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This Week's Shabbat Times

September 22 - 23 Tishrei 3
Begins: 18.57 Ends: 20.01
Fri Mincha/Ma'ariv 18.45
Candlelighting 20.01
Sedra Ha'azinu / Shuva
Shabbat morning 10.00

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Sedra Archive 5769

Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5769

Succot

An interesting feature of the festival of Succot is that we have two main mitzvot to perform, sitting in the Succah and taking the four species. One interesting difference between these two mitzvot concerns the issue of ownership. The Torah commands with regards to the four species that ‘you shall take for you on the first day..’, from which we learn that the Lulav and other species have to be ours and not borrowed. The sages however learnt from the command that ‘every citizen of Israel shall live in a Succah’ that ‘all Israel are worthy of sitting in one Succah’ and we can and do fulfil the mitzvah in a borrowed Succah or while visiting friends. How should we understand this difference and what does it have to teach us? The difference of course lies in the separate nature of these mitzvot. The four species, according to tradition, symbolise varying types of Jews and their performance of the mitzvot. We bind them together in order to symbolise that they are all part of one Jewish people and all are needed. The Succah symbolises the shared fate of the Jewish people, the wandering in the wilderness under Divine protection. The law pertaining to their ownership signify the varying degrees of unity needed in both cases. There are times when diversity and individuality is a blessing, provided it is treated with respect and ultimately aimed at a common purpose. That is the case with the Lulav, symbolising the performance of the mitzvot. In the realm of the Torah, individual opinions, different customs and even divergent practice is encouraged, provided it has at its heart the fulfilment of the Torah. Thus, the four species, should belong to each individual, every member of the Jewish people have their own unique contribution to make to Torah and no one’s voice should be subsumed in the community. On the other hand, there are issues of national importance, concerning the fate of the Jewish people, when individuality sometimes has to be subsumed for the common good. Thus the Succah, symbolising the Jews as an historic entity, emphasises the collective and can be borrowed. Unfortunately, in today’s Jewish world the roles have been reversed. The world of Torah, which should encourage diversity and individual opinion is increasingly closed and conformist, while on the existential issues facing our people every one feels free to express their individuality, often in dangerous and detrimental ways. We need to return to the model provided by Succot. We need to reenergise debate and divergence within the realm of Torah while sticking together where it really counts.

Yom Kippur

In many siddurs and benching books a notation is added to the additional section said on festivals: ya’aleh v’yavo. This states that children who eat on Yom Kippur should say this section, mentioning Yom Kippur. The same is of course true for sick people who have to eat an amount that would require them to bench. A question can be asked about this practice? Surely someone that has to eat on this day should not proclaim it? The answer is of course that just as it is a mitzvah for the healthy to fast it is a mitzvah for the sick to eat. Both are part of the obligations of the day. A further question, however, can be asked concerning children. Surely, since they bench for reasons of education, they shouldn’t be saying something they are unlikely to say as adults? The answer is profound. They are being educated in precisely the idea mentioned above, that those who must eat Yom Kippur are also fulfilling the mitzvah of the day as much as those who must fast. This teaches an important lesson about fasting on Yom Kippur. This mitzvah is certainly central to the observance of the day and the Torah mandates severe penalties for the healthy who do not fast. But it is not the end of the story. As Isaiah points out in the famous section we read as the Haftorah on Yom Kippur morning, the fast G-d has chosen is about changing our behaviour and coming close to Him. Fasting, while an essential component of the day, is an aid to repentance and introspection, and an intimation of mortality. Those who fast but ignore the deeper significance of the day are missing the point. We are not meant to spend the whole day thinking about food but thinking about G-d; not regretting missing meals but upset about the missing Divine presence in our lives. For this reason those who must fast and those who must eat are united in observing this special day, whose essence is G-d’s invitation to us to get close to Him. Will me miss this opportunity worrying about a few missed meals or forget about food for a day while experiencing a closeness to G-d unparalleled in this life.

Parshah Ha’azinu / Shuva

A famous dispute exists about the interpretation of our Parshah. After G-d has punished the Jewish people for their rebellion against Him, He states that he would have utterly destroyed them if not for the concern that the conquering nation would take the credit. There then follows several verses concerning a people 'without understanding'. They should have understood the miraculous nature of Israel's fall but instead attributed it to false gods and ideologies. Who is this people? Some Rabbis say it is Israel; others the nations that conquered them. Other commentators divide the verses with some referring to Israel and some to the nations. What is the meaning behind this dispute and does it have relevance for us today? At the heart of this discussion is who misinterprets the meaning of Jewish history. Do the nations of the world see the dispersion of the Jews as sign of their superiority as was the traditional Christian position? Or do the Jews themselves fail to see the true meaning of their own story? Or is the truth somewhere in between? The fact is that both scenarios are true. The gentile world has both seen Jewish history as proof of the rejection of Judaism and as signifying the uniqueness of the Jews and their continuing covenant with G-d. Jews, themselves, have often forgotten the meaning of their own history and seen it as one long story of persecution. These distinctions are important because how we see ourselves is important and also influences others. This is maybe the true interpretation of this exegetical dispute in our Parshah. The way the Jews saw their dispersion and exile influenced the way they were seen. The way they were perceived in the gentile world in turn influenced their perception of themselves. This indeed is a major theme of the Chief Rabbi's new book in which he argues that Jews have lost their way by concentrating too much on anti-Semitism and forgetting our Divine mission. Many have long been concerned over the preponderance of the Holocaust in both Jewish life and our dialogue with the world. But the issue goes deeper. How we see ourselves will influence how we act. This applies on both an individual and communal level. As we examine our lives at this time of introspection our first port of call should be an inspection of our self-image. Is the story we tell about ourselves assisting or actually hindering our development and do we need a different one? The Parshah tells us that how we perceive our lives is important and it is with this that change needs to begin.

Rosh Hashanah

This year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. As the Rabbis worried that someone would break Shabbat in order to blow the Shofar, we don’t blow it on Shabbat. For the same reason we don’t take the Lulav or read the Megillah on Shabbat. Yet unlike these other mitzvot, not blowing the Shofar on Shabbat has a biblical source. When the Torah talks about Rosh Hashanah as part of the festival cycle it calls it a ‘a remembrance of blowing the shofar’. In other words there is a day of blowing the shofar and a day of remembrance of blowing the shofar. For this reason, also, Rosh Hashanah itself is designated in our prayers ‘the Day of Remembrance’. How are we to understand this idea? According to Maimonides the reason for blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to wake us up. We are to be reminded of G-d and our duties as Jews which we may have forgotten in our daily lives. We are to realise that the world is not ours but has a Master and we are responsible to Him for how we act in His world. We have another day in the Jewish year like this and that day is Shabbat. On Shabbat we also step back and look at the world with new eyes, reminding ourselves that it has a Creator and its not ours to treat as we wish. Thus the weekly Shabbat forms a function similar to the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. A famous Halakhah states that we don’t wear Tefilin on Shabbat because they are a sign of the covenant, as is Shabbat. Having two signs on one day is superfluous. Perhaps in the same way blowing the Shofar on Shabbat is not necessary because the Shabbat already serves as our wake up call. Two alarm clocks might be a bit much. Why then do we need the Shofar at all if Shabbat fulfils the same function? Maybe because even Shabbat can lose some of its effect if it becomes only a thing of habit and we forget its meaning. We need an additional reminder at the beginning of the year to bring us back to our senses. Yet when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat we have a unique opportunity. The very fact we don’t blow the Shofar serves to remind us of not only our yearly wake up call but also that this reminder is available to us every week of the year. On this Shabbat we can reconnect to Shabbat’s true meaning and cherish it throughout the year.

Parshah Netzavim - Vayelech

This week’s Parshah famously contains the section on repentance. This section is couched in language that refers to the nation and its destiny. It thus refers to a twofold return: the return of Israel to G-d and the return of Israel to its Land. It postulates a revolutionary, though vital, proposition. Human actions can over turn historical circumstance and a change in human behaviour can be effective in changing historical realities. Thus the Torah in the rebuke section of last week’s Parshah threatens as a punishment for disobedience that the people will be removed from the Land and scattered to the ends of the earth. This week’s Parshah promises that if they return to G-d they will be taken from those very same geographical extremities and returned back to the Land. This postulation is based on the idea of the possibility of change. Not only seeming historical certainties but also seemingly ingrained attitudes can change, leading to the possibility of creating a radical new reality. This is an important lesson for our time. In many areas of Jewish life it is possible to succumb to despair. The Torah teaches us that this is a mistaken attitude. We can change ourselves and others and thus also the situation we live in. One example concerns attitudes in Britain to Israel. Many may think that hostility to the Jewish state and increasingly to Jews is a fact of life. There is little we can do about it. Yet a statue in Liverpool St station suggests otherwise. It commemorates the fact that 70 years ago Britain opened its doors to fleeing Jewish children, and in fact, did more than probably any other country to save Jews. This shows that attitudes to Jews and indeed Israel are not an unmovable part of the British psyche but were different once and can change again. As Jews can be in their land, exiled and returned, so too can attitudes change and change back. The Torah teaches us, however, that that change will not come about by itself. It is dependent on us. If we believe nothing can be done, nothing will change. If we believe that we can make a difference and adjust our attitude and actions accordingly, the Torah promises us that we can succeed in changing the world. That is a major challenge facing the Jewish community of this country in the coming year. Do we have the courage to act and the belief in our cause to change Britain and the world.

Parshah Ki-Tavo

At the end of the long series of mitzvot the have made the last few Parshiot, we have the ‘tithe declaration’. Every three years after ensuring the correct distribution of the various tithes, the householder declares ‘I have removed the holy things from the house’, goes on to enumerate their correct disposition and ends with a request for G-d to bless His people and land. Most of the commentators see this as a positive declaration that the person has fulfilled the various mitzvot concerning tithing and is therefore worthy of G-d’s blessing. The great Italian commentator Seforno, however, turns this view on its head. Rather than a declaration of righteousness it is a confession of sin. He bases himself on the tradition that the Divine service was originally meant to be carried out by the firstborn, and only after the sin of the Golden Calf was transferred to the Levites. The consequences of this change was that instead of the tithes going to the firstborn of each household, they were transferred to one tribe living in specific locations. This according to the Seforno was a step backwards. According to this reading ‘I have removed the holy things from the house’ is not a positive statement but an admission of guilt. The householder laments that because of his sins the possibility of eating tithes in his house was removed and in this way he has removed holiness from his house. Religious service has been taken from the head of each household and given to a professional class of priests based in Jerusalem. This extraordinary reading of the text is a lesson and a rebuke to all of us. It is possible that the Seforno wrote just at the time Rabbis were beginning to become paid full time professionals. Jewish spirituality was in danger of being taken out of the hands of the many and transferred to the few. What would he say of our generation when so much of Jewish life relies on the efforts of a few professionals. Have we not truly ‘removed the holy from our houses’. When people who can not read a page of Talmud or understand a book of Jewish law complain about issues of agunot or conversion, they should hesitate for a moment and consider. Who has given the power to the Rabbis to make these decisions they don’t like? If Rabbinical authorities with a worldview with which they disagree effect their Jewish life in ways they don’t like, is it not their abdication of Jewish learning, practice and responsibility that has given them that power? If we are unhappy with Judaism as practiced today, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Parshah Ki-Tetze

A famous mitzvah in this week’s Parshah is the command that when seeking to take chicks or eggs from a nest one must first chase away the mother. Not only is this one of the few mitzvot where a reward is offered: long life, but the Talmud specifically seems to rule out interpreting it as evidence of G-d’s kindness. An opinion in the Talmud states that a prayer leader who says ‘as You had mercy on the mother and her chicks so have mercy on us’ is to be silenced as he ‘makes the decrees of G-d as mercy’. In other words one should accept the mitzvah as a Divine decree and not seek another reason. Nachmanidies, who does explain this mitzvah in terms of animal cruelty, rejects this approach. He brings several proofs from other Rabbinic sources that we should indeed seek reasons for the mitzvot and that to do so is praiseworthy. He then explains the above Talmudic statement in a quite startling way, one that sounds strange to modern ears. The trouble with the prayer leader is that he sees the mitzvah as evidence of G-d’s mercy to the animal. In this, however, he is mistaken. If G-d really cared about the welfare of animals he would have forbidden the slaughter of animals for food. As the Torah does not command us to be vegetarian, animal welfare cannot be the prime motivator in the Torah’s legislation against cruelty to animals. Rather, Nachmanidies states, these mitzvot are for our benefit. If we are cruel to animals this will have an effect on our psychological make up causing us to become cruel. Conversely, by being kind to animals we will internalise traits of mercy within ourselves. Thus these mitzvot are primarily concerned with human behaviour, not animal welfare. Yet, even taking on board Nachmanidies quite powerful argument, we can still see these mitzvot as telling us something about G-d. We may ask why does G-d care that we have merciful and not cruel natures? The answer that seems to be suggested in several places in the Torah is that G-d Himself is merciful. As created in His image we are required to try and emulate as much as possible the Divine traits. By refraining from cruelty to animals we enable ourselves to become merciful and thus see the world from G-d’s perspective. Thus even while, having animal needs ourselves, we eat other animals, we can also seek to imitate the G-d whose mercy extends to all His creatures.

Parshah Shoftim

One of the special mitzvot mandated for a Jewish king is to write a Torah scroll for himself. (This seems to be in addition to the similar mitzvah commanded to all Jews at the end of Deuteronomy.) The Torah when commanding that the king should write a copy of the Torah adds ‘from before the Priests, the Levites’. It is interesting to consider the purpose of this addition. It could be merely an instruction as to where the king would find a scroll to copy from. We learn at the end of the Torah that Moses wrote it down and gave it to the Levites. The king would then need to copy it from them. But it is still not clear why this practical and somewhat obvious bit of advice needed to be included in the mitzvah. If we contemplate the matter more, however, we may find a somewhat deeper and more relevant reason for this addition. The reason that the Torah commands a king to have his own special Torah scroll is to impress upon him the source of his power and its limitations. The monarch in Judaism is subservient to, not above, the law and his job is to uphold the laws of the Torah, not ride roughshod over them. Yet there is another danger of no lesser importance, and one very familiar to us from European history. This is the possibility that the king, far from ignoring the Torah, will use it for his own purposes. He will write a Torah scroll for himself, but see this as taking ownership of Judaism and then manipulate it for his own political ends. The Torah therefore emphasises the necessity of the king taking the Torah from ‘before the Priests, the Levites’. He must go to them to receive instruction in the Torah and acknowledge the existence of an independent religious hierarchy into whose keeping the Torah has been given. It is up to the Levites, and later the Rabbis and scholars in each generation, to determine the interpretation of the Torah, not for the monarch to subvert it for his own ends. The opposite is, however, also true. The Levites are guardians of the Torah from whom the king learns religion. They do not however instruct him in politics. The Torah thus sets up an important separation of powers. The monarch, while obligated to obey the Torah, is not bound by the political opinions of its interpreters. The scholars of Torah are also free to work without political interference. Each serves G-d in his own way and the nation benefits. The breakdown of this system in our days, especially in Israel, and the intertwining of religion and practical partisan politics has caused great damage to both politics and the Torah.

Parshah Re'eh

A major theme of this week’s Parshah is the centralisation of worship in a central sanctuary. This, of course, later became the Temple in Jerusalem and directly led to the idea of communal prayer, synagogues and other such institutions. In the middle of these instructions we find exhortations not to forget the Levites, but to provide for their needs. The Torah seems to be concerned that the servants of the people in this central place of worship, those who make its functioning possible, are in danger of being forgotten by the worshippers. This warning is not misplaced. We often take for granted the people who, mostly without remuneration, look after our communal institutions and make organised Jewish life possible. This exhortation of the Torah should cause us to be more sensitive to their needs and the work they do. Yet this concern of the Torah for the Levites has a more specific relevance to our communal life, especially in Britain. The Torah is worried about the welfare of the Levites because it is afraid that people will look down upon them. After all, they seem to perform no productive function. The are not farmers or craftsmen and have to be supported by the community. It is easy to see these people as good for nothings who couldn’t do anything else, so they serve in the Temple or hang around studying or maybe teaching in the Levitical cities. These attitudes are, unfortunately, very common among British Jewry. Rabbis and other communal functionaries are seen as people who couldn’t do anything else, even though today most of them could and do have other careers and opportunities. There is probably no other country in the world where clergy are regarded in quite this manner. The Torah warns us against such an attitude. This approach leads to a contempt for the Torah itself. For example, a widespread custom among religious Jews is to rise or lift one self up from ones seat at the approach of your Rabbi. This is not a sign of respect for the individual but done in honour of the Torah the Rabbi of your community or city represents. The fact this custom, almost universal elsewhere, is virtually unknown among British Jews, speaks volumes. It is not surprising that this country has some of the lowest levels of Torah learning in the Jewish world. A community that does not respect its spiritual leaders will also not value the Torah they represent.

Parshah Ekev

This week Moses recounts the story of the Golden Calf as part of his reminding the people that G-d’s favour towards them is in spite of, not because, their behaviour. The sequence of events seems to be quite clear both here and in Exodus. Moses receives the two tablets from G-d, is then informed of the people’s sin and successfully assuages G-d’s anger. He then descends the mountain carrying the tablets and breaks them in sight of the people. Yet this scenario raises an important question. It seems to be clear that G-d gave the tablets to Moses before He informed them of the people’s transgression. Moses, knowing what awaits him below, then takes the tablets with him and breaks them. He is later required by G-d to make new tablets in order to again give them to the people. Why however did he descend with them in the first place? It could be that he was simply so overwhelmed by actually seeing the peoples apostasy that he simply smashed them. The text in Exodus seems to support this. But is still begs the question of why since he already knew that the people had broken the covenant, he was going to give them its visible symbol. Using the famous parable of our Sages, if the servant already knew the bride had strayed, why did he bother bringing her the ketubah? A possible answer lies in the psychology of repentance. True repentance comes not so much from fear of punishment as from a realisation of the consequences of wrongdoing. People are often stirred to change their ways by the realisation of the damage they have caused or what they have lost. This, indeed, seems to be the true nature of the punishment of purgatory. The deceased is forced into the realisation of what their life could have been had they made other choices while alive. This is maybe the purpose of Moses descending with the tablets even though he knew the people had sinned and were no longer worthy of receiving them. He showed them what they should have had and then destroyed it before their eyes. He thus demonstrated to them what they had lost as a consequence of their sin. Moses was thus more easily able to move the people to repentance. Furthermore, even though new tablets were made, the first pair were, according to Jewish tradition, placed along side them in the Ark. The people were to have a constant reminder of the consequences of wrongdoing and what could be lost. That is a salutary reminder to all of us. Our choices determine not only what we may gain but also what can we lose, sometimes forever.

Parshah Va'ethanan

One of the most disturbing things about modern Jewish life is the difference in attachment to religion between Israel and the Diaspora. Outside of Israel, while assimilation and apathy are a problem, many Jews who are not personally observant still are members of synagogues and involved in communal Jewish life. In Israel, there is a far sharper divide, with many if not most non-observant Israeli having nothing to do with synagogues and ignorant of Judaism. This situation, however, may have deep roots, foreshadowed in our Parshah. During the ‘mini-rebuke’, also read on Tisha B’av, Moses warns the people of exile and that in that exile they will be forced to serve idols. The commentators have puzzled over the meaning of this punishment. Some regard it as meaning that the Jews in exile will be forced to work for or pay tax to upkeep idolatrous institutions, as indeed happened after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Others, however, see this as a foreshadowing of the idea that Jews living outside Israel ’serve idols in purity’. The very fact that Jews are living in a non-Jewish environment influences their attitudes and even their religious life. It is thus harder to serve G-d outside Israel, something also hinted at in this passage where the Torah states that Jews in exile will have to ‘seek G-d’. In Israel it is not necessary to seek G-d as His presence is more manifest and there is less interference from non-Jewish influences. If we apply this idea to the current situation we can achieve both understanding and a degree of optimism. Jews in Israel can more easily feel Jewish even without a formal connection to Judaism. Jews living outside Israel, even if personally not observant, need to affiliate in order to maintain their Jewish identity. Many Israelis first real connection with a synagogue comes only when they move to the Diaspora and feel the need to express their Jewish identity. In Israel such belonging was natural. The corollary of this analysis, however, is that in Israel it is easier to be Jewish if you want to. While those estranged from Judaism in the Diaspora often find the road back difficult, in Israel myriad opportunities are available. Thus while the need to ‘seek G-d’ in the Diaspora may lead to stronger Jewish affiliation, in the end, it is in Israel that even the most secular Jew can more easily find Him.

Parshah Devarim

In Moses’ recounting of the sin of the spies in his historical overview, which makes up this week’s Parshah, there lies an anomaly. Recounting G-d’s anger with the people and their condemnation to die in the wilderness, he states that G-d was also angry with him and swore that he would also not enter the Land. This is in direct contradiction to statements elsewhere in the Torah that Moses was barred only for the sin at the waters of Merivah. The commentators give various explanations for this discrepancy, many of them saying that Moses was aggregating all the sins of the people together, all of which barred him and them from the Land. The Seforno, however, connects this statement to the idea that the sin of the spies was the root cause of all the other disasters in Jewish history. It was thus also the ultimate cause of Moses being barred from the Land. He quotes verses from both Psalms and the prophet Ezekiel that state that G-d decreed at the time of the spies both to bar them from the Land and to scatter their children among the nations. In other words, the later exile of the Jewish people can also be ultimately attributed to this incident. How are we do understand this? Exile and redemption are prefigured in G-d’s promises to Abraham. His descendents duly were enslaved and redeemed from Egypt. Did this necessarily have to become a template for the rest of Jewish history? That depended on the attitude of the Jewish people. Did we see exile from the Land of Israel as a terrible thing and redemption as our goal. Or did we actually quite like the comfort and lack of responsibility that comes with living in other peoples lands? Had the spies not sinned and the people gone forth and conquered the Land, the spell of exile would have been broken. The template formed by the Egyptian exile would have changed to a different model: an eternal people that stayed in its land forever. Yet the Jews took another path. They longed for the comfort and lack of responsibility of exile. They rejected the burdens of true nationhood. The template given to Abraham was thus fixed. Not only that generation, but future ones, would experience the odyssey of exile. Jews would be an eternal people, but not necessarily in their own land. That is what they themselves had chosen. This is a stark lesson for us to learn. When we see the vicissitudes of modern Israel, some people seem to long for the comfort zone of exile, where the hard moral decisions are not on our shoulders. That is a fatal mistake. We made it once, let’s not make it again.

Bamidbar (Numbers) 5769

Parshah Matot - Masei

A large section of our Parshah deals with the war against the Midianites and its consequences. The Midianites, who had led to the disaster of Peor had to be punished for the damage they had caused, and their destruction and the resulting spoil is described in detail. Some of this story sounds harsh or even barbaric to modern ears. So when the army returns having killed all the enemy men but captured the women alive, Moses is angry and demands they also kill the women. According to today’s standards this sounds like a war crime, and thus makes us feel uncomfortable. Yet if we look closer we can discern a different story. According to ancient rules of war, and the Torah, it was permissible to kill all the males as suspected combatants. The women and children were to be kept alive as captives or left alone. This is what the Israelite army originally did, bringing the women back as captives. Moses sees them and blows a fuse. He demands that the adult women should also be killed like the men. But what was his rationale for breaking the established rule of war and the instructions of the Torah? It was that the women were not innocent civilians. It was they that had taken the lead in causing Israel to go astray, thus leading to the loss of 24,000 lives. They were the mainstay of the Midianite plan to damage Israel and thus were in fact enemy combatants. They thus had to share the fate of the men and be killed. Looked at in this way, Moses’ actions seem reasonable and even just. What can this episode teach us today? We also have rules of war that protect non-combatants or civilians. From Israel to Afghanistan to Sri-Lanka, armies are accused of ignoring or flouting these rules. Universally, they deny these accusations. What is the issue? Precisely that faced by Moses. In normal army to army conflict it is easy to distinguish between combatants and civilians and so kill the former and protect the later. In fighting groups such as the Taliban or Hamas, it is very difficult. These groups use civilians as human shields, have women and even children as fighters and generally themselves don’t distinguish between the two. In such a case, we may like Moses have to in fact declare that people who appear to be civilians are in fact combatants, and can share their fate. Like Moses did, we need to adapt the rules of law to new circumstances. There is no other choice.

Parshah Pinchas

One of the most common phrases used to introduce a topic in the Torah is ’G-d spoke to Moses saying, speak to the children of Israel..’. Thus Moses serves as G-d’s conduit to the Jewish people, imparting the commandments that they should follow. For this reason the Bible and Jewish tradition often refer to the Torah as ‘the Torah of Moses’. Yet there are other phrases, less common, that posit a different role for Moses. One can be found in this week’s Parshah. When the daughters of Tzelophchad ask to be given the inheritance of their father, it is written that ‘Moses brought their case before G-d’. We here have Moses in the opposite role to the one normally assigned him. Rather than representing G-d to the people, he is representing the people before G-d. Rather than imparting G-d’s mitzvot to the nation, Moses brings the nation’s suggestion for laws before G-d. In this and a few other places in the Torah, therefore, we see a Halakhic interaction that goes both ways. Rather than Torah being only G-d’s dictates to the Jewish people, the people have a role in seeking to influence what the Halakha will be. These sections of the Torah are therefore a precursor to the rabbinic interpretation we take for granted today. Yet they are something more, and have great relevance for how we relate to the Jewish tradition, the Halakhic system and the role of the Rabbi. We see, in these various episodes in the Torah, how the people were not afraid to challenge G-d as to the effect of the law on their lives. The daughters of Tzelophchad, for example, challenged the rule of male inheritance, seeing it as unfair in their case. We notice also how Moses, the same Moses who brought G-d’s commandments to the people, was not afraid to bring the people’s concerns about those laws to G-d. We also notice that G-d listened and as it were ‘changed the Halakha’. What does all this mean for our relationship to Judaism? It is surely necessary to accept and love the Jewish tradition and the Halakhic system. Yet is it not also sometimes necessary to challenge that system where we feel it is failing or to seek to expand its boundaries where we feel it is unfair? Rabbis should certainly, like Moses, be expounders and defenders of the Jewish tradition to the Jewish people. But should they not also, like Moses, be willing to challenge that tradition on behalf of the people? We have no lack of religious leaders today who are zealous in bringing G-d’s word to the people. What we need more of are those willing to bring the people’s case before G-d.

Parshah Hukat - Balak

Jews in the Diaspora have this week the opportunity to read together the Parshiot of Hukat and Balak. We thus join one of the most mysterious mitzvot in the Torah, that of the Red Heifer, with Balaam's blessings of the Jewish people he wanted to curse. Can one find a connection between the two? Balaam was someone that feared and hated the Jewish people until his eyes were opened and he understood their greatness. A lot of this fear is based on the fact that Jews are different and seem not to make sense. Like the Red Heifer, that purifies the impure while defiling the pure, the Jewish people and Judaism seem to be full of paradoxes and contradictions. And like, in the case of the Red Heifer, this causes the other nations to mock us, so too, the distinctiveness of Judaism causes Jews to be misunderstood and feared. One of the greatest paradoxes of Jews that non-Jews puzzle over is whether the Jews are a people or a religion. In some ways we act as a religion, able to exist anywhere; yet we also claim to be a people, with our own need for a homeland. As with the Red Heifer, which both purifies and defiles simultaneously, people don’t get it. But as in the case of the Red Heifer, of course, both are equally true. Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, and one cannot exist without the other. Jews are both a religion and a nation simultaneously. That makes Jews different, which can lead to hostility, yet in fact it is our great advantage and a lesson to the world. Because Judaism is the religion of the Jews, it can be both a universal religion and be tolerant of others. Because, while we believe that the G-d of Israel is universal, we equally believe that the religion of Israel is for Jews alone. We therefore, unlike Christianity and Islam, have no pretentions to convert everybody or create a world where everyone is Jewish. ( A concept most Jews would regard with horror). Balak and Balaam, of course, misunderstood this concept and saw it as dangerous particularism. They thought that it meant a threat for them, and sought to counter it. They failed to understand that a universal religion of a particular people is the least threatening type of religion and in fact a model for a world of religious diversity and tolerance. Only at the end did Balaam understand that ‘a nation that dwells alone’ is in fact a blessing for themselves and everyone else.

Parshah Korach

In the confrontation between Moses and the rebels in this week’s Parshah, the rebels accuse Moses of seeking to ‘pull out’ the eyes of the people, in other words ‘to pull the wool over their eyes’. What does this accusation refer to? According to most of the commentators, following the argument in the text, it relates to the events of last week’s Parshah and the decree upon that generation to die in the desert. Moses, they say, promised to bring them up to a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ but rather he has led them to a dusty death. The Seforno, however, goes a step further. The accusation of deceiving the people is concerned with the fact that Moses ‘pretends’ that they are still going to inherit the Land. The device he uses for this deception are the mitzvot concerning the Land. By commanding them about leaving the gleanings of the field or orchard to the poor, for example, Moses gives reality to his ‘lie’ that they will eventually inherit the Land. It is like someone selling a bogus house overseas. On their website they will have pictures, guided tours and architectural plans, all to give it authenticity, even though the house doesn’t actually exist. This, according to the rebels, is the deception practiced by Moses by promulgating laws concerning the Land in the wilderness. This may seem merely an interesting interpretation of the Parshah, but it in fact has great relevance for our religious life today. Just as the Torah, given in the wilderness, contained laws for the future life in the Land, so too, do many of our rituals and prayers contain references about mitzvot not currently in use. The majority of these concern the Temple and sacrifices. The most prominent, of course, is the Musaf service whose whole focus is a prayer for the restoration of the Temple and the sacrifices offered within it. Yet for many Jews the notion of sacrifice, especially of animals, is deeply repugnant and even the building of the Temple, on a site where there is presently a Moslem shrine, offends their liberal sensibilities. Yet, if they go to an Orthodox synagogue, they ‘pray’ every Shabbat for precisely these things. This raises various questions. Are they not deceiving themselves and pretending to G-d? Is not the sight of whole communities asking G-d for something they don’t really want and saying what they don’t really believe, somewhat problematic? If we don’t believe in something should we still be praying for it? I’m not suggesting we should abolish Musaf, but maybe we need to think a bit more about what we are actually saying.

Parshah Sh'lach

The majority of our Parshah is, of course, taken up with the sin of the spies. The rest of the Parshah is concerned with various mitzvot concerning libations of sacrifices, hallah and tzitzit. All this can seem quite mundane following the dramatic events that came before. Maybe the Torah thought we needed a dramatic pause before the next instalment? A different explanation can be gleaned, however, from the transition between the two sections of the Parshah. After the disastrous defeat at hormah, the Torah then begins with ‘when you come into the Land’. On this Rashi comments ‘this promises them that they shall enter the Land’. In another words, to a people on the verge of despair, the Torah offers the promise of ultimate redemption. Yet we can maybe see how this idea applies not only to the opening sentence of the mitzvot section of the Parshah but also to the mundane details that follow. The Torah is showing us a way of carrying on in the face of tragedy. It is tempting in such circumstances to despair, fall into lethargy or depression, and simply give up. Yet there is another way. We can rebuild our lives by concentrating on the eternity of the Torah and its mitzvot. Political and economic circumstances fluctuate and even the Divine promise of the Land is conditional and has been largely aspirational. Yet the Torah is eternal. By concentrating on the daily mitzvot: sacrifice or prayer, taking hallah, tzitzit, we can bring stability, holiness and even joy into our lives irrespective of outside circumstances. This is the Torah’s prescription for dealing with tragedy and this is the path followed by generations of Jews throughout the generations. The Jews who on the death trains or in the concentration camps lit Shabbat or Hanukah candles or secretly learnt, were not simply being brave or defiant. They were articulating a basic Jewish response to tragedy. It was thus, also, that the survivors refused to give themselves over to despair. People who had lost all their families raised new ones, teachers who had seen their institutions and pupils wiped out, built them anew in America or Israel. That is the lesson the Torah gives us by instructing us about mundane, everyday, mitzvot directly after one of the worst catastrophes in Jewish history. Land, political power, security and prosperity, can all be removed from us. Only the Torah is always with us.

Parshah Behalotcha

One of the issues dealt with in our Parshah is that of Pesach Sheni or the second Pesach. This enables people who were unclean at the time of Pesach to have another chance to offer the sacrifice a month later. At the end of this section the Torah mandates that the convert should keep Pesach exactly like every other Jew. Rashi explains this addition as a clarification, as one might think that a convert should bring the Pesach offering immediately on converting. The Torah therefore instructs us that the convert brings on Pesach along with everyone else. These verses thus pose various questions. Why is Pesach the only mitzvah that you get a second chance? You can’t blow the shofar or sit in a succah a month later. Why should you think a convert would bring the offering immediately on converting and why does the Torah instruct us concerning converts when talking about the second Pesach? The answer to these questions lies in the fact that the penalty for deliberately not bringing the Pesach offering is excision. This is one of only two positive commands where there is a penalty for non-observance. The other is circumcision. The reason for this is clear. Both are not merely normal positive mitzvot but symbols of identity. Just as someone who is not circumcised ‘cuts himself off’ from the Jewish people, so too, someone who doesn't bring the offering symbolising national identity: the Pesach. For this reason those impure demand of Moses that they should not be excluded from the community by being unable to bring the Pesach at the right time. For this reason G-d enables them to have a second chance a month later. That is why there is a prima face case that a convert should bring the offering immediately, just as he must be circumcised as part of his conversion. Just as those impure brought the Pesach later, why shouldn’t the convert? The Torah however thinks otherwise. Unlike circumcision that is a individual symbol of identification with the Jewish people the Pesach offering is a collective endeavour, and can only be offered by the community at times designated by the Torah. Thus the convert must wait till he can offer the Pesach with everyone else. This teaches us an important lesson. Judaism is not only about the individual’s relationship with G-d but the community’s. While we can perform many mitzvot individually, others can only performed in a congregation. Many important prayers and the Torah reading, for example can only be said with a minyan. Being truly Jewish means being part of a community.

Parshah Naso

Naso, as the longest Parshah in the Torah, covers many topics. Two of those that are in close proximity are the command to remove from the camp the unclean and the return of stolen property. The Torah commands the removal from the camp of various categories of impure people and then talks of how stolen objects must be returned with a 20% fine. Property belonging to someone who dies without heirs is given to the priests. This heirless individual is understood by the Rabbis to refer to a convert that has no family in Israel. The commentators ponder the connection between these two sections. Nachmanidies, for example, sees a connection between the purification of the camp of the unfit and the regulations concerning the property of a convert. He seems to be saying that unlike the impure the convert is part of the camp and covered by the same laws. Another way of looking at the connection between the two sections is to understand them as providing two attitudes to transgressors or misfits in Israel. The first section talks of people that it is necessary to expel from the camp. While it basically refers to problems of spiritual impurity, it could be widened to include those who by their actions have placed themselves outside the camp of Israel. The second section, however, provides another attitude to such people. It talks of those who have transgressed and wish to make amends. The Torah provides a means of them doing so and thus being accepted back into the community. The two sections taken together, then, provide instruction on how to deal with transgressors or misfits in Judaism. On the one hand it is sometimes necessary for the good of the community to expel them from the camp. Often, they themselves, by their actions, remove themselves from the bosom of the Jewish people. But, suggests the Torah, we must always provide for these people a way back. There must be a pathway to enable those estranged from G-d and Israel to return. This is, of course, an important lesson for our time. Today we have many Jews estranged from their religion or their people or both. Sometimes it is necessary for our own protection to distance ourselves from them. Yet that can never be the final word. We must also provide a path for their return if they wish it, rather than placing obstacles in their way. Thus we both help them and strengthen the whole community.

Shavuot

Uniquely among the Jewish festivals Shavuot has no fixed date in the calendar, falling on the 50th day after Pesach. For this reason, the Rabbis of the Talmud almost universally refer to the festival not by its biblical name, Shavuot, but as Atzeret. This name is taken from the last day of Succot, Shemini Atzeret, and posits a similar relationship between Shavuot and Pesach as exists between Shemini Atzeret and Succot. In both cases we have separate festivals united by a common theme. In the case of Succot/Shemini Atzeret this theme is rejoicing. The connecting theme between Pesach and Shavuot is less clear and there is no similar shared appellation in the liturgy. Yet I would suggest that the common thread that unites them is one of freedom. Pesach, of course, is called ‘the season of our freedom’ but how does Shavuot and the ‘season of the giving of our Torah’ relate to this theme? To understand we need to examine the mitzvah the Torah commands for this day: the bringing of the two loaves in the Temple. These loaves had to be brought, like the Omer, from the new crop, but unlike the Omer had to be Hametz. If we compare the two offerings we see that the Omer was basically required to waved. Not too much elaborate preparation was required. The two loaves however are specifically required to be baked. Human action is essential in their preparation. This, I would suggest, connects to two different types of freedom. The freedom of Pesach is essentially passive. The Jews were redeemed from Egypt without too much effort on their behalf. This is reflected in both the simplicity of Matzah and of the Omer offering. There is, however, another type of freedom. This is one which rather than being given to us, we must make for ourselves. This is the freedom the Torah requires, and we thus bring baked loaves requiring human effort on Shavuot. We are thus taught an important lesson. We are often not responsible for our circumstances. The Jews in Egypt were unwillingly enslaved and despite themselves redeemed. They could do little about either circumstance in face of Egyptian and the Divine power respectively. Yet on Shavuot G-d required of them something more. After explaining that He had brought them to Mt Sinai, they must now, in that circumstance, chose what to do. They could either accept or reject the Torah. G-d thus teaches us that while often not responsible for our circumstances we do have responsibility over what we chose to do within them. It is this freedom that is both the prerequisite and essence of Torah and it is this freedom we celebrate on Shavuot.

Parshah Bamidbar

After enumerating the Israelites in a census according to their tribes, the Torah then enumerates them again. The tribes are grouped into four groups of three tribes each, surrounding the Tabernacle which is in the middle. These groups are named after their leading tribe, Reuben, Judah, Ephraim and Dan. It is instructive to examine this arrangement more closely. The tribes are not randomly grouped together or arranged according to numbers or age. Rather each group of tribes has an internal rationale for being together, and it is this that we can learn from. If we look at the four groups in turn we can see that the first, comprising Judah, Issachar and Zebulon, contains tribes traditionally associated with leadership roles, especially in the realm of Torah learning. These are the spiritual leaders of the nation, the scholars who interpret the Torah. The next group: Reuben, Gad and Shimon, are the opposite. These tribes are generally associated with being on the periphery of Jewish life. Reuben and Gad lived in Transjordan and gradually lost their Jewish identity, while Shimon was involved in sin and rebellion, and was absorbed into the territory of Judah, also losing his distinct identity. The next group, the group of Joseph: Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin, are identified with economic ability and material success, while the last group: Dan, Asher and Naphtali, lived on the borders and guarded the nation from attack. All these four different groups were part of the encampment surrounding the Tabernacle and the Ark. This teaches us an important lesson. The Jewish people needs many different types of people in order to carry out its mission. It certainly needs scholars to teach and interpret the Torah. It also needs people who can be financially successful. As our Sages pointed out, if there is no money it is hard to support Torah learning and observance. We need our defenders, those who will stand up to our enemies who arise anew in every generation. And we need those on the periphery. These rebellious, apathetic or alienated children serve to protect the rest of the people from the full force of the outside assimilation. They also require us to examine our own beliefs more closely, leading to a better, more intellectually rigorous and more spiritual Judaism. We thus see that the Torah needs all these groups surrounding it. All these differing types of Jews have a place and a portion in the Torah. Shavuot is thus not just a festival for the ‘religious’ or the learned but for all the Jewish people in their diversity.

Vayikra (Leviticus) 5769

Parshah Behar - Behukotai

‘I am the L-rd your G-d that took you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, to be to you G-d’. On the last part of this verse Rashi comments ‘that all who live in the Land of Israel I will be to them G-d, and whoever leaves it is like a worshipper of idols’. One may ask why this verse and this comment is situated where it is. It comes at the end of a paragraph prohibiting the taking of interest. It would have seemed to make more sense to have connected G-d’s gift of the Land with the proceeding paragraph, that concludes the laws of the sabbatical year and the redemption of property, issues connected with the Land. Yet in situating this verse here the Torah is making a profound comment on the nature of Judaism, and also the nature of the prohibition against interest. For many people it is enough for a Jew to be an ethical monotheist. It is sufficient to believe in G-d and pursue social justice. The Torah, in this verse, explains to us that this is not the purpose of Judaism. If it were, we would have no need for the prohibition of interest or a need for a special land. To lend money on interest is not necessarily immoral. If you would, at least a few years ago, have given someone a rate of one percent, they would have been grateful indeed and it would have been seen as charity. Yet it still would have been forbidden. For this reason the laws of interest in Jewish law books are found in not in the section dealing with monetary matters but in the section dealing with ritual law, like kashrut. It is not only about social justice but the higher calling of Jews, to be holy. That is why our verse, singling out the Land of Israel, is situated here. Just like in the example of the laws of interest, Jews are called on to rise above the simple dictates of social justice, so too with the whole of Judaism. Jewish life is not merely ethical monotheism that can be lived anywhere, but an endeavour to bring G-d down to earth by living a life of holiness, a mission that can only be fully carried out in G-d’s holy land. Therefore someone who leaves Israel is like one who serves idols or ’other gods’. He is, as it were, abandoning the special mission of the Jewish people, in order to join with everyone else in pursuing a general ethical spirituality. But that is not his role in life. For everyone else in may be enough to be a good person, from Jews G-d demands more.

Parshah Emor

In the parlance of modern Israel the Hebrew term for that part of the population regarded as secular is Hiloni. This is a rather derogatory term, as it seems to stem from the Hebrew word for profanation, as in Hilull Hashem, or profaning G-d’s name. The strange thing, is that this term is used by the secular population to refer to themselves. The use of this term would thus seem to exacerbate the divisions between religious and secular. A more useful etymology of the word is found in this week’s Parshah, or rather in its Aramaic translation. When the Torah talks of the prohibition of non-priests or strangers eating sanctified food, the Aramaic translation renders the word stranger as hilonai. The term Hiloni then, rather than meaning those who profane or are profane, could be more correctly rendered as those who are estranged. This etymology provides a far more constructive model for religious-secular relations than the simple Hebrew rendering. Rather than the religious world seeing those who are not observant as profaners, or active opponents of Judaism and Torah, it can view them as those who are estranged from the Torah or Judaism, in the same way as one can be estranged from family or friends. Rather than see secularism as a conscious, or even rebellious, lifestyle choice, it sees it as a pathology, a disease in the life of the nation that needs to be healed. Most importantly, perhaps, unlike the regarding of secular Jews as ’profaners’, seeing them as estranged carries no automatic apportioning of blame. People may be estranged for many reasons, not necessarily their fault, and indeed may be seen as victims rather the perpetrators. In fact, according to this understanding of the issue, it could be the religious or observant community that is at fault for the estrangement of the non-observant, and the solution to this estrangement lies mostly with them, rather than with the secular. This is not merely clever wordplay. How we perceive issues determines how we approach them. Do we see society divided into the good and the bad, or as an organic whole, containing spectrums of behaviour. Seeing the secular as ‘profane’ puts up a barrier to dialogue and splits society into mutually antagonistic sections. Seeing non-observance as ‘estrangement’ enables us to perceive the religious-secular divide as a problem of the whole of the society, to be addressed by working together. Above all it forces the religious to take responsibility: if people are estranged from Torah, maybe it’s our fault?

Parshah Aharei-Mot / Kedoshim

‘Do not steal, do not deceive and do not lie a man to his fellow. Do not swear in My name in vain’. The juxtaposition of these commands in our Parshah is not merely coincidence. The Rabbis saw in their order a progressive moral decline. As Rashi states it.: ‘if you will steal you will come to deceive and lie and in the end swear falsely’. Our Sages are here observing a key facet of human nature. Once we make one mistake we try and cover it up by making more, including lying. Many public figures have in the end been brought down, not by what they actually did but by the fact that they tried to cover it up. Once on the slippery slope of deception, things snowballed out of control, leading to far worse consequences than they original misdemeanour warranted. Yet there is also a deeper psychological basis underlying such self-destructive actions. People’s need to justify what they do. Most people are not consciously wicked and don’t tend to revel in notoriety. Rather, they seek to believe what they do is moral or for the greater good, thus justifying their questionable behaviour. The most common form of doing this, especially in the religious or political world, is through the medium of ideology. This enables people to appear genuinely sincere or kind and nice, while engaging in behaviour that is the opposite of their outward image. This is especially true of religious sects. Many young people have been caught up in cults because the people peddling them were pleasant, seemed sincere and harmless, and were so nice. By the time they found out their true nature and agenda, it was too late. The reason these groups succeed in this, however, is because they are genuinely nice. The believe they are doing the right thing. If you believe that your particular sect is the only right way, then to deceive or lie in furtherance of your interests doesn't seem immoral. You are only seeking to ’save souls’, to ‘help people’, and who can object to that. The trouble of course is, that the whole thing is a deception. Saving souls or helping people means getting them as part of your organisation, and in order to do that, anything is justified. The Torah warns us of such behaviour. If you start out with a wrong ideology, whether stealing or believing only you have the truth, you will do anything to justify your path. The answer, as Rashi hints, is not to start from the wrong position to start with. Respect other peoples property and ideas and don’t believe only you have the truth. Then you won’t need to deceive or lie.

Parshah Tazria - Metzora

We read this week what can be considered one of the most difficult Parshiot in the Torah. Not only is it difficult to read, but the subject of various types of leprosy and their diagnosis, is not one that generally leads to spiritual enthusiasm. Yet the Rabbis saw in these passages deep moral significance. Leprosy, they contended, based on various stories in the Torah, was a punishment for slander, They even saw in the fate of the leper, banishment and isolation, punishment for seeking to cause dissension between his neighbours. Just as the slanderer sought to separate people from each other; so is he now separated from the rest of society. But even in the process of the diagnosis of the disease we can find a moral lesson. The Torah makes specific distinctions between different types of leprosy and its effect on the body. We are not allowed to jump to conclusions on first sight, but must wait a week or two, in order to ascertain the exact prognosis. We must make exact judgements as to the nature of the disease in each case, before we are allowed to declare a person a leper, burn someone’s garments or destroy their house. How different this is from the activities of the slanderer. Those who defame others, mostly do so using broad generalisations, on the basis of scanty evidence and with little regard for the consequences. The Torah, on the other hand, teaches us the proper mode of criticism. It must be specific, based on fact and proportionate. Investigation and detailed analysis must precede, not follow, any accusation. Acceptable criticism must also have another element, one outlined in the second of our two Parshiot. The leper does not stay banished for ever, but is, by the proper ritual, brought back into society. These ceremonies, according to tradition, also have an educational and moral dimension. The experience of the leper is not meant to destroy him; rather improve him morally and spiritually, and enable him to take his place in society. In this vein, acceptable criticism must never be wholly negative. It must always have at its heart the aim and ability to positively impact on the person or institution criticised. These Parshiot are often read the week before Yom Ha’atzmaut. Israel is far from perfect, but much of the criticism directed against it is unjust, generalised and totally negative. Israel does need, on occasion, to hear the critical voice of the Diaspora. But it should be a voice based of the criterion of our Parshah, and given with love.

Parshah Shemini / Pesach 7 & 8

The first half of Parshat Shemini is always a difficult one to read. At the height of the celebrations of the dedication of the Tabernacle, Aaron’s sons offer a ‘strange fire’ and are struck down and killed. Aaron is then instructed not to mourn or show any outward signs of grief. It appears that the show must go on. G-d also responds to the tragedy by the enigmatic remark that I will be sanctified by those close to me’, seeming to indicate that the death of Aaron‘s sons had a higher purpose. It is all very depressing and seems somewhat callous. An answer to the meaning of all this may be found in the Haftorah for the last day of Pesach. The final days of the festival generally turn their focus from the redemption from Egypt to the anticipated final redemption. That is the theme of this Haftorah, which is also the Haftorah for Yom Ha-atzmaut. Near the end, the prophet states that after the redemption the Jewish people will praise G-d starting with a sentence that states: ‘I will thank you G-d for you have been angry with me’. How are we to understand this strange statement? Some see this as a recognition that all the travails that the Jewish people have suffered throughout history are for a higher purpose. From the standpoint of the Messianic age we will understand that everything that happened was ultimately for the good and led to the redemption we now enjoy. In a similar way, maybe, G-d is telling Moses and Aaron that the deaths of Aaron’s sons were a necessary part of the dedication of the Tabernacle. While overwhelmingly tragic in the present, from the perspective of history the incident will be seen as a necessary prelude to greatness. This is a difficult concept to accept yet one vital to the Jewish world view. We are called upon to rise above our earthly perspective and attempt to see things as G-d sees them. This is indeed a source of our survival as an eternal people. As we end the festival of redemption at a time when the Jewish people are beset with great difficulty, it is an important lesson to learn. We occasionally need to rise above our present preoccupations and see things from the perspective of eternity.

Pesach

One of the highlights of the Seder is the mention of the four sons. Based on different verses in the Torah, these characters represent different things to each generation. This of course especially true of the wicked son. In the illustrations of each Hagadah we can see how different generations have found there own version of this type. The passage of the wicked son is in itself a bit puzzling. By saying ’what is this service to you’ and not to us, he is regarded as removing himself from the Jewish people. You therefore ’set his teeth on edge’ by implying that had been in the generation of the Exodus, he would not have been thought worthy to be redeemed, a reference to those Jews whom tradition says died in the plague of darkness. Yet is this not precisely what the lad is saying. He is basically not interested in Judaism. This is your affair, not mine. I want no part in these obscure, outdated rituals. How then does implying he would not have been part of the redemption annoy him so much? The answer teaches us much about Jewish psychology. It is true that the wicked son is openly contemptuous of Jewish ritual. He wants nothing to do with the Jewish religion, politics or even culture. He is a modern assimilated citizen of the world. But so much as hint that he is not really Jewish or not a part of the Jewish people and his hackles rise. No one has the right to tell him that he is not Jewish enough. He is born Jewish and will die Jewish irrespective of what the Rabbis might say or what he does in between. The answer to the wicked son, rather than being self-defeating, thus hits him where it hurts or, in fact, does the most good. It forces him to confront the fact that, despite trying to run as fast and far away as possible from everything connected to Judaism or Jews, deep down he does care about being Jewish. Being in some way tied to the Jewish destiny is, even subconsciously, basic to his identity and the suggestion that he may be cut off from that destiny, cuts to the bone. The answer given to the wicked son thus causes him to question his own beliefs, and if he really is so estranged from Judaism as he pretends. If it suddenly means so much to be counted as a Jew, what implications does that have for his life? This scenario is, of course, as familiar to us as in previous generations. The Hagadah thus shows us not to despair of any Jew, no matter how seemingly estranged from Judaism or the Jewish people. Scratch a little deeper and the Jew in him will come out. That is indeed a good thing to remember as we celebrate our national birthday.

Parshah Tzav / Hagodol

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, the ‘great’ Shabbat. There are various reasons given why this Shabbat is so named. The range from the mention in the closing words of the Haftorah of the great day of G-d to the fact that the Rabbi on that day traditionally gives a long or ‘great’ sermon. One of the more weighty reasons concerns the date of the original Shabbat Hagadol. According to Jewish tradition the Jews left Egypt on a Thursday. That being so, the Shabbat before fell on the 10th of Nisan, as it does this year. If we look in the Torah we see that this date has a special significance for the original Pesach ritual. It was on this day that the Torah commanded the Israelites to set aside the lamb for the Pesach offering to be brought on the 14th. This day was on a Shabbat, a day when the Jews did not normally tend their animals. This would cause the surrounding Egyptian population to be curious what was going on. They would discover that the Jews were planning to sacrifice their divinity, the lamb, in four days time. Yet, because of their fear of Moses and G-d following the previous plagues, they did nothing. For this reason this Shabbat is called great, because of the great miracle that took place on that day. Yet the true greatness of the day, and indeed its miracle, may lie not so much in the reaction of the Egyptians but in the actions of the Israelites. They, despite the fact that it might upset the Egyptians, had the courage to do G-d’s will openly. For this reason G-d commanded them to take the lamb four days early, so they couldn’t hide what they were doing. In doing so, they began the long road to true freedom. They began to free themselves from mental enslavement to their Egyptian masters and stopped worrying what the goyim would say. That made this Shabbat a truly great one, to be commemorated every year by having a Shabbat Hagadol the week before Pesach. There is an important lesson here for us today. Following the recent anti-Israel hysteria, some might think it is time to keep our heads down, not to talk to openly about Israel or stand up for ourselves. This Shabbat teaches us precisely the opposite. We must not surrender the public square to our enemies but stand up for Israel and Jewish rights. That is how we become truly great and truly free.

Parshah Vayikra

‘And if you will offer a meal-offering of first fruits to G-d’. This is one of three places in the Torah where the word im cannot mean ‘if’, as the action in question is obligatory not optional. In this case the Torah is referring to the offering of the Omer which must take place from the new crop on the day after Pesach. The other two cases concern charity: ‘if you will lend money to My people’ and the Jubilee: ‘if there will be the Jubilee’. In all these cases the action is a mitzvah, not a voluntary action. Various reasons are given for this wording. It can be said that in all these cases the ability to perform the mitzvah is dependent on Divine favour. The Jewish people have to be in the land in order to operate the Jubilee year, one must have extra money in order to be able to lend it and the harvest has to be successful in order to be able bring the Omer. Yet we can also find and other reason for the use of the conditional clause in commanding what is in fact an obligatory action. All these mitzvot, although obligatory, need in some fashion an emotional willingness on behalf of those taking part. The return of land to its original owners in the Jubilee could cause resentment. There must be a deep realisation of the fact that the land really belongs to G-d, in order to willingly accept this transfer. In a like manner, although giving to the poor is an obligation, it should be done from the heart and with graciousness, not begrudgingly. The Omer too, is an offering that needs emotional commitment. It is a realisation of the debt we owe to G-d for His bounty, and thus needs to be given in a manner of gratitude and joy. Yet this concept can actually be extended to our attitude to the whole of the Torah. On the one hand, we are commanded by G-d to keep the mitzvot. On the other our service of G-d should be done joyously and willingly. This dichotomy lies at the heart of Judaism, and these three mitzvot merely illustrate it. This tension between obligation and choice is what gives Judaism its dynamism and its ability to adapt and survive in changing circumstances. We do things because we are commanded, but these commands themselves need to become part of our conscious life choices. So as we come up to Pesach we face lots of work and expense. We go through all this hassle because we are commanded and that is what Jews traditionally do. Yet we also need to inject an element of willingness and enthusiasm into our actions. We need to work with joy.

Shemot (Exodus) 5769

Parshat Vayakhel - Pekude

Our Sages tell us in the Ethics of the Fathers that ‘in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man’. A corollary of this could be that in a place where there are men refrain from being a man. In other words in a situation where no one is doing what needs to be done you have an obligation to step forward and do it yourself, but in a place where the work is already being done, you can possibly take a back seat. This may seem to be good advice, yet the evidence of our Parshah seems to indicate a more complicated picture. The Torah states at the end of the list of who donated what to the Tabernacle, that the Princes donated the precious stones. Rabbi Natan in the Talmud asks why they waited till the end when we find that when it came to the dedication of the Tabernacle they offered first? He answers that they intended to wait and see what everyone else would give and then they would bring what was still lacking, Nevertheless, because they were lazy in coming forward the Torah shows its disapproval by spelling their name deficient, without the normal aleph. The Princes seem to have thought, as stated above, that in a place where everyone else was donating, it was better to stand back, but we see that this was not the totally correct cause of action. How shall we explain this dichotomy? The difference lies, I believe in the type of action being undertaken. Our Sages in Ethics are talking of situations of leadership. There are places where no one is prepared to take on the mantel and then it is appropriate for you to step forward. Modesty in such a case is misplaced. Conversely, in a place where leadership is already being provided and the work being done, to step in and attempted to lead is both arrogant and ultimately harmful. The case of the Tabernacle, however, is different. This is a communal project for all the people. It is thus not appropriate to stand back and wait for others to give. The obligation is on everyone. For this reason the Pesach sacrifice had to be brought by all the people, not only the Priests. The obligations of the Seder night and the message of the Exodus are universal. Not only are we not allowed to stand back but we should push ourselves forward: ‘whoever enlarges on telling the story of the Exodus is to be praised’. Pesach is for everyone.

Parshat Ki-Tissah

The story of the Golden Calf is a seminal one in Jewish history. The people’s apostasy, G-d’s anger and Moses’ breaking the tablets, followed by reconciliation and a second set of tablets, have formed the basis for many different interpretations and even ideological disputes. The Golden Calf incident can be seen as an unmitigated disaster, leading to various problems throughout Jewish history, or a necessary adjustment to unrealistic expectations, that lead to a more mature relationship between Israel and G-d. Echoes of these differing interpretations can all be found in Rashi’s commentary. One interesting idea that he brings at length concerns the purpose of G-d’s revelation to Moses of His thirteen attributes. This great theophany, where Moses sees more of G-d than anyone then or since, had at its heart the needs of Israel. Indeed, one of Rashi’s central themes throughout his commentary on the Torah, is that G-d reveals himself to Moses only for the sake of the Jewish people. On this occasion, G-d wishes to teach Moses a specific lesson about his relationship with His people. Moses had averted G-d’s threat to destroy Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf, by recourse to the ‘merit of the fathers’. Invoking the righteousness of the Patriarchs, he prays for the children. The Patriarchs, as it were, have left money in the bank which their children can draw on in times of need. But what happens when the money is gone and the account overdrawn? Moses may believe that there is then no more hope. Therefore G-d reveals to him His thirteen attributes, an inexhaustible supply of credit with G-d. The Jews no longer need to rely only on the merit of their ancestors. They can now, through the medium of proclaiming or reminding G-d of, the thirteen attributes, access G-d’s mercy and forgiveness directly. The sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath have, then, served to change the relationship between G-d and Israel. The newly liberated Jews who had before relied on the deeds of their father’s can now stand on their feet and have their own relationship with G-d. This idea teaches us an important lesson. Tradition and precedent are important in Judaism. They are the basis of what we are as Jews. Yet the Torah must be accepted by each generation anew. We must form our own relationship with G-d and our own understanding of Torah based on today. We must adhere to the tradition but also learn and interpret the Torah in a way relevant to our generation.

Parshat Tetzaveh / Zahor

When commanding the making of the High Priest’s garments, the Torah states their purpose as being ‘for honour and glory’. They are both to reflect his exalted status and add to its lustre. These garments thus on the one hand reflect the inner person but on the other add a lustre that may not necessarily exist without them. It is instructive to note, therefore, that these garments are dispensed with on Yom Kippur. Even though on every other day of the year they are essential for the High Priest’s service, on Yom Kippur he wears simple white linen garments. When he goes into the Holy of Holies on this day, he is stripped of any outward pretensions he may carry and faces G-d as he is. There are times when even added lustre ‘for the glory of G-d’ gets in the way of a true service of the Divine. This is an important lesson for all of us. We all, in one way or another, put on a show for the world. Few of us show all of our true feelings or personality the whole time. If we did we probably couldn’t live together in harmony. Yet there are times when it is necessary to dispense with outward appearances and get to the heart of whom we are. Certain relationships and situations demand that we reveal our true selves, without costume or makeup. Yom Kippur is the most obvious example of such a time. Another, less obvious day, is Purim. In fact it would seem that the opposite is true. On Purim we dress up to hide our personalities. Indeed, even G-d hides Himself on Purim, his name not even being mentioned in the Megillah. Yet Purim is compared to Yom Kippur, indeed is in some ways greater, Yom Kippur being Ki-Purim: a day ‘like’ Purim. It appears that on Purim we are also required to reveal our true selves. We do this, however, without, like on Yom Kippur, having to shed our outer pretensions. Rather we see through them. On Purim the Jewish people reached a height of assimilation, when even the heroes of the story were named after idols. Yet when the crunch came, their true nature was revealed. Purim teaches us to see beyond outward appearances and appreciate the true nature of things. We learn that we can be true to ourselves, even if we are sometimes forced to put on an outward show. These are important lessons of this season for our time.

Parshat Terumah

They shall make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell within them’. The Rabbis already famously noted that G-d does not say that he will dwell within the Tabernacle but within the people. The Tabernacle is merely the instrument by which G-d’s presence can dwell among the people, as individuals and a nation. Using this idea, it is useful to examine the idea and structure of the Sanctuary and to see how this can enlighten us in how bring G-d’s presence into our own lives. G-d, of course, dwells everywhere and beyond: ‘He is the place of the world but the world is not His place’, state the sages. Yet we are commanded to make a place for G-d. This space for the Divine to dwell is created by erecting boundaries. There is a courtyard, inside of which is the main Sanctuary, inside of which is the Holy of Holies. Each of these spaces is separated from one an other by a partition, as is the whole structure from the outside world. Each of these spaces has its own rules pertaining to it, according to the level of the Divine presence within it. Thus the dwelling of G-d in the Tabernacle appears in stages of various levels of intensity. Being that the purpose of the Tabernacle is for G-d to dwell among us, we can learn from this structure for our own lives. Just as, although G-d is everywhere, it was necessary to create space for Him to dwell, so too, we need to make space in our lives for G-d. While G-d should be present in everything we do, in practice that is quite difficult. If we do not partition off space and time for the Divine, we are likely to ignore it for long periods of time. And as we have varying moods and emotions, these periods of spiritual endeavour will vary in length and intensity, like the various sections of the Tabernacle. These spaces for G-d in our lives, Judaism creates in time. The most important of course is Shabbat, a sanctuary in time partitioned off from the rest of the week. Another important time for G-d are the three daily prayers, short intervals of intense contact with the Divine. But we should also partition off parts of our daily lives for study or meditation. Like the boundaries that set the structure of the Tabernacle, theses spaces in time need to be fixed and regular, creating a permanent space for the Divine in our lives. If we learn from the structure of the Tabernacle and apply its lessons to our daily lives, we can see how just as the Sanctuary caused G-d to dwell among the people, so our spiritual sanctuaries can cause G-d to dwell among us.

Parshat Mishpatim / Shekalim

In the middle of our Parshah we have a series of verses dealing with the administration of justice. We are not to utter a false report, follow the multitude for evil or bear false witness by following the majority to pervert justice. These injunctions seem similar and the Rabbis have given them various legal interpretations, mostly to do with courtroom procedure and the proper administration of justice. Yet the plain sense of these verses is clear. One should not blindly follow the majority in perverting justice, simply because everyone else agrees. The order of the verses is also significant. They begin with the prohibition of uttering a false report and them continue to the perversion of justice. This teaches us an important lesson. Miscarriages of justice often have their origin in false information which is then taken up by the masses and becomes established fact. It then becomes difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at the truth. So the innocent suffer. We are of course all too familiar with this phenomena in our day, especially with regards to Israel. Just as in 2002, the story of the ‘massacre of Jenin’ turned out to be totally false, yet is still widely circulated; so many of the atrocity stories concerning Gaza have turned out, after further investigation, to be fabricated or distorted. Yet we must be careful not to fall into the same trap ourselves. Anti-Semitism is a serious problem today and has increased dramatically in the last months. Yet in combating it, we need to use as our weapon trustworthy evidence, not unsubstantiated rumours and internet scare mongering. That merely undermines our case with the general public and especially policy makers. We have had an unfortunate example of this recently. A Rabbi, who should have known better, took a certain fact he had heard of and, apparently without checking, came to the conclusion that a department store was seeking to boycott Israel. He then published his findings in a Jewish newspaper with recommendations for appropriate action. It turned out of course that the story was false and there was no intention at all to boycott Israel or anyone else. But the damage had been done, mostly to Jewish credibility. In an atmosphere where people do want to harm us we need to be doubly sure of our facts and think before we speak or publish.

Parshat Yitro

After the Revelation at Sinai, the Torah informs us that the Jewish people were afraid, moved back and asked Moses to speak to G-d for them. Moses replies by telling them not to be afraid and that G-d has come to nasot them. The meaning of this word is disputed by the commentators. Some see it has meaning elevate, suggesting that the awesome nature of the Revelation was to serve to enhance the reputation of the Israelites in the eyes of the world. Others dispute this and insist it comes from the root to try or test. The Revelation was thus a test or trial for the Jewish people, with various ideas offered as to its nature. If we look at last week’s Parshah, however, we can find an interesting parallel. There as the Egyptian armies approach the trapped people, they are also fearful. There Moses uses the same phrase of telling the people not to be afraid but to see the salvation of G-d. It appears that the fear of the Egyptians has been replaced by the fear of G-d. The Jews are approaching G-d with the same terror that they felt for their Egyptian oppressors. This, however, is not the correct way to approach G-d. Our attitude to the Divine should not be one of fear, as to a tyrant, but of respect and love. Moses thus tells the people that they are mistaken and that G-d has not come to terrify them but to exalt them. But the Revelation is also a test. Can they in fact escape their slave past and conceive of a new relationship with authority. Do they see the Exodus as merely exchanging one master for another, or a profoundly revolutionary event that transformed the relationships between people and between them and the Divine. G-d is not the Egyptian tyrant that sought to crush even their ability to think, but a Divine ruler who gives his people a choice whether to accept his covenant or not. The question that begins at Sinai and haunts the wilderness period is whether the Jewish people can make that psychological transformation. This is maybe the source of the midrashic tradition that sees G-d forcing the people to accept the Torah by holding the mountain over them. That is maybe how they, with a slave mentality, saw it. According to this tradition it was only at the time of Purim that the Jews finally realised the true consensual nature of their relationship with G-d. Even today many people treat G-d either as a slot machine or a tyrant to be appeased. How do we perceive G-d in our own lives and are we ready for a true relationship or, like our ancestors, still too afraid.

Parshat Beshalach

At the end of our Parshah we have the story of the attack of Amalek on the Jewish people. A fascinating midrash connects this incident to what has gone before: the complaints over water, leading to the question: ‘is G-d among us or not’? This, says the midrash is like a son on a journey with his father, riding on his father’s shoulders. Everything the son wants is provided for by the father. They then meet a man who asks the son the whereabouts of his father. The son replies he doesn’t know. The father, in consternation, then removes his son from his shoulders to the ground, where a dog comes and bites him. Similarly, G-d protected the Jewish people in the wilderness, providing all their wants. They then ask ’is G-d among us? He removes His protection and Amalek attacks them, causing them to cry out for G-d’s aid. The key to this midrash is, I believe, the fact that the boy is being carried on his father’s shoulders. He is thus not always immediately aware of what his father is doing for him. He doesn’t see the hidden hand of his father protecting him. Only when that protection is removed and he is bitten, does he realise the truth of the situation. So it is with G-d and Israel. ‘The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers or sleeps’, G-d is constantly looking after the Jewish people. Many attacks and stratagems of our enemies are foiled without us even realising it. Even more is this true of the numerous small miracles that we experience in our individual lives. Yet this is often hidden. We do not appreciate the hand of G-d that protects and sustains us. We take too much for granted, until it suddenly isn’t there anymore. Because we often ignore what G-d actually does for us and question his presence in our lives, G-d occasionally removes that presence. When G-d truly hides His face, we are then left exposed to the bites of dogs and the attacks of enemies. We only then realise the true extent of the Divine protection we enjoyed all along. This is the lesson of the midrash and the story of Amalek. We need to appreciate the blessings we enjoy before they are taken away. We should be grateful for what we have while we enjoy it, not only appreciating it when it is gone. We should seek G-d when He is close at hand, not only discovering Him when in extremity because He has left.

Parshat Bo

In the midst of the triumphant story of the climax of the plagues and the Exodus, we have hints at a darker, more complex, reality. These are what Aviva Zornberg calls counter narratives, possible explanations of events that change, elaborate or even contradict, the plain smooth narrative of the Exodus. One of the most disturbing of these stories concerns the plague of darkness. Seeking to understand the reason for this affliction the midrash gives as one explanation the death of those Israelites who did not want to be redeemed. These people were those who collaborated with the Egyptians and, in fact, took their side against their own people. They had to die in the darkness in order that the Egyptians would not think that the Jews were also affected by the plagues. Yet this story cries out for grater explanation. Surely these people would have left Egypt against their will in the general Exodus, when after the last plague, the Egyptians, in terror, literally threw the Jews out. And even if they died in darkness, surely the Egyptians would have noticed later they were missing? The answer comes from an unfortunate fact of Jewish history. For every enemy that has risen up against us, from Pharaoh to Iran, there have been Jews that supported them. The Romans, the Inquisition and even the Nazis, all had their Jews to collaborate with their schemes against us. So too, today, we have Jews joining the worst of our enemies in attacking Israel and Zionism. The distinguishing factor of all these people was that they did so as Jews. They used their Jewishness as a fig leaf to cover the hatred of our enemies. They provided anti-Semites with a defence, thus making them harder to fight against. They were thus irredeemable. Because they used the very thing that can save the most reprobate Jew, his being part of the Jewish people, to attack their fellow Jews, they were beyond redemption. They thus had to also, figuratively at least, perish in darkness. Our enemies must not be able to use the Jewishness of these people as a fig leave to attack us. Jewish law throughout the ages, has therefore, placed these people outside the realms of Judaism. People who consort with our enemies are longer to be regarded as part of the Jewish people, counted for a minyan or buried as Jews. They are in effect no longer Jewish. This is a harsh measure, to be sparingly used, but nevertheless one that has been necessary in the past, and we should regretfully consider whether it is needed today.

Parshat Va’era

The main portion of our Parshah consists of the story of the Ten Plagues, Pharaohs obstinacy and the increasing severity of the devastation rained down on Egypt. From the initial plague of blood to the final death of all the firstborn, the plagues caused severe hardship and suffering to the Egyptian people. As mentioned last week, however, it is by no means apparent that the Egyptian people supported the policy of Pharaoh towards the Jews, indeed there is evidence to suggest the opposite. The plagues thus present us with a moral dilemma. How was it that G-d punished the guilty along with the innocent. All the Egyptians, whether or not they supported Pharaoh or Moses, suffered from lack of water, animal attacks and disease. Surely this is collective punishment at its worst. Indeed, could Moses have been tried as a war criminal? The absurdity of this question should serve to underline a basic misconception about the nature of innocence and guilt in time of war. The Torah, as well as the Geneva convention, in general prohibits the deliberate targeting of civilians as such. Indeed, even trees and other property are not to be wantonly damaged. Yet the Torah does accept the notion of collective punishment or damage to the population as a whole. It does so because it believes in the notion of collective responsibility. We are not merely individuals with individual rights and responsibilities. We are also nations and peoples with collective rights and responsibilities. This inevitably entails the possibility of collective punishment. If our leadership, however constituted, decides to embark on a policy of oppression or war, we will all suffer. That is part of us being a nation. The Egyptian people may not of wholly approved of Pharaoh’s policy but the moment he decided on a path of confrontation with G-d, they were all implicated. It appears that even the Jews, on behalf of whom the plagues were sent, suffered from the first three. In waging war, therefore, the idea of nations not suffering as a whole for their actions is ridiculous. The issue at hand is rather whether the war is just. If we wish to avoid the pain of collective punishment, we need to use our collective responsibility wisely in order to avoid conflict; something of course Pharaoh singularly failed to do.

Parshat Shemot

In reading about Pharaoh’s genocidal plan to solve his Jewish problem, we see that there were two stages. One relied on the midwives killing the male children, while the other was an instruction to all the people to throw Jewish baby boys into the Nile. A superficial reading may indicate that these two plans were really two sides on the same coin. When the professionals failed, Pharaoh decided to include everyone, increasing the chances of success. A closer examination of the text, however, reveals a subtler plot. The midwives excuse for failure was that the Jewish women animalistically gave birth without their aid, thus frustrating their murderous plan. Yet if the plan was to kill the babies after birth, even if they arrived after the event, the child could still have been killed. There is no suggestion that their mother’s hid them. That came later. The conclusion seems to be that the midwives were to kill the babies as part of the birth process, making it seem like an unfortunate mishap. Women or babies dying in childbirth was, after all, quite a common occurrence. The genocide was to be secret and look like an natural phenomenon. The pre-emptive birth of the Jewish women, however, prevented this hidden agenda from being realised. Pharaoh was thus forced to openly declare his intentions, something that seems to have been quite unpopular even in his own household. There is no evidence that many Egyptians actually complied with his decree, indeed it appears that the Jewish population was not particularly adversely affected. Thus Pharaoh’s evil design was thwarted. This story holds an important lesson for us today. Modern Jew hatred is often hidden. It masquerades as anti-Zionism or subtler forms of prejudice. Thus who wish to do us harm or even harbour genocidal designs, are able to disguise their intentions by political or social rhetoric. They know that an open exposure of their true intentions would lead to disrepute and even sanction. A large part of our fight against modern anti-Semitism, therefore, must be to reveal this hidden agenda. Like the righteous midwives of Egypt, we must frustrate genocidal plans against us by forcing them into the open. While we are often disturbed by the visual manifestations of Jew hatred in the anti-Israel movement, it is in fact paradoxically a good thing. It exposes these people for whom they really are, and thus, as in the case of Pharaoh, helps ultimately frustrate their evil designs.

Bereishit(Genesis) 5769

Parshah Vayehi

In blessing his sons, Jacob in fact criticises three of the twelve. Reuben he criticises for not being steadfast enough in purpose and failing the test of leadership. Shimon and Levi are rebuked for their attack on Shechem. Yet, interestingly enough, the actual attack is not what is directly criticised or even mentioned. Rather, Jacob curses their anger and prays that his name not be associated with their deception. How are we to understand this obliqueness? Jacob seems to be making a statement about the evaluation of human actions. He is not so concerned about the actual actions of his children as about the motivations that lie behind them. He thus curses the unrestrained desire for revenge that caused them to indiscriminately massacre a whole city. He disassociates himself from their intention, which was from the first, not a true peace with Shechem but a ruse to lead them to destruction. It is these intentions he excoriates. This attitude can seem counterintuitive. Judaism is, indeed, mostly concerned with actions rather than motivations. And is not the road to hell paved with good intentions? It is true that good intentions cannot normally excuse clearly bad actions. Neither do suspect motivations necessarily blemish worthy deeds. Yet most of our actions are not black or white. Rather they are some shade of grey, and it is in this moral boundary that intention plays a crucial role. As Jacob understood, this is nowhere more so than in the realm of conflict. He thus criticises most of all, his sons ’ motivations in the method of warfare, deception and massacre, they chose. This discernment is especially important and unfortunately often lacking, in modern conflict. It is generally agreed that killing civilians is a bad thing. It is also generally acknowledged that it is often an unavoidable consequence of modern warfare. Intention thus becomes crucial. There is a world of moral difference between deliberately targeting civilians and killing civilians as an undesired consequence of hitting military targets. Unfortunately this moral distinction is often blurred by naïveté or moral blindness. This, paradoxically, gives more power to those rejoice in civilian casualties, than those who seek to avoid them. In times of conflict, only by taking into account intention, can we truly judge morally.

Parshah Vayigash

One of the most famous speeches in the Torah is that made by Judah to Joseph at the beginning of this week’s Parshah. It is also one of the most successful, leading as it does to Joseph’s unmasking. It pays therefore to take a closer look at this oration and see what we can learn from it. Judah is speaking up on behalf of Benjamin who has been caught red handed apparently stealing Joseph’s goblet. The crime is clear and the punishment also clear, and accepted as just. Judah, in the final analysis is merely attempting to get Joseph to accept him as a slave in stead of Benjamin. But he does this in a way that actually, though not openly, casts doubt on Benjamin’ guilt and Joseph’s justice. He does this by putting the present situation into context. This is something the midrashic tradition is very sensitive to. Judah recounts how Joseph asked them questions about their family. Then, despite having informed him of Jacob’s attachment to Benjamin, he demands that he be separated from his father and brought before him. The midrash sees in each of these stages an implicit accusation that Joseph was from the first intent on trapping them. Questions about family are justified when arranging a marriage, not when requesting to purchase food. Joseph then has used the information so elicited to put the brothers’ in an impossible situation. Despite being informed of the negative effect on Jacob of such an action, Joseph insists on Benjamin being brought before him, using the families need for food as blackmail. In this context, the previously open and shut case seems not so clear. Maybe Benjamin is not the ungrateful thief and Joseph the aggrieved host, but Joseph the schemer and Benjamin and his brothers the hapless victims. Putting things in their true context thus helps elucidate the truth and in this case leads to the unravelling of Joseph’s plot. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Jews and Israel context seems to be the first casualty, and with it truth. Reaction to violence or unending provocation is seen in isolation from its context, thus turning the villain into a victim and the victim into an oppressor. The world thus sees a distorted picture which influences them in the wrong direction. Judah understood this and used context to correct the distortion We must therefore also constantly remind people of the background of what is happening, in Israel and elsewhere. For the lack of context in understanding our world is dangerous, and not just for Jews.

Parshah Miketz / Hanukah

The custom is that on the Shabbat of Hanukah we read the ‘lights of Zechariah’ as the Haftorah. This prophetic reading, while it mentions the Menorah in the Temple, also has deeper symbolism for this time of year. At the beginning of the Haftorah, we find Satan standing accusing Joshua the High Priest and being rebuked by G-d. Joshua is then divested of his filthy clothes and dressed with fine garments. How are we to understand this scene? Satan, in Jewish theology the contrary voice or ’other side’, is objecting to the restoration of the Jews at the beginning of the Second Temple period. The Jews are mired in various sins and heavily assimilated, as symbolised by the High Priest’s filthy garments. G-d, however, rebukes Satan, showing a deeper understanding of reality. Joshua’s clothes are removed and replaced with others. This demonstrates that the problems with the Jewish people are only external, like dirty garments that can be removed and replaced with others. Underneath, lies the pure nature of Israel, that is eternal and indestructible. This of course is the message of Hanukah. Despite the rampant assimilation to Greek culture that existed at that time, even to the extent of men trying to uncircumcise themselves, there remained underneath a pure Jewish core. This broke forth in the revolt of the Maccabees, and eventually encompassed the whole nation. The small flame that burnt deep in the hearts of even the most assimilated Jews, was ignited into a conflagration that swept away Greek rule. The assimilation to Greek culture was shown to be only an external garment, that given the right circumstances could be changed into something more authentic. This of course is the lesson of Hanukah encapsulated in our Haftorah. This is also a lesson for our time. The Jewish people seem to be faced with tremendous problems and few solutions. Whether on issues of conversion or security, peace or social justice, we seem to be lost sheep without a shepherd. Yet Hanukah teaches us otherwise. Within our people lies the flame of greatness and the potential for great leadership. As in the times of the Maccabees we only need the right spark to ignite it. Then the true nature of our people will be again revealed: at this time as in those days.

Parshah Vayeshev

In describing the actions that led to enmity between Joseph and his brothers, the Torah says that he brought their evil report to his father. Rashi quotes the midrash, that he told of all the evil he saw in them: that they ate the flesh of a living animal, called the sons of the maidservants slaves and were suspected of sexually immoral behaviour. For this, the midrash continues, Joseph was punished, measure for measure. His brothers slaughter a kid and pretend its his blood, he is sold as a slave and he is accused of attempting to rape his master’s wife. The midrash, however, does not suggest that Joseph was lying in these reports to his father. Why then was he punished with these incidents, all of whom are untrue or unjustified? The answer lies in another case of evil report in the Torah, that of the spies. Here also Rashi implies in his commentary that the spies did not actually lie. They reported what they saw. There is clearly a midrashic tradition that regards the Hebrew word ‘dibah’ as not meaning telling lies. Rather it is in fact telling the truth, but from a jaundiced perspective. The spies were punished for telling the truth about Israel in a way that only emphasised the difficulties, thus distorting the true picture. This was also Joseph’s problem. Everything he reported back to his father was true, at least as far as he saw it. But he didn’t put it in its context, ignoring extenuating circumstances, and thus presented a jaundiced view of his brother’s to Jacob. For this he was punished with incidents that hid the real truth. The blood appeared to be human, Joseph’s; but was in fact that of a goat. Joseph was made to be a slave, even though he was really a leader. Above all, it plausibly seemed to the casual observer, that Joseph had tried to seduce or rape Potiphar’s wife, while of course the truth was precisely the opposite. Joseph was taught by these incidents not to trust appearances or only his own perspective but rather try and get to the truth of the matter. He uses this knowledge to good effect in discovering his brother’s true feelings towards Benjamin, thus helping to reunite the family. This story, then, provides us with a salutary warning. Not everything we see is necessarily as it seems and our own perspective can cause us to distort the truth. It is necessary to look beyond the surface and examine the context of actions to truly judge them. We thus can avoid the mistakes of Joseph and the spies and have a truer perspective on the world.

Parshah Vayislach

A central incident in this week’s Parshah is Jacob’s struggle with an unknown assailant and the changing of his name from Jacob to Israel. Except of course he continues to be called Jacob. Unlike Abraham, who when his name was changed from Abram, is never again called Abram but only Abraham; Jacob, after having had his name changed to Israel, is again, immediately and usually, called Jacob. This fact was the cause of a dispute between the Rabbis of the midrash. Some said that Jacob’s main name now became Israel, with Jacob being only secondary, while Rabbi Zechariah maintained that Jacob remained his primary name, with Israel being merely added to it. How are we to understand this argument? As, already pointed out, Jacob in the bible is normally called Jacob, something the Rabbi’s also knew. So it is not a dispute about facts. Rather it is a discussion about the nature of the Jewish people, and what is their primary status in the world. The name Jacob signifies the Jewish people in their weak, subservient state. It is the name of Jews in exile, dependent on the good will of others, and spreading G-d’s message by their interaction with their host societies. Israel, on the other hand, is a name of power. It is the Jewish people as a sovereign independent nation, able to influence world events as an equal partner among the nations. Both of these scenarios, of course, are part of both Jewish history and Jewish thought. The Jewish people can and have been in both situations. The dispute in the midrash, however, is about which is the normative state. Is it normal for Jews to be sovereign, with exile being an aberration, or is dispersion and political emasculation the normative state of the Jews, with independence and sovereignty being the exception. Both these ideas have found their proponents . Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch believed that exile was part of the Divine plan for both the Jews and humanity, enabling Jews to influence history from within. Rabbi Abraham Kook, however, saw exile as an aberration, limiting the scope of Israel’s Divine mission, that could only be truly fulfilled in a Jewish state. Today we appear to have both situations at once and maybe that is the true synthesis of Jacob that became Israel, yet remained Jacob.

Parshah Vayetze

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

Parshah Toldot

In this week’s Parshah, we come across a story about Isaac passing off his wife as his sister, just like his father did. There are in fact three such stories in Genesis: one with Abraham and Pharaoh, one with Abraham and Avimelech and our story, concerning Isaac and Avimelech. This preponderance of stories with a similar theme, caused biblical critics to postulate that we have, in fact, the same story told in different versions by three different authors. Like much of what comes under the rubric of biblical criticism, however, this thesis doesn’t really survive detailed examination. Firstly, the three stories, while containing a similar theme, have different preludes, varying story lines and dissimilar final resolutions. This is especially true of the two stories concerning Avimelech and Abraham and Isaac respectively. Furthermore, the incident related in this week’s Parshah is meant to be seen and can only be properly understood, in reference to their earlier story concerning Abraham and Sarah. Isaac, like his father, resorts to the risky ruse of passing off his wife as his sister. Unlike Sarah, however, Rebecca is not taken by the king. Rather Avimelech sees Isaac and Rebecca acting in a more than fraternal manner and draws his own conclusions. He then rebukes Isaac for his deception and places the couple under royal protection. Unlike in the time of Abraham, no Divine intervention is necessary. All this is only comprehensible in reference to the earlier incident with Sarah. It is not by chance that Avimelech uncovers the couples secret. Mindful of the problems he had with Abraham, he is keeping an eye on them. And when his suspicions are confirmed he accuses Isaac of endangering the safety of the kingdom and places him under royal protection, precisely because he knows from bitter experience the consequences of a mistake in this area. He has already been burnt once and is not going there again. Avimelech’s reaction is that of someone that knows of the story with Abraham and Sarah, not an independent character in another version of the same story, as the biblical critics would have us believe. An examination of this story thus teaches us to be wary of glib assertions based on superficial readings of the text. While biblical critics have raised interesting questions, many of their answers do not stand up to closer study. Indeed so many of their theories have been disproved, they may even have conclude that Moses wrote the Torah after all.

Parshah Haye-Sara

The first verses of our Parshah deal with the death of Sarah and Abraham’s reaction to it. They, however, present a bit of a conundrum. Sarah dies in Hebron and Abraham is presented as ‘coming’ to eulogise and weep for her. The verb seems to imply that he came from somewhere else and indeed, at the end of last week’s Parshah, we find Abraham in Bersheeba. This raises the question of why Sarah died in Hebron and where was Abraham at the time and why? Various answers are given from the prosaic to the profound. It is even, with modern sensibilities, possible to speculate that Abraham and Sarah were not living together at the time. Had they become estranged by the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father? Another, reading of the verse, however, suggests that Abraham was not away anywhere but that the verb ’to come’ is simply the expression used when going to eulogise someone. A combination of both these answers may emerge, however, if we contemplate another question. Why did Abraham eulogise Sarah before arranging the funeral? To weep immediately we understand but to give a eulogy when you haven’t yet arranged the burial seems rather strange. I would suggest that the answer lies precisely in the puzzling use of the verb ‘to come’. One ‘comes’ to eulogise because one arrives from your previous perception of the deceased to a new understanding of their worth. One sees the dead person in a new light, understanding all they meant to you, which you may not have before fully appreciated. Abraham, may indeed have been in Hebron with Sarah when she died. But as he contemplates her death he comes to the full realisation of what she meant to him. Abraham and Sarah had many disagreements and some fault him for not always taking her interests into account. Thus when she dies, Abraham not only weeps over her but ‘eulogises’ her; re-evaluates their relationship and realises how she was generally got things right, even when he thought otherwise. He thus only now comes to fully appreciate her importance. This section, then, teaches us an important lesson. We shouldn’t wait to someone close to us dies to understand what they mean to us. Rather let us appreciate them while they are with us, before it is too late.

Parshah Vayera

The Haftorah this week contains the story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman. Elisha promises her a child, despite her apparent barrenness and she duly has a son. This son the apparently dies from sunstroke and is revived by Elisha. The parallels to the Parshah are obvious. Sarah is delivered of a son after many years of barrenness. That son is then almost lost by being sacrificed to G-d, but saved by angelic intervention at the last moment. An interesting feature of this Haftorah are the differing customs as to when it ends. The Ashkenazim read the whole story, ending with the Shunamite woman gratefully taking her revived son. However, the Sefardim end in the middle of the story. The son has apparently died and the woman prepares to rush off to Elisha. Her husband asks why she is going and she merely replies Shalom. This seems a strange place to end the story, right in the middle. Yet if we examine these stories more closely a pattern emerges. Both Abraham and Sarah and the Shunamite woman initially reject miraculous interference in the natural order of things. They are prepared to accept things as they are. They are thus not surprised when things later go wrong, a fact that may partly explain Abraham’s ready acquiescence in the sacrifice of his son. They are prepared to see the possibility of Shalom or completeness in the situation in which they find themselves, not relying on supernatural intervention, which can disturb the natural balance. Though in the end this Divine action does lead to positive results, they are prepared to live with out it. We thus can see how the Sefardic custom is not so strange after all. When the Shunamite woman answers Shalom to the query of her husband, she is implicitly prepared to accept and live with any outcome to the situation.. There can be Shalom or completeness, without knowing the end of the story. By stopping on this word we learn an important lesson. We cannot see into, far less control, the future. We cannot always rely on Divine intervention to solve our problems. What we can do, however, is learn to be at peace with ourselves, others and G-d, whatever may happen to us. We can learn from the characters in the stories we read this week how to create a sense of wholeness in our own lives, whatever vicissitudes or challenges those lives may entail. In the midst of our own story, without knowing the future chapters, we can still pause and say Shalom.

Parshah Lech L’cha

With this week’s Parshah we leave the general history of mankind and focus on the specific history of the Jewish people. Central to this story is, of course, the towering figures of the Patriarchs, starting this week with Abraham. Yet central to the tale, and running right through it, is a fundamental concept of Judaism, the Land of Israel. G-d’s first command to Abraham, is to leave his home and go ‘to the land which I will show you’, in other words to make aliyah. The first promise Abraham receives upon entering the Land, was the assurance of its ultimate possession and the central tenet of the basic covenant establishing G-d’s relationship with Abraham and his descendants, is the promise of the Land of Israel. This pre-eminence of the Land in the foundation stories of Judaism should alert us to its importance. Yet because the Jewish people have often lived in exile outside the Land, the centrality of Israel to Judaism has often been over looked. There are those who have believed that it is merely an instrument for the fulfilment of the mitzvot or that the destiny of the Jews was to spread the knowledge of G-d by being scattered among the nations. These concepts, while partially correct, ignore the prominence given to the Land of Israel throughout the Torah, and underestimate the role of the Jewish people. The Land itself, rather than merely a place to perform mitzvot, is the ultimate goal. Exile, while it may also serve noble purposes, is fundamentally a punishment and a profanation of G-d’s Name. The Jewish people are not meant to merely be religious individuals living life in self-contained communities in other people’s states. Rather, our destiny is to be a holy nation living in a holy land, and so provide a light to the nations. The essence of Judaism is that it is the religion of a people, a political and ethnic identity, and it aims to show how a whole nation can live in accordance with G-d’s will. That can only be fulfilled by an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel. Everything else, no matter how noble or exalted, is but a shadow of our true purpose. When reading of the origins of our nation and faith we are reminded that the Land of Israel is not merely an appendage to our Judaism, it is its source and ultimate fulfilment.

Parshah Noach

‘The story of Noach has excited the imagination of commentators and storytellers alike. One lovely Midrash tells of the hassles Noach had in feeding all the animals; each one at their appointed time. One day he was a bit late in feeding the lion, so the lion scratched him. This story, however, is more than a quaint expansion upon the biblical narrative. In connects us to the heart of one of the themes of the flood story. Noach, his family and menagerie were shut up in an enclosed space wherein they all had to co-exist. The secret of this co-existence was the establishment of strict boundaries between the various inhabitants of the Ark. This was both geographical: each level of the Ark was for a different purpose, and chronological: everyone had their own feeding times. Any breaches of these boundaries disturbed the delicate balance between the Ark’s various inhabitants and led to trouble. Thus, when Noach is late feeding the lion, he gets hurt. This importance of boundaries, necessitated by the situation of the Ark, was an important and deliberate lesson to the survivors of the flood. One of the basic problems that led to the whole catastrophe was a lack of boundaries. If we look at the major faults of that generation we can see that whether socially, economically, sexually or even spiritually, the people of that era did not recognise boundaries. They took what they wanted, slept with whom or what they pleased and worshipped everything. In such a situation, G-d sent a flood that also swept away all the boundaries, leaving nothing but water. The new society that arose after the flood would have to learn the importance of such boundaries, starting with the society inside the Ark. Later on strict distinctions are made between humans and animals, various nations and nature itself. G-d also promises not do again destroy the boundaries of nature we depend upon for our existence. This lesson is of vital importance to us in an age of globalisation. Multi-national organisations, whether economic, political or religious, threaten the distinct identities of nations and communities. Only by establishing clear boundaries and distinctions can local communities preserve what is unique about their way of life and culture from being swamped in a flood of globalised uniformity. Only by heeding the lesson of the Ark can we hope to keep our heads above water in the new flood of globalisation that threatens to submerge us.

Parshah Bereishit / Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah

An interesting feature of Simchat Torah is that it is late festival developed in the Diaspora and meant for the second day Yom Tov of Shemini Atzeret. When transposed to Israel it thus needs to be held on the only day of Shemini Atzeret, the day in the Diaspora reserved for the prayer for rain. We thus have, in Israel, a quite different day to that in the Diaspora. Outside Israel the day sometimes become somewhat raucous, a second Purim, with the custom being not to say the priestly blessing, as the cohanim might be drunk. In Israel however, the fact that the Torah reading is followed by Yizkor and the prayer for rain, somewhat moderates the levity, though not the dancing. These two rituals, the rejoicing over the Torah and the prayer for rain are in fact intimately connected and combine the two themes of Succot: faith and unity. Through our desire for rain we discover that we are dependent for our most basic needs on G-d and that our very existence depends on His goodness. Through the rejoicing on Simchat Torah we learn that we are all united in our connection to G-d, the Torah and the Jewish people. We circle the synagogue with the Torah, symbolising completeness and unity, while everyone gets an aliyah, teaching us that we all have a stake in the Torah. These two ideas also reinforce each other. Human togetherness teaches us the value of trust, the same value so important in our service of G-d. Our dependence on G-d for rain teaches us that we are not self-sufficient and that we can only exist in co-operation with others. It is for this reason that the three agricultural festivals: Pesach-spring, Shavuot-reaping and Succot-harvest, are also pilgrim festivals, an obligation to appear before G-d together. We are to learn that faith in G-d and trust between men are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other and both are vital for not only our spiritual and emotional wellbeing but also our physical survival. This has never been more apparent than during this holiday season. We have learnt day upon day the cost of both human greed and materialism and lack of trust and co-operation. The solution to our problems is both a less materialistic approach to life but also greater co-operation among individuals and nations. These are the lessons of this double-barrelled festival and as we approach a dark and uncertain winter, lessons well worth learning.

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