Bamidbar (Numbers) 5780
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At the end of the Parshah the Levites are commanded to be given a tenth of all produce. They are in turn commanded to take a tenth of what they are given and give it to the priests. Given that the priests are already supported by the tithe from the Israelites and the Levites are themselves supported by a tithe, why are they required to give some of it to the priests?
An answer to this question may lie elsewhere in the Parshah. When the Moses confronts the rebels from the tribe of Reuben they accuse him of misleading them. He has brought them up from a land of milk and honey in order to perish in the wilderness. Other than the absurd inversion of the land of slavery into a paradise, their basic accusation is that Moses is responsible for the catastrophe that has overcome them. Of course, as we saw last week, the peoples own lack of belief and refusal to forward, lead to them having to die in the wilderness. Instead, however, of taking responsibility for their own actions, they choose to blame someone else. If it is Moses’ fault they don’t have to face up to the consequences of their own folly and can wallow in their feeling of victimhood and ultimate dependency.
This dependency, indeed, is at the heart of their problem. If your future and well being is always someone else responsibility you will never take control of your own destiny and responsibility for your own actions. This is the danger that the Levites face. Depending on the public purse for their sustenance they are apt to become a dependant class, not taking responsibility for their own destiny, with all the moral dangers this poses. One way of avoiding this is to require them to also be involved with supporting others. That way, they don’t feel only recipients but also benefactors, with all they moral benefits that bestows. Therefore, the Torah requires that they also give a tithe not only receive one.
This Parshah thus teaches us that we should never, if we can help it, be totally dependent on others or blame others for our problems. Rather we should be active on our own behalf, taking responsibility for our actions and contributing to society.
The second half of the Parshah begins the narration of the various rebellions and murmurings that in the end lead to the exclusion of that generation from the Promised Land. After the people complain that all they have to eat is the Manna and they would love a bit of meat, G-d agrees to accede to their request. They will have so much meat they could eat for a month and they will become sick of it. Moses expresses scepticism concerning this promise, wondering if all the meat and fish in the world would be enough for them.
The commentators have puzzled over Moses’ seeming disbelief, especially as he is described by G-d at the end of the Parshah as ‘ the most faithful in My house’. One explanation is that Moses is not questioning whether G-d can supply the goods but whether the people will ever be satisfied by them. Moses understands that the people’s complaints are not about lack of food but concerning G-d Himself. It is not G-d’s ability to supply food that is the issue but the people’s dependence on Him and doubts concerning His intentions that they really have a problem with. Indeed at the end of forty years Moses plays back to them their innermost thoughts that ‘G-d hated us’. If this is the case, then no amount of fulfilment of their needs will help. Nothing G-d can do will help, as there attitude not his actions are the problem.
This insight is important for understanding other such situations like anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel. As Jonathan Sachs has often pointed out, anti-Semitism is not about Jews but about the anti-Semite. Jewish existence rather than actions is the problem. The same is true for hostility to Israel. The people who oppose Israel object to its existence not its actions. What Israel does or does not do, therefore, is irrelevant. The issue of Israel hatred, like that of anti-Semitism, is in essence their problem not ours. Nothing we can do will have any effect. That is the message Moses is seeking to convey to G-d and it is as relevant today as then. Well meaning efforts to appease our enemies are simply doomed to failure because, in the end, it is not about us at all.
In the middle of the Parshah are two sections dealing with two seemingly different and indeed, seemingly diametrically different characters, who nevertheless may have more in common than appears. The first section deals with the Sotah or woman suspected by her husband of adultery. If her husband had warned her not to associate with a certain man and she subsequently does so in suspicious circumstances, he may force her to undergo trial by ordeal. She is taken to the Temple and, made to drink curses dissolved in water. If she is guilty of adultery she dies and if innocent is blessed with a child. The second case is that of the Nazir, someone who takes a specific vow of abstinence. The Nazirite is forbidden to cut his hair, drink wine, or come into contact with a dead body, for the duration of his vow.
At first glance these two cases seem to have nothing in common and it is hard to see why they are placed together in the Torah. The Rabbis connect them by stating that the person who sees the disgrace of the Sotah will decide to take a Nazirite vow. Yet there is also a deeper connection between the two hinted at by the fact that the Nazir who touches a dead body must bring a sin offering as part of his reconsecration. One opinion regards this offering as an atonement for his original vow, which went beyond what the Torah described.
Looked at from this perspective we can see that both the Sotah and the Nazir depart from the middle road prescribed by the Torah and go the extremes. One goes to an extreme of hedonism, the other to one of abstinence. The Nazir, witnessing the actions of the adulteress, doesn't resolve to strengthen the Torah’s system of rules, but rushes to an extreme way beyond them. Both, therefore, in their different ways, are rejecting the path set out in the Torah, which requires us to live lives of holiness within the material world and enjoying its pleasures in a permitted manner. The Sotah permits the forbidden while the Nazir forbids the permitted, but both essentially reject the path G-d wants us to follow. The Torah is thus setting out for us to extremes which we should avoid both of which are harmful to a moral existence and a rejection of the very possibility of finding holiness in the world.
As part of the preparation for the journey to the promised land, the Levites are numbered and prepared for their duties. As a first step of their inauguration they are exchanged for the Firstborn, who until that time had fulfilled their functions. However, as the stated number of Levites was less than the number of the Firstborn, the Torah requires the additional Firstborn to pay five shekels a piece. However, the fact is, that the actual number of the Firstborn if you look at the individual family figures is slightly more than that of the Firstborn. The commentators explain that the extra Levites were themselves Firstborn and thus had to redeem themselves and couldn’t redeem other Firstborn. Yet, this is also strange. If these Firstborn were themselves Levites and going to serve G-d, why do they need to be redeemed in the first place?
The answer goes to the heart of the change in religious ideology that was now taking place. The Firstborn were previously regarded as the religious leadership because of their place within society and in the family. As the head or prospective head of their households they were the ones that held religious power just as they held financial and sexual power within the family and in society. The Levites, on the other hand, were chosen by G-d because of their loyalty (during the sin of the Golden Calf and in Egypt), and had no power. They were not able to own land and were dependent on tithes from the rest of society. While these were obligatory, the farmer could decide by himself to which Levite to give his tithe. While it is true that some Priests became rich, most Levites and Priests were relatively poor. In Israel, a religious leadership that were rulers of the people was replaced with one that were servants of the people. In Israel there would be no great abbeys and monasteries lording over the peasants but forty eight levitical cities, serving as centres of Torah and mercy.
This fundamental change is reflected in the ceremonial exchange of the Firstborn for the Levites and thus also had to include the Levites who were themselves Firstborn. They had to themselves transform from being one type of religious leader to another, from being a ruler to a servant. They therefore had to redeem themselves and could not be counted to redeem others. These idea of religious leadership is basic to Judaism. The story is told of a Rabbi that wanted to appoint two of his students to a rabbinical position. Seeing their hesitation he said to them; ‘you think I’m giving you authority, servitude I’m giving you’. That is the Jewish attitude.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 5780
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The central part of Parshat Behukotai is taken up with the detail of the rewards and punishment cognisant on the keeping of the Torah or its violation. This comes at the end of the laws of the book of Leviticus which, as the first verse of Parshat Behar states, is connected to the covenant at Sinai. A similar section also comes at the end of Deuteronomy after the legal code in that book and forms part of the covenant of the Plains of Moab. The two sections are very different in style and some have seen one referring to the First Temple period and the subsequent Babylonian exile while the other relates to the Second Temple and the long exile following its destruction.
What distinguishes the section in our Parshah is the symmetry of sin and punishment. If you will rebel against me then I will do such and such to you. When describing the disobedience of the Israelites the Torah uses an unusual phrase if you walk with me in/with keri’. The meaning of this word is unclear and has been give different interpretations by the commentators. A famous explanation, utilised by Maimonidies in his legal texts, is that the world comes from the Hebrew root meaning chance or happen-stance. The Torah is thus saying that if you see the unfortunate events that occur to you as the product of chance, not the hand of G-d, then these negative things will continue to happen to you. If you see the disasters predicted in this section as merely accidental and therefore take no notice, then further calamities will befall you.
This is an extremely important principle of Judaism which is precisely why Maimonidies places it his legal discussion of the purpose and necessity for fast days. When bad things happen we are meant to sit up and take notice not merely shrug them off as casual occurrences. While it is unhelpful for people to set themselves up as prophets and tell everyone the reason for this or that calamity, normally someone else's fault, it is behoven upon ourselves to examine our own behaviour and ask what lesson we can learn from what is happening to us. Difficult times for Jews are opportunities for self-reflection and growth and failure to take this idea seriously is not only a lost opportunity but may prevent us avoiding further calamities.
Trying to understand what is happening in the context of trying to improve, on the other hand, not only extracts something positive from a negative situation but strengthens us for the future, maybe helping us avoid further trouble. This is the extremely relevant message this Parshah has for us today. If we are casual about painful events they will casually descend on us but if we pay attention we can improve to avoid the worse future.
The centre of this week’s Parshah is the most familiar part of the Torah. Containing the festive cycle, it is read four times a year. Yet those readings begin with the prohibition of sacrificing a mother and her kid together and in centre of the section we read of the command to leave part of our field for gleaning by the poor. The fact that we connect these two issues to the festival cycle teaches us an important lesson. The festivals are times of rejoicing for us and our families and friends. At such a time we can forget the needs of those creatures less fortunate or weaker than us. Indeed, for this reason, the Torah demands of us that we invite the poor to our festival celebration.
Yet we can sometimes not only forget those weaker than us but show contempt for their needs in fulfilling our own. In seeking to fill our bellies at a time of rejoicing we can show cruelty or disregard both to animals and those humans under our control. In order to have meat for our celebration we may disregard the pain of animal who sees its child slaughtered or a kid left without its mother. In our desire to fill our tables with all manner of delicacies we may ignore the homeless or hungry person that needs some of our wealth in order merely to survive. The Torah warns us that this is not an acceptable way to rejoice.
The festivals were given for us to increase our compassion and spiritual sensitivity, not the opposite. Indeed the Rabbis decreed that specifically at the most important seasons of the year, butchers and farmers have to be especially careful to notify their customers of the status of their animals with regards to this prohibition. The festivals are to be seen as an opportunity to specifically care for those less fortunate than ourselves and show consideration to animals.
In placing these issues at the heart of the Jewish year, the Torah is warning us to be especially careful of overlooking those parts of society that we may disregard much of time. Everyone, including even animals, need to be looked after and treated with compassion and consideration. At a time when it appears that a whole section of our society have been overlooked because of their age or frailty, this a timely lesson indeed. The Torah teaches us that the way we attend to the needs of the most vulnerable people in society defines who we are. We need to ask ourselves today how our actions or lack of action towards these vulnerable people in the past weeks and indeed for years define us.
The section concerning the High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur begins with mention of the death of Aaron’s sons, which we read about a couple of weeks ago. Other than the narration of the incident itself, this event is mentioned normally in the context of Aaron’s family genealogy. The commentators have therefore noted the fact that it is mentioned again here, with no specific connection to what follows. Most have explained that as Aaron’s sons apparently went into the holiest place, even though that is not narrated specifically, and so Aaron is warned against doing so, except for on Yom Kippur.
I would like to propose another explanation. The death of his sons was a traumatic event, made even more so by the fact that he was forbidden at the time to follow normal practices of mourning. This psychological distress would naturally install in him an anxiety about performing his duties, especially as regards approaching the holiest place. The Torah thus specifically charges him, in connection with the death of his sons, to go in the Holy of Holies. He is to overcome his fear by bringing incense into the holiest place, just as his sons did, but in the proper manner. By then emerging unharmed and indeed achieving atonement for the whole people, he will overcome his diffidence and begin to heal the trauma caused by his sons’ demise.
This teaches us an important lesson. The best way to overcome a trauma is sometimes to return to the site of the incident or to undertake the very activity that caused the issue in the first place. This is not however easy. We therefore need to acknowledge the courage of those who return to work with infected patients day after day, seeing their friends and colleagues being infected and even dying. In the week of Yom Ha’atzmaut we also should appreciate the courage of the Jewish people in 1948, who despite the trauma of the Holocaust, were willing to risk war and potential massacre of more hundreds of thousands of Jews, in order to declare an independent state. Because of their vision and courage we have Israel today. Let their example encourage us to overcome our own issues and obstacles.
We read in the Parshah of various diseases that have differing symptoms and require different types of actions on behalf of the afflicted. One might ask what these types of regulations are doing in the Torah? The Torah in general does not give medical advice. The traditional answer given to this question is that the diseases enumerated here have in fact spiritual causes. Rather than simply being natural afflictions they are rooted in a spiritual deficiency of the afflicted which is meant to be corrected by the measures taken. Thus these diseases, traditionally associated with slander, are meant to remove the person affected from society and teach them a very personal lesson on how it feels to be isolated, the very thing they sought to do to others by their actions.
This is an important lesson but should not be widened to other diseases and events not mentioned in the Torah. While as individuals and communities it is correct to examine our behaviour when we are put in difficult situations this does not extend to making general conclusions. Not every disease is the leprosy mentioned in the Torah, where we can point to a specific reason for its outbreak. We should therefore refrain from doing so.
Another lesson we can learn from the inclusion of these diseases in the Torah is, however, extremely relevant to our current situation. In ancient times people did not necessarily conceive of the clear distinction between physical and emotional and spiritual afflictions. They had a far more holistic view of the world, one which we could learn from. While obviously physical diseases need to be treated by medical science and public health measures, we need to be aware of also of the psychological effects of measures we take and also regard alleviating them as part of the cure.
Some people are more vulnerable to the physical effects of this disease, others to the emotional toll of the situation. Both need a remedy. While these two things may require differing measures and different personal they need to be including in an overall holistic approach. The physical and psychological aspects of our current situation are not separate worlds and both need to be taken into account in bringing our whole society back to health.
Contained within the sacrifices mentioned in the Parshah, is that of the Todah or Thanksgiving offering. This is brought in gratitude to G-d for being rescued from danger or healed from illness. It is quite elaborate consisting of not only animal sacrifices, four different types of bread, including unusually loaves of hametz. One can ask however a philosophical question concerning this offering. If we believe that G-d has control over events in the world, then He is ultimately responsible for the danger we found ourself. Why then should we bring an elaborate sacrifice to thank Him for a danger he placed us in in the first place?
There are several answers to this question. One is that these dangers are actually things we brought upon ourself by our own actions. This indeed seems to be the attitude taken by the author of Psalm 107, from which the Rabbis derived the types of dangers necessitating thanksgiving. This is also the approach taken by Maimonidies who explains at length in his Guide that most evil in the world is caused by human action. This is also true, Maimonidies the doctor informs us, of bodily illness, most of which is caused by us not taking proper care of our health.
Yet elsewhere Maimonidies also gives us another, maybe more palatable explanation. That is the concept of the natural order of the world. G-d created a world with natural processes, a natural order set in motion by G-d at creation. According to this view, if we are faced by danger or fall sick, it is not necessarily because G-d has specifically willed it but because this is the natural order of the world. This does not mean that G-d cannot, if we turn to him, intervene to rescue us or that we should not use the occasion of our predicament to examine our lives. It, however, teaches us to have the correct perspective concerning how G-d runs the world. As the Creator of nature he doesn’t constantly interfere to change the order He created for our sakes.
This is also true when it comes to thanksgiving. We give thanks, not necessarily because G-d miraculously intervened to rescue us, but because the natural order of events that G-d created enabled us to be saved. If we recover from illness, we are giving thanks not necessarily for some wonder cure but because G-d has enabled us to have the ability to create advanced medical treatments. Disease has effected every human generation but today we have more ability than ever to fight it. For this, at least, we should give thanks.
We read this week of the various sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. While these have today been replaced with prayer, we still pray for their restoration in a Third Temple. Many of us have serious reservations concerning the whole idea of sacrifices, especially animal sacrifices. The idea of slaughtering an animal in order to worship g-d seems to many bizarre if not barbaric. Reading of these sacrifices at this time, when we are all feeling somewhat apprehensive if not anxious, may seem irrelevant. Yet I believe that the idea of the sacrifices can teach us an important lesson that is indeed extremely relevant to our current predicament and its aftermath.
The commentators consider what emotion should grip the worshipper as he places his hand on the sacrificial animal prior to its slaughter. One primary feeling expected, especially but not exclusively, in the case of sin offerings, is that I should be in place of the animal. I actually deserve to be punished for what I have done but G-d has allowed me to sacrifice this animal instead. I would like to widen this idea and suggest that what all animal sacrifices are meant to convey to the worshipper is the precariousness of life and our lack of true control over our fate. Just as this animal has no control over its life neither to we. The fate of the animal is meant to bring home to the person that their fate is not in their hands. By placing their hands on the soon to be slaughtered animal they are meant to in some way identify with the fate of the animal and loose the illusion that they are in control of their own fate. They are thus brought to greater dependence and trust in G-d, who truly controls their life.
This idea is extremely relevant to us at this time. We are all, both as individuals, communities and nations, being taught in a very stark way that we are not in control. Our lives can be overturned in a very short period of time indeed. This lesson however is one we should take the opportunity to learn. Humanity’s illusion of control over its fate is precisely what has led us to the various ills of our time, especially climate change and environmental degradation. We are unfortunately being taught in a most unpleasant way that we can and must act differently. We need to take with us out of this crisis the positive lessons of how to live, work and travel in a more sustainable and healthy way. Humanity needs to discard its illusion of control.
Shemot (Exodus) 5780
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n the middle of the narrative of the building of the Tabernacle it is related that the laver was made of the mirrors of the women that hung around the Tent of Meeting. This rather obscure reference is elucidated in the Midrash. The women of Israel brought their mirrors to donate to the Tabernacle, as others brought other materials. The reason that this is specifically mentioned is that Moses didn’t want to accept them. Mirrors used for increasing physical beauty and vanity have no place in the Tabernacle.
G-d disagreed. He pointed out to Moses that these are the very mirrors that were used by the Jewish women in the Egyptian servitude to make themselves desirable to their exhausted husbands, thus causing them to procreate and ensure the future of the Jewish people. As such they have an honoured place as part of the furniture of the Tabernacle, the laver being used to reconcile husband and wife in the ritual of the Sotah.
This text thus teaches us several important lessons. One is that everything can be used for good and to serve G-d, despite apparent appearances to the contrary. The other that is even something or someone of doubtful extraction should be judged on their present use or actions not on where they come from. But there is an even more important lesson to be learned from this incident that is relevant to our predicament. At the heart of the Tabernacle their stood a reminder of a dark period when the very future of the Jewish people was in doubt. There was no Tabernacle to inspire them and no leadership to lead them. Yet courageous women used a simple mirror to create families and communities that ensured the ultimate redemption. Everyone entering the Tabernacle could be reminded that it is not the Tabernacle or its service that makes the Jewish people but the bonds between its members that exist whether or not there is a physical structure to unite them.
We live in uncertain times where our normal world is fast being turned upside down. We have had to postpone many of our normal activities. There may come a time that we will be unable to hold services. This, however, does not mean we will cease to be a community. What holds us together are the bonds of mutual concern and friendship. These will remain and we should strives by to strengthen them by what ever means available. If we act like our mothers of old and utilise even the simplest methods to create community we too will see the redemption.
According to a strong Rabbinic tradition Moses’ reluctance to accept G-d’s appointment as leader of the Jewish people had at its root his respect for his elder brother. Moses felt that Aaron, both as his elder and the more fluent orator, was eminently more suitable as to lead the Jewish people than he was. G-d, as is often the case, knew better.
The events of this week’s Parshah show just how more suited for leadership was Moses, and how Aaron, for all his great merits, was unable in the end to lead. Moses had left Aaron in charge while he went up the mountain to talk to G-d. The people, growing impatient, demand that Aaron make an image to take Moses’ place. This indeed was a test of leadership; one that Aaron conclusively failed. Instead of standing up to the people and even using forceful methods to dissuade them; Aaron plays for time until time runs out. He effectively abdicates his leadership responsibilities and follows, rather than leads, the people; until he loses control of the situation.
Compare this to Moses. Moses assesses the situation and takes dramatic, even violent, steps to rectify it. He thus saves the people from their own folly and shows true leadership ability. Aaron for all his great abilities had a fatal flaw. His great love of the Jewish people caused him to want to please them. He shied away from confrontation preferring to compromise. Moses, whose love and self-sacrifice for the Jews was no less, understood, however, that there are times when compromise is not possible and indeed the greatest folly. He understood that a leader must lead not be led. Aaron, whose love of peace caused him to lead the Jewish people to disaster, has his name associated with the calf that they made. Moses, according to tradition, is praised for the very act of breaking the tablets that shocked the people into recovering their senses.
The Torah is very clear what sort of leader it wants. The tale of two brothers, as it is played out in our Parshah, is an object lesson for all those that aspire to lead. If you are controlled by focus groups and polls rather than by correct policy and want to be led by the public rather than leading them, you are in the wrong job.
The various items of clothing of the High Priest, the main subject of this week’s Parshah, have always provided interesting spiritual insights. One such item is the golden Plate; engraved with the name of G-d and worn on the High Priest’s forehead. This artefact is generally regarded as atoning for the inadvertent profanation of the sacrifices offered in the Temple. The Rabbis disputed whether this atonement was effective only when the High Priest was actually wearing the Plate, or even when he had removed his priestly garments.
The first position is easier to understand. When the Plate is fulfilling its function in the Sanctuary, it can atone; when it is lying in a box, it cannot seem to be of much use. Yet the contrary opinion is in many ways more interesting. Even when the Plate is not in use, the very fact of its existence is enough to atone. This opinion bids us search beyond the evidence of our eyes, and look at what is hidden.
The High Priest’s clothes are merely the outer garments which cover the person charged with G-d’s service. One might think they are the essence. Indeed he is forbidden to serve in the sanctuary without them. Yet this external outlook can be deceptive. An unworthy priest is still unworthy despite his costume. A High Priest who is unfit will still perish is he enters the Holy of Holies; despite wearing the correct garments. Indeed this often happened at the end of the Second Temple period. We are bidden to look beyond the external to what is hidden.; not to trust the evidence of our eyes but to perceive what is deeper.
This, of course, is also the message of Purim. The Jewish people thought they were safe but underneath trouble was brewing. Mordechai and Esther were seemingly assimilated Jews but through them the Jewish people were saved. Haman thought he was on top of the world but behind his back his downfall was already taking shape. And, of course, behind all these hidden conspiracies lay the most hidden actor of all: G-d.
As we look at the world around us, that seems to lurch from one crisis to another, we should remember we only see what is revealed. We are presently faced with a disease that can infect others while still being hidden from the carrier themselves. Similarly, the hidden currents of history, and especially the concealed hand of G-d, are often only visible in retrospect. Maybe a comforting thought; or conversely an excuse to get drunk!
The various parts of both the structure and furniture of the Tabernacle are described in great detail in the Parshah. If we examine the process of construction we find that there were two different methods used. The Menorah was made from a single block of gold and hammered out to form its structure, including its smallest decorations. On the other hand the physical building of the Tabernacle was formed by putting together various individual boards and coverings to create a unified structure. In both cases the underlying purpose was unity but it was achieved in different and indeed diametric ways. One method started with a singularity and made from that the details, while the other begins with the individual components and creates from them a unity.
The fact that both methods were used in the construction of the Tabernacle signifies that both of them were necessary and have something to teach us. In any project or undertaking one or both of these formulas will need to be used. The question is always which is most appropriate. The Torah gives us the answer.
The creation of an intricate form from a single block of material was used in the construction of the Menorah, symbolising the realm of knowledge. In conceiving a project one must start with an underlying idea that then informs everything else that follows. If you have several, differing, concepts of what you want to achieve it will lead to confusion, diffusion of effort and failure.
On the other hand, when building the actual structure of the enterprise, how it is going to work, details are important. Only by getting the small components of the construction or administration right will the whole thing hang to together. Failure to pay attention to these details will again lead to incoherent procedures and faulty decision and eventual failure.
Unfortunately, some organisations do the exact opposite. They have several different concepts of what they are trying to achieve while only vague ideas of how to get there. They are rich on concept and short on details, while they need to have one purpose and many details about how to achieve that purpose. That is the formula for success taught to us by the Tabernacle.
‘If he enters by himself, he shall leave by himself’. This verse refers to a ‘Hebrew slave’, a legal category in the Torah that refers to a situation analogous to an indentured servant. A Hebrew slave is either someone who was sold by the court to pay for theft or a fine, or someone who sold himself because of dire poverty. If he had a wife or children, his master is responsible for their upkeep, though they are not slaves. His master can also give him a non-Jewish maidservant, in order to produce children who belong to the master. It is to this practice that this verse traditionally refers. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, states that this verse means that if he did not have a wife when he became a slave, his master is not allowed to give him a non-Jewish maidservant. Only if he is already married is the slave permitted to engage in such a sexual liaison. This may seem to us quite an extraordinary statement, and the complete opposite of what we would expect. Surely a single man does less harm in engaging in such activities than one who is married! Yet the Torah has a different perspective. While a Hebrew slave must be freed after six years, he has the option of saying that he loves his ‘master, his wife and children’, and signing on for more. The Torah, while allowing such a situation, strongly discourages it. Such a slave is pierced in his ear as: ‘the ear that heard on Mt Sinai “the Children of Israel are My slaves” went and acquired himself another master’. The Torah is thus aware of the seductiveness of slavery. Witness the Jewish people’s constant hankering to return to Egypt, almost as soon as they had left. For an unattached male, the charms of a non-Jewish maidservant and his attachment to their children provide a powerful incentive to remain a slave. Only someone that has the emotional attachment of a wife beyond the cocoon of slavery will have the incentive to return to the risky world of freedom. This deep psychological understanding of the Torah, has much to teach us today. Most people believe our criminal justice system is failing, partly because our prisons are failing. Re-offending rates are appallingly high. Largely this is because, like the single Hebrew slave, prisoners have nothing waiting for them on the outside, except a life of crime. They have no incentive, and often little encouragement, to take the difficult road of going straight. We need to listen to the Torah and give our modern day slaves a reason to be free and thus an incentive to reform their lives.
The Haftorah of Yitro is an interesting one. Generally the Haftorah is connected to the story of the Parshah or a theme within it. The main focus of this week’s Parshah is of course the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. This of course was where G-d revealed Himself and spoke directly to the people. The first section of the Haftorah is also connected to the theme of Divine revelation. Taken from the book of Isaiah, it tells how Isaiah is vouchsafed a revelation of G-d with the angels proclaiming ‘holy holy holy..’. This forms the basis of one of the most important of our prayers: the Kedushah.
The Haftorah then, however, goes on to talk of political matters. This is especially true in the Ashkenazic tradition which adds sections from later chapters of the book which deal with G-d’s promise to frustrate the alliance of Israel and Aram against Judah and the prophecy of the birth of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s greatest kings. Why are these sections added, and what connection to they have to the Parshah? One explanation is that Isaiah’s original vision is historically connected to the events portrayed in the rest of the Haftorah.
But I think there is also a thematic connection to our Parshah. Isaiah is vouchsafed a revelation of G-d. But this revelation is not for his personal spiritual edification. He is meant to take his vision of G-d and implement it in the social and political conditions of his time. This is also true of the revelation of the Torah. The Torah is not meant to be an abstract intellectual pursuit. Rather it is meant to transform society. That is why, following the experience of revelation this week, next week’s Parshah is a compendium of social law.
There is also another connection between the political message of the Haftorah and the Parshah. The beginning of the Parshah tells of the arrival of Yitro and his advice to Moses to set up a judicial system. In the Haftorah, the rule of Hezekiah is seen as the antidote to the religious and political malaise of the time.
The Torah is, in the end, interpreted and implemented by human beings. It is the nature and quality of Jewish leadership that determines how the message of revelation will be implemented. Politics is not a secular pursuit divorced from Torah but essential to its fulfilment. The nature of Jewish politics both in Israel and the Diaspora must thus be a vital concern to all those who care about the future of the message of Sinai.
The Israelites stand on the shore of the sea. The Egyptian army approaches from behind. They are seemingly trapped in an impossible situation. The people turn to Moses. According to the Midrash there are three different proposals, flight, surrender or to go into the sea. Moses dismisses all three and tells the people to be silent and stand still while G-d fights for them. However, when Moses turns to G-d in prayer, G-d tells him not to pray but to act. He should tell the Israelites to go forward into the sea. The sea parts, the Israelites are saved and the Egyptians drowned.
This dialogue between Moses and the people and Moses and G-d warrants further examination. When the people are engaged in disputes and recriminations Moses tells them that they should be passive and let G-d fight for them. Yet G-d tells Moses that au contraire they should move forward into the sea. How are we to reconcile the two instructions? Do they contradict each other or complement each other?
On the one hand Moses clearly misunderstands G-d’s intention. Prayer is not enough, action is also needed. G-d tells Moses to stop praying and get moving. Yet Moses’ instruction to stop arguing and realise that G-d will save them gave them the mental fortitude to move into the sea. One was the prerequisite of the other.
This teaches us an important lesson in how to approach moments of crisis. We need both faith and action, spiritual fortitude and practical ability. Simply praying and not doing anything to help ourselves will not bring the desired result. Like the joke about the person that prays to win the lottery but never bothers to buy a lottery ticket. Yet practical action by itself is also not enough. Especially when we are facing a serious crisis with an unclear resolution we also require spiritual courage. We need to realise that not everything is in our hands and we are not required to do everything. If our goal is the right one then we will be helped to get there. If we begin to travel down the right path then we can be assured that we do not travel alone.
Just as Moses’ words gave the Israelites courage to enter into the sea, so our belief in Divine assistance gives us the conviction to begin something, even when its consummation may seem impossible.
The negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh that punctuate the Exodus story provide a fascinating contrast in different world views and important insights for us today. Possible the most famous of these confrontations is the one that begins our Parshah. Pharaoh suspiciously asks Moses who exactly is to participate in the religious festival that is the ostensible reason for the Israelites request to leave. Moses famously replies that everyone, men, women and children are to go as ‘it is our festival of G-d.’ Pharaoh triumphantly replies that he has unmasked Moses’ evil intentions. If the Israelites wish to celebrate a religious festival then only the men should go; asking for more is proof of an ulterior motive.
Here we have a fascinating insight into two approaches to religion. Pharaoh, the chief priest of Egypt, believes that active religious experience is the preserve of an elite with the rest of society playing a passive role. Religion is not something that everyone should participate in; certainly not women and children. Moses holds a different view. Religious experience is for all; not just a small elite of priests or even rabbis. A ‘festival of G-d’ is necessarily for everyone; men, women and even children. Thus the covenant he makes at the end of the Torah includes the whole people; young and old, slave and free. While Judaism does make specific distinctions between the obligations of men, women and children; in general the whole nation is equally obligated to keep the mitzvot.
Judaism is above all a participatory religion which doesn’t work without the active support of its adherents. In order to engage in public prayer and recite important prayers like Kaddish and Kedushah or read the Torah, we need a community. The same is true for life cycle events such as marriage or bereavement. We are unable to recite the special wedding blessings without the presence of a community and new people every meal. Someone sitting shiva without a community to support them is feels even more isolated and bereft, rather than comforted.
A Jew who lives in a place with no community or chooses not to associate with the community in their city while able to keep many of the mitzvot in isolation, is in some ways only half a Jew. They are missing a vital component of Jewish life. It thus the religious responsibility of every Jew to support and participate in the Jewish community where they live. We cannot survive as a Jewish religion and people without sharing Moses’ view of religion as a communal endeavour. We must decide whether we Jews or Egyptians.
The Parshah begins with the statement by G-d that he appeared to the Patriarchs using the name of G-d Almighty but the four letter Name was not known or revealed to them. This statement has puzzled commentators ancient and modern has the four letter Name is certainly used in Genesis and was known to the Patriarchs. A common approach to resolve this conundrum is to focus on the context and meanings of the names. Rashi therefore explains that G-d promised the Land of Israel to the Patriarchs using the name G-d Almighty but but they did not experience the four letter Name, signifying G-d’s consummation of that promise. This Name signifies G-d’s active involvement in history, something that is only now to be revealed with the redemption from Egypt and the beginning of the fulfilment of the promises to the Patriarchs. It is understandable, therefore, why this verse appears here, after the disappointment of Moses’ first approach to Pharaoh and before the beginning of plagues.
This idea of the Patriarchs living with unfulfilled promises is elaborated on by the Midrash which has G-d bemoaning their death as they never complained despite various challenges, unlike Moses who kvetches at the first disappointment. This divergence can maybe be understood as the difference between heroic individuals and a nation. One can accept the delayed deferment of G-d’s promises while the other needs to see to believe. This need for immediate consummation is a constant feature of the relationship between G-d and Israel throughout the wanderings in the wilderness and beyond.
It is therefore even more extraordinary that the Jewish people could effectively exist in a state of suspended animation. Not merely for the two hundred years of the Egyptian exile but for two thousand years Jews waited and believed in G-d’s promises of redemption. How was this possible? The secret of Jewish survival in the Diaspora was the genius of the Rabbis in actualising not only past glories but also the future redemption. Whether in the Musaf service, the Pesach Haggadah or in numerous other laws and customs, the Rabbis entrenched the experience of the Temple and the Land in the daily life of Jews no matter where they lived. Whether, eating fruits of Israel on Tu B’shvat, playing Jewish warriors on Lag B’Omer, or taking the Lulav every day of Succot, as in the Temple, Jews expressed the conviction that what was, will be again. Living with the unfilled promises of G-d Almighty, the nevertheless lived their lives in expectation of the fulfilment of G-d’s great Name.
Pharaoh’s nefarious plan to destroy the Jewish people are frustrated by a group of courageous women, the midwives, Jocheved and Miriam and his own daughter. Yet not only are his designs undermined, they actually contribute to his ultimate downfall. According to a midrashic tradition, one of Pharaoh’s intentions in killing Jewish boys by drowning was to prevent the emergence of a leader who could redeem them. Yet his own actions created the very conditions from which such a leader emerged.
It would be very hard for a Hebrew slave to have the qualities need to lead Israel from Egypt and even more unlikely that an Egyptian leader would take up this role. Yet by his genocidal policy Pharaoh effected the necessary but improbable combination of both. By threatening the lives of Jewish boys he caused Moses’ mother to put him in a basket in the Nile where he was picked up by an Egyptian princess and raised as a prince. Thus combining the leadership abilities of Egyptian royalty with the political sympathies of a Hebrew slave to create the perfect revolutionary leader, and all ultimately Pharaoh’s own doing.
This phenomenon of our enemies’ designs against us being the ultimate engine of our redemption is one that repeats itself throughout Jewish history. Pharaoh’s own obstinate hatred of the Israelites led him into a trap of his own making at the Reed Sea and Haman’s murderous designs on the Jews led directly not only to his own downfall but to the unmasking and elimination of tens of thousands of anti-Semites throughout the Persian empire. In our own generation we have witnessed a similar development. Both in 1948 and 1967 the nefarious plans of our enemies caused greater success for Israel they we had thought possible before.
This is an important idea to bear in mind as we look at the often frightening world around us. From Iran to Corbyn, from left and right all sorts of people seem to again have it in for the Jews. We could indeed succumb to anxiety or despair. But if we recall the lessons of the Parshah and of Jewish history we will realise that G-d is merely leading them into a trap. As before we can be hopeful that our enemies own designs against us will be the very thing that leads to their downfall and our redemption.
Bereishit (Genesis) 5780
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
If we examine the blessings that Jacob gives to his children before his death, we can discover some interesting features. Firstly, he generally blesses his children in the order of their birth but not entirely. Secondly, unlike Moses, his blessings do not only contain words of praise but also rebuke. It is also noteworthy, that while Joseph receives ample praise it is Judah that effectively receives the leadership of the brothers for the future, something that is reflected in the order of the tribes in the wilderness.
All of this teaches an important lesson. There are two main ways in which parents or society arrange the pecking order of within the family. One is by birth. The firstborn is the most important. This indeed is the legal prescription of the Torah when it comes to inheritance of property. According to this Reuben should have been the leading son. The other method is that of favouritism, the favourite son is the one put in charge of the family. We can see that this was a possibility by the very fact the Torah specifically rules it out when promulgating the above law of inheritance. In this case, Joseph, Jacob’s favourite son, should have become the head of the family. Yet Judah is given that distinction.
What Jacob uses instead to determine his blessings and the hierarchy in the family is moral suitability. Reuben, by his both impetuous and indecisive nature loses the rights of the firstborn. Shimon and Levi, by their brutal and dangerous reaction to Dinah’s violation also showed that they were not suitable for leadership. Even though Joseph had many qualities and was Jacob’s favourite, he did not approach the moral calibre of Judah, who had not only publicly confessed his association with Tamar but put his own life on the line in order to save Benjamin. Thus it was neither biological inheritance or parental favouritism but moral standing that determined Jacob’s choice.
This should also inform us when choosing suitable political leaders. What is important is not someone’s family background or what school or university they went to. Neither are their charisma or celebrity to be taken into account. Their competence is obviously important but what is most vital is their moral probity. A leader can be charismatic and competent but if they are also morally deficient they will lead the society they govern to ruin. Looking around at our world today, Jacob’s criteria for leadership are something we urgently need to adopt.
After narrating the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers and the descent of Jacob and his family to Egypt, the Torah seems to branch off into a digression. It proceeds to tell us about the actions of Joseph in his official position during the period of the famine. It narrates how he used the desperation of the Egyptian populace to restructure the economy of Egypt, turning free farmers into serfs. By the time he was finished the state controlled all the land in Egypt except that of the priesthood, and they also received a stipend from Pharaoh. A truly massive change in the whole socio-economic structure of the country.
We may wonder, however, why the Torah bothers to tell us this. How is it related to the saga of the Jewish people? Other than showing Joseph’s political acumen or even loyalty to Pharaoh, this information doesn't seem particularly relevant. Yet I think that this episode has much to teach us that is relevant for every generation. Egypt is faced with an unprecedented crisis that threatens the stability if not the very existence of the state. Joseph, working on Pharaoh’s behalf doesn’t merely act to mitigate the danger and thus preserve the state. Rather he understands that an unprecedented crisis also presents and unprecedented opportunity, which he grabs with both hands. Because of Joseph’s foresight, Pharaoh and the state he leads don’t merely survive the crisis but emerge immeasurably stronger. Joseph takes a problem and turns it into an opportunity, faces and obstacle and uses it as a vehicle for transformation.
Whether you agree with what he did would depend if you were a state official or a farmer whose land is now owned by the state. However, the principle is still important. When facing problems, obstacles or a crises we can merely seek to overcome these issues and survive. Sometimes this is all we can do. But if we are courageous and sagacious we can seek to use these problems to propel ourselves forward to a better place and emerge stronger than before.
The Jewish people have generally followed this path. When faced with the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai created a new direction for Judaism, when expelled from Spain, Jews created a Jewish renaissance in Safed. In our time, facing the destruction of the Holocaust the Jewish people recreated a Jewish sovereignty in their ancient homeland. Thus we can learn from Joseph that facing a crisis we should not merely ask how can I survive this but how can I use this to grow stronger.
One of the questions asked about the story of Joseph is why, when he had the possibility, he didn’t inform his father of his whereabouts. The answer can be found in the revealing names he gives to his children. Manasseh, symbolises forgetting his father’s house; Ephraim his success in his new land. Following the trauma of his sale he wished to put his past behind him and concentrate on the future. If his brothers hadn’t suddenly appeared in front of him, he would have never resumed contact.
This idea, that in order to embrace the future we need to forget the past, forms a common theme in Jewish history. Jews have often let go of their traditions in order to grasp the opportunities of a new society. Most noticeably, in the 19th and early twentieth centuries, leading to the great secularisation of Jewish life. This is also, of course, part of the story of Hanukah. Those that wished to embrace Hellenistic culture found it necessary to reject traditional Judaism and even join with the Greek authorities in causing other Jews to do so.
Yet Joseph was, in the end, forced by events to return to his family and roots. This is also a common theme in Jewish history. Whether, by a chance encounter with their Jewish roots, as with Joseph, or by outside external pressure, as on Hanukah, the assimilationist trends are halted and reversed. Furthermore, as both Joseph and the Hellenistic Jews discovered, it is not necessary to forget your father’s house in order to prosper in the new land. You can do both. Joseph managed to be both a successful Egyptian leader and bring his family to Egypt. Jews managed to preserve traditional Judaism and adopt appropriate Hellinistic concepts and practices.
We don’t need to choose between Judaism and the wider cultural milieu. We can, if we remain both true to ourselves and open minded, embrace both. That is also a lesson of Hanukah and the story of Joseph.
'Jacob settled in the land of the wanderings of his fathers, in the land of Canaan’. On this verse the Sages comment that Jacob sought to ‘settle down’ but G-d stated that ‘it is sufficient the repose of the righteous in the next world, they don’t also attain it in this world’, and He brought upon him the trouble with Joseph. How are we to understand this statement? Does it simply mean that if we want peace or joy after death we can’t enjoy them here, something not really in accordance with the normative Jewish attitude to life, or does it have a more subtle meaning?
Various commentators connect this verse with the statement in last week’s Parshah the Esau settled in Mt Seir. The two brothers not only chose two different locations to live but two separate destinies. Esau, abandoning the promise of the Land of Israel, is allowed to settle down and create a stable nation, even producing a monarchy. Jacob’s destiny is different. He, indeed, may seek to settle down but in doing so he has forgotten that the promise of a life in the Land comes with a condition. The inheritance of the Land is predicated on the prior experience of exile and oppression. That is the prophecy given to Abraham that Jacob must now begin to fulfil. He may think that he has already experienced dislocation and subjugation at hands of Laban in Haran and can now fulfil the second part of the promise of settle life in the Land, but G-d has other ideas. He has mistaken the times. This is not a time of redemption but the beginning of exile. The trouble of Joseph came upon him, the agency by which his family will descend into the Egyptian exile beginning the process of exile and redemption told to Abraham.
This scenario has a wider application, one that is relevant to us today Jews may look around at other people and long to be normal like them, without the burden of Jewish destiny and history. This was the motivation behind the various reform movements in Europe in the 19th century. Jews would become citizens of the ‘Mosaic persuasion’ as much as possible like everyone else. We know, however, the tragic outcome of that effort.
Maybe more surprisingly, this was also the idea of secular Zionism. Jews would have a state and become a ‘normal’ nation. Of course that didn’t exactly succeed either. Israel is not a normal nation as has not prevented ant-Semitism by normalising the Jews. History has taught us that we cannot escape our destiny, we cannot settle down and become normal because that is not who we are. Like Jacob, we discover that our attempts to be normal like Esau are doomed to failure and sooner or later we will be forced to confront our particular Jewish destiny.
Jacob, preparing to meet for a fateful encounter with his estranged brother, is left alone at night on a riverbank. There he is attacked by and struggles with someone. Upon overpowering this being Jacob refuses to let him go unless he blesses him. This he does by changing Jacob’s name to Israel because he has struggled with man and G-d and prevailed. What are we to make of this story and what it tells us about being part of the people of Israel? It is clear that this incident is of pivotal importance in the development of the Jewish people and even has its own mitzvah connected to it but what exactly is its message?
If we look at the central element of the story we find that it concerns struggle or confrontation. Jacob is attacked and thus forced to fight and prevail. This earns him a new name that reflects this quality. Jacob, until now, has not been known for his fighting ability. Indeed, he has shied away from confrontation. He flees from Esau, runs away from Laban and is presently engaged in trying to spirit away from Esau as much of his possessions as possible. Yet here he is forced to fight and something changes in him and his descendants. It is noticeable that every time the name Israel is used instead of Jacob it signifies a decisive action or decision taken by him. It means that following indecision or procrastination he has moved further down the road he needs to follow. This is most conspicuous in the story of Joseph. All through the narrative he is called Jacob until the point of Judah’s intervention, marking the moment Jacob comes to terms with having to send Benjamin to Egypt. The procrastination is over, the problem is confronted not avoided and Jewish history can move forward.
This trait of Jacob has also been conspicuous in his descendants. Jews have generally sought to flee from conflict rather than face it head on. It is generally not in our nature to start a fight. Yet when we are forced to or the issues are essential enough, we can and will fight and prevail. Hanukah is a perfect example. Jews lived happily under foreign rule for centuries until the Greeks confronted with an existential threat. They then fought, won and created an independent state. A similar process happened in the last century in Europe. Both changed Jewish destiny Jacob would often times prepare to remain Jacob but when forced to fight he rises to the challenge and transforms into Israel.
Our Parshah famously opens with the dream of Jacob. Jacob sees a ladder stretching to heaven with angels ascending and descending. G-d stands at the top and promises Jacob He will take care of him. Many explanations, literal, metaphorical, psychological and mystical, have been advanced to understand this passage. Nachmanidies explains that the angels are G-d’s lackeys in controlling human affairs, while G-d promises Jacob that G-d will personally deal with his destiny. In a similar vein, Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud sees the angels as the arbiters of the destiny of nations, each nation having its own angel, while Jacob is promised that, unlike other nations, Israel will be under the direct providence of G-d.
How are we to understand these ideas? One can comprehend that G-d may rule the world through indirect means, while Israel is directly accountable. In the same way that one may be shielded from the sun or radiation by clouds or have light refracted through water, G-d can limit His control of the world. Indeed that is not only the basis of our having free will but, according to the kabbalistic idea of ‘contraction’, the basis for the very possibility of the existence of the world. The Jewish people, however, have more direct exposure to G-d and their destiny, therefore, is more affected by their relationship with Him.
In this context, however, it is enlightening to examine the ideas of Maimonidies with regards to Divine providence. Unlike many other religious philosophers, Maimonidies does not regard G-d as having intimate control over every aspect of existence. Animals, for example, are subject to only general species control, G-d not being directly involved in what lion eats what gazelle. With regards to humans, Maimonidies proposes that Divine providence is determined by the individual themselves. If they wish to place themselves in G-d’s hands, they will have direct Divine interference in their lives. If not, they will be subject to the vagaries of chance.
Using this idea we can understand more deeply Jacob’s dream. The nations of the world who do not have an intimate relationship with G-d are, for good or evil, subject to the ‘angels’ of natural forces. Israel, G-d’s people, are for good or evil bound to the Divine. We choose to be connected to G-d, who thus controls our destiny.
Both Abraham and Isaac dig wells and both of them have disputes concerning those wells with Philistines. The way they appear to deal with these conflicts however is different. We find Abraham rebuking Avimelech concerning the well that his servants stole. Isaac, on the other hand, uses a different technique. Every time the Philistines dispute his ownership of a well he merely moves on to another well, until he finds one that, for whatever reason, is not a source of dispute. We find a similar attitude in relation to other matters. When Avimelech confronts Abraham over his deception concerning Sarah, Abraham vigorously replies to him. In a similar incident concerning Rebecca in this weeks Parshah, Isaac merely accepts Avimelech’s reprimand. The same is true in family matters. When there is a dispute with Lot, Abraham takes the initiative in solving it while when the relationship between his sons turns fratricidal, Isaac does nothing and the initiative to send Jacob away is taken by Rebecca. These two different approaches in many ways reflect the different characters of the two Patriarchs. Abraham is expansive and outgoing, Isaac is retiring and more inhibited. Abraham is active while Isaac is more passive. One may prefer one approach over another but the fact is that both Abraham and Isaac are patriarchs and thus both are examples or genetic pointers on how Jews should or will behave. The correct approach to these two attitudes is to understand that actually we need both and one or the other are appropriate in different circumstances. Indeed, we find Jacob, the third patriarch, combing both approaches and using contrasting methods at different points in his life. Similarly, at different points in Jewish history one or other of these approaches has been dominant. Most strikingly, after the failure of the Bar Kochvah revolt and that followed in its wake, the Sages developed a policy of political passivity according which Jews would no longer militarily organise themselves. The Jewish approach to attacks on them was political not violent and in general for the following centuries Jews didn’t fight back. Starting in the 19th century, partly due to increased anti-Semitism but mostly to the weakening of religious authority due to the Haskala, Jews started to seek to defend themselves and especially to arrange a political return to the Land of Israel. Thus, the attitude of passivity that epitomised Jews for centuries is today totally transformed into one of active defence. We have gone from being Isaac back to following the model of Abraham. Where we will go in the future will depend on circumstances, maybe to a combination of both like Jacob.
Parshat Haye Sarah
This week we read of the death of Sarah. Unusually, rather than saying that Sarah lived to 127 years the Torah states that she lived 7 years, 20 years, and 100 years. The Midrash explains this repetition by saying that she was as beautiful at 20 as at 7 and as sinless at 100 as at 20. There are other variants of the Midrash that use different calculations but all basically convey the same message. Yet this understanding is problematic. Some one that is the same at 100 as they are at 20 is someone that has not grown during their life. As Judaism believes that a major goal of our life is to grow, especially spiritually, one can, based on this Midrash, reasonably ask what Sarah achieved in her life? As belittling Sarah is obviously not the intention of the Midrash, we need to understand it in a different way.
Sarah, however, also appears in at the end of the Parshah. After Rebecca and Isaac marry it is written that he brought her into Sarah’s tent and was comforted for his mother. The Midrash comments on this that all the customs followed by Sarah and ceased on her death where renewed by Rebecca and it was as if Sarah had not passed away. What both Midrashim are talking about here is not a lack of growth or an absence of change. It is clear that Rebecca was a very different personality from Sarah as was Isaac when compared to Abraham. Their households were also quite distinctive. Rather the message that is being conveyed is a continuity of values. Isaac was comforted for Sarah when he saw that Rebecca shared the same basic values that his mother held. Similarly, in its retrospective on Sarah’s life the Midrash is telling us that Sarah held the same basic values at the age of 100 that she began with at 7 or twenty. The same modesty, kindness and faith that were apparent in her early years remained with her until her death. The same fortitude and resolve she displayed at 20 she still displayed at 100. furthermore, these values didn’t die with her but were carried on to the next generation. Looking around his home as built by Rebecca it was if Sarah was still alive.
That is the message, according to the Midrash, the Torah wishes to convey. We indeed need to to grow and change throughout our lives. But fortunates is the person who is acquires Jewish values early on and not only follows these values throughout their life but is able to transmit them to the next generation. Such a person not only can be proud of a life well lived but, like Sarah, achieves eternity not only in the next world but even in this one.
A fundamental foundation of Judaism is the concept of covenant or brit. Based on a common Near-Eastern political construct it signifies a reciprocal agreement between two parties, normally a sovereign and a vassal. In terms of Jewish thought it means a contract between G-d and his people, starting with their forefather Abraham. In last week’s Parshah we read of the first of several such covenants, the most significant of which was the covenant enacted at Sinai, with the Torah at its heart. What in effect, however, are the implications of such a covenant, other than the basic stipulations found in the text?
We can delve deeper by examining the events of this week’s Parshah, where the consequences of G-d’s covenant with Abraham are worked out. The relationship between Abraham and G-d until this point has been one sided. Abraham’s faith in G-d is rewarded by G-d’s protection but he takes little role in influencing Divine activity in the world. Following, the covenant we find a different story. Abraham becomes a more active partner with G-d in the affairs of humanity. This is most famously reflected in the story of Sodom where G-d actively solicits Abraham’s involvement in the fate of the city. The Torah states in clear terms that because of G-d’s relationship with Abraham it is not satisfactory that G-d acts without informing Abraham of his plans.
This is also, however, seen elsewhere as in the story of Sarah and Avimelech. After Avimelech has been appraised of Sarah’s true identity G-d informs him that if he returns Sarah then Abraham will pray for him and he will live. The Torah then informs us that Abraham did indeed pray for Avimelech and his family and they were duly healed. Unlike a similar incident with Pharaoh were Abraham was a passive of events, here he takes an active role in mediating Divine action.
What separates these two incidents is the establishment of the covenant. By making a covenant with Abraham G-d does not merely extend his patronage to him but makes him a partner in the running of the world. Similarly, the covenant at Sinai turns the Jews into partners of G-d in perfecting the world. By accepting the Torah, Jews took upon themselves the responsibility l’tekan olam b’malchut shadai, to perfect the world in the sovereignty of G-d.
The achievement of the messianic age is not merely in G-d’s custody but in the hands of every Jew. Furthermore, the farther the world seems from perfection and the more distant Divine intervention, the more it is incumbent on us to fulfil our role in this partnership. The more we act to improve the world the more we can expect a reciprocal response from our Divine Partner and the more truly we become children of Abraham.
Parshat Lech Lecha
Abraham is both the biological and spiritual father of the Jewish people. In his and Sarah’s story we see many of the themes that will be prominent in Judaism and Jewish history. Indeed, commentators like Nachmanidies see the patriarchal narrative as prefiguring events in that history, from the Exodus to our relationship with the Muslims. These stories also present some of the basic concepts of Judaism.
The three basic components of Judaiism are introduced this week, as we follow the progress of the founding couple. Firstly, G-d makes two promises to Abraham, one of progeny and one of land. Later he gives him the commandment of circumcision, introducing the concept of mitzvah and of Torah more generally. In our Parshah, therefore, we are introduced to the three pillars of People, Torah and Land that consist of the foundation of Judaism. I behoves us to to investigate these three concepts more closely and understand the relationship between them.
Firstly, even though Abraham is to be a blessing for all humanity he is also to establish a specific people. Furthermore, while upholding a universal moral code in his dealings with his neighbours the mitzvah of circumcision is specific for his family. Lastly, while born in Iraq and travelling to Egypt, his future and that of his descendants is bound up with one particular land. Thus Jews are both particular and universal and avoid the pitfalls of both extremes.
By upholding a universal morality based on a universal G-d while confining the mitzvot of the Torah to the people of Israel, Judaism avoids the twin pitfalls of both conversionary intolerance and racial superiority. Jews have a special relationship with G-d but others can also approach G-d in their own way. Leading by example is in crusades and inquisitions are out.
Furthermore, by confining Jewish territorial ambitions to a single piece of territory, Judaism was prevented from coming an imperialistic religion, that regarded expansion as a religious duty and religious conversion as an imperial necessity. We thus avoided the intolerance of the Christian and Muslim empires and their state universal religion. We thus see that at the very beginning of the Jewish story Abraham and Sarah exemplify the values and concepts that would enable their descendants to become truly a blessing to all the families of the earth.
One of the most striking differences between the ante and post diluvian worlds is the permission given to humans to consume other animals. While Adam and Eve were only given permission to eat plant life Noah and his descendants were permitted to eat meat. Various reasons have been given for this, including the lack of other food in the destroyed post flood world. Yet to understand this change properly we need to examine the overall difference between the world before and after the flood.
The basic distinction between these two situations can be seen in G-d’s promise not to again destroy the whole world because of the evil of humans. In making this commitment He uses a parallel description of the human propensity for evil as was used to justify the original decision to bring the flood. So what has now changed? Various commentators explain the G-d adjusted his method of dealing with humans. Whereas before the world was judged as a single entity, now people will be judged as individuals or nations, as later demonstrated in the cases of Sodom and Ninveh. An important symbol of the previous universal corporate responsibility was the care humans had for other sentient life, including the prohibition of eating it. Once this responsibility was lifted, however, eating animals became permissible.
G-d, however, did not give up entirely on the concept of corporate responsibility. In the people of Israel he found a possibility to restore the previous situation. In accepting the Torah the Jewish people took upon themselves the mutual responsibility to ensure its observance. This, indeed, is the focus the last section of Deuteronomy which we have just completed. It is interesting, therefore, that the Torah also imposed the restrictions of kashrut which deal almost exclusively with the eating of meat. In addition the Torah stipulates that, in the Land of Israel at least, we are not free to use the land as we like, but need to observe the Sabbatical year and other mitzvot that protect the land. Thus the Jewish people reflect in part the corporate responsibility lost after the flood.
With the climate emergency upon us it maybe is time to go further. Jews have a responsibility to take these notions of responsibility for the environment and other creatures and teach them to the world. The time may be fast approaching when we need to return to the antediluvian concept of universal corporate responsibility lest we bring upon ourselves another flood. W can thus also advance the world to the Messianic age.
The story of the sin of Adam and Eve is one of the most difficult in the Torah. It raises many questions and is not easily interpreted or understood. What was the nature of the knowledge being withheld, why would such knowledge be withheld and how does the punishment eventually meted out fit the crime, are but a few. If we look at the narrative carefully we can see that one word seems to reoccur frequently, the word ערום. Adam and Eve are described as being ערומים, the snake is more ערום than anyone else and after the sin the human couple realised they were ערום. This same word is normally translated in different ways with Adam and Eve being described as naked and the snake as knowledgable or cunning, but the Torah uses the same word each time and it seems to be at the heart of the issue.The Hebrew root ערם is normally found in the Torah in the context of deceit, whether in the story of Jacob deceiving Esau, Laban deceiving Jacob or the laws of premeditated murder. If we transfer this normative use to our story we can construct a meaning that both links the various uses of the word ערום and provide an insight into its possible meaning. Using this explanation we can see that Adam and Eve were deceitful but unaware of it, the snake was certainly deceitful and the couple after eating of the fruit then understood that they were deceitful.
This understanding can be deepened if we note that the snake by his proposition to Eve caused her to deceive herself and later he same process occurred with Adam. They are persuaded that what they think is correct is really not and what they thought was wrong is really acceptable. The snake never actually tells eve or Adam to eat the fruit but persuades them to deceive themselves that it is the right thing to do. If we follow this line of thought we can see that the knowledge that G-d withheld from humans was not that of the difference between good and evil but that humans could use their intelligence to deceive themselves into distorting the difference. Adam and Eve had this power all along, were ערום, but were not aware and so not ashamed of it. After allowing the snake, the master of deception, to trick them into deceiving themselves and eating the fruit, they then were aware of this terrible power thus were ashamed and sort to hide from G-d.
This explanation still leaves many questions unanswered but begins to provide an understanding based on a key word in the text. If this even partially correct it teaches an important lesson. Humans greatest sin, the one that is the source of all others, is to deceive ourselves. When we persuade ourselves that black is white and good is evil we are capable of justifying any act, however terrible or immoral. Self deception is the ultimate beginning of the path out of paradise.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5779
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The Song of Moses contains within it mention of Israel’s relations with other nation. The ‘number of the children of Israel’ is determined by, or even determines, the number of the nations of the world. The nations are the instruments of G-d’s punishment of Israel but their misunderstanding of G-d’s purpose leads to G-d relenting and redeeming Israel while taking retribution upon them. Finally, the nations themselves are called to rejoice in G-d’s vengeance on Israel’s enemies and Israel’s redemption.
The festival of Succot is likewise the Jewish holiday most connected with the rest of the world. Traditionally, the seventy bullocks offered during Succot are seen as being offered on behalf of the seventy nations of the world. In the prophetic readings for the festival we read about the final war with the nations at the end of days, after which all the nations will come to worship G-d in Jerusalem on Succot.
We can discern in all this a pattern. The Jewish people, while separate from others, are connected to them and seek their welfare. This concern, however, is not always understood or appreciated. This, together with Israel’s own misbehaviour, leads to these nations persecuting and oppressing Israel. In the end, however, G-d will rescue us from their hands, punish the persecutors and cause all to understand Israel’s vital role in the world. Then those very same nations shall recognize our true role and value and join with us in creation the Kingdom of G-d on earth.
This year this message is even more pertinent than ever. We seem to be assailed by those from left and right that believe Jews are a barrier to progress and peace rather than their inspiration. Both Moses’ song and Succot teach us that this state of affairs will pass and the whole world will recognise the important role Jews play in the construction of a better world and join with us in achieving paradise on earth.
The shortest Parshah of the Torah, which we read this week, also contains the two final mitzvot in the Torah. The last mitzvah is the duty of everyone to write, or be involved with writing, a Torah scroll. The penultimate mitzvah is that of Hakhel. This stipulates that on the Succot following a Sabbatical year everyone should gather together in one place and hear the Torah read. In Temple times this was fulfilled by crowds gathering in the Temple in Jerusalem and hearing the Torah read by the King. It is interesting that the command to read the Torah precedes the command to write it. The Torah is not to be merely a physical book kept in storage or displayed at home but a living guide to life.
Another interesting feature of this mitzvah is the requirement to bring children. It is not enough that merely the adults come and hear the Torah but the youth must also be involved in the event. Even if they have a different perception than their elders or because of their youth, are unable to comprehend everything being said, they still need to be there. For even the smallest children, taking part in such an event and soaking up the atmosphere will impress upon them the importance of Torah and make an indelible impression on their consciousness which will influence the rest of their life. Thus the Torah mandates than when it comes to Torah study, neither individual parents or the community have fulfilled their obligation by merely engaging in it themselves. Only if they make provision for youth education are they fulfilling this mitzvah. Furthermore, this is not merely or even primarily an issue of simply imparting knowledge but instilling in the next generation the appreciation and love of Torah.
This mitzvah thus contains an important lesson for our community. One of our primary purposes must be educating the youth. Not merely imparting to them dry facts but having programs and events that enable them to connect to Judaism in a positive way. The same is also true of our relationship with students. While it is not our job to formally educate them, we have seen that this mitzvah is about far more. By providing them a warm and welcoming home within our community at a crucial phase of their adult development, we can provide a connection to Judaism, that whatever their future spiritual direction, will influence them for the rest of their lives. The Rabbis say that parents bring their small children to Hakhel in order ‘to receive the reward for bringing them’. If we provide a welcoming, open and warm Jewish atmosphere for our youth in Edinburgh we will certainly reap the reward in the years ahead.
‘You are all standing here today before the L-rd your G-d’. The word which gives its name to the Parshah, Nitzavim, has the meaning of not merely standing but being established or firmly fixed in place. This caused our Sages to see in this verse more than merely a geographical description. As Rashi comments: when the Jewish people heard the ninety eight curses we read last week plus the forty nine in Leviticus, they turned pale and wondered how it was possible to exist under the terms of such a covenant. Moses therefore reassured them saying: ‘you are standing here’, despite all the misdemeanours of the last forty years you still exist and G-d hasn’t destroyed you. Furthermore, it is the curses and sufferings that ensure your existence and establish you before G-d. What in fact are the Sages telling us and what relevance does it have to this period of the year?
Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement, a time when, as we proclaim in our prayers, G-d evaluates each of us as individuals and societies and decrees our fate. This notion is based on the concept of responsibility, the responsibility we each have for our actions. But it is also predicated on another essential notion found later in the Parshah, the idea of Teshuvah or repentance/return. We are not only held responsible for our actions but have the ability to change them. The fact that we failed last year does not mean that we cannot succeed this year. The warnings and exhortations in the Torah would have no meaning if we couldn’t change. Punishment and suffering would have no purpose if it couldn’t serve as a catalyst for improving our behaviour. Rosh Hashanah itself, as a time of judgement would be meaningless, if it wasn’t followed by a period of repentance and a day of forgiveness and renewal on Yom Kippur.Thus, as
Rashi points out, the warnings of the Torah indeed enable us to stand before G-d. The annual Divine evaluation of Rosh Hashanah certainly helps us leave moral lives and constantly improve ourselves. While standing before G-d in judgement is certainly not to be taken lightly, we can also see it as a blessing and an opportunity and use these days of ‘standing before G-d’ to become even better Jews and human beings.
Judaism is a religion based on a written text, the Torah. Religions have two basic ways of relating to their sacred text and what they contain. One is to regard them as holy and even infallible but open to emendation but further revelation. The other is to regard scripture as the last word not open to any further addition or emendation. Both approaches have serious deficiencies. The idea that the original Divine revelation can be changed by further revelations leaves any religion open to the whims of constant change. What was forbidden in one generation is suddenly permitted in the next and the opposite. Religious tradition or authority ceases to have any meaning and believers are constantly buffeted by the winds of change without a secure anchor.
The approach that regards the religious text as totally fixed and immutable, also has its own serious issues. While assuring the sway of tradition it ensures that religion becomes stultified and unable to adapt to changing circumstances. Indeed it can calcify religious life to such an extend that it eventually withers and dies.
Judaism avoids both extremes but adopting an approach the combines both approaches. It contains both an immutable text and an ever evolving tradition simultaneously, benefiting from the best in both approaches while avoiding their pitfalls. Last week the Torah warned us of listening to a false prophet, the definition of which is one who seeks to undermine the Torah. The original revelation is immutable and not given to abrogation or emendation by another prophet. The text is sacred. This week, however, the Torah teaches us how to approach that text. Rather than taken it as simple or literal, the Torah assumes its text is open to interpretation. And it instructs us to go for that interpretation to the scholars in our days, in another words in every generation. In short, the Torah leaves open the possibility or even anticipates that each generation will have its own interpretation of its words.
This combination of an immutable written scripture and a living oral tradition is what has kept Judaism both true to itself and constantly relevant. The written text may, for example, set out an order of sacrificial service for Yom Kippur that is at variance with the received interpretation of how to behave. Yet we neither amend the text, which is immutable, nor change the practice, which is authoritative. We keep both and regard both as true and the word of G-d. Thus Judaism retains both its integrity and its vigour, being both traditional and innovative, eternal and eternally relevant.
The book of Deuteronomy contains both admonition, historical retrospective and future prophecy. The central part of the book, however, consists of a restatement and expansion of the laws found in the other books. In that sense it fulfils its rabbinical designation of Mishneh Torah, the second Torah. It is interesting to note the order in which the laws are set out. In this weeks Parshah we begin with laws against idolatry and the establishment of a central pace of worship. We then go on to the workings of the legal system, government and warfare, before dealing with general human relationships such as marriage and business.
If we think about it this order is the wrong way round and the opposite to that found in other parts of the Torah. In Parshat Mishpatim we start with human relations and only at the end go on to deal with more general issues. The same is broadly true of the laws in Leviticus. This divergence is made even more striking when we consider that most of the first set of laws, contained in our Parshah, is focused on the establishment of a central place of worship, something only accomplished chronologically later. The Torah itself mandates that the centralisation of worship is predicated on the Jews being securely settled in the land. In fact the building of the Temple took place over four hundred years after the entry into the land. Why then, does a book dedicated to preparing the people for life in Israel arrange its legislation in the precisely opposite order that it will be implemented?
I think the answer is very simple and extremely relevant to our generation and to any major undertaking. Moses is setting before the people about to enter the Land, not only a practical legislation but a moral compass. In this respect the laws contained in Deuteronomy are not merely a repetition of the rest of the Torah but an educational exposition. Like the other parts of the book they are meant to instruct the people in the way to conduct themselves in the generations to come. As such, Moses is setting before them, not merely things needed for the immediate future but showing them the ultimate goal that they should strive for. The Jewish people settled in the land of Israel with the Temple with the Divine Presence at its heart, is the ultimate goal and purpose of Judaism. Everything else is second best. Even though it might take four hundred years to achieve, Moses wants the people to know where they are going and have that ultimate goal before them in the coming generations. Therefore he begins with the central place of worship, the final destination, before the other laws.
In a similar manner whatever undertaking we may embark on and however long it may take us we always need to begin with ultimate destination and always keep that at the forefront of our minds. This is true also of the very issue we are discussing. The rebuilding of the Temple may seem to us to be a distant dream. It may even seem to many to be undesirable. Yet through our prayers and scriptural readings the sages ensured it is always before us. In doing so they remind us that Judaism today is but a pale reflection of what it could and should be and direct us to our ultimate destiny.
'And it shall be in consequence of listening to these laws...that G-d will keep for you the covenant’. This promise of Divine blessing in return for keeping the mitzvot, contains with in it an interesting feature. The word for ‘in consequence’ is ekev, which also gives its name to our Parshah. Ekev more usually means heel, and the idea is probably that just as the rest of the foot and person follows after the heel, so consequences follow an action. The Sages, however, picked up on this unusual formulation and commented that this refers to the mitzvot that a person normally tramples with their heel, in other words pays scant attention to. The Torah is thus telling us that if we pay attention to even the small aspects of the mitzvot that we often trample underfoot and don’t take so seriously, then G-d’s blessing will surely follow.
This idea merits further investigation. What does it tell us about the way we should view the Torah and the fulfilment of the mitzvot? Is it really true that we will be blessed only if we strictly follow every aspect of Torah without the least deviation? This paints a picture of G-d examining our deeds ready to pounce on our least mistake. This is not an attitude conducive to a healthy Jewish lifestyle. As humans, we are by nature forgetful and prioritise some things over others. The idea that we are punished for the smallest mistake is one more likely to lead to religious neurosis rather than serving G-d with joy.
Rather, this comment can be seen in another light. It is teaching us that small things matter. We make think that Judaism is only about the ‘big’ mitzvot, such as kashrut and Shabbat. We might regard as less important ‘small’ things such as the way we speak to others or how we treat our employees. We might give lots of money to a major charity but ignore the homeless person we pass on the street. We may have time to attend the shiur of an important rabbi but no time to answer the question of a child.
The Torah is telling us that it is precisely these things that matter. The little acts of kindness, the going to a funeral of someone you don’t know, the giving of directions to strangers are just as important as other aspects of Judaism. Furthermore, it is precisely these actions that reveal are true attitude to the Torah and its values. It is through these actions that we show that Torah values are not merely for public show but have been integrated into our lives. By paying attention to the small things we show our true attitude and commitment to Judaism.
There are famously two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in Exodus and one in our Parshah in Deuteronomy. One of the main differences between them is the reason given for Shabbat. While in Exodus Shabbat recalls Creation, in Deuteronomy it remembers the Exodus from Egypt. The difference, however, goes further. If we look at the context we will see that there are in fact two different versions of the whole process of revelation. They are firstly distinguished by the name used for the site of revelation. In Exodus this is Mt Sinai, while in Deuteronomy it is Horev. But the emphasis is also different. While both narrate both the content and experience of the revelation they have different emphasises. The account in Exodus focuses more on the content of the revelation and the terms of the covenant, while in our Parshah the emphasis is on the experience of revelation and the reaction of the people.
This different focus meshes well with the different reasons given for keeping Shabbat as well as the famous distinction between ‘Remember’ and ‘Observe’. There are two aspects to keeping Shabbat. One is intellectual and one is experiential. When we ‘remember’ Shabbat we do so by doing specific actions, like saying kiddush that remind us of the meaning of the day. We perceive the world around us in a different way, seeing it as the work of one Creator and internalising the consequential respect for nature as G-d’s handiwork. We intellectually change our attitude to the world around us. This is Shabbat as a ‘Remembrance of Creation’.
When we ‘observe’ Shabbat, however, we do something different. The cessation from creative activity creates a framework whereby we experience the world differently. The freedom from work and materialistic striving enables us to both connect with our own humanity and spirituality and relate in a different way to those around us. Released from the burdens of our profession and our slavery to technology we relate to others as equals, not part of a hierarchical economic structure. This is Shabbat as a ‘Remembrance of the Exodus’.
Both of these aspects of Shabbat are of vital importance to our generation. In an age when our degradation of the planet threatens our very existence we need to deeply reflect on the world as the creation of G-d and our place and responsibility within it. In a time of increasing social and economic disparity we need to reconnect to our common humanity and its premise of fundamental equality. This is the message of Shabbat for our time.
The Sin of the Spies is a major component of the historical retrospective that makes up the first chapters of Deuteronomy. This is invariably read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, the date when according to tradition, the spies returned with their evil report, the people despaired and that generation were condemned to die in the wilderness. The same incident also was the focus of Moses’ rebuke to the tribes of Reuben and Gad which was related last week.
Thus the Sin of the Spies provides a thematic background to the days leading up to Tisha B’Av. This is not merely because of the historical coincidence. Rather this incident underlies the future disasters of destruction and exile which we commemorate on this date. Both the Psalmist and the prophet Ezekiel connect this sin to the future destruction of the Jewish state, G-d swearing to kill their children by the sword and scatter them among the nations. This is because the spies sin, the rejection of the land of Israel, was essentially unforgivable, as it in essence rejected G-d’s plan for the Jewish people. All future disasters stem from that tragic mistake. Thus it is necessary during this period to emphasises the essential importance of the Land of Israel as a basic component of Judaism. It is one of the pillars on which Jewish belief and practice rests and its removal causes the whole edifice to collapse.
It is thus especially necessary during this time of the year to negate the false premise of a recent phenomenon that seeks to do exactly this. This extreme form of Diasporism, in its rejection of Zionism, seeks to remove the connection to the Land from Judaism altogether, going even further than the failed attempts of the Reform movement in the 19th century. This effort is epitomised by a self-defined anti-Zionist synagogue in Chicago. Not only do they reject the modern State of Israel but they spurn any connection to the Land whatsoever, seeing their homeland only where they live. Their radicalism in this regard is so extreme that they substitute the Four Species taken on Succot, intimately connected to Israel, with local plants found in the Chicago area. This approach, furthermore, sees the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of Jews among the nations as a good thing that saved Judaism, despite in always being presented in both the Bible and later Jewish sources as a punishment and a tragedy. According to this view we should be having a party on Sunday, not fasting and mourning.
These people essentially eviscerate from Judaism an essential foundation, one that has preserved Jews throughout the centuries. This form of belief may be a form of ethical monotheism, loosely based on the Hebrew Bible. It is however certainly not any recognisable or conceivably legitimate form of Judaism. What it is, however, is a modern form of the Sin of the Spies. We should as such utterly reject the legitimacy of this approach and those who espouse it as having no place within Judaism. Lest, as in the wilderness, they cause us a weeping for generations.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 5779
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The war with the Midianites throws up various questions and difficulties but also can be a source of profound insight. If we follow the text closely we can discern at least two anomalies in the story which call for further examination. The first is that G-d commands Moses to attack Midian and avenge the vengeance of Israel on the Midianites, yet when Moses relays the command he refers to the vengeance of G-d. The second discrepancy is that G-d commands Moses concerning this expedition but he appoints Pinchas to take charge.
Concerning the first question Rashi simply comments that the vengeance of G-d is the vengeance of Israel and visa versa. The Hizkuni elucidates this point. Moses is represented as saying to G-d that while the Midianites have attacked Israel they really wish to attack G-d. Their hatred for Israel is based on the fact that Israel is G-d’s people. This is a profound insight into the deep roots of anti-Semitism. Whether consciously or not, people who oppose Jews are really opposing G-d. Deep down they hate Jews because of what they stand for.
In the case of the religious anti-Judaism of Christianity and Islam this is made specific. But even if the case of the pagan Nazi ideology their hatred of Jews was based on the moral code promulgated by Judaism which they regarded as having emasculated western civilisation through the medium of Christianity. Left wing anti-Semitism also sees the Jews as propagating a false ideology of religion or nationalism and refusing to assimilate itself into the universalist creed of socialist redemption. In every case hatred of Jews is based on what they believe. While religious anti-Semitism in theory believes Jews can be redeemed by changing their beliefs, racial anti-Semitism believes that these ideas are a genetic characteristic that can only be expunged by physically eliminating the Jews. Yet the basic objection is the same.
The second anomaly in this passage concerns Moses’ delegation of the war to Pinchas. The Hizkuni explains that even though G-d gave the task to Moses, he delegated it to Pinchas as he felt gratitude to the Midiaites who gave him refuge when he fled from Pharaoh. Even though the Midianites had subsequently become enemies of Israel, Moses still remembered their original kindness.
These two incidents teach us important lessons. If we understand that people hate Jews because of what we stand for then the answer to anti-Semitism is not merely to combat its overt manifestations. It is also to understand the root of the darkness and combat it by increasing the light. If people hate Jews because of who we are we will oppose them by being more, rather than less, Jewish.
Secondly, we should not allow other’s hatred of us to turn us into haters ourselves. It is possible to fight against our enemies without necessarily hating them. Despite the hostile and destructive actions of the Midianites, Moses never forgot their original kindness to him, even while having to combat them. Thus while being strong and facing down our enemies we should remember to both preserve our own humanity and strengthen our own Jewish identity. Thus we will prevail.
The trait of jealousy is not one that we are encouraged to develop. We are meant to work on acquiring traits like tolerance, forgiveness and understanding. Yet Pinchas is praised for his jealousy for G-d, jealousy that led to the killing of royals. Furthermore, this action by Pinchas is said to have deflected G-d’s jealousy, thus saving the Jewish people from destruction. How then should we understand this characteristic and what place should it have in our lives?
Firstly, the best translation the Hebrew word kana is probably righteous indignation. It implies the refusal to accept something that is clearly unacceptable and that makes our blood boil. In the context of the story of Pinchas it means that G-d is not able to accept the behaviour of the Israelites in cavorting with the Moabite women and serving their idol. These actions are incompatible with G-d’s purpose for Israel and thus intolerable. Pinchas is not able to accept the behaviour of a prince in Israel openly defying Moses and G-d and thus acts to remedy the situation. His action comes from a deep sense of what is right and moral and gut feeling that what is happening in front of him is simply wrong. This type of jealousy is seen as positive. It is this type of attitude that can cause people to interfere and protect the vulnerable under attack, even when this means endangering themselves. Lack of such an attitude can lead to people being assaulted on the street with one intervening, a sign of the breakdown of society.
Yet there is another side to this attitude that is not so positive. While this type of indignation can be valuable in leading to the defence of important values and standing up for others, it can also lead to narrow mindedness and intolerance. The later career of Pinchas and his great emulator Elijah bear this out. According to tradition, this same sense of righteousness leads Pinchas to be unable to deal effectively with Yiftach’s mistaken vow to sacrifice his daughter. Elijah’s righteous indignation enables him to stand up to Ahab and Jezebel and thus stop the total loss of Judaism in his generation. Yet in the end it proves unable to provide the leadership needed to bring the people back to G-d and causes G-d to replace him with Elisha who had a more gentle, and ultimately more successful, approach.
Thus, while being jealous for G-d or for your ideals has its place, it also has its limitations. It needs to be part of our spiritual armoury but is a dangerous weapon that needs to be used sparingly. It is telling that in rewarding Pinchas for his action, G-d blesses him with the covenant of peace. Pinchas will need an inner peace to control his feelings of justified anger, in order that they don’t control him. In the last lines of the Prophets, Elijah is spoken of coming to reconcile children with parents. The way of reconciliation rather than that of indignation is probably the better path for us to follow.
The story of Bilaam can be seen as a separate and distinct part of the Torah. In the Torah text it consists of a single section with no paragraphs. Indeed, in some rabbinical commentaries it is referred to as the ‘Book of Bilaam’. An interesting feature of this story is that it doesn’t contain the name of Moses or have any other participation of the People of Israel. Throughout the narrative the Israelites are regarded as the objects of other’s focus but in fact play no part in the story, nor is there any interaction with them. Balak wants the Israelites cursed, Bilaam wants to curse them and in the end is forced to bless them, but all of this is from afar. Nothing the Israelites actually do or say seems to have any relevance to the actions of the characters in the story. Balak is reacting to the fact the Israelites are on his borders and Bilaam seems not to have known very much about them before being asked to perform his present mission. The whole story of the deprecation or praise of the Jewish people is thus seen totally from a non-Jewish perspective.
This teaches us an important lesson about attitudes to Jews and especially concerning the nature of anti-Semitism. As Jonathan Sacks and others point out anti-Semitism is in the end not about Jews. As in the case of Bilaam and Balak the actions or otherwise of Jews have no bearing on the matter. Anti Jewish prejudice exists in the minds of those holding it and is not a function of Jewish behaviour. In short anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem but a non-Jewish problem.
The prevalence or lack of anti-Semitic attitudes in a society or organisation tells us nothing about the Jews in that society or organisation. Indeed, as in the case of some deeply anti-Semitic countries, there may not even be any Jews around. Rather, it tells us everything about the nature of that society or organisation.
This leads to two important conclusions also pointed out by Sacks and others. Firstly, anti-Jewish prejudice is not only a problem for Jews but a serious issue for the society in which it exists. Secondly, only that society or organisation can solve the problem. The Israelites had no influence whether Bilaam cursed or blessed them. Only Bilaam, influenced by G-d, could make that decision. Likewise, only non-Jews can effectively combat anti-Semitism. Jews can warn and complain about it but can’t resolve it. We can raise awareness of anti-Semitism in the Labour party but only the Labour party can solve it. If they choose not to, the fate of Bilaam himself predicts the self-destruction to which they are heading.
Traditionally, it has been seen as a warning. If G-d treats the righteous so strictly, how much more so should normal mortals take note and behave. But the opposite could also be true. If even the righteous are punished harshly, what hope is there for anyone else. This concept can also be seen as strengthening the principle of equal responsibility under the law. The punishment of such prominent persons shows that G-d treats everyone equally and that Jewish leadership is not about absolute power but has to conform to the rules of the Torah.
However, it is possible in the specific case of these three leaders to divine another lesson. All three played leading roles in the Exodus generation but died before the entry into the Land. While the reason for Miriam’s demise is not given, that of Moses and Aaron is clearly stated. While many interpretations have been given of what they did wrong, in essence they amount to a failure of leadership. Specifically a failure to properly understand the new generation, the children who had grown up in the wilderness. In both the case of lack of water and the later incident of the two tribes wanting to settle in Transjordan, a close reading of text shows a common error. Moses treats the new generation as if they were their parents. He fails to understand that he is dealing with a different scenario than previous incidents. In our Parshah he treats the children asking for water as if they were their parents we read about a few weeks ago demanding meat. G-d, however, doesn’t punish them but accedes to their request while chastising Moses for not perceiving the difference. In the case of the two tribes Moses specifically of accuses them of repeating the mistake of their parents in the Sin of the Spies, while their reply to him and their subsequent actions, demonstrate that he had completely misunderstood their motives. This is the real reason these leaders had to die. They were simply not suited to leading the new generation and so exit the stage and make way for leaders of the new generation like Joshua and Caleb.
This teaches us an important lesson. No one, even the greatest leader, is indispensable. There comes a time when it is necessary to demit office and let others who are more attuned to new circumstances to take over. That is not an admission of failure or a lack of courage but a function of good leadership. Sometimes the most important contribution a leader can make is knowing when to go.
The answer may lie in the fact that after Korach and his followers are destroyed the people accuse Moses and Aaron of causing their death and G-d then really does consume many of the people in a plague. It would appear that G-d’s original proposal, that thee rebellion went wider than just Korach and his party was correct. The underlying problem that caused the rebellion went so deep that it survived the destruction of the ringleaders.
What was this issue and what can we learn from this incident? A hint lies in the words of Datan and Aviram when they refuse to negotiate with Moses. They accuse him of bringing them up from a land of milk and honey to die in the wilderness. It is clear that this ironic inversion of G-d’s promise to Israel is a reference to the aftermath of the Sin of the Spies, whereby that generation were condemned to die in the wilderness. That underlying complaint did not disappear with the destruction of Korach, rather it intensified. Just as they held Moses responsible for having to perish in the desert, so they blamed him for the death of the rebels. The common factor underlying their behaviour is a complete refusal to take any responsibility for their own actions. If they are not going to enter the Land that is not because they sinned but is Moses’ fault. If Korach and his followers are consumed it is again not their fault but Moses is to blame. Ironically, this total lack of ability to accept responsibility for their actions merely confirms G-d’s assessment that this generation are simply not ready for the responsibility of independent nationhood in the Land. If you can’t deal with the consequences of your decisions you can’t be sovereign.
This incident is highly relevant to our present situation. We face not only a breakdown of political systems but of political accountability, that reaches far beyond the political class. For too many people if they are warned about the negative consequences of their decisions it is fake news. When those consequences subsequently become reality it is the responsibility of those who warned them, never their own fault. As with the Israelites this type of attitude can only lead to disaster. Let us hope that we learn the lesson before we too lose the Promised Land.
Moses sends twelve spies to reconnoitre the Land. Ten bring back a negative report slandering the Land and only two, Joshua and Caleb support going forward to conquer the Land as commanded by G-d. The consequence is that the nation is condemned to wander in the wilderness and only their children enter the Land. If we examine the list of the men sent as spies found at the beginning of the Parshah we notice something strange. Normally, the two tribes coming from Joseph are attributed to his name. So in the census it states ‘for the tribe of Joseph’ and then directly afterwards list each tribe Ephraim and Manasseh. Here however, when mentioning Joshua who comes from Ephraim it omits any reference to Joseph and only several names later mentions ‘from Joseph’ in connection with the spy from the tribe of Manasseh.
The Hizkuni explains this in an interesting way. The spies and Joseph had something in common: they both spoke slander, Joseph about his brothers and the spies about the Land. Thus the scout from Manasseh who with nine others slandered the Land is designated as from Joseph. Joshua, however, even though he is also genetically connected to Joseph, being from Ephraim, famously did not slander the Land and so Joseph is not mentioned in connection with his name. The other spy to speak the truth, Caleb, comes from Judah who famously admitted the truth even in extremely embarrassing circumstances. We would therefore expect him to be truthful. Joshua, on the other hand, coming from a family with a history of slander, is going against the grain in refusing to join in the slander of the Land of the other spies.
This comment of the Hizkuni teaches us an important lesson. We all have different family histories and genetic propensities. It is normal for most people to generally conform to type in this regard. It takes a special type of strength to go against the grain and become something different. This is the meaning of the rabbinic dictum the ‘where the penitent stand even the perfectly righteous cannot stand’. It is easy for someone brought up religious or observant to continue on that path. It is far harder for someone brought up secular to choose an observant lifestyle. It is easy to be observant in Jerusalem or New York were everything is provided for you, it is a lot harder in a place like Edinburgh. The Sages thus point out that the stature of those who come from outside either by upbringing or geography and nevertheless follow Torah, is higher than those who were always inside.
Joshua had not only to stand up to a negative majority but overcome his own family history in order to do the right thing. He merited by doing so not only to enter the Land but also to become the successor of Moses. Recalling him we should thus respect all those that may come from a difficult or different background. They may be in fact greater than us.
The first half of the book of Numbers is itself divided into clear sections. This division is even signified in the text itself by two inverted letters surrounding the invocation used when the camp broke up and encamped. The same verses we use when taking out and returning the Torah.
The first section deals with the preparations to the promised land, including the make up of the camp, the role of the Levites and the order of the march. This section ends with the first journey. The second section describes how once they got going everything went wrong and they end up wandering in the wilderness for forty years, ending with the rebellion of Korah and its aftermath.
If we think about this division a serious question arises. We read in great detail of the meticulous preparations the Israelites made for the journey to the Land. Everything was seemingly in place for a successful march forward to their goal, which was only eleven days away. Yet all this preparatory work seems to have been to no avail, the whole thing falls apart and they don’t reach their destination until thirty eight years later. How do we explain this paradox?
One answer is that they didn’t factor in problems. Everything was perfectly set up to work but it wasn’t always clear what would happen if things went wrong. Thus at crucial moments Moses’ leadership was thrown into crisis and he himself despaired. Maybe, for example, if the seventy elders had been around from the beginning some of the problems could have been avoided.
But there was a more basic problem. The structures needed for the journey were set up. Everyone knew their place and what they were meant to do. But that didn’t mean that they were enthusiastically behind the project or ready for the difficulties that would ensure. They may have had a general idea as to the ultimate goal but were not prepared for the difficulties they would face. Thus, every time they faced an obstacle or privation it turned into a major crisis. In the end the various crises proved to much and that generation failed to achieve the goal.
This story should teach us important lessons about any project or undertaking we embark on. We may prepare meticulously and think we are ready to go forward. But unless we also factor in things going wrong the smallest problem may derail us. Even more importantly, unless we take people along with us and have them share our vision, we won’t succeed. They may give initial consent but won’t last the distance. Inspiring others is the first perquisite for success.
The central portion of the Parshah is taken up with two mitzvot. One is that of the Sotah, the woman suspected of adultery by her husband and the second the mitzvah of the Nazirite, who takes upon himself extra restrictions. The Sages explain the juxtaposition of the two sections regarding one as leading to the other. Whoever sees the Sotah in her disgrace will take a vow of a Nazirite to abstain from wine. Wine being considered a prelude to engaging in illicit relations the Nazirite seeing the consequences of inebriation decides to abstain altogether. Also, perceiving the temptations of physical beauty the Nazirite resolves to let his hair grow long, thus lessening his handsome appearance.
It is possibly to dispute these perceptions and indeed even to understand how the opposite might be true but I think these comments of our Sages teach us an extremely important lesson. Someone is observing the ceremony whereby a woman suspected by her husband of adultery is tested. What reaction does this witness of her humiliation produce in the observer? One might think that this scene would invoke judgement, disgust and even self-righteousness. Negative thoughts and speech concerning the woman and her behaviour are the most likely outcome of watching the ceremony of a Sotah.
But that is not what the Sages say happens or should happen. Rather, the person witnessing the scene becomes a Nazirite. Rather than judging the woman they judge themselves, rather than disparaging the behaviour of the Sotah they change their own behaviour. The response to inappropriate behaviour by others is not to self-righteously condemn them but to draw the appropriate lessons for our own behaviour.
Thus the Sages in connecting these two mitzvot in the way they do are imparting to us important moral guidance. We can all find things to criticise in the behaviour of other people. It can be tempting to increase our self esteem by disparaging the actions of others. This is especially true if we regard there indeed being grounds for such criticism. The Torah teaches us a different way. Our reaction to the misdeeds of others is not to indulge in judgemental comparisons with ourselves, rather it is to examine our own behaviour. Instead of concentrating on the faults of others we should seek to correct our own.
In order to build a better world it is indeed necessary to correct mistakes and reform behaviour. What the juxtaposition of these two mitzvot teaches us is that the mistakes and behaviour we need to change are first and foremost our own.
The Jewish calendar is structured in such a way that the various festivals and Torah readings relate to each other in a way that provides us with various historical and spiritual lessons. The Jewish summer is bracketed with two festivals that commemorate historically the receiving of the Torah. One is of course Shavuot and the other, at the end of the summer, is Yom Kippur, the day of the giving of the second tablets. Shavuot commemorates the enthusiastic embrace of Torah by the Jewish people, while Yom Kippur remembers a chastened people being forgiven by G-d after the sin of the Golden Calf. Shavuot symbolises the exciting possibilities of a new relationship, while Yom Kippur teaches us about rebuilding that relationship after a serious breakdown.
During the period in between we read the book of Numbers. If Genesis is the book of beginnings, Exodus redemption and Leviticus law, Numbers is the book of crisis and failure. Murmurings, rebellions, unfaithfulness and a whole generation condemned to wander is the narrative we confront here. Yet Numbers is also the book of repair and return. Despite all the crises and the recurrent breakdown of the relationship between G-d and Israel, at the end the covenant is still intact and the Israelites, forty years late, still on the way to their destiny in the Promised land. Numbers thus not only teaches us about failure and breakdown but how to recover and rebuild. Numbers teaches us that the Torah is not only given to those that are perfect and never make mistakes but also and even primarily, to those that fail.
It is thus highly appropriate that we almost always begin reading the book of Numbers the week before Shavuot. As we prepare to receive the Torah anew on the anniversary of its first being given, we should be strengthened by the knowledge that the Torah is not for the perfect but those that fail and rebuild, fall and rise again.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 5779
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
‘You shall be holy, for I your G-d am holy’. Thus begins the Parshah containing many of the mitzvot of the Torah. Indeed Kedoshim is the central Parshah in a series that contains most of the mitzvot, and thus defines what it is to be Jewish. Therefore understanding this statement is crucial to Jewish identity, but what does it mean?
The plain meaning of the word kadosh, normally translated as holy, is to be separated or different. A pagan prostitute, for example is called a kadesh, because he or she are separated out for that function in society. So we are to be separate or different because G-d is different. But G-d is so totally different from us that it is hard to know what precise aspect of Divine distinction we are meant to emulate.
I think that the answer lies in a major motif of Jewish mysticism, the concept that we are living in G-d’s space. ‘G-d is the place of the world’ said the Rabbis, ‘but the world is not His place’. Or in terms of later Kabbalah, G-d contracted His presence in order to make room for creation. G-d hides Himself in order to create a space for us to exist and act independently. In that sense G-d is apart or different from us, this makes G-d kadosh. I would suggest that this is the aspect of G-d’s holiness or difference that we are called upon to emulate. Just as G-d is kadosh, in restricting his power in order to allow room for us, we are called upon to be kedoshim, by restricting our power, in order to allow room for other aspects of creation.
Many of the mitzvot in the Parshah can be seen in that light. Shabbat is of course the most obvious. Indeed observing Shabbat is specifically linked to reverence for the Temple, as if to say, that just as we respect G-d’s boundaries by not encroaching on his space in the Temple, we need to respect the rights of the rest of creation by giving them space, at least one day a week. The laws of forbidden mixtures, teach us not to interfere to graphically in the order of creation, while we give even trees or animals space to grow, before we are allowed to use them for our own benefit.
All this teaches us that as G-d makes room for us, we must give space to others. This is a vital lesson for our world today, suffering from an overabundance of human interference. We must heed the lesson of Kedoshim, that restraint is Divine.
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 phrasetamrukai 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 / Zachor
For twenty first century Jews this week's Torah reading is difficult to say the least. Most Jews, even most observant Jews have problems with the idea of animal sacrifice and certainly with wiping out other people. The concept of taking an animal, slitting its throat and burning it on an altar as a way of worshipping G-d just doesn't do it for most modern Jews. Even more so, the idea of Divinely mandated genocide causes some unease to say the least. Yet these are indeed the Torah readings for this week, so what do we do with them?
There are three possible approaches. One, is simply to dismiss them as out of date and unacceptable and having no relevance for today's world. This may be intellectually satisfying but risks making the whole concept of the Torah irrelevant and subject to human whims and generational notions. The opposite extreme is to simply accept what is written as simply Divinely mandated and as such literally relevant today as then. This approach requires us to suspend our innate moral judgement, something that is likely in the end to be unsustainable and lead to a wholesale rejection of Judaism.
There is however a third way. This frankly acknowledges that we have problems with certain concepts in the Torah, while also accepting that we don't necessarily understand everything the Torah mandates. We can seek to understand the reasoning behind the original command while not necessarily believing it needs to literally carried out today or even in an idealised future. Maimonidies, for example, understood animal sacrifices as a temporary concession to the weakness of the Jews of that time. Even though others disagreed with him, his opinion is still totally acceptable in normative traditional Judaism. We can even take this approach while trying to understand the deeper lessons being conveyed by some of these concepts. Rabbi Kook, for example, didn't think that there would be animal sacrifices in a future Temple but still perceived deep mystical meaning in the sacrificial service as detailed in our Parshah.
So let us not either discard our moral sense or our belief in the Torah but use both our reason and our faith to find meaning even in the most challenging parts of Torah. After all, it is those sections of the Torah that challenge us that enable us to grow and we should embrace them.
As part of the series of blessings promised as a consequence of obedience to the mitzvot, the Torah promises that we shall defeat our enemies, even if they are more numerous than us. We are promised that: ‘five of you shall chase a hundred and a hundred shall chase ten thousand’. If we pay close attention to these numbers we discover that they are not parallel. Five into a hundred is a factor of twenty, while a hundred into ten thousand is a factor of a hundred. The commentators noticed this discrepancy and on this verse Rashi makes the comment that a few keeping the mitzvot is not the same as many who do so.
This statement needs some elucidation. It seems to be saying that there is not merely a quantitative difference in different numbers of observant Jews but a qualitative difference. Indeed, using the proportions in the verse above twenty Jews following the Torah are five times more valuable than one person following the Torah. A lone Jew in Skye putting on Tefillin would thus be less valuable than a minyan of Jews doing the same in Edinburgh. How are we to understand this? Surely there is a value in following the mitzvot in a small Jewish community were it is more difficult than in a large Jewish community were it is so much easier. Are no points given for effort?
I think the answer lies in an area were indeed numbers do make a difference. Men at least, have a mitzvah to pray with a minyan. Ten or men praying the Amidah together creates not just a quantitative difference but a qualitative one. Prayer with the community is of a different and higher order than praying without a minyan. This is because Judaism is a communal religion, not just concerned with individual salvation but with communal redemption. Praying with the community, we stand before G-d as a corporate body, not just as an individual but as the people of Israel.
What the Torah is trying to tell us by these numbers is that as Jews we are strongest when we stand together whether in prayer, Torah observance, or defending ourselves. That was the lesson we learnt fifty two years ago. When Israel was threatened with destruction Jews all over the world and of all ages and persuasions united as one in action and payer and the gates of Heaven were opened and miracles occurred. Unity led to redemption. So today whether facing down our enemies or supporting a minyan let us join together as one to again open the gates of redemption.
This week is one of the rare occasions when we read from three Torah scrolls. In the weekly Parshah we read of the laws concerning leprosy, while in the two additional scrolls we read about the Rosh Hodesh offering and the laws of Pesach. These readings seem toi deal with completly different topics. Can we discover there a common theme that unites them?
The leprosy talked about in the Parshah is not what we call leprosy, which is incurable, but a different type of skin disease, a form of which can also appear in clothes and houses. Tradition sees the appearence of this disease as a punishment for lashon hara or evil speech. A person who engaged in such harmful talk would be punished by this disease that led to there temporary banishment from society. They sort to isolate others, so they are themselves isolated to reflect on the evil consequences of their actions.
Among the sacrifices brought on Rosh Hodesh is a sin offering. The Sages said that G-d asked us to bring this offering to atone for His dimunation of the moon. The Midrash tells that the moon had complained that it and the sun should not be equal, so G-d reduced the size of the moon. Here too we have a lesson in the importantance of not speaking evil of others and showing humility not arragance.
In the third scroll we read about the laws of Pesach. In the synopsis of the Exodus story from Deuteronomy which we read at the Seder, it states: vayareu otanu hamitzrim, which is understood to mean ‘the Egyptians made us seem evil’. Indeed Pharaoh begins his campaign of oppression by slandering the Jews.
We thus have in our three readings today three lessons about the importance of watching what we say and not attacking others. Whether on an individual, national or even cosmic basis, the Torah points out to us the dire consequences of evil speech. This is especially true in the political realm were posionous and hateful speech has reached epidemic proportions and is threatening the survival of democracy. From friends to politicials to bloggers we need to think twice before we speak and consider carefully the consequences of what we say. The consequences of not doing so are serious indeed.
What is the Torah’s view of modern economic systems? Does the Torah support a socialist or capitalist world view; is it in favour of public ownership or private property? From this week’s Parshah we do not seem to get a clear answer. On the one hand our Parshah can be seen as very socialist. The Sabbatical year mandates that the lands and its crops belong to everyone, with equal access to rich and poor. All have rights to the produce, and no one can stop someone entering their land to take it. This legislation is concluded by the declaration that the Land is G-d’s and we are but tenants. All very Labour.
But when we examine the laws of redemption of property, a different picture emerges. Here the Torah places a great emphasis on the right of private property and especially the rights of inherited land. Rather than land being in common it is important that land remain in the family, and even a purchase of a plot can only be temporary. Here the Torah seems to restrict social mobility and take the side of what we would call the landed gentry. All very Tory.
How are we then to understand this dichotomy at the heart of our Parshah? Can the two seemingly different world views be reconciled? A clue may lie in the fact that the above statement about the land belonging to G-d is actually said in conjunction not only with the Sabbatical year but with the selling of land. ‘The land should not be sold in perpetuity, because the land is mine’. In another words the source of the property rights of the landowner is the fact that in effect G-d owns all the land. It is He who has parcelled out the land to each family, and we are thus all tenants with Him. To let land fall forever into the hands of those that could buy it would be to upset the Divine order.
G-d believes neither in socialism, nor capitalism but a property owning society, where it is ensured that all own property. At the same time property owners are to regard themselves as tenants of G-d, releasing the land to public ownership once every seven years. In this way, the Torah seeks to create a society that avoids the dependence culture of socialism while preventing the extremes of wealth of unfettered capitalism. This is the Divine system, and one worth contemplating today.
The criteria for which animals are kosher seems to be clearly set out in the Torah. You need to have an animal with cloven hoofs and that chwes its cud. The Torah, then however, continues to detail various types of animals that can’t be eaten such as the rabbit, camel and pig. The rule prohibiting insects seems also to be clear, except we then are informed that certain types of locusts, despite being clearly insects, are kosher. Earlier on we are given in detail the rites to be followed for the inaguaration of the Priesthood. Nevertheless, after the tragic incident of Aaron’s sons, Moses reemphasises the proper disposal of several of the offerings.
What all of these rules have in common is that things are possibly not as clear as they might have seemed. The animals specified as not kosher are those which have one kosher criterion. Rabbits and camels chew their cud while pigs have cloven hoofs, yet they are not kosher. Locusts, of course, despite fulfilling the criteria of insects are nevertheless kosher. It similiarily turns out that the rules for disposing of the inaugaration offerings are not as clear as it appeared. In fact, Moses is forced to admit that in the changed circumstances of Aaron’s tragedy, he should after all, not have eaten the sin offering.
This is of course reinforced by the special reading for this Shabbat, that deals with the mitzvah of the Red Heifer. Famously, the essence of this passage is in its inscrutability, with the very rituals and people which enable the purification of others causing impurity and becoming themselves impure.
All of this may seem somewhat technical and not very interesting or relevant burt it in fact teaches us an important lesson. It is that often things that seem clear on the surface are not so if you dig deeper.. A course of action or idea might seem to be superficially positive and worthwhile. On further investigation however, there could be serious negative implications that are not readily apparent. Politicians and sales people are masters at presenting the positives of a policy or purchase while neglecting to mention the complications or deficincies that lurk below the surface.
This is especially true of leaders who propose simply solutions to complicated problems. If only we elect them or follow their advice or policy everything will be wonderful. Reality, unfortunately, is never that simple. We can see with our own eyes today where such simplistic ideas lead us. The Torah, by bothering to detail possibly exceptions to simple rules, teaches us to question simplistic assumptions. Beneath the placid lakes of simple solutions can lurk monsters.
If we look at the ritual for the purification of the leper, we can notice an interesting parallel. This ritual requires the taking of two birds, one of which is killed and the blood used to sprinkle on the leper. The other bird is then dipped in the blood and freed in the open field. This sounds similar to another famous ritual, that of Yom Kippur. There we have two goats, one of which is killed and the blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. The other, is set free in the wilderness, or in Temple times thrown from a cliff in the wilderness. The parallel is made more exact by the comment of the Hizkuni that the freed bird, which was stained red from the blood, was killed by its fellow birds because of its weird appearance. Indeed Nachmanidies specifically connects the ritual of the birds with that of the goats on Yom Kippur.
What, then, is the common theme behind these two rituals? The two identical goats on Yom Kippur can be said to symbolise essential unity of people. Yet one goes into the Holy of Holies, why the other is cast into the wilderness. This teaches us that all of us are capable of both good and evil and it is often circumstance rather than total free choice that determines our fate. Thus we should neither regard ourselves as particularly righteous or wicked, but all with human frailties that need to be both worked on and forgiven. The leper, by engaging in slander, has drawn attention to his neighbour’s failings. He has set himself above his fellow, regarding himself as better. The ritual of the two birds teaches him the same lesson we are taught on Yom Kippur. His good fortune or supposed moral superiority may be more due to circumstances than choice. He, indeed, may have exactly the same shortcomings as the person he criticised. The fact that we take the live bird and dip it in the blood of the other bird, may symbolise precisely this point.
Both rituals teach us not to regard ourselves as better than others and to realises that, given the right circumstances, we could be in the other’s predicament. The process of getting rid of Hametz we are currently engaged in, gives us an opportunity to apply this in our own lives. The puffed up leaven of Hametz is a symbol of pride. In the weeks before Pesach we work to rid ourselves not only of physical Hametz, but of spiritual arrogance. In order to properly celebrate Pesach we must humble ourselves before the One who humbled the pride of the Egyptians, and thus taught us that all men are equal.
Shemot (Exodus) 5779
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
The purpose of the Tabernacle, whose completion we read about this week, was the indwelling of the Divine Presence amongst the people of Israel. This Presence is symbolised by two different physical phenomena: a sort of cloud and fire. We are told at the end of this week's reading that the glory of G-d filled the Tabernacle. At the end of the actual dedication of the Tabernacle, which we read about in a few weeks, a fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings on the altar.
There is a significant difference between these two manifestations. It is related at the end of the Parshah that when the Tabernacle was finished G-d's glory filled it and because of this Moses was unable to enter. This however was only a temporary phenomenon. Afterwards this total immersion of the Tabernacle ceased and Moses was able to speak to G-d in the Tent of Meeting. On the other hand, the fire that came down from heaven at the end of the dedication of the Tabernacle didn't disappear, rather was to endure continually. Indeed, there is a mitzvah to ensure that the fire on the altar is constantly fed with fuel in order that it should not be extinguished.
Why is there a difference in these two Divine manifestations? The erection of the Tabernacle was a one time event. One can only build a structure once, them it exists by itself. The tremendous satisfaction and sense of accomplishment felt by the people was also thus a fleeting sensation. Thus the Divine manifestation on that occasion was likewise a spectacular one off event that didn't continue in the same manner. In contrast, the dedication we read about later was the inauguration of the actual service of the Tabernacle. This was something that would continue every day, month and year. The ignition of fire on the altar, therefore, was something that was to continue long after the excitement of the dedication had passed.
These two examples of the Divine Presence can teach us something about our own spiritual life. We may have spiritual experiences that like the glory of G-d are intense and all consuming. Like Moses at the original erection of the Tabernacle we may be left overwhelmed and temporarily transformed. Yet these sort of events, while important, are short lived and not a basis for a sustained religious life. On the other hand, the daily experience of studying Torah and fulfilling the mitzvot provide us with spiritual sustenance which, like the fire on the altar, sustains are spiritual life every day and every month.
Some Jews, unfortunately, only have the first sort of experience, coming to synagogue only on rarely and having important but fleeting spiritual experiences on certain festivals or at life cycle events. Yet a sustained Jewish life necessitates something more. It requires the continual fire on the altar of regular observance that alone can created a fulfilled Jewish life.
The actual building of the Tabernacle begins with Moses reminding the people of the importance of Shabbat. Included in this is the command not to light fire on Shabbat. The Sages gave various reasons why this aspect of the many prohibit types of work on Shabbat was singled out. It is possible that the use of fire was chosen as example of an activity forbidden on Shabbat because it encapsulates the underlying problem with all or most of them, thus explaining to us the purpose of Shabbat itself. We use fire to change something from its natural state into something made by humans. So for example we take a raw natural potato and by use of fire transform it into something expressly human created, cooked food. Indeed it is possibly to say that fire or its derivatives is the main means of transforming natural substances into human creations. In this we are imitating the creative activity of G-d and it is precisely this that we are forbidden to do on Shabbat.
G-d, as it were, rested on Shabbat in order to teach us that while changing the natural environment is good we also need to set ourselves limits. We need to respect nature as it is without necessarily always seeking to transform it for our purposes. This is the basic lesson that Shabbat comes to teach us and it is a lesson vitally needed in today's world. Without setting limits to our exploitation we are in danger of undermining the very ecosystem that enables us to survive.
Today is also Shabbat Shekalim, commemorating the giving of the Half-Shekel. One of the lessons we learn from this mitzvah is the intrinsic worth of each individual. We don't simply count people because each person is important and unparalleled and not simply a number. We instead value the unique contribution they can make to the world. Yet, our desire to physically transform our world, to make money or acquire possessions, we are in danger of treating the individual as object. Shabbat, in forbidding this activity for one day a week, thus also rescues human dignity. That is why in addition to commemorating Creation it also recollects our liberation from slavery in Egypt.
These two concepts are connected. If we remorselessly ravage nature in pursuit of our goals we are also likely to ruthlessly exploit other human beings. Conversely, if we respect the natural world we are more likely to treat other people with dignity. In bidding us stop our exploitation of our environment, Shabbat rescues both nature and humanity.
The greater part of the second half of the book of Exodus is taken up with the instructions concerning the Tabernacle, covering almost four and a half Parshiot. We are told first how to make the Tabernacle and the record of the actual construction. It is therefore seems to be extremely important but what exactly is its importance. Why was it necessary to have such a structure and what was its basic function. One traditional answer is that it comes in response to the sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelites sinned because they desired a concrete representation of G-d and the Tabernacle provided this. This is given credence by the fact that the sin of the Golden Calf is recounted between the instructions for the Tabernacle and its actual construction. Yet the same chronology in the Torah places the command concerning the Tabernacle before the sin, not as a response to it.
Another explanation sees the Tabernacle as a permanent replica of the Divine revelation on Mt Sinai. G-d revealed Himself then and the record of that revelation is placed in a structure that itself contains in a more concentrated form G-d's Presence. Yet, while the Tabernacle itself does symbolise G-d's Presence in the midst of Israel it doesn't really continue the experience of revelation,not being connected necessarily with experience of prophecy.
If we look at what actually happens in the Tabernacle we can see that is really functions as a place of communal worship. It thus functions as an important component of the three basic ideas that are fundamental to Jewish life. Judaism consists firstly of the recognition and commemoration of G-d's role in Jewish history and destiny, epitomised by the Exodus. It also consists of practice of the mitzvot of the Torah and the intrinsic connection between Jews and the Land of Israel. An integral part of the practice of the mitzvot of the Torah is communal worship. The book of Exodus begins with the Exodus and continues with basic social and other legislation that forms the backbone of the mitzvot. Yet it then carries on with detailed instructions concerning the Tabernacle, institution regular communal worship. This is of vital importance Without such activity following the Torah can be simply good practice devoid of connection to G-d. While of course performance of the mitzvot themselves brings us closer to G-d on an intellectual and emotional level only regular contact with G-d through worship reminds us of the reason for it all.
Communal worship strengthens the bonds between the community and between the collective and G-d. Thus when the Temple was destroyed the Jews didn't simply do without and keep the mitzvot without worship. Rather they established synagogues and the concept of communal prayer. It was this, maybe more than anything that kept Jews together and stopped Judaism simply becoming a form of ethical monotheism. The synagogue and communal worship have thus been vital throughout Jewish history and they are no less vital today.
In retelling the story of Jewish people we seem to have reached the climax of the narrative last week with the revelation at Sinai and the proclamation of the Ten Commandments. Yet the legislation contained in this week's reading is an integral part of that Revelation as indicated by the use of the conjunctive 'and these are the laws' which introduce it. Furthermore the end of the Parshah contains further details of the ratification of the covenant between G-d and Israel, thus bracketing the legislation between accounts of the Revelation.
The thematic connection, however, runs even deeper. The Revelation itself is a direct consequence of the Exodus and in fact begins with the words 'I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt'. The legislation we read this week is this a direct consequence of the Exodus and the application of the lessons taught by that seminal event. This is seen most strikingly in the fact the very first laws in the legislative list concern slavery and clearly limit and humanise its function. A Hebrew slave can only work for six years and a female slave cannot be misused. A master that kills his slave is a murderer and a slave that is physically deformed as a result of mistreatment must go free. The connection to the Exodus is also made explicit in the legislation demanding the equal treatment of strangers 'because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
But maybe the most striking lesson learnt from the Exodus is a stark warning of the consequences of bad behaviour. We are enjoined not to oppress the orphan or the widow. If we do so, warns the Torah, G-d will kill us and our wives will be widows and our children orphans. In this blunt admonition we see the object lesson to be learnt from what G-d did to the Egyptians. They oppressed you and G-d intervened on your behalf to punish them. If you oppress others G-d will intervene on their behalf to oppress you. You might think because you are strong you can crush those weaker but remember G-d is stronger than you.
We thus see that the Exodus story serves as a basic underlying theme of all the Torah's legislation. It was not merely a historic event but a revolutionary upheaval whose consequences were to lead to the radical restructuring of society based on the ideas of freedom, equality and human dignity revealed by G-d in His redemption of the Jewish people. Those lessons are as valid in today's world as they were then. It is thus the duty of all of us as Jews to see how we can individually and collectively apply them to reshape our world.
Parshat Yitro contains two topics, the establishment of a judicial system and the Revelation at Sinai. It is possible to connect the two subjects in various ways and many have done so. One way of connecting the two is to look at the underlying idea behind these two events. Jethro sees that Moses is judging the people all by himself and regards this as a serious mistake. It is firstly not sustainable but also not the correct way of doing things. He suggests instead the democratisation of the judicial system. There will be various levels of judiciary involving many more people and this will bring the judges and the Law closer to the people. Instead of feeling that the process is something that is distant and not connected to them, they can feel involved.
The same idea underlies the Revelation at Sinai. While most of the Torah was revealed through the medium of Moses, at the very beginning of this relationship it was important for G-d to speak to the whole people. It is a cardinal principle of Judaism that our belief in the Torah is not based on the word of an individual who claimed G-d spoke to them but a whole nation heard G-d reveal the Torah. This represents a democratisation of religion. The Torah is not the preserve of a selected group or only one part of the Jewish people but belongs to all of us. It is not owned only by Rabbis or men but is the possession of every individual Jew. Every Jew should be involved in the learning and interpreting of Torah and every Jewish voice should be heard.
This is the message that both Jethro and G-d himself tell us in the Parshah and it is a vital message for our generation. In the past it was not always easy for everyone to learn or take part in the discussion. Societal constraints also meant the women and other marginalised groups were often not heard. This created the precise opposite of what Jethro, for example intended. A judicial system close to the people has legitimacy precisely because the people affected by it believe that they are part of the conversation. Excluding people from the Halakhic discourse de-legitimises the conclusions reached by the process and the system itself, which is precisely what has happened in our generation.
It is therefore important and vital that women are now taken part in the Halakhic discussion. But we must go further. Just as it is becoming unacceptable to make decisions concerning women without the input of women, so the difficult Halakhic discussions around LGBT issues urgently need Halahicaly informed LGBT voices, and so on. Each individual Jew at Sinai heard G-d's voice as He gave the Torah and established the Halakhic system. Halakha today also needs to be informed by the voice of all Jews.
Rather they learn about Shabbat through experiencing it in connection with the Manna. They have a week of going out every day to collect Manna and not being able to leave any for the next day. Suddenly, on Friday, they are told the opposite. They will gather twice as much as usual and it won't rot if they leave some for the next day. Rather, the next day there will be no Manna. Thus they learn of the concept of Shabbat. Through experiencing Shabbat through the medium of the Manna they learn directly that keeping Shabbat will not negatively affect their livelihood, but they will instead receive the same amount plus the benefit of a days rest.
This idea of learning Judaism through experience is not unique to Shabbat. The Sages stated that a maidservant at the Reed Sea had a greater revelation of G-d the Ezekiel the prophet, who saw the Divine Chariot. Unlike, Ezekiel's experience the people's response to the Crossing of the Sea, is recited daily in our prayers. But perhaps no other aspect of Judaism is learnt as well be personal experience as Shabbat.
Simply, learning about Shabbat can present it as a long list of things not to do. Shabbat can seem from the outside as a day of obligations and restrictions. Only by experiencing a proper Shabbat can you understand the fantastic feeling that the framework of those very restrictions make possible. It is for this reason that virtually all Jewish outreach programmes have experiencing Shabbat at their heart. Keeping a proper Shabbat with its special atmosphere can simply turn you on to Judaism.
On Shabbat Vayakhel/1-2nd March, we are giving you this opportunity. With a special guest presenter, discounted hotels and a full program, you can experience Shabbat the way it is meant to be. Look out for the details and join us in experiencing the greatest gift G-d gave to the Jewish people.
This week's Torah reading marks a change in the nature of the content. Until now the Torah has consisted almost exclusively of narrative, the story of the Patriarchs and the Jews in Egypt. In the middle of the Parshah this changes and the text concentrates on Halakhah, what Jews should do rather than what happened to them. This is a significant moment in the Torah narrative, so much so that Rashi, at the very beginning of the Torah, even postulates that the Torah should have started at this point, with the first mitzvah.
It is not a coincidence that this takes place at the very moment the Jews are about to be liberated from Egypt. The story of the Exodus until now has been one of G-d's actions with the Israelites being passive. This culminates in the sweeping statement at the beginning of the Parshah that future generations of Jews will narrate how G-d played or toyed with the Egyptians, an expression of His unparalleled power. Yet, suddenly on the eve of the Exodus G-d commands the Jews to act. They are to take the Paschal lamb and slaughter and eat it. They are to protect themselves from the last plague by placing blood on their door posts. During the other plagues it was G-d who distinguished between Israel and Egypt, now it is Israel that must make the differentiation themselves.
The Sages captured the essence of this moment, when commenting on the first mitzvah, that 'this month shall be for you the first of the months', they emphasised the phrase for you, saying that it is the Jewish people that by observing the moon decide the beginning of the month and the date of the festivals. At this moment, the are telling us, we ceased to become passive recipients of G-d's actions but instead become partners with him in our own redemption and ultimately the redemption of the world.
This Parshah thus contains within it the essence of Judaism. It recognises the unparalleled power of G-d and his power to do what He wants in His world. Yet it also emphasises that G-d wants us to be partners with Him in this enterprise. By performing the mitzvot of the Torah, which begin in earnest this week, we become active participants in the process of perfecting the world. We cease to become passive recipients of G-d's power but instead use the abilities that He has given us to work with him. That is the message that the Jews were given on the eve of their liberation from Egypt and it this idea that lies at the heart of all we do as Jews until today.
As we follow the progress of the Ten Plagues we can see that a change happens in Egyptian society. At first there is no indication that the population, or at least the influential among them, oppose Pharaoh's refusal to accede to Moses' demands. As the plagues continue, however, this begins to change. After the plague of lice the magicians, who until now have been scornful of Moses, are forced to admit that this is the work of G-d and not something they have control over. Later, the Torah informs us that some Egyptians 'feared G-d's word' and protected themselves from the plague of hail, while others didn't. When Moses warns of the impending plague of locusts even Pharaoh's own advisers beg him to accede to Moses' demands. Before the final denouement Moses is described as being very important in the eyes of both the populace and Pharaoh's servants. Pharaoh is left alone in his stubborn opposition.
It is easy to understand the changing opinion of the populace as plague after plague brings increasing ruin to the country. It is harder to comprehend Pharaoh's refusal to change. After all he experienced the same events as everyone else. One can give various explanations for his attitude by one reason maybe is pre-eminent. In order to give in to Moses, Pharaoh would have had to admit that his previous policy had been wrong or at least mistaken. This he was not capable of doing. He preferred to persist until total disaster overtook him rather than admit he policies had been misguided.
This is a phenomenon that is attested to many times in the historical record and always leads to disaster. It also applies to people who are not necessarily in positions of leadership. We have problem doing things differently because to do so seems to us to imply that what we have done until now is wrong.
Judaism teaches precisely the opposite. If we are on the wrong path we need to admit what we are doing is not correct and change direction. This does not, however, condemn the past but redeem it. Precisely what we did wrong brought us to the realisation of what we had to do right. Our past actions, rather than being a failure, were a step on the path to our present success. If we adopt this approach, we will be able to admit where we are failing today in order to change for a better tomorrow.
And this is the sign that I have sent you: when you will have brought the people out of Egypt, they will serve G-d on this mountain’. All the commentators have struggled with the meaning of this sentence. How is an event that will take place after the Exodus, a sign that G-d will perform the Exodus, which was, after all, Moses’ original request?
I would suggest that a solution can be found in G-d’s answer to Moses’ second question: who are You? There, G-d famously replies: ‘I am who I am’, but in fact His real answer comes later. Moses should tell the Jewish people that the G-d of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has spoken to him; and ‘this is My name for ever and My title for all generations’. In other words, the Jews should understand that not an amorphous Deity ensconced in Heaven promises to redeem them, but the G-d of history, and specifically, their history. G-d takes an interest in a bunch of slaves because they are His people and He has connected His name to their destiny.
Furthermore, this G-d of their fathers has a purpose for their future. This is the meaning of the enigmatic promise of the Revelation at Sinai, quoted above. G-d will redeem them from Egypt in order to bring them to receive the Torah at Mt Sinai and it is this destiny that will justify their redemption. These answers will convince the people of Moses’ authenticity because they resonate with what they know about themselves. They are aware that they are descendants of men who had a personal relationship with G-d. They are also aware that G-d promised the Patriarchs that their children would have a great destiny that would be of significance for the whole world. Thus, when Moses appears to them, not only speaking in the name of the G-d of their fathers, but also hinting at the great purpose that lies in store for them; they intuitively sense he is speaking the truth and believe him.
These two aspects of Jewish belief and history are important to remember; especially in times of crisis, when it may seem G-d has forgotten us. Firstly, G-d is our G-d. He is the G-d who has linked His name to us. Whether for good or bad, what happens to the Jewish people, reflects on G-d. Furthermore, we are essential to his purpose for the world; even if we do not exactly understand how or why. For these reasons we should never despair of Divine help; even when it seems lacking. G-d will never abandon Israel for He is, in this world at least, the G-d of Israel.
Bereishit (Genesis) 5779
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
Parshat Vayehi is different to all the other Parshiot in the Torah. In every other case a new Parshah begins on a separate line of the text with a clear space between one Parshah and the next Parshah, what is called an open section. Vayehi begins after only the space of a word from the last Parshah, such that in the Torah text itself the beginning of a new Parshah is hardly discernible.
Two main reasons are given by the commentators for this phenomenon of a closed section.. Both revolve around the idea of something closed or hidden. One says that upon the death of Jacob the eyes of the Israelites were closed by the beginning of the Egyptian oppression. The other, links up with the fact that Jacob later begins to talk of the 'end of days' and then mentions other things. According to the Sages, Jacob sought to reveal the time of the Redemption but was prevented from doing so. Thus the time of their redemption was closed to his children, hence the closed section.
The first explanation has an obvious difficulty as there is no clear evidence that the oppression began with the death of Jacob, indeed according to tradition, it began only with the last of the brothers. Also, with regards to the second explanation, it is not clear why this should be of such significance as to change the text of Torah. What, however, links these two explanations is the concept of a lack of vision.
With Jacob's death the central pillar of the family and the link to tradition was gone. The Jews began to assimilate more into Egyptian society until by the time of the Exodus many would have preferred to stay in Egypt. Eventually, for example, only the tribe of Levi bothered to circumcise their children or to generally keep up the traditions of Jacob's household. This also connects to the inability of Jacob to 'reveal the end'. Already by his death, and certainly after it, many of his children had given up on the idea of return to Canaan and were quite comfortable with their life in Egypt.
Our Parshah therefore signals the loss of Jewish vision and even identity from the Children of Israel, something that only the harsh experience of Egyptian oppression caused them to rediscover. The loss of this vision, furthermore, and increasing assimilation was also a cause of that very oppression. Thus in a very real way we can understand that the death of Jacob did mark the beginning of the process that led to both physical persecution and spiritual debasement. The lesson for us is clear. If we cease to have a clear Jewish vision, we put both a spiritual and physical existence in jeopardy.
One of the great dramatic scenes in the Torah is the revelation of Joseph to his brothers. It is possible to examine every word Joseph uses and see how he manages this most delicate situation in endeavouring to restore the unity of his family. Just as interesting is to observe, as far as we are able, the body language he employs while doing this.
Two actions, in particular, stand out. Firstly, he removes all the Egyptians from the room leaving him alone with his family. This can, of course, be seen as a device of protecting both of them from any embarrassing revelations. But it also removes from him all the trappings of power that surround, leaving him facing his family alone.
Secondly, when he sees that his brothers are so shocked they are actually physically recoiling from him, he does something else. He specifically asks them to come close to him. Rashiinterprets this as showing them that he was circumcised. One may be question how much a still unknown personage revealing such a thing would have served to calm the brothers.Nevertheless, it can be surmised that some sort more intimate approach is meant.
What is Joseph actually doing with these actions and what does it achieve? Joseph is fundamentally making himself vulnerable and in doing so enables his brothers to relate to him in a different way. By removing all the trappings of his status and security and putting himself into intimate physical contact with his brothers he is able to transform himself from an Egyptian ruler into Joseph their brother. By opening up to them he is able to get them to open up to him; by unmasking himself he gets them to accept him as he really is.
This can teach us an important lesson. Often in human relationships we are always on our guard. We put up barriers between ourselves an others, not enabling them to see our true character and thus preventing a true relationship. This is especially true when there may be tension between people. One way of breaking down these barriers is making ourselves vulnerable.
By open up our true selves to others we run the risk of rejection or being hurt but by refusing to we close off the possibility of true relationship. That is the choice Joseph faced and by choosing to make himself vulnerable he opened up a new future for himself and his family.
One of the central questions when contemplating the story of Joseph and his brothers is his actions towards them. When he appears before them he does not reveal himself but plays a convoluted game, hiding his identity and forcing them into an untenable situation. This not only serves to hurt them, which is possibly justifiable, but causes further pain to his father, which is less so. Many explanations have been given for Joseph's actions but one underlying motivation may be how he understands what the brothers did to him. When he finally reveals himself, he explains all that has happened in terms of a Divine plan. Both he and his brothers were merely pawns in a Divine drama, one that ended with benefit for all concerned. Understanding his own story in this way, he proceeds to deal with his brothers in a similar way. They too will become pawns in a drama of his own making. Maybe he believed that this was also destined by G-d. An obvious question is whether this is a moral course of action or literally playing G-d. With regards to both Joseph himself and Jacob, as well as other biblical figures, various midrashim bring out the inherent difficulty in G-d giving humans free will and then manipulating them in ways that cause their actions to fit in with His plans. Even though the person's freedom of action has not been removed from them, they have been essentially led into a trap where the outcome is predetermined. This is precisely Joseph's strategy, except that unlike G-d he breaks down and is unable to direct the plot till his planned end. If the Midrash can question G-d's use of this tactic it becomes even more hard to justify its use by a fallible human being who cannot, unlike G-d, perceive all the possible outcomes and consequences. The story of Joseph, despite its seemingly happy ending, should really serve as a warning. Manipulating other people, even for what we see as their own benefit, is a dangerous business. We may think we are helping the person but in fact be doing them serious harm. The very realisation that they have been pawns in someone else's plot may, by itself, seriously damage them, even without other negative consequences. As the Midrash points out, it is problematic enough when G-d plays G-d with people's lives; we don't also need humans imitating Him.
Who sold Joseph? That seems to be a strange question. If you would ask most people who have heard of the story or seen the musical they would say that, of course, the brothers sold Joseph. However, if you look carefully at the verses in our Parshah the situation becomes less clear. The brothers first plan to kill Joseph, then at Reuben's suggestion leave him in a pit to die while they have lunch. Judah then suggests that instead of this they sell him. The Torah then tells us that Midianites passed, they took Joseph from the pit and sold to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt. It is not clear from the text who exactly took Joseph from the pit thethey being conceivably the brothers but more simply understood as the Midianites. It is true that Joseph later talks of the brothers having sold him into Egypt but he make not have understood exactly the sequence of events.
I would suggest, however, that it is in the end irrelevant because the brother's real crime was not in selling him but the callous way in which they treated him. We can see that this is the crux of the matter from their own words when facing an uncertain future at the hands of the viceroy of Egypt. They explain their present predicament in terms of their inhumane treatment of their brother. 'We saw his distress when he beseeched us but we paid no attention'. It is not what they did to Joseph that troubles their conscience but the fact that they turned a deaf ear to his cries. When their brother was in distress they did nothing and callously sat down to eat lunch. It is this sin that is unforgivable and for which, they believe, that retribution is now being visited upon them.
This should serve to teach us an important lesson. We might think that is not so bad to be a bystander. If we don't do anything wrong merely not helping someone else is surely not so bad. The story of Joseph tells us otherwise. The founders of the Jewish people were severely punished precisely for disregarding the plight of their brother, irrespective of whether they actually sold him.
When the police tell us that increasingly, when they are trying to deal with incidents, people stop to take pictures rather than offering to help, this is a lesson our society needs to learn. Merely, being a bystander can also be a crime.
One of the more difficult stories in the Torah is that of the rape of Dinah and the massacre of the people of Shechem by Shimon and Levi. While the rape of Jacob's daughter was indeed 'an act that simply should not be done' and deserving of severe punishment, many have questioned her brothers' actions. There are various ways of approaching the problem from a legal or moral perspective but I want to start with the words of the brothers themselves.
When Jacob challenges their actions, albeit seemingly on practical rather than moral grounds, they reply 'should we treat our sister as a harlot'. In other words if we had done nothing we would be implicitly condoning the rape of Dinah, therefore what we did was justified. They don't actually answer their father's criticism but defect it by saying that they did what they had to and therefore, however unsavoury it was, they could do nothing else.
There is of course a fatal flaw in this argument. It is simply a false choice. Not massacring all the people of the city would not have necessarily meant condoning their sister's rape or letting the perpetrators go free. They could have, for example, used the same ruse to rescue their sister while killing Hamor and Shechem, sparing the rest of the city. If they wanted to punish the city for seeming complicity, they could have merely despoiled them or disabled them in another way, ensuring they could not pursue them. Instead they chose the most extreme course of action and justified it by saying it was the only course of action.
This is unfortunately a not uncommon phenomenon. If you want to do something risky or immoderate, one of the ways to persuade other people to go along with you is to pretend that this course of action is the only feasible one. We have seen this in the Brexit debate, where those who want to pursue the most extreme form of leaving the European Union insist that only their plans fulfil the wishes of the people as expressed in the referendum. This is of course patently nonsense. Similarly, certain politicians pursue extreme anti-immigration policies contending that this is the only way to deal with the problem. Of course, this is not accurate and, indeed, many of these policies are immoral and impractical and often make matters worse.
The fact is that if you hear someone advocating a certain course of action on the basis that it is the only possible solution, you should probably reject it out of hand. Not only are there other solutions to the problem but the 'only possible solution' is probably the worst and most damaging of them all.
'If G-d will be with me and guard me on my way and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and bring me back to my father's house in peace, then G-d will be my G-d'. These words of Jacob after G-d revealed himself to him in Bet El are surprising. Firstly, G-d has just promised him that He would be with him and bring him home safely, so why is he seemingly doubting it. Also, what are the implications of Jacob's words. If G-d will not do this then he will not be for him his G-d? I don't think it is tenable to think that Jacob is doubting g-d's promises or threatening to abandon Him if they are not fulfilled. Rather I think that Jacob is asking for something else.
What he really wants can be gleaned by an interesting interpretation of a verse is Psalm 92, the Psalm of Shabbat. There we give say that 'it is good to give thanks to G-d; to tell of His mercies in the morning and his faithfulness/belief (emunatcha) at night'. This last phrase can be seen as saying that we praise G-d for showering us with good when things are going well and keeping faith with us when things are going not so well. But it also can mean that G-d believes in us in times of trouble. G-d has faith in our ability to overcome the challenges we are faced with, even if we are not so sure. The Psalmist is saying that he gains confidence in adversity from the fact that G-d believes in him.
If we return to Jacob, we can postulate that this is what he is actually asking for. Jacob is described as a 'quiet person dwelling in tents'. Growing up with the alpha male character of Esau he may have lacked confidence. Especially since he is now being forced to flee from home and his mother's protection to face an unknown future. He may not have really believed in his ability to provide for himself, even though G-d has just promised him that he won't starve. What Jacob really wants G-d to reassure him of, is that he has the strength within him to cope with his new life. He is really saying: if you G-d truly believe that I have the ability to do what you expect of me and enable these promises to be fulfilled, then I will be able to serve you.
This concept is an important component of our spiritual life. Our biggest obstacle in doing what we should do is often not the will to do it but the belief that we are unable to achieve our goal. We need to have the belief in ourselves what we really can do it. Like the Psalmist, we need to pray that G-d has confidence in us in order to be able to go forward. Sometimes in order to believe in G-d we need to accept that G-d believes in us.
When Jacob demands from a hungry Esau his birthright in return for feeding him Esau replies that 'I am going to die, what use is a birthright'? Simplistically this can be seen as a sign of Esau's complete disregard of his birthright and total emphasis on physical gratification. Not wanting to wait even a short time to satisfy his hunger, he is prepared to sell even his birthright for immediate gratification of his desires.
The Sages, however, looked a bit deeper and understood a more complex motive for Esau's action. They connect Esau's statement of impending mortality with the birthright itself. Esau states that he is going to die because of the birthright. The inheritance of Abraham, which for the Sages has at its heart fidelity to the Torah, contains a sting. The Torah is full of dire consequences for disobeying its tenets, especially with regard to the sacrificial service, which Esau as the first-born would be expected to perform. Looking at this birthright Esau decides that its risks outweigh its promised rewards and he would rather leave both to Jacob.
We see this phenomenon later on in the relationship between the two brothers. When the Torah gives the list of Esau's descendants it mentions that he moved himself from Canaan to Seir, 'because of Jacob his brother'. Again eschewing a simple explanation the Sages connect this to Jacob's historical destiny. Esau deliberately surrenders possession of the Land of Israel to Jacob, because of the price tag that is attached to it. It is true that G-d promises Abraham possession of the Land, but only after centuries of exile and oppression. Looking at this scenario Esau decides that it is not for him and is quite happy to leave both the Land and its cost to his brother.
In the rabbinic interpretations of these events, we have therefore the essence of the choice that Jews by following G-d have made. We are promised a glorious future, whether possession of the Land or the other blessings that the Torah sets out. But there is a sting in the tail. These good things come only after a significant delay and after suffering. For Jews nothing comes easy. We can see this in the interposition of the descendants of Abraham's brother Nachor after the Akedah. Isaac, Abraham's legacy, has escaped death by a whisker. Yet Nachor who chose not to follow G-d's voice has already had twelve children, something delayed in Abraham's family for another two generations. In another words, not following G-d, not being Jewish, is a lot easier.
That indeed has been the choice of many Jews throughout the generations. It is easier simply to assimilate or if necessary convert rather than bear the present burden for future pay-off. That was the path of Esau. Those that remain, therefore, are even more worthy of praise and blessing. Being Jewish may not be easy but it is also extraordinary.
In our prayers we talk of the G-d of Abraham', and Isaac and Jacob. We also talk of 'my G-d'. How are we do understand these designations. Surely G-d is the G-d of everyone and everything and beyond any private definition?
Abraham provides us with an answer. At the end of the Parshah Abraham has to decide the distribution of his possessions in advance of his impending demise. Choosing to make Isaac his primary inheritor, the Torah tells us that he gave his other children presents and sent them away to the east. The nature of these gifts was the subject of various opinions of the commentators, many of whom saw them as indicating spiritual gifts. Some saw in these gifts the source of the wisdom found in eastern religions.
What these comments tell us is very profound. Abraham had his own special spirituality and relationship with G-d, the core of which he bequeathed to Isaac and thus the Jewish people. Yet he was also able to impart spiritual gifts and their own relationship with G-d to his other children. Each of them had their own ability to connect to the Divine that was distinct from that of their brothers and distinct from that of Isaac. Each of them had in a real sense his own unique relationship to G-d and could talk of 'my G-d'.
G-d is of course all encompassing and beyond any human definition. But precisely because of that G-d is able to be the unique G-d of each individual and group/nation. Because G-d created each person and made each individual unique, so He is able to relate in a unique way to that individual. In forging a relationship with the Divine each of us has to found our own individual 'G-d'. The way someone else relates to G-d is not appropriate for us and they way we connect to Him a mistake for them.
Of course, Jews, especially, also relate to G-d as a group and indeed, that is a basic component of Jewish spirituality. Yet in the same way that model is not suitable for a non-Jew. This explains why the Sages objected to non-Jews following various Jewish practices, like keeping Shabbat. It is simply not their appropriate means of connecting to G-d.
What Abraham's legacy teaches us is that all of us have to find our own unique personal way of relating to G-d which is distinct from others path. That way, when we pray, we can truly acknowledge 'my G-d'.
The Parshah opens with the visit of three travellers to Abraham as he is recovering from his circumcision. During the course of this visit it becomes apparent that these are no ordinary visitors but messengers of G-d who are later called angels. One fascinating aspect of this story is the use l of the word for 'lords' in Hebrew when addressing this group of visitors. The plural of lord, as we know, is the commonly pronounced name for G-d, especially when we want to enunciate the unpronounceable four letter name. Interestingly, also, G-d Himself makes an appearance at the end of this section, rebuking Sarah for her disbelief and later on, Lot asks the angel to save the city of Zoar, something only G-d can do. Indeed, the whole section opens with the statement that G-d appeared to Abraham, yet G-d Himself hardly appears.
This mixing of the divine and human is brought out in the rabbinic discussions about the precise meaning of the repeated to references to 'lords' mentioned above. Who is being addressed, G-d or the angels/visitors? In rabbinic parlance, is this term holy or profane? It is never quite clear and there are different opinions, sometimes with more than one option being brought by the same commentator.
This confusion actually can teach us an important lesson. There are many ways to receive a message from G-d, not all of them direct. When Abraham sees three men standing by the road, he doesn't know that they are messengers of G-d who will bring him tidings of the future birth of Isaac. What he perceives is that he has before him three weary travellers who need to be looked after, and he acts accordingly. Only afterwards does he realise the import of their visit.
The same is true for us in our lives. G-d may not speak directly to us but we can find the Divine in other people. It could be in someone who gives us good advice or the elderly neighbour that we visit. G-d is not only encountered in the synagogue but can be perceived on the street or in the supermarket. Many Hassidic stories bring out this theme, speaking of poor people who later turn out to be holy men or Elijah the prophet. When helping someone in need or simply smiling at a passer-by on the street, we can actually be encountering G-d.
Abraham, received a message G-d by offering hospitality to strangers, even though he could have simply ignored them. We should consider that next time we encounter someone in need and help them or buy some food for a homeless person on the street, we may really, like Abraham, be encountering an angel or even G-d Himself.
Parshat Lech L'cha
With Abraham on his journey to Canaan was his nephew Lot. Their relationship, however, was not a simple one and at a certain stage Abraham decides it is better for both of them if they part company. Lot then goes to Sodom and taken captive in a regional war and has to rescued by Abraham. The final break seems to come after the destruction of Sodom, where Lot again has to be rescued, after which Abraham moves to Beersheva and seems to lose contact with his nephew.
This fractured relationship raises questions especially considering Abraham's cordial relations with his idolatrous neighbours. He manages to get along quite well with his fellow townsmen in Hebron, the Philistines and even reaches an accommodation with the king of Sodom. Yet with his nephew he doesn't manage to live in harmony. The Sages understand Abraham's suggestion of separation, as indicating a profound ideological division, especially as Lot chooses to live in the wicked city of Sodom. Lot is seen as choosing the materialism of Sodom, despite its evil reputation, over the spiritual inheritance of Abraham.
This gives us an indication as to the motive for Abraham's behaviour. With Abraham's neighbours the boundaries were distinct. They were clearly idolaters, not sharing Abraham's faith or ideology. It was thus easy to carry on respectful relations within the boundaries understood to be imposed by this difference. With Lot things were less clear. Lot was family and to a certain extent shared Abraham's faith. Yet he took it in a direction that Abraham could not concur with. In such a situation, precisely because of their close relationship, Abraham decided that it was necessary to separate. At the same time he retained basic family ties and was on hand to assist when Lot got into trouble.
This distinction is instructive when we contemplate the difference between inter-faith and intra-faith relations. When we deal with people of other faiths the boundaries are clear and it is thus quite easy to have cordial relations and joint activities, sometimes even inter-faith ceremonies for special events. When we are dealing with people of the same faith as ourselves things become more complicated. It is precisely because we share a faith that we need to clearly delineate our different approaches to the practice of that faith. While co-operation in many spheres and mutually respectful relations are important in the religious sphere we need to be cautious.
Precisely because we are so close we need to enunciate clearly were we cannot agree. This is not disrespectful, precisely the opposite. By separating our religious activities, we show respect to the integrity of the others difference. Like with Abraham and Lot, it is precisely that separation that makes it possible for us to be united.
I believe we can tease out meaning from these explanations by noting the comparison to Abraham. A major difference between Abraham and Noah of course is their reaction when informed of the impending destruction of their neighbours. Abraham, famously, seeks to avert the catastrophe while Noah does nothing and saves himself. This can throw a light on what sort of righteous person Noah was and what his relationship was with his society and also help us understand the two possibilities set out by the midrash.
According to the first explanation, Noah was a true tzaddik and it wouldn't matter what generation he was in. His righteousness was not connected to his relationship with his society but to his own internal morality. According to this, he could very well have tried in vain to warn his generation, indeed building the Ark can be seen in this light. The less complimentary scenario is that Noah's righteousness was a function of his society. He was righteous not necessarily because of himself but because he simply was estranged from his society and thus did the opposite to them. His righteousness would thus be a function of what we would call today an anti-social attitude, which would also explain why he seemed to be indifferent to the impending destruction of his society. This type of person is called in Hassidic though a 'tzaddik in peltz', a person that warms themselves by wearing furs but doesn't bother to help the others around them by lighting a fire.
By offering us these two possibilities of understanding Noah's character, the Sages are enabling us to examine ourselves and our own relationship with the society around us. Does our religion cause us to interact positively and to care for others or do we retreat into ourselves and become indifferent to those around us? What kind of tzaddik are you?
When we start the Torah again at the beginning it is not long before we encounter problems. While the first two sections seem to show a perfect creation, things soon go wrong, with the first humans going astray in the Garden of Eden. This is followed by murder and more mayhem until at the end of Parshah G-d basically decides to abandon the whole project. Yet, according to the Sages, it begins even earlier. In the first days of creation, which seem so perfect and order, there is already rebellion and disharmony. From the wording of the text the Rabbis deduce that the trees rebelled and instead of their bark and fruit having the same taste as commanded, they had different tastes. Next, the moon complains about having two luminaries the same size and is diminished. Thus problems seem to exist in the very fabric of creation from the beginning.
Indeed, it can be understood, that the Torah itself reflects this. Rashi's very first comment on the Torah, explains a dissonance in the books very structure. The Torah ideally should of started with the first mitzvah in Exodus, but because people might dispute the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, we have to begin with creation, in order to establish G-d's sovereignty and His right to give the Land to the Jews. Thus the Torah itself is structured to take in imperfection.
One could say that the book of Genesis or the whole Torah, is a book of mistakes and failings. However, this teaches us a different lesson about ourselves and the world around us. By it's very nature the universe is imperfect and so are we. Only G-d, in the end can embody true perfection and everything else must be by definition not perfect. Thus it is not surprising that we discover all these problems right from the beginning of the story. The purpose of the Torah, however, is not to depress us with our mistakes but to teach us how to overcome and surpass them.
The Torah is not a book of failure but a book of growth, and nowhere more so than in its first book. From Genesis we learn the power of repentance and forgiveness, standing up for others and moving forward from failure. From Adam and Eve to Joseph and his brothers we learn what it is to be human, with human failings and strengths and how to live a meaningful life in an imperfect world. So as we begin again to read the complex yet simply profound narratives of Genesis, let us take lessons from them for our own imperfect lives and most of all learn to grow.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5778
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
This year, with the Shabbat of Succot falling on the sixth day of Succot, we have three contiguous celebrations: Shabbat Succot, Hoshanah Rabba and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Is there a common theme which connects these three occasions. I think we can find one in a question that is posed on this Shabbat and its conclusively answered on Simchat Torah.
On the Shabbat during Succot the custom is to read the book of Kohelet or Ecclesiastes. This book on the surface seems rather depressing but it poses a basic question what is the purpose of life. It goes through all the normal measures of success, wealth, power, sex, and finds them wanting, ending up with the conclusion that fear of G-d is all that matters.
Hoshanah Rabba takes this one step further. This day which is dedicated to pleading with G-d for rain is characterised by one simple phrase Hoshanah or 'save us'. This expresses our absolute dependence on G-d for our basic needs and puts into the shade all the peripheral things we think are important.
Yet, lest we think this is all a bit depressing and confidence destroying, Simchat Torah comes to restore our perspective. In celebrating our completion of the Torah and beginning it again we learn that we are not merely passive dependants of G-d but active partners with him. By studying and learning Torah we find our role in the world and perceive the true meaning of life.
The almost despairing question posed by Kohelet on Shabbat, along with the realisation of our vulnerability on Hoshana Rabba, serve to dispel our illusions of what is important. This enables us to grasp what is truly essential on Simchat Torah. These days, at the end of the festival cycle, are about getting real about our lives, and that, in the end, is the surest way to happiness.
Moses, in his song, talks of G-d's care of Israel in terms of an eagle caring for its young. This also involves the image of the eagle carrying its young on its wings. The commentators explain that an eagle, unlike other birds, flies so high that it doesn't fear an attack from above. Eagles' only predator are humans who shoot arrows at them from below. Therefore the bird protects her young by carrying them on her wings. In a like manner, G-d protects Israel from attacks by her enemies.
On Succot we sit in a Succah to remember the succot we dwelt in during the wandering in the wilderness. This refers either to real temporary booths or the 'clouds of glory', the divine protection extended over Israel in the wilderness. If we look at these two images we see that one refers to protection from below and the other, the sechach, or covering of the Succah, symbolises protection from above. What can we learn from these two images?
It appears the Jewish people need to be protected from threats coming from both 'above' and 'below'. On the one hand we face physical threats, people who want to hurt us. They don't like Jews of any sort and want to get rid of them. We need to defend ourselves against them, and if necessary and all else fails, flee out of harm's way. We, like the eagle who puts her body between the arrows and her chicks, need also people prepared for self sacrifice, like the soldiers of the IDF protect Israel.
A more insidious threat comes from above. This comes from those who have no problem with Jews who stand up for being Jewish or swap their Jewish identity for another ideology acceptable to our detractors. These enemies are not interested in Jews existing as such, but want to stop Jews existing as Jews. The answer to this challenge is found in the protection of the Succah. This symbolises both Jewish unity and a commitment to Judaism. The mitzvah of Succah is especially related to joining all Jews together with its especially emphasis on hospitality. The Sages even say that in the Messanianic age all Jews will sit in one Succah. The Succah is also a mitzvah the encompasses the whole of Judaism, as everything we do in the Succah becomes a mitzvah.
By being united and increasing our commitment to Judaism we can serve to protect ourselves against not only those who want to hurt Jews but also against those that want to destroy Judaism. In the end, the protection talked about in the Parshah and on Succot is divine protection. If we have confidence in our Judaism and trust in G-d the message of Succot is that ultimately G-d will protect us, a cause to rejoice and this time of rejoicing.
The penultimate mitzvah in the Torah is that of Hakhel. This requires that every seven years, on the Succot after the Sabbatical year, the Torah should be publicly read in front of the whole people, men, women and children. The question can be asked: what is the point of bringing children, especially those who are too young to understand the reading or even what the event is about. The answer given by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah is in order to grant a reward for those who bring them.
This enigmatic statement can be understood in various ways. In bringing their children to this event of Torah learning, parents are demonstrating their commitment, not only to their own religious life but to that of their offspring. It can also be understood in another way. The consequence of the children attending such an event will be that they absorb some of the atmosphere of Torah at an early age, something that will inculcate them with a love of Judaism. When they grow older this formative experience will serve to help imbue them with a commitment to the Torah.
This interpretation should guide us when we think about the role of children in the synagogue. Rather than being a source of disturbance, children attending services provides a crucial link in the chain of tradition and a hope for the future. This idea reaches wider than children, however. It is not surprising that it is Rabbi Eleazar who makes this statement. When he became head of the Sanhedrin he opened the House of Study to everyone, in contrast to the restrictive policies of his predecessor. This lead to an explosion of learning and many outstanding Halakhic issues were resolved.
His expansive educational policy should serve as a model for the modern synagogue. We should create synagogues that are welcoming to everyone, whether or not they are observant, knowledgeable or even have any idea of what is going on. Even if a Jew comes to the synagogue for the first time, doesn't understand a word, and might even not open a siddur, the experience can be a transformative one. If by the way we treat him or her, they feel welcomed, accepted and part of the community, then the very atmosphere of the occasion could be enough to make them want to come again and learn more. That was the successful policy of Rabbi Eleazar, which he learnt from the mitzvah of Hakhel in our Parshah, and it is one we would to well to emulate.
'The secret things are G-d's but the revealed things are ours and our children's forever in order to fulfil all the words of this Torah'. This verse in our Parshah explains to us that there are matters that are secret and only G-d's business but also matters that are not only our concern but things that we are required to act upon. Rosh Hashanah also has at its heart this same dichotomy. On the one hand it is Yom Hazikaron, a Day of Remembrance, which by definition implies concerning ourselves with issues, some of which we may have forgotten. Yet Rosh Hashanah is also called B'Kese, the Concealment, implying that it is a day on which certain things shouldn't be revealed.
Traditionally, these two contrasting ideas are linked to our hope that G-d will remember our good deeds on this day while concealing our sins. Yet, as we engage in our annual personal audit during this period, what lesson can we learn from this dual nature of the day. The verse in our Parshah posits that there are things we should concern ourselves about and things that are none of our business. Conventionally, this has been connected to the issue of mutual responsibility, postulating that we are only held responsible for public behaviour but not for what people do privately. That in itself is an important lesson to internalise. Too often we are overly interested in people's personal affairs: who they are married to, what they observe and the like. We are unfortunately less interested in how we can assist them or what they can contribute. In behaving in this way we are led into the trap of negative speech, something we should certainly be trying to correct at this time of year.
Yet we can take this idea even further. The root of the problem is that we are frequently far too interested in other people's behaviour and far less frequently concerned about our own. We look to criticise others rather than reproving ourselves. Instead of looking in the mirror we prefer to use binoculars to examine what does not concern us.
This can be the lesson of the dichotomy in this week's Parshah and of Rosh Hashanah. We should reveal are own shortcomings and cover up the faults of others. If we can resolve to do that during this year, we will indeed make the word a better place in the year to come.
One of the more well known mitzvot in this Parshah, with the most mitzvot in the Torah, is that of letting go the mother bird. The Torah mandates that if you want to take either the chicks or the eggs from a nest you need to first chase away the mother bird. Many commentators explain that this is to prevent pain to the mother who sees her children being taken away from her before her eyes. The Torah goes on to promise a reward for fulfilling this mitzvah, that of long life.
The Torah, as rule, doesn't normally specify a specific reward for the fulfilment of a mitzvah, though Deuteronomy is full of general promises, such 'it will go well with you'. If the Torah provides a specific reward for a particular mitzvah it is because the reward has has a thematic connection with the mitzvah and, is indeed, an intrinsic consequence of fulfilling the mitzvah. What then is the connection between this mitzvah and long life? There is only one other mitzvah in the Torah for which the stated reward is long life. That is, famously, the mitzvah of honouring parents found in the Ten Commandments. It appears, therefore, that there is a connection between honouring the parental bond of both humans and animals and longevity.
According to the Jewish view of the world the essence of the universe is relationship. The very existence of the universe is based on G-d's desire for relationship. Thus relationships, between G-d and humans, friends, employers and employees, spouses is at the heart of the legislation of the Torah. The most basic relationship of all, however, is that between parents and children. It is the only naturally mandated relationship and the basic context in which we learn the meaning of and ability to, relate to others. Thus those that respect this fundamental relationship, either by honouring their parents or respecting the parental bond of a mother bird, are strengthening all relationships.
And as relationship is at very heart of human happiness and the essential building block of a successful society, respecting these basic relationships provides us with the tools for longevity. Conversely, disregarding these bonds diminishes both our own life and weakens society. By promising long life as the reward for respecting the parental bond, the Torah explains to us the fundamental importance of relating properly to others. If we want to live long and prosper we need to work on our relationship both with G-d and other people.
'Who led you through the great and terrible wilderness.......in order to afflict you and to test you, to benefit you in the future'. Several times in Moses discourse he returns to this point. The privations and challenges of the wilderness journey were designed to test the Jewish people for their future well being. The dangers and deprivations of the wilderness strengthened the people readying them for life as a nation in their own land. These trials also served to ultimately bring them closer to G-d. The recurrent crises of faith and their resolution, reinforced the peoples believe in G-d and his ultimate concern for them.
These observations are not merely of historical interest but have relevance to each of us in our daily lives. We all face crises of various sorts and of varying intensity. Why we would rather do without them, that is unfortunately mostly not under our control. What is in our hands, however, is how we react to them. We can merely feel sorry for ourselves and bemoan our fate. This attitude has its place and can provide an important psychological release. Yet if we stay there we in the end will get nowhere and miss an important opportunity.
The crises we face in life can also be a chance to strengthen ourselves, our relationship to others and to G-d. If when facing these challenges we also ask ourselves how we can learn from what is happening to us and how what we can going through can be used for our ultimate good, we can turn tragedy into renewal and despair into hope. This can be extremely difficult and does not always seem possible. Yet engaging in this process can by itself help give us the strength to cope with our adversity and emerge from it. We can then look back at what we went through not only as a terrible experience but also as one that ultimately made us into better people.
This is the message that Moses at the end of his life is giving to the Jewish people .A message of hope in adversity that enables us to experience in our own lives the wonderful words of Micah the prophet:'when I have fallen, I will rise; when I sit in darkness, G-d is my light'.
A strange aspect of this week’s Parshah, is the interposition of a historical note in the midst of Moses’ speech. This section relates that Moses set aside three cities of refuge in Transjordan. The commentators puzzle over this insertion and its relation to the rest of the Parshah. Some see it as a historical sequence: Moses set aside these cities at the time he started on his exposition of the mitzvot, found in the rest of the Parshah.
Others reject this assertion as far fetched and posit a thematic connection with what comes before and after. Having just exhorted the people to follow G-d and observe His commandments, Moses leads by personal example, setting aside three cities for of refuge as commanded at the end of Numbers. Even though they would not come into operation until the conquest of the rest of the Land and the establishment of three cities in western Israel, Moses took the opportunity to do what he could.
This understanding of the text provides us with important religious lessons. Firstly, it shows the importance of leadership by example. It is not enough for religious leaders to simply exhort or even educate their flock in the ways of G-d. They must show by their own behaviour how a religious person is meant to live. Personal example provides the best moral education.
Moses also teaches us another important lesson. He knows that he will not cross into the Land and thus will not be able to complete the mitzvah of establishing cities of refuge. Yet he does what he can, trusting that others will complete the work. Judaism does not require us to be perfect; neither to do what is beyond our capability. It does require us to do what we can and to observe and perform what is within our grasp. We are not allowed to use the excuse that we cannot perfectly observe everything to observe nothing.
A corollary of this is the understanding that sometimes we cannot achieve all we wish. We are not G-d and cannot single-handedly save the world. Some things may indeed be beyond our grasp. That does not mean we should despise or despair of what we have. That does not mean that what we do have or achieve is worthless. It after all takes seven full weeks to go from the despair of Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. Yet each stage by itself is important and brings us closer to the ultimate goal.
At the beginning of Deuteronomy the Torah delineates the place and time Moses delivered his valedictory address. Unfortunately, many of the places cannot be identified and don't appear in the list of encampments that we read last week. There are three approaches taken by the commentators to this question. The traditional approach, is to see these not as place names but as veiled references to the various sins committed by the people during their journey in the wilderness. Others see these simply as place names and seek to identify them. A third approach also regards these as real places but also connects them to the various misdeeds of the people that occurred in those places.
What is clear, however, from the continuation of the text is that the first third of Deuteronomy is indeed intended to be a reproof to the people. Moses mentions both the sin of the spies and the sin of the Golden Calf, as well as other mistakes and transgressions, in addition to admonishing the people to act correctly in future. If this is the case, then one may ask those who see the geographical references at beginning of the book as a veiled admonition, why it was necessary to be so oblique? He could have simply given it to them straight from the start.
An answer lies in the Torah's emphasis that Moses gave his speech after the conquest of the land of Sihon and Og, giving the timing of the speech a seemingly redundant statement. The commentators explain that only after the people had seen the results of his efforts in the conquest of this territory, did he feel able to admonish them. There is no point in chastising someone if they are going to reject your words. For this reason Moses didn't start his speech with a tirade but with hints. He was endeavouring to jog the memory of the people as to their own past misdeeds, awakening in them a receptiveness to his words.
This teaches us an important lesson. We often feel we should be criticising or reproving others, all with the best motives. Often this is not necessary and merely a reflection of our own ego. Yet if, even after serious consideration, we still think this is justified and worthwhile, it is vitally necessary to be careful how we reprove others. It is not normally wise to go straight in with trenchant criticism or direct rebuke. Rather we should seek to gently remind the person of what they have done and get them to feel sorry for their actions. It is also helpful to also praise the person being rebuked and to show your genuine concern for them.
Many of us fail in this area in our daily lives. But if we reflect that even Moses felt the need to be circumspect when administering criticism, surely we should try and do better.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 5778
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
Bearing responsibility for our actions is a basic principle of Judaism. Without it there can be no truly moral life or society. But what happens if we are not in total control of our destiny or our environment? To what extent does the control of others over us mitigate or restrict our personal responsibility.
The Torah, this week, seems to give two conflicting answers. In the first section of the Parshah it discusses the laws of vows. While it stresses the importance of fulfilling what you vowed, most of the section deals with circumstances where this is set aside. This primarily concerns the status of women who are regarded as being under the authority of either their father or their husband. In such a case the male authority in their lives can annul their vows. In other words, the circumstances that women in those days found themselves mitigated their responsibility for their deeds. As they were not totally free actors, so they were not held totally accountable for what they said or did.
Yet, in the very next section, the Torah seems to ignore this rubric. With regard to the Midianite women, who were responsible for the 'Sin of Peor' that led to 24,000 Israelite deaths, they are held totally accountable. Even though, according to ancient rules of warfare, women were not generally killed, Moses orders their destruction, precisely because they were key players in the attack on Israel. Yet there is no evidence that these women were less under the control of their men than the Israelite women.
So why was there no mitigation in this case? One obvious answer is that not fulfilling a vow is a passive action, while the Midianite women actively took part in subverting the Israelites. Yet not fulfilling a vow is still an extremely serious affair, not to be taken lightly.
A possible explanation is the difference between something that is personal and something that effects others. In both cases the women in question are doing as they are told but the consequences are very different. In one case no one is hurt by the woman not fulfilling her vow, except possibly herself. The Midianite women, however, caused by their actions real damage to others. In such a case, following orders is not an excuse and they had to bear the responsibility for their deeds.
In both cases, the circumstances the Torah is talking about are far removed from our reality. Yet we can still learn basic moral guidelines from these cases. We often excuse are questionable life choices by reference to our circumstances. Sometimes this may be justified; often not. Yet the most important distinction we need to make concerns the consequences of our actions. If our bad choices effect only ourselves, then maybe we can make excuses. If they negatively effect others, then excuses are not in order and we need to fully own up to our responsibility.
As a reward for his action in killing Zimri and Kozbi and stopping the plague, Pinchas is given by G-d an eternal priesthood. This raises a difficulty, however, as Pinchas was the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron. As his father was High Priest surely Pinchas was also automatically a priest? This problem is traditionally resolved by stating that only children born after Aaron and Elazar were inaugurated into the priesthood were automatically priests but those, like Pinchas, born beforehand were not. Pinchas thus only became a priest following his righteous action.
This, of course, leaves open the question as to why this should be the case. A simple answer is that at the time of the Exodus Pinchas was a child and thus by definition couldn't be inaugurated as a priest. Yet there could be a deeper understanding. The initiation of Aaron and his sins as priests was a transformative event. They were fundamentally changed by the experience, ceasing to become normal Jews and becoming a tribe apart, complete with there own special rules and restrictions. Just as the transformative event of Divine revelation at Sinai was necessary in order for the Jews to accept the laws of the Torah, so the ceremonies surrounding the inauguration of the priesthood were required to place upon Aaron and his sons the privileges and responsibilities of their special status. Pinchas, who as a child could not take part, thus was not transformed into a priest.
Until, forty years later, he saved Israel by his actions. His actions served the same function in changing his nature as his father's and grandfather's initiation had performed for them. What Divine instruction and ritual had done for his ancestors, Pinchas' own deeds achieved for him. In a true sense then, unlike his father, Pinchas was a self-made priest.
This narrative illustrates an interesting phenomenon in human life. Some people are successful because of the start they have been given in life. They go to best schools and universities and their parent's support them to buy a house and other amenities. Others have none of these advantages and are successful by their own efforts alone. Elazar received everything from his father while his son Pinchas, initially excluded from his father's position, achieved the same status by his own actions.
This teaches us that not everything depends on were you come from and who your parents are. No one should feel that because they came from a poor background or a deprived neighbourhood that they cannot achieve as much as anyone else. The Jews are a prime example. The poor children of the tenements of the Pleasance or the Gorbals, went on to become doctors, lawyers and professors. They didn't let their background stand in their way. Other groups could learn from their example.
The tale of Bila'am and his curses turned to blessings, complete with a talking donkey, has always fascinated commentators and lay people alike. The story, unlike many others in the Torah, is told at length and takes up most of the Parshah. It contains several important lessons, including the importance of words and their effect on reality. What Bila'am was seeking to do in cursing the Jews, how G-d dealt with it and how Bila'am himself was temporarily transformed in the process, are key to understanding the story.
Bila'am is introduced as someone whose blessings and curses are rendered effective by means of 'kesem' or some sort of magic. This is not the illusionary tricks we expect from modern magicians but an attempt to manipulate reality by controlling spiritual forces. The kosem seeks, by means of sacrifices and key words, to influence the spiritual forces of the universe to do his will. He is not interested in any moral principle or connection to the Divine, rather achieving a certain aim by using these forces. Like a technician in a laboratory, he hopes that by using the right formula he will achieve the desired result.
So Bila'am hopes to curse Israel. G-d however informs him that all this is not desirable or effective. Blessings and curses are determined by G-d who is beyond such technical influences and blesses those that seek to do His will, not force Him to assist them. Bila'am however, doesn’t get the message and seeks to use his skill to bring a Divine curse on Israel. G-d however simply overpowers him and instead of G-d being manipulated by Bila'am to curse Israel, he is coerced by G-d to bless them. But in the process Bila'am himself is transformed. After two attempts to use his magic skill fail he gets the message and surrenders himself to G-d's will thus being temporarily transformed into a true prophet.
This story thus teaches us important religious concepts, that are also relevant today. While we are not kosmim in the style of Bila'am, we often act as if our religious practice was a way of getting G-d to do what we want. This is especially true of prayer, where we sometimes treat G-d as some sort of slot machine, where we put in the appropriate prayer and G-d arranges the desired result. This is not the appropriate attitude.
The Jewish approach is that of Joab, king David's army chief. He urges his soldiers to be strong and trust in G-d and 'G-d will do what is good in His eyes'. In the end, we cannot manipulate G-d to do our will. Rather we can merely trust that if we seek to do His will He will assist us. That is the correct way we should relate to prayer and the true meaning of Judaism.
In the Parshah, we find the Children of Israel asking the Edomites for passage through their land. They promise not to damage anything and pay for their sustenance. The Edomites brusquely refuse and threaten violence and Israel detours elsewhere. What the Israelites are effectively asking for is the Edomites to make room for them in their space, in a similar way that G-d makes space for us. Just as G-d is not diminished by making room for us, so the Edomites will not be hurt and indeed benefit by making room for the Israelites. Unfortunately, they see the request as a threat and believe that any contraction of their space to make room for others diminishes and hurts them.
All of this teaches us an important moral lesson on how to deal with others, especially if we sometimes have conflicted claims. Mostly, people in such situations act like the Edomites, seeing making way for others as weakness and a threat. This attitude is a major contributor to situations of conflict. But the concept of Tzimtzum shows us another way. Created in G-d's image we have the possibility of imitating His actions. We can make room for others without diminishing ourself. In situations of conflict or completing claims we don't need to take up a position of hostility or fear. Rather, we can appreciate that by making room for the claims and rights of the other we both benefit. In, as it were, giving up some of our space, we actually gain rather than lose.
This is a very hard thing to appreciate as our instinct is to hold on to what we have. Yet by following the Divine example, we can resolve conflict, increase peace and be partners with G-d in perfecting the world. If G-d can give up some of His space to make room for us to exist, surely we can do the same for others.
This nice piece of advice seems merely to be saying that it is wise for underlings to steer clear of fights between their superiors but it actually holds a deeper critique of the whole stated basis of the rebellion. Korach accuses Moses of lording it over the people and contends that 'all the people are holy'. He seems to be arguing for some type of radical equality or even anarchy. Because G-d dwells among them and they all heard Him speak at Sinai, no one should have a position above another.
Yet what On ben Pelet's wife points out is that this is a deceptive argument. If Korach wins it will not mean that everyone will be equal. Such a scenario does not exist in human society. Differences in temperament and ability will always mean that some people will take leadership position even in supposedly egalitarian societies. The real choice on faces, his wife, points out to him, is not between hierarchy and complete equality, but what sort of leadership he wishes to live under.
This is in fact Moses' argument to the rebels. He not only proves literally by trial by fire the dangers of everyone taking on specialised leadership roles, but defends his own leadership by pointing out that he has derived no benefit from his position and hasn't harmed any of them. Rather than the anarchic egalitarianism seemingly proposed by Korach, that history proves leads to dictatorship and authority, Moses defends his own rule based order.
Yes certain people will be in leadership positions but they will be constrained by the very order that enables them to rule. That is the Torah's prescription for a society that upholds the human dignity of all its members and it is that vision that Moses was ultimately defending against Korach and his followers.
Jews don't believe in original sin in the way it is traditionally understood. But if there is an original sin of Jewish history it is the sin of the spies. When the spies return from their mission with an unfavourable report, the people lift up their voices and cry. According to tradition that night was Tisha B'Av, the date of the future destruction of the temples and numerous other disasters of Jewish history. G-d declared that as the people had cried for no reason He would establish for them a 'weeping for generations' on that date. Several of the commentators point out that this idea is actually found in Ezekiel where the sin of the spies is directly linked to future exile and dispersion.
In Judaism, however, all punishment is rehabilitative. If G-d set us a 'weeping for generations' as a consequence of the sin of the spies, this is designed to correct that mistake. Jews weeping every year for the loss of the Land serves to atone for the original rejection of the Land by the spies. Today, of course, when we have merited a Jewish state in the Land we can physically right the spies historic error by actually embracing the land and going to dwell in it. But even those that feel unable to move can still stay connected and engaged and show their love for the Land in other ways.
Unfortunately, some times the opposite happens. In order to explain away their own inability or unwillingness to make aliyah, people denigrate Israel, thus repeating the sin of the spies rather than correcting it. While criticising this ot that policy of the Israeli government is acceptable and even necessary, criticising Israel as a concept or living in the Land is a serious sin, one for which the Jewish people have suffered through the ages.
This is especially important at this time of year. This story of the spies is normally read the Shabbat before the 29th Sivan, the date the spies set out on their fateful journey. For forty days until Tisha B'Av they saw only negatives, leading to their disastrous defamation of the land. During this period, it is therefore especially important to speak only good of Israel and the Land, correcting the spies error.
For the next forty days, at least, let us endeavour to see and discuss the great things about Israel, the beauty of its land and the strength of its people. Let us right the wrong of the spies and atone for their sin and thus bring redemption to ourselves and the world.
These two qualifications to the basic career period have a lot to teach us about age and employment. On the one hand, it takes time and maturity to be trained for an important task. It is fascinating that in an age when people didn't live as long as they now do, that the Levites didn't begin training for their main career until they were twenty five. Young people need to be able to experiment with various career possibilities before they are pressured to 'settle down'. How many of us are working in careers that are directly related to what we learnt in university?
On the other hand, people need to be able to change careers during their lifetime and especially in their later years. Rather than merely pensioning off the Levites after their main career finishes at fifty, the Torah enables them to flourish in different roles. Their wealth of experience is not lost but merely transferred to a different field of endeavour.
These are lessons that our society still needs to absorb. Young people need to be given a chance despite their lack of experience in a specific field. Knowledge can be learnt, enthusiasm and commitment are often far more important. More mature workers need to be valued for their experience, not rejected because of the colour of their hair, or lack of it. They carry with them skills learnt over a lifetime that can make an invaluable contribution to position, even if it is in a different field to their previous career. In this, the Torah shows us a path, that if we follow it, will serve to make our society both richer and more contented.
'A person's holy things shall be his, a person that gives to the priest, it shall be his'. From this rather ambiguous verse the Sages learn an important principle. The Torah commands that part of the harvest called terumah, must be given to the priests. One might think that you would need to give it to the nearest priest or that the priests themselves would decide who got what. From this verse we learn that this is not the case. Rather it is up to the owner of the crop to decide which priest he will give his tithe to. Thus, while the farmer is obligated to give part of his wealth to the priest, he has control over its distribution. Rather than create a feudal culture where the priests use their power to take from the rest of the population, the Torah instead mandates a society of mutual dependency and respect.
This law can teach us a lot about the proper relationship between religious leadership and communal relations. Jewish society needs Rabbis. While the study of and engagement with the Torah is something that is for everyone, not everyone has the time or the inclination to be a scholar. Judaism needs a group of people with the ability to teach and interpret the Torah and ultimately to decide matters of Jewish Law. Just as the Torah created the priesthood, so the needs of Torah study and interpretation created the Rabbis. Yet, as with the priesthood, the question is what is the relationship between the Torah scholars and the rest of society. Is it one of feudal lordship or mutual respect?
This has always been an issue and both scenarios can be found in the sources. The Talmud relates varying attitudes of the Sages to the rest of the population, and Rabbi Akiva is reported to have said that before he was a scholar if he met a Rabbi he would have wanted to bite him!
This issue is especially acute in our generation when large sections of the Jewish population are not traditionally observant. This situation can lead to Rabbis having an attitude of disdain for those they are meant to be leading. They are often regarded as being ignorant and rather than be gently taught to understand traditional Jewish norms are dictated to in an often arrogant manner. This further widens the gulf between the observant and those they regard as less observant, increasing the divisions within the Jewish people.
The Torah teaches us that this is not the way. Just as the priests are forced to treat the rest of the nation with respect, otherwise they will starve, so should Jewish religious leaders learn to respect and cherish all Jews, regardless of their knowledge or level of observance. That way the Torah, rather than being a source of discord, will be a catalyst of unity.
The Book and Parshah of Bamidbar begins with a census of the Israelites. Rashi gives several reasons for taking a census, one of which is that when G-d came to cause his Presence to dwell among the Israelites, He caused them to be numbered. 'On the 1st of Nisan the tabernacle was dedicated and on the 1st of Iyar the people were numbered'.
There is, however an inherent contradiction in this statement. If the justification for the census was the Divine Presence coming to dwell in the Tabernacle, then surely it should have taken place on or before the 1st of Nisan, not a month later. A simpler explanation of the census is therefore that this was intended to nember the people in preparation for their impending journey to the Land, which began on the 20th Iyar.
Yet we still need to understand Rashi's statement. One way of understand this it to say that while the dedication of the Tabernacle, complete with the physical manifestations of the Divine Presence, took place on 1st of Nisan, the actual indwelling of G-d among the Israelites only took place later. It was only when the Tabernacle and its ceremonies had been in operation that its spiritual benefit was felt. The daily sacrifice, observance of Pesach and the other ceremonies are what entrenched G-d's Presence among the people. G-d was felt not in a one off event but in the regular observance of the mitzvot.
This teaches us an important lesson as we celebrate Shavuot. As we commemorate the Giving of the Torah, it is helpful to reflect on the meaning of the commandments. The mitzvot at heart are ways of us coming close to G-d. While special days like Yom Kippur or Pesach are important, they have only limited effect. The heart of Judaism is the regular observance of the mitzvot. It is through their practice that we achieve going appreciation of G-d's Presence in our life.
The mitzvot infuse every day and every hour with something of the Divine and enable us to live our lives on more than a merely material level. This is the true meaning and opportunity of the Torah and it is this gift that we celebrate on Shavuot.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 5778
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the Jewish Calendar year. The number of the year changes and mitzvot concerning the Sabbatical year begin on that date. Except that in one case the year begins not on Rosh Hashanah but on Yom Kippur. The Torah mandates that the proclamation of the Yovel or Jubilee year begins on Yom Kippur. Indeed, the special Musaf, including the blowing of the Shofar, said every year on Rosh Hashanah is said in a Jubilee also on Yom Kippur. Remembering this practice is one of the reasons we today blow the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur. What is the reason for this juxtaposition and what can it teach us about Yom Kippur?
The basic mitzvot of the Yovel, other than being a Sabbatical year, is that slaves go free and land returns to its original owners. The Jubilee year is thus one of restoration and renewal. People have gone astray on the path of life. They have lost their financial independence, their family farm or even committed a crime for which they are sold into temporary slavery. The Torah provides a remedy for this situation in the Jubilee year. People are given a second chance. They are released from slavery and restored to financial independence.
We can therefore understand the connection to Yom Kippur. We too may have strayed from the path and got into trouble in our life. Yom Kippur gives us the chance to change direction and start again. It is thus also a time of restoration and renewal, a fitting beginning for the year of restoration and renewal.
Yet the Yovel takes us a step beyond the yearly Yom Kippur. While Yom Kippur is a communal experience with, for example, the confession in the plural, it is still mostly an individual experience. I examine my life and change direction; return to G-d and am forgiven. The Jubilee year provides the opportunity for a national realignment. All slaves go free, all land is returned to its original owners. It thus enables a reassessment of national, not merely individual, behaviour. It effects not just individual relationships between people but the whole, social and economic system.
This is something extremely valuable that we are in dire need of, especially in Israel. According to tradition the Jubilee only operates when we have 50% or more of Jews in Israel. At the moment it is 43%, so we have a little way to go. Even so, maybe we can start having that national accounting and realignment also on a normal Yom Kippur, thus turning each Yom Kippur into a Jubilee.
The Seforno explains that there are two introductions because they refer to two different types of festivals. Shabbat is proclaimed by G-d, occurring every seven days, irrespective of human action. The proclamation of the new moon, on the other hand, depends on our sighting of the new moon and the proclamation of the new month by the court in Jerusalem. Maybe, looking again at Rashi, we can say that while the inter-calculation of the year is dependent on natural phenomena, such as a late spring, the sighting of the new moon is totally dependent on us. Thus he connects one to Shabbat and the other to the festivals.
If we look deeper at this distinction we can see that there is an interesting difference between the two processes. When you come to decide whether to inter-calculate the year you merely confirming what has occurred naturally. Whether spring is late that year or not is not in our hands, we just observe the signs. The appearance of the new moon, however, is qualitatively different. We know that the new moon appears approximately 29 ½ days after the last new moon. Yet that does not effect the day of the new month. Only if we ourselves see the new moon can we proclaim the new month on the 30th day. If, for whatever reason, no one sees the new moon, then the month cannot begin that day and begins on the 31st day. Indeed, a court that for any reason doesn't want to have the month begin on the 30th can simply take an extended lunch break and refuse to examine the witnesses until it is too late.
This difference between the two types of festivals teaches us an important lesson. There are things that we can know and things that are beyond our understanding. There are things within our control and others only in the hands of G-d. Often we err in distinguishing the two, causing anxiety to ourselves and others. One of our challenges as people of faith is to differentiate between them and thus act appropriately.
One of the most difficult things in religious life is relating to G-d. How we finite beings can relate to the infinite has troubled thinkers through the ages. In the Parshah we find an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand the Torah warns us against getting too close to G-d. Following the death of his sons for unauthorised entry to the Holy of Holies, Aaron is warned only to enter this most sacred space on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, and given precise instructions on how to do so. In contradistinction, the very next section warns in the strongest terms against sacrificing animals outside the precincts of the Tabernacle. So you should neither come too close nor go too far. Our relationship with G-d, it appears, is meant to be somewhere in the middle.
Incidentally, this rubric may serve to explain a strange comment of the Ibn Ezra, the great Spanish commentator. He appears to explain the sending of the scapegoat on Yom Kippur as a sacrifice to the demons of the wilderness, something specifically prohibited in the following section. For this he is roundly criticised by other commentators. Yet if we understand the two sections as presenting two extremes of approach to G-d, his comment becomes intelligible. If on Yom Kippur we go to one extreme, that of closeness, it may be necessary to balance this by on that same day going to the other extreme, sending a sacrifice out of the Tabernacle into the wilderness.
Looking at these two ways of approaching G-d, Rabbi Kook interrogates their common source and their inherent danger. In both cases the person wishes to understand and relate to the absolute being of G-d, as one would relate to another person. As G-d is, however, beyond our human perception this can lead to one of two negative outcomes. Seeking to totally understand G-d we are bound to fail and so may come to the conclusion that there is nothing there. G-d's essence is so beyond us that we end up becoming atheists. This is the case of Aaron's sons entering the Holy place and being consumedby fire. They simply couldn't endure the reality of G-d and so were extinguished. On the other hand, we can go in the opposite direction. Not being able to comprehend the totality of the Divine, we seek to make it manageable by anthropomorphising G-d, leading to idolatry. These are the Israelites who overawed by the divine presence in the Tabernacle seek to worship by sacrificing to the demons of the wilderness.
How then do we avoid falling into this trap, which on one side leads to atheism and on the other to idolatry. What we need to approach, suggests Rabbi Kook is the ideal of G-d as He reveals Himself to us. We perceive G-d's personality not by trying to relate to Him as we would a human but by connecting to His attributes. By connecting to His bounty, knowledge, compassion, justice and so on we can have a relationship with the Divine without it overwhelming us and G-d becoming either non-existent for us or us creating Him in our own image. This middle way suggested by Rabbi Kook can lead us to a relationship with G-d that is both healthy and satisfying.
The various diseases that we read about in this week's Torah reading have traditionally been seen as not merely physical afflictions. Rather they have been seen as symptoms of a deeper spiritual malady. The person who is afflicted thus not only needs medical care but also spiritual reassessment. It follows that there is are also moral lessons to be found in the various symptoms and prescriptions in the Parshah.
One of the intriguing regulations found in the Parshah is that if the leprosy has spread to all of the person from 'head to foot in the whole sight of the priest', the person is clean. This seems a strange prescription. After all the spreading of the disease would normally be seen as evidence of the person's worsening condition not that they are cured! Various explanations are given by the commentators but none seem to really fully explain the phenomenon. However, if we understand that the Torah is in these sections giving us moral rather than merely medical lessons, then an explanation becomes apparent.
If we regard the diseases described as evidence of moral failing, then the spread of the disease to the whole body as evidence of a complete lack of spiritual worthiness. Neither the 'head', thoughts, or 'feet', actions Furthermore, the Torah adds the requirement that this is in the sight of the priest. If the priest sees nothing healthy in the person, it appears from the outside that the person has no redeeming features.
This however, the Torah tells us, is not possible. Everyone has some redeeming features. If it appears to us that someone is completely without merit and has no good qualities whatsoever then the problem must lie with us not them. If all the priest can see is a diseased body with no healthy areas at all his diagnosis must be wrong, and thus the Torah instructs him to pronounce the patient healed. If all we can see in someone is negative qualities, it is obvious that we our perception is askew and thus we need to regard the person in a positive light.
It often happens that in personal or political life we hear people totally denigrated using extreme language. Listening to the report we are led to believe that the person is completely evil or useless. In such a case, the Torah instructs us, we should realise that the report cannot possibly be true and we should dismiss it out of hand and rather look suspiciously at the person presenting the negative report. While it is sometimes necessary to criticise people and everyone has faults, no one is without merit and if someone tells you they are, don't believe them.
Parshat Tzav, in a non leap year always occurs the week before Pesach. A connection between them is found in the fact that the Parshah is one of the two places in the Torah where we find the laws of the kashering of dishes, something extremely relevant to Pesach.
The Rabbis learnt from these verses a general principle when it comes to making dishes kosher: 'kblo'o kach polto', or as it goes in, so it goes out. This basically means that you kasher a dish the way it is used. If it is used with boiling hot food it needs to be kashered by boiling water, if it is used in fire, by fire. This principle, however, can teach us an important general lesson.
What is being expressed here is the idea that in order to remove a negative influence, one must counter it with a corresponding positive influence. Just as if a dish has absorbed non-kosher food by boiling you need to remove it by kosher boiling water, so if you have 'absorbed' a negative trait or action, it needs to be removed by a diametrically opposite action. Thus if someone is prone to pride, they need to go to an extreme of being humble or if they have been miserly they need to give liberally. This going to the opposite extreme, like kashering the vessel, enables an equilibrium to be restored and is thus merely temporary, but necessary.
It is interesting that a similar dialectic exists with regard to Hametz and Matzah. Both Matzah and Hametz can only come from the same five grains. Only what is kosher to be Matzah can become Hametz and only a grain that can become Hametz can be used to make Matzah. We thus see that in many ways Matzah is the antodote to Chametz. We 'kasher' ourselves from Chametz by eating Matzah.
Indeed, the Rabbis saw in Hametz and Matzah the symbols of negative and positive traits and saw the getting rid of Chametz as also a process of removing our negative attributes. In the same way as we need to throughly clean a vessel before kashering it, we need to remove all the Chametz before eating Matzah. So when we clean in preparation for Pesach, let us spend time cleansing ourself.
This week we read about sacrifices. The Parshah wholly consists of the different types of sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle/Temple. The additional readings discuss the Rosh Hodesh and Pesach sacrifices respectively and the Haftorah looks forward to the offerings that will be brought into the Third Temple.
Among the many types of different sacrifices one stand outs. That is the Doubtful Guilt offering. This is a sacrifice brought when one is not sure whether you have committed an offence for which you would normally bring a sin offering. Even though you are not sure whether you have sinned you still bring an offering asking for forgiveness.
The fact that the Torah specifically prescribes a sacrifice for cases of doubt teaches us a profound lesson. One could argue that if we don't know whether we did anything wrong we should be exempt. The Torah doesn't agree. The very fact that we don't remember if we sinned is in itself a problem.
If we take the classic Talmudic case of eating something which we are afterwards not sure was kosher, we can illustrate the point.
We don't say it doesn't matter as we don't remember. Rather we need to bring an offering because we should have focused on what we were eating. If kashrut was important we would have checked that what we were eating was acceptable before we eat it. This applies with even more force to our relationships with others.
Few people deliberately seek to hurt others. Most often we cause pain to others by our thoughtlessness or lack of sensitivity. We simply didn't think. We might not even be sure we did hurt them. By requiring us to bring an offering in doubtful cases, the Torah demands that we do think about how we act and speak to others.
It is not good enough to live our lives insensitive to the world around us and to the needs or feelings of others. We are not the centre of the world and everything doesn't just revolve around what we think or feel. This special offering teaches us to be aware, sensitive and most of all to think about what we are doing and how we behave.
Shemot (Exodus) 5778
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
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.
'And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them'. Famously the Torah doesn't say G-d will dwell in the Tabernacle but among the Jewish people. This emphasis serves to disabuse the idea that the Tabernacle is somehow needed as a 'home' for G-d. G-d dwells not in a building but in people's hearts. Yet this understanding doesn't detract from the fact that the Tabernacle is necessary to achieve this aim. In order that G-d may among the people, they must build a physical structure.
One may ask why is that necessary? If the aim is spiritual why does its fulfilment have to take a physical form. The answer goes to the heart of not just the meaning of the Tabernacle but of the whole Torah. Humans are composed of both a body and a soul and placed in a physical world. According to Judaism, our task here is not to seek to escape that world, like we are trapped in a prison. That would seem to indicate that our being here was some sort of mistake. Rather our souls are precisely put in a material body able to act on the physical world, in order to elevate it. That is the purpose of the Torah.
When we perform mitzvot using physical objects, we raise them to a spiritual level. For example, the skin of a cow is nothing special, just part of a carcass. But when we use it to write a Torah scroll or tefillin, we turn it into something holy. We have taken something material and elevated it to a spiritual level.
The highest expression of this was in the Tabernacle and later the Temple. By building a structure dedicated to G-d in the way the Torah commanded we take normal space and materials and turn it into the epitome of holiness. Before its completion the Holy of Holies was just a space. Afterwards, it rose to a level of spirituality that generally makes it impossible to even enter.
This understanding of Torah is vital for our practice of Judaism. People may think it is enough to be Jewish 'at heart', not bothering to observe very much. It is enough that they feel Jewish. The Torah tells us that this is missing the whole point. The basic intention of being Jewish is to act Jewishly. If we don't perform Jewish actions which spiritualise the physical we are failing in our purpose. That is the lesson of the Tabernacle.
Among the many laws that make up our Parshah, we have the concept of the 'four guardians' or four different types of ways that you can legally be in possession of someone else’s property. The Torah details the differing level of responsibility of each one, depending of the circumstances.
A person who looks after something for free has the least level of responsibility, being merely required not to have used it inappropriately. The next level is the person paid to look after an object. He is liable for normal damage or loss (such as theft) but exempt from extraordinary damage (such as armed robbery). The person who borrows an object in order to use it, however, has the highest level of responsibility, being liable for everything.
In the fourth case, however, the law is less clear. This is the situation when someone hires something paying something for its use. The Rabbis here dispute what level of responsibility is entailed by such a transaction. Some say that the fact that the borrower has paid for his hire puts him into the category of a someone who looks after something for free, and is thus only liable for inappropriate use. Others say that this case is more like that of someone who is paid to look after an object.
These discussions throw an interesting light on human relationships. It is clear that if you do someone a favour you are given the benefit of the doubt while if someone does you a favour you are liable to the highest degree. If money is involved the case falls somewhere in between. If we extrapolate this principle to civil society, we could argue that those serving gratis in voluntary organisations should be least liable for their actions, while those paid to run them should be examined more strictly. Most people would disagree with this proposition, however. All organisations may have assets or employees that need to be managed properly.
However, there is also a danger that placing too many burdens on volunteers will cause them not to be involved. This is especially true today of people working with children where the weight of regulation and indeed suspicion, has caused a severe shortage of people willing to work with young people. Children need to be protected but also need youth groups and other activities in order to thrive. If we achieve the one while destroying the other, we may be doing more harm than good. The Torah's principle is thus still valid today.
Most of the mitzvot in the Torah do not have a specific reward attached to them but some do. One of the those is of course the fifth of the Ten Commandments, the mitzvah to honour your parents. Here the Torah specifically states that you should do so in order to lengthen your life in the Land. Being that the connection of a particular mitzvah to a specific reward is unusual it behoves us to ask in each case the reason for this connection.
One rubric helpful in doing so is found at the beginning of the Parshah, in the words of Jethro. In his reaction to the story of the Exodus he states that now he knows that 'G-d is greater than all the other gods, in the way that they sinned against them'. The commentators understand the last phrase to mean that, in the manner that the Egyptians offended against the Israelites, so were they punished. For example, they sought to destroy the Israelite males by drowning and similarly the cream of male Egyptian society was drowned at the Red Sea.
This idea is called in Judaism 'measure for measure' and is regarded as a basic component of G-d's just management of the world. The punishment is made to fit the crime. This, however, can also be used in a positive sense. The reward for a good action is connected to that action or its consequences.
If we now return the mitzvah of honouring parents, we can ask how this fulfilment of this commandment contributes to longevity? How is the reward commensurate to the deed? A possible thought is that in honouring our parents we respect the traditions that they stand for, prolonging the vitality of Jewish culture into the future. Similarly, honouring parents strengthens the bonds of the family unity, connects the generations and thus helps create a healthy society. All these things enable a nation to prosper in their Land, overcome the challenges threatening it, and prolong their tenure on it.
But maybe most simply, in honouring parents we make them happy. We prolong their lives by our care an affection. If we do so, the Torah promises us that we will share a similar destiny. Our children seeing our actions will follow them and we will also merit a secure and happy longevity.
Imagine the following scenario: a Principal of a school has had problems with a pupil that is bullying others. After many warnings and punishments, the parents are called in, and the pupil’s behaviour seems to significantly improve.
The Principal, however, is convinced that the boy is a troublemaker and a habitual bully and would like to expel him; thereby also showing that he is tough on bullying at his school. He therefore sets up a trap; encouraging the formerly bullied children to deliberately provoke this pupil who had bullied them, in order to create the conditions for his expulsion. Unfortunately, the ruse works; the pupil reacts and is expelled.Many of us, even those that have to teach occasionally difficult pupils, would feel profoundly uneasy with this scenario. Whatever the pupil in question had done in the past, he had now ceased his aggressive behaviour. To deliberately trap him into misbehaviour seems profoundly unfair and even immoral.How then should we relate to the Crossing of the Sea and the destruction of the Egyptians therein? This is an event we not only celebrate by a Yom Tov, the Seventh Day of Pesach, but recall in our prayers every day. Yet it presents the exact same scenario outlined above. The Egyptians have, finally, done what G-d demanded and let the Jews go. G-d then instructs Moses to lead the Israelites into a situation in order that the Egyptians will believe they are trapped , in order that they will chase after the Israelites, in order that they will be destroyed. This, in order that G-d’s power will be evident to all. Is this a moral course of action? Should G-d not behave justly?The answer is not simple or easy. The fact is that there are times when such a ruse is justified. If Pharaoh’s armies had not been destroyed at the sea, the Jews would never have been safe. No one actually provoked Pharaoh to chase after the Israelites; rather G-d led him to believe he could get away with it. It is as if the Principal had put a hidden camera in the bully’s room, while pretending to befriend him in order to disarm his suspicions.Yet the moral question still remains. This episode is morally troubling. That the Torah does not hide the truth from us and we are left with more questions than answers is the true greatness of its story.
In refusing Moses’ demand that all the Jewish people: men, women, children, be allowed to leave, Pharaoh makes the comment that ‘evil is before your face’. This curious comment can be simply held to mean that the fact that Moses is demanding that everyone leaves, puts the lie to his claim that his purpose is only a temporary religious pilgrimage. Yet a strong midrashic tradition sees a more sinister intent in Pharaoh’s words.
The phrase can literally be translated as: ‘evil is before you’. In other words, the journey you are embarked upon will end in tragedy. This is a fear that, in fact, runs like a dark undercurrent beneath the whole story of the sojourn in the wilderness. Moses himself, when G-d threatens to destroy Israel for their disobedience, uses the argument of: ‘what would the Egyptians say’, to persuade G-d otherwise. In other words, by destroying the Israelites, you will prove Pharaoh right.The Jews themselves, in a moment of despair, express the thought that: ‘because G-d hated us, He brought us out of Egypt’. What is the basis of these dark premonitions? Is it not, that the Exodus is nothing if not a revolution; and revolutions are a dangerous business. We have seen how the French and Russian revolutions betrayed their ideals and consumed their own people. Pharaoh would have heartily agreed with the bleak scenario of Animal Farm. What was to stop the Exodus ending in similar tragedy? Could Moses not turn out to be simply another Stalin?The antidote to these dangers is a midrash quoted by Rashi on this very verse. The blood of the Jewish people, that Pharaoh foresaw in the wilderness, was transformed by G-d into the blood of their circumcision by Joshua. How are we to understand this analogy? Circumcision is an individual act that creates a covenant between each individual Jew and G-d. It emphasises the importance of the individual person in the totality of the nation and the sacredness of every life in G-d’s greater purpose. This is the heritage of Abraham who fought for the righteous individuals of Sodom and would not let G-d’s greater purpose trample on the right of the individual.It is this concern for the individual that can rescue a revolution from tragedy. It is thus that Moses refuses G-d’s offer of starting afresh with him, and argues that a revolution based on the destruction of a generation, can never fulfil its ideals. He thus frustrates Pharaoh’s prophecy of doom and makes his revolution a true success.
On Seder night we drink four cups of wine. The number four is traditionally connected to the four expressions of redemption found at the beginning of our Parshah. G-d promises the Israelites that He will bring them out of Egyptian oppression, save them from their bondage, redeem them with an outstretched arm and take them to Him as a people. Yet the Torah continues with another commitment. G-d also promises to bring the Jews into the Land which he promised to their ancestors. Shouldn't there therefore be five cups of wine, rather than four?
Indeed there is precisely this discussion among the Rabbis, with some authorities holding that we should indeed drink five rather than four cups of wine. Our practice is to drink only four cups of wine but to fill a fifth cup at the end of the Seder for Elijah.This discussion touches on a basic discourse within Judaism. What should be the role of the Land of Israel within Jewish life. It is clear from the whole of the Torah that Israel is a pillar on which Judaism rests. But is it essential to the existence of Judaism, especially when the Jews are in exile.That is precisely the discussion that we find concerning the four cups. Those who mandate drinking only four cups see the essence of Pesach as the liberation from Egypt. The promise of the Land is an important commitment for the future, but not essential for the maintenance of the Jewish people. This is the view of people like Rabbi Hirsch who advanced the importance of Jewish life in the Diaspora.On the other hand, those who say we should drink five cups of wine regard the promise of the Land as an essential part of the Redemption. Without Israel there is essentially a second class Judaism, lacking a basic component. This is the central component of the philosophy of Rabbi Kook, for example.Today at our Seders we drink four cups but fill a fifth for Elijah. In doing so, we are maybe taking a middle position. Judaism can exist without Israel but not without the hope of, and connection to the Land . We live with the reality of the four cups of the Diaspora but look forward to the fifth cup of redemption. Let us therefore hope for the final redemption when we will all gather in Israel to not only fill a fifth cup but drink it.
Pharaoh decrees that all the new born Jewish boys should be thrown into the Nile. The Torah then relates how a man from the tribe of Levi married a woman from the same tribe and they had a male child. Thus begins the story of Moses. Behind this seemingly simple introduction the Rabbis discern a more complicated story. After all, Moses already had a brother and sister, so why does the Torah tell us about the marriage of his parents? The midrash relates that in fact they had separated in order to avoid having more children and have them killed by Pharaoh's henchmen. Their daughter Miriam, however, did not approve of this course of action. She accused her parents of being worse than Pharaoh who only decreed against the birth of male children, while they were seeking to prevent any children being born. Her parents listened to her, go back together and the rest is history. This story highlights a real dilemma faced by Jews throughout history. How do we respond to severe persecution? Moses' parent's action have a stark logic. If indeed all the boy babies are being killed, surely it is better to cease having children? Yet Miriam exposes the falsity of this position. She is in effect accusing her parents of assisting Pharaoh in destroying the Jewish people. He wants Jews to cease to exist and by refusing to have children they are hastening that end. It is true that it is dangerous to continue to procreate but that is the precise way that Pharaoh's schemes will be frustrated. After the destruction of the Temple there was a council of despair that similarly thought it might be better to stop having children and let the Jewish people die a natural death. Yet the Rabbis rejected this course and chose a different way that adapted and strengthened Judaism in this new harsh world. It is striking how many people in the concentration camps risked their lives in order to perform mitzvot. Surely it was better to be safe and concentrate on survival? But, like Miriam, they instinctively understood that when someone is trying to destroy the Jewish people the correct response is to stop being Jewish but to strengthen Judaism. Every time an inmate lit Hanukah candles or blew the Shofar it was another nail in the coffin of the Nazi's ambitions. The story of Miriam and her parents teaches us that even when faced with the darkest hour and the forces of destruction, the Jewish way is not to give up but to chose life.
Bereishit (Genesis) 5778
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
We are well aware of the term the 'Twelve Tribes of Israel'. The idea of Jacob's twelve sons forming the basis of the Jewish people is mentioned several times in the Torah. Yet are there really only twelve tribes? Having achieved the desired number and gathered them all in Egypt, Jacob then does a strange thing. He creates more.
As a final gift to Joseph he states that the two sons born to him in Egypt before Jacob arrived, will be equal to his other sons. Jacob, in effect adopts Ephraim and Manasseh, increasing the number of tribes to thirteen. Yet, the concept of twelve tribes remains. Both in Jacob's, and later Moses' blessings the treat Joseph as one tribe. Yet in the political, social and economic make up of the nation, Ephraim and Manasseh are treated as two separate tribes.The number twelve, of course, is maintained by taking the tribe of Levi out of the equation and giving them a special status in the spiritual life of the nation. Yet the interesting thing is that this is not mentioned by Jacob. Indeed, the Levites are not appointed to the second year of the Exodus. This thus left the identity of the 'special' tribe in abeyance.This status, could have been theoretically acquired by any of the tribes. It didn't have to be Levi. This tribe achieved their status by their actions, especially during the sin of the Golden Calf, when they alone remained loyal. Yet, according to the Sages, this loyalty went back to Egypt. The tribe of Levi were the primary preservers of Jewish identity and tradition, during the oppression in Egypt and they kept the Jewish people intact during this first exile.Thus while Jacob, didn't designate a specific tribe to be exceptional they achieved that status by their actions. They made themselves worthy of carrying that mantle. This teaches us an important lesson concerning the interplay between destiny and choice. While many things that happen to us are out of our control we do have the ability to shape our destiny. While some things may be determined by our genes, more is determined by our choices.Levi had no say in his father's decision to create the need for an extraordinary tribe, but his descendants by their choices ensured that they would be the ones to become it. We should never believe that our destinies are fixed. Our future is frequently in our own hands.
The world has been disturbed this week to hear of the entry of the far-right into government in Austria. While, the far-right has also made gains in Germany, and elsewhere, it is difficult to imagine any German party contemplating inviting them into the government. The difference between the two countries lies primarily in hour they responded to their role in the Holocaust. While Germany faced up to its past, Austria didn't.
This issue is interestingly highlighted in the Parshah. Joseph, finally, reveals himself to his brothers and they have the opportunity to honestly deal with their treatment of him. Yet Joseph forestalls such an accounting by immediately exonerating them. They should not worry that they sold him into slavery, he explains to them, because it was all part of G-d's plan to save the family, and the region, from starvation. When the brothers, after their father's death, again seek accounting for their crime, he again uses the same argument.The brothers are thus never permitted by Joseph to actually face the full consequences of their actions. It is true that they may have behaved badly, but they can also regard themselves as pawns of a Divine plan, not fully responsible. They themselves were manipulated.A similar scenario occurred with regard to Austria after the war. In the words of a title of a book on the subject the Austrians became 'guilty victims'. They were themselves 'occupied' and so not fully responsible for their actions. Like Joseph's brothers, the Austrians were told that they were instruments of Germany, coerced into what they did.In both cases the consequences of such an attitude were extremely damaging. Joseph and his brothers never genuinely dealt with the issue and Jacob's family never truly reconciled, with disastrous consequences for later Jewish history. Similarly, Austria never faced up to its active role in the Holocaust, allowing for the wide retention of racist and fascist ideas that we see reflected in contemporary Austrian politics.The lesson is clear. Judaism believes in Teshuvah, or return from evildoing. But the first and crucial step is fully acknowledging what you have done. Failure to do so means nothing will ever really change.
These two names expose the contradictory impulses and alienation that Joseph feels at this moment. On the one hand, he is glad to forget his 'father's house'. He seemingly has no homesickness but only bad memories of what was done to him. He can't break through the barrier of the trauma of his betrayal by his brothers. On the other hand, he has ambivalent feelings towards his adopted country. Even though he has reached the pinnacle of success he can still refer to Egypt as 'the land of my sorrow'. His life as a slave and his years in prison have also left their mark.The remainder of Genesis, among other things, will explore the resolution of these issues. Firstly, he needs to rediscover his family. The arrival of the brothers negates his attempt to forget his father's house and he is forced to confront what happened to him and how that effects the relationship with his family. That resolution is the story of this week's Parshah and the beginning of the next. Afterwards, he needs to decide how he relates to Egypt: as his home or a temporary haven. This he does at the end of Genesis, starting with the arrival of his family in the country and ending with his request to be buried in Israel. He makes a clear choice. Egypt can never be home, his place is in Israel.This dilemma, is in some ways the predicament of all Diaspora Jews and in some ways the heart of the story of Hanukah. How do we relate to the dietetic between our Judaism and our host culture; between the country we live in and Israel. Unless we make a clear choice by living in Israel, there is no easy resolution. We, like Joseph, must struggle to come to terms with a dual identity.The question can be phrased by the letters on the dreiedel. In Israel they have a pey, 'a great miracle happened here', in the Diaspora a shin 'a great miracle happened there'. Each of us must resolve the dilemma: are we here or there or somewhere in between.
This week we have the first appearance on the stage of Jewish history of the tribe that will be central to Jewish leadership. We have already, of course, read the of the birth of Judah two weeks ago but it is in this week's Parshah that he begins to take centre stage.
We encounter him in two incidents in the Parshah and in each he plays a different role which sheds a light on a facet of his character. During the sale of Joseph he is the most influential figure. Reuben intends to rescue Joseph but doesn't succeed, while it is Judah that by his suggestion of selling him, saves him from certain death in the pit. Judah just shows both decisiveness and an ability to discern the possible rather than just the desirable.
In the second incident we find Judah unwittingly having a child with his widowed daughter in law, whom he has mistaken for a harlot. This incident brings out two important characteristics of Judah, both of which are vital for good leadership. Firstly, despite engaging in activity that he might wish to cover up, he makes sure that he fulfils his promise to Tamar and endeavours to send her the correct payment.
Secondly, when the whole incident is revealed he immediately not only admits his role but vindicates his daughter in law's actions, that he states were more correct than his own. In this he displays another of the necessary ingredients of good leadership: a sense of honesty and an ability to admit mistakes. Furthermore, by legitimising Tamar's children as his own he turns a rather sordid incident into something positive, in effect beginning the Jewish royal family. These same characteristics are on display in his later actions and in the actions of his descendants.
It is interesting that the royal house of Judah has what could be called questionable antecedents. Not only does it begin in the disreputable incident this week but is carried forward through the even worse story of David and Bathsheva. It is fascinating that the royal line is carried on through Peretz, one of Tamar's children, not through Shelah his oldest son. Likewise, it is David's son by Bathsheva that become king and is the ancestor of the Messiah.
This teaches us that Jewish leadership is less about lineage that about character. For G-d what is important in a Jewish leader is not that he is perfect or pure but that he can admit his mistakes and learn from them. We sorely need such leaders today!
One of the features of the Torah is that we often learn positive lessons from negative events. For example, the mitzvah of burial is learnt from the case of an executed criminal. In our Parshah we have two terrible incidents: the rape of Dinah and the massacre of Shechem by Jacob's sons and Reuben sleeping with Jacob's concubine. Can we learn positive lessons from these events?
If we look closely, we can see that there is a common theme that links these two events, one that is of relevance to us. Whether or not the actions of Jacob's sons were justified, and the Torah is ambiguous on this point, they were based on an important principle; collective responsibility. The people of Shechem were responsible for not punishing their prince's reprehensible behaviour. As such, they themselves took on responsibility for his actions and in the eyes of Shimon and Levy, could share his punishment. The people of Shechem are not regarded as separate individuals but as a community that has responsibility for each other.
The second negative incident in the Parshah teaches from the opposite direction. Reuben sleeps with his father's concubine. Immediately afterwards the Torah informs us that 'the sons of Jacob were twelve', and proceeds to list them, starting with Reuben the first-born. The Rabbis note this juxtaposition and comment that despite his sin Reuben was still part of the family and the twelve tribes of Israel. The strength of the mutual bonds that bound them together was stronger than the disruption caused by Reuben's action. Again we have the idea that the members of a community are responsible for each other in good times and bad.
That is a crucial lesson for us all. As members of a community we need to look out for each other. Coming to a minyan or a communal event is not merely a function of our personal religiosity or preference but an act of solidarity with other members of the community, for whom it is important. When people in the community have a simcha or Yarhtzeit or are giving a Dvar Torah or leading the davening, it is important to come to support them. Likewise, even if you feel too young, it is important for those eligible to come along to the Lunch Club and support those for whom it is a vital part of their week. We are all part of a small community and only by supporting each other will we endure and thrive.
We read this week of two sisters: Leah and Rachel. In many ways we can sympathise with Leah more than with Rachel. She is the one that is forced into marriage with her sister's prospective husband, thus earning the enmity of both. Despite giving Jacob six children, she still feels estranged from him and, according to tradition, even after Rachel's death Jacob took up with Rachel's handmaid, not her.
Yet Jewish tradition sees things otherwise. Rachel is regarded as the tragic figure. Her love for Jacob is sullied by her sister, she has trouble bearing children and in the end dies prematurely and, unlike Leah, is not even buried with Jacob. Significantly, it is Rachel that Jewish tradition sees as the true mother of the nation, pleading with G-d for their redemption and rejoicing in their return. How did she achieve this status?
I believe it was because, more than Leah, she learned to surmount her situation. Rachel, at first, does not seem to be a sympathetic character. She has he husband's love, yet reproaches him for her not having children, even though the problem clearly lies with her. She appears self-centred and unable to appreciate what she has.
Yet that changes with one incident. Desperate for children she asks her sister for her son's mandrakes, a fertility drug. Leah replies, that is it not enough that she stole her husband, she also wants her mandrakes. Rachel could have replied that who stole whose husband? But she doesn't. She offers a night with Jacob in return for the mandrakes.
What is really happening here is Rachel is for the first time realising her sister's tragedy. She is transcending her own sorrow at not having children and feeling her sister's pain of being married to a man that didn't want her and, whatever she does, always being second best. By giving her one of her 'nights' with Jacob Rachel is raising her sister to her level of importance in Jacob's eyes. This action both opens her own womb and makes her the eternal advocate for the Jewish people.
This provides us with a wonderful lesson. We can often be caught up in our own sorrows and become self-centred and trapped in a vicious circle. But like Rachel we can break free by feeling the pain of others. In helping others, even when we are in trouble, we can find our own redemption.
One of the puzzles of the Torah is why Isaac wanted to bless Esau. From our perspective it seems are morally deficient decision. If we want to solve this conundrum we need first to look at the respective characters of Esau and Jacob as described in the Torah.
Esau is described as a 'hunter and a man of the field', while Jacob is a 'simple, dwelling in tents'. If we de-construct these descriptions we could describe Esau as more of a materialist and Jacob as an intellectual. So they question needs to be asked, why did Isaac prefer the more practical side of Esau.
Some of the commentators have understood that he thought that a practical person should lead the family. He would provide the material needs that would enable Jacob to pursue his intellectual pursuits. His mistake was putting Esau first.
A famous dialectic in the Torah is that between Joseph, the practical man of action and Judah the spiritual leader. This later comes to the fore in the split between the northern kingdom of Israel, materially successful but spiritually deficient, and the southern kingdom of Judah, less wealthy but more loyal to Jewish values.
The symbols of these kingdoms David and Jerobam (the first king of Israel) are addressed by G-d. Jerobam is told that if he will return from his evil ways, he David will walk with G-d in Paradise. Jerobam asks who will go first and when he is told it is David he refuses the offer. The message of this story is clear and elucidates Isaac's error. We need both practical people who provide society's material needs. We also need intellectuals and spiritual visionaries. But it is the spiritual that must lead the material not the opposite.
In seeking to give precedence to Esau Isaac was inverting the proper order and thus Rebecca acted to remedy the situation, something Isaac in the end seems to have understood. In Jewish society spiritual leadership comes first.
The Torah goes into much detail about the negotiations behind this purchase and the dialogue between Abraham and his Canaanite neighbours. One statement of Abraham's excites a rabbinic comment that has great relevance for us in considering the meaning of the events of 1917 and the intervening century. At the beginning of the negotiations Abraham describes himself as a 'stranger and an inhabitant among you'.
The Rabbis pick up on the inherent contradiction between these two terms, one denoting someone who is a guest, the other someone there of right. They explain that Abraham used both terms to make a point. If the Canaanites would treat him fairly he would be a stranger, acting as a supplicant.
However, he reminded them that G-d had promised him all the Land and if necessary he would act as an inhabitant who could take it by right.
The Rabbis here are illustrating a tension often faced during the long Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. On the one hand G-d has given the Land to us as an inalienable right. On the other, we often in practical terms, need to act as a supplicant in actualising that right. In doing so, however, we need to be careful not to confuse practical politics with principle. The fact that we may need the goodwill of various people and nations in realising our possession of Israel, does not mean that this is the source of our claim. That lies in 3000 years of Jewish history and the Divine promise.
The Balfour Declaration or the United Nation's resolution we commemorate this month, did not give us the right to the Land of Israel. That always existed. It merely confirmed that existing right in the realm of practical politics. As such, whatever statement British or other politicians might make concerning the events of a century ago are irrelevant to the legitimacy of Israel. That was established long before. The true source of Israel is not Balfour and his declaration but Abraham and the Torah
This week we read about the birth of two children. One is Isaac the son of Sarah. The other is the son of the Shunamite woman. In both cases the children were born to women who had given up hope of having children and whose doing so was regarded as miraculous. In both cases the announcement of the impending birth was met with disbelief and resistance by the prospective mothers. In both cases the child then finds themselves in a life threatening situation that is only resolved by Divine intervention. Finally, in both cases the saving of the child is met with silence by the parents. Obviously something is going on here that has deeper meaning.
I believe that the story behind these stories tells us a lot about the Jewish attitude to miracles and has relevance for the way we should live our lives. The underlying tension contain in both of these incidents is illustrated in a fascinating dispute found in the Talmud. There, it is told of a man whose wife died leaving him with a nursing baby. He had no money to pay for a wet-nurse but miraculously he grew breasts and was able to nurse his son. Rabbi Yosef thinks that this man is great that such a miracle happens to him. Abaye (one of the greatest Talmudic sages) disagrees. The man is to be despised as because of him the order of nature was changed. One could spend a whole lecture just discussing the source and implications of this dispute but I believe Abaye's attitude underlies the reaction of the two mothers we read about this week.
They instinctively understand that what will happen to them is not normal but an upsetting of the natural order. They suspect that this 'changing of creation' comes at a price, and they are right. Both these children almost die and even though they are in the end saved, the women are still uncertain if it was worth the price. Indeed, according to tradition Sarah herself dies because of the shock of almost losing her son. This theme continues in the Torah, with the Israelites always unsure whether the miracles of the exodus are really a good thing or a diabolical plot that will destroy them. Indeed they come close to destruction several times, demonstrating that their fears were not unfounded.
Judaism does celebrate miracles but is also wary of them. G-d created a natural order and it is better to exists if possible without miracles that disturb it, unless they are really needed. This is also a lesson for our lives. We sometimes wish that G-d would intervene in our humdrum existence and we would, for example, win the lottery. Yet many people to whom this has happened have ended up less happy and in worse straits.
It is better to make do with what we can achieve by our own efforts than rely on extraordinary help that may have a price attached. As the women we encounter this week instinctively understood, you should be careful what you wish for. You many end up regretting it.
Parshat Lech L'cha
One of the principles used by the Rabbis to understand the stories of the Patriarchs is that 'the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children'. There are several ways of understanding this rubric but a simple interpretation is that we are meant to learn from these stories lessons for our own lives.
A recurring feature of the lives of the Patriarchs is conflict and its resolution. These occur both between the Patriarchs and external actors and within their own families. The classic solution for these disputes is simple to walk away. Rather than trying to solve the roots of the conflict they are resolved by the parties, as much as possible, simply having nothing to do with each other.
The classic case is found in this week's Parshah with regards to Abraham's nephew Lot, who tagged along with him on his quest. There is a dispute over grazing rights between their respective shepherds that is in danger of damaging the whole enterprise. Abraham doesn't try and resolve the actual dispute but merely suggests to Lot that they should go their separate ways. 'If I go to the left you go to the right and if I go to the right you go to the left'.
This same technique is used in solving the issue of Ishmael and in resolving the dispute between Jacob and Esau. There is little or no attempt made to patch things up. Rather, it is understood that only by separating the protagonists can peace be restored. In some instances, notably in the case of Ishmael, G-d specifically approves this resolution.
On the basis of the rubric that we can learn from the Patriarchs' actions for our own lives, this paradigm can teach us an important lesson. Making peace is an important value in Judaism. Indeed Aaron the priest was noted and praised for this trait. But making peace at any price can be dangerous and self-defeating. There are disputes and circumstances where it is simply not appropriate to try and bring the parties together. Rather, the best solution is to separate them.
Trying to patch up a marriage when one partner has behaved inappropriately or abusively is clearly wrong. The only sensible and moral solution is for the couple to divorce as soon as possible. People, who in such cases, try and bring people together are causing untold harm and often creating a serious injustice.
From our forefathers we learn that while unity and peace are important, sometimes its better simply to walk away and leave.
Noah, who is the hero of this week's Parshah, is often compared to his descendant Abraham. There are instructive descriptive links between them. Both are described as tamim or whole/perfect and the relationship of both with G-d is described in terms of movement or walking. It is precisely here, however, that the significant differences lie. Noah is described as being tamim (at least in his generation) and walking with G-d. Abraham is told to walk before G-d and become tamim.
There is a world of difference between these two descriptions. Noah relies on G-d's support to maintain his present state while Abraham is encouraged by G-d to go it alone and grow into something greater. This discrepancy can be seen in the respective actions of these two men and their relationship to G-d. Noah does as he is told. He is told to build an ark and he does so. He goes in when he is ordered and leaves when he is instructed. The world is destroyed around him and he expresses no recorded reaction.
In contrast Abraham has a dialogue with G-d. He is told he will inherit the Land and asks how, advised he will have a son by Sarah and protests that Ishmael is enough. Most famously, when informed of the impending destruction of Sodom, he bargains with G-d on their behalf. This is the difference between someone for whom G-d is a crutch or an inspiration, between reliance and dependency.
Jewish tradition is very clear about which model we should follow. In the Musaf service of Rosh Hashanah we mention both Noah and Abraham and Isaac. We mention Noah as an example of G-d's protective remembrance, but when we pray for salvation we invoke Abraham and Isaac. Being Jewish is not about slavish dependency that stifles our initiative and sees G-d as a staff to lean on. Rather, it is about mature trust, making moral decisions before G-d, in the confidence that He is behind us. We pray not in a position of subservience like a helpless dependent but standing in a posture of dialogue.
That then is the challenge of the Torah to the Jew. Do we need to walk with G-d or can we find the courage to stride before him? Is Judaism our crutch or our inspiration?
The festival of Shemini Atzeret marks the end of several cycles. It is the last Torah mandated festival in the cycle beginning on Pesach. It is also the last of the four Tishrei festivals. Finally, of course, Simchat Torah marks the end of the yearly cycle of Torah readings while also on Simchat Torah, we also begin a new cycle.
The idea of a cycle of festivals, events or seasons, carries within it the idea of time as a circle that returns on itself. This is in turn based on the natural progression of the natural world of spring, summer, autumn and winter. The idea of cosmic cyclical time is a feature of the Eastern religions, especially Hinduism. Yet Judaism, broke with that model and introduced a new concept of time, linear time. For Jews history is not a series of recurrent events repeating themselves in the course of cosmic cycles but a progression to an ultimate goal, designed and guided by a Creator.
There is a world of difference between these two concepts. In cyclical time nothing ultimately changes, leading to a view of a fixed universe, and often a hierarchical society. Linear time sees change and progression as the essence of the historical process, leading to innovation and revolution.
How, then, does this linear concept of time fit in with a cyclical year? It does so by means of the intricacy of the Jewish calendar. It is true that our festivals follow the seasons, following the earth's progress round the sun. But not exactly. The dates of the festivals are determined by lunar months meaning that they can fluctuate as much as thirty days. Thus Pesach can fall anywhere between the 27th of March and the 25th of April. This ensures that each festival is not an exact copy of the one the year before. For example, Yom Kippur last year ended at 19.12. next year it ends at 20.12, a significant difference if you are fasting. In a deeper sense this means that each month or festival is not simply a repeat of last year, but a renewal of it, like the renewal of the moon that determines it's date.
Thus as we come to the end of the cycle of Torah readings and begin anew, we can be confident that our reading of Bereishit this year will not be the same as last year. We will gain new insights and understand new meanings. A symbol of this is that Shabbat Bereishit is always also Shabbat Mevarchim, when we bless the New Moon and its message of renewal. Thus as we read again of the creation, we are reminded that our world is not a cyclical machine but, in the words of our prayers, renewed each day by G-d. As we progress through a new round of Torah readings may we be likewise renewed.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5777
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
Succot is a double barrelled festival in several ways. Firstly, most festivals have one central mitzvah: for example eating Matzah on Peasch, blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Succot has two: dwelling in the Succah and taking the Four Species. The Succot period is also made up of two distinct festivals, Succot itself and the Eighth Day which is known as Shemini Atzeret. The reason for this is simple: Succot is part of two distinct festival cycles: the Three Pilgrim Festivals and the Tishrei Festivals. Each of these two sets of festivals has a distinct and differing focus. The Three Pilgrim Festivals focus on agriculture and history, each celebrating both an agricultural season and commemorating an historic event in Jewish history. They concentrate on nature and the nation. The Tishrei Festival cycle is in contrast individual and internal. It centres around the Jew's relationship with G-d and his own personal spiritual development. Succot, is both the last of the Three Pilgrim Festivals and the third of the Tishrei festivals. It thus partakes of both the agricultural/national and individual/internal themes of the Jewish year. Succot, is firstly, the festival of the harvest, a thanksgiving to G-d for His bounty. It also commemorates G-d's protection of Israel, during their wanderings in the wilderness. In addition, it follows Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and complements them. After the days of introspection and repentance we have days of rejoicing and intimacy with G-d. The two mitzvot of the festival reflect this. The Succah commemorates G-d's protection. By leaving our homes and dwelling in the Succah we show our trust in G-d and demonstrate that material possessions are not the centre of our lives, thus continuing the process of spiritual rejuvenation begun on Rosh Hashanah. The Lulav and the other species symbolise the bounty of the Land and are a symbolic prayer for rain as we approach the winter. Succot, however, has one other feature that combines these two characteristics. The Three Pilgrim Festivals each symbolises one of the three main pillars of Judaism. Pesach focuses on the People of Israel, Shavuot on the Torah and Succot on the Land of Israel. It is in Israel that the motifs of these two festival cycles are combined. The Land unites the individual and the national; the spiritual and the agricultural. Like dwelling in the Succah, in Israel everything you do is a mitzvah. It is here that we can best achieve the unity of the spiritual and physical that is the hallmark of Succot. As we celebrate Succot in the Diaspora we should understand that it is a pointer to the experience of living in Israel, where every day can be Succot.
This year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat. Despite fasting being normally prohibited on Shabbat, Yom Kippur takes precedence. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Yom Kippur is itself designated with the term Shabbat. The word Shabbat is derived from the root shavat, meaning to rest from or desist. While on a normal Shabbat this refers to refraining from melacha or creative work, with regards to Yom Kippur this has a double meaning. The same word is not only used about desisting from melacha on Yom Kippur but also about fasting. We are enjoined to rest from eating and drinking on this day. This designation, can teach us a lot about the purpose of fasting on Yom Kippur. When we refrain from melacha on Shabbat we are acknowledging that the world is not ours to do with as we wish, but created by G-d who holds us accountable for our stewardship of it. By refraining from nourishment on Yom Kippur we are essentially doing the same thing with our very existence. We are acknowledging that our bodies and our life are the creations of G-d, Who designed them for a purpose. They are not ours to do with as we wish. Just as Shabbat teaches us that we are not in charge of the world, Yom Kippur teaches us that we don't control our personal destiny, neither our life nor our death. By resting on Shabbat we learn to appreciate the world around us, understanding that we are not in control of nature, despite our technology. By fasting on Yom Kippur we learn the same about ourselves. Despite the best medical technology, we have limited power of our body's function, and in the end it will betray us. Our lives are, ultimately not in our hands. But just as Shabbat is a day of joy, so is Yom Kippur. The knowledge that we are ultimately not in control liberates us to concentrate on what is really important. The understanding that both the universe and our own lives have purpose, enable us to strive for meaning and act in a way that makes our existence worthwhile. Just as those who keep Shabbat appreciate its restrictions as creating something wonderful, so, if we approach it properly, fasting on Yom Kippur can become not a burden but a priceless opportunity.
Parshat Ha'azinu / Shuva
The central aspect of Rosh Hashanah, as mandated in the Torah, is the blowing of the Shofar. We are required to blow three notes Tekiah, Teruah, Tekiah, three times. However, we are uncertain about the nature of the Teruah, whether it is what we now call Shevarim or what we now call Teruah or both of them together. So we do all three, thus covering all the bases.
The commentators have puzzled over this strange situation. How is it possible to forget how to perform this important mitzvah, which we perform annually? Some see this as the result of persecution or exile but others give another explanation entirely. Rather than there being a doubt about nature of a Teruah, there are simply three different traditions about the matter, all of which are valid. The Sages, however, didn't want different communities to do different things on this important day, so mandated that everyone follows everyone else’s custom as well as their own. Thus the whole Jewish people blows the Shofar in the same manner.
This narrative contains within it important messages for us at this time of year. Firstly, it is possible to forget important things, even who and what we are. In the bustle of life and challenges we can lose our real identity. Parshat Ha'azinu describes such a phenomena affecting the whole Jewish people. These days are an opportunity to think about our true identity and who we really want to be.
Furthermore, this uncertainty concerning the Shofar sounds and its resolution, teaches us two important lessons concerning Jewish unity. Firstly, it is possible for people to observe the Torah in different ways and still to be legitimate. All the ways of blowing the Shofar. could fulfil the mitzvah. We need to respect differences between different communities and see them not as a threat to Jewish life but as enriching Judaism.
It also teaches us, however, the importance of Jewish unity. According to this explanation, the Sages respected the validity of the various customs but thought it important that on Rosh Hashanah the Jewish people should be united. On the day we celebrate the unity of the universe as the creation of G-d, it was not right that we should, in our observance of the day, be divided. While diversity is important it should not be allowed to be a cause of dissonance or division.
Thus, the Shofar calls us to return to ourselves, respect the uniqueness and diversity of others while also striving for unity. Let us endeavour to fulfil these ideals in the coming year.
'The secret things are for the L-rd our G-d's but the revealed things are ours and our children's for ever in order to do all the words of this Torah'. This enigmatic verse has given rise to various interpretations. Commentators have puzzled over what is secret and what is revealed.
The traditional explanation connects this verse to what has gone before. There we saw individual sin seemingly leading to national catastrophe. It appears that everyone is responsible for others behaviour. According to this interpretation the Torah here limits this responsibility to revealed actions, specifically excluding secret beliefs.
This has always been a feature of Judaism. While we do care about beliefs we don't investigate them. Provided people act correctly, what they think is less important. Indeed, the Talmud has G-d Himself saying that He would rather people kept His commandments even if they didn't believe in him.
Conversely Judaism has always rejected the notion that belief without action is enough. The famous philosophical book the Kuzari is predicated on this principle, with the king of the Khazars dreaming that his intentions are good but his actions are not.
But I think there is a plain explanation of this verse than can have much value for us. There are things that only G-d knows and things that are our responsibility. We may not understand everything that goes on in the world but it doesn't mean we don't have moral responsibility. We may not be able to stop hurricanes and earthquakes from devastating nations but we can prevent poverty and injustice from blighting peoples lives.
Just because we can't solve every problem in the world doesn't mean we don't have the responsibility to help where we can. We may think that our revealed actions have little meaning but g-d knows the secret of how far they can reach. What we may think of as insignificant and futile may have an effect we can't even imagine. We need to leave things we can't change to G-d and concentrate on altering the things we do have the power to effect.
As The Ethics of the Fathers, which we finish reciting this week, puts it:'it's not for you to finish the work but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it'.
Parshat Ki-Tavo is a Parshah of three parts, each with a different focus. The first part is the conclusion of the list of mitzvot that we have been reading during the last few weeks, with the mitzvah of First-Fruits and the Tithe Declaration. The middle section of the Parshah talks of the various covenantal ceremonies that were to take place when entering the Land: by the Jordan and at Shechem. Lastly, the Torah details the blessings and punishments that will come upon Israel dependant on their observance or non-observance of the mitzvot respectively.
One surprising theme that links all these three sections is the idea of joy in the service of G-d. Famously, in the punishments it is stated that the Jews will penalised for not serving G-d with joy. Also, when talking about the mitzvah of bringing the First-Fruits we are commanded not only to bring them to the Sanctuary and declare our gratitude but to rejoice in all the good that G-d has done for us. Even, when detailing the ceremony of the ratification of the covenant in Shechem, the Torah commands that they should bring offerings and rejoice before G-d. Thus it seems that the idea of rejoicing is an important part of the observance of the mitzvot.
Why this is, goes to the heart of the Jewish idea of life. For a Jew, observance of the Torah is not opposed to a satisfying life in this world but an integral part of it. Jews are not to despise the physical world and its pleasures but to seek to infuse them with spirituality and raise them to the Divine.
We can only do that if we actually enjoy what we are doing. If we either reject physical enjoyment as debased, or regard the mitzvot as a burden that gets in the way of life, then we cannot fulfil our function. Only by enjoying the performance of the mitzvot in both their spiritual and physical aspects can we truly serve G-d.
For example, if we either regard the mitzvot of Shabbat as a hindrance to our enjoyment of the weekend, or conversely, perceive the nice meals of the day as detracting from our spirituality, we have missed the point. Only by enjoying what Shabbat has to offer do we truly observe the day.
Judaism rejects both hedonism and asceticism. Rather it calls on us to enjoy life in a kosher manner and thus to elevate ourselves and the world.
This week's Parshah contains the most mitzvot of any Parshah in the Torah. The lists of mitzvot can often seem disjointed, with little connection to each other. The commentators have endeavoured to find a thematic connection between them, often with a moral message.
For example, at the beginning of the Parshah we have three mitzvot dealing with the captive bride, a dysfunctional family and a delinquent child. The Rabbis connect these three topics, pointing out that if you marry a woman captured in war you will end up having a bad marriage and producing troubled progeny.
On a more positive note, the commentators link mitzvot concerning kindness to a mother bird, making a fence for your house and not wearing wool and linen: if you fulfil the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird, you will merit to have a new house and nice clothes and fulfil the mitzvot associated with them. The Rabbis summarised this idea under the rubric of 'a mitzvah leads to a mitzvah and a sin leads to a sin'.
These ideas teach us two important lessons. One is that what we have is often related to how we use it. In Judaism wealth or power are not given to us for there own sake but for a purpose and according to the way we utilise them they will be given or taken away.
This rubric also supplies us with an important psychological insight. We are creatures of habit. When we start down a path, whether positive or negative it can often be hard to get off it and change direction. It is therefore important to strengthen our good habits and weaken our bad.
This is especially important in the area of character traits. If we are constantly angry, upset or bitter, for example, this will cause us to be unfriendly, constantly criticise others and generally be unpleasant to be around. On the other hand, if we are happy and satisfied in ourself we will be able to treat others in a positive manner.
The same is true of organisations or community. If everyone within an organisation is constantly negative this will just lead to constant criticism, lack of motivation and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, if we are positive about ourselves then we will be motivated to do things, create a good atmosphere and achieve much.
As we approach a new year, let us take this lesson to heart and resolve to be positive about ourselves and our community.
At the beginning of the Parshah the Torah talks of person who 'went and served other gods.. or the sun and moon, which I did not command'. Concerning this last phrase Rashi comments 'to worship them'. This expression is rather strange. Throughout the Torah G-d commands us not to worship other gods so why would there be a doubt that G-d might have commanded us to worship them?
The answer, I think, provides an important insight into the idolatrous mindset and contains an important lesson for our time. The fact is that one may think that G-d did command us to pray to forces other than Him. The belief in an Ultimate Being or High G-d was universal in the ancient world. But so was the belief that he was unapproachable and therefore it was permissible and even desirable to pray to intermediaries.It is this belief that the Torah comes to negate. For Jews, it is only permitted to pray to G-d. He is approachable without any mediator. This idea is so radical, that even today, with the exception of Jews and Muslims, most religions don't accept it. Even with Judaism, and Islam, people still pray to angels (Shalom Aleichem on Friday night, for example) or at the graves of the righteous. G-d is so awesome and inconceivable it is very tempting to try and find an indirect way of approaching Him.
But in doing so, we essentially replace G-d with something that is not G-d, and thus demean are own spirituality. We lose the chance to connect directly with the centre and meaning of the universe and replace it with something to serve are own selfish needs.
We also do something similar when we attach ourselves to ideologies, movements or leaders and follow them blindly. We replace the ultimate loyalty we owe to G-d with an attachment to humans. We replace faith in G-d with faith in flawed political or social movements that will in the end let us down.
Of course we should be involved in such organisations, if we believe that they will better the world and they are compatible with our understanding of Torah values. However, when we put all our hope in them and believe that they are the answer to everything, then we begin to serve other gods, that G-d did not command. If we replace G-d with something else, in the end we will be disappointed.
Among the various laws concerning idolatry in the middle of the Parshah, we have that section dealing with a false prophet. In this portion Moses warns the people that if a prophet will arise who will seek to lead the people away from G-d and persuade them to worship other gods, he is a false prophet and is not to be listened to. This is true even if he seems to perform miracles to prove his case. Incidentally, this is a different scenario that the prophet mentioned in next weeks Parshah who prophesies in the name of G-d. There, the truth of his prophecy is connected to whether his predictions come true.
If we look more closely at this section we will see that it contains an important principle of Judaism. Miracles by themselves do not prove anything. After the Revelation at Mt Sinai, when the whole people experienced the Presence and Voice of G-d, no prophet can come along and contradict the Torah and claim G-d or another deity spoke to them, no matter what wonders they perform. This principle has been vitally important in Jews resisting the claims of daughter religions that claim that they are the true will of G-d, but negate the laws of the Torah and contradict basic principles of Judaism.
But Maimonidies takes this principle further. He rules that a false prophet is not only one who encourages idolatry or contradicts the Torah. Even someone who claims that a certain interpretation of the Torah is valid not because that is how he reasons or has learnt but because G-d told him so, is a false prophet and not to be listened to.
To use an example. If a Rabbi comes along and rules that brain death is a valid criterion of establishing the end of life, because that is how he understands the sources, he is perfectly entitled to do so. Others may disagree, but in expressing his opinion, he is in accordance with acceptable Jewish practice. If, however, he expresses the same opinion, but claims that he is correct because G-d told him so, according to Maimonidies, he is a false prophet and is liable to the appropriate penalty.
This understanding is extremely important. Because of it Judaism has avoided the sharp turns of direction caused by charismatic personalities which have plagued other religions. Judaism is based on three principles, revelation, tradition and reason. Only by basing ourselves on the Divine Torah, respecting its traditional interpretation and using our reason to interpret Jewish law for our generation, does Judaism flourish. Miracles are dodgy, uncertain and unnecessary and Judaism works very well without them.
In detailing the praise of the Land of Israel, the Torah says that it is a land which G-d's eyes are on from the beginning of the year until the end of the year. On this verse the Rabbis comment that G-d decides at the beginning of the year what will be at the end of the year. This is the basis for the idea that on Rosh Hashanah our fate for the coming year is decided. With regards to our financial well being the Rabbis further state that: 'a person's income is set on Rosh Hashanah for the year, except for what they spend on honouring Shabbat and Yom Tov and on the education of their children'.
This idea contains two important messages for us. The first is that our income is set by G-d. No matter what different methods we use to maximise our wealth, in the end, one way or another, we will end up with what we are meant to have. We might think that we have a certain amount of money and then be hit with an unexpected expense or we may be struggling and win get a windfall.
While this does not obviate our need to work to obtain income and to make prudent financial decisions, it does mean we shouldn't make it our whole existence. Some people waste their lives in pursuit of wealth. The Torah tells us that in the end we will have what we deserve, so we shouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about it.
The second message from this idea is that it matters what we do with our wealth. We might think that if we don't work on Shabbat then we will be poorer or that if we spend extra money to send our children to a Jewish school or summer camp, we will loose out. The Torah tells us the opposite is true. The more we spend on worthwhile causes the more we will, end up having.
The Torah thus sets forward a basic principle. Wealth is there for a purpose not just for our enjoyment. It is a gift from G-d which we should use for good purposes. If we do so we merit more. Judaism thus teaches that the one who gives more will, in the end, have more.
We begin this week to read the book of Deuteronomy. The final book of the Torah is traditionally called Mishneh Torah or the repetition of the Torah, a name that is mentioned in the book itself. This idea also features at the beginning of the book where, after providing the context of time and place, the Torah states that Moses 'began to elucidate this Torah'.
One would therefore expect this to be followed by some explanation of a part of the Torah or some mitzvot, but in fact this does not occur until several chapters later. The beginning of the book is taken up with a historical retrospective that basically lasts for three Parshiot. Only in Parshat Re'eh do we get to lists of mitzvot. How do we explain this dissonance?
It seems to be obvious that we have to look again at the word Torah. Rather than meaning simply a book, or the mitzvot, it appears to have a far wider meaning, for Moses history is also Torah. The record of Israel's relationship with G-d is as much a part of Torah as the mitzvot. Indeed, the structure of the Torah itself bears this out. The book of Genesis contains only three mitzvot and it is only in the third Parshah of Exodus that we encounter more. The rest is history.
But it is possible to take this idea even further. In Deuteronomy it is possible to understand how the history in the book supplies the context for the mitzvot. The wanderings in the wilderness and the imminent entry into the land provide the framework around the lists of mitzvot that make up the central portion of the book. Again, the same can be said for the Torah as a whole.
In other words, the mitzvot need to be seen both as eternally relevant but also in their historical context. But one should not regard one as more important than the other. Both serve the central purpose of the Torah, which is to create a structure for our relationship with G-d. We relate to G-d both by performing mitzvot and by remembering and learning Divinely directed Jewish history and its meaning for us today.
Thus when we mourn on Tisha B'av, reading Eicha and saying Kinot, we are not only contemplating the past but engaging in an act of learning Torah and relating to G-d.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 5777
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
It is an interesting feature of the Jewish calendar that Matot and Masei are generally joined, even in a leap year. Sometimes this means reading different portions in Israel and the Diaspora for three whole months. Why is this so important. One answer, is that the Rabbis wanted the parshiot of Pinchas, Matot and Masei to be read during the three weeks preceding Tisha B'Av.
These Parshiot contain the ideas of the inheritance of the land and its division among the tribes. This is especially true of Parshat Masei, which contains the borders of the Land of Israel. In modern times, the issue of the borders of Israel, is of course a live topic. To what extent should the borders of the modern state correspond to the biblical boundaries?
This question is often at the heart of discussions of trading 'land for peace' and the possibility of territorial compromise with Israel's neighbours. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the boundaries delineated in the Parshah are themselves often unclear and a subject of dispute among the commentators. While, the biblical borders clearly encompass more than those of modern Israel, (as well as excluding parts of the modern state, like Eilat), the northern border especially could be anywhere from the Litani river in South Lebanon to the southern tip of Turkey.
The fact is that the various Jewish states throughout history have had differing boundaries, from stretching into Lebanon and Syria to being merely an enclave around Jerusalem. This being so, how should we read these borders in the Parshah? Do they have any relevance for us or are they merely an historical footnote. I think we must reject the view of both those who ignore these boundaries as well as those who regard them as a political manifesto.
I like the idea put forward by Hertz that these are maximum borders that delineate the focus of Jewish political aspirations. Jews are not imperialists and Judaism, unlike Christianity and Islam, is not an imperial religion. Our sights are firmly set on a relatively small part of the globe, within the boundaries set out in the Torah. Even if Scotland, for example, became a Jewish state, like a modern day Khazaria, it would not be the Land of Israel and not be holy. Other than the fact that it might have a Jewish majority or government, we would have no moral or religious claim to it.
Thus, reading the delineation of the borders of the Land this week, we should see them as a statement to the world that in this small piece of land our ambitions are centred and end. We have no designs on the rest of the world; they should leave us alone.
At the beginning of the Parshah, G-d blesses Pinchas for his role in averting the disintegration of the Jewish people, during the incident at Shittim. He is given two blessings, one of peace and the other of a perpetual priesthood.
The latter blessing has puzzled the commentators. Surely, Pinchas, as a grandson of Aaron was a priest already. They give two answers. One is that only those of Aaron's son's descendants after the inauguration of the priesthood automatically became priests. Pinchas was born in Egypt, and thus did not qualify. Only when he killed Zimri did G-d extend to him the privileges of the priesthood.
The other explanation regards all of Aaron's descendants, including Pinchas, as automatically priests. What Pinchas was being offered was the right to the High Priesthood, and indeed most of the high Priests in Jewish history were descended from him.
These two explanations can be seen to provide two differing understandings of the nature of Pinchas' act. Those who regard this act as entitling Pinchas to the priesthood, see his main attribute as loyalty. He staid steadfast when everyone else went to pieces. In this he is similar to his whole tribe, whose elevation to Divine service was based on the loyalty of the Levites during the sin of the Golden Calf.
On the other hand, if the gift being given to Pinchas is that of the High Priesthood, it is telling another story. Pinchas' merit consisted not so much in his loyalty as in his initiative. He showed the attributes of leadership that qualified him for the top position.
These two qualities, loyalty and initiative, are needed in any endeavour. Without loyalty to the cause trust is eroded and common purpose and action becomes impossible. Without initiative nothing will be accomplished and the endeavour will wither and die.
Any organisation needs both. There will have to be the people that stay the course and stick with it no matter what. There also have to be people that will provide ideas and be prepared to take them forward. It is essential that they work together, one providing continuity, the other a future. The ideal is the person who combines the two.
Looking at the explanations of Pinchas' blessing, it is possible to understand that both are correct. Pinchas was both loyal and innovative and thus eminently suited for leadership.
The story of Bilaam and Balak and curses turned into blessings is one that has fascinated readers throughout the generations. Commentators and psychologists have examined his motivations, while commentators and children have respectively been puzzled by and delighted over, the incident of the talking donkey. Behind all of this lies the question of who was Balaam and why G-d thought it important to have him bless Israel.
Balaam is described in the Torah as someone who knows how to use the power of words for both good and evil. He understands that speech can be just as potent as action, and uses it to his advantage. Using him, G-d shows us how to combat evil speech and engage with negative stereotypes.
The rabbis see Balaam as a negative character possessed of the 'evil eye'. At its simplest this concept describes looking at things in a negative manner. Balaam constantly cast a baneful eye over everything he surveyed and wanted to do the same to Israel.
G-d however had other plans. He turned Balaam's curses into blessings. He didn't allow him to get away with his negative comments but forced him to look at things in a different way. It appears, that in the end, this approach changed Balaam himself. Ultimately, he looks at Israel with different eyes and breaks into rapturous praise. His negative attitude has been transformed, at least temporarily.
The story of Balaam can teach us how to deal with people who are constantly negative in their approach and speech. There exists a distressing phenomenon of people who seem to delight in negative comments even about their own family, community or country. The way to combat this is the method used in the case of Balaam.
We don't let them set the agenda but constantly counter their negativity with positive alternatives. If they criticise, we praise; if they run down we build up. Despair needs to be countered by hope; disparagement by vision. The purveyors of darkness can only be defeated by those who provide light. If we do this, then ultimately, like Balaam, the constant nay sayers may find a more positive vision.
A major conundrum in the Torah is the exact nature of Moses' sin which resulted in his exclusion from the Land. A simple reading of the Torah indicates that he showed a lack of faith in G-d. Indeed the wording of the accusation levelled at Moses is similar to that levelled at the people during the sin of the spies. In both cases the punishment is the same: exclusion from the Promised Land. Yet Jewish tradition has generally been reluctant to place Moses in the same category as the wilderness generation.
A possible solution lies in a discussion about the timing of this incident. Rashi states that the incident at Marah took place at the end of the forty years of wandering. Ramban, for various reasons, rejects this view. The timing is important as it determines with which generation Moses was interacting. Did Moses lose his temper with the new generation, treating them in a way that made it clear he was out of touch with their needs and capabilities. Or was he speaking to the previous generation, and he regarded the incident at Marah as simply a continuation of the series of rebellions that had gone before, such as that of Korach.
If we take this latter view we can more easily understand Moses' harsh designation of the people as rebels, something that seems out of place with the new generation. In light of this we can maybe better understand Moses' sin. He is leading a generation condemned to die in the wilderness. By his words we can understand that he has in fact given up on them. They are merely rebels, with no chance of redemption and no future. Whether he strikes the rock or speaks to it is irrelevant, as these people will never change.
In taking this attitude Moses, in effect, doesn't believe that G-d's educational demonstration of speaking to the rock, will work. He thus not only doubts the people, but G-d. As such, he demonstrates that he is no better than they are and renders himself liable for the same punishment. Their failure becomes his failure and ultimately their fate his fate.
This teaches us an important lesson. We should not give up on people characterising them as bad or useless. This is especially true of children. Giving youngsters a feeling that they are no good or not capable, can blight the rest of their lives. Whatever someone has done they can still reform and need to be encouraged to do so, not told they can't.
In the third chapter of Pirkei Avot or the Ethics of the Fathers, which we learn around the time of Parshat Korach, we have an interesting statement. 'Pray for the welfare of the government for without it people would eat each other alive'. This injunction is one of the reasons Jews throughout the world have a prayer for the government during Shabbat morning service. This statement meeds elucidation. The government that is being talked about here is the Roman empire which destroyed Jerusalem and oppressed the Jewish people. Yet we are instructed to pray for it. Indeed Jews throughout the ages have prayed for governments, such as that of the Tsar, that have persecuted them. This does not mean that we are masochists or believe in being nice to our oppressors. It means, as the statement above makes clear, that Judaism believes that a bad government is better than no government. The Roman government may have been dreadful but anarchy was far worse. The Rabbis knew this from bitter experience. As bad as Roman oppression was, it was nothing compared with the mayhem and murder under the anarchy that prevailed in Jerusalem before the destruction. Josephus gives us a graphic account of the chaos and bloodshed that caused the greatest Jewish leader of the time, Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakai, to see defecting to the Romans as the only way to save the Jewish people. This is the lesson of the Parshah. Korach states that 'all the people are holy' and not only Moses but everyone should be in charge. The Parshah goes on to show the consequences of such a course of action. Moses allows non-priests to offer incense and they are consumed by fire. Korach and his company are killed in an earthquake and the people visited by a plague. All this leads ends with the strengthening of the priesthood, as the people understand the dangers of Korach's vision. The Parshah that begins with the claim that 'everyone is holy' ends with the fear of the people that 'we are all doomed' and a demand for protection. They learn the hard way that the chimera of everyone being in charge is a dangerous delusion. We may not agree with the government or even disagree with our political system as currently constituted. But to think that having no government at all would be better is simply madness. Just listen to the stories of those who lived through it.
One understanding sees our mourning on Tisha B'Av as a rectification of the mistake of that generation. They wept because they didn't want to enter the Land; we will weep because we were exiled from the Land. Our longing for the Land atones for there rejection of it.
There is also a psychological understanding of this statement. The Rabbis use the expression 'wept for nothing'. In doing so they are maybe pointing out the essence of the sin of the spies that merited the harsh Divine punishment. The people wept for no reason. The false analysis of the spies led them to be unjustifiably anxious about their future and stress unnecessarily.
If we look at the narrative presented by the spies and the counter-narrative given by Joshua and Caleb, we can see that the facts were basically the same. It was how to interpret those facts that was the key. In choosing to believe the negative assessment of the spies the people showed there underlying lack of confidence, not only in G-d but in themselves.
Someone who lacks confidence will generally worry about insignificant things that someone with more self-assurance would dismiss. The converse is also true. If you encounter someone who is always stressing about the little things, it is probably a good indicator that they have a basic lack of confidence. G-d is saying to the Jewish people that if that is the case then they not only cannot enter the Land but this trait will have historical consequences. Their weeping in the present will be matched in the future not as a punishment but because this very lack of self-assurance will be the cause of future catastrophes.
If we worry about nonsense we might soon have more serious things to confront. If we dismiss the insignificant we will also be able to overcome actual challenges.
The incident of Miriam is one of the most puzzling in the Torah. For some reason Miriam had a problem with Moses' Cushite wife and spoke negatively about him. For this she was personally chastised by G-d and punished with leprosy. Her case became a classic example of the dangers of L'shon Hara or negative speech.
This theme continues in next week's Parshah with the Sin of the Spies. Here also slander leads to dire consequences. While the motivation in both cases is unclear and the subject of much discussion among the commentators, the nature of their offence is more intelligible.
Whatever the reasons for Miriam's objection to Moses' marriage it is clear from G-d's response that she made a serious error of judgement. She criticised Moses without knowing all the facts, publicly finding fault without bothering to ascertain the true situation. The ten spies make a similar mistake. They disparage the Land after a cursory inspection and spread half truths and distortions concerning the true situation.
In both cases, it would appear, they didn't actually lie outright. There was a basis to some of their claims. But they completely perverted those facts, either intentionally or by not bothering to investigate properly. In both cases the consequences were dire. In Miriam's case a debilitating disease and in the case of the spies, their own death and catastrophe for their whole generation.
The lesson of these stories is clear. We need to be careful not only not to tell or spread lies but not to report stories that we do not personally know to be true or verified. Unsubstantiated rumours that may have a grain of truth can be more dangerous than straight-out slander that can be more easily disproved. Stories that are inaccurate and misrepresent the reality can spread quickly and become regarded as truth, doing tremendous damage.
As the stories of Miriam and the spies demonstrate such activity not only hurts the person involved but can debilitate a whole nation. The Torah thus demonstrates that 'fake news' is not a new phenomena and one as damaging now as it was then.
Parshat Naso, with 176 verses, is the longest Parshah in the Torah. It is always read immediately after or occasionally before, Shavuot, symbolising our dedication to the Torah given on that festival. Other than the length of the Parshah is there any other connection to the Giving of the Torah?
In one way they contain opposite concepts of our relation to G-d. At the end of the Parshah, we read about the Dedication of the Altar by the Princes. Here we bring gifts to G-d. On Shavuot G-d gave us the gift of the Torah.
Yet that very same section of the Torah teaches us a profound lesson about the nature of Torah and our relationship to it. Famously, each Prince brings an identical offering which is faithfully repeated by the text twelve times. Yet each Prince's name is stated not only at the beginning of his section but at its end. Each offering, while identical, is thus also specific to the Prince who gave it, bearing his personal input.
The same is true of the Torah. Each person that received the Torah on Sinai seemingly heard the same thing. But at the same time G-d spoke to each person individually. Everyone connected to Revelation in a distinct way suited to their personality. So it is with the study of Torah. While we all may study the same text what we learn from it and how it affects us is different for each individual. The Torah of every Jew is thus unique.
We have been privileged this year to occasionally hear from different people giving us their own take on the Parshah. This Shavuot our learning is led by three members of our community each discussing a different topic. We will thus be privileged to hear their own aspect of Torah. Anyone that can come and hear them should certainly take to opportunity to do so.
Our Parshah teaches us that the Torah revealed on Shavuot belongs to all of us together but also to each of us in our own unique fashion.
The beginning of the book of Numbers deals with the organization of the Israelite camp in preparation for the journey from Sinai to Canaan. One of the structural changes that were implemented in this week's Parshah, was the replacement of the religious establishment. Formerly, this consisted of the first-born of each family, a common feature of tribal societies. With the creation of a nation, however, a more formalised structure was necessary and they were replaced by the tribe of Levi.
This change, however, was not merely a practical measure but contained within it a profound political and religious statement. The Rabbis tell us that the first-born were replaced by the Levites because the latter didn't take part in the sin of the Golden Calf. On the contrary, they stood by Moses and assisted him in dealing with the situation. They thus became worthy to become the ministers of G-d.
If we examine this incident we can perceive a profound ideological change. The essence of the rights of the first-born are hereditary. They are the first male born in the family and thus have special rights and responsibilities. The Levites, on the other hand, were chosen because of their actions. Even though, chronologically only the third of the tribes, they proved themselves worthy of pre-eminence. Thus, a choice based on the concept of hereditary right was replaced by one based on merit.
This is a common theme throughout the Torah. Abel, Isaac, Jacob and Moses all replaced there older siblings as the lead personality in the family by dint of their actions. The same is later true of David and Solomon. While it is true that once established both the Priesthood and the Monarchy was, for the sake of continuity, based on birth, but even this was often challenged and compromised by errant behaviour.
The Torah thus sets forward an important principle that should underlie Jewish society. It essentially rejects a hierarchical system based on birth or seniority in favour of one based on merit and integrity.
This is especially true of the Torah. The Talmud explains that great Rabbis often have delinquent children precisely in order to demonstrate that the Torah is not an inheritance but open to all. As we approach Shavuot this a lesson worth remembering.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 5777
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
At the end of the Parshah we have the restatement of the rule of 'an eye for an eye'. This appears also in Exodus and later on in Deuteronomy, each time in a separate context. Jewish tradition has always interpreted this principle as referring to monetary compensation, with the sole exception of murder. Many modern scholars explain that in fact, in the context of other ancient Near Eastern law codes, that is the literal meaning of the term.
On the other hand this verse has been used to denigrate Jews and Judaism, especially by Christians who compare it with there so-called 'religion of love'. In modern times critics of Israel have accused the Jewish State of literally applying this rule in its military policy, something Jews normally vigorously deny. But is there in fact a place for a literal application of 'an eye for an eye', precisely in the Israeli context?
In his famous essay on the religious meaning of the State of Israel, 'The Voice of My Beloved Knocks', Rabbi Dov Soleveitchik comes close to such a proposition. One of the most important modern Jewish philosophers, a doyen of Modern Orthodoxy, considers that one of the momentous changes brought about by the creation of Israel is that Jewish blood is no longer cheap. Those wishing to attack Jews now know, that unlike in the Holocaust and the centuries preceding, Jews will fight back and exact a price from their enemies.
He states that if anti-Semites describe Israel's military approach as 'an eye for an eye' we will agree with them. While upholding the traditional Jewish interpretation of the verse, he goes on to state that 'with respect to the Mufti and Nasser I would demand that we interpret the verse in accordance with its literal meaning – the taking of an actual eye!' The same could be said today with regards to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.
This might sound harsh or even extremist to some of you put his point is well made. Much of the criticism of Israel is based on precisely the premise that Jewish blood is somehow less important than that of our enemies. The condemnation of Israel for doing what every other nation would do in the circumstances, is consciously or subconsciously, founded on the premise that Jews shouldn't really defend themselves.
As Rabbi Soleveitchik points out one of the important tasks of Israel is to disabuse the world of precisely this notion. When we sometimes apply the principle of 'an eye for an eye' literally, we are putting our enemies on notice that if you attack Jews you will pay a price, a heavy price.
Parshat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim
The Parshah begins with the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The rest of the Parshah deals with various laws concerning daily Jewish life and forms the centre of the Torah, both literally and thematically.
We are so used to this juxtaposition that we don't think about it. But it is actually quite strange. Why is what is essentially a sacrificial festival service placed in the section on laws concerning daily life? It would seem to be more sensible to have placed it either at the end of the details of the sacrificial service in the first half of the book or in the section on festivals later on.
The answer is that the Yom Kippur and its service is no ordinary service and no ordinary day. It contains an important message whose place is precisely amongst the laws of our Parshah. The laws we read this week have as their ideal the idea of holiness in every day life. This is a concept that is emphasised several times in the Parshah. By means of the mitzvot we observe we are to introduce a connection to G-d into our daily lives. And this is where Yom Kippur comes in.
The essence of Yom Kippur is a simple idea that is basic to Judaism. If you make a mistake, you can correct it; if you are on the wrong path you can change direction. This idea is called Teshuva which is often translated as repentance but really means return or coming back. This is essential to the subject matter of the Parshah.
The Torah, in the mitzvot we read to today, seeks to make us holy and a fundamental component of holiness is the ability to recognise and correct our mistakes. The ideal sought by the Torah is not someone who never sins but someone who sins and repents. Only angels never err and Judaism believes humans are more important than angels. G-d created us to fail and correct our failures; to fall and rise again. That is what it means to be Jewish, that is what it means to follow the Torah.
If so, we can understand that the day of the year that encapsulates this idea should be placed at the very beginning of the Holiness Code of Leviticus. Yom Kippur is where it is in the Torah because the return it enables is the basis of everything that comes after. Only someone prepared to stumble but also ascend can truly be holy.
The plague of leprosy mentioned in the Torah is regarded as a punishment for slander, or saying bad things about others. This is learnt from a couple of places in the Torah, primarily from the incident of Miriam. As a consequence of speaking about Moses, Miriam was stricken with leprosy. The disease is also seen as a fitting punishment, as it entails separation from human contact or friendship, the very thing the slanderer hoped to inflict on their victim.
But do the symptoms of the disease themselves have anything to tell us about the sin of slander? The basic symptom of the disease as described in the Torah is that the skin or hair of the sufferer change colour. The job of the priest is to come and decide whether this change of appearance is harmless or the sign of an affliction. The priest's then decides, based on the person's outward appearance whether the person is declared leprous.
This contains within it an important message. Often, when people speak badly of others they believe that they have justification. They see something wrong in the behaviour of the person and regard this as sufficient reason to publicly criticise them. They don't necessarily take the time to investigate the reasons for the person's behaviour or whether this necessitates or permits speaking negative things about them. They make a judgement only based on superficial appearances.
Their punishment is to get a disease that requires them to be examined according to their appearance. The priest has to make a decision about them based on the way they look. They learn what is to be judged by others in the way they judged others. They experience the trauma of being criticised for merely how they appear to be. Thus they are led to an understanding of what they have done to others which will hopefully cause them to refrain from doing it in the future.
It is generally advisable to endeavour to only to speak positively about people. It may, sometimes, be necessary to criticise or negatively discuss others. Before we do so we should be very clear that we understand what is really going on and not reach superficial judgements that, like leprosy, are only skin deep.
In the Parshah we read of the tragic death of Aaron's sons. One can imagine his feelings at such a time. Yet Moses seems to compound his suffering by instructing both Aaron and his surviving sons not to mourn. They are not allowed to show any outward sign of mourning but must carry on with their appointed task.
At first sight this seems to be a case of putting public interest before private need. They must subsume their personal feelings in order not to disrupt the celebrations surrounding the dedication of the Tabernacle. We have an echo of this in Jewish practice today, where the public rejoicing of a Torah festival cancels or postpones the mourning period for an individual. Yet I think we can discover a deeper meaning in Aaron's actions. Aaron is told that he is not to mourn but everyone else will mourn over this tragedy. So the issue is not the mourning itself but the example that Aaron is meant to set. What might that be?
Aaron is High Priest and his children are priests. They hold the most exalted positions in their society. Yet this tragedy could have derailed them. The very position they held was the source of the tragedy. They could have become bitter and angry, losing their ability to carry out their duties and forfeiting their advantages. Moses is telling them that while mourning is appropriate for such a tragedy, they themselves must rise above it. They need to accentuate the positive nature of their position rather than dwelling on the tragedy. In short Moses is telling them not to allow themselves to become victims.
The lesson they can teach by refraining from public mourning is that while others may victimise us, only we decide whether we thereby become victims. It is our decision whether we let tragedy define us or we define it. We read directly after this that Aaron is able to receive direct communication from G-d and even to correct Moses. This is because instead of letting his tragedy drag him down, he used it to raise him up.
We are not on Aaron's level or hold his position and for us in such situations mourning is appropriate. But the lesson he taught by his actions is still relevant to us. As individuals and as a nation we should never allow ourselves to become victims. We are should never be defined by what others have done to us but by what we have done and who we are.
Parshat Shabbat Pesach
We relate on the 7th Day of Pesach the Crossing of the Sea. This, the culminating miracle of Pesach, seemed to have even less audience participation than the Exodus itself. On the night of the final plague the Jews had at least performed the mitzvot of the Seder; while here the people seem to be only passive observers.
Yet that is only superficially. If we examine the story more carefully we can see that the Israelites were required to perform a great act; one that required both courage and faith. It is true that G-d parted the sea for them but the people still had to go forward between the walls of water. Indeed, according to the midrash, only when they moved forward into the sea did the waters part. But even according to the plain meaning of the text it took great fortitude and belief in G-d to advance along a path that at any moment could become a fatal quagmire.
On Shabbat Pesach we read the Song of Songs. In this love story there exists an interesting episode. The lover knocks on the door of his girlfriend’s lodgings but is already ready for bed. When he asks her to come out with him she procrastinates, saying that she has to get dressed and put on her makeup. By the time she is ready her lover has already gone and she is forced to roam the streets searching for him.
The Rabbis compared this to the Jewish people and their Divine suitor. G-d calls on the Jews to follow him in order that they He can redeem them. He knocks on their door begging them to leave what they are doing and go after him. Yet they procrastinate, not sure of how to respond; preferring the comfort of the familiar to the unknown path G-d is calling them to. By the time they make up their mind it is to late and they have to spend years searching for G-d. This was the fate of the Jews at the time of the return from Babylon; not supporting the return they lost the chance of inaugurating the Messianic age. Unlike their fathers at the Sea they did not have the faith to follow G-d and so we are still waiting for the Redemption.
The last days of Pesach are traditionally days of anticipation of the final redemption. In reading the story of the Crossing of the Sea we see how we should respond to G-d’s call. In reciting the Song of Songs we learn the dangers of procrastination. We ask G-d to redeem us but are we heeding the Divine knock at the door. It could be that rather than us waiting for G-d, G-d is waiting for us.
One of the interesting features of the list of the various types of sacrifices found in our Parshah is the guilt offering or Asham. This sacrifice is brought to atone for three types of misdemeanour: not bearing witness, being ritually unclean and not fulfilling an oath. What is interesting about this list is that the last two are clearly sins between humans and G-d. Becoming unclean and entering into the temple or eating holy things is a ritual offence. Swearing to G-d to do something and not doing it, compromises the relationship between that person and G-d.
The first offence, however, seems to primarily affect other human beings. Someone that knows evidence in a case and does not come forward can either cause the innocent to be convicted or the guilty to be acquitted. This being the case, why is this sin included in this offering and not in the sacrifice later on that deals with offences against other people? The answer could be that refusing to give testimony is in a direct manner a sin between someone and G-d. Of course, all injustice also offends G-d and disturbs our relationship with him but refusing to come forward and testify is in a profound way a betrayal of our relationship with G-d.
Why does someone not want to bear witness? There can be many reasons but most often because they are afraid of becoming involved. They may fear the retribution from the guilty party or simply not want to be in the public eye. This attitude shows a lack of courage, a deficiency stemming from a lack of trust in G-d.
If one has a deep relationship with the Divine, then you are not afraid of doing the right thing. You may be fearful of the consequences of your action, but your respect for G-d and your trust in his ability to protect you outweighs this worry. Someone who refuses to testify is in effect saying that they are more afraid of people than of G-d. A person who steals or lies may have had a moment of weakness, but someone who refuses to testify has a fundamental problem in his attitude and relationship with G-d.
They are thus more in the category of someone who is willing to take an oath and not keep it, than someone who simply commits an isolated crime. Their whole approach to life is wrong and they need a special sacrifice to help them correct it.
Shemot (Exodus) 5777
Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.
If we examine the list of the donations to the Tabernacle, we find that the precious stones and the ingredients for the oil and incense were donated last. The text specifically states that they were donated by the Princes. The rabbis comment that they decided to stand back and let everyone else give what they could and then they would contribute what was lacking.
This would seem to be a praiseworthy attitude. Yet the Rabbis also noticed that the text spells their name defectively, leaving out the 'yud' that normally would be there. This was, they explain, because they were dilatory in bringing their donations. Being, that there intentions were seemingly honourable, why should they be criticised for this delay?
The answer lies in a verse in the special Haftorah we read this week. In discussing the service in the rebuilt Third Temple, Ezekiel talks of the Prince's offerings. As part of this he mentions that when the Prince goes to the Temple he should enter and leave among the people. In other words, he shouldn't have his own private visit but should worship G-d with the rest of the congregation. The Prince should be a part of the people not stand apart from them.
This, then, was the issue with the Princes' donations to the Tabernacle. However well intentioned their actions, the fact that they waited to the end and didn't contribute with the rest of the people showed that they regarded themselves as separate from the congregation not part of it. They thus fundamentally misunderstood the nature of Jewish leadership.
In the Haftorah which we read the week following Pesach, Michal the wife of King David criticises his rejoicing with the people when the ark was brought to Jerrusalem. Because of this, the text informs us, she never had children, which seems a bit harsh. But it criticising David's actions she showed that she didn't understand the nature of Jewish monarchy, thus proving unfit to bear a future king.
It is significant that when we read the Torah the person layening stands in the middle of the congregations and the person leading the prayers, prays with the congregation not apart from them. This is a crucial component of being a Rabbi or other Jewish leader. You are a part of the community, not apart from them.
One of the shocking features of the sin of the Golden Calf is the role of Aaron. This had serious consequences. The Rabbis connect the death of Aaron's two sons during the Dedication of the Tabernacle to his participation in this incident. Various defences have been given for his conduct, such as he was seeking to preserve the peace or was afraid for his own safety. These explanations, while genuine in themselves, don't satisfactorily justify the his harsh punishment.
I believe an explanation may be found in the excuse he gives to Moses. He begins by saying 'you know the people that they seek after evil' or 'are always doing bad things' (the Hebrew is ambivalent). Aaron seems to exculpate his own lack of leadership by denigrating the people. Instead of admitting that he panicked and went along with the people's demands rather than seeking to dissuade them, he puts all the blame on them. Rather than lead he was led, but instead of owning up to his failure he exacerbates it by defaming those he was in charge of.
Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. It often happens that people who are unhappy with the state of the organisation they belong to, instead of realising their own role in the issues involved, choose to criticise the organisation to others. This, of course, just makes matters worse and ends up denigrating the defamer.
Our Parshah, however, shows us another way to behave. When Joshua hears the commotion in the camp he doesn't immediately assume the worst of the people but thinks someone has attacked them. Moses, who knows the truth, acts with anger when he perceives the gravity of the situation, but then is prepared to put his own life on the line in order to save his people.
In consequence, Moses is vouchsafed an intimate vision of G-d while Joshua becomes his ultimate successor. They didn't react to a difficult situation, for which they had no responsibility, by denigrating the people but by working positively to change the situation. That is the way to positively influence people and achieve your aims.
So, if you are unhappy with what is happening in a family, organisation or community, you have two choices. You can chose to evade responsibility by denigrating your organisation to all and sundry, in the end demeaning yourself most of all. Or you can take responsibility and positively work to change things for the better.
An interesting feature of the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle is the place of the Altar of Incense. In the account of the actual building of the Tabernacle. The Altar of Incense appears, as one might expect, with the other interior furniture: the Ark, Table and Menorah. However, in the plan of the Tabernacle it appears at the end of this week's Parshah, after the data on the clothes of the priests, not with the other furniture in last week's Parshah.
What is the thematic connection that causes this displacement? The incense is made up of various ingredients. Famously, one of the them is not sweet smelling. This is not an accident. The Rabbis explain that this is to emphasise to us the importance of including in our prayers and ceremonies those they may not always live up to traditional Jewish standards. A similar idea can be found in the materials used for the priestly garments. While the mixture of wool and linen is strictly forbidden in normal garments, we find that it is exactly of such a mixture that the priestly garments are constituted.
Thus both the clothes of the priests and the Altar of Incense teach us the importance of not seeing things in black and white and, especially, of not rejecting people because they don't measure up to our idea of perfection. While we have the right or duty to expect the best from ourselves, we shouldn't expect perfection from others. One of the greatest misuses of religion is the division of the world into black and white, us and them.
This also applies to how we look at ourselves, especially when it comes to Israel. Some Jews seem to feel that Israel has to be perfect in order to exist. A letter in last week's Chronicle stated that:'Judaism should strive for the highest standards if we wish to justify a Jewish state'. The first half of the statement is undoubtedly true; the second half dangerously false. Jews have an intrinsic right to a state irrespective of the behaviour of that state. We may expect the best from Israel but to link that expectation with its right to exist is to use double standards and is a form of anti-Semitism, even when expressed by Jews.
Today's world is full of groups that want to divide everything into good and evil, with the results that we can see. The Torah teaches us a better way. The world is not black and white and there is no 'them', only 'us'.
We begin this week the first of the four and a half Parshiot that deal with the building of the Tabernacle. The whole last portion of the book of Exodus, except for the narrative of the Golden Calf, is concerned with this topic. Many other passages in the Torah also refer to the Tabernacle, and it's successor Temple in Jerusalem, was a central feature of Jewish life.
Right at the beginning of the project the Torah makes an interesting observation. G-d commands the Jewish people to build a Tabernacle, in order that: 'I may dwell among them'. Famously it does not state that G-d will dwell in the Tabernacle but among the people.
We can understand the reason for this emphasis by reflecting on the slogan of the Glasgow City Council 'People make Glasgow'. What this is saying is that, possibly in contrast to Edinburgh, it is not the physical infrastructure or historic landmarks of the city that makes it great but the quality of its people.
The Torah is making the same point. The Tabernacle may be an important feature of Jewish life, symbolising the Presence of G-d, but what makes it important is the place of G-d in the hearts of the people. The prophets disabused those who believed that the of the Temple by itself would save the Jewish people. If they didn't follow G-d the Temple was merely a burden that could be done away with, not a talisman that would save them from destruction. The rabbis stated that when Titus boasted of destroying the Temple, a Divine voice stated 'you have destroyed a destroyed building'. He merely burnt bricks and mortar: G-d was no longer there. The Temple no longer had meaning.
This is a very important point to remember. People can get hung up on buildings thinking that they are the most important thing, and forgetting that buildings exist to serve people, not the other way round. A community without a building is still a community; a building without a community is useless. Looking after the physical infrastructure may be important; investing in the people is vital. As they might say in Glasgow: People make Communities.
Judaism is often called a legalistic religion, and the Parshah this week with its many and multifaceted laws would seem to bear that out. There are laws covering various aspects of human relationships from property rights to marriage, commercial relationships to helping your neighbour with their burden.
This reflects the Torah view that through Law we can properly regulate human behaviour and create a just and prosperous society. Especially, when dealing with the most vulnerable in society only the structure of divinely sanctioned legislation can protect the weak and sustain the destitute. Yet the Torah does not therefore believe that Law is the sole basis of society or that its strict application is the sum of human relationships.
A different facet is elucidated in the special Haftorah we read this Shabbat. Recounting the Temple restoration project of King Joash, the Bible tells us that he made chest into which the people put their donations. This money was then handed over to the workmen. The narrator then makes a point of noting that this money was not strictly accounted for, 'because they worked with integrity'. In other words, the basis of the relationship between those paying for the work and those doing it was that of trust.
Here we have a different perspective on how Judaism perceives human interaction. Law is not enough. It is merely the framework which guarantees peoples rights. But for society to really work we need something more, that people trust each other. When people act with integrity then the Law, while not redundant, is less prominent. When trust breaks down in a society, even strict application of the law might not save that society from disintegration. That, the Rabbis tell us, was precisely what happened in the last years of the Second Temple, leading to its inevitable destruction.
In our society we have many laws that guarantee our rights and freedoms. But as we are beginning to see, if our leaders stop acting with integrity and there is a breakdown in trust, all the laws in the world won't prevent destructive forces from coming to the fore.
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
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
' 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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
'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
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.
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.
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.
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'.
'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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.