Unable to find even 10 righteous men, the cities were slated for destruction and Abraham ‘returned to his place’.

The third Aliyah concerns Lot’s rescue. The avenging Angels arrived in Sodom at night, Lot pressed them to join for dinner where he prepared a ‘party with fresh-baked matzot’. No sooner had they gone to bed then an unruly mob surrounded Lot’s house and demanded the ‘men’ be handed over for immorality. Naively, Lot attempted to appease the crowd, offering them instead his 2 unmarried daughters. The Angels interceded, pulling Lot back into the house and striking the mob with temporary blindness.

Revealing plans to destroy the towns, they pressed Lot to escape. He tried to persuade his married daughters to leave but his son-in-laws made jest. (A shalsheletcantillation note emphasizes even Lot hesitated.) At day-break the Angels had to grasp the hands of Lot, his wife and their 2 unmarried daughters to flee the city, commanding them not to look back. Lot pleaded to re-settle in Mits’har, rather than to take refuge in the nearby mountains.

In the fourth Aliyah the destruction also claimed Lot’s wife who famously ‘looked back’ and turned into ‘a pillar of salt.’ While the family remnant fled to the mountains, the Torah adds that Abraham arose early and watched the plumes of smoke on the horizon. Fearing they were the only human survivors, Lot’s daughters conceived a plan to repopulate a desolate world through impregnation from their father. Moab and Amon were born.

Perhaps in shame, Abraham left the area and settled in Gerar in the Kingdom of Abimelekh, where again Sarah claimed to be his sister and again was abducted into the King’s harem. Visiting Abimelekh in a dream, G-d warned him of his crime, but Abimelekh protested innocence. Summoned to explain himself, Abraham confessed their lack of Fear of G-d made him fear for his life. Showered with gifts, Abraham and Sarah were invited to continue living in Gerar. Abraham prayed for their well-being and once again the people were ‘able to bear children’. The Aliyah ends with the birth of Isaac and his brit milah at 8-days old.

The fifth Aliyah begins happily with the weaning party held for Isaac but soon the painful scenario of Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment followed. Accused of making jest with Isaac, Sarah demanded Ishmael and his mother be expelled. Though troubled, Abraham was guided by G-d to follow Sarah’s wishes, along with the promise Ishmael would also become a great nation. Sent into the desert with only bread and a flask of water on her shoulder, mother & son lost their way and soon ran out of provisions. Hagar cried bitterly as Ishmael languished at the brink of death. An Angel appeared showing them an oasis. Hagar and Ishmael remained in the Pa’ran Desert where Ishamel married an Egyptian woman.

In the sixth Aliyah, Abimelekh and his general Phihol, visited Abraham to request a security oath that would span 3 generations. It was a token of Abraham’s gratitude for being allowed to live locally. Taking the oath, Abraham rebuked Abimelekhwhose servants had stolen Abraham’s wells. Abimelekh professed ignorance of the matter until Abraham set a covenant between them to prove the well of Be’ar Sheva was his uncontested. Abimelekh and his retinue left, Abraham planted a sacred tree and called out to G-d, residing in Philistine lands for many years.

The seventh Aliyah details Abraham’s final test, the Binding of Isaac (Akedat Yitshak). Commanded to take his son Isaac to a place which G-d would reveal, Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, took 2 lads and split-wood. On the third day he saw the distant place and instructed the lads to remain, continuing alone on foot with Isaac, the wood, a fire and a knife.

Asked by his son where was the sacrificial lamb, Abraham replied G-d would provide what was needed. When they arrived, Abraham built an altar, bound up Isaac, placed him on the altar and took the knife. An Angel of G-d called out and stayed his hand, revealing it was now known that by not withholding what was most precious to him, Abraham truly feared G-d. Finding a ram in a thicket, it was offered as a substitute for Isaac.

Abraham called the place the Mountain of G-d’s Fear. The Angel called out a second time from Heaven, blessing Abraham that his offspring would become prolific and be a source of blessing to all other nations. He went back to the lads and they returned to Be’ar Sheba. Parshat VaYera ends with an announcement that his brother Nahor’s wife bore 8 sons and concubine 4 more.

Comment: There is an extreme irony in Parshat VaYera. So many references to jesting, joking, making sport, and laughing occur that the child of a barren 90 year-old post-menopausal woman Sarah was named Yitshak (he laughed). And yet, Isaac’s life is anything but humorous. The only conversation between him and his parents recorded in the Torah occurs when Isaac and his father ascended the mountain. It is limited to a few words. ‘Father?’ asked Isaac, ‘I am here my son’ was Abraham’s response. Names in the Torah were intended to have meaning. I.e. Abraham (a father of many nations), Ishmael (G-d heard him), Noah (the comforter). So, where is the humour in Isaac?

Laughter can serve a multitude of purposes – some immediate and some longer-term. It can be used as much to chase away anxiety as to create happiness. Sarah’s laughter at hearing she would bear a child must have been the former. The mental leaps she would have had to make to roll back the clocks and imagine a time when she was still fertile suggests her laughter may have concealed the physical danger, personal trepidation and yet long-unfulfilled sense of joy. Laughter is meant to put us at ease, to point out the absurdity of our behaviour or beliefs, and sometimes just to lift our spirits.

Isaac’s birth proved that G-d’s Providence prevailed. The laws of nature shouldn’t have allowed it. Yet it was reminiscent of the quotation, ‘The difficult we do immediately, and the impossible takes a bit longer’. Isaac’s birth is a lesson that to the Almighty nothing is impossible. While the humour in Isaac’s name may not have been obvious during his lifetime, across the distance of time it can make us laugh.


SummaryLekh-Lekha is the third parasha in the Book of Genesis. Ten generations passed from Noah to Avram, and a new Era was about to begin. The parashacontains 6 of the 10 trials Avram underwent in the search for and service of the One Divine Being. Avram, renamed Abraham, was the champion of monotheism in the old world. 

The first aliyah contains the test of leaving his country, his place of birth and his father’s house to wander to a land G-d would show him. Once there, he traversed the country setting up altars to G-d in Shekhem and Beit-El, eventually crossing the Negev. No sooner had he settled in Cana’an then famine erupted and Avram had to leave for Egypt – his second test. Fearing for his life In Egypt due to his wife’s beauty, he asked Sarai to say she was his sister.

The second aliyah describes Avram’s next test – his wife was taken captive by Pharaoh whose house and family were struck by plague until Sarai was released. Pharaoh quickly had them escorted out of the country. The three, Avram, Sarai & Lot, left Egypt laden with much newly acquired wealth. Returning to Beit-El, Avramagain called out to G-d.

The third aliyah details the squabble between Avram and Lot now unable to live together because of their wealth. A quarrel between the shepherds of the two men lead to them going their separate ways. Lot chose the Plains of Sodom & Gemorrah, and Avraham the higher ground of Cana’an. G-d promised Avram his descendants would be numerous as the ‘dust of the earth’. Avram moved to Hebron where he built another altar to G-d.

The fourth aliyah provides the background and the history of the battle of the Four versus the Five Kings and Avram’s intervention to rescue nephew Lot. With only 318 men, Avram defeats the prevailing armies and rescues Lot. The King of Sodom went to meet Avram. Malki-Sedek, the High Priest of On, did the same offering bread and wine and bestowing on Avram a blessing from the most High. This was Avraham’s fourth test.

In the fifth aliyah the King of Sodom asked for the return of war spoils taken from his city and Avram complied. Afterwards, G-d appeared to Avram in a vision promising him much reward. But Avram complained nothing was of consequence as long as he had no offspring. Then the word of G-d came to Avram that his progeny would be as numerous as the ‘stars in the Heavens’.

In the sixth aliyah Avram was commanded by G-d to offer a set of sacrifices. He divided the animals, placing the carcass halves opposite each other. Overcome by fatigue, Avram fell into a trance of fear and trembling where he saw his offspring would be strangers in a strange land, oppressed for 400 years, until being freed and leaving with great inheritance. This became known as the Covenant of the Pieces in which G-d promised Avram to give vast amounts of land to his offspring – from the Egyptian river to the Euphrates – an area occupied by 10 older nations.

The sixth aliyah continues with the barren Sarai’s decision to offer Hagar her hand-maiden as a surrogate mother to Avram. Hagar quickly fell pregnant and belittled her mistress. Sarai mistreated her until Hagar fled to a desert oasis. There, an angel found her, encouraged her to return to Sarai, and promised her she would have a son and her offspring would be prolific. The angel told her to name the baby Yishmael. She called the place of her encounter Be’er Lahai Ro’i. Hagar gave birth in the year Avram was 86 years old. This was his 5th test.

When Avram was 99, G-d appeared again charging him to ‘walk in front of G-d and be pure’. His name was changed from Avram to Avraham (father of many nations) by G-d who promised Avraham many Kings would descend from him.

The last aliyah describes a new covenant between G-d and Avraham’s descendants. Brit milah (circumcision) would be an everlasting covenant enabling Avraham to merit possession of the land. At 8 days old, all male children were to be circumcised.

G-d declared to Abraham that Sarai’s name would be changed to Sarah and that she would bear a child. When he laughed in disbelief, G-d told Abraham the child should be called Yitshak. Yishmael would become a great nation of 12 princes but the covenant would be established with Yitshak. When G-d finished speaking, Avraham’s 6th test was to circumcise himself, Yishmael and all the male members of Avraham’s household. This occurred the year Avraham was 99 and Yishmael 13.


SummaryNoah is the second parasha in the Book of Genesis. Ten generations passed from Adam to Noah and the world became unbearably corrupted.

The parasha contains the story of the year-long flood and its aftermath, G-d’s promise never to again destroy the world through water, Noah’s drunkenness and the curse of Cana’an, the proliferation of tribes from Yefet, Cana’an and Shem, the Tower of Babel dispersion and the genealogy of the next 10 generations from Noah to Avram.

In the first aliyah G-d informed Noah that a flood would wipe away all living beings and that, to survive, he should build an Ark (teibah, 300 x 50 x 30 amot). He was told to take his family (wife, 3 sons and 3 daughters-in-law) plus 2 of each living creature and food for them to eat.

The second aliyah contains the final week-long warning. Noah was told to take 7 pairs each of the animals that were ritually pure. G-d explained it would rain for 40 days and 40 nights. Once the waters began to appear, animals gathered of their own volition, and Naoh and his family entered the Ark. On the 17th day of the 2nd month, the waters broke loose and the rains began.

The third aliyah describes the year-long ordeal. After 40 days of rain the Ark rose off the ground to a height of 15 amot above the mountains. It floated on the water 150 days while all life was extinguished below. G-d remembered Noah in the Ark and for 150 more days the waters receded. By the 1st day of the 10th month they could again see the mountain tops.

After another 40 days Noah opened the Ark’s window and sent, successively, a raven and a dove. Unable to find a place to rest the dove returned. Waiting 7 days, he sent the dove again – it returned with an olive branch. Finally, after 7 more days the dove was sent a third time and didn’t return. On the 27th day of the 2nd month the land was dry.

The fourth aliyah describes the survivors leaving the Ark. Noah built an Altar and offered up sacrifices. G-d blessed Noah giving him dominion over all living creatures and conveying the 7 Noahide laws. In the fifth aliyah G-d promised to establish a new covenant with Noah and his family, represented by the Rainbow.

The sixth aliyah begins when Noah planted a vineyard, became drunk and was discovered naked in his tent. Ham’s behaviour toward his father lead to the cursing of Cana’an, Ham’s son. Noah died aged 950. Noah’s sons descendants were listed.

The final aliyah tells the story of the Tower of Babel, the confounding of language and the dispersion. Parshat Noah ends listing the 10 generations from Noah toAvram.

Comment: When reading the parasha, it occurred that G-d’s decision to destroy all humanity except for one representative family has parallels in Moshe’s experience after the Golden Calf. There G-d told Moshe that he would destroy the entire nation of Israel and begin again fresh with Moshe (Exodus 32:10). But in Moshe’s case, he pleaded with G-d and the threat was retracted.

Of course, more than 1500 years passed from Noah’s generation to the days of Moshe in the Midbar. And, likewise did the development of Providential history advance. Avraham, Yitshak and Ya’acob proved themselves worthy of G-d’s repeated covenants and promises. Yet, all was again on the verge of collapse in Moshe’s day.

Perhaps a few lessons can be drawn from this. First, we must not rely on the success of our forebears to protect us against our own generation’s bad behaviour. Second, it is in G-d’s nature to be intolerant of corruption and idolatry. Third, G-d will always chose someone to carry on the mission of humanity – to live a truthful, sanctified life seeking out the Divine Presence. Fourth, humans in a state of ignorance are unable to predict when such destruction might suddenly occur.

Following the logic of the above, how much more should we be striving in our own experience to be like Noah or Moshe rather than the unenlightened masses. Time is precious and constantly running out. We pray to be able to use the days given to us in an appropriate and meaningful way.

[For those who requested it, a .pdf copy of Mashiach Kelaty’s Elul List for Spiritual Improvement can be found here.]


SummaryBereishith is the first parasha in the Book of Genesis. It’s opening chapter describes the first 6 of the 7 days of G-d’s Creation. Chapter 2 introduces Shabbat, describing human innocence, G-d’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil, and the creation of Adam’s helpmate Eve. Chapter 3 introduces the beguiling serpent, disobedience, a loss of innocence and subsequent banishment from Eden.

Bereishith Chapter 4 identifies the first offspring, Cain & Abel – describing the first fratricide, detailing the birth of the next 7 generations and the emergence of life in the first cities. Chapter 5 lists the ‘Generations of Man’ – lifespans of the 10 generations from Adam until Noah. Chapter 6 reveals the people’s tendency toward corruption and G-d’s regret in having created mankind.

Comment: At the end of Debarim, Moshe ascended Mt Nabo bringing his mission as leader of Bnei Yisrael to a bittersweet end – a career Moshe had only reluctantly accepted 40 years earlier at the Burning Bush. Moshe’s great legacy was in bringing the Torah down from Sinai and teaching it to Bnei Yisrael. His immortality was confirmed through the commitment and investment into spiritual capital.

Nor was his achievement marred by failure to enter the land of Cana’an. In his last words to the Jewish people, Moshe realised no single leader can complete everything, that our lives are precious because they’re finite – we can each only accomplish a fixed amount.

That we immediately begin again with Bereishith is an act of continuity – the maturity of seeing life with all its blemishes from the eye’s of our prophets then re-viewing it from a point of pristine innocence.

While chapter one shows the ideal, from chapter two of Genesis man’s relationship with G-d regrettably betrays his lack of appreciation. The Torah doesn’t tell us ‘why G-d decided to create the world and its inhabitants’. Simply, that when G-d did, each step was deemed ‘good’. As the recipients of life, our role initially was to give thanks.

In contrast, the sketches of sinful behaviour – Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel – foretell the human penchant for harm; to ourselves and to one another. In a world with more than 7 billion people, lack of appreciation, deceit and murder are all too common place. But the root can be found in these early passages.

While Adam hid from G-d in embarrassment of his sin, Cain rebelled, denying it. Lemekh only a few generations later boasted of killing Cain. When one loses connection with G-d, our perspective shifts to personal desires. Sin no longer has the ability to instruct us how we’ve gone wrong.

Human life is defined by time and movement, the cessation of either leads to death.Bereishith shows the creative G-d making something from nothing, separating and dividing, forming and moving. As created beings our highest aspiration is to be like G-d.

May we learn to distinguish between spiritual movement and stagnation, between using time in life-affirming rather than life-denying ways, and may we all be granted opportunity to act and live according to the Divine essence within each of us.

[For those who requested it, a .pdf copy of Mashiach Kelaty’s Elul List for Spiritual Improvement can be found here.]