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This Week's Shabbat Times

May 26 - 27
Sivan 2

Begins: 21.22

Ends: 22.57

Fri Mincha/Ma'ariv 20.00

Sedra

Bamidbar

Shabbat morning

10.00

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Sedra Archive 5770

Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5770

Shabbat Succot / Succot

One of the main aspects of Succot is the command to take the four species: Lulav, Etrog, Myrtle and Willow. An interesting aspect of this mitzvah is the necessity that these species belong to you. While you can sit in someone else's Succah, wear their Tefilin or eat their Matzah, only concerning the mitzvah of the four species to we have the requirement of personal ownership. The source of this requirement is that the Torah says, with regard to the four species, 'on the first day you shall take for you'. However in other places in the Torah similar phrases are employed so we may ask why in this case the Rabbis chose to interpret these words as implying ownership. A simple answer could be that there was an oral tradition about the matter which they followed. Yet this still leaves unanswered the question of why this mitzvah should be different. An answer may be found in another requirement unique to this mitzvah, that of beauty. While there is a general requirement of seeking to serve G-d aesthetically, it is only in the case of the four species that this is an essential component of the mitzvah. The Torah specifically commands us to take 'the fruit of a beautiful tree'. While at other times second best may be good enough, if not ideal, on Succot it is not acceptable. Why should this be so? Succot comes a mere four days after Yom Kippur upon which we are given a chance to begin afresh. The Torah wishes to give us on this festival a lesson in how to properly observe the commandments. The first lesson is that one must put in an effort. Judaism shouldn't come second best in our lives, merely doing the minimum. Rather we should seek to do our best and take joy and pride in our observance. Like the four species we should seek to serve G-d with excellence. The second lesson is even more important. We must own our Judaism. Like the Lulav we should make the mitzvot our personal possession, not leave them for others. This is an important lesson for our time. Too many Jews see Judaism as something done by others; the religious, or the Rabbi. They are content to stand by the sidelines and celebrate their religion vicariously. Yet Judaism is not a vicarious religion. To be appreciated it must be personally experienced. Succot is also the festival of joy and these two lessons of the four species tell us how to get joy out of our Jewish life. Something that others do and is offhanded will never bring satisfaction. Something that we take personal ownership of and strive to do well, on the other hand, can be a continual source of joy. This Succot, let us take ownership of our Judaism, and rejoice in it.

Yom Kippur

This year Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat. This entails various changes in the service, including the omission of the final part of the selichot in the evening service and of Avinu Malkeinu except at the end of Neilah. As on other festivals that fall on Shabbat we also mention Shabbat in out prayers. Yet there is one addition that is the subject of controversy. It is our custom to add the words rese v'menuchateinu: 'accept our rest', to the central blessing of the Amidah, as indeed is done on other festivals. However, many authorities object to this practice. Their argument is that Shabbat which is also Yom Kippur is not a day of rest. Rather it is a day of fasting and judgement. You can not rest when you are hungry and thirsty and concerned about your ultimate fate. To add this phrase therefore is inappropriate. This opinion seems to see the main 'rest' of Shabbat as consisting of nice food and lack of concern. Indeed, on Shabbat we are forbidden to worry about our daily concerns. Yet our custom is to say this phrase even on Yom Kippur. How then do we see the issue? An explanation may be found in the custom some have of fasting if they have a bad dream. The Rabbis permitted this even on Shabbat when fasting is generally forbidden. They explained that for the person disturbed by a nightmare fasting enables him to put his mind at rest and thus enjoy the 'rest' of Shabbat. In this understanding the essence of Shabbat is the peace of mind it brings, with the nice food and clothes merely an aid to this central purpose. When Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, therefore, the main 'rest' of that Shabbat is indeed fasting and repentance. On a day when G-d makes him self available to us and asks us to come close to Him, our peace of mind comes from precisely that. While on all other weeks we need food and drink to help us enjoy the spiritual benefits of Shabbat, on Yom Kippur the atmosphere of the day is such that it by itself brings us close to G-d. On a day when we are like angels we don't need material props to have a taste of heaven. We are already there.

Parshah Ha’azinu / Rosh Hashanah

It has been said that Judaism is a religion for adults. It doesn't make childish promises or offer easy rewards for simple acts of faith. Rather it requires that we stand on our own two feet and take responsibility for ourselves, our actions and the world around us. G-d didn't create robots but thinking creative human beings that need to make choices and bear the responsibility for those choices. No holiday symbolises this more than Rosh Hashanah. Today G-d asks us what choices we have made and asks us to join with Him in evaluating them. As His judgement is true and sometimes painful, He requires of us to also objectively look at out lives, however difficult that may be. We are asked to live up to the responsibility for our actions and bear their consequences. The Parshah we read on Shabbat is also about actions and consequences, this time in a national historical sense. Interestingly, this Parshah is called a song and is written as a poem. It may seem strange that what is mostly an indictment of the misbehaviour of the Jewish people and its consequences should so be termed. Yet in another sense it is only appropriate. The happiest times in Jewish life are where we take on responsibility, such as at a bar mitzvah or a wedding. In contradistinction, a dead person is referred to as niftar which comes from the word for released, as the dead are released from responsibility. Thus when Moses concludes the contract between G-d and Israel by detailing the obligations and consequences attendant upon it, it is rightly called a song and an occasion for rejoicing. The same is true of Rosh Hashanah. Today is not a sad today, indeed it is forbidden to fast. After the service we go home and have a festive meal. We rejoice not only in the fact that it is the beginning of a new year. We are happy and proud that G-d calls us to account for our actions. As at a bar mitzvah we rejoice in the fact that we are treated as adults. Our actions matter, our lives have meaning and G-d cares about what we do. Rosh Hashanah is the symbol of G-d's respect for the human race and the Jewish people in particular. He does not treat us as children but as responsible adults. By judging us on Rosh Hashanah G-d accords us the highest accolade and that is indeed reason to rejoice.

Parshah Netzavim / Vayelech

'You are all standing here today before the L-rd your G-d'. Thus begins our double Parshah: short in length but containing some of the most significant and inspiring passages in the Torah. The word which gives its name to the Parshah, Nitzavim, has the meaning of not merely standing but being established or firmly fixed in place. This caused our Sages to see in this verse more than merely a geographical description. As Rashi comments: when the Jewish people heard the ninety eight curses we read last week plus the forty nine in Leviticus, they turned pale and wondered how it was possible to exist under the terms of such a covenant. Moses therefore reassured them saying: 'you are standing here', despite all the misdemeanours of the last forty years you are still existing and G-d hasn't destroyed you. Furthermore, it is the curses and sufferings that ensure your existence and establish you before G-d. What in fact are the Rabbis saying here? An explanation may be found in a famous story concerning Rabbi Akiva. On seeing a fox coming out of the ruined Temple he burst out laughing while his friends wept. To his astonished colleagues he explained that the prophets prophesise that foxes will prowl a ruined Zion. The same prophets also see old men and children playing in the streets of a rebuilt Jerusalem. He explained that now he has seen the fulfilment of the one prophecy he can be sure the other will also come to pass. Rabbi Akiva is making a profound comment about Jews and Judaism. Jews are not normal and Jewish history does not follow a normal pattern. This difference is symbolised by the stark warnings and curses contained in the Torah and prophets. Yet is precisely these cruel and unusual punishments that ensure the eternity of the Jewish people and there future redemption. What both Moses and Rabbi Akiva are saying is that the very fact that the Jews have suffered unlike others shows the Divine nature of their punishment and therefore ensure the fulfilment of the Divine promises. Because of the fulfilment of the prophecies of doom, however extraordinary, we can be assured that the unheard of return of a people exiled for centuries to their land is also possible. This is an important message for us as we approach a new year. We can look back at this year with concern and forward with misgivings. Yet we should remember that our history is not simple or straightforward and that is sometimes the very things which we feel are to our detriment that turn out to be our greatest saviours.

Parshah Ki-Tavo

At the beginning of our Parshah, the Torah prescribes a declaration to be said every three years at the conclusion of the tithing process. This is a statement of how the person has fulfilled all the laws of tithing and disposed of the tithes in the manner prescribed by the Torah. At the end of the declaration the person states that he has done all that G-d commanded. On this Rashi comments 'I have rejoiced and caused others to rejoice'. This is seemingly a reference to the second tithe that must be eaten in Jerusalem with the family and also the less fortunate. Yet it is interesting that it is with this that the declaration ends. Later on in the Parshah we are told that we will be punished for not having served G-d with joy. The Torah is not simply a serious of instructions that we are expected to follow like robots. Rather we should enter into the spirit of the commandments as a way of getting close to G-d. Judaism is not meant to be a dry ritualistic religion but rather an experience infused with the joy of life and spiritual uplift. This command to rejoice, however, also holds another message. The person making the declaration is affirming that he has first rejoiced himself and then caused others to rejoice. This is meant to teach us an important lesson. You cannot make others happy if you yourself are not happy; you cannot love others if you despise yourself. Throughout the Torah whether dealing with interpersonal relationships or social justice we are first required to look after ourselves and through that help others. When G-d requires of us to rejoice on the festivals we first must make ourselves and our families happy, and then include in our celebration the Levite, widow and orphan. If our children are not happy we cannot be brighten the life of the fatherless; if the wife is upset how can she truly welcome the widow. Judaism is not about sacrificing our well being for the sake of others. Indeed we are generally forbidden to do so. Rather it is about looking after our needs and those of our immediate family and through our own prosperity and happiness reaching out to those that are less fortunate. As we approach Rosh Hashanah and take stock of our behaviour it is important to examine our relationship with others. Yet firstly we need to inspect our attitude to ourselves. If we have not been nice to ourselves its unlikely we've been much good to others.

Parshah Ki-Tetze

It is often said today that human rights are a modern invention and that traditional religion and religious texts are in fact the enemies of human rights rather than their proponents. Religious thinkers that talk about such issues are sometimes accused of twisting religious ideas to suit modern concepts. Yet this attitude is far from a correct understanding of reality. People think that because the Torah did not have a list of basic human rights like in a modern liberal constitution, it did not appreciate or promote the basic concept of human dignity and respect for others. However the Torah, along with many other ancient texts, has a different approach. Rather than create lists of rights and responsibilities it uses case law to illustrate its approach. Two examples from our Parshah clearly illustrate this. The first is that of the mitzvah of burial. We all know that someone should be buried as soon as possible. We learn this from this week's Parshah that mandates that an executed criminal should not be left to hang but must be buried on the same day. For to not do so is cursing G-d. Our sages explain that as humans are created in the image of G-d to leave a dead body in a disgraceful state is to insult G-d. The Torah here uses a worse case scenario, that of an executed criminal, to illustrate that all human beings, even the worse behaved, have an intrinsic human right to be treated with dignity. The same is true with regard to corporal punishment. When mandating flogging for certain offences the Torah limits the punishment to forty lashes: 'lest your brother become despised in your eyes'. The commentators famously point out that while beforehand the malefactor was called a criminal, once he has been punished he is called your brother. Again the Torah succinctly states how even the least savoury members of society have basic human rights that must be respected. Thus to state the human rights is a modern invention with no basis in traditional religion is far of the mark. Indeed, in an important respect, the method of the Torah is superior to that of modern bills of rights. A bill of rights may list certain basic rights to be protected. But in certain cases, a terrorist or serial killer for example, an argument might be made that this does not apply or an exception needs to be made. The Torah, however, by using a worse case scenario leaves no room for doubt. If even the worse criminals must have their human dignity respected how much more so everyone else. Thus in this instance as in others the Torah has much to teach the modern world.

Parshah Shoftim

There is much discussion in our times of the role and power of the rabbis. Some question the role of the rabbi in interpreting the Torah or the power of rabbis over Jewish law. Some communities think they are better off without a rabbi to tell them what to do or stop them doing something they want. The rabbi and his power have their source in this week's Parshah. The Torah places the responsibility of deciding the correct meaning of its edicts on the shoulders of the 'judge that will be in those days'. These words are, I believe, the crux of what the role of a rabbi is all about. Our Sages comment on this verse, and on others like it throughout the Torah, that this teaches us that you only have the judge that lives in your days. Every judge in your time is like Moses in his, whether or not he is as good. This underlines a basic principle of Judaism, which underpins the whole Halakhic structure. The Torah is not a dead book but a living tradition that has a message for each time and each place. Therefore the 'judge in your days' is the person that decides the meaning of the Torah for your time and generation. There may have been greater judges beforehand but only the one in your generation can interpret the Torah for you. The same is true for rabbis. The job of the rabbi in your time is to interpret the Torah for your generation. He may not be as good as previous rabbis but he is living today and understands the situation of the present time. The same is true for the rabbi of your community. He is there to make the Torah relevant to the situation in your congregation. The rabbi down the road might be better but he is not living in your community and can't make decisions for it. I once heard it said that those who are constantly asking what some great deceased rabbi would have done in a certain situation are actually both making a serious mistake and disrespecting his memory. What he would have done if alive is actually irrelevant as he didn't live in the present situation and therefore couldn't make a decision about it. Furthermore, it disparages his greatness, which was in precisely the ability to interpret the Torah for his generation and place, not in simply giving stock answers. This is why, although books are very important and can serve as a source for deliberation, only a living rabbi can truly be the voice of Torah for his time and place. The Torah itself makes clear that rabbis are not an optional extra. Rather they are basic to the eternal relevance of the Torah and its living fulfilment in every time and place.

Parshah Re'eh

In the middle of our Parshah we have three passages dealing with idolatry and its punishment. One deals with a false prophet, one with enticement to idolatry and the third the fate of an idolatrous city. Other than the link of the fight against false worship, is there a theme connecting these situations that can teach us something today. If we look at the middle section, which deals with enticement to idolatry, we can discern something interesting. The Torah postulates that the enticer may indeed be from your own family or clan. The Torah then goes on to emphasises in several similar phrases that you should not have mercy on him, nor cover up his crimes. A similar fear may exist with regards to the false prophet. This is maybe someone you look up to or are close to in another way. The Torah again emphasises that you are to show him no favours. In the third situation, that of an idolatrous city, the Sages limit the application of the law to a city where those who have enticed them to idolatry are inhabitants of the city themselves. While this is partly to restrict as much as possible the dire punishment attendant on this law, we again see a concern about ignoring the faults of those close to you. We can therefore possibly discern a theme that links all these situations. Those who are leading you astray or misbehaving are of your family or acquaintances. The Torah is afraid that you will seek to cover up their crimes or not take action against them. This is a common problem in today's Jewish world. One of the most destructive and insidious phrases in modern Hebrew parlance is that of anash or 'our people'. This has the connotation of 'one of us' and is often used to define membership in a certain group or ideology as distinct from others. Too often this means covering up the misdemeanours, and often crimes, of members of 'our group'. There have been numerous cases ranging from religious groups to kibbutzim where corruption and even serious crimes have been ignored or covered up in order to protect members of the group. The Torah warns us in these passages against such an attitude. Indeed it commands that 'your hand should be first upon him'. Not only should we not protect criminals in our midst but we should be the first to report them. Thus, if we cover up wrongdoing in our midst we sin not only against society but against the Torah and G-d.

Parshah Ekev

Near the beginning of this week's Parshah the Torah talks of the dispossession of the Canaanites before Israel.. This the Torah relates will not take place all at once but rather little by little this is so 'the beasts of the field will not multiply'. This promise is mentioned elsewhere in the Torah. Rashi, however, poses a question. G-d has also promised that the Israelites need not fear wild beasts, so what does it matter so much if they multiply? He answers that the latter promise is conditional on the Jews behaving themselves and as G-d knows that they will sin he needs to protect them from an increase in wild animals. If we look at this statement more closely we can discern an interesting point. Even though the whole of Moses' discourse is to point the people in the right way and prevent them from sinning, there is a realisation that human nature is prone to error and going astray. Even G-d seems to write into His plan the fact that the Jews will not always live up to expectations. There is a certain understanding that straying off the right path is probable if not inevitable and G-d works to mitigate the consequences. This attitude is in marked contrast to the one the Torah later warns the Jews themselves against possessing. They are not to interpret their success over the Canaanites as proof of their own self-righteousness. They are warned against an arrogant holier than thou attitude precisely by recalling their own propensity to go astray. The Torah is thus teaching us an important lesson about our moral attitudes to others. We are to realise that we are all fallible and none of us lacks faults. We are not to assume that simply because, in our eyes at least, we are more religious or observant than others we have the right to look down on them. Rather we are to realise that the Torah accepts that people sin and makes allowances for it. Judaism is not a religion meant for angels but for fallible human beings. The distinction between religious and non religious or observant and secular is therefore in reality a false one. We are all possessors of the same Torah, heirs to the same covenant and under the same obligations to keep its terms. None of us are perfect but likewise none of us are worthless. No one has the right to appropriate to themselves the exclusive rights to Judaism or to despise those they feel are less loyal than they are to its traditions. After all, if G-d can make allowances for falling short of the mark, who are we to second guess Him. The Torah warns us of the dangers of self-righteous arrogance; more of us should heed its warning.

Parshah Va'ethanan / Nahamu

For a while know Jews have been having trouble with various Christian groups over Israel. This often goes beyond mere criticism and implies a questioning of Israel's very legitimacy. Indeed, as in the case of the Methodists, it sometimes seems to stray into traditional Christian rejection of the historic Divine mission of the Jewish people. Why is this occurring and how do we combat it? An answer to both these questions can maybe be found in this week's Parshah. If we look at the section we also read on Tisha B'Av, we see that after the warning of destruction and exile for disobedience, Moses promises the people that even in this darkest hour G-d will not abandon them. He then calls on them to consider their extraordinary history, especially the Exodus. What Moses is pointing out is that Jewish history is a guide to religious faith. Even when the prophesised catastrophe comes upon them the Jews should not loose hope because their history teaches them that they are G-d's people and G-d will not abandon them. It is perhaps for this reason that this section was chosen to be read on Tisha B'Av and not another passage of reproof. For Jews, history is the arena where G-d makes His purposes known and the Jews are His greatest instrument. Christians also used to believe this. Famously, when asked by Frederick the Great to provide proof of G-d's existence, his priest replied 'the Jews'. This was the basis of the worldview of philo-Semites and Christian Zionists from Cromwell to Balfour. Unfortunately it appears that modern liberal Christianity has abandoned this view. They seem to have replaced the G-d of history with the deity of political correctness, the G-d of the Hebrew Bible with that of the UN charter. The very idea that G-d works through a certain people through history, at the heart of Judaism and traditional Christianity, has been abandoned. We should not be surprised then that these churches delegitimize Israel and indeed Judaism. Jews, therefore, need to remind our Christian neighbours of the roots of their own faith. Isaiah, whose words of comfort we begin to read this week, is indeed a prophet of universal peace and justice. But he is foremost a prophet of the restoration of Israel, whose return to sovereignty in their homeland is a necessary condition for the fulfilment of his universal vision. If you believe in the Hebrew Bible you must support the right of Jews to return to Israel. We must thus take the words of our Parshah and Haftorah and use them to restore an increasingly fractured relationship.

Parshah Devarim / Hazon

It is known that the Great Revolt, leading to the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish state that we commemorate this week, was opposed by the Rabbis. The Bar Kochba revolt, whose tragic denouement at Beitar also occurred on Tisha B'Av, was also not supported by a large number of our Sages. They rightly believed that to oppose the Roman Empire was to invite catastrophe. In contradistinction, the origins of Tisha B'av according to Jewish tradition, lie in the sin of the spies. In this case we were punished for not being ready to fight. How are we to reconcile the two attitudes? If we should have had faith in G-d in fighting the numerically superior Canaanites why did this not apply to revolting against the Romans? If we look in our Parshah, we find that when Moses recounts the sin of the spies he emphasises certain points. One of those is how he tried to persuade the people to change their mind. He had stressed to them all the great things that G-d had done for them but explains that 'in this thing you didn't believe'. In other words their sin was not simply that they didn't want to fight superior numbers but that in the context of everything that had happened to them they misjudged their, and G-d's, ability. The opposite can be said for the revolts against the Romans. According to Rabbi Yehudah Henkin, the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple was not necessarily because of specific sins, like in the case of the First Temple. Rather the people chose to rely on G-d to overcome vastly superior numbers, when they were not worthy. Because of various interpersonal sins and general disunity, the Jewish people did not merit that G-d should intervene of their behalf. So when they chose to take on the greatest power of the time the result was catastrophe. Here again they had fatally misjudged the context. Indeed this seems to be a major theme of Tisha B'av. The people who brought disaster upon the heads of the Jewish people were not normally particularly evil. Indeed some of them were great Sages. They however fatally misjudged the context in which they made their decisions and thus led to disaster. This is an important lesson to contemplate during these days. When facing the challenges of our times we need to be clear about the context in which we are acting. We have got it wrong before; we can ill afford to again.

Bamidbar (Numbers) 5770

Parshah Matot - Masei

The war against the Midianites, that we read about this week, throws an interesting light on Jewish attitudes to war and peace. It is especially instructive to study the comments of the Midrash, often brought by Rashi, in this regard. Two comments in particular should catch our attention as together they provide an interesting approach to the subject. The Torah relates that among the Midianite leaders killed was Balaam. According to tradition he had stayed behind to receive his reward for being the inspiration behind the incident of Peor where 24,000 Israelites died. As Rashi succinctly points out, Israel gave him exactly the reward he deserved. The Torah emphasises that he was killed by the sword. On this the Midrash comments that ' he came to Israel using their methods, that of words, they came to him using his: the sword'. This Midrash puts forward the idea that Jews are not by nature a militaristic people. Our strength lies not in arms but in thought and speech. Our enemies are often nations that have taken pride in their military prowess. Yet sometimes they, like Balaam, attack us using our own weapons against us. In such a case, the Midrash implies, it is occasionally incumbent on us to use there violent methods against them. The second comment concerns conduct in war. The Torah relates that after defeating the Midianites the army brought back all the spoil taken to the camp. Rashi regards this as a sign that they took none of it for themselves verse from the Song of Songs that 'your teeth are as a herd of sheep' meaning pure white. Even the teeth of the Jewish people, i.e. its soldiers are righteous. This defines another Jewish attitude to war. Even though war may be a brutal business it does not mean that all standards of morality are suspended. Even in the extreme circumstance of war a Jewish soldier must conduct himself in accordance with certain rules and standards. These two expositions on the war in our Parshah, thus provide the parameters for the Jewish attitude to war and the criterion by which we can judge a Jewish army. Jews are not natural warriors neither glorify battle. Yet war is sometimes necessary and we are not allowed to be pacifists. When people like Balaam and the Midianites rise against us we have both the right and the duty to fight them and indeed crush them completely. On the other hand we must conduct ourselves in such situations in line with the rules and ideals of the Torah. It is against these parameters, therefore, that we must judge the circumstances we find ourselves in today.

Parshah Pinchas

Our Parshah this week contains the second major census in Numbers. Amongst the various statistics and interesting feature stands out. The Torah also list people who have died, with the reason for their demise. For example, the two sons of Aaron, killed offering unauthorised incense and the people killed in Korach's rebellion. This is also a feature of the other censuses in the Torah. This could be seen as merely providing a warning to future generations not to follow their actions. Yet there is another place in the Parshah where the dead feature prominently. This is in the division of the Land. According to the Torah the land was to be divided between those just enumerated in the census 'according to the names of their fathers tribes'. The Rabbis understood that this meant the division was not only between those living but also taking into account those who left Egypt. Thus two brothers that left Egypt and had one and three sons respectively who entered the Land, would get four portions divided equally between them, not one and three respectively. Thus the dead actually inherit the living. Despite the fact that the generation that left Egypt had, after all, been found wanting and had to die in the wilderness. Yet the Torah ensures that they are not forgotten and have a share in determining the division of the Land. Together with the mention of the dead in the census, this reveals an interesting attitude. When surveying their history and preparing to go forward, the Israelites don't forget those that have fallen by the way side. Even though they have been found wanting and not made it, they are remembered. This is an important attitude to take on board especially at this time of the year. Jewish history is often presented as a triumph of survival as indeed it is. Yet, as pointed out to me once by a insightful congregant, it is the Jewish people that have survived but numerous Jews have not. When Moses on various occasions prays to G-d to spare Israel, he is not doing so merely to ensure Jewish survival. G-d has already promised him that through his descendents. He is standing up for the individual Jews, that they may survive and see the future. When we commemorate during these three weeks the various disasters that have befallen us, we need to remember not only the national catastrophe but the individual tragedy. When we pray for redemption we should pray not just that the Jewish people should be redeemed. We also need to ask that it will happen in our generation and that all of us will live to see it.

Parshah Balak

One of the most well known stories in the Torah is that of Balaam and his donkey. The episode where the donkey sees more than Balaam and then speaks to warn him that an angel with a sword is in front of him, has occasioned much comment throughout the centuries. The commentators indeed discuss the very veracity of the tale, whether it actually happened or was merely all in Balaam's mind. Whatever side we take in that discussion we can appreciate that the story is at its heart about human psychology, Divine providence and the interaction between them. Balaam is told by G-d that he is not to go and curse the Jewish people, even when G-d reluctantly allows him to go at all. Balaam is going in two minds, knowing what G-d has told him but still hoping somehow to do what he wants to do after all. The angel, whether real or not, is G-d's way of trying to tell Balaam that this course of action is not right. The rabbis have a dictum that G-d allows someone to go on the path that they really want to go, even if it is not for their ultimate benefit. For this reason G-d allows Balaam to go with Balak's messengers, even though in the end it will lead him to ruin. Yet the above dictum is tempered by Divine mercy. So, while G-d won't interfere directly by stopping him going he sends the angel to confront him, hoping to convince him to do the right thing. We thus have illustrated in this story two cardinal principles of Judaism. One the one hand we are given free will and G-d refrains from directly interfering in our decisions, for good or evil. On the other, G-d sends us messages, through various events in our lives, to try and point out to us the right way to go. We have the choice to listen to these messages or, like Balaam, ignore them. These messages can come in various guises and be both positive and negative. For example, one of the great lines from the Sound of Music is that when G-d closes a door he always opens a window. Both are G-d telling us something. Not getting something can be disappointing, yet it is sometimes G-d informing us that however much we want something it is not the way we are meant to go. Conversely, we may always be coming across things that point us in a certain direction, even though its not what we had previously considered. G-d is trying to tell us something, but the question is, are we paying attention?

Parshah Hukat

This week we read one of the most famous and difficult passages in the Torah. This is where Moses hits a rock instead of speaking to it and thus is barred from entering the Land. Much has been written about this incident and many questions asked. It is maybe worthwhile, therefore, comparing the events described this week to their obvious parallel: the incident in Exodus where Moses was instructed to hit the rock. The two events may seem superficially similar but actually contain significant differences. The first point to note is that we are talking about two different groups of people. This week we encounter the new generation raised in the wilderness, forty years on from the incident in Exodus. If we look closely we can also notice that the demands made by the people are subtly different. In Exodus the people simply demand that Moses gives them water to drink. In our Parshah their basic argument is about the direction of travel. Forty years on they want to know why they are still staying in the wilderness when they should now be advancing to the Land. The earlier generation were still slaves, needing to be forcefully lead. Their children, hardened by the desert, are ready to go forward and eager for challenges. But, unlike slaves, they must be persuaded of a course of action, not merely bludgeoned into it. This is why in Exodus G-d tells Moses to hit the rock. He must force his unwilling followers to go where they yet do not have the courage or understanding to necessarily willingly follow. In our Parshah, in contrast, G-d instructs Moses to speak to the rock. This is a generation that needs to be convinced rather than coerced. Moses, however, famously hits the rock after shouting at the people. He uses the methods of forty years earlier on a new generation for whom they are counterproductive. He thus proves himself unable to lead that generation into the Land. But he unfortunately does something more. G-d, when barring him from the Land, basically accuses Moses of the most serious sin of profaning His name. This has always puzzled people. Yet in the light of the above it may be understood. Moses was seen as speaking for G-d. When he failed to understand the new generation and treated them harshly it was if G-d Himself had failed to perceive the difference. That was a tremendous diminution of G-d's reputation and thus unforgivable. The lesson is clear. When religious leaders fail to appreciate the times they live in and fail to understand their generation they demean not only themselves but G-d.

Parshah Korach

Our Parshah contains several different dialogues that make up the rebellion of Korach. One is between Korach and Moses, another between the Reubenites and Moses and of course the dialogue between Moses and G-d. Yet there is also the attitude of the people as a whole to these events. They too, in the end, have something to say. What they do say, not only exposes them to immediate punishment, but opens up an interesting moral and practical discussion that is still relevant for us today. After the destruction of Korach and his followers the people accuse Moses of their murder. This seems rather strange since they died in such a clearly miraculous way. Many commentators therefore explain their complaint as being that Moses either did nothing to prevent actions which he knew would lead to their demise or even deliberately allowed them to go ahead in order to facilitate their destruction. As a leader, they believed, Moses should have acted to stop things going that far. Moses' defence would be that if these people were determined on their fatal course there was little he could do to stop them and he had to act in order to protect the whole people from being contaminated by their actions. This discussion throws up difficult issues which we all often have to face. To what extent do you allow people to make their own mistakes and when should you interfere? Do you allow a child to scald itself and learn not to touch hot things or do you always act to prevent it? If someone close to you is on a path to self destruction to what extent should you try to help, even at possible cost to yourself. This becomes more complicated when other people are involved and even possibly endangered by the situation. Does our obligation lie with trying to help the person causing trouble or do we sometimes need to sacrifice them in order to save the others? If, for example, a drug addict in the family is negatively influencing their siblings and disrupting family life, at what stage do we have to cut them adrift for the sake of the rest of the family? These are difficult decisions and the Torah doesn't provide one answer. There are times when Moses fights for the people and G-d agrees. There are times, like last week, when G-d has had enough and decides to cut loose that generation. This week things are so bad that even Moses realise the lesser evil is for the troublemakers to be destroyed. What the Torah does provide are scenarios we can learn from as we struggle with the same dilemmas as Moses did in dealing with our troublesome ancestors.

Parshah Sh'lach

A major conundrum of the story of the spies is that there are two versions that differ in significant details. This is especially significant when considering the issue of who initiated the mission to begin with. In our Parshah the initiative seems to come from G-d who orders the sending of twelve men to spy out the land. Yet in the account given by Moses forty years later in Deuteronomy, it is the people who come to Moses and request the sending of the spies. The commentators throughout the ages have given different explanations to solve this discrepancy. One of the most fascinating is that of the great Italian commentator, Seforno. He accepts that it was the people who in the first instance requested the sending of the spies and G-d who reacted to their request. The people chosen to carry out the mission, however, where chosen by G-d and Moses as related at the beginning of our Parshah. This for Seforno is of crucial importance. It was important to chose the right people who were basically people of integrity. While it is true that they later didn't have the courage to advise the people to go forward, and in their fear even exaggerated the difficulties, they at least initially told a true story about the nature of the Land. Even while not believing in their ability to conquer it they still described it as a land flowing with milk and honey and worth having. For Seforno this was crucial in the ability of the people to later realise their mistake and repent and, I would suggest, for the next generation to fulfil the mission their parents failed in. The Seforno is here making a crucial distinction which also has a lesson for us. It is one thing to believe that you cannot carry out a mission or achieve a goal for whatever reason. It is quite another to believe that the whole thing is not important or worthwhile in the first place. It is true that the Jewish people grievously sinned in not believing that with G-d's help they could conquer the Land. But had they also believed that the Land wasn't important or worth having, the Jewish story really would have died in the wilderness with that generation. The same is true today. To criticise Israel or to believe that we cannot possess all of the Land today is a point of legitimate debate. To deny the Jewish people's right to the Land or its importance to Judaism is, to destroy the very basis for and future of, the Jewish people.

Parshah Behalotcha

In this week's Parshah we read about the Pesach Sheni, by which people who were unable to bring the Pesach offering at the right time could bring it a month later. In presenting this mitzvah, this passage discusses two distinct groups of people. At the end of the passage we have those who deliberately choose not to bring the Pesach offering on time, without extenuating circumstances. Not only are they not given a chance to make up the mitzvah but they are liable to Divine punishment. This is in line with other mitzvot, where another chance is generally not available to someone who deliberately did not perform a mitzvah. On the other hand the Torah also talks of a different group of people. These were those who through no fault of their own were unable to bring the Pesach offering at the proper time. They complain to Moses and ask why they should be separated from the Jewish people by not being able to bring this communal offering. G-d hears their complaint and makes it possible for such people to bring the Pesach offering a month later. It is instructive to contemplate this different approach when considering the situation the Jewish people find themselves in our time. On the one hand, we have people who have chosen to estrange themselves from Judaism or act in a way that makes it difficult for them or their families to be part of the Jewish community. They have made a deliberate choice and they must live with the consequences. Though even here the Rabbis suggested we not make life more difficult for them: 'you don't throw a stone after a person that is falling', rather you try and help them up. Yet as we see in our Parshah the Torah does not make special dispensations for such people. Completely different are our obligations to people who through no fault of their own find themselves estranged from Judaism or unable to fully be part of the Jewish community. Like the people in our Parshah they cry out to us, why should we be removed from the community of Israel ? Moses did not turn his back on such people and neither did G-d. Rather they sought to solve the problem and enable those people to be fully part of the community. This has always been the attitude of Rabbis throughout the ages. For example, while having no sympathy for adulterers, they moved heaven and earth to try and find a solution for the innocent victims of adultery who could have found themselves mamzerim. When it comes to those whose problem is not their own fault, G-d helps rather than condemns. Shouldn't we do the same?

Parshah Naso / Shavuot

'Thus say to the House of Jacob and tell to the Children of Israel'. So begins the passage where G-d sets out to the Jewish people the terms of the covenant, leading to the Revelation at Sinai. The Rabbis note the double introduction and comment upon it. 'The House of Jacob' refers to the women whom you should address by 'saying' to them in gentle terms, while the 'Children of Israel' refers to the men whom you should 'tell' in a more assertive manner. The Rabbis thus think the Torah should first be given to the women, who seemingly need less forceful persuasion than the men. An explanation as to why this should be so can maybe be found in the Haftorah of Naso which tells of the birth of Samson. An angel first appears to the woman with the tidings. She gets the message straight away but her husband requires another angelic visit, when he is told to do what has been already related to the woman. The man then asks some inappropriate questions, showing he hasn't realised he is speaking to an angel. When this does become apparent he becomes frightened and has to be calmed down by his wife. It is clear where the brains lie in that family. Yet this is not an isolated phenomenon. Both Abraham and Isaac have to be instructed in the correct course of action by their wives. It is the women that did not serve the Golden Calf or participate in the sin of the spies. Throughout the Bible and later Jewish history it is often the women that have 'got it' while the men remain clueless. When He comes to give the Torah to the Jewish people G-d first goes to the women, because he understands that they will instinctively understand the message while with the men it might take longer. It is the women that are the guardians of the Torah throughout the ages, not only because of their educational role, but because they have always understood and internalised the Divine message better than men. It is thus vital for the survival of the Torah in our generation that women play an important role in its teaching and interpretation. The explosion of women's learning in the past century has partly come about because otherwise conservative Rabbis understood that women were the key to Jewish survival. Either women would become the transmitters of Jewish learning or the conduits of assimilation. It is no accident that the revival of biblical commentary in modern times has been spearheaded by women. We need our women scholars in every avenue of Torah learning if Judaism is to survive and renew itself. This vital role of the 'House of Jacob' was recognised by G-d Himself from the very beginning.

Parshah Bamidbar

The fourth book of the Torah, which we begin this week, is the most eclectic of the five. It contains both history and law interspersed, as well as long lists of numbers. This varied nature of the book is exemplified by the various names given to it in Hebrew and English. The common Hebrew name is Bamidbar taken from the first verse and reflecting the historical nature of a book that narrates events that happened in the wilderness. The English name of Numbers, which reflects the more ancient Jewish designation of 'the Book of the Census', refers to the long lists of numbers that also dominate the book. It is thus interesting to reflect on the interplay between these two themes that form the basis of this book. On the one hand you have the census of the various tribes both at the beginning and end of the forty years of wandering. On the other hand you have the historical events that effected the people thus enumerated. We may therefore have an opportunity to examine the importance of raw numbers on history or visa versa. If we compare the two main censuses in the book, forty years apart, we can notice an interesting thing. At the beginning of our story the tribe of Shimon was one of the largest tribes with almost 60,000 members. Forty years later we find that they have been dramatically reduced to just 22,000. The Levites, on the other hand, start off with just over 22,000 and end up forty years later with 23,000. Having large numbers, it would appear, is no guarantee of success. The tribe of Shimon, despite starting off with a huge numerical advantage, manage to lose almost two thirds of their population while the Levites, who begin as the smallest of the tribes, manage to hold steady. There are obviously specific historical reasons that lie behind these figures, which indeed makes up the narrative portion of the book, but by bookending this history with two censuses the Torah enables us to reflect on the relevant importance of numbers. We might think that numbers are a primary determinant of both sustainability and vitality. We learn from the book of Numbers that this is not necessarily so. We can have large populations whose numbers do not protect them from fatal flaws and misguided policies. On the other hand, smaller groups can be both stable and successful by efficient use of their resources. We should thus never think that just because we are small we cannot succeed. In the end its not the amount of people you have but their quality and how you utilise them that are the decisive factor.

Vayikra (Leviticus) 5770

Parshah Behar - Bechukotai

Judaism does not really believe in human rights. Or at least in the concept as generally understood today: namely that I have a right to certain things. People claim everything from the right to vote to the right to employment on the basis of human rights, but the Torah has a different attitude. The whole of this week’s double Parshah is full of the idea that we really don’t have an absolute right to anything. We have no right to the land, no absolute right to own property or to control other human beings. We don’t have a right to make a profit on our money or in certain years to even sell our produce for gain. Even our very existence as a nation is not absolute and can be taken away from us. So Judaism doesn’t really hold that we have rights at all. What we clearly do have is responsibilities, to G-d but mostly to others. We do have responsibilities to our slaves, our employees and the poor. We do have duties to our business partners and customers and responsibility to the land. In short, Judaism has human responsibilities instead of human rights and there is an important difference between these two ideas. Human rights is essentially a selfish concept about the individual. It means that I have claims on others to do or not do, certain things. I can demand people act in a certain way for my benefit. Human responsibilities, on the other hand, is an essentially altruistic concept. It requires me to behave in a certain way to others. Rather than demanding that other people think about my needs, it asks that I am sensitive to their desires and requirements. It may seem that this is but semantics, but in reality there is a world of difference between the two concepts. A culture of human rights leads to litigation, unwillingness to compromise and an ever increasing list of demands. A culture of human responsibilities, on the other hand, leads to co-operation true, sensitivity to others and real protection for the vulnerable. One leads to atomised selfish individuals, the other to community. As we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim this week this important lesson may be of benefit to us. The Jewish people have a strong claim to Jerusalem. Yet it may be that our best argument in this regard is not historical right but practical responsibility. If we behave in a manner that is beneficial and fair for all Jerusalem’s inhabitants, this may be the best claim we can make.

Parshah Emor

At the beginning of our Parshah we have a section concerning the special laws relating to the priests. These passages contain two interesting features. One is the repetition of laws found elsewhere in the Torah concerning the general populace and the other a postscript indicating that Moses conveyed the laws in this section not only to the priests but to the whole people. The Torah commands that the priests not shave the corners of their heads or beards and refrain from tattooing themselves. The interesting thing about these instructions is that they were already commanded to the whole of the people in last week’s Parshah. We may therefore ask why they have to be repeated especially for the priests. The answer is very instructive. The Torah places the priests in a special position. They have special regulations concerning them and also special privileges. They may come to see themselves as a caste above others, not connected to the rest of the people and not bound by the same rules as others. The Torah thus warns them against such an attitude. Their special status entails special responsibilities not special dispensation. They are bound by the same laws as the rest of Israel. The same rule is later promulgated with regard to the monarch. Like the priests his elevated status entails extra restrictions, not extra license. The Torah thus sets out clear parameters for Jewish leadership. Our leaders must be more exacting in their behaviour not less; stricter in their obedience of the law rather than disregarding it. Yet the Parshah also provides us with another lesson. This section contains a postscript saying that these laws were conveyed not only to the priests but to the whole people. Rashi on this verse comments that this is to instruct the courts to make sure the priests obey their regulations. In other words the priests behaviour is not only between themselves and G-d but a matter for the whole people. Jewish leaders are expected to obey the law but the responsibility for ensuring that they do so rests on the rest of us. If our leaders fall short of the standards expected of them it is for us to hold them to account. Leadership in the Torah is thus a matter of joint responsibility between governors and governed. This message is timely. Tomorrow is Lag B’Omer, a festival that commemorates a difficult time in Jewish history. Our sages saw the travails of this period as being caused, above all, by a failure of leadership. As we approach election day on Thursday we should reflect deeply on the lessons our Parshah has to teach us.

Parshah Acharei-Mot / Kedoshim

In the middle of our two Parshiot we have a list of forbidden sexual liaisons, which also form the reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur. At first glance this section seems one of the easiest in the Torah to comprehend but a closer look reveals a more nuanced picture. In this list we see acts that most people would see as obviously abhorrent such as incest and bestiality. We have various liaisons that the reason for their prohibition is not readily apparent, such as marrying two sisters or that are even lifted under certain circumstances, such as marrying your brother’s wife. We also find prohibitions, like that against homosexuality, that are highly contentious in the modern world. While, of course, the basic reason for these laws is, as stated in the Torah, to make us holy, we can also seek to understand them. Is there thus an underlying theme to these prohibitions that can help us make sense of this passage? A clue may come in the most puzzling verse in this section, that prohibiting Molech worship. In the midst of all the sexual misdemeanours we suddenly have a reference to the prohibition of child sacrifice. What is the connection between the two and what light can it shine on the underlying rationale for the whole passage? To sacrifice your child to an idol is to totally use your power over him for your own selfish purposes. It takes one of the most intimate human relationships, that of a parent with their child, and perverts it in order to enhance the prosperity or political power of the parent. It thus misuses human intimacy for personal power. This idea may provide a rationale for the other prohibitions in our passage. We are not allowed to misuse the intimacy of sex for personal aggrandizement or furthering family interests. Thus marrying close relatives is prohibited as it is an attempt to use sexual intimacy as an instrument for keeping wealth or genes within the family. Similarly we are not allowed to use sex as an instrument of humiliation. Sexual liaisons should be based on a level of equality not of the overbearing power of one side. Some see the prohibition of homosexuality coming under this category, as sex between men was often used in the ancient world, and is still used in some societies today, as an instrument of establishing power relationships or humiliating opponents or underlings. This explanation, of course, takes nothing away from the motive of holiness specifically mentioned in our Parshah but it perhaps provides a background to understanding an important and sometimes troubling passage.

Parshah Tazria - Metzora

The last few week’s Torah readings have not been so easy to follow. After all the details of the building of the Tabernacle we are faced with the details of the various sacrifices. Last week, at least, we came to something that finally seemed relevant to us: the laws of kashrut. Yet this week we read something hard to understand and harder still to connect to our lives: the laws of leprosy. Yet the Torah does devote almost two whole Parshiot to discussing this issue, so we should try and understand its relevance. These Parshiot in fact contain an important message which, in fact, goes to the heart of our difficulty with these passages. We fail to comprehend what relevance these laws have to our spiritual life. Surely they are more relevant to be discussed by doctors rather than Rabbis. Yet that is precisely the point of the Parshah. The Torah doesn’t see a dividing line between the physical and the spiritual. Rather it postulates a world view whereby one influences the other. Last week we read about the laws of kashrut, whereby the physical influences the spiritual. Eating forbidden foods has a negative influence on our spirituality. This week we look at the issue from the opposite direction. A person becomes sick with leprosy. The Torah, and later the Rabbis, understand that this is not by chance or for purely physical reasons. Rather it is a consequence of a spiritual deficiency, taken in this case to be an arrogance towards others leading to slander. In other words the fact that someone becomes ill is not only a function of their physiology but also of their inner life. If we wish to try and cure someone we obviously have to look to medicine. But, the Torah asserts, that is not enough. We must also look at their spiritual life. What are the deeper reasons for illness and what can we do to also deal with them. Since Freud science has also recognised this with regard to mental health. Less has been understood in regard to spiritual or religious wellbeing. Yet increasingly people are coming to recognise that the holistic attitude of the Torah is correct. We need to regard people as whole human beings consisting of physical, psychological and spiritual needs. We cannot promote their well being by ignoring their religious needs or spiritual life. Our Parshah, rather than being irrelevant, teaches us a very modern concept that is relevant to us all.

Parshah Shemini

In this week’s Parshah we come to the very centre of the Torah. According to the Massoretic tradition the two middle words in the Torah are derosh, darash - intently enquired. The circumstances surrounding this expression are tragic. At the height of the celebrations of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, Aaron’s two eldest sons bring a ‘strange fire’ onto the altar and are killed. Moses must now deal with the aftermath. As part of this damage control he enquires what has become of one of the offerings. This is the occasion for the use of this double imperative, signalling intense or forceful enquiry. We can learn much from this expression at the very heart of the Torah and the circumstances surrounding it. Firstly, it is instructive that the centre of the Torah is a question and a difficult one at that. In Judaism faith is not a matter of certainties but of questions. Moses asks what G-d’s name is, Abraham questions His promise of the Land. Throughout the Torah people do not simply take things as they are given but question why, how and where. This is of course carried on into later Judaism and is most famously expressed in the Seder night, whose whole celebration is framed by questions. Questioning in Judaism is not a sign of rebellion or apostasy but rather an integral part of a Jew’s relationship with G-d. This is especially true when tragedy strikes. While Aaron and his family are forbidden to mourn because of the joyous public occasion, we can see in Moses’ questioning and Aaron’s answer a hint to the deep pain and doubt that the incident caused in their family. It is significant that this central question in the Torah takes place at a time of tragedy, and one that may have seemed incomprehensible to those caught up in it. Judaism is a religion for adults that doesn’t gloss over the difficult questions but faces them head on. It doesn’t provide glib answers but often leaves a question hanging in the air. At the end of that most famous essay of suffering, the book of Job, G-d makes clear His displeasure at the superficial answers of ‘faith’ given by Job’s friends and instead answers Job directly with an answer that, in the end, leaves more questions to be asked. This attitude is of course of special significance as we contemplate the Holocaust, which we commemorate on Monday. While many explanations given are neither appropriate nor satisfactory, that does not mean we should not ask the questions. The opposite is true. It is by asking the difficult questions that we give tragedy meaning, even if there are no answers.

Shabbat Pesach / Pesach 7-8

As we come to the end of Pesach we may look forward to again eating bread. Yet there is one place where it was Pesach the whole year round and that was in the Temple. The Torah commands that no offering is allowed to be offered using Hametz. All the meal offerings were made of Matzah, with two notable exceptions. One is the thanksgiving offering. That includes both Matzah and a loaf of bread. For this reason it could not be offered on Pesach and why the Ashkenazim don’t say the ‘Psalm of Thanksgiving’ in Shacharit during the whole of Pesach. The other exception are the two loaves offered on Shavuot, which are Hametz. This seems at first sight strange. A thanksgiving offering is offered for four things detailed in Psalm 107: rescue from prison, sickness and dangerous journeys. For this reason we say the Gomel blessing on these same occurrences. Yet the paradigm for redemption and thanksgiving is the Exodus. Here we were rescued from the prison of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea safely. We should therefore eat Hametz. Yet this time of year is when that is totally forbidden. Only on Shavuot do we celebrate with Hametz. Why then do we bring Hametz davkah with a thanksgiving offering? An answer may lie in what the commentators said about Hametz. It is a symbol of human pride. For this reason it is forbidden in the Temple. It can only be brought with a thanksgiving offering. In that case, the experience of danger has led the worshipper to appreciate their own vulnerability and thus punctuate their pride. They can then truly bring a Hametz offering. Why then is this totally forbidden on Pesach? Surely we also underwent such an experience at the time of the Exodus. Here the answer lies in when you can bring a thanksgiving offering. A person that was near death and is now out of immediate danger, but still seriously ill can’t bring an offering until he is properly recovered. This is the analogy to the Jews in Egypt. Pesach doesn’t celebrate our complete redemption but only our partial rescue. We are no longer under the Egyptian thumb but still under their cultural influence. Only with the giving of the Torah on Shavuot did we become truly free and can bring a thanksgiving offering.

Pesach

One of the most well known parts of the Seder is that of the four sons. Based on four verses in the Torah that instruct us to tell our children of the Exodus, the Rabbis deduced four different types of children: Wise, Wicked, Simple and Unable to Ask. We preface these four characters with a blessing, thanking G-d for having given us the Torah. Since the whole of the Seder consists of sections of the Torah and their Rabbinical interpretation, it is strange that we say this blessing at this juncture. Maybe it is in recognition of the wisdom of the Torah in not just instructing us to tell the story of the Exodus but providing differing ways of doing it. Also, it is in this passage, perhaps more than any other, that the eternity of the Torah is revealed. If we look at the depictions of the four sons in Haggadot through the ages, we will see that every generation had its own understanding of who they were. In the middle ages the wicked son was invariably a soldier, while in the twenties he was a gangster and today maybe a banker or even a politician. The wise son was normally depicted as a scholar but today some may see in him a scientist or an environmentalist. Being that the Torah has given us this Seder gift of the four different characters, we can increase both the understanding and enjoyment of our Seder by reflecting on their meaning for our times. For example, we are approaching an election. How would we define the four major parties in Scotland in terms of the four sons? Or in the context of British Jewry, the four main synagogue organisations? If we want we can examine Israeli politics and make our choice there. Who in Israel is wise, wicked or just plain stupid? And what about Israel itself? How would we define Israel on this spectrum? I think in British Jewry you could probably find those who would chose one of each. In our society today who would we define as wise and who wicked? Are scientists wise or otherwise, are social workers or clergy wise or clueless? And if we don’t mind getting too close to home, what about our own community? How would we define Edinburgh Jewry in terms of the four sons? And of course, if we are honest, we could ask how we define ourselves, especially in relation to our Judaism. Are we knowledgeable, antagonistic, indifferent or something else? In giving us the four sons to contemplate on Seder night, G-d has given us a wonderful tool to examine our society, community and ourselves. We can look closely at our attitudes to a whole range of issues through the prism of an eternal story. This is a great opportunity, lets use it.

Parshah Tzav / HaGadol

The latter part of our Parshah deals with the inauguration of the Priesthood. This is the parallel passage to that at the end of Parshat Tetzaveh, where these ceremonies are commanded. The commentators, however, differ where to place this passage in relation to the inauguration of the Tabernacle that we read about two week’s ago at the end of the Book of Exodus. Rashi, following his dictum that there is no chronological order in the Torah, conflates the two occasions and regards this week’s passage as providing greater detail on what went on at that time. Ramban, who likes to keep to the chronological order disputes this view. He points out that at the end of Exodus nothing is related of the ceremonies concerning the inauguration of the Priesthood and those passages are solely concerned with the erection of the structure. Now, following G-d’s instructions to Moses concerning sacrifices, the proper ceremonies can be performed to inaugurate the priests in their position. For Ramban, then, the erection of the structure of the Tabernacle and the induction of those who serve in it are two separate things, while forRashi they are inseparable. If we extend this discussion from the Tabernacle to other institutions we can glean some instructive insights into public life. What makes an institution, a community, a government or a nation? Is it the structure of the body or the people who run it? When seeking to reform institutions, a current hot topic, do we need to reform the structure of that institution or replace the people working in it?Ramban seems to feel that the physical or legal infrastructure of a body and its human resources can be separated. Both may need attention but, as in the Torah chronology, they can be dealt with separately.Rashi strongly disagrees. It would seem he cannot accept the Torah’s chronology at face value precisely because, for him, the idea of a Tabernacle without priests is a contradiction in terms. Why would Moses set up the structure of the Tabernacle while at the same time leaving the inauguration of the priestly service for later? Its a bit like the scenario in ‘Yes Minister’ with the hospital without patients. This idea can have great relevance for us today. We have many institutions in British Jewry, some would say far too many. People often concentrate on trying to reform the structure. But if the people who run these institutions are no good at what they do or not motivated, or not enough people are involved, then maybe that’s the real problem. For Rashi, the Torah is telling us: put people first.

Parshah Vayikra-Pekudei

In this week’s Parshah we read of various sacrifices for various occasions and occurrences. There are sometimes interesting links between them and understanding one can through light on another. For example, a famous conundrum of our Parshah is that the Torah describes the obligatory bringing of First Fruits as voluntary: ‘If you bring an offering of First Fruits to G-d’. Many reasons are given for this wording and we discussed some ideas in this sheet last year. Yet we can maybe understand a deep message in this verse by looking at another sacrifice, that of the Guilt Offering. One of the sins that someone has to bring this offering for is not an active transgression but an omission. If someone saw something or heard something relevant to a case and did not testify they are regarded as guilty. Even though they committed no wrong action by staying silent and not coming forward they have transgressed and need to bring an atoning sacrifice. This teaches us an important lesson. One may think that it is alright to stand aside and not get involved. You can reckon that its up to you whether to volunteer to testify or do something else of communal benefit. The Torah thinks otherwise. Even though you may think coming forward is voluntary the Torah sees it as an obligation. Maybe this is why the Torah presents the obligation to bring First Fruits in a voluntary manner. Here too you may reason that one should only bring them if you truly feel thankful. Maybe you have other worries that prevent you from, in you opinion, properly thanking G-d. Yet the bringing First Fruits is obligatory. Like in the case of the witness you are obliged to ‘volunteer’ to do something. This is an important message for our community. Too few people do far too much and far too many people stand aside. They reckon it is not there place to come forward or to stand up to be counted. They may rationalise that they don’t have what it takes or are too busy or a thousand other excuses. The Torah in this week’s Parshah makes clear it does not accept such rationalisation. Not to volunteer is a transgression. Standing up and taking responsibility is an obligation on all of us. If we stand aside we, like the witness that refuses to come forward and testify, must bear responsibility for the consequences. In communal life, the Torah clearly tells us, helping out is not optional but an obligation.

Shemot (Exodus) 5770

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekude / Ha’Hodesh

An interesting thread runs through the Torah reading for this week, the longest single reading of the year. In both the account of the construction of the Tabernacle that concludes the book of Exodus and the special Maftir detailing the instructions for the Pesach sacrifice, we can see emphasised the importance of unity. This unity comes in two forms. We firstly have separate entities joining together to make a whole. The Torah mentions on several occasions that the parts of the Tabernacle need to be joined together to become one. The Pesach sacrifice, likewise, is not eaten individually. It is necessary to eat it in a family group or gathering of friends. This teaches us the importance of working together. No great project, whether building a dwelling place for the Divine or building a new nation can be achieved without the co-operation of others. The other type of unity mentioned in our readings today is the opposite. Rather than many things creating a whole, one single entity is required to retain its wholeness, while serving different functions. The classic case is of course the Menorah. Here the differing branches and knobs must all be made from one block of gold. The Pesach sacrifice too must remain undivided. It must be roasted whole and even while being eaten it is forbidden to break the bones of the animal. This teaches us another important lesson. The most important aspects of life are best enjoyed when shared. Knowledge, symbolised by the Menorah, is best appreciated and most effective when most widely distributed. Moreover, when I share knowledge with another person, my knowledge is not therefore diminished. The opposite is normally the case. The same is true of freedom, the message of Pesach. Freedom is indivisible. Your right to freedom enhances my right and without freedom for all there cannot be true freedom for anyone. The Torah gives us these two paradigms of unity in order to teach us how both are necessary. Simply joining together to achieve something is not enough. We must also understand that in doing so we transcend our singularity and become something more than merely an aggregate of individuals. A community or a nation that is only the sum of its members is not a true community or a real nation. Only when animated by shared values, such as freedom or knowledge, do individuals become something more. As we meet the challenges facing our community and come up to decision time for the nation, the question we must ask is not merely how to work together but what for.

Parshat Ki-Tissah / Parah

There has been much talk recently of bullying in high places. Bullying is, of course a debilitating and humiliating experience and should never be tolerated. It is not the same thing, however, as the often tense and combustible relations of people working in high pressure jobs, and there are few positions more pressured than working for a Prime Minister, whoever he may be. Whether you work in the Palace, Mayor’s office or Number 10, you should know what to expect, and a quiet life is not it. This is worth bearing in mind as we read our Parshah. The Jewish people sin with the Golden Calf and G-d is not amused. After G-d is persuaded by Moses not to ditch them and start over again with his kids, G-d does decree that He will no longer dwell among them, but use an emissary. The people are too fickle and prone to annoy G-d. Direct contact with the Divine might lead to a disaster. Better to be safe than sorry. Moses, however, does not accept this policy and the middle part of the Parshah relates his quite audacious demand that G-d return to personally dwell among them. G-d agrees and to mitigate somewhat the consequences reveals His thirteen attributes of mercy. Yet the original dilemma is not solved and we see throughout the rest of the Torah that when the Jews misbehave there are dire consequences. The same can be seen by examining the context of our special Haftorah. G-d declares that though He punished Israel with exile for their sins, His Name is so intertwined with theirs that He will be forced to redeem them, despite their unworthiness. But there is another side to this promise. Earlier on the people claim that since they are in Exile the covenant is void and they don’t have to keep the Torah. G-d replies that they can’t escape so easily and if they try and be like the other nations, He will be King over them anyway, with ‘outpoured fury’. Being Jewish has consequences. Moses asked and got close proximity to G-d, but that also entails greater responsibility. ‘You alone have I known among the nations’, declares the prophet Amos, ‘therefore will I visit upon you all your iniquities’. And as Ezekiel points out, there is no escape, for us or G-d. That is what it means to be Jewish. Like working close to the centre of temporal power it is a privilege but also a burden; exhilarating, but also somewhat dangerous. How do we deal with this situation? Allege Divine bullying and try to run away from our Jewish mission or accept our privileged position along with the pressures it entails.

Parshat Tetzaveh

We read this week of the command to blot out the memory of Amalek. What did Amalek do to be singled out by the Torah for such treatment? The Torah tells us that they attacked the weak and the weary. The Rabbis expand on this by stating that they were the first nation to attack Israel after the Exodus. Another habit of theirs was to apparently chop off the circumcised part of their Jewish victims and throw them skyward. How do we understand these stories? By attacking Israel so soon after the Exodus they were seeking to negate its effect. They were denying the special nature of Israel, something seen in their mutilation of the sign of the covenant. But this had an even deeper purpose, which can be seen by their behaviour detailed in the Torah and elsewhere in the Bible. They attacked the weak and defenceless, preying on those that could not resist. This, of course, is precisely what the Torah prohibits on numerous occasions and negates a major lesson of the Exodus. G-d rescued the Jews from Egypt precisely to teach them, and the world, that He does not approve of preying on the weak. It is for this reason that Amalek sought to negate the impact of the Exodus and deny the special relationship between G-d and Israel, symbolised by circumcision. This is not unique in our history. The Nazis had exactly the same policy for the same reason. There anti-Jewish campaign was not incidental or irrational. It was based on a deep loathing for Jewish morality, which had ‘infected’ European civilisation through Christianity, and which stood in the way of the Nazi ideology of the survival of the strong and the destruction of the weak. Haman, also, sought to replace the moralistic religion of Zoroastrianism with idolatrous cruelty, so the Jews had to be eliminated. Today’s Amalekites are no different. The Left wishes to replace the Jewish inspired values of tolerance and difference with a neo-fascist globalised uniformity. That is why they can so easily make common cause with Islamic extremists who want an Islamic version of the above. In both cases Jews, and especially Israel, stand in their way. We stand for a different view of the world, so we need to be eliminated. We should however take comfort from the Purim story and today’s special reading. Like Amalek, Haman or Hitler; our present day enemies will meet the fate proscribed for them by the Torah.

Parshat Terumah

In this week’s Parshah we recount the building of the Tabernacle, an account that covers five Parshiot and the rest of the book of Exodus. In the middle of this account we find the story of the sin of the Golden Calf. A major dispute exists among the commentators as to the relationship between the two stories. This disagreement goes to the heart of the purpose of the Tabernacle and indeed the whole idea of communal service of G-d. Some commentators see an intimate connection between the two stories and hold that the commandment to build the Tabernacle came only after and as a consequence of, the Golden Calf incident. The people by worshipping the Calf had shown their deep psychological need for a visible representation of G-d. As a concession to this weakness G-d gave them the Tabernacle and its service. Diametrically opposed to this view is the opinion that sees the Tabernacle being commanded before the incident of the Golden Calf, and not really connected to it. In this view, the building of the Tabernacle and the Presence of G-d within it was the culmination of the purpose of the Exodus. G-d took His people out of Egypt, gave them His Torah and then commanded them to build Him a sanctuary to permanently dwell among them and thus institutionalise the experience of Sinai. In a similar manner the culmination of the settlement of the Land of Israel was the building of the Temple by Solomon. These two approaches go to the heart of the nature of our relationship with G-d. Is prayer, especially communal prayer, a concession to human weakness or is it the highest peak of human spirituality? Would we actually be better off without synagogues, doing mitzvot privately, in families or small groups, or is the synagogue the ultimate realm of our connection to G-d as a people? It may in fact be, in good Jewish fashion, that both views are right. The Tabernacle was intended to be the pinnacle of the Exodus, but also served as a substitute for the Golden Calf. Maybe that is why we repeat verbatim the details of its structure after the Calf story. In a like manner, our synagogues can be the height of our relationship with G-d but also can serve as a substitute for spirituality. Prayer can bring us closer to G-d but also reduce Him to the status of a slot machine. The synagogue service can be inspiring and uplifting but can also turn into a fetish. Maybe the Torah, by leaving both possibilities open, is really telling us that what out Tabernacle, Temple or Synagogue becomes is actually up to us.

Parshat Mishpatim / Shekalim

Following the Revelation at Sinai last week, this week’s Parshah puts the meat on the bones of the covenant. Its many mitzvot form much of the basis of Jewish life. Two paradoxical themes emerge from the many laws in this section, whose juxtaposition can serve to enlighten us in some of our present moral dilemmas. A basic theme that runs through the Parshah is that of human responsibility. People are responsible for their actions and even for the unintentional consequences of their actions. If you dig a hole in the road and don’t properly cover it, or light a fire and don’t guard it, you are held responsible for any damage caused. If your animal hurts another, you must bear responsibility, even though in all these cases their was no intentional malice. Yet this demand for total accountability for your actions is mitigated by differentiation in consequences. Both a wilful murderer and an unintentional killer are held responsible, but their intention and the circumstances of their action are taken into account when determining the punishment for their action. A classic case of this is the law of a dangerous animal, whose owners were warned of its behaviour, which then kills someone. The Torah holds the owners responsible and even says they should die. Yet the fact that the Torah then allows for the possibility of ransom, something normally forbidden in capital cases, leads the Sages to interpret that the punishment intended in this case is ‘death by the hand of Heaven’, not by a human court. Here the Torah clearly expresses its opinion that the person is totally responsible for the death of his fellow, and theoretically is a simple murderer. Yet in leaving the punishment up to G-d, and providing for the possibility of atonement, the Torah also understands that the unintentional killing of someone by your ox, however culpable you may be, is not the same as going and stabbing him. In mitigating the punishment the Torah is taking into account the circumstances of the crime, while not diminishing the responsibility of the criminal. This paradoxical dichotomy has much to teach us today. In cases ranging from euthanasia and the self-defence of burgled householders, to issues of international law, we face the problem of how to preserve the moral force of the law and the responsibility of the individual for their actions, while taking into account the difficult, complex and often tragic circumstances that surround these cases. In the approach outlined above, our Parshah may provide the answer.

Parshat Yitro

The Haftorah of Yitro is an interesting one. Generally the Haftorah is connected to the story of the Parshah or a theme within it. The main focus of this week’s Parshah is of course the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. This of course was where G-d revealed Himself and spoke directly to the people. The first section of the Haftorah is also connected to the theme of Divine revelation. Taken from the book of Isaiah, it tells how Isaiah is vouchsafed a revelation of G-d with the angels proclaiming ‘holy holy holy..’. This forms the basis of one of the most important of our prayers: the Kedushah. The Haftorah then, however, goes on to talk of political matters. This is especially true in the Ashkenazic tradition which adds sections from later chapters of the book which deal with G-d’s promise to frustrate the alliance of Israel and Aram against Judah and the prophecy of the birth of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s greatest kings. Why are these sections added, and what connection to they have to the Parshah? One explanation is that Isaiah’s original vision is historically connected to the events portrayed in the rest of the Haftorah. But I think there is also a thematic connection to our Parshah. Isaiah is vouchsafed a revelation of G-d. But this revelation is not for his personal spiritual edification. He is meant to take his vision of G-d and implement it in the social and political conditions of his time. This is also true of the revelation of the Torah. The Torah is not meant to be an abstract intellectual pursuit. Rather it is meant to transform society. That is why, following the experience of revelation this week, next week’s Parshah is a compendium of social law. There is also another connection between the political message of the Haftorah and the Parshah. The beginning of the Parshah tells of the arrival of Yitro and his advice to Moses to set up a judicial system. In the Haftorah, the rule of Hezekiah is seen as the antidote to the religious and political malaise of the time. The Torah is, in the end, interpreted and implemented by human beings. It is the nature and quality of Jewish leadership that determines how the message of revelation will be implemented. Politics is not a secular pursuit divorced from Torah but essential to its fulfilment. The future of Jewish leadership must thus be a vital concern to all those who care about the future of the message of Sinai.

Parshat Beshalach

‘As you have seen Egypt today, so you shall never see them again’. This is Moses’ promise to his frightened people standing at the shores of the Red Sea with the Egyptians bearing down on them. The Rabbis saw in this statement a mitzvah, connected to the mitzvah found in Deuteronomy not to return to Egypt. Yet the simple meaning of this promise is a psychological one. How the Jews perceive the Egyptians would change forever. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that the word used is not Egyptians but Egypt. The same is true a few verses before where it is stated that the people were afraid when they say Egypt chasing after them. What is meant is not the mere sight of the physical Egyptians but the psychological effect of appearance of their former masters have on their ex-slaves. It is thus that Moses promises them that today everything will change. They will, after the events of that day, never look at the Egyptians in the same way again. This episode thus teaches us the importance of perception in human relationships. How we perceive others and how they regard us can have major effects on history. It is clear, for example, that the Holocaust had a major impact on how we perceive the Western world. It also changed the perceptions of that world about its own future, with scientific progress, for example, being seen as also a great danger, not only a blessing. The creation of the State of Israel changed perceptions of Jews in the eyes of others and in many ways changed our understanding of ourselves. These examples, and many others, demonstrate the importance of not only what we do, but how we are seen. In this light, during the week of HMD, it is instructive to examine how the plethora of publicity surrounding the Holocaust in the last two decades have effected the perceptions of Jews. Many would argue that this public awareness of the events of the Shoah is both necessary and welcome. Yet when one can look in the Judaism section of a library or bookshop and see more books on the Holocaust than on any other topic, serious questions can be asked. Are Jews in danger of becoming like the Armenians, only remembered for being killed? Furthermore, does some of the double standard applied to Israel arise out of a view of the Jews as victims, for whom it is in some way morally repugnant to fight back? Judaism has so much more to teach the world. If because of an over emphasis on the Holocaust people only perceive us as Hitler’s victims, is this not handing him his greatest victory?

Parshat Bo

At the beginning of the Parshah, Pharaoh asks Moses who is to go on this short sacrificial pilgrimage he is asking for. Moses replies that everyone, young and old, men and women are to go. At this Pharaoh sarcastically retorts that 'evil is in front of you' the plain meaning of being that this 'sacrifice in the desert' is nothing for than a pretext for a more permanent escape. A famous Midrash says that Pharaoh's soothsayers saw blood in the desert, precluding disaster for the escaping slaves. For this reason Moses, during various occasions when G-d is minded to do away with the unruly Israelites, talks of 'what will the Egyptian's say?', reminding G-d of Pharaoh's prophecy. Interestingly, Rashi connects this warning of Pharaoh's to the circumcision of the people as they came into the Land in the time of Joshua. There it is written that 'today I have removed from you the shame of Egypt', giving the place its famous name: Gilgal. We may wonder how to understand this connection. In a simple sense we could say that Pharaoh was warning of the dangers of the desert and prophesising they would never reach their destination. The fact that they had indeed arrived in the Land, symbolised by the circumcision at Gilgal, proved Pharaoh wrong. Indeed, according to most commentators, the danger of travel was the reason that the Jews didn't circumcise their children in the desert. A deeper understanding might see being uncircumcised as a sign of rebellion against G-d. Pharaoh is saying to Moses that he knows this people and he can assure him he is not going to have an easy time. The fact that Moses brought the people to the Land and almost the first act they perform is to circumcise themselves, is a refutation of Pharaoh's lack of faith in the people. A further point is that circumcision is the sign that Judaism believes in the perfectibility of the world by human action, a basic component of the Exodus. Pharaoh rejects this notion. He warns Moses that pipe dreams of a new society based on justice and equality, the fundamentals of the Torah, will in the end lead to disaster. Only the old immutable authoritarian structure that he represents guarantees stability. This is symbolised by an aversion to circumcision, that defaces and changes an already perfect body. At the gates of the Land, on the threshold of the practical implementation of the Torah's vision of society, the Jews circumcise themselves. They thus remove the shame of Egypt: the false warnings and ideology of Pharaoh and begin to build a different type of world.

Parshat Va’era

One of the four mitzvot mandated for the Seder night is that of the four cups. The Sages mandated that we drink four cups of wine at different points during the Seder, corresponding to the four promises of redemption found at the beginning of this week’s Parshah. G-d promises to take us out, rescue us, redeem us and take us as His people. There is however another promises of redemption. G-d will also bring us to the land He promised to the patriarchs. Yet this verse is seemingly not considered worthy of a cup of wine. There is in fact a Talmudic argument whether indeed we should drink a fifth cup of wine in honour of the promise of the Land and this may be the origin of the ‘Cup of Elijah’, that is on the table but not drunk. But the Halakhah is that we only drink four cups of wine. Why is this? Why does the promise of the Land not merit a cup of its own? The answer may lie in the different nature of the promises of redemption and the promise of the Land. The four glasses of wine are cups of thanksgiving and rejoicing. We thank G-d for having redeemed us from Egypt, a redemption that is eternal. On the other hand, we don’t thank G-d for giving us the Land as its possession is not eternal. While the Jewish title to Israel is forever, the actual possession of the Land is dependant on our behaviour. That is another difference between the two promises. We were redeemed from Egypt even though we were not worthy. The very same people, however, were denied entry to the Land precisely because they were not worthy. We can therefore give thanks on Seder night for G-d’s mercy in unconditionally redeeming us and making us His people, while we are ambivalent about raising a cup in honour of the gift of the Land of Israel, which is morally conditional and realistically uncertain. This difference between the promises given in our Parshah should provide us with a salutary lesson. While the future of the Jewish people is assured, our future in Israel is not. For large stretches of Jewish history we have not been in physical possession of the Land. The Torah teaches us that this possession is dependant above all on our behaviour. We are amazingly privileged to live in a generation with a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Our Parshah teaches us that we should never take it for granted and should strive to be worthy of the privilege.

Parshat Shemot

The turning point of the story of Israel in Egypt is found in a short paragraph in this week’s Parshah. Pharaoh dies and the Jewish people sigh because of their oppression and cry out to G-d. G-d hears their cries, sees their oppression and approaches Moses to begin his mission. What is the meaning of this crying out to G-d of the Jewish people and how does it fit into the wider picture? After all, as many of the commentators point out, G-d had foretold this oppression and even established a time limit for its endurance. The allotted time having passed G-d was now ready to fulfil His promise to redeem His people. Why was prayer necessary? One could simply explain that this paragraph points out that the conditions of oppression detailed in G-d’s promise to Abraham had been fulfilled. The people were so oppressed that they sighed to G-d from their anguish, thus fulfilling G-d’s promise that they would be ’tortured’. Yet if we look at the synopsis of the Exodus story contained in the First Fruits Declaration at the end of Deuteronomy, we discern that it is not so clear. Of the four line synopsis, one whole verse is dedicated to the fact that the people called to G-d and G-d saw their affliction, leading directly to the redemption in the next line. It would appear that rather than simply being an indication of the fulfilment of prophecy, the prayer of the oppressed Jews to G-d was the key to unlocking the gate of redemption. Why was this so? After all the redemption, like the oppression, was part of G-d’s plan. Yet that plan could not work without the Jews turning to G-d. For G-d simply to rescue them from their plight was not enough. They had to want to be redeemed and to realise that only G-d could redeem them. For Israel to be transformed from slaves to a holy people they had first to turn to G-d, even if only in despair. With a new monarch carrying on the policies of the old the Jews realised that all political options were closed. Then they turned to G-d, which was what G-d had been waiting for. This scenario holds an important lesson for us today. The Jewish people seem beset with various problems many of which seem to defy easy solutions. It is our job to seek ways to resolve these issues. Yet in doing so we need to realise that not everything is in our hands. It is also necessary to turn to G-d for help. It may indeed that these problems defy solution precisely because we are meant to realise that maybe only G-d can solve them. We are not absolved from action but should never underestimate the power of prayer.

Bereishit(Genesis) 5770

Parshah Va'Yechi

Joseph hears that Jacob is ill and brings his two sons to be blessed by their grandfather before his death. Joseph places his oldest son to Jacob’s right and his youngest to his left. Jacob, however, places his right hand on the younger Ephraim and his left on Manasseh. Joseph objects, but his father tells him that the younger will be greater than the elder. There are of course echoes in this story of Jacob’s own past when he took his father’s blessing from his older brother. Indeed this is a theme that resonates throughout the Torah and beyond, from Cain and Abel till David and his brothers. The Bible is always preferring the younger to the older. Yet there is a unique feature to the story in our Parshah. In every other case it is some outside force, often Divine, that engineers this reversal of roles. Only here, does the person bestowing the blessing deliberately bless the younger rather than the elder. Abraham did not want to disinherit Ishmael, Isaac favoured Esau, Moses wanted to submit to Aaron and Samuel wanted to choose one of David’s older brothers. Only in the case of Joseph’s sons did Jacob choose to bless the younger. In this Jacob, more than any other our biblical leaders, chimes with the spirit of the Torah. G-d explains the rational for this constant role reversal when he instructs Samuel to pass over the older brothers and choose David. G-d ignores outward appearances and looks to the heart. By constantly ignoring the ancient convention of favouring the elder over the younger, which is even preserved in the inheritance laws of the Torah itself, the Bible is telling us the religion is not about external appearances. The important people for G-d are not those who are from privileged families or have a lot of money or power. In Judaism, people are judged on their actions. Jacob instinctively understood this and therefore he alone gave his name to the Jewish people. We are not the house of Abraham or the people of Isaac or Moses but the house of Jacob and the people of Israel. Jacob grasped the essence of the message of Judaism to the world. Belief in a transcendent G-d implies that everyone else is equal in His sight and worldly fame or status count for nothing. Ishmael may have been older, Esau a better provider and David’s brothers’ taller, but none of that mattered in the true accounting of their worth. In our days of fascination with celebrities, many of whom are far from worthy of our adulation, our Parshah teaches us the true values we should seek when looking for role models and leaders.

Parshah Vayigash

Our Haftorah this week paints a beautiful picture of reconciliation between Judah and Joseph. The two kingdoms will become one and the tragic split in the Jewish people will be healed. Yet behind this vision lies a dark history of division that goes right back to the story of Joseph and his brothers. Yet in this week’s Parshah we have a seeming reconciliation between the brothers. It is obvious, however, that this did not work and the split continued. The reason for this can be found in the different narratives that emerge in the course of the story we read during these weeks. Last week we heard the long repressed narrative of the brothers. It is a story of Joseph’s anguish, the brothers’ callousness and their subsequent overwhelming guilt. This week we hear a different story. The narrative Joseph tells his brothers when he reveals himself to them is one of Divine providence. Everything that has happened, including the brothers’ actions, is part of a Divine plan to put Joseph where he is and thus save his family and many others. If the brothers hadn’t done what they did he would still be a shepherd in Canaan rather than the ruler of Egypt. Both these narratives are true but differing perspectives on the story. They therefore have ability to effect reconciliation. Joseph can feel his brothers’ anguish and guilt at what they did to him while they learn to live with their actions in the knowledge that it all turned out for the best. Yet true reconciliation doesn’t take place and the split in the family, and later nation, continues. The narratives don’t reconcile because they stay separate. Each side only hears their narrative while ignoring that of the other. This is obvious in what we read next week at the end of the story. After Jacob’s death the brothers, afraid of what Joseph will now do, again apologise. They haven’t heard what he said this week. Joseph as well simply replies with his narrative of Divine providence without acknowledging the brothers’ fears and the guilt from which it comes. So nothing is really solved and the division remains. This is an important lesson for us. In order to make peace and achieve reconciliation we need to hear and internalise the narrative of the other. While not surrendering our version of history we need to acknowledge that of our protagonist. Only if both sides truly hear the other can true peace and reconciliation be achieved.

Parshah Miketz / Hanukah

In the Ethics of the Fathers our Sages advise us that in a place where there is no man one should strive to be a man. What is the meaning of this statement? Surely one should always strive to be a mensch in whatever situation you live? Should your efforts to fulfil your potential depend to such an extent only on your environment and not on your will? An explanation of this idea may be found in this week’s Parshah. In interpreting Pharaoh's dreams Joseph seems to go beyond his remit. He not only tells Pharaoh the meaning of his dreams but gives him advice as to what he should do. Furthermore he seems to be blowing his own trumpet. Not only should Pharaoh take action to avert starvation in the coming famine but he should appoint a suitable person to do so. Who might that be if not Joseph himself? Indeed some commentators say that putting himself forward was exactly what Joseph was doing in giving this advice. Surely that is the height of arrogance and exactly the sort of behaviour that got the teenage Joseph in trouble in the first place. Yet this view of things misses the point. Joseph understands from Pharaoh’s dreams that grave danger faces the land. G-d is telling Pharaoh this for a purpose. Joseph thus explains to Pharaoh the necessary course of action arising out of the message contained in his dreams. He also understands that without the right man to take charge of this process it could go astray with disastrous consequences. He knows within himself that he can do the job. He thus subtly puts himself forward. Pharaoh takes the hint and the rest is history. Joseph is not however being arrogant in this approach. He is rather responding to the needs of the time in a way that he knows that possibly only he can. After all, all of Pharaoh’s advisors have until now missed the point. Only Joseph got it and therefore to not put himself forward would be a dereliction of duty. He was being a man in a place where there were no men. In a similar fashion the Maccabees, who were priests not soldiers, took upon themselves the physical defence of Judaism at a time no one else was prepared to. They understood that, despite their priestly status, it was necessary to step up to the plate and do the job. This is the meaning of our Sages’ advice. We must know our own strengths and not let false modesty or fear prevent us from leading when that is necessary. In a place or time where we have the necessary skills to act we must not be overly humbly but do what we were born to do. That is a lesson from those days for these times.

Parshah Vayeshev

When describing Joseph’s troubled relationship with his brothers the torah tells us that ‘they could not speak to him peaceably’. The Sages saw this as a good trait: the brothers, though they hated Joseph, didn’t hide their feelings pretending to be friendly while secretly despising him. Rather they were honest about their true attitude. Tamar, on the other hand, uses deception to achieve her ends. Though the Torah says she had a just case and indeed Judah himself accepts that he erred in not marrying her to his remaining son, she does not approach the issue head on. She rather uses subterfuge to attain her ends, not even revealing the truth when her life was in danger. Both the Torah and the commentators have praised her actions in this regard. We therefore have a seemingly contradictory message given by this Parshah. Is it better to be honest and confront issues head on like Joseph’s brothers or is it alright to be diplomatic and even economical with the truth like Tamar? The brothers’ honesty did not save Joseph who ignored the warning signs but Tamar’s reticence almost cost her life. This issue can also be seen in the differing events behind the festivals of Hanukah and Purim. On Hanukah the Jews fought their enemies directly while on Purim they used diplomatic means to achieve their ends. This question of honesty or diplomacy is one that also faces us today, especially in our relationship with other faith groups. Do we honestly discuss issues expressing our true feelings or do we dissimulate for the sake of peace? The answer is, of course, that both approaches are needed. It was right for Joseph’s brothers to express their feelings openly in the hope that he would change his behaviour. That ultimately this strategy failed was due to Joseph’s fatal self absorption. Tamar certainly took serious risks in her more subtle approach, yet it is hard to see that a direct co0nfrontation with Judah would have worked. He had to be shamed by her actions into doing what he knew was right. On Hanukah only direct confrontation was possible while on Purim such a course would have certainly led to disaster. Today, as well, we must carefully weigh our options. It is certainly desirable and often necessary to have honest conversations with other faiths. Yet there are cases where our interlocutors are simply not ready for such an encounter. In such cases a more diplomatic approach is needed, even if less honest. As with the characters in the Parshah, when to use what approach is among our greatest challenges.

Parshah Vayislach

Our Parshah opens with Jacob sending a message to Esau his brother. Knowing that they didn’t exactly part best friends, and concerned over his brother’s future attitude towards him, he decides to pre-empt matters. His message is extremely conciliatory, even referring to himself as ‘your servant Jacob’ and he sends his brother numerous expensive gifts. This attitude seems to have had the desired effect and the brothers seemingly reconcile. This episode has divided opinion among the commentators. Many see Jacob’s actions in a positive light, correctly seeking to reconcile with his brother, put the past behind them and create a better relationship in the future. They also see Esau’s improved attitude towards his sibling as genuine, at least temporarily. Other commentators, notably Nachmanidies, take a different view. They heavily criticise Jacob for his actions, seeing great danger in opening up old wounds out of an unsubstantiated fear for the future. Esau was going about his business and Jacob sends to him a message entitled ‘your servant Jacob’. This was merely stirring the pot and asking for trouble and only through the grace of G-d was Jacob saved from serious damage. Nachmanidies famously goes further and sees this dangerous behaviour as occurring throughout Jewish history, using the example of the Maccabees initiating a relationship with Rome that would eventually lead to disaster. This argument might sound familiar. We face such dilemmas today. Do you talk to people who have extremist views or does this dialogue merely give them legitimacy? When engaging in interfaith or cross communal dialogue, do we merely talk about the things that ‘unite us’ or are we prepared to raise the issues on which we, often violently, disagree? Is the danger in dialogue on these issues greater than the consequences of simply ignoring our differences and letting things fester? These were the questions faced by Jacob and he chose to confront the problem head on. In doing so he, at least temporarily, took the heat out of the troubled relationship with his brother and enabled a workable arrangement to emerge. This, I believe, is the best way to deal with these issues. It is obvious that in many cases we cannot ‘unite on what we have in common’ because what divides us gets in the way. Like Jacob, we have to take risk of confronting these issues head on.

Parshah Vayetze

The history of the Jewish people is not smooth and contains many questionable episodes. Many of these events took place when we were still a family, and indeed, family rivalries are often the worst. A classic example occurs in this week’s Parshah. Jacob wants to marry Rachel but ends up with both Rachel and Leah. Their rivalry then causes him to be saddled with two more wives. His family life, and later the history of the Jewish people, is fractured. Yet from this rivalry and tension emerges twelve tribes, of which Rachel, Jacob’s intended wife, is the mother of only two. The very existence of the twelve tribes, and thus the nation of Israel, depends on this unwanted disruption to Jacob’s plans. We see this phenomenon throughout Jewish history. The blindness of Isaac and his deception leads to the choice of the right son as the spiritual heir. The hatred of his brothers towards Joseph leads eventually to the exile and redemption from Egypt. It would appear that G-d knows well how to manipulate human failings in order to achieve his aims. Yet not only does this manipulation leave a bad taste in the mouth but it also has negative consequences for later Jewish history. Can we possibly see a deeper meaning in these events? If we look at the Rachel/Leah saga we see how Jacob’s desire for one wife and her offspring is frustrated. Instead of one united family Jacob ends up with a fractious tribe of four wives and twelve children. This recalls to us another event we read about a few week’s ago: the story of the Tower of Babel. Here, also, we have a desire for unity: one society, with one language, united around a common goal. G-d, however, does not agree. He purposely creates a situation where separate nations, languages and ambitions are guaranteed. It appears that G-d does not like conformity, even though it is more peaceful. He prefers diversity, even when it leads to conflict. Indeed, He engineers conflict in order to create diversity. He is prepared to put up with the rivalries, misunderstandings and even hatred of people for each other in order to ensure they are not all alike. This should teach us an important lesson. We often see our human frailties as something to be overcome. Jealousy, anger and competition are bad traits to be suppressed. The Torah suggests a somewhat different view. All these things are part of what is too be human and what makes humanity interesting. What G-d is interested in is how we use them. If we channel them correctly they can be precisely what G-d wants.

Parshah Toldot

The main topic of our Parshah is the conflict between Esau and Jacob. This seems to be a continuation of the conflict between Isaac and Ishmael in the previous generation. Yet there are significant differences between them. Ishmael was Isaac’s half brother, not his twin. Ishmael’s only sin seems to be that he is not Isaac, while Esau is portrayed as a negative character. Ishmael embraced his spiritual heritage by agreeing to be circumcised, while Esau sold it for food. These differences are reflected in the Rabbinical attitude to these to characters. Ishmael is portrayed as a essentially righteous person who was led astray by jealousy but comes right in the end, while Esau is characterised as evil from start to finish. These differences are important because the Rabbis connected these characters to the two great religions that came from Judaism. Ishmael was seen as the progenitor of the Arabs and later Islam, while Esau was identified with Rome and later the Christian Church. While such analogies can be dangerous, it is remarkable how the conflict between these two sets of siblings mirrors the relationship between Judaism and its two daughter religions. The Torah does not consider Ishmael as wicked but rather in conflict with Isaac over his place in the family. Likewise, Islam always accepted the validity of Jews and Judaism but regarded Mohammed’s revelation as superior. In a like manner they tolerated Jews as second class citizens but find the concept of a Jewish state in what they regard as the sphere of Islam as intolerable. Christianity, on the other hand, had a far more sinister approach. Esau fought with Jacob over the spiritual inheritance of Abraham and sought to kill him. In like manner, Christianity denied the continued validity of Judaism and the Jewish people. Christianity was not merely an improvement on Judaism but supplanted it. Furthermore, like Esau and Jacob struggling in their mother’s womb, Christianity and Judaism struggle over the same text, unlike Islam which has its own sacred scripture, as Ishmael came from a different mother. In essence while the struggle between Ishmael/Islam and Isaac/Judaism is over superiority or precedence, the struggle between Esau/Christianity and Jacob/Judaism is about basic identity. Islam is influenced by Judaism but separate from it, while Christianity has Judaism inside it. That is why we need differing approaches in seeking better relations between ourselves and our siblings. We must realise what divides us in order to bring us together.

Parshah Haye-Sara

The main focus of our Parshah is the search by Abraham for a suitable son for his wife. This of course, as in other areas, prefigured the behaviour of Jewish parents throughout the ages. Judaism has understood from the beginning that the Jewish home is the foundation of Jewish life and the right Jewish match is the basis on which that foundation rests. We thus find it not surprising that Abraham insists that his son’s future spouse should not come from his local environment but rather from his family. The children of Canaanite parents and culture are not a suitable match for a descendent of Abraham. This has also been replicated throughout Jewish history, with intermarriage being seen as undermining the future of Judaism and the Jewish people. Yet we often overlook the fact that Abraham makes another condition in instructing his servant in his mission to find Isaac a spouse. Eliezer asks what he should do if the prospective bride refuses to return with him. Should, perhaps, Isaac go to her? Abraham’s answer is unequivocal. Under no circumstances should Isaac return to Haran. In such a case the servant would be freed of his obligation to find Isaac a wife only from Abraham’s family, with the implication that he could look elsewhere, even maybe to the locals. In other words, while intermarriage is bad, leaving Israel to go back to Haran is even worse. How do we explain this position? Abraham is worried about Isaac’s future development and realises that in order to build a Jewish home, and thus a Jewish people, he will need the right wife. Yet he also knows that such a match is only the beginning of the process. Even more important is the environment in which that home is situated. What sort of Jewish home will be built? After all, he may have reasoned, he himself was happily married to a nice Jewish girl, yet was told by G-d to leave his environs in order to fulfil his spiritual potential. Isaac may be in more danger of being led astray with a Jewish girl in Haran than living in Israel with a Canaanite wife. This is a lesson for our times. Intermarriage is still a danger to Jewish continuity and needs to be discouraged. Yet it is not the end of the story. Even more important is providing the right environment for Jewish children to grow up Jewish. Without good Jewish education, all the Jewish marriages in the world will not help us.

Parshah Vayera

Our Parshah opens with Abraham sitting at the door of his tent, recovering after his circumcision. He spies three travellers coming and rushes to greet them and invite them for a meal. The term he uses to greet them is the occasion for a dispute among the commentators. He calls them ‘my lords’, which in Hebrew is also the term that can be used for G-d and is in fact the normal way the four letter name of G-d is read. It is however also used for important people as in ‘the lords of Joseph’ referring to Potiphar. Some commentators understand it in this secular fashion and regard the term as merely a polite way of addressing the travellers that Abraham was speaking to. Others, however, regard the term as referring to G-d and therefore holy. They note that the Parshah begins by saying that G-d appeared to Abraham and immediately continues with the appearance of the three travellers. They are of course angels, but this is a fact that Abraham does not know, otherwise he would not have offered them food. Where, then, does this Divine designation fit in? The answer is startling. G-d was indeed speaking to Abraham but when he saw the travellers he asked G-d to wait while he went to speak to them. This explanation is quite remarkable. It may just be acceptable to interrupt a conversation with someone in order to greet an important dignitary but the opposite is certainly non-passé. Imagine speaking to the Queen or the President and telling them to wait while you greet a friend. How can we understand such behaviour? The answer lies in an important comment of the Rabbis, that wherever G-d’s greatness is mentioned His humility is also mentioned. The three verses the Rabbis quote to prove this all refer to G-d’s protection of the downtrodden members of society. In other words by honouring these people we are in fact acting in the Divine image and in effect honouring G-d. This is the lesson Abraham teaches us. In leaving off speaking to G-d in order to greet weary wayfarers Abraham is not being rude to G-d but rather fulfilling His will and imitating His attributes. For G-d there is no greater honour. This is an important lesson to learn. Too often religious people act, or appear to act, as if dishonouring others is a way to honour G-d. They are insistent on the strictest interpretation of every law and seemingly oblivious to the effects such behaviour have on other people. Our Parshah teaches us the opposite. It is by sometimes compromising on our own ’piety’ in order to accommodate others that we truly act as the children of Abraham.

Parshah Lech L’cha

One of the most puzzling stories about our forefather Abraham is his passing off his wife as his sister. This tactic seems to put Sarah in danger in order to protect Abraham. Rashi puts an even worse spin on things by interpreting Abraham’s statement that ‘things will go well for me because of you’ as meaning that he would receive gifts because of this ploy. How are we to understand this sort of behaviour in such an otherwise noble character? Some commentators explain that Abraham never intended that Sarah would be taken by another man, but rather that people thinking she was his sister would woo her by giving him gifts, as was the custom at the time. They would then leave before things got to hot The trouble was that the plan backfired, Sarah being so popular the king grabbed her first. This, however, scarcely makes things better and comes across as some sort of scam. The fact is that Abraham was afraid. He was travelling with a beautiful wife in strange territory where he had no kin, and so none of the normal customary protection. He was thus easy game and knew it. He thus devised a plan to protect both himself and his wife, who initially concurred, and if this resulted in better business opportunities that would be an added benefit. It is easy to criticise such a scheme and say that Abraham should have trusted in G-d. Yet this ignores the fact that our forefathers, however great, were still human and subject to human fears and failings. Furthermore, it presupposes that it would in fact have been correct for Abraham simply to trust in G-d to save him, while taking no effort to protect himself. That however is not the Jewish way. We are not permitted to rely on miracles, even though we sometimes might need them. We must first act on our own behalf, trusting that G-d will reward our efforts with success. Abraham never made the mistake of taking G-d for granted. He always, even when taking great risks, acted on his own behalf first. So it is in this case. He may be criticised for acting in the way he did but not for simply taking measures to protect himself. He may have been wrong but was mistaken for the right reasons. That is the greatness of the Torah. It does not portray supermen but very human characters striving to be correct in their dealings with G-d and man. They may indeed fail, but only because they fail can we learn from them.

Parshah Noach

One of the most difficult concepts in the Torah is that of the mamzer or child of an adulterous or incestuous union. This child, through no fault of its own but because of the way it was conceived, is forbidden to marry in a normal way. This seems unfair. Why should the child suffer for the sins of the parents? An answer may possibly be found in a strange rabbinic comment on this week’s Parshah. The original deluge of the flood lasted for forty days and nights. The Rabbis said that this corresponded to the forty days it takes for the foetus to form (prior to that, according to Jewish law, the foetus is regarded as merely water). Since by engaging in adultery and incest they forced G-d to make the foetuses of mamzerim so they were punished with a forty day downpour. This extraordinary comment contains within it a deep philosophical and theological truth about G-d’s relationship with the world and with nature. G-d created a natural world with its own rules and laws. He also implanted in that universe a moral law, which later took form in the Torah. He, however, gave to humans the ability to effect both nature and the moral structure of the world and made them interrelated. By their moral choices, human beings impact on the natural world. Humans have freedom to effect nature and society but their choices also have consequences. G-d interferes neither in the freedom of humans nor in the consequences of their actions. Thus, pre-deluvian humanity’s sexual license led to mamzerim. G-d did not interfere with this choice or its outcome. Similarly a couple living with adultery have to live with the consequence of a mamzer. Even though this is an injustice to the child, G-d has given to humans the freedom to commit adultery and does not interfere with the consequences of that freedom. The ultimate consequence of the behaviour of people before the flood was global destruction. By making the comment they did, the rabbis were pointing out that just as G-d allowed the creation of foetuses through adultery, He allowed the ultimate consequences of such behaviour, societal breakdown and natural catastrophe. This is an important lesson for our time. We should not believe we can behave how we want and G-d will save us from our own folly. If we continue to impact negatively on the planet we will face the catastrophic consequences of our actions. As the generation of the flood discovered, the freedom G-d has given us also encompasses the freedom to engineer our own destruction.

Parshah Bereishit

When studying and seeking to understand the Torah, it is often instructive to investigate the historical background to the events described. While the message of the Torah is eternal, it was written against a certain background and explains historical and pre-historical events in reference to that background. This is especially true with in regards to the book of Genesis. If we look closely at the stories contained within this book we can discern a pattern. The people who are portrayed positively are generally shepherds, while those portrayed negatively are either farmers or city dwellers. This is the case with the story of Cain and Abel all the way through to Joseph brothers’, the shepherds, and the city dwelling Egyptians. This theme is not accidental but is set against the backdrop of the Neolithic revolution: the change from a society of nomadic hunter-gatherers to that of sedentary farmers and cities. The Torah clearly takes a view on this, and it is that city based civilisation is not necessarily a good thing. This bias, incidentally, can also be seen in later Torah legislation aiming to limit the move from the country to the cities by ensuring families keep their land. This being the case, how can this underlying theme help us explain the first story in the Torah, that of Adam and Eve? Specifically, what was the Tree of Knowledge and what was so bad about eating it? If we see this story against the backdrop of an agricultural and urban revolution the Torah was at the least ambivalent about, an interesting picture emerges. This revolution, like most in human history, was propelled by knowledge and technological change. G-d was not so sure He wanted humans to discover this potential, or at least not at such an early stage. By defining such technology as the knowledge of good and evil, the Torah warns us that technological change is not necessarily neutral and not necessarily good. It can bring benefits, but these benefits come at a cost, as the first humans discover. There are consequences to this knowledge revolution: a loss of innocence and the possibility of the exploitation of both humans and nature, both contained in the ’punishment’ of Adam and Eve. Their experience is meant as a lesson to us. Technological progress contains the potential of both good and evil and we can never be sure which of these will be its ultimate legacy.

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