cc: flickr. By nova3web | Ghana’s 50th Independence Anniversary national parade. (Golden Jubilee). Ghanaians and friends of Ghana, awaiting the arrival of the President of Ghana Source: davidajao.com
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester tells us about his journey to Ghana and how despite all the challenges and the difficulties he, as Jacob in our parasha “Vayishlach” – continues to keep the six hundred and thirteen commandments.
Observing Judaism can easily become routine and mechanical, but this summer I stepped out of my religious comfort zone; challenging my fundamental Jewish values. It was tough, but I was not the first. As we discover in this week’s parasha.
Jacob is terrified. He knows that his brother Esau is determined to extract revenge for the loss of his birthright and that he is advancing towards Jacob’s camp with four hundred armed men. Jacob sends messengers to his brother with words of appeasement. He begins by relaying what has happened to him over the last twenty years. “I have lived with Laban”, he declares. Why does he think these words can save his life?
Rashi is troubled by our questions and he offers two explanations. First, he suggests that Jacob is reassuring his brother that their father’s most coveted blessing never came to fruition. Despite taking the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob has lived in poverty at the home of his deceitful uncle and therefore, Esau has no reason to be jealous or to carry out his murderous designs.
The trouble with this explanation is that it suggests that Jacob is casting aspersions on the efficacy of their father’s blessing, so Rashi offers a second interpretation. Jacob, he says, is not talking about his physical state, but about his spiritual condition. Engaging in a Hebrew word play, Jacob is telling his brother, I lived with dishonest Uncle Laban, but although I was constantly under his influence, I still observed the six hundred and thirteen commandments, I remain worthy of the blessing.
Jacob’s ability to withstand the spiritual challenges of Laban’s house was awesome, but my teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests that while Jacob remained totally loyal to his ancestral beliefs and traditions, he could not escape entirely unscathed. On his journey to Laban’s house, Jacob dreamt a wondrous, prophetic dream of a ladder stretching over the site of the Temple to the highest heavens with angels climbing up and down it. More than two decades later, Jacob dreams of the profits that can be accrued from spotted and speckled sheep. At this point, the angel tells him it is time to leave Laban’s house and make his way home.
Esau might not have cared about his brother’s spiritual state, but it gives us a fascinating insight into how our forefather retained his religious identity in a foreign environment.
This summer, I travelled to Ghana to volunteer with the young rabbis delegation of American Jewish World Service. There is nothing more humbling than meeting some of the world’s poorest people, realizing just how blessed we are and how much they depend on us to spread the word, raise awareness and improve their lives. I consider it one of my most profound religious experiences. American Jewish World Service made is easy for us to keep Shabbat and kashrut, to pray and to learn Torah. But Ghana presented deeper religious questions.
In Jerusalem, I wake each morning to the sights and sounds of our holiest city, so it’s natural to dream and pray for our Jewish vision of redemption. But when I woke up in Ghana and looked across the African countryside, surrounded by people who had never even heard of a Jew, my prayers for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the restoration of Zion seemed strangely foreign.
Spending time with people who live in the shadow of malaria without running water, toilets or fridges was grueling. Witnessing the horror of children taken into slavery at the age of five and six to be abused and sometimes drowned by the fishermen for whom they slave was almost unbearable. In these circumstances, it is challenging to recite the words “God is good to all and His mercies extend to all His creations” (Psalms 145: 9).
I have traveled to the heart of darkness, now I feel lonely. Back in Jerusalem. its hard to pray in synagogues where the rabbis and communities have little interest in the horrors that lie just a short plane ride away. It is difficult to come to terms with Laban-style global accounting systems which allows so much of the world to starve while we in the west look on; our greatest dietary challenge being obesity.
I have been buffeted by religious and moral challenges which have not left me unscathed, but I keep the six hundred and thirteen commandments. I remain a proud Orthodox Jew and a Zionist and now more than ever, I appreciate the need to continue Jacob’s mission to mend God’s world.