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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
There are some thoughts that might come to us when we are on our own and living in fear that could not be conceived when we are with others and feeling comfortable. Who are the secure to judge those living with insecurity?
In our parashsa, Jacob’s isolation is one of utter fear. I often picture him in his early years as the comfortable molly (or at least mummy) cuddled boy. Bright beyond his years and for what is good for him, using his intellect at the cost of his strong but academically slower brother, the butt of his clever jokes and intrigues. Jacob manipulates Esau so that the time-assumed roles in the family are turned. First it is the birthright, then their father’s blessing.
Now he is in the wilderness. He has none of the comforts of home, no mother to nurture and protect him. No father to dote on his intellect and share his aspirations with. No brother, no matter how different, to share both good and bad times with. Indeed, Jacob has left in a rush. He has not had time to take with him artefacts which contain memories, only a hurried embrace from his mother and only the fear that his brother who has threatened to kill him will come after him, the skilled hunter tracking the lone sheep.
His company are the blazing sun during the, and the stars at night that must have each paired up to seem like the eyes of packs of wolves hunting him down. On the ground, only rocks, scorpions and snakes. Fear is above, below and behind him.
Was Jacob too terrified to take in any of his dream of the ladder with angels rushing up and down it and God stationed at its head uttering awesome, generation-spanning predictions? With his waking thoughts was he able to interpret the minutiae of the dream and its metamorphosis into words that is the account that we have in front of us and the considered analysis of generations of Sages, Rabbis, theologians and now especially psycho-analysts?
Surely, the answer must be no! Jacob’s immediate response was only to focus on the awe of the moment, and awe that is ambivalent as the Hebrew root can stand for awe but also fear and dread. Rather than, “How awe-inspiring is this place!”; “How dread-filled is this place.” Was God of whom he dreamt perceived as the threat from the pack of wolves in the sky, threatening him for all the misdeeds of his youth? How would he know that God was not there to punish him?
Jacob’s actions are congruous with both interpretations: Because he is in awe, he builds an altar, makes an offering and vows loyalty to God knowing that God will protect him; or, because he is so terrified, he builds an altar, makes an offering and vows loyalty to God, pleading for God to protect him.
There has been much criticism of Jacob’s vow. Firstly, because vows are deemed so serious and important that the Rabbis devoted a one of the largest tractates of the Talmud – Nedarim, vows – to this issue. The second is because of the conditionality of Jacob’s vow - how can one bargain with God so that the conditions, the ‘ifs,’ are firmly stacked in God’s court before there is any obligation for Jacob to act? “One ancient commentator, Rabbi Yonatan, so despaired of explaining Jacob’s words that he concluded that the text must somehow be in disarray (Plaut, 209).” In other words, he could find no excuse for Jacob’s words! Abravanel (a Portuguese Commentator at the time of the Inquisition) sums up this despair, “How could Jacob act like those who serve upon condition of receiving a reward? Is it possible that Jacob meant to say that, if God did not do all these things for him, Jacob would not believe in God?”
Even though Don Isaac Abravanel must have lived in fear, using his position of authority in Spain and Portugal to plead with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to reverse their decree to expel the Jews from their lands, perhaps his own great personal piety is the reason that he cannot excuse Jacob – rather comparing him to Abraham who never made such vows although tested by God many times.
In this instance, however, I forgive Jacob his apparent bargaining with God. For in the solitude of fear, who are we to judge the prayers, the vows, the pleas of utter desperation, even the demands on God? One person who has now been in solitary confinement for 1252 days is Gilad Shalit.
Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on 25 June 2006 in a cross-border raid at Kerem Shalom by the Gaza Strip. The terrorists, operating on behalf of three terror groups headed by Hamas, used a tunnel dug under the border fence to cross into Israel. They attacked a tank crew situated nearby, killing two soldiers, injuring one and seizing Shalit. According to Israeli intelligence assessments, Shalit was injured in the attack, but has since recovered. However, for over three-and-a-half years in which he has been held by Hamas forces in Gaza, Shalit has not been visited by any independent international body and it is believed that the soldier, 19-years-old at the time of his abduction, has been held in harsh solitary conditions throughout this period.
Reports in recent days indicate that significant progress has been made toward a prisoner exchange deal that will see the release of Shalit. Reports suggest that the deal will include the preliminary release of 350-450 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, including a relatively large group of individuals who have been directly involved in terror attacks against Israelis. Before that, Shalit will be transferred to Egypt where he will undergo medical examination. The first stage will be followed by the release of up to 650 additional prisoners within several weeks or months.
We do not know the prayers, the vows, the pleas of utter desperation, even the demands on God that Gilda Shalit has uttered these past 1252 days. I cannot conceive of his position nor hear word of theological judgement of them. I only pray that like Jacob, his fear has been from above, below and behind, but that Gilad Shalit has been able to perceive even in his darkest days, a glimmer of hope looking forward. May that glimmer become a ray of light in the next few days and may his prayers, vows and demands of God be realised.
© Copyright 2008 NPLS