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This Week's Shabbat Times

February 17 - 18
Shevat 22

Begins: 17.05

Ends: 18.16

Fri Mincha/Ma'ariv 17.00

Sedra

Yitro

Shabbat morning

10.00

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Shemot (Exodus) 5777

Parshat Yitro

When Jethro comes to visit Moses and Israel, the Torah details how he reacted to the news of the rescue of Israel from the hands of the Egyptians. The Torah says vayihad Vitro, which is generally translated as 'Jethro rejoiced'. Yet Rashi brings a different interpretation, which links the word to the root for shivering or his flesh crawled. This he explained was Jethro's reaction to the destruction and suffering visited upon the Egyptians

 Rashi then quotes a saying that one should not insult non-Jews in front of a convert. This seems to be a rather surprising suggestion, that there is some special racial sensitivity in converts to negative Jewish attitudes to the non-Jewish world.

 Yet another comment of Rashi puts a different slant on this idea. Jethro no sooner arrives than he starts giving Moses advice. The way he administers justice alone is not good, with people waiting to be heard from morning to night. Here, Rashi comments that Jethro's specific concern was with 'the honour of Israel'. It was intolerable that the Jewish people should have to suffer the indignity of waiting all day for justice, and for this he reproved Moses.

 Putting these two cases together, we can see a somewhat different picture emerging. It is not that Jethro as a convert has a special concern for the honour of non-Jews. It is that he has a special sensitivity in general for human dignity, something that may be less obvious in those born Jewish. Why should this be so?

 Jews are born into a religion but also an ethnic group. Like members of other ethnic groups, we can sometimes be self-absorbed in our own story, and less sensitive to the needs of others. Yet Judaism is also a faith with a universal vision. On Succot, we offer sacrifices for all the nations of the world.

 We are meant to be a light to the nations, yet sometimes that light is hidden by our preoccupation with ourselves. Converts, who join us from outside our insular ethnicity, bring with them something very special. They both remind us of our universal mission and often inject a needed sensitivity to the needs and opinions of others.

This is what Jethro brought to Moses. That sensitivity was a necessary prerequisite to the giving of the Torah, given to the Jews but, through our observance of it, also a light to all the nations

Parshat Beshalach

‘See that G-d has given you the Shabbat therefore he gives you bread for two days; sit everyone in his spot, let no one leave his place on the seventh day’. With this statement G-d in our Parshah rebukes the Israelites for attempting to gather the manna on Shabbat. In it He lays out His manifesto with regards to the meaning of the Shabbat.

First of all Shabbat is a gift. G-d has not ‘commanded’ or ‘ordered’ us concerning the Shabbat rather He has ‘given’ us this day. It is not a burden to be carried but a present to be treasured. Furthermore, G-d has given us the ability to keep Shabbat. No one has ever starved by not working on Shabbat. Throughout Jewish history observant Jews have believed that G-d would not let them suffer economic loss for keeping Shabbat and that is even truer today when it is easier than ever.

But what precisely is the nature of this gift which G-d provides for us? The answer is found in the second half of the verse. The concept of techumim – or Shabbat boundaries is hard to understand. What is wrong with using ones Shabbat rest to go visiting friends or contemplating creation simply because it’s more than a kilometre walk away. Why are we essentially meant to stay at home?

The answer is that Shabbat is about more than simply ceasing from creative activity in order to rediscover G-d’s ownership of the world. That is not a gift. Shabbat is also, and maybe primarily, intended to enable us to rediscover G-d in ourselves and in others.

Shabbat is above all a time for us to think. Not to watch television or use the internet which fill our minds with the noise of the thoughts of others. Not even to go on a long hike to rediscover nature. We are meant to stay in our home environment in order to rediscover ourselves and connect with those around us. To refrain running away from ourselves but rather embracing who we are. That is the gift of Shabbat. The gift of self-knowledge that is our greatest treasure.

There is nothing better than sitting in the peace of a Shabbat afternoon and simply thinking. Stay put and find yourself; who knows what you will discover.

Parshat Bo

The dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh reaches its climax this week. It was never going to be an easy relationship. Coming from two entirely different world views it was hard for them to find common ground. Yet while they were still negotiating there was a chance of some sort of resolution.

That ends this week. After the ninth plague and Moses' demand that the Jews leave with not only their families but also their livestock, Pharaoh tells Moses that if he dares to approach him again, he will be killed. Moses retorts that indeed they will not meet again and, after announcing the final plague, storms out in a huff. This climatic confrontation is quickly followed by the catastrophic destruction of the first-born, including Pharaoh's son, and Pharaoh's frantic plea for the Jews to immediately leave before further disasters occur. When they do meet again it is far too late.

What we see in this sequence of events is the price of not talking. As long as the two sides were in dialogue with each other it was possible that the final calamity could be avoided. There was a relationship between them that could be exploited to work through the problem. Once Pharaoh refused to even see Moses only overwhelming force could resolve the situation. The lack of dialogue created a dead end that made a peaceful resolution impossible, and made a violent outcome inevitable.

This teaches us an important lesson in disputes resolution, whether at a personal or national level. Dialogue may not always lead somewhere but it keeps the lines of communication open and generally prevents a deterioration in the situation. Once people stop talking, however, things can only get worse. With no contact to moderate the worst suspicions of the other, the actors increasingly believe that only forceful measures will solve the problem and increasingly become more belligerent and threatening, leading to a downward spiral that can only end badly.

Negotiation preserves hope; a hostile silence expunges it. Winston Churchill once said that 'jaw-jaw is better than war-war'. The Parshah teaches that when jaw-jaw stops war-war is not far away. Far better a noisy war using words than a silent conflict using weapons.

Parshat Va-era

This week we read of the series of plagues that G-d brought upon Egypt. As well as a device for forcing Pharaoh to release the Israelites, the plagues were also punishment for the oppression inflicted upon the Israelites.

This was foreshadowed in G-d's promise to Abraham that his descendants would be persecuted in a strange land but that in the end their persecutors would be punished for their behaviour. From this prophecy given to Abraham arises an important moral question. If it was G-d's will, and indeed prediction, that the Israelites be enslaved and suffer, how could they then be punished for doing so?

The commentators give various answers to the question but the one I think is most reasonable and relevant is based on an important Talmudic dictum: 'there is no messenger for a sinful act'. In practical terms this means that if someone tells you to steal something or vandalise someone's property, you are held responsible, not the person who told you to do it.

The Talmud explains this rule by another dictum phrased as a question: 'faced with the opinion of the pupil or the opinion of the teacher, who should you follow? In other words if G-d told you not to steal and your friend told you to steal, surely you should follow G-d, not your friend.

Judaism, by these statements is declaring that we are independent moral actors. We have the ability to make our own moral judgement, independent of the opinion of others. G-d didn't tell the Egyptians to enslave the Israelites. The fact that He predicted to Abraham that the Jews would be oppressed didn't mean that they had to be the ones to do it. If they had acted morally and not persecuted the Jews, G-d would have found another way to fulfil His plan.

Whatever else is going on around us and whatever others may incite us to do, we are required to make our own ethical decisions and will be held accountable for them. The story of the Exodus teaches us that we don't have to do anyone else’s dirty work, even G-d's.

Parshat Shemot

In the Parshah we talk about the enslavement of the Israelites. This begins with a special tax and ends with genocide. What can we learn from this episode for our lives today?

Today we have both traditional slavery in places in Africa and Asia and virtual slavery in some areas even in developed countries. Zero hours contracts, for example, especially if they are exclusive, can be seen as a form of modern day slavery.

This brings out an interesting point, that is also highlighted in the Parshah. It is noteworthy that the Egyptian bondage started with work that may have been paid. It was a discriminatory burden placed only on the Israelites but wasn't necessarily unpaid labour or it was labour as a form of taxation, not outright slavery.

As seen with zero hours contracts, therefore, slavery can include, and often begins with, paid labour. The roots of bondage lie in the attitude of employers to their staff. How workers are treated is an indication of how society looks at those who do the labour that keeps us all alive and comfortable.

Do we say that because people are paid for such labour we don't need to acknowledge them and it doesn't matter how we treat them or do we honour the Divine image in each person and treat them with consideration and gratitude?

Do we say thank you to the people that clean our houses and businesses, keep our streets tidy and service our supermarkets? Or do we think that simply because they are paid for what they do we don't need to show our appreciation?

Saying thank you to a bus driver when leaving the bus or to a checkout assistant shows them that we value what they do, see them as a personality not merely a tool to serve us and can really make their day.

So let's not be Pharaohs believing people should serve us, but next time we leave a bus, exit a supermarket or use the services of a cleaner, let's show our appreciation.

It makes all the difference.

Bereishit (Genesis) 5777

Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.

Parshat Vayehi

In the Parshah Jacob blesses his sons before his death. To each he gives a blessing in accordance with their character and some he chastises rather than praising. Two of those he rebukes are Shimon and Levi, mostly about their massacre of the people of Shechem.

The Rabbis note that when reproving them for their actions he doesn't curse them personally but only their character traits: 'Cursed be their anger for it was strong'. This teaches us that when confronting someone’s negative actions we should endeavour to not denigrate them personally but concentrate on what they have done.

Jacob does this for another important reason that is seen in what he decrees for them in the future. As a consequence of their behaviour they are destined to be scattered among the other tribes: 'I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel'. This, however, was fulfilled in very different ways for each of them. Shimon lost his distinctiveness as a tribe and was absorbed into the tribe of Judah. Levi, on the other hand, was scattered among the people as honoured teachers and priests, and thus became the most honoured tribe.

The reason for this different outcome is how they used their propensity for anger. Shimon used it negatively, rebelling against Moses and G-d in a flagrant breach of morality with a Moabite woman. Levi, on the other hand, used this emotion to fight for Moses at the time of the Golden Calf and indeed to defuse the rebellion of Shimon.

Thus Jacob's prophecy was fulfilled for each of them in accordance with their subsequent actions. By not cursing them personally but rather reprimanding what they chose to do with their anger he gives them the opportunity to turn this trait into something positive.

This teaches us an important lesson. We all have character traits that can be seen as negative. Yet they are not blind determiners of our actions. We have the choice of what to do with them and whether to use them for positive or negative ends. What ever our personal make up it is up to us whether we become a Shimon or a Levi.

Parshat Vayigash

The Dilemma of Exile.
The Torah states that when the Israelites moved to Egypt they lived in the land of Goshen. It is interesting that three different reasons are given for this decision. Both Pharaoh and the Torah narrative indicate that this was the best land in the country. Joseph tells his brothers that it is in order that his family would be close to him. However, when describing Pharaoh's offer to representatives of the brothers the Torah states that it is because they were shepherds and the Egyptians abominated all shepherds.

We thus have differing rationale for the Israelites all living together in one place: economic benefit, family and cultural solidarity and external hostility.

These three perspectives have influenced Jewish life in the Diaspora ever since. Do Jews live where there is most economic opportunity even though there may be less Jewish life or do they prioritise Jewish community over economics? Do they seek to integrate into the surrounding culture by geographical dispersion or do they congregate together for added security?

The last issue is perhaps the most interesting. It is often thought that Jews congregating together in voluntary or compelled ghettos serves to isolate Jews from wider society serving to increase hostility towards them. The Torah provides a different perspective. It specifically notes that they lived together in Goshen in order to lessen hostility to their presence and different culture and mores. Furthermore, the Torah at the beginning of the period of oppression, makes a point of noting that the 'land was filled with them'. The Sages understood this as indicating a reason for increasing hostility towards them leading to persecution.

Thus, when we discuss the issue, for example of Jewish schools, it is often said that they decrease integration and encourage alienation from society. Even those supportive of the idea defend it in terms of its value for Jewish identity, not its effect on integration. Yet the Torah seems to challenge this idea. Talking of the first Diaspora, it contends that it is precisely by sticking together that Jews lessen external hostility and gain the respect of their neighbours.

Something important to bear in mind when contemplating the Jewish future.

Parshat Miketz/Hanukah

The Connection to the Land.
After being appointed Viceroy of Egypt Joseph proceeds to prepare for the seven years of famine he predicted. The Torah tells us that he does so by storing the produce of each area in its local city. On this verse Rashi comments that he placed a bit of the earth of the region the crop was grown in along with the produce to prevent it from decaying.

Whatever the actual scientific basis for this practice, it has an important message to impart to us. Crops uprooted from the soil need to take with them some of that soil to stay fresh and not decompose. In the same way a people uprooted from its land need to take a memento of that land with them in order to survive.

The prime exemplars of this are, of course, the Jews. While Judaism created structures that enabled it to survive without a land without the basic connection to the Land of Israel Jews would have assimilated. Only the expectation of return kept us alive and united as a people. This hope is expressed on virtually every page of the siddur.

This is also the importance of Hanukah and its difference from Purim. Purim, the quintessential diaspora festival, teaches us how to survive as a distinct, powerless entity amongst other nations. Hanukah with its emphasis on both the military victory and the Temple in Jerusalem teaches us how to remain a nation. Before the long exile following the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews were given a last short period of independence, a memory and a festival to take with them.

When we commemorate the victory of the Maccabees we remember that we are not only a religion but a nation that was capable of fighting for its distinctive culture. The emphasis on the Temple as the centre of the Maccabees' aspirations reminds us that we are united not only by a religion and culture but by a geographical location. The Hanukah lights we carried with us into every nation connected us to our history, our land and our Temple.

If you want to explain to people about the connection of Jews to Israel the best way is to do it is to do two things. Show them the siddur and tell them the story of Hanukah.


Parshat Vayeshev

We begin this week the story of Joseph that takes up the last third of Genesis and covers four Parshiot. In the middle of this week's Parshah, however, we have the story of Judah and Tamar. This is not an anomaly. In fact the story of Joseph is in many ways the tale of two brothers: Joseph and Judah. It traces their character development from unruly youth to leaders of the clan. If we examine their stories in parallel we see that this personal evolution is achieved through both tragedy and suffering and challenging moral situations. Joseph's story is well known. He begins as a precocious favourite child, showing off to his brothers. He suffers exile and slavery and the moral challenge of Potiphar's wife before rising to greatness. He uses this greatness not for revenge on his brothers but in order to effect reconciliation. Judah's younger years are also problematic. It seems that he was the motivating force behind Joseph's sale. He too suffers exile from his family and personal tragedy with the death of two of his sons. He faces a difficult moral trial in the incident with Tamar but rises to lead the family and offer himself instead of his younger brother as a slave to Joseph. He thus also enables the reconciliation of the brothers. If we are looking for the crucial incident of these two lives that show their positive character development it lies in their interaction with determined women. They have to decide how to respond and both do so in a moral way even though this seems to contradict their own best interest. For Joseph it would have been far more profitable to give in to Potiphar's wife's advances. Judah had been given the perfect pretext to get rid of the troublesome woman that he at least partly blamed for the death of his children. Yet neither surrender to selfish motives. Rather, their adversity has transformed them into men capable of being sensitive to others and their needs and rights. Indeed it is this sensitivity that enables Joseph to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh and his servants and Judah to provide guidance to his father at a critical moment. Their moral growth throughout the story is apparent. Hardship and sorrow have transformed them. This is one of the lessons we are meant to learn from the story. Disappointment, adversity and even tragedy are unavoidable facts of life. Yet they can also be catalysts for moral transformation. The question is what to we do with these situations. Do we become angry and disillusioned or do we like Joseph and Judah use them to change ourselves for the better.

Parshat Vayishlach

As Jacob gets ready to meet Esau the Torah mentions his wives and sons. Dinah, his daughter, is conspicuously absent. A midrash quoted by Rashi provides the explanation. Jacob hid her in a trunk so that Esau wouldn't lay eyes on her and 'for this he was punished because he withheld her from him, for maybe she would have improved his behaviour, and she fell into the hands of Shechem'. This midrash is disturbing on several levels. Firstly it completely ignores the wishes of Dinah. Whether she would of wanted to marry Esau or not seems to be irrelevant. Even worse, it completely instrumentalises her. It is Jacob who withheld her from Esau and it is Jacob who is punished by her rape. Dinah does not exist as a independent entity but solely as an instrument of her father. While one can explain the midrash as reflecting the attitudes of the time, they are totally unacceptable to us today and we can query whether we can learn anything from it. I think we can. If we leave aside the instrumentalisation of Dinah and examine the actual message of the midrash, a powerful idea emerges. Jacob his criticised for withholding Dinah from Esau who could have been improved by her. Underlying this is a premise that Dinah indeed had the potential as Esau's wife to make a positive difference in his life. Jacob, however, showed a lack of compassion for his brother and withheld from him this possibility. In contradiction to the underlying assumption of the midrash, Jacob did not believe that Dinah could change Esau because he did not believe Esau could change for the better. For this he was punished with the incident in Shechem. In this case as well Jacob's sons show a lack of belief in the possibility of changing the people of the city. Having Dinah marry Hamor and creating a relationship between the people of Shechem and Jacob's family was not seen as a positive opportunity. Despite the willingness of the people of the city to undergo the painful procedure of circumcision, Jacob's son repudiated the possibility that this new relationship could bring the city closer to the ideas and morals of Abraham's legacy. Rather, as in the case of Esau, the people of Shechem were regarded as irredeemable and dealt with in a hostile manner. Here too Jacob's sons withheld a possible catalyst for betterment from people they regarded as incapable of transformation. The fact that the Rabbis made such a point, in however unpalatable manner for us today, shows they believed that such an attitude is a serious character flaw. To deny the possibility of someone changing for the better is a denial of the basic Jewish belief of Teshuvah. To withhold that possibility from someone is to deny their Divine image and essentially to negate their humanity. The midrash is telling us that everybody, no matter what the have done, can turn over a new leaf and improve themselves and therefore everyone deserves to be given that chance: even Esau.

Parshat Vayetze

A puzzling episode in the Parshah occurs when Jacob arrives in Haran. As was normal for a stranger seeking information, he goes to the local well. There he meets three groups of shepherds whom he questions about Laban and his family. He then, however, questions why they are seeming to pack up in the middle of the day and not watering the flock. Despite their explanation of waiting for everyone in order to open the well, when Jacob sees Rachel and Laban's sheep he opens the well and waters them without waiting for everyone else. For a stranger coming to town it seems an extraordinary way to behave. Not only does he presume to give advice to the locals on how they should behave but then totally ignores their conventions and does his own thing. One explanation is that the shepherds were hired men which he was used to ordering around in running Isaac's estate. Yet it still seems a bit of a chutzpah. It is possible, however, that Jacob behaved in this manner because he saw something morally wrong. He may have regarded the refusal to open the well as an unwarranted burden on other shepherds and when Rachel came refused to let her wait and opened the well himself. Or, as Rashi hints, he may have thought that the hired hands were simply being lazy and using an excuse to hang around gossiping rather than doing their work. Either way, Jacob demonstrates a readiness to interfere when he sees something happening he regards as wrong. This is a trait that is also seen in his descendants. Moses twice acts like this when he sees Jethro's daughters being mistreated and the Hebrew slave being beaten. David also was known for this trait. Being ready to interfere to right a wrong, even at risk to yourself, is a sign of a person with moral values. It is far easier to simply ignore what is happening and say that it is none of your business or that you will be ineffective, than stand up for what is right. How many of us if we saw a school kid being bullied by his peers would step in and do something, even though the very fact of our adult intervention would probably be effective. If we see something clearly wrong happening in public are we prepared to interfere or leave it to the police who will almost certainly arrive too late. In our society most people simply ignore something if it doesn't directly effect them. Yet davka in a Jewish society things are different. In Israel it is far less common for people to simply ignore public disturbances. A nice example is what happens when a child is upset on a bus. In Scotland either they would be ignored or given a nasty stare for disturbing the peace. In Israel, people will intervene trying to calm the child as well as giving unsolicited advice to the mother on how to raise her child. In Israel people care and act on there concern. That is the inheritance of Jacob.

Parshat Toldot

A difficult episode in the Torah is the taking of Esau's blessings by Jacob. On the one hand this seems to continue the process of selection begun with Isaac and Ishmael, leading to Jacob carrying on Abraham's legacy. On the other it seems an immoral trick to be condemned. How does the Torah itself view the episode? Does it convey approval or condemnation of Jacob's actions? The Torah seems to contain both perspectives. It does not openly condemn Jacob's actions and one could see in the fact that we are told that just as Jacob left Esau arrived, indicating that things were arranged by Divine providence. Both Isaac and G-d later bless Jacob conferring on him the mantle of Abraham. It appears that Jacob's actions, if not entirely straightforward, receive post-facto approval. Yet if you look deeper another story emerges. We see that Jacob is punished for his actions in specific ways that indicate strong disapproval of his actions. Jacob, deceived his father by pretending to be his elder brother. He himself is later deceived by Laban by receiving the elder daughter instead of the younger. Indeed Laban's retort to his remonstrations that: 'it is not done here to give the younger before the elder' can be seen as a direct reference to Jacob's previous deception. This theme also appears in the story of Joseph. Jacob deceived his father with the skin of a goat he pretended was Esau's arms. He himself was deceived with the blood of a goat that his sons pretended was that of Joseph. We see then that while the Torah seems to retrospectively accept Jacob's actions it still regards them as morally repugnant and points out how he suffered for them in later life. How should we understand this nuanced attitude? It is possible to say that the Torah sees things from two perspectives. On the one hand, Jacob not Esau was meant to carry on Abraham's legacy. He was the true inheritor of Isaac. Yet this could of come about in several different ways, which didn't necessarily entail Jacob deceiving his father. Indeed, it is not clear from the text whether there is any real connection between the blessings, as distinct from the birthright, and the Abrahamic legacy. They are totally concentrated on material benefits. Even if the end result of Jacob's deception was necessary the method that was used was reprehensible and the Torah, as illustrated above, expresses its disapproval. This should teach us an important lesson. Simply because we pursue a worthy goal does not give us license to behave in an immoral way. Even if we end up achieving a desirable result we will be held accountable for the unacceptable methods we used. Looking at what happened to both Jacob and Joseph's brothers following their objectionable behaviour is clear that the Torah does not accept that the end justifies the means. We may in the end achieve a worthy goal but if we get their by unworthy methods we are still tarnished.

Parshat Haye Sarah

The Sages tell us that there are three things that are acquired only by difficulties: Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come. With regards to Israel, this can be clearly seen in the biblical record. In three places in the Bible it is stated that the Jews specifically bought land in Israel and in each case the occasion of the purchase was a tragic one. In our Parshah the first outright purchase by Jews of land in Israel is occasioned by the death of Sarah. This spurs Abraham to buy a family burial plot, the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the second holiest site in Judaism. The next purchase was made by Jacob when he brought land in Shechem, an area that became the focus of the tribes when they entered into the Land under Joshua. Here, as well, this became the occasion for tragedy, the interaction with the city leading to the rape of Dinah and the massacre of its inhabitants by Jacob's sons. Finally, the holiest place in Judaism, the Temple Mount, was purchased by David from its non-Jewish owner. This time also the background was a terrible plague that afflicted the country and only ceased when David saw an angel with a sword standing on that very plot of Land. Furthermore, despite the fact that all three of these places were specifically purchased by the Jews, they are today the most contested areas in Israel. How do we explain this difficulty in acquiring land in Israel and keeping it? Why couldn't the Jewish homeland have been in a less problematic place? The answer is that Israel is meant to be difficult if not impossible. The creation of a Jewish homeland in this Land is not meant to be easy or natural. From Abraham being promised the Land for his descendants when he didn't yet even have children, until the improbable if not crazy vision of Herzl in our time, Israel has seemed an impossibility. Which is precisely the point. Jewish life in Israel is possible only because of Divine intervention. Jewish nationalism is achievable only with the support of G-d. It thus testifies to the hand of G-d in world affairs. The prophet Zechariah states the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty will seem impossible to people at that time. But asks G-d rhetorically, will it seem impossible to Me? According to all logic Jews shouldn't exist and certainly Israel shouldn't exist. The fact that, despite all those who try to obviate their existence, they do exist and indeed thrive, is the greatest testimony to G-d's role in the world, which is why so many people can't stand them. Too bad for them; G-d has other ideas.

Parshat Lech L'cha

This week we begin the story of Abraham, the first Jew. The stories of the Patriarchs give us an insight into their character and thus enable us to better understand our own identity as their descendants. Their actions, both positive and negative, often foreshadow the later characteristics of the Jewish people. The central portion of this week’s Parshah is taken up with recounting, in some detail, the story of Abraham’s involvement in a regional war. Lot, Abraham’s nephew had quarrelled with Abraham and settled in Sodom. Sodom was then on the losing side in a war that seems to have encompassed much of the Middle East. Lot being taken prisoner, Abraham then gathers together a group of followers and manages to rescue him along with the other spoil of Sodom. On his return he refuses the Sodomites offer of a reward and gives a tithe to the Priest-King of Jerusalem. This rather strange story contains within it clues to Abraham’s character and thus to that of the Jewish people as a whole. When Abraham hears of Lot’s capture, he unhesitatingly gathers his men and races to the rescue. Abraham is a visionary but no dreamer. He does not prostrate himself in prayer but makes ready to fight. He relies on G-d to help him; but only if he is prepared to act himself. This trait is characteristic of the Jews throughout the ages. When faced by injustice and enemies that seek to destroy them the Jewish people have realised the moral imperative of taken up arms against evil. When Moses sees his brethren being oppressed he takes immediate and violent action to remedy the situation. Jews are no pacifists. Furthermore they take action even against tremendous odds; believing that morality, not might, will in the end triumph. Abraham did not way up the odds before taking on a much larger opponent; just as the Maccabees did not engage in a cost-benefit analysis before opposing the Greeks. In both cases the moral imperative overrode any such practical calculations. This is the character of Abraham; a man of G-d but also a man of action. Seeking peace with his neighbours but prepared to fight against oppression. This has been the character of the Jewish people throughout the ages, and it is this that gives us the strength to endure against our enemies today.

Parshat Noach

It is the custom throughout the world for a prayer to be recited on Shabbat morning for the government of the country. One of the sources of this practice is the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers that one should: 'pray for the welfare of the government, because if not for the fear of it, people would eat each other alive'. The government referred to in this statement was the Roman empire that was at the time occupying Israel. Indeed Jews had prayers for various regimes, including that of the anti-Semitic Tsarist regime. The belief that a bad government is better than no government can be seen to have its origin in our Parshah. The Rabbis attribute many sins to the generation of the flood but the one they say sealed their fate is the sin specifically mentioned in the Torah -Hamas. This is often understood as violent robbery but in its widest sense compasses the breakdown of order and its consequences. The effects of this were found in many areas detailed by the Rabbis: religious, sexual and economic. It can be seen in the curious story, found in last week's Parshah, of the 'sons of god' taking wives from whom they chose. Based on the reading that sees these characters as human rulers, this story details the degeneration of human society to a state when women were taken by force by those who had the most power. This chaos is reflected in the flood itself, punishment measure for measure. Human society did not respect the boundaries of people's persons or property and was destroyed by an inundation that obliterated all boundaries. This theme can also be seen in the fact that the rain fell for forty days and nights, an inverse parallel to Moses' sojourn on Mt Sinai to receive the Torah, the epitome of order. The remedy to this situation is found after the flood in the concept of covenant, an agreement that sets boundaries between and imposes obligations on two parties. G-d makes an agreement with humans to respect the boundaries of nature. This is preceded by the offering some of the 'clean' animals that Noah had taken along in sevens. This again reinforces the fact that there are distinctions between 'clean and 'unclean', right and wrong. According to the rabbis humans also pledged themselves to respect the sexual and economic rights of the individual. We thus find, for example, later in Genesis that various non-Jews see forced sexual relationships as a 'sin against G-d'. All this teaches us the importance of order and respect within society. This of course can be carried to extremes and lead to totalitarianism and oppression. But as the story of the flood teaches us and events in Syria and elsewhere demonstrate, a tyrannical government may be bad for the majority; no government is far worse for everybody.

Parshat Bereishit

The word Torah is often translated as law. This is true for some parts of the Torah but not for others. This is especially so of the book of Genesis that traditionally contains only three mitzvot. It contains stories of various types of relationships. Between people and between them and G-d. I would suggest that the underlying theme of the book is free-will and responsibility. The Torah begins with the exercise of free-will by Adam and Eve and then by Cain. In both these cases they make the wrong choice. Adam and Eve chose to disobey G-d and eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Cain chooses to let his passions get the better of him and murders Abel. By the end of the book things do not seem to have improved. Joseph's brothers chose to see him as a threat and cause him to be sold into slavery. If we look at the theme of responsibility it is also a sorry story. After being confronted by G-d about their sin, Adam and Eve each blame someone else. Cain, as well, refuses to take responsibility for his actions and merely moans about the consequences. Later on in the book, when Avimelech is confronted by Abraham over his servants theft of wells, he again seeks to evade responsibility, denying knowledge and blaming Abraham for not telling him. Yet there is a positive progression throughout the book. Joseph's brothers committed a heinous offence by selling him but they also take responsibility for their actions. Both before and after Joseph reveals himself to them they admit their guilt and understand what is happening to them as a justified punishment. Indeed the final chapter in Genesis deals with another confession on their behalf and Joseph magnanimous reply. By the end of the book, therefore, we may not have learnt how to always make the right decisions but we do learn how to take responsibility for our mistakes and attempt to correct them. Adam and Eve may have blamed everyone but themselves; Joseph's brothers blame only themselves. As the prelude to the laws of the Torah, Genesis teaches us the fundamentals needed for a moral life. It sets out the belief that we have free will and can make good or bad decisions. Even more importantly it teaches us that making a mistake is not the end of the story. We can take responsibility for our actions and seek to correct them. In the coming weeks as we follow the characters in the timeless stories of Genesis, let us learn from them the important lesson that we might all make mistakes but the real question is will we have the courage to take responsibility for them?

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5776

Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.

Shabbat Succot

On the Shabbat of Hol Ha'moed we read the section containing the Thirteen Attributes of G-d, revealed after the sin of the Golden Calf. This may seem a strange choice for the happiest time of year but is actually very fitting. The theme of all the Tishrei festivals, including Succot, is reconciliation between G-d and Israel, the exact theme of this section of the Torah. Indeed making up with someone generally contains an aspect of celebration, the motif of Succot. This combination is best expressed on the days that conclude Succot, the separate festival of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. These days are dedicated to two simple ideas: the prayer for rain and the rejoicing over the Torah. Both of these subjects mesh well with the Tishrei themes of judgement and reconciliation. The giving or withholding of rain will determine our lives in the coming year. On Simchat Torah we show our love for G-d's word, showing appreciation for His most precious gift. We may have lost trust in G-d's ability to provide our needs; asking for rain restores that aspect of our relationship. We may also have become estranged from the Torah. Simchat Torah gives us the ability to reconnect and to renew our commitment through the weekly Torah readings we begin again. This repairing of arguably the most important aspects of our relationship with G-d is thus the cause for the greatest rejoicing. Furthermore, while all the Tishrei festivals are meant to leave their mark on the whole year, this is especially true of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. While on Rosh Hashanah we learn honest introspection, Yom Kippur teaches us the ability to change and Succot the importance of trust in G-d, their influence is mostly in the residue they leave in our souls. Simchat Torah however, begins the cycle of Torah readings that guide us throughout the year. In a very real sense, therefore the influence of this festival stays with us throughout the year. It is therefore not only the culmination of the festival cycle but rightly the apex of our rejoicing.    

Parshat Ha'azinu

At the end of the Song of Moses that forms our Parshah this week, Moses calls on the nations to rejoice because G-d will avenge the blood of the Jewish people. This seems a somewhat strange request. Even if it is fitting for Jews to rejoice that they have finally received justice for their persecution, why should the other nations rejoice? The answer is that the nations are not rejoicing in G-d's vengeance as such but in the fact that G-d has done justice and the world is being put right. The nations are also rejoicing that they are doing the right thing and atoning for their treatment of the Jews. Doing the right thing as a source of joy is a very Jewish concept. Our happiest occasions are those such as  b'nei-mitzvah or weddings when a person is taking on added positive obligations. This is exemplified by Succot. No festival has more mitzvot associated with it than Succot and it is Succot that is designated in our prayers as 'the season of our rejoicing'. There is no greater joy than that that comes from performing constructive actions. After Yom Kippur, we are resolved to be better and to act more positively. Succot comes with an opportunity to do just that and we are filled with joy. Succot enables us to be happy ourselves but also to bring joy to others by inviting them to our Succah and giving them both food and company. It is no surprise that when the prophet envisages the nations turning to G-d at the end of days, it is specifically Succot that they are obligated to celebrate. By rejoicing on Succot we strengthen our resolve to act constructively the rest of the year. By being happy in doing good we are encouraged to do so more often, changing the tenor of our life. Just as Yom Kippur enables us to reflect on the true meaning of life, Succot teaches us how to live it. Let us enjoy the satisfaction that we are basically good people doing our best to do what is right. This conviction will give us happiness not only on Succot but throughout the year.

Parshat Vayelech/Shuva

After the review of the Torah and the prophecy of exile and return, the last three parshiot in Deuteronomy deal with the last day of Moses' life and his final instructions to the people. In our Parshah, Moses, following G-d's instruction, predicts two things. One is that the people will sin in the future and be punished and therefore the poem of Ha'azinu will be a witness that they were warned. Secondly, he promises that the Torah will never be forgotten by the people of Israel. While we can understand the reason for the second promise, it seems poor pedagogics to begin by telling people they will misbehave. Maybe the answer lies in a famous biblical passage that brackets the Ten Days of Penitence. Well known to us from Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah the last section of the book of Micah is also read, after the book of Jonah, in the afternoon of Yom Kippur. In the last verse the prophet promises that G-d will 'give truth to Jacob and kindness to Abraham'. Truth and kindness can be seen to be at the heart of these days of introspection. The first requirement for changing our lives is to be honest about the way we are now. That can often be a disheartening process. Indeed, from a Jewish point of view, anyone who thinks they have nothing to improve is seriously misguided. Yet this realisation can often lead to depression and paralysis, actually inhibiting positive change. Therefore, we also require kindness. We need the assurance that we can improve and that G-d appreciates our frailties and will assist us to change our lives. These two aspects of truth and kindness or reassurance are contained in Moses' words in the Parshah. He tells the people of their propensity to misbehave. Based on past experience it is likely they will indeed stray from G-d's path and be punished. It is necessary for them to come to terms with this truth in order to correctly appraise their future. Yet Moses does not end there. He also reassures the people that the Torah will never be forgotten by them. No matter what they do or what befalls them in the future there will always be a way back and a promise of redemption. That is the significance of these special days. We are called on to be both brutally honest and earnestly optimistic. That is the way to truly change our lives for the better, during this period when G-d speaks to us with both truth and kindness.

Parshat Nitzavim

' You are standing here today, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d'. so begins the Parshah. The concept of standing before G-d is an important theme of Rosh Hashanah, so it is worthwhile examining this statement more closely. Rashi connects this verse to the preceding Parshah with its dire warnings of the consequences of disobedience. The Israelites were shocked by what they heard and wondered how it was possible to live under such a threat. Moses reassures them by giving them  two messages of encouragement. One 'you are standing here'. Despite all the times they had angered   G-d in the wilderness and the various crisis that beset them, they still existed and thrived. Furthermore, you are here 'today': just as the day gives you light so G-d gives you light and will continue do so in the future and the warnings and curses serve to strengthen you and ensure your survival. On the day when we stand before G-d in judgement in is worth contemplating these words.  Firstly, the fact that G-d expects a certain standard of behaviour doesn't mean that He is always seeking fault and trying to trip us up. The opposite is true. G-d alone knows our motivations and our potential and while He expects much from us He also understands our frailties. After all, despite all our imperfections and mistakes we still around after another year. Furthermore it is precisely the fact that G-d evaluates our lives and assesses our deeds that gives our lives meaning. How we behave is important and our actions have consequences. That may be sometimes a burden but it is also a privilege. Rosh Hashanah is a day that not only emphasises the sovereignty of G-d but underscores the importance of humans. We are partners with G-d in His enterprise of perfecting the world and as such he sets aside a yearly period to assess how we are doing and how we can do better. Rosh Hashanah, therefore, should not be a day of gloom or despondency but a day of sincerity and promise. For this reason it is not enough that when we sound the shofar we blow a tekiah and a teruah. Rather, each broken sound of a teruah must also be followed by a tekiah. Introspection and uncertainty must be followed by resolve and hope. As we stand before G-d on Rosh Hashanah let us see the day as not only a challenge but an opportunity.

Parshat Ki Tavo

Our Parshah begins with the mitzvah of bringing the First Fruits. We may ask why this commandment appears here, at the end of the legislative section of Deuteronomy. We might have though it would appear in Parshat Re'eh, with the other ceremonies connected with the Central Sanctuary. The answer may lie in the central portion of the declaration said when bringing the First Fruits. These four verses are well known to us from the Haggadah and are a synopsis of the story of the Exodus, ending with the fact that G-d had brought them into the Land. The Torah, from the story of the Exodus onwards, is full of references to this seminal event in both its narrative and legal sections. Yet, it is interesting to note, that after this section is is virtually not mentioned at all. It thus appears that this section is in many ways a bookend, bracketing the story of the Exodus and journey to the Land and beginning the new chapter of the future life in the Land with which the remainder of the Torah is concerned. This section and the following one also end the legal section of Deuteronomy. These three themes, the historical narrative based around the Exodus, the legal content and the expectation of life in the Land run throughout the Torah but are especially concentrated in various portions. The books of Genesis and Exodus contain the main historical narrative, supplemented by parts of Numbers. Leviticus is almost total legal and Deuteronomy, even in its legal sections, looks forwards to life in the Land. These three motifs are also connected to the festivals especially the three Pilgrim Festivals. Pesach deals with the historical narrative: the Exodus, Shavuot commemorates the Giving of the Torah: Jewish law, and Succot celebrates the Land of Israel. Our yearly Torah reading is organised appropriately to this schema. We read of the Exodus in the late winter leading up to Pesach. The period between Pesach and Shavuot is concentrated on the legalistic book of Leviticus and we read the book of Deuteronomy, which prepares the people for life in the Land in the weeks preceding Succot. These three ideas of a common history, a Divine set of laws and a holy land are thus basic to Judaism. They are often expressed in terms of the People of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the Land of Israel. The ideal of Judaism is a holy people keeping a holy Torah in a holy land. Not all of us may be able to be fully part of, observe or even connect to all three of these concepts. Not everyone may feel totally connected to other Jews, fully observe the Torah or live in Israel. Yet all of us should understand that this threefold consummation is the goal to which we should all aspire.  

 

Parshat Ki Tetze

Our Parshah contains the source for the mitzvah of burial. As is often the case, the Torah uses an extraordinary example to emphasise a general principle. In this case it demands that even a condemned criminal be buried on the same day because 'a hung body is a curse to G-d'. The precise meaning of this phrase is a matter of discussion among the commentators. Most follow the Sages in connecting to humans being created in the Divine image. Leaving a human body dangling dishonours G-d in whose image it was made. This is compared to a king who had a twin brother who was executed. People seeing the body might think that the king is dangling there. This analogy, however, is hard to understand. We are not physically created in the image of G-d, Who has no form that people could confuse the criminal with. While it is certainly disrespectful to the Divine image of humans to leave their bodies unburied the precise comparison seems not to really work. I would like to bring another explanation of this phrase that can also serve to elucidate the Sages' explanation. The Rashbam explains the word elokim as not referring to G-d but to the judges, a use found elsewhere in the Torah. Thus, the explanation would be that people who see the body of the criminal hanging from the tree would curse the authorities that sentenced him to death. I would suggest that this perspective can also elucidate the more common explanation that G-d is being referred to in this verse. People seeing the tragedy of a person executed for a crime might come to curse G-d. The person could be known to them and might have a social background that caused or led to a propensity for a life of crime, leading to his tragic end. They could ask what sort of world we are living in where such things could happen and where was G-d's compassion and justice in this sorry saga. Furthermore, if a human being can come to such an ignominious end, what does it mean to say we are created in the Divine image. These are questions that we can all ask ourselves. In a world where large numbers of people live in poverty, and are displaced or killed by conflict where is the Divine image? But rather than cursing G-d, we should ask ourselves what we are doing using our own Divine image to remedy the situation. We are not created to look like but to imitate G-d. If we live in a world the Divine image in people is constantly trampled it we who are responsible and we who must work to remedy the situation.    

Parshat Shoftim

Various transgressions in the Torah theoretically are punishable by death. When discussing the imposition of this penalty the Torah requires proper evidence provided by reliable witnesses and subject to rigorous examination. In several places, when referring to the application of this punishment the Torah demands that 'the hand of the witnesses should be upon him first' and only then 'the hand of the people afterwards'. This is an extremely important provision. The Torah insists that if you are going to come forward and give evidence that convicts someone you must be prepared to follow through on your conviction. You cannot simply accuse someone and then run away from the consequences of that indictment. You need to be able to look them in the eye and complete what you started. This law teaches us an important lesson. If we wish to accuse someone of something or if we are upset or angry with them, we must confront them directly. It is not good enough to simply go round telling other people what you think they have done wrong or how they have aggrieved you. If you want to criticise someone do it to their face. That gives them an opportunity to defend themselves and, if necessary, put the record straight. Furthermore, if you can't look them in the eye and tell them exactly what you think of them, then your opinion is probably flawed. If you don't have the guts to confront them directly it probably means that you are not really sure that you are justified and, also, probably don't want a resolution. It is easier to nurse a grudge when you avoid actually talking to the person concerned and don't have to hear their side of the story. The people that I respect most are those that when I have done something they don't like have told me directly. That has enabled an apology or explanation and ended the matter. The people I respect least are those who I know are upset at something I have done because they have gone round telling everyone else, but never had the guts to tell me directly. Those issues tend to hang around in the background like an unpleasant odour. In telling us that 'the hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first', the Torah is instructing us in an important moral principle that unfortunately is too often observed more in the breach.

Parshat Re'eh

A recurring message of Deuteronomy is that we should 'do the good and proper in the eyes of the L-rd your G-d'. This statement is given various interpretations by the commentators, often changing dependent on the context. Rashi, for example, brings several different interpretations which he usually connects to the topic under discussion. In this week's Parshah he interprets the verse as signifying that one should do the 'good' in the eyes of G-d and the 'proper' in the eyes of people. It is easy to understand this distinction. 'Good' refers to the morality of an action while 'proper' more naturally connects to human perceptions of the correct way to behave. What is fascinating, however, is the context in which this interpretation is given. One would expect such an understanding to be appropriate for a theme that dealt with relationships between humans, such as justice, marriage or economic relationships. Yet Rashi makes this comment on a verse that comes at the end of a whole section dealing with only ritual matters: the institution of centralised sacrifice and the prohibition of the consumption of blood. These would not seem to be appropriate topics for emphasising the need to both please G-d and humans. Yet this interpretation, coming where it does, is teaching us the opposite. It is precisely in ritual and narrowly 'religious' matters that we need to take care that what we do is accepted by others. It may be obvious that in human relationships we need to act properly but less clear that also refers to synagogue life. Yet it is just as important that when we fulfil are ritual obligations we do so in a way that is acceptable to others and enhances Judaism in the eyes of those around us rather than the opposite. For example, when travelling on a plane how do we deal with davening. Praying with a minyan is certainly extremely important, but if it comes at the expense of inconveniencing other passengers and crew and the safety of everyone we might think that 'the loss is greater than the reward'. It is also certainly important that there is a level of decorum in shule, so people can pray with concentration. Yet when people make a fuss about children crying or making a little noise, thus upsetting the children and embarrassing the parents, we may wonder which G-d they are praying to. It may be indeed more fruitful for the adults to concentrate on talking less rather than worry about a few noisy children. Our personal ritual requirements should not come before the needs of others. It is both possible and necessary to be punctilious in one's observance while at the same time being sensitive to the needs of others. That is indeed fulfilling the Torah's command to 'do what is good and proper in the sight of the L-rd your G-d'.   

Parshat Ekev

In this week's Parshah Moses recounts the lessons of the journey in the wilderness especially the privations involved. This is often referred to as a test. This is especially true in regard to the Manna. It's purpose is to see whether the people will keep the Torah or to remind them that humans don't live on bread alone. This test can be seen in two diametrically opposite and seemingly contradictory ways. On the one hand the trial is occasioned by the privations involved in desert travel. They often travelled through areas with no natural resources and were completely dependent on G-d for their existence. Would they have the ability to trust in G-d or would they lose faith because of their situation. Another perspective is taken by the Seforno among others. The test for the Israelites in the desert was not one of privation but of ease. Everything they needed was provided by G-d without them having to work for it. Would this easy life cause them to take what they had for granted, without appreciating where it came from. This, indeed, is what Moses warns them against after they have inherited the Land. We therefore have two differing spiritual dangers when it comes to our livelihood. On the one hand, great poverty can cause someone to abandon G-d. They become despairing and angry and can completely lose hope. The alternate danger is that easy prosperity can cause people to become arrogant, overconfident in their own abilities and insensitive to others. Yet, the key trial that Moses seems to be talking about, of which the Manna is the paradigmatic example, is that of dependence. The Jewish people were totally dependent on G-d for their needs in the wilderness. How would they react to that dependence? Would it lead to apathy or resentment or gratitude and initiative? This, indeed, is the question for every person who believes that, in the end, our prosperity is dependent on G-d. Do we sit back and do nothing in the belief that G-d will provide? Do we become arrogant when things go well, believing that this signifies that we are righteous? Or do we realise that our lives are a partnership with G-d and work to make our own future, while realising that everything is ultimately dependent on the Divine will? It is the answers to these questions that determine what sort of life we will live.

Parshat Va'etchanan/Nachamu

One of the most puzzling verses in the Torah occurs in our Parshah. While warning the Jewish people not to worship any image, including the sun, moon and stars, Moses adds 'which the L-rd your G-d has apportioned to all the nations under heaven'. Various interpretations have been give of this verse, both neutral: to use for light, negative: in order to deceive them, and positive: as a statement of religious tolerance. I would like to offer an other explanation based on a verse earlier in the Parshah. When talking of how observing the Torah would enhance the reputation of the Jews with the other nations, Moses talks of the Israelites being like no other nation in having G-d close to them whenever they call on Him. This statement encapsulates a cardinal principle of Judaism, one that is still not fully shared by many other religions, both then and now. That principle is that G-d, while transcendent is also immanent and available to everyone. It is not necessary to engage in any special ceremonies or have any intermediary in order to approach G-d. One only has to reach out to Him and He is available. This idea was radical at the time and is not fully accepted today. Many religions believe in the necessity of having a go-between, either divine or human, to mediate between the infinite Divine and the finite human. Often these mediators are heavenly beings, such as demi-gods, including in ancient days natural phenomena, such as the sun and moon. As it is difficult for such faiths to accept the possibility of direct access to G-d, G-d has enabled them to use intermediaries. The Jewish people, who heard G-d's voice directly at Sinai, understand that this is not necessary and are forbidden to use any mediator between them and G-d. This is the import of what Moses is saying in this verse. It is, in many ways, a statement of tolerance. It accepts the validity of other methods of approaching G-d, while forbidding them to the Jews. Because Jews have had a direct revelation from G-d and accepted the Torah, they are not vouchsafed the concessions given to those that have not. What may be acceptable for others is strictly forbidden to Jews. In this, as in much else, being a chosen people is not a license to be superior but an obligation to be better.    

Parshiot Devarim/Hazon

There is a well-known joke that talks of a new Rabbi who comes to a community. The first week his sermon is about the importance of Kashrut. The President comes to him after the service and complains. 'you know that most of our congregants don't keep kosher, so its not really appropriate to speak about kashrut'. The next week he talks about Shabbat. Again he is told that he shouldn't have, as many of the congregation work on Shabbat. The next week it is Family Purity and the Mikveh, which is even worse as virtually none of the ladies visit it. In exasperation the Rabbi asks the President what he should talk about. 'Judaism, of course' he replies. This joke is funny because it points up the ignorance of the President, and possibly the congregation, of the essential precepts of Judaism. Yet it also highlights their ignorance of the role of the Rabbi. They think that the Rabbi's sermons should lie within their comfort zone. The opposite is sometimes true. A Rabbi sometimes needs to challenge his community's preconceptions and even make them feel uncomfortable. This is what Moses points out in this week's Parshah. Instructing the people he appoints as judges he tells them: 'do not be afraid of anyone, because the judgement is G-d's'. When a judge or a Rabbi is performing their duties they need to be aware that they are serving G-d as well as the people. They are not necessarily imparting what people want or like to hear but what they need to hear. A Rabbi or a judge who is constantly looking over his shoulder and afraid of what people might think cannot do his job properly. Community leaders must be fearless in doing what is right for the community, whether or not it makes them popular. In constantly bowing to popular pressure they are in fact betraying the community they are serving. Of course, they must also be in tune with the nature and needs of the people they are seeking to lead. This is indeed one of the reasons given for the appointment of people to assist Moses in his task. The 'leaders of thousands and the leaders of hundreds' will be keyed in to the make-up and hopes of those groups. A Rabbi must therefore be sensitive to the community and its desires but at the same time willing to speak his mind when necessary. Indeed, the two are often complimentary. As the old adage goes: a rabbi who most of his community don't like is not a mensch, but a Rabbi who everyone agrees with is not a Rabbi.

Bamidbar (Numbers) 5776

Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.

Parshiot Matot / Masei

The double Parshah this week deals with women's issues at the beginning and at the end. It begins with the laws of women's vows and ends with the inheritance of the daughters of Tzelophchad. Indeed, underlying the whole Exodus, the story of which effectively ends this week, is the role of women. This role was often different, and often more positive than that of the men. For example, it was the women who preserved the vitality of the Jewish people in Egypt and afterwards were not involved in the sin of the Spies but cherished the Land. It was Miriam that saved Moses and the wife of On ben Pelet that saved him from destruction during the revolt of Korach. This narrative underlies the special role that Jewish women have always played in Jewish life and history. While it may seem that women have been subservient to the masculine dominance of Jewish religious life, this is not the whole story. Parallel to this male religious world existed a female religious world, which had its own form of Jewish spirituality and approaching G-d. An important feature of this phenomenon were the many tehinot or supplications written by women and for women. There were traditionally female prayer groups where the women would meet to say Psalms and prayer for the welfare of their families and the community. Freed from the constraints of fixed public prayer that obligated the men, women were able to approach prayer and spirituality in a more fluid and intimate way. In our days there is a movement among many women to have a more prominent public role in Jewish life commiserate with their role in wider society. In general this is a positive phenomenon that can serve to enrich Judaism. Clearly, it is important that women be Jewishly educated to a high level, and with that erudition begin to play an important role in Halakhic decision making. In regards to the synagogue, it also seems right that ways should be found for women to have the spiritual experience of reading from the Torah. When it comes to formalised public prayer, however, one can ask whether in wanting to take on the obligations of daily prayer in a minyan, women are not making an error. As mentioned above, women have traditionally had their own way of approaching G-d and unique methods of prayer. In seeking to exchange those for the male way of doing things they may be losing more than they gain. While the idea that men need the obligation of fixed prayer while women are more innately spiritual is often seen as an excuse for chauvinism, nevertheless it is my experience that it contains a large amount of truth. The fluid, intimate nature of Jewish women's spirituality has been a great boon to the Jewish people, as we see from the Exodus stories. In seeking to join themselves to male structures and practices, Jewish women may be in danger of losing something very precious.

Parshat Pinchas

An important issue in inter-community relations, especially in situations of conflict or tension, is whom to talk to. With whom is it worthwhile to have a dialogue, even though we may have deep differences, and with whom is dialogue meaningless or even harmful. A hint is given at the beginning of our Parshah. G-d commands the Israelites to smite the Midianites as punishment for their involvement in the seduction of the Israelite men, leading to a plague that killed twenty four thousand. Interestingly, though, we were not commanded to punish the Moabites, even though they were also involved in the same incident. One reason given, is that something good would emerge from the Moabites, namely Ruth, the matriarch of the Davidic dynasty. Yet a more substantial reason is also given. While what the Moabites did was wrong and caused harm to Israel, they had an excuse for their actions. The Torah tells us that after the Israelite defeat of the Amorite kings, the Moabites feared that they were next, and thus had a genuine, if mistaken, reason to try and injure the Israelites. Midian, on the other hand, had no fear of Israel and were not threatened by them, and so had no excuse for their actions. They were solely motivated by their hatred and loathing of the Jews. This gives us an insight in how we should behave. If we are in conflict with people that have an authentic, if erroneous, grievance against us, there is great benefit it starting a dialogue with them, discussing the issues and trying to remove the misconceptions. Even if we don't end up agreeing we can create a new, more respectful, relationship. With people however, like the Midianites, who have no real quarrel but are solely motivated by hatred, there is nothing to discuss. Talking to them is a waste of time and, furthermore, gives them a legitimacy they don't deserve. Thus in our situation today, we should absolutely be in dialogue with Palestinians and the Muslim community in general. The tensions between us are caused by real differences about vital issues. We may not end up agreeing but we can at least discuss the issues and learn to respect each other. With the various Scottish 'pro-Palestinian' groups, however, we have nothing to discuss. Motivated by hatred of Israel and a desire to 'have a cause', there is no benefit at all in dialogue. They just exploit such contact to legitimise their actions and pretend they are not ant-Jewish. With Muslims we should and must be in dialogue and friendship. The various Palestinian 'solidarity' groups we should avoid like the plague.

Parshat Balak

The character of Bila'am has always fascinated the commentators who have painted various images of his personality. The traditional view sees him as someone with perverted potential that could have been as great as Moses but used his abilities for ill. If we carefully study the Parshah we can notice inherent contradictions in his character and actions. As the Rabbis highlight he claims to be able to defeat a whole nation with his oratory but needs to threaten his donkey with a sword. His greatest ability, therefore, turns out to be severely limited. Bila'am is indeed a great orator but his oratory is not enough to achieve practical results. He himself, at least when it comes to his personal safety, doesn't trust in his oratory to convince even his talking donkey. This is, indeed, seems to be a feature of great demagogues, past and present. While they seem to be able to stir the masses by their speeches, in order to maintain control they resort to repressive and violent measures. While they can excite the emotions of the people they are themselves afraid of the passions they have stirred. A second contradiction of Bila'am concerns his vision. While he seems to indicate that he has great vision and can prophesy the future, the Rabbis say that he was in fact only partially sighted. This is clear from his belief that he could somehow trick G-d into allowing him to curse the Jewish people. He in fact does have great potential vision but allows himself to be distracted by pride and avarice. In the same way many leaders have a long term vision of what they want to do but are diverted by short term considerations. Moses, on the other hand, uses his oratory to actually transform the world and despite severe setbacks never loses sight of his ultimate goal. Today, unfortunately, many of our leaders are closer to Bila'am than Moses. They are carried away by their oratory but prove unable to actually deliver on anything they promise and often seem not to really believe it themselves. They have good intentions and programs but they are watered down or abandoned because of political exigencies. This is a major reason for the breakdown of trust in the political system. To restore this faith we need less Bila'am and more Moses.

Parshat Hukat

After the disasters recounted in the last few Parshiot, this week things take a turn for the better. We skip thirty eight years of wandering and begin again in the fortieth year. Though there are still a detour, some kvetching and poisonous snakes to contend with, in general the Parshah is a record of success. The Israelites crush the Aradites who attack them and conquer the kingdoms of Sihon and Og. However, for Moses this Parshah is not so great. He loses both his brother and his sister and is barred from entering the Land. Moses is left without support and knowing the he will not live to see the completion of his task. What is important, however, is how Moses reacts to this situation. He does not succumb to despair or give up. He doesn't decide that because he is not going to be able to bring his life's project to a successful conclusion that he will not bother with it. Rather, he dedicates himself to its ultimate success. He carries on leading the people and devotes himself to preparing them for life in the Land. His greatest contribution in this regard is his farewell orations contained in the book of Deuteronomy. These contain some of the most inspiring passages in the Torah. They show someone that realises that his time is short and much remains to be done and who endeavours to achieve as much as possible. We can discern a similar attitude at the beginning of the Parshah. One of the paradoxes of the mitzvah of the Red Heifer is that everyone who is involved in its preparation become impure. While they enable the purification of others they themselves then require purification. They facilitate others success while not achieving it themselves. All this teaches us an important lesson. Truly great achievements cannot be attained by one person but require the co-operation of others. Furthermore, it is often the case that we strive towards ends that we may not see carried through. Yet just because we cannot complete the project ourselves doesn't mean we should abandon the task. Rather we should do what we can and leave it to others to complete our work. As the Sages told us 'it is not up to you to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it'.

Parshat Korach

The Korach crisis which forms the basis of this week's Parshah, has two denouements. After Korach and his followers are destroyed one would have thought the crisis would be over. Instead it intensifies, with the people accusing Moses of murdering them. How can we understand this extraordinary turn of events. According to some commentators the people accused Moses of deliberately devising a test, the offering of incense, that he knew would result in their destruction. How should we answer this charge? One explanation is that Moses did indeed devise this test because of its serious consequences. The Korach revolt had as its rationale the will of the people. Korach was arguing for complete democracy. Moses, by challenging them to perform the priestly functions, was demonstrating that democracy has its limits. In a religious community the will of G-d, not the will of the people, is in the end supreme. While within such a society there can exist a large degree of democracy, in the end it is the Divinely given Torah that has the final word. Like in the United States the constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, can overrule laws made by Congress, so in a Jewish society the Torah, as interpreted by the Rabbis, trumps democratic decision making. Of course, this generally applies only to cases when the democratic will conflicts with the constitution or the Torah, but in such cases the decision of the judges or the Rabbis is supreme. The same is true in Orthodox Jewish communities today. A major distinction in the administration of Reform and Orthodox communities lies precisely in this area. In a Reform community, while the Rabbi is the spiritual leader and may have great influence, it is the community that is the ultimate arbiter of religious issues. In an Orthodox community, on the other hand, it is the Rabbi that ultimately decides on matters of religious practice. In choosing to be a community governed by Halacha an Orthodox community limits its democratic rights in areas concerning the religious functions of the community. An Orthodox community where the community, not the Rabbi, decides on such matters is by definition not an Orthodox community and a Rabbi that would accept such a situation not truly an Orthodox Rabbi. The Torah warns us not to be like Korach and his followers and that means, ultimately, accepting limits on what we can do and who determines it.  

Parshat Sh'Lach

The Parshah contains the sin of the spies. This decisive episode in the nation's history raises many questions. What exactly was the issue of the spies and why did the nation so readily accept their report? If their intent all along was to slander the Land, why did they say it was flowing with milk and honey and why did they bring back some of the fruit to prove it? Was the Land really inhabited by giants or did they make this up? I think the crux of the story lies in the enigmatic statement by the spies that 'it is a land the eats its inhabitants'. The meaning of this statement can maybe be best understood by the explanation of Rashi as to why the spies brought back fruit. They wanted to demonstrate that 'just like its fruit is abnormal, so are its inhabitants abnormal'. In other words this land is different from other places. It poses special challenges for people living it and does not provide a normal existence. This idea is reiterated by Joshua, one of the two loyal spies, at the end of his life. In a speech whose beginning is known to us from the Haggadah, he traces the history of the Israelites and then places before the people the choice of serving G-d or the local gods. He warns them that serving G-d is not easy and maybe they should take an easier option. In other words, national existence in the Land is not simple. The Torah emphasises time and again that Israel's tenure of the Land is dependent on their behaviour. Unlike Egypt or Mesopotamia the Land of Israel is not fed by rivers but by rain that can be withheld. Instability, drought and the threat of exile  are constant features of the biblical story of Israel in its Land. In last week's Parshah we saw how the Israelites were punished by G-d for their disobedience. They may have thought that this was only a temporary phenomenon and when they enter the land they will be able to lead a more normal existence. What the spies saw disabused them of this notion. Even in the Land they would be held accountable and their prosperity and security would depend on their behaviour. This was not a life they felt able to endure and so rejected it and sought to return to Egypt. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, were prepared to rise to the challenge and merited to see the Land. When it comes to being Jewish, are we like the spies who find it to difficult and so reject it or like Joshua and Caleb who embrace its challenge.

Parshat Behalotecha

The Book of Numbers consists of three parts: the preparations for the journey, the journey of the second year and the events of the fortieth year. This week marks the transition between the first and second section. After setting up the camp and preparing for travel the Jews get moving. However, things do not go according to plan. The original move towards the Land ends in abject failure, with the people condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years. From the excitement evidenced in the description of the preparations at the beginning of our Parshah we descend to the exclamation found in Parshat Korach: 'we are all doomed'. How and why did such a disaster occur? If we read the narrative in the next three parshiot carefully we can see a parallel and symbiotic deterioration in two key components that are essential for any group of people: dialogue and trust. In this week's Parshah we start with the fact that the people were 'evil grumblers' which means that they complained in a negative rather than constructive way. This behaviour continues with disrespectful discourse both towards Moses and even   G-d, culminating in the people accusing Moses and Aaron of murder in the Korach incident. Even Moses' own sister and brother join in. This absence of dialogue is accompanied by a breakdown in trust. The people don't trust G-d, Joshua doesn't trust Eldad and Medad, Miriam and Aaron lose trust in Moses. By the end no one trusts anyone else’s' motives, leading to the collapse of whole project for a generation. These two processes feed off each other. If there is no dialogue there is no trust, if trust is absent dialogue becomes impossible. This sorry narrative is written in the Torah for a reason. We are meant to learn from it. Human co-operation and success is based on dialogue and trust. When a society or organisation loses these two components they are in deep trouble. If people cease to have faith in each other and are unable to civilly interact with each other that society or people likely has no future. One can argue without being nasty, disagree without impugning other's motives. Jews not only accept disagreement but thrive on it. It is not disagreement that is the problem but the way we disagree. Respectful dialogue and acceptance of the sincerity of the other leads to constructive outcomes. Contemptuous behaviour and perpetual suspicion leads to dissension and disaster. The Torah narrative in the next three parshiot serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when we don't interact with each other decently. It is a warning we ignore at our peril.

Parshat Naso

The Torah this week commands the removal from the camp of certain types of impure people. The Rabbis explained that the three groups mentioned in the section: the leper, the man with seminal emissions, and one who touched a dead body, are each excluded from specific areas of the camp. The leper is excluded from the whole camp, the one with emissions from only the Levite encampment surrounding the Tabernacle and the impure by the dead is only forbidden to enter the Tabernacle precincts. This division has a lot to teach us. Leprosy is regarded as punishment for slander and is something within our control. Sexual emissions are only sometimes problematic and only partly under our control, while death is completely negative but totally out of our control. The person involved in actions that are negative and their responsibility is wholly excluded from the camp, while the person effected by an extremely negative incident over which they have no control is only excluded from the most holy part of the camp. It is thus not principally the nature of the action or event that determines the status of the person but the responsibility for the incident. The greater the responsibility the greater the deficiency and the correction needed. One can also look at this hierarchy from the vantage point of society. The leper who is a menace to the community needs to be totally removed from it until he mends his ways. The person touched by death, on the other hand, is through no fault of his own not capable of fully participating in the religious life of the community and so must be barred from the Tabernacle precincts but is still a valued member of society and part of the community. This commandment thus partially establishes a hierarchy within the mitzvot of the Torah. While ritual offences are certainly not viewed lightly transgressions against other people are regarded as even more serious. The Torah thus teaches us the importance of taking responsibility for our actions, especially in our interpersonal relationships.      

Parshat Bamidbar

We have the custom on Shavuot of eating milk products. There are several reasons given for this. One, is that it is not permitted to eat the same loaf of bread at both a milk and meat meal. As we normally eat meat on Yom Tov, having a milk meal in close proximity necessitates another loaf of bread, recalling the two loaves of bread brought in the Temple on Shavuot. Another popular reason is that the Torah is compared to milk as in the verse 'honey and milk are under your tongue'. A further reason often given is that when the Jews received the Torah they received the mitzvah of eating kosher, making all their previously prepared food not kosher. As preparing kosher meat takes time (slaughtering, kashering ect...), they could only eat milk products. If we examine the last two explanations we might consider that they are actually contradictory. One commemorates the sweetness of the Torah: like milk or honey it is easily digestible and a pleasurable experience. The other reminds us of the burden of the Torah, the fact that for example we can't eat what we want and keeping kosher isn't always easy. The same dichotomy can be seen in the actual story of the Revelation. On the one hand the Jews enthusiastically embrace the Torah promising to do all G-d commands them; on the other they are frightened and want Moses to mediate between them and G-d. Of course, however, these two aspects of the Torah actually compliment each other. The demands the Torah makes on us are precisely what makes it so valuable. True happiness is not based on only doing what we want but on doing what is right. In enabling us to lead worthwhile lives the Torah enriches our existence. Things worth doing are generally not easy. It is precisely this difficulty that makes them worth doing. The self-control needed to follow the mitzvot of the Torah is what enables us to improve our character and live purposeful lives. When we celebrate the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot we are celebrating both the demands and rewards of Torah observance, both the sweetness and burden. Something to contemplate when eating your cheesecake.

Vayikra (Leviticus) 5776

Parshat Behukotai

The Torah contains two sections of Tochecha or admonition, one in this week's Parshah and one in parshat Ki-Tavo at the end of Deuteronomy. They have important differences, many of which are remarked upon by the commentators. One striking example of this is that in Deuteronomy no specific sin is given as the reason for destruction and exile, only general disobedience to the Torah. The admonition we read this week, however, singles out a specific sin, not observing the Sabbatical year, as the reason for deportation from the Land. Indeed the seventy years of exile in Babylon are specifically seen as a 'measure for measure' punishment for the non-observance of Shemitah, Rashi bringing the exact calculation. This of course connects what we read this week to what we read last week and indeed, in a non-leap year, the two parshiot are read together. There is thus a thematic connection between them, summed up by the statement in last week's Parshah that, 'the Land is Mine; you are strangers and sojourners with Me'. Both the sabbatical year and the threat of exile for disobedience to the Torah, reinforce the lesson that the Land belongs to G-d and we are his guests in it. If we don't behave ourselves we will be turfed out. This serves to answer a puzzling question. Why does G-d chose such a difficult place as the Promised Land. Why do the Jews constantly have to fight for it, creating serious moral dilemmas, and defend our title to it? This has been a problematic issue throughout Jewish history. Would not it have been easier for G-d to have given the Jews a non-contested land in a place no one else particularly cared about? Jewish history could have been so much more peaceful. The answer, based on these weeks' parshiot, is clear. Living in an easy, uncontested land Jews would forget a most basic lesson: the Land is not ours. By forcing the Jews to fight for their land and defend their title to it, we are constantly reminded that Israel belongs to us because G-d gave it to us. In the end, it is G-d's home in which we are but guests. That is what makes Israel such a difficult place to live in and hold on to. And that is what makes it so amazingly worthwhile.

Parshat Behar

The Torah, when it introduces the topic of Ona'ah, not defrauding others, says: 'when you sell something to your friend or buy from your friend'. The Rabbis pick up on the seemingly superfluous phrase 'your friend' and make it into a principle. 'When you sell you should sell to an Israelite your friend and when you buy you should buy from an Israelite your friend'. This seems to be a very inward looking and tribal attitude and appears to contradict the many exhortations in the Torah that there should be one law for the Israelite and the stranger. An explanation may be found in an ostensibly even more limiting statement of the Rabbis, that in giving charity your family comes before others and the poor of your city are given precedence over the poor of another city. This statement, while on the surface extremely restrictive, actually teaches us an important truth. What the Rabbis are really saying is not that we should not care about or assist people who are outside the circle of our family, city or   religion. What they are talking about are priorities. They are telling us that our first obligation is to those closest to us and we cannot help others at their expense. They are warning us not to create grandiose projects to save the world while people are homeless on our streets. More than one leader or benefactor have achieved great things for humanity at great cost to their own family. Many have helped the children of the world at the cost of the physical and emotional well being of their own children. These statements caution us that such a person is actually a failure. They have failed in their most basic duty to those closest to them and that, in the eyes of the Torah, overshadows their other achievements. We need to care about everyone, not just our 'tribe' and endeavour to make the world a better place. Yet the test of our intentions and the first step in achieving our goals is how we behave to those closest to us. Seen in this way, the aphorism 'charity begins at home' is not a selfish excuse not to help others but a call to reform the world by starting where we can be most effective, with our immediate environment and going on from there to fix the world.

Parshat Emor

This week's Parshah contains the 'section of the festivals', listing the various festivals of the Jewish year. At the beginning of this section we have the command to keep Shabbat. Interestingly, this is not actually included under the heading of the other festivals. It begins with its own introduction about these being the appointed seasons of G-d, a phrase that is repeated a few lines later as an introduction to the festivals proper. The command to keep Shabbat can therefore be understood as a preface to the listing of the other festivals. What is the purpose of this preface. One interpretation could compare this section to that of the building of the Tabernacle. This is also bracketed with commands to keep Shabbat. There, this is understood to indicate that the building of the Tabernacle doesn't override the observance of Shabbat. Maybe here, as well, the preface of the festivals by Shabbat is meant to convey that the various mitzvot of these days don't supersede Shabbat. This would accord with the view that the prohibition of blowing the Shofar or taking the Lulav on Shabbat is of Torah origin. However, the accepted opinion is that this is a Rabbinical decree and, furthermore, the reaping of the Omer, contained in this section, does defer Shabbat. A simpler explanation is that intimated by the Rabbis who said that the placing of Shabbat with the festivals signifies that whoever keeps Shabbat it as if he kept the festivals and visa versa. In other words, the weekly Shabbat and the special occasions of the year are of equal importance. This is a message that is especially relevant in our context. Many people chose to attend services or other such occasions only for special events, such as an important festival or a yarhtzeit, neglecting the weekly Shabbat. They will turn up to a Seder or Hanukah lighting but not to a normal service. By prefacing the list of the special days of the year with the weekly Shabbat, the Torah informs us that this is not the way it should be. Judaism is not about particular days or events but about every day and every week. Those that are interested in a living community cannot just turn up when it suits them. If everyone behaved like this, there would be nothing for them to turn up to. Rather we need to commit to regular participation in order to ensure a living Torah and a sustainable community.

Parshat Kedoshim

This week's Parshah contains one of the largest collections of mitzvot in the Torah. It can be debated whether the various mitzvot have a connection to each other or are arranged in a random order. However, when you have two mitzvot in one verse, one would assume that they are connected in some way. One such example is the verse that states: 'don't go round as a talebearer among your people; you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour'. Indeed various commentators connected the two mitzvot in this verse. The Hizkuni gives two interpretations. One is that telling someone that so and so is spreading tales about them, may lead to violence between them. He also explains that if you hear about someone wanting to kill someone you should warn them about it. The Ibn Ezra gives the simpler explanation that by spreading rumours about someone you can lead to their death, giving the case of Saul and the city of Nob in the Bible. Yet, according to tradition, the mitzvah of 'not standing by' implies positive action, not merely not doing something. I therefore believe that you can explain this verse is another way. The Torah forbids us to spread slander about others and enjoins us to defend those that a slandered. People whose reputation or even lives are being endangered by false rumours or slanderous stories need our protection. We need to stand up to those that engage in such destructive behaviour, whether it be tabloid newspapers, internet trolls or school bullies. We have unfortunately seen how, especially in the case of young people, this type of tale bearing can literally lead to people dying. We thus need to take the injunction of the Torah very seriously indeed. Slander, tale bearing and abuse damage us all, even the perpetrators, and it is our duty to oppose it with all the means at our disposal and uproot this evil from our society.

Parshat Aharei-Mot

The Parshah this week details the High Priest's service in the Tabernacle on Yom Kippur. An important feature of this service is the necessity for the High Priest to bathe various times during the day, traditionally a total of five times. These immersions take place at the time he changes his clothes from his normal splendid gold vestments to the simple white garments he uses for Yom Kippur. What is fascinating is that the High Priest is required to immerse himself not only when changing from his normal garments to the white Yom Kippur ones but also when changing back into his regular vestments. One can understand purifying yourself when you are about to perform the most important parts of the ritual in the special garments assigned for that purpose. It is less comprehensible why he needs to do so when he is finished. This, however, reminds us of another similar case. The Torah commands that we should remember the Shabbat. The Rabbis understood this to mean verbally sanctifying Shabbat, something we perform by saying Kiddush at the commencement of the Shabbat meal. We can understand the need to mark the fact we are now encompassed by the holiness of Shabbat. Yet the Rabbis also required us to sanctify the end of Shabbat by making Havdalah, signifying the beginning of secular time. It appears that not only does the transformation from secular to holy need to be marked but the transition from holy to secular also need to be sanctified. This requirement tells us a lot about Judaism's view of the world. Judaism divides the world, physical, spatial and chronological, into holy and secular. One might think that this signifies a denigration of the secular world, similar to that in Augustinian Christianity. This is, however, not the case. Both holy and secular are important, serving different, equivalent purposes. The Torah, according to the traditional interpretation, commands us both to labour six days and rest on the seventh. The two are of equal importance. For this reason we sanctify not only the beginning of Shabbat but also the beginning of another week of work. The High Priest purifies himself not only when donning his special Yom Kippur vestments but also when dressing himself in his regular garments. For Judaism, a spiritually healthy life requires a balance of both holy and secular.

Parshat Pesach 8th day

As we come to the end of Pesach we enter the period of the Counting of the Omer. Every night we count one day from the first day of Pesach until Shavuot on the fiftieth day. If we look at the formula we use when counting the Omer we will discover something interesting. We count both days and weeks. We don't simply say that 'today is the eighth day of the Omer' but 'today is the eighth day making one week and one day of the Omer'. The simple reason for this extended formula is that the Torah commands us to count seven weeks until the fiftieth day, seemingly instructing us to count both days and weeks. But there is another deeper reason for this double accounting. Days and weeks represent two different perspectives on marking time. A day is a 24 hour period based on the earth's rotation and is the most basic natural division of time. The week, in contrast, has no basis in nature but is a spiritual division of time based on G-d's timetable of creation. All days are essentially the same simply following one after the other. A week, on the other hand, leads somewhere, up to the special spiritual day of Shabbat. Unlike the passage of the days, a week has a destination and a purpose. We thus live according to two parallel timetables. A secular timetable, one day after the other and a spiritual timetable from one Shabbat to the other. One is concerned with simply physically living while the other gives our lives' purpose. In some ways the festival of Pesach parallels this pattern. We concentrate on the first days on our physical redemption from slavery, while on the concluding days we look forward to the ultimate redemption of 'the Pesach to come'. By counting the Omer according to both timetables we discern that both are necessary. A purely spiritual timetable can lead to an unhealthy detachment from the physical world, while only focussing on the here and now causes us to lead a life devoid of purpose and spirituality. We need a spirituality grounded in and relevant to, the real world around us, enabling us to lead successful and purposeful lives. We need to count both days and weeks.  

Parshat Pesach

One of the best beloved parts of the Seder is the section on the Four Sons. It is the source of both amusement and contemplation, play acting and family dynamics. It has also been possibly the most fruitful and inventive field for illustrators of the Haggadah. Less attention is paid to the section immediately preceding it which blesses G-d for having given us the Torah which speaks of four different types of sons. The purpose and placing of this part of the Haggadah is curious. Why do we specifically in the Haggadah thank G-d for having given us the Torah? If it is because of being this the culmination of the Exodus we already mention that in Dayenu. Even if intended as a benedictory introduction to the Haggadah, which is an exercise in Torah study, surely it should have come at the beginning. The answer lies in the very connection to the Four Sons. If we are blessing G-d for the Torah as a prelude to talking of the Four Sons, it clearly indicates that we are blessing G-d specifically for having included the concept of four different children in the Torah. As we sit down to the Seder we are engaged in fulfilling a mitzvah of education. The Torah specifies that the purpose of the night is to explain about the Exodus, especially to children. A parent might feel daunted by the task. After all not every child is the same and how is a parent to properly explain to all of them and thus fulfil the mitzvah. In addition, maybe there is a proper interpretation that should be given, that they are not fully cognisant with. How do they know that educating in the right way. The answer of the Torah is that there is no right way. The story of the Exodus will have different meanings to different people. Each generation will find its own meaning and write its own interpretation of the story. What the preceding blessing informs us is that this plethora of interpretation and meaning is fixed in the Torah itself. It is not merely an educational tool  but the way the Torah should be read. The differing questions and answers of the Four Sons that appear in the Torah teach us not only how to only how to conduct the Seder but how to learn Torah.

Parshat Metzora/Hagadol

The special Haftorah for Shabbat Hagadol ends on the hopeful note of the coming of Elijah before the Great Day of G-d, the verse that gives this Shabbat its name. Elijah will come and 'turn the hearts of the fathers to the sons and the sons to the fathers'. Except that the Haftorah doesn't actually end there but continues with a warning 'lest I come and strike the land with the sword'. This seems out of sympathy with the words immediately preceding that talk of reconciliation. How are we to understand this challenging ending? If we study the rest of the Haftorah we will see that it sets up a conflict between different groups of people. We have those that fear G-d and the others who do not or who even hate those that do. The 'G-d fearers'; complain that G-d doesn't seem to make a distinction between them and those who don't fear G-d. G-d replies that the day will come when it will be clear to all who fears G-d and who doesn't. It is easy to see this scenario as a simple case of the religious against the anti-religious or the good against the bad, with G-d in the end rewarding one and punishing the other. Yet the last verse doesn't fit in with the script. It seems to hint at some sort of reconciliation, though ending on a note of warning. It is interesting that the prophet doesn't specifically spell out who are those that fear G-d and who are those that don't, except for listing a few unsavoury practices. G-d merely says that we will in the end discern who is who but also doesn't define them. I would suggest, therefore, that the Haftorah could be talking about two groups of people both of whom believe that they are doing the will of G-d. A hint as to who these may be is given in the last verse that talks about fathers and sons. This may refer to different generations or generational ways of thinking, with the 'sons' wanting what they see as progress and the 'fathers' wary of changing things. Both sides believe the other to be wrong and even hate each other. G-d doesn't choose between them. Rather He urges them to reconcile, each seeing the good in each other. He will even send Elijah to help achieve this. But He also sends a warning. The consequences of carrying of both sides continuing to hold fast to two irreconcilable positions will not be that one wins and the other loses but that both will lose. The whole edifice will come crashing down, a divided house cannot stand. The Haftorah thus gives us a stark choice. If we work together to reach a consensus we can even  bring the Messiah, if we continue fruitless arguments we bring only destruction.

Parshat Tazria

An important feature of the laws of leprosy, which form the subject matter of our Parshah, is the central role of the priest. It is the priest that examines the person and deciphers the various symptoms of the sufferer. It is the priest who pronounces someone pure or impure and it is the priest who can delay the onset of the lepers fate by choosing not to examine someone during a festival or the bridegroom during his festivities. In short, while it is the Torah that delineates the criteria of leprosy the actual application of those criteria is down to the officiating priest. The Torah prescribes, but we decide. The same is true of the subject of our special readings today. The Torah commands special offerings on Rosh Hodesh and the festivals and prescribes months based on the moon. But according to our special Maftir it is the Jewish people who decide on the application of these regulations. 'This month shall be to you the first of the months', states the Torah and the Rabbis emphasise the word you. It is the Sanhedrin that examines the witnesses to the appearance of the new moon and decide whether to proclaim a new month on the 30th or 31st day. It is they who decide what years should be leap years in order to ensure Pesach falls in the spring. The Torah provides the framework and the basic parameters but it is at our discretion how they are applied. The same is true for other mitzvot in the Torah. This tell us something important about the Jewish approach to the Torah. The Torah does merely consist of a series of commands which we are expected to passively obey. Rather the Jewish religion is one where we are encouraged to play an active part in the understanding, interpretation and application of the Torah. G-d prescribes festivals but we determine when they are. He dictates rules for the management of leprosy but we decide whom they apply to and when. We are partners with G-d in the Torah, not merely recipients. This, however, imposes upon us an obligation. If we are participants in the Torah system, for that system to work we need to participate. For that we need knowledge. If we neglect to engage with the Torah, it cannot fulfil its full potential either in our lives or in the world. It increasingly ceases to be a living Torah and can turn into a stultifying or even irrelevant burden. So let us learn Torah and engage with Torah and become partners with G-d in making it come alive.

Parshat Shemini

The Rabbis tell a story of a man travelling with his son to another city. The child is impatiently asks when they will arrive. The father tells him that when they see the cemetery then they will know that the city is close by. This story presents a profound truth that cemeteries are a testament to life, which is why they can often be fascinating places. It is also true that how we approach death says a lot about how we live life. The same is true about Judaism. How Judaism deals with death reveals its attitude to life. This week we read a lot about death. We have the death of Aaron's sons, the impurity of animal carcasses and the ritual of the Red Heifer that purifies someone that had contact with a dead body. If we look at the death of Aaron's sons we see something interesting. Despite the terrible tragedy that has befallen him, he is forbidden to carry out any of the practices of mourning. Indeed we learn many of the rules of mourning from what Aaron and his remaining sons are told not to do. The general consensus among the commentators is that this command was to prevent Aaron's private grief with interfering with the public rejoicing at the inauguration of the Tabernacle. A similar rule applies today to someone who becomes a mourner during a festival. He is not allowed to begin the mourning period till after the festival in order not to interfere with the public rejoicing. This may seem unfair but it is based on a profound Jewish understanding of life, death and mourning. This is seen in the other instances of death we encounter this week. Our Parshah tells us that death is defiling. Judaism treasures life rather than glorifying death and the needs of the living community must before the private grief of the individual. Furthermore it is precisely the community that enables the mourner to transit back to life. In the ceremony of the Red Heifer it is the priest who purifies the mourner, even at the cost of himself becoming impure. Yet in order to effect this purification you need a community of people undefiled from impurity. In a similar way, in order for the community to comfort the mourner they themselves must be in a different frame of mind. Enabling the community to continue with their celebrations creates the strength in that community to draw the mourner back to life. As Moses tells Aaron: 'the whole house of Israel will mourn the fire which G-d has kindled'. Precisely because Aaron refrains from disturbing the communal celebrations, he can be assured that the whole community will later unite to comfort him. When tragedy strikes we need the community, but the community also needs us not to drag them down into our sorrow, so they can ultimately draw us from darkness to light. 

Parshat Tzav

Parshat Tzav in a normal year occurs on the week before Pesach and has a direct relevance to Pesach as it is from this Parshah that we learn of the necessity and method of kashering dishes used with forbidden food (like Hametz on Pesach). In a leap year, however, our Parshah occurs in proximity to Purim, to which it is harder to find a link. Yet there is in fact an interesting hint of Purim in that very section. When describing the method of kashering metal dishes the Torah uses talks of scouring, morak. In explaining this word Rashi says that it is similar to the phrase tamrukai nashim or women's cosmetics in the Megillah. The connection between them seems to be that just as we scour a vessel to remove its impurities and restore it to its original state, so cosmetics 'scour' the skin of women to restore it to what is seen as its perfect smooth condition. This idea of removing the dross and getting to what is beneath is at the heart of Purim. The Megillah itself does not mention the name of G-d and it is necessary to scour it for the underlying Divine hand controlling events. Some explain the custom of drinking to excess as a way of revealing our true uninhibited selves. It is interesting that Purim is seen as the first rabbinic festival, symbolising the interpretative tradition that looks beneath the literal meaning of the Torah to discover its different meanings. This also links into the Parshah which, perhaps, has the most glaring examples of complete disregard of the literal meaning of the text. The Torah seems to clearly state that the various priests who offer a sacrifice are the ones that get to consume it and acquire its skin. Yet the Rabbis declare that in fact any suitable priest is able to partake of these offerings. It is clear that there was an ancient tradition in the Temple that this was the case and the Rabbis therefore interpreted the Torah accordingly. All this teaches us that things are not always what they seem and everything should not be necessarily taken at face value. We often need to 'scour' things in order to reveal their true meaning.

Parshat Vayikra

'If you should bring an offering of First Fruits'. This verse in our Parshah leads to an intriguing interpretation. The Rabbis found the language strange as the bringing of First Fruits is an obligation. They thus read the word if as meaning when. In other words the Torah expressed an obligation in terms of a preference. The same is true in to other cases; 'if you should build an altar of stone' and 'if you should lend money to My people'. In both cases the verse is speaking of an obligation, whether to lend to the poor or build and altar, and yet expresses this in terms of a choice or preference. In these cases as well the Rabbis read the word if as when. Yet the question still remains. If these three mitzvot are an obligation why is the Torah using the word if to introduce them, a word that every else signifies choice? The answer must lie in the nature of these mitzvot themselves. I would suggest that while these mitzvot are indeed a clear obligation they contain within in a necessity for choice and a willingness to do the mitzvah. If we take the example in our Parshah, for example, the giving of First Fruits is an action that is meant to express the gratitude of the farmer for his prosperity. That aspect of the mitzvah cannot be commanded but must be felt. If a farmer brings First Fruits only because he has to but does not do so with feelings of gratitude them something essential is missing in the performance of the mitzvah. The same is true of the other two cases. One can build an altar and offer sacrifices but if they are merely external actions without spiritual content they become empty of meaning. If you begrudgingly lend to the poor but feel no connection or empathy with them, your action lacks an essential element. The same can be said of the other mitzvot. The Torah places obligations on us but also expects us to be spiritually engaged and enriched by them. If they are merely done mechanically we are missing out on the essential ingredient. The Torah by expressing itself in this way is teaching us the importance of not does performing the mitzvot but living them.

Shemot (Exodus) 5776

Parshat Pekude

A sense of excitement pervades this week’s Parshah. This may seem a strange idea as the Parshah seems to repeat much of what has gone before. Still more design instructions for the Tabernacle. The excitement lies in the tenor of the text itself. The detailing of each stage in the erection of the Tabernacle until it reaches its crescendo in the last verses. The Tabernacle has been completed as G-d commanded and now the Divine Presence fills the Tent; so that even Moses cannot enter. The great project is completed; the project that has at its heart the indwelling of G-d among the Jewish people. It is this spiritual excitement that we sense as we read this week’s Parshah. This excitement and commitment was institutionalised by the giving of the half-shekel that we commemorated last week. That money was used for the daily sacrifices; thus connecting the whole people with the ongoing service of G-d in the Tabernacle they had created for His dwelling. It is this sense of spiritual excitement, of the desire and possibility of experiencing G-d; that is so lacking from our synagogues today. It is this gaping hole at the very heart of our communities that is the cause of so much of the apathy and cynicism that seems to bedevil British Jewry.  When synagogues become mere venues for social interaction they have lost their primary purpose. When it is a struggle for  someone to get a minyan for a Yartzheit something is seriously wrong. A real and urgent question must be asked about the future viability of places of worship where people come to do everything and anything; except worship. We need reintroduce spiritual excitement into our synagogues. We need to look at how we can make our services relevant and more inclusive. We need to educate our members about the spiritual nature of Jewish ritual. There are synagogues, even in this country, where the excitement we find in the Parshah is present. Where people come to shule to find G-d. If our communities are to have a future we must no longer shirk this challenge. It can be done. It must be done.

Parshat Vayakhei

This week the Torah returns to the subject of the building of the Tabernacle. Recounting the actual building of the Tabernacle, it recounts all the details stated earlier. Last week we ended our detailing of the instructions for the Tabernacle with a warning to keep Shabbat. This week, before beginning the actual work of construction, Moses again admonishes the people to keep Shabbat. It appears that there is an intimate connection between the Tabernacle and Shabbat. The simple explanation is that the work of the Tabernacle is to be stopped for Shabbat. Indeed it is from this connection that we learn what activities are prohibited on Shabbat: those used in constructing the Tabernacle. On another level the Tabernacle is a microcosm of the universe whose creation ceased on Shabbat. In fact the same word, melacha, is used for the work of creation, the building of the Tabernacle and the activities prohibited on Shabbat. Yet if we look at the two concepts conceptually we can uncover a more profound message. The Tabernacle is an attempt to create holiness in space. It is the site of the revelation of the Divine Presence; in many ways a perpetual site of the Revelation at Sinai. Many cultures and religions have sacred places; indeed the concept sacred space was prevalent throughout the ancient world. Shabbat on the other hand seeks to create holiness in time. This was the unique invention of the Jewish people, and one that has been only imperfectly imitated by others. What the Torah comes to tell us at the beginning of this week’s Parshah, is that holiness in time trumps holiness in space. Shabbat takes precedence over the Tabernacle. The reason for this is a profound understanding of human nature. The Tabernacle or Temple is external to us; it is something we come to, or worship in. Shabbat, on the other hand, is something we experience. It exists primarily inside us; it effects a change in our soul. The external restraint from work is the vehicle which allows us to experience the extra spirituality Shabbat has to offer. The Tabernacle was built in order that G-d would dwell, not in it, but in the hearts of the people. Shabbat is precisely the vehicle for this to happen. Rather than Shabbat detracting from the building of the Tabernacle; its observance is essential for its function. The true home of G-d is not in a building but in a place in our lives called Shabbat.

Parshat Ki-Tissa

The majority of our Parshah consists of the episode of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. One of the most difficult things to understand in the story is the role of Aaron. Generations of students have puzzled how it was that this towering figure, who was the role model for all the priests that followed him, played a leading role in enabling this terrible incident to occur. Most of the commentators seek to extenuate his actions by explaining that at every stage he was trying to divert the impetus of the people in a better direction. Proof of this is found in the text, where following the making of the Calf, Aaron declares to the people that 'there will be a festival to G-d tomorrow'. Aaron was convinced that the making of the Calf would not lead to idol worship but through Moses' return or another occurrence lead the people back to G-d. Aaron also seems to be surprised by the making of the Calf, saying to Moses in extenuation that he put the gold in the furnace 'and this Calf appeared'. All of this leads to the conclusion that Aaron, perceiving the mood of the people, tried to reassure them by methods he thought would be consistent with the Torah and bring them back to G-d. At every stage he believed he was doing the right thing and that his actions would strengthen rather than weaken the Torah. He was tragically wrong and thus unfortunately created a precedent that was repeated throughout Jewish history. Great Jewish leaders have been lead astray by movements they thought would bring redemption but in the end brought tragedy. Rabbi Akiva thought Bar Kokhba was the messiah and so supported the disastrous revolt against Rome. Many important rabbis supported the false messiah Shabbatei Zvi, whose movement caused untold damage to the Jewish People. Even today some people believe that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the messiah, something totally opposed to Jewish tradition. All this should serve as a warning to us to be extremely sceptical concerning new religious movements in Judaism, which seem to promise heaven but end up delivering purgatory. If someone like Aaron could be so mistaken, how much more do we need to be cautious. 

Parshat Tetzaveh

In Parshat Tetzaveh we read of the special clothes worn by the High Priest. One of the more obscure items are the bells on his robe. The Torah states that these are so that 'his voice may be heard when he enters the holy place ... and not die'. It is not clear for whose benefit this is. Some have wanted to explain that it refers to the assembled people who know that he is going into the Tabernacle and behave accordingly. Yet the plain meaning seems to be that it is G-d who hears his approach. The bells are thus a device for protecting G-d's privacy. This is not a simple concept. However it is basic to our understanding of the Divine relationship with the world. No one can directly experience G-d as He is and live. His presence is thus hidden and not overwhelmingly obvious. There are places, such as the Tabernacle, where the Divine Presence is less hidden. These, however, are also restricted to human access, thus the necessity of the High Priest's bells. This concept of the hiddeness of G-d is of course a basic idea of the festival of Purim. Yet here the concept is taken to a new level. On Purim we have the concept of Hester Panim or the hiding of G-d's face. This is, to a certain extent, the withdrawal of G-d's protective involvement in the world and is conceived of in the Torah as a punishment. The Jews have gone away from G-d, so G-d withdraws from them. On Purim the Jews tried to assimilate, forgetting G-d, so G-d withdraws his protection from them Thus the assault of Haman. Yet it is precisely the negative consequences of G-d 'hiding His face' that cause the Jews to seek G-d, reversing the process. So on Purim the Jews, faced with the threat of Haman, seek G-d and are saved. Indeed the underlying story of the Megillah can be seen in large part as the attempt to restore the relationship between the Jews and G-d, thus again revealing G-d's hidden presence. The lesson of Purim, and of the Parshah, is that while G-d's presence in the world may be hidden we can by our actions cause it to be revealed. As a famous Hassidic Rebbe once said 'G-d is found where He is let in'.

Parshat Terumah

'And you shall make me a Mikdash and I will dwell among you'. Thus the Torah begins the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle. The word Mikdash, often translated as Sanctuary has at its heart the word kadosh, meaning holy. The commentators have given various explanations of the word. Either it is a place where G-d communicates with His people or it is a place for the Divine Presence to dwell. Rashi explains that it is 'a house of holiness'. This is quite a striking image. G-d calls upon us to make a house or a home where holiness or spirituality can dwell. This is reminiscent of the famous answer given by a hassidic rebbe when asked where G-d dwells: 'G-d dwells where He is let in'. This is a very profound concept. The Rabbis state that 'G-d is the place of the world but the world is not His place'. According to Jewish mysticism G-d 'contracted', made room for something to exist other than Himself, in order to create the universe. Thus we live in G-d's house but one which   He has given us permission to live in. G-d, however, does not overly intrude on our tenancy. He doesn't barge in uninvited. Rather he waits to be invited in by us. We are called upon to make a place for the Divine Presence in this world by creating a home for holiness. When we perform mitzvot, support each other and the less fortunate, or generally strive to make the world a better place, we create a home for holiness. Every Shabbat, by refraining from our own creating, we make a place for G-d in His creation. That was the central purpose not only of the Tabernacle but of the whole of the Torah. The Israelite camp with the Tabernacle in the centre symbolised the role of Jews in the world, creating a place for the Divine. As we read the account of the construction of the Tabernacle let us reflect on this question. G-d made a home for us, do we have a place for Him?

Parshah Mishpatim

In warning us against oppressing or harassing the stranger the Torah, in this week's Parshah, reminds us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. What is the motivation behind this admonishment and the precise lesson we are meant to learn from it, is a matter of dispute among the commentators. Rashi states that 'a fault that you have don't criticise others for'. Ibn Ezra and others explain that as we were a stranger in Egypt we know what is like. Ramban rejects both these position and understands the reminder as a warning. We saw what G-d did to the Egyptians because they mistreated us, so we should not mistreat others. These three opinions can actually be seen as complimentary. They refer to three common reasons for our bad treatment of others, especially those weaker or more vulnerable than ourselves. The first is arrogance. We believe that we are superior to the other person and thus have a right to treat them differently. The Torah reminds us that such distinctions are not set in stone and highly subjective. Just as we may now think ourselves superior to others others may think the same about us and no position in society is necessarily permanent. The second reason for our mistreatment of others is insensitivity. We have no empathy for the person in a less fortunate position to ourselves because we cannot imagine ourselves in their place. By reminding us of our slavery in Egypt the Torah is trying, on the basis of our own historical experiences, to instil in us sympathy for the less fortunate. Finally, we often persecute or bully people because we think we can get away with it. Our victims are weaker than we are and often not popular, so no one will stand in our way. The Torah reminds us that Pharaoh thought the same thing and admonishes us to take pay attention to his fate. As is stated several times in the Torah G-d sees our behaviour, hears the cries of our victims and will call us to account for it. Thus with regards to our relations with those less fortunate than ourselves the Torah warns us against arrogance, bids us cultivate empathy and reminds us that if we treat others badly it will in the end come back to bite us.

Parshat Yitro

A plain reading of the Torah suggests that the covenant between G-d and Israel was freely entered into by both sides. G-d proposed and Israel accepted, declaring that everything G-d had said they would do. One of the Jewish people's finest hours. The Rabbis however muddy the waters somewhat. They firstly declare that the Jews were coerced into accepting the Torah. G-d held the mountain over them and popped the question. More a shotgun wedding than a love romantic proposal. They then further complicate matters by declaring that the Jews did indeed accept the Torah willingly, but a thousand years later, at the time of Purim. How are we to understand these curious comments? Despite their seemingly mythical nature, they do in fact reflect the real circumstances of Jewish history. A cursory reading of the Bible will demonstrate that it indeed did take until the return from Babylon, about the time of Purim, for the Jews to fully accept the Torah. For a thousand years Jews often if not mostly served idols, ignored the mitzvot and generally tried to assimilate into the surrounding culture. Only after the searing experience of destruction and exile did the Jews fully embrace the Torah and its commandments, as related in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Maybe the Rabbis by these statements are telling us that the original acceptance of the Torah was overawed by the experiences of the Exodus and the awe of Revelation and that the people didn't fully internalise the Torah till much later. They are also telling us that when it comes to education there are no quick fixes. In order to instill new ideas or change attitudes patience is required. We should be suspicious of people who claim to have changed overnight and of those who claim to be able to effect such change. The experience of the Jewish people teaches us that only by patient constant education, with many backward steps and pitfalls can true and lasting change really occur.

Parshat Beshalach

The Rabbis said that at the time of the crossing of the Reed Sea, the Jewish people's fate was in the balance. It had to be decided whether they would be saved or destroyed with the Egyptians. How should we understand this strange statement? Surely G-d brought them out of Egypt to save them rather than to destroy them. We can begin to understand this by unpicking an enigmatic verse later in the Parshah. When the Israelites came to Marah they were unable to drink the water. Moses threw a branch into the water and it became drinkable. G-d then proclaims to the people that if they obey Him all they will be spared all the diseases that plagued the Egyptians. Rabbi Hertz explains that in this incident the Jews were confronted by one of the plagues of Egypt – undrinkable water. After remedying the situation G-d explains that just as the plagues afflicted the Egyptians because of their disobedience to G-d, so the Jews would be spared them if they were obedient. This is the idea that is found above. The Egyptians were condemned to drown in the sea because they opposed G-d's will. The fate of the Israelites depended on the same variable. Would they be judged worthy to be saved from this penalty or not? Thus the punishment of the Egyptians was not only a lesson to them but also a warning to the Jews what would happen to them if they didn't follow G-d's commandments. This idea is found throughout the Torah. While the Israelites are informed that they will destroy the Canaanites and inherit their land because of their heinous behaviour, they are at the same time warned that if they behave likewise they will meet a similar fate. Thus the miracles done for the Jews were in order that they should keep the Torah. Failure to do so can result in those same miracles being turned against them. While the covenant between G-d and Israel is eternal, how that covenant plays out in every generation depends on our behaviour. Being chosen is a double edged sword and which way it turns is dependent on how we relate to the Torah. For Jews there is no free ride. 

Parshat Bo

There are two mitzvot that are called otot or signs. One is Shabbat and the other is Tefillin. For this reason Tefillin are not warn on Shabbat as two signs are not considered necessary. Both also have a double rationale. Shabbat remembers creation and Tefillin reminds us of our duty to serve G-d. Yet both also are explained as serving to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt. With regards to Shabbat it can be seen how a day of rest for everyone is a reminder of our liberation from slavery. What is less clear is how Tefillin are connected to the Exodus, something specifically stated at the end of our Parshah. We can maybe begin to understand this by going back to the rationales for Shabbat. It can be explained that the fact that G-d created the world mandates the common dignity of all His creations, including slaves and animals, thus necessitating there common participation the rest of Shabbat. If we look at the rationale for Tefillin in the Shema, we can see that it is connected to the service of G-d. Indeed, the Rabbis saw the binding of Tefillin on our arm and head as subordinating our physical and mental powers to G-d's will. How does this relate to the Exodus? It would, indeed, seem to be directly contradictory to the freedom gained by the Exodus. That, however, is precisely the point. Judaism believes that by accepting the 'yoke of heaven' we in fact liberate ourselves. Someone that only follows their material desires without reference to spiritual values, is in the end enslaved by them. The rules of the Torah, on the other hand, serve to liberate us from this slavery and enable us to be in control of our desires, rather than them dominating us. Thus by wearing Tefillin as a reminder of the Exodus we state that true liberation is not based on only doing whatever we want but by living on the basis of the spiritual values that make us truly free.

Parshat Va'era

Our Parshah contains seven of the ten plagues. It is worth considering the purpose of these afflictions inflicted on the Egyptians. Why was it necessary to have ten plagues? Surely the final plague, the killing of the first-born would have sufficed to cause Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites. It can be answered that the series of plagues, each more severe than its predecessor, served to warn the Egyptians of the consequences of their actions and endeavoured to induce them to change course. However, this can only be said of the first five plagues where Pharaoh hardened his own heart. With regards to the last plagues it is stated that G-d hardened Pharaoh's heart. However you interpret this statement Pharaoh was not totally open to heeding the message of the plagues. The Torah itself seems to indicate that the purpose of the plagues was to teach both the Egyptians and the Israelites about G-d's power and supremacy over matter. Yet the last plague surely achieved that. Indeed, except for the last plague all the others could be attributed to natural phenomena. I would suggest, however, that here lies the crux of the matter. The purpose of the plagues is to demonstrate G-d's control over nature. The series of plagues target various aspects of the natural world, both animal, mineral and climatic, to demonstrate that G-d can use natural phenomena for His purposes. The earth is not merely a by product of Divine activity but something that G-d is intimately involved in. G-d has created and continues to oversees natural phenomena. The world is not ours to do with as we wish. Rather we are custodians of the Divine creation called upon to act justly towards both humans, animals and the environment. If we fail to do so, as in Egypt, nature itself will be used to inflict our punishment. In our time, when the negative effects of our despoliation of the environment are becoming daily more evident, this lesson of plagues is one we urgently need to pay heed to. 

Parshat Shemot

'A man went from the House of Levi and took a daughter of Levi'. Thus the Torah introduces the story of Moses. The context is dire. Pharaoh has just decreed that all male children are to be thrown into the Nile and we have a couple deciding to begin a family. The Rabbis pick up on the fact that the Torah bothers to tell us of the marriage of Amram and Jocheved, rather than simply stating, in the normal manner, that Moses was born to Amram. The postulate a remarriage, one where their daughter Miriam places a crucial role. According to the Midrash, because of Pharaoh's harsh decree Amram had decided to separate from his wife reckoning that is was wrong to have more children in those circumstances. Miriam persuades him otherwise, complaining that he is worse than Pharaoh who's decree only referred to boys while he is giving up on all children. This Midrash raises interesting questions on how we respond in times of crisis. Would Miriam's argument apply in all cases, for example even in the Holocaust, where indeed such dilemmas had to be resolved? Can we not only have faith in G-d but act on that faith in the face of impossible circumstances? Maybe Miriam's subsequent actions provide an answer. Famously, she not only gave the advice that led to Moses' birth but was instrumental in saving him after his birth. Both Miriam and Jocheved were not passive observers in the face of Pharaoh's decree but actively and successfully worked to thwart it. They didn't simply trust in G-d to save them but acted to save themselves. Nevertheless without Miriam's original leap of faith nothing would have been possible. Faced with overwhelming oppression or evil we are not required to act suicidally, simply because of our faith. What we are required to do, and what Jews have done throughout history, is to take what action we can to resolve the situation, even in unfavourable circumstances, trusting in G-d to help us. Thus the Maccabees in taking on the mighty Greek army were neither being suicidal or delusional. They rather did what they thought might work, trusting that, if they acted to save themselves G-d might provide assistance. Thus the Jewish response to dire circumstances is neither despair or delusion but taking reasonable action inspired by faith.   

Bereishit (Genesis) 5776

Parshat Vayechi

At the beginning of the Parshah Jacob effectively adopts Joseph's sons, making them equal to the other tribes. He then diverges into explaining that Rachel died on the way and was buried there. The reason for this diversion is not clear. A common explanation, brought by Rashi, is that Joseph was upset about his mother being buried by the wayside, so his father explains that this was done in order that she would weep for her children as they passed her on the way to exile, as envisioned by Jeremiah. Yet there are two other explanations given. The Ramban believes that the real reason that Rachel wasn't buried alongside Jacob and Leah was that the Torah forbids marrying two sisters. Even though Jacob did this before the Torah was given it is still would be a source of embarrassment to have them buried together. The Seforno understands that Jacob is explaining to Joseph why he had no more children, thus leaving the way for the adoption of his sons. After Rachel's death he was so heartbroken it was impossible for him to even consider having more children. It is possible to see how the last two explanations can serve to explain why Rachel was chosen to intercede for her exiled children. In marrying two sisters Jacob had broken the rules. He only did so because he was already committed to marrying her before he was deceived with Leah. Rachel thus serves as a reminder that sometimes the rules need to be bent in aid of a higher purpose. Thus, just as Jacob ignored the prohibition of marrying two sisters in order to keep his promise to Rachel, so should G-d ameliorate the punishment of the Jewish people because of his covenant with them. In a similar vein, just as Jacob's love for Rachel was so strong that after her death he could not even contemplate further relationships, so Rachel serves to remind G-d of his love for the Jewish people and thus the impossibility of leaving them languishing in exile. Thus this passage serves to remind us of the power of both love and obligation, which meet in the person of Rachel crying for her children.

Parshat Vayigash

When Joseph's family arrives in Egypt he plans how best to present them to Pharaoh. He instructs them exactly what they should say in order to achieve the outcome he desires. The brothers should tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds in order that Pharaoh will isolate them in Goshen, away from the main Egyptian population, and close to him. In other words Joseph wanted his family all together and in an Israelite ghetto in Goshen rather than dispersed throughout Egypt where there was a fear that they would assimilate into Egyptian society. Interestingly, Joseph does precisely the opposite with the general Egyptian population itself. In the last aliyah we read how, as part of Joseph's land reforms, he transfers the population from one end of Egypt to the other. This was probably to loosen their tie to a specific piece of land and create a more homogeneous population. This was precisely the opposite of what he sought for his own family. This dichotomy exists throughout Jewish history. What is good for Jews is not necessarily what is beneficial for everyone else. Even today when most Jews are supportive of globalisation and supra-national institutions and suspicious of nationalism, we are strongly supportive of the right and necessity of Jews to have their own state. This paradox has existed most starkly in terms of the rise of the daughter religions of Christianity and Islam. Especially with regards to Christianity, Jewish history would have been a lot happier had the Roman empire, and thus Europe, remained pagan. Traditional Christian teaching is at the root of most historic and even contemporary anti-Semitism. Yet Jewish authorities, even in the Middle Ages, have regarded the rise of Christianity as a positive benefit to the world and part of the Divine plan for humanity. Despite the historical suffering it caused Jews it was beneficial to the world as a whole. This attitude demonstrates the Jewish ability to be both particularistic and universalistic at the same time and illustrates the paradox that is a feature of Jewish history. With the improvement of Jewish-Christian relations over the last fifty years and even more positive developments recently, we can hope that with regards to this issue at least, the paradox could be resolved, and we could see Christianity as not only being good for the world but also for the Jews.      



Parshat Vayeshev

In the Parshah it is written that Joseph brought the evil report about his brothers to his father. The Rabbis elaborated on this data by stating that he reported that they ate flesh from a living  animal, insulted the sons of the maidservants calling them slaves and played around with unsuitable woman. They further state that Joseph was punished in a similar manner for all three reports. His coat was dipped in animal blood, he was sold as a slave and he was pursued by Potiphar's wife. Looking at this Midrash more closely a paradox becomes apparent. It would appear from the wording in both the Torah and the Midrash that Joseph did not simply make things up. His reports, however coloured, were based on the fact that his brothers did indeed engage in these three activities. Thus he was basically telling his father the truth. Yet he was punished severely for doing so. This begs the question why what he did was wrong. Surely it can be reasoned, his father had a right to know about the delinquent behaviour of his children. It could even be argued that it was Joseph's duty to report their activities. Yet this is not the attitude taken by Jewish tradition. Joseph was wrong to defame his brothers, even if what he said was true. Even if the story were correct it was still slander. By making this assertion the Midrash is imparting to us an important lesson. It is easy to justify telling tales about people by convincing ourselves that the recipient of our slander has a right to know what the person is up to or what he is really like. Judaism disagrees. If one wishes to tell someone something derogatory about someone else you need to be convinced that the recipient will be materially damaged by withholding the information. If someone is about to conclude a business deal with someone you know to be seriously dishonest you may have a duty to tell them. But if someone has been slandered, for example, you need to ask what good it would do to the person concerned to be told about it. Normally it would just lead to further trouble and it is often better that the person doesn't know what the other person really thinks of them. Joseph's reports to his father didn't serve to improve his brothers behaviour, rather merely made them hate him. A desire that everyone should know the truth is, as Joseph found to his cost, not excuse enough for slander. Better to keep silent. 

Parshat Vayishlach

In our Parshah this week we read of the mysterious struggle between Jacob and an unknown assailant, who seems to be some sort of supernatural being. The exact identity of this entity and the purpose of the encounter are unclear. What is clear is the outcome of this encounter, the changing of Jacob's name to Israel. It is thus to this new designation that we must look in order to better understand the episode. Jacob is called Israel because he has 'struggled with  G-d and Man and prevailed'. The precise intention of this verse is again not apparent, and has been interpreted in various ways. However, looking at the incident from the perspective of Jewish history we can possibly suggest an intriguing interpretation. If Jacob's assailant is seen as the prototype of the enemies of his descendants through the ages, we can perhaps understand the struggle with 'G-d and Man'. Jews have faced two types of opponents, those  as on Hanukah that wished to destroy the Jewish religion and those like Haman that wanted to annihilate the Jews physically. We have struggled both with 'G-d', spiritual opponents and with 'Man', physical opponents and prevailed. Yet the Torah also tells us that Jacob was injured in this struggle. In light of the above we can see that this wound is both physical and spiritual. We have not only lost millions of people to the onslaught of our enemies, we have been also wounded spiritually. Taking into account those who decide to give up and assimilate or even join the ranks of our enemies, we have also paid a heavy spiritual price. Like Jacob we have prevailed but been left limping, spiritually and physically. Yet the Torah tells us that the sun rose over Jacob as he limped, a phenomenon linked by the commentators with the 'sun of healing' mentioned by the prophet Malachi, signifying that Jacob was healed of his wound. In the same way we can hope that the sun of healing will shine over the Jewish people and heal us of the wounds, both spiritual and physical we have sustained in prevailing over G-d and Man.

Parshat Vayetze

At the end of this week’s Parshah we have heated argument between Jacob and Laban. Jacob has been pursued and searched by Laban, who found nothing of his among Jacob’s possessions. Jacob remonstrates with Laban concerning the whole of their troubled relationship, including reminding him how he faithfully worked for him. Laban however replies that all that Jacob owns is really his, as Jacob has obtained it from his original stock. Beyond evidence of the troubled relationship between the two men, we have here a fundamental argument. Jacob regards the wealth he made from the livestock originally given to him by Laban, as legitimate profit. Laban regards it as a form of stealing what is legitimately his. This argument goes beyond a dispute about the legitimacy of certain business practices and the validity of certain types of profit. Jacob obtained this increase in his flock by an early form of genetic engineering. He manipulated the sheep in his care in order that they gave birth to the type of sheep that were contractually his, and not Laban’s. Laban strongly objects to this scientific innovation, seeing in it an illegitimate form of trickery he doesn’t fully understand. Their dispute, seen in this light, seems very modern. Fear and misunderstanding of new scientific discovery is as old as science itself. Unfortunately, much of this prejudice has been formed and encouraged by religion. Rudyard Kipling wrote an amusing story of a monk who brings back from his travels an early microscope. This is promptly destroyed, lest its owners be burned by the Church for seeing what man was not meant to discover. We no longer burn people at the stake for scientific discoveries, but some of the religious attitudes to science today are not far off that of a lynch mob. Especially in areas connected with genetic engineering and research, religious and political leaders often make ill informed and incendiary statements. Religion has an important role in providing an ethical basis for scientific research. As in other areas of life it sometimes needs to create moral barriers to safeguard basic values. But these must be based on a proper understanding of what is going on and its ethical dilemmas, rather than on ignorance and fear. Judaism has always been good at doing this; religious authorities obtaining scientific opinion before pronouncing on such issues. It is thus important that our distinctive voice be heard, carrying on the tradition of Jacob the geneticist.

Parshat Toldot

This week’s Haftorah has its connection to the Parshah in G-d’s declaration that though Esau and Jacob were brothers, He loved Jacob and hated Esau. The rest of the passage, however, is devoted to the somewhat contrary notion, that though all nations in some way worship G-d, it is davkah the Jews that despise His service. This idea that all peoples recognise in some way a supreme Creator, is one that is found throughout the Bible. Abraham, as we read recently, gave a tithe to Melchizedek, the non-Jewish priest-king of Jerusalem. The idea that it is davkah the Jews that let G-d down, is also not uncommon. Rashi, explains in several places that the Jewish propensity to idolatry sometimes exceeded those of their gentile neighbours, worshipping idols that no one else did. This trend can also be seen today. It is often the case that Jews are among the most secular people in society. Indeed more people say they believe in G-d in America than they do in Israel. What is at the root of this apostasy. The prophet Malachi sees its basis in a contempt for religious idealism. Jews are not overtly anti-religious; they simply are often religiously apathetic. It Malachi’s time, this took the form of bringing poor quality sacrifices to the Temple. ‘Offer it to your Governor’ challenges the prophet; referring to the Persian satrapy of Judea. To be in with the ruling Persians was important; to serve G-d properly was less so. Simply speaking, Judaism came second to other more important things. The same is true for many, if not most Jews today. The reasons, I believe, are similar as well. It is not easy, nor popular, being a chosen people. For the Jewish people, the basic struggle to survive and prosper was enough. The Jews who returned from Babylon were mostly poor and struggled to exist. They simply had little time for spiritual things. Today, also, despite apparent freedom and material prosperity, Jews are tired. Tired after the suffering of the Holocaust, tired from the struggle for the survival of Israel, worried about their future in an increasingly unfriendly world. They simply don’t have time left for real engagement with Judaism. All this is understandable but totally wrong. It is only be engagement with their Jewish roots that Jews can hope to survive. It is only by spiritual renewal that we can find the strength to defeat the challenges that threaten to overwhelm us. As in Malachi’s day, it is a renewed Judaism that is the only sure future.

Parshat Hayei Sarah

Our Sages made quite an amazing statement. The said that it is better to live in Israel in a city full of idolaters than outside Israel in a city full of Jews. This statement may seem counter-intuitive but its roots go right back to Abraham. In the Parshah he instructs his servant to find Isaac a wife from his family in Haran and not from the local Canaanite girls. Yet when Eliezer asks him whether if the girl refuses to move to Canaan, he should take Isaac to Haran. Abraham's answer is unequivocal. Under no circumstances should Isaac return to Haran, even if the alternative is a marrying a woman from Abraham's Canaanite neighbours. We can see in this discussion an ambivalence between two types of influence. On the one hand, ones family, and especially ones spouse, can be an important determinant in defining what values you will hold and how you will live your life. On the other, the overall environment that you live in can also exerciser a persuasive influence on your behaviour and belief. It is this conundrum that Eliezer's question places before Abraham. He comes down firmly on the side of the overall environment. If the choice is to live in a pagan leaning household in the Promised Land or in a more conducive family outside it, the land triumphs. Abraham instinctively understands that when G-d told him to go to Israel and promised his descendants its possession, he is clearly stating that this piece of real estate is the most conducive place for Abraham and his descendants to fulfil their divine mission. Even if they will be surrounded by idolaters they will still be more spiritually attuned than living in a foreign environment, even if encompassed by Jews. A late Chief Rabbi of Israel made the same determination when he used more lenient criterion for conversion for candidates living in Israel. They, influenced by their environment were likely to become more Jewish over time while those living in the Diaspora were more likely to be enticed the other way. The message is clear. Boro Park or Golders Green are not Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. For Jews there is no place like home, and home is Israel.

Parshat Vayera

The Haftorah generally has a connection to the subject matter of the Parshah. The Haftorah this week deals with the miraculous birth of the son of the Shunamite woman at the word of the prophet Elisha. This connects to the birth of Isaac in the Parshah. Yet we can find a deeper thematic connection between the two. In the Haftorah the woman's son dies and has to be revived by Elisha. When Elisha initially promises her a son she tells him not to deceive her. When she rushes to him after her son's collapse she throws back at him the same words. She obviously connects her son's death with the original promise of his birth. She seems to be saying to Elisha that she was right all along to be suspicious of such a promise. She is profoundly suspicious of supernatural interventions. She has reconciled herself to the fact that she is naturally unlikely to give birth. Along comes Elisha and, using his prophetic abilities promises her a son. The Shunamite woman essentially regards such a miraculous birth as a dangerous disruption of the natural order which can only have bad results, a premonition she now sees fulfilled. Looking at the Parshah, we can see a similar scenario concerning the birth of Isaac. Two aliyot later G-d demands that Abraham sacrifice him. While both affair's have a seemingly happy resolution they still involve serious trauma. It is as if there is a price to be paid for miraculous interventions, and that price can be high. The natural order, itself a creation of G-d, is not to be disturbed lightly. It is interesting that another miraculous mother, Hannah, dedicates her son to service in the Sanctuary. Maybe, knowing the story of Sarah and Isaac she is giving him to G-d in a less traumatic way, before something worse occurs. The lesson appears to be that miracles come with a price tag attached, so if you are praying for one be careful what you ask for.

Lech L'cha

One of the three mitzvot in Genesis which is found in our Parshah is that of circumcision. The Midrash comments on this commandment that there is nothing more precious to a man than his son, yet he circumcises him in order to fulfil G-d's commandment, and does so with joy. Furthermore he even makes a party to celebrate, which was not commanded. This Midrash teaches us some basic verities about Judaism. Very few parents look forward with equanimity to the circumcision of their son. I have yet to find a mother, especially, that is overjoyed at the prospect. Yet even normally non-observant Jews will take the trouble to have their sons circumcised. Despite being one of the most difficult commandments to carry out it is specifically this mitzvah that is almost universally observed. Judaism, this teaches us, is not meant to be easy. It is supposed to be challenging. The whole idea of the mitzvot is to bring us close to G-d by enabling our personal growth. By giving us challenging tasks to perform G-d facilitates our spiritual development and strengthens our moral character. Looking for an easy or light Judaism, misses the point. The Midrash goes on to make a further point. The parents of the child being circumcised not only fulfil this difficult commandment but make it an occasion of celebration, something that was not commanded. They go beyond the basic requirements of the Torah and add another dimension vital to a living Judaism, the emotional connection to the mitzvah. Someone may feel obliged both to pay their taxes and buy a present for their spouse for an anniversary. Both involve the outlay of money, but one would hope that there is an emotional commitment to giving to the spouse that is not present in paying tax. It is this that the Midrash is talking about. The parents that make a party on circumcising their son are adding to the realm of obligation the dimension of love. That is the challenge for us all but especially Jewish educators. How do we inject passion into our performance of the mitzvot and how do we inspire others to do the same. The Midrash teaches us that it is not enough to merely feel obligated by Judaism, we also must love it.

Parshat Noach

When Noah is commanded by G-d to build an Ark he is told to put a 'Tzohar' in ark. There are two Midrashic opinions as to what this was. One says that it was a precious stone that gave off light; the other that is was a window. The latter opinion seems to be supported by the text, as later on, at the end of the Flood, it is related that Noah opened the window that he had made. On the other hand, the word used in that context is 'Halon' not Tzohar, suggesting it was something different. The essence of the discussion seems to focus on whether the window referred to is transparent and thus letting in light or a wooden panel that needed to be opened. This difference can tell us a lot about the state of mind of Noah and those with him in the Ark. As the storm raged outside, from where did they receive their light? Was it from an internal light source or the meagre external sunlight? Did they close themselves off from the catastrophe occurring around them or were they forced to confront it by the light emanating from outside? Was their response to the extinction of the rest of humanity to ignore it, huddled in the safe cocoon of the Ark or face up to the horror of what was happening around them? Perhaps the answer lies in the designation of Noah as walking 'with' G-d in contradistinction to Abraham that walked 'before' G-d. Noah needed support and unlike Abraham, was not able to confront the evil around him. Abraham after pleading for the people of Sodom has the courage to watch their destruction. Noah who utters not a word of protest concerning the annihilation of humanity, we can imagine huddling around his artificial light source, ignoring the cataclysm outside. The same question that faced Noah and Abraham faces us today. How to we respond to present world calamities. Are we shocked for a moment and then go back to our comfortable lives or do we seek to do something about it? Do we raise up the drawbridge to those in need, huddling in our fortress or to we open our doors to the hopeless? Are we a Noah or an Abraham? What sort of Tzohar illuminates our home and society: a lamp or a window?

Parshat Bereishit

Ever since the advent of modern scientific enquiry, the first chapters of Genesis have been seen to contradict the findings of science. The universe is billions of years old rather than six thousand, humans evolved rather than being 'created' and the world as we know it took millions of years to develop rather than being made in six days. There have been traditionally three approaches to this issue. One dismisses the biblical account as mere fantasy, the other dismisses the scientific explanation as a deception and a third seeks to read science into the biblical story. All three miss the point. The Torah account is not trying to give an account of how the world was created but why. It is using existing 'scientific' notions to convey a moral message. The scientific accuracy of the account is besides the point. Just as we don't dismiss the philosophy of Kant or Hegel because they held outdated scientific views or the painting of Michelangelo or Botticelli, because they didn't know about the genome, we should not dismiss the Bible because it didn't use modern science terms. We need to approach the Torah in a different way, learning from its moral message rather than investigating its scientific or historic accuracy. What we should take from the beginning of the Torah are several important ideas. Firstly, the universe is created. It is not a blind collection of atoms but has a purpose and direction. Secondly, it is not a disparate collection of phenomena but a unity whose parts make up an integrated whole. Thirdly, human beings are both related to other living beings and also have a special status and responsibility. Lastly, the lesson of Shabbat: creation has a spiritual purpose which humans can partake in and so rise above a merely material existence. If instead of worrying about scientific accuracy we read the Torah as it was meant to be read, a moral story, we can gain much insight from our first Parshah.

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