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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

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Sedra Archive 5771

Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5771

Shabbat Succot

‘You shall make for yourselves the Festival of Succot seven days’. From this verse the Rabbis learnt an important Halakhic principle: a succah must be ‘made’ and be already existing. For example, if you have your succah, including the scach, up the whole year, say under a covering of some sort, you cannot merely uncover it and use it for Succot. It is necessary to make the succah anew. If we contemplate the philosophical underpinnings of this Halakha we can firstly understand the importance of renewal in spiritual life. A religious person cannot merely be satisfied with what they have achieved and the level they have attained. It is always necessary to continue to grow and move forward. Static religion becomes mere ritual, unable to spiritually inspire or provide succour. Yet we may also connect this Halakha to the fast of Yom Kippur which proceeds it. As we know, it is a mitzvah to begin to build the Succah immediately after breaking the fast. This connection can provide us with an important lesson. At the end of Yom Kippur we are on a high spiritual level. The succah, in one of its aspects, represents the shelter of the Divine Presence. Through are fasting and repentance on Yom Kippur we merit the joy of sitting in the succah. We may think that this is a passive outcome of the day and we need do no more. We can, without further preparation take the level we achieved on Yom Kippur and transfer it to sitting in the shelter of the Divine Presence on Succot. The Rabbis, in enforcing this Halakha, tell us to think again. It is not enough to merely seek to passively transfer the spiritual achievement of Yom Kippur into our physical world on Succot without any further effort on our part. Rather we need to actively work to use our newfound spiritual strength to build something new in this world. The connection between Yom Kippur and Succot is not one of transference but of transformation. The Rabbis thus oblige us to build our succah anew. The succah we can build after another Yom Kippur is not the same succah that existed last year. We are thus taught an important lesson. We may have lofty spiritual ambitions and inspiring ideas. We may feel we have reached a level that by itself can influence the world around us. Succot teaches us that this is not so. If we wish to change our world we have to take our lofty ideals and spiritual ambitions and use them to build something new in reality. We have to get our hands dirty in this world to bring to it the light of the next. If we wish to build dwell in a succah that reflects the Divine light revealed on Yom Kippur, we need to build it our self.

Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur afternoon we have two scriptural readings. We read the passage about forbidden sexual relationships in the Torah and the book of Jonah as the Haftorah. What is the connection of the Torah reading to Yom Kippur and does it have a link to the book of Jonah. I believe the heart of this passage lies in two sentences. The first is at the beginning. We are warned not to follow the practices of Egypt or Canaan. There is something about these societies that is particularly wrong. That fundamental failing is hinted at in a verse near the middle of the passage. In the middle of all the instructions about who not to marry we have the prohibition of Moloch worship, sacrificing your children to idols. We can again ask, what is the connection? This verse, however, sheds light on the whole passage. A father that sacrifices his child is using his family relationships to further his own egotistical goals. The same is true for the other relationships mentioned. They are not about intimacy and love but keeping power within the family or using sex as a tool of humiliation. The trouble with Egypt and Canaan was that they were utilitarian societies that used everything, even intimacy, for selfish purposes, rather than appreciating them for their own sake. The people of Niveneh, on the other hand, showed the opposite trait. When warned by Jonah of their impending destruction they called a fast that included the whole of society, even the animals. And in G-d’s final rebuke to Jonah, He also proclaims His concern for everyone, including even the animals. We are thus presented a contrast between a utilitarian society, which we are warned against emulating, and a true community of concern, where everyone is important. This is also brought home by one of the reasons given for reading this particular Torah passage. It contains the admonition to live by the mitzvot, understood to forbid fasting if it is dangerous. At this stage of the fast we are to look out for the vulnerable among us and make sure that they are alright. Is this not the essence of the message of Yom Kippur?

Rosh Hashanah / Parshah Ha’azinu

An almost universal custom on Rosh Hashanah, is that of Tashlich. We go down to a river or lake and recite the final verses of the book of Micah, where the prophet talks of G-d suppressing our iniquities and casting them into the depths of the sea. This is a custom that seems to have originated in Europe during the Middle Ages and whose origins are obscure. Other than the chance of a stroll and some fresh air, after many hours in synagogue and a hearty Yom Tov meal, what meaning does this custom have for us. If we look more closely at what is being said and done during Tashlich we can see that it conveys a very profound message. A major stumbling block to all change, and especially the process we call repentance, is the burden of the past. We may feel we want to change the direction of our life but that the choices we have made in the past are preventing us. It is to this problem that Micah speaks at the end of his book. G-d, he tells us, can enable us to get rid of this burden. He will take the mistakes we believe prevent us from changing for the better and remove them for ever. He does not believe that because we have made bad choices in the past we cannot change our future and, therefore, neither should we. This indeed is the whole rational behind these Ten Days of Penitence and especially Yom Kippur. G-d wipes away the stain of our sins every year precisely to enable us to improve and not be held back by the accumulated burden of our past mistakes. Yet a question remains? Why do we do Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah which is a day of judgement and accounting for our actions, rather than on Yom Kippur which is the day of forgiveness and atonement? Surely the latter is a more appropriate occasion for the ceremony? This fact also conveys a profound message. On Rosh Hashanah when we realise how much we have failed to live up to all our good intentions, it is easy to become depressed. How can we again commence the process of repentance leading to Yom Kippur, when we have failed so abysmally? It is precisely at this point that the message of Tashlich is so important. We can begin again because G-d enables us to put the failures of the past behind us. We can begin the process of changing our lives free of the burdens of the past.

Parshah Netzavim - Vayelech

Moses is taking leave of the Jewish people on the last day of his life. He turns to Joshua and commands him in front of all the people that ‘you shall come with this people into the Land’. Rashi, sensitive to the nuances of the text, notes that this means he will do so with the help and the advice of the elders. He then notes that later on in the Parshah Moses commands Joshua in G-d’s name: ‘you will bring the children of Israel into the Land’, and comments ‘even against their will, everything is dependent on you’. How shall we understand this seeming contradiction? Surely it is right that Joshua should work with the elders and take the people along with him? Indeed, wasn’t it G-d Himself that set up the whole system of advice for Moses, so why is he now telling Joshua to rule alone? The answer lies in the type of leadership being talked about. There ate two types of leaders, or more accurately, two types of roles that leaders perform. We can loosely call them functionary leadership and visionary leadership. A leader as a functionary is someone whose job it is to provide certain things for those he is leading. These can be economic, political or military. The role of a visionary leader, on the other hand, is to provide the direction for society and give it the vision that can propel it into the future. One sort of leadership is about objects while the other is about ideas; one is about provision, the other about inspiration. The same person can, and often should, provide both types of leadership, but both are equally necessary. We can now understand the two models being presented by the Parshah. One is suitable for a functionary, the other for a visionary. A leader who is a functionary has, as the name implies, various functions to fulfil. In this he can and should seek the advice and expertise of others. In entering the Land, therefore, Moses instructs Joshua not to think he can do everything by himself but to take advice from the elders. G-d, on the other hand, is talking about visionary leadership. In having the big vision and holding everything together Joshua must lead alone. Visionary leadership cannot be shared, otherwise everything falls apart. Therefore G-d instructs Joshua that he must lead alone. He must provide the firm direction and clear vision to enable the Jewish people to fulfil their destiny. It appears in our day we have too many functionaries and not enough visionaries. We have leaders concerned at providing the goods but not articulating the future. What we need in this coming year are true leaders: leaders with vision.

Parshah Ki-Tavo

In the first aliyah of the Parshah we find a strange anomaly. This section deals with the mitzvah of bringing First Fruits to the Sanctuary and describes the ceremony where the farmer presents his fruits to the priest and makes the required declaration. There are in this section two basic ways of describing G-d. When the Torah is describing the ceremony it uses the term ‘the L-rd your G-d’, while when the worshipper is making his declaration the term normally used is ‘G-d’ or ‘the G-d of our fathers’. Except in the initial encounter between the worshipper and the priest. There the verse reads ‘I declare today before the L-rd your G-d’ that I have come to the land which he swore on to give to our fathers’. The anomaly can be seen from the italicised phrases. Why does the worshipper talk of ‘your G-d’ when he is making a personal declaration? The answer may lie in another question. What is this mitzvah and the next, which deals with the tithe declaration, doing at the end of the list of mitzvot in Deuteronomy? Surely it should have been near the beginning along with all the other regulations about tithing. The answer lies in the declarations given in both cases. In these the Jew declares that G-d has fulfilled his promise to the Jewish people and brought them into the Land and asks that their continued observance of the mitzvot will ensure them success in that land. Thus these mitzvot form the postscript to the many mitzvot contained in the last three Parshiot, indicating that the observance of the mitzvot is indeed worthwhile and that G-d keeps his promises. The person that experiences this firsthand is the farmer. He thus comes to the Sanctuary to give thanks and declare that indeed he has been blessed as promised by the Torah. The priest, however, has not personally experienced G-d’s providence in this way. He is reliant on the vicarious experience of the farmer presenting his First Fruits to him. The farmer thus begins his declaration by including the priest in G-d’s providence. He has come to declare before the L-rd your G-d, the G-d of the priest, that he has inherited the Land promised to our fathers, to both of us. The priest is also to experience G-d’s blessing by partaking of the First Fruits of the farmer and thus, like the farmer, have a personal experience of G-d’s providence. As we approach the High Holidays, this throws us an interesting challenge. How to we each, and as a collective, experience G-d’s personal providence in our lives? Can we, like the farmer, be worthy of the blessing promised by the Torah?

Parshah Ki-Tetze

The three first aliyot in our Parshah are separate mitzvot but are seen by the Rabbis to have an integral thread connecting them. All three deal with issues of the family . The first aliyah deals with the captive woman. The Torah details how she is to be treated decently and, if not in the end married, allowed to go free. The second portion describes a situation of a family with two wives, one loved and the other less so. The Torah forbids the husband from lessening the greater inheritance of the firstborn because he is the son of his less favoured spouse. The third aliyah deals with the rebellious son and the, theoretical, punishment that can be meted out to him. The Sages saw these three potions as being connected. If you will marry a captive woman you will in the end hate her and will in consequence have a delinquent child. This is a valuable moral lesson about the consequences of marrying for the wrong reasons and the effect such marriages have on the children. Yet the greatest lesson is in what the Torah does not do. It doesn't forbid marriage with a captive woman even though it clearly disapproves of such a marriage. A similar case occurs near the end of the Parshah. The Torah prescribes that when a man dies childless his brother should marry his widow. If the brother does not want to, there is a ceremony to release the widow to remarry. From the humiliation of the brother involved in the ceremony it is clear that the Torah wants him to do his duty by his dead brother. Yet the Torah does not force him to do so. This teaches us an important lesson in what G-d wants from us. G-d does not want robots or slaves but morally autonomous human beings. The Torah wants us to do what is right in these cases but in the end will not force us. What the Torah does do is try and protect others from our bad moral decisions. It mandates that the captive woman be treated humanely and not simply cast off and that favouritism not be allowed to pervert rights of inheritance. It protects the widow by allowing her to remarry if her brother in law refuses to marry her. This is an important message on how to run society. We should give people the freedom to make bad decisions, only interfering to protect others. The idea of the nanny state is not a Torah concept. Only by allowing people to bear the consequences of their decisions can we have a moral society.

Parshah Shoftim

‘You shall not set upon you a foreigner who is not your brother’. This provision of the Torah, restricting the monarchy to home grown Jews, can be seen to be xenophobic or even racist. Indeed there are interpretations that can be used to restrict proselytes from any leadership position in the Jewish community. Yet, historically, it has not always been seen in this way. Famously, when King Agrippa, who was descended from Idumean converts, read this line at the septennial Hakhel ceremony, he burst into tears. The assembled populace, amongst whom he was popular, cried out ‘you are our brother’. This leads us to the first part of the verse which perhaps provides the key to understanding the real motive of this position. The Torah stipulates that you set up a king from ‘among your brethren’. One can ask, being that the Torah goes on to forbid a foreigner taking the throne, why this stipulation is necessary? It can however be seen as the rationale for what follows. The Torah commands us not to have a foreigner as monarch because it wants the monarchy to come from the people and thus be attached to the people. It is to come from inside, rather than outside, the nation. This may seem obvious, but was not actually so at the time or later. The reason for this is summed up by the Rashbam in a pithy comment on this verse. They might want to set up a foreign monarch ‘in order to fight their wars’. In other words the nation may feel that it needs leadership from outside in order to solve its problems. As late as the modern period nations such as Belgium and Norway have, on achieving independence, imported their royal family. Indeed, of course, our own royal family are of German origins. It is this, rather than any concern for the racial purity of the leadership, that is the real aim of the Torah in this provision. A Jewish state must have a home grown leadership, not seek to solve its problems by importing rulers from abroad..This will inevitably compromise the cultural and political independence of the nation. This warning was not unnecessary. The Hasmoneans, for example, after their great victory over the Greeks went and made a pact with the Romans. We all know how that turned out. The Torah warns us against the chimera of believing in the foreign silver bullet. The belief that someone or something from outside will solve all our problems or rule us better than we can do ourselves, is a destructive delusion that leads nowhere. Our future comes from ‘among your brethren’, in other words, it lies in our own hands.

Parshah Re'eh

Among the mitzvot in this week’s Parshah is how to deal with an idolatrous city. A city where it is proved that its inhabitants have gone astray and served idols is to be totally destroyed, together with all its inhabitants, and never rebuilt. The Rabbis sought to mitigate the harshness of this punishment to the extent that they declared that this mitzvah was never put into practice and was merely a warning of the seriousness of idolatry. They therefore qualified its practical implementation on various conditions, which have as their purpose the rendering of the implementation of this mitzvah effectively impossible. Nevertheless, the conditions themselves are interesting and can teach us valuable lessons. One of the most interesting is that a city is not condemned for idolatry until it is led astray by people from within the city. If, however, its spiritual loyalty is subverted by those from outside the city it is not regarded as a doomed city to which this law applies. It is interesting to examine what could be the philosophical underpinnings of such a regulation. Other than a desire to simply make this law inapplicable, what deeper understanding lies behind the distinction between internal and external subversion? A possible explanation is this. If a city is subverted by people from outside all is not lost. The basic integrity of the city is not necessarily compromised. We have, in effect, an external threat that can be contained or eventually overcome. But if those that lead the city astray come from within, all is lost. The very factors that could contain the threat are in themselves subverted and the whole city thus becomes incorrigibly corrupt. Such a city has no future and must be destroyed. In some ways this is like a virus. If the body is healthy, its immune system can help fight the virus, which has entered the body externally. But with diseases like HIV, where the body itself is corrupted, it is far harder to overcome the threat. This has also been the lesson of Jewish history. External threats by themselves have never defeated us. It is when we have become corrupted from within, that we have been unable to defeat our enemies and have fallen. That is why what is presently happening in Israel is of great importance. We face great external threats in the coming months. Yet the most important factor in our long term survival is our internal coherence. Vital to that is the demand of those presently protesting on the streets. Only by building internally a society where everyone feels they have a stake will we be truly externally secure.

Parshah Ekev

In a science fiction book called the Lucifer Code the author postulates the possibility that the real force behind the universe may in fact be Satan, a hypothesis that is by the end of the book still left open. Of course this idea is not novel. It is in fact the oldest and most potent of Christian heresies, beginning with Marcion during the first centuries of that religion. But this idea that behind reality is in fact a malevolent force is in fact found in the Torah. At several points in the story of the Exodus, the subversive idea is mooted that the whole Jewish project is an evil trick that will end badly. According to tradition this is what Pharaoh hints at when he tells Moses that ‘evil is before you’. At the time of the sin of the spies the Israelites accuse G-d of bringing them out of Egypt because He hated them. And this week, Moses recounts how he used the same argument during the Golden Calf incident. If G-d destroys the people as threatened then the nations will say that G-d brought the Jews out of Egypt because he hated them, in order to kill them in the wilderness. So it seems that this idea of a satanic motive behind the Exodus was widespread even at the time. At its heart is the extraordinary claim of the uniqueness of Jewish history and its often painful reality. The Exodus and its purpose was such a groundbreaking event that it is easy to question its real motivation. Does Jewish history really have meaning or is it actually just a vain delusion? Maybe, in fact, all those Jews that struggled and died to keep Judaism alive were mistaken. All the suffering was, in the end pointless. How do we approach such questions? Firstly by acknowledging their validity. The fact is we don’t know. There may in fact be no Judge and no Judgement. The idea of the uniqueness of the Jewish people and Jewish history may in fact be simply a delusion. All those millions may have in fact died in vain. We can reasonably believe, on the balance of probability, that this is a wrong conclusion, but in the end we don’t know for sure. At that is the point. What makes us truly religious and quintessentially Jewish is the ability to live a Jewish life without that certainty. Religion is not science, it is faith. Not blind unquestioning faith, but faith nonetheless. It is by living as Jews with the possibility that we may be totally wrong that we become truly human, and truly religious.

Parshah Va'ethanan

‘Lest you lift your eyes to heaven and see the sun, moon and stars, all the host of heaven and worship them’. Thus, in this week’s Parshah, Moses warns the Jewish people of the dangers of too close contemplation of nature. Isaiah, however, has a different take on things. ‘Raise your eyes to heaven and see Who created these’, he exhorts the Jewish exiles in the Haftorah. So which is it? Does contemplating the heavens lead to idolatry and should be avoided or does a close study of nature imbue in one the love and fear of G-d? The answer, in true Jewish fashion is of course both. It depends on the circumstances. Moses is speaking to a generation surrounded by idolatry; liberated from a society where contemplation of the heavens was part of religion. In such a case he is right to warn the people not to fall into the same trap. The people’s monotheism is not yet mature enough to enable them to contemplate the heavens and see G-d; not autonomous spiritual forces. Isaiah is speaking to a very different group of people. They are losing faith not because of belief in idols but the fear of man. G-d has seemingly failed against the mighty empires that have destroyed the Jewish state. In such a case, contemplation of nature, far from being a threat, is a way to reinforce the people’s belief in the supreme power of G-d and their ultimate triumph. This dichotomy leads us to contemplate environmental movements today and the place of Jews in them. Many Rabbis are afraid of the new interest in nature and mans relationship with it. They fear it is but a new form of paganism and think Jews should have nothing to do with it. Their fears are not totally unfounded. Some environmentalist groups are indeed founded on New Age and neo-pagan principles. Yet we should not forget that regard for the environment is a basic principle of the Torah. There is hardly a stronger statement of green principles than the weekly cessation of human mastery over nature called Shabbat. Furthermore, it is precisely by connecting the principles of monotheism to environmental protection that we balance care for nature with care for humanity: seeing them all as part of one creation. Looking at our world today, it is clear that when contemplating nature; we should adoptthe positive attitude of Isaiah.

Parshah Devarim / Hazon

The book of Deuteronomy opens with a seemingly precise delineation of where exactly Moses gave the discourses of which the book consists. However, no one can quite agree where exactly these places are. There are three main approaches among the commentators. Some, like Rashi, see these names as not actual geographical locations at all. Rather they are veiled hints at the places where Israel sinned during their sojourn in the wilderness or veiled references these sins themselves. Others, including Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam, regard these names as designating actual locations, though no two commentators agree on there actual position. The Seforno adopts an interesting middle approach. He regards the names mention as referring to actual places, though not of the location where Moses gave his speech. Rather they refer to the places the Jews wandered in the wilderness as a result of G-d’s decree forbidding the generation of the spies from entering the Land. For the Seforno, then, the mention of these locations, while referring to actual positions on a map, are also a pedagogical instrument to chastise the people for their past misbehaviour. Their own history is thus used as a warning of what can happen if they disobey G-d. These three approaches can typify three different ways of looking a history, and Jewish history in particular. Like Rashi we can see history metaphorically. The actual facts themselves are not as important as the lesson learnt from the story told about them. This is a popular modern approach, especially with regard to ancient texts. Another approach is to concentrate on the facts without necessarily learning from them. History is about a series of events that can be verified or disproved, and the lessons that can be learned from them are secondary. This approach was common in educational circles in the past. Or we can take the approach of the Seforno. We see the facts of history as important and look to verify or disprove them. But we also seek to learn from them. We don’t see history as merely a list of dates, places and events but as a story that has something to tell us. Examining the veracity of the facts doesn't prevent us seeing in the story a moral meaning and deriving pertinent lessons from the story doesn’t detract from the veracity of the facts. Both approaches compliment each other. This is especially true as we approach Tisha B’Av. The stark facts of the destruction of the Temple have much to teach us on how we should behave today. If we don’t learn from the past we may have to repeat it.

Bamidbar (Numbers) 5771

Parshah Masei

This week’s Parshah contains many instructions concerning life in the Land of Israel, which the Israelites are about to enter. Contained among these is a precise definition of the borders of the Land. The commentators discuss the purpose of this delineation, which is quite unusual in ancient texts. The two main explanations given, concern the special nature of the Land. Either, the Land is delineated in order to know within what boundaries the mitzvot that are dependent on the Land, like tithing or the Sabbatical year, are to be performed. The second explanation, basically given by the Torah itself at the end of this section, is that these are the borders within which the Land is to be divided up by lot; other land in Jewish possession , such as Transjordan, not needing to be dealt with in such a fashion. Both these explanations see the borders as delineating limits to the relevance of some of the provisions set out in the Torah. They are to be kept in the Land of Israel but are not obligatory or relevant outside it. Hertz provides another possible explanation. Israel is to confine its territorial ambitions to the Land given to them by G-d, and not be an expansionist power seeking land elsewhere. These explanations taken together provide an interesting insight into the worldview of Judaism, especially as distinct from its daughter religions. One that is at variance with the view propagated by our enemies. According to the old myth Jews, or Zionists, are seeking to take over the world. We seek to dominate everything and everyone by any means possible. As with other anti-Semitic myths, such as the blood libel, this calumny tells us more about those who propagate it than it does about the Jews. As usual the precise opposite is true. As seen in our Parshah, Judaism does not seek to expand beyond its borders. We set limits to the reach of the Torah and do not seek to impose it on the rest of the world. In like manner, Zionism has never sought to expand beyond the historic borders of the Land of Israel, and has accepted far less. In contrast both Christianity and Islam are global missionary religions that acknowledge no limits to their religious. and often political, expansion. This is the source of much of the religious conflict in today’s world. They would do well to learn from Judaism and adopt the religious and political limits set out in our Parshah.

Parshah Matot

The Torah is very strict about the necessity of keeping ones word. If one makes a vow one must fulfil it and not to do so is regarded as one of the most serious offences in Judaism. Yet the Torah seems to undermine this insistence by creating possibilities by which someone’s vows can be made. Either a husband or father or three judges can decide that the vow shouldn’t have been made or that the person making it didn’t really know what they were getting into. How are we to understand this paradox? One could postulate that because the consequences of not keeping a vow are so serious the Torah wants to provide a get out clause in certain cases. In a sense, the fact that you have exceptions to the rule, can serve to strengthen the rule. Yet I believe the reason goes much deeper. There are two basic rules concerning the annulment of vows. One, with regards to the vows made by a minor or married woman, is that they must affect others. The husband or father cannot annul a vow unless it is of a nature to affect the family relationships. This teaches us an important lesson about making promises and entering into agreements. While we can obligate ourselves, we do not have the right to do so if it impacts negatively on others. A husband, for example, may want to accept certain Halakhic strictures. Yet if these also affect the other members of the family it is not clear he can do so without their permission. Similarly, a Rabbi needs to make Halakhic decisions based on the needs of his community, not his own personal strictures or preferences. The second option for annulling a vow is when a court finds that the person making the vow was not in full possession of all the facts when he did so. So someone may vow not to shop in one of two shops in a village without knowing that the other shop is about to close down. Had he known, the court reasons, he never would have made the vow, therefore the vow is not valid. This teaches us another important principle. People must of course take responsibility for their actions. If they make mistakes or errors of judgement, they must bear the consequences. But they can only be judged on what they knew or should of known at the time. It is neither fair nor moral to judge people with the benefit of hindsight in cases where the information available now was not available then and they made the best judgement based on what they knew. Our Parshah teaches us that even with such a serious issue of vowing we still need to be fair and reasonable, a lesson especially valuable at a time of moral outrage.

Parshah Pinchas

The census in this week’s Parshah, taken in the fortieth year, differs in various respects from that we read of at the beginning of Numbers. This week’s census, as well as giving the number of each tribe, also lists the families that make up that tribe. The grammatical form that the name of each tribe takes occasions that each name begins with a hey and ends with a yud. According to Jewish tradition this is no coincidence, as these two letters together make up one of the names of G-d. Rashi provides an explanation for this phenomenon. The gentile nations apparently mock Israel’s pretentions in having a census listing the names of the various families that make up the tribes. This implies that people can trace their ancestry back to the sons of Jacob, something the gentiles deny. The Jews after all were slaves in Egypt and ‘if the Egyptians abused their bodies they certainly also abused their wives’. They thus claim that the Jews were basically a mongrel people with no real ancestry. Therefore G-d Himself testifies to their lineage by bracketing each family’s name in the census with His name. There is of course an underlying sinister motive in the gentile accusation, one which is relevant today. By denying the Jews the right to their lineage they are effectively denying the Jews status as a nation and thus right to a land. They are merely a group of runaway slaves, not a people with its own history and thus also its own right to a sovereign future. Unfortunately, this phenomena is alive and well today. Those who wish to attack Zionism declare that the Jews are not a people at all but merely a group of co-religionists, with no right therefore to self-determination. Another variation on this is the fable that Jews actually have no connection with the Jews of ancient times, and thus no right to the Land of Israel. Similar tales are told about various Jewish practices that people wish to oppose. Either Shechitah or circumcision are not really integral to Judaism but an extraneous custom that can be dispensed with. All of these arguments have at their heart the same sinister motive that existed at the time of the Torah. People wish to attack Jews, Jewish sovereignty or the Jewish religion without being seen as anti-Semitic. So they redefine Jews or Judaism to write out the parts of Judaism they want to attack. We must therefore continue to strenuously insist on our right to define ourselves in the way that we have always done so, a definition G-d Himself has attested to with His signature.

Parshah Balak

The story contained in our Parshah raises various serious questions about the nature of G-d's relationship with people. Balaam is asked to go and curse Israel. Upon enquiring, he is told that he is not to go as the people are blessed. Yet, when Balak asks a second time he is told he can go, as long as he does as G-d tells him. G-d then seems to punish him for going, but lets him proceed anyway. Part of the issue surrounding these events is Balaam's view of G-d. When G-d asks him who the people are that have come to see him, he sees this as I sign that G-d doesn't always know everything and so maybe can be tricked. G-d's subsequent behaviour in seeming to let him go and then sending an angel to oppose him, confirms this impression in Balaam's mind. Balaam is, however, making a serious mistake in his understanding of how G-d relates to humans. Balaam thinks that if G-d knows everything and is all powerful, this leaves no room for human freewill and independent decision making. Thus when G-d involves Balaam in the discussion of Balak's mission to him, he comes to the erroneous conclusion that G-d is not as omniscient as He wants us to believe. Balaam, however, has missed the point. What G-d wants from humans is precisely the freewill and independent action that Balaam sees as a sign of G-d's weakness. G-d thus engages in a dialogue with Balaam in order to get him to make the right decision of his own free will. Even after Balaam leaves, He tries to show him the error of his ways by sending an angel to oppose him. Yet, after initially revealing to Balaam His desire that Israel not be cursed, he does not stop him going or even specifically order him back. That, in the end, is Balaam's decision, and if he is determined to precede to his own destruction, G-d will not stand in his way. This view of Divine providence is extremely important to understand. There are many people who like Balaam, believe that G-d interferes in everything and controls our life in a way that leaves little room for human independence or decision making. This is a false view that can, as in the case of Balaam, lead to a lessening of our faith. We need to be aware of G-d's moral expectations of our actions without expecting Him to actively intervene in our lives at every stage, like we were children. What G-d really wants are independent but moral adults.

Parshah Hukat / Rosh Hodesh

We begin this week's Parshah with the tale of a cow, the Red Heifer, whose ashes are used to purify those who have been in contact with a dead body. At the end of Deuteronomy we have the tale of another cow, that of the calf whose neck is broken to atone for an unexplained murder. It is instructive to compare these two bovine stories, especially in the light of their context in the Torah. The Red Heifer is associated with death and decay. It comes to purify those who have come in contact with the dead, and while its ashes purify, everyone involved in their preparation becomes themselves impure. The 'calf whose neck is broken', in contrast is in essence associated with life and potential. While it comes to atone for a murder, the calf itself symbolises the potential of the life that has been cut short. Rather than defiling those involved in the ceremony, the elders wash their hands and thus move on from the unfortunate incident into the future. The context of these contrasting bovine rituals is also instructive. The section of the Red Heifer separates the story of the generation condemned to die in the wilderness, with that of their children who, forty years later, are ready to enter the Land. The section of the calf comes near the end of Deuteronomy and is given to this new generation as they prepare to move forward into that Land. The section of the Red Heifer, thus also becomes metaphorically a symbol of the failed generation that left Egypt, who though they live on for another thirty eight years, are for the purposes of Jewish history effectively dead, and thus ignored by the narrative of the Torah. On the other hand, the calf, which symbolises potential and possibilities, is a symbol of a new generation ready to march into the future and even when faced with tragedy, able to overcome it and progress. In the Torah's tale of two cows then, we have a story of two types of generations, both of which can exist at various points at in Jewish history. We have a lost generation, constrained by its own fears and unable to progress. This is the generation of the Red Heifer, defiling everyone that deals with it and effectively dead even while still technically alive. In contrast we have the forward looking confident generation, full of potential. This is the generation of the 'calf whose neck is broken', able to overcome obstacles in its way and washing their hands of them move forward into the future. The Torah thus provides us with two possible scenarios for each and every generation. The question is, which one applies to us?

Parshah Korach

The incident of Korach reaches its climax when the earth opens up and swallows the rebels while the 250 would be priests are devoured by fire. But the story does not end there. The next day, despite everything that has happened, the people accuse Moses of killing the rebels. How are we to understand this outrageous accusation? Moses, as is stated by the Torah was very forbearing and put up with a lot from the people. In the case of Korach, however, he finally has had enough and reacts. He realises that the future of the whole of the project is at stake and therefore takes direct and brutal action to stand up to those that are constantly causing trouble for him. While the dirty work is done by G-d the test that leads to the demise of the rebels is proposed by Moses, knowing full well the consequences. The people are in shock. Moses has finally stood up for himself and been vindicated in a uncompromising manner. This is not meant to happen. They are the ones meant to be doing the bullying, pushing the limits and causing trouble. Moses is not meant to use his power to actually stand up for himself. When the people finally get a dose of their own medicine they don't like it and are outraged by the thought that they should be on the receiving end of their own behaviour. This idea is a very important one in understanding the mindset of all bullies and troublemakers and is especially helpful in appreciating what we are up against in the public arena today. We are faced with boycotts, accusations of racism and public rebuke. Those who engage in such activities believe that they are obviously in the right and on the high moral ground. Therefore when we respond by boycotting them they are shocked, when we rebuke them they are incensed and if they themselves are actually accused of racism, they are outraged. That is not the script. It is Israel that should be boycotted, the Jews that should be chastised and the evil Zionists that are racists. How dare the Jews actually stand up for themselves. How dare we turn the tables on those that attack us. Like the rebels in Moses' time this is simply not part of the scenario. All the more reason why we should, like Moses, do it. Its about time that these self-righteous anti-Semites had the tables turned on them and got a dose of their own medicine. To paraphrase Bomber Harris: these people are under the illusion that they can accuse everyone else of everything but not be accused themselves of anything. It's an illusion we should rudely disabuse them of, and the sooner the better.

Parshah Sh'lach

The sin of the spies is one of the turning points of Jewish history. According to our tradition it lead not only to that generation being barred from entering the Land but also became 'a weeping for generations', the source of all subsequent catastrophes in Jewish history. An often asked question concerns the protagonists in the drama, the ten spies whose unfavourable report lead to the disaster. They are described by the Torah as men of renown and leaders of the people. How was it possible that these figures should totally lose their nerve and come back with such a cowardly report? An answer may lie in how they describe themselves in relation to the people they come across on their journey. They say that they seemed like giants and that they themselves felt like grasshoppers in comparison. These same great men who were leaders of the Jewish people in the desert, enter into the Land and are suddenly transformed into grasshoppers. While in the controlled environment of the Israelite camp in the desert they seemingly achieved greatness, once they left that cocoon they just couldn't cope and turned into grasshoppers. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, showed that they were truly great by being able to keep their stature and integrity also in an alien environment. These types of individual are applicable and relevant to how we live out our Judaism. There are those whose Judaism is strong in every situation and who act the same whether in a Jewish ghetto or a totally non-Jewish environment. On the other hand, there are those who are one thing when living in Gateshead or Mea Shearim but another when transported to Tel Aviv or Edinburgh. The moment they leave their safe Jewish environment their Jewish stature is reduced accordingly. This is a question we all need to ask our self? Is our level of observance the same wherever we live? Do we keep kosher also on holiday or make compromises? Are we prepared, if necessary, to put on Tefilin in an airport lounge? Do we dress modestly everywhere or only when there are other religious people to see us? These are the questions whose answers define our true Jewish identity. Is Judaism really something integral to us or merely a show for others? In short, are we like Caleb and Joshua, Jews of stature everywhere or like the spies, underneath our pretence merely grasshoppers

Shavuot / Parshah Behalotcha

Shavuot is designated in our prayers as 'the Time of the Giving of our Torah'. This designation, however, is not as simple as it looks and needs further elucidation. If by the Torah we mean the Humash, either with or without its oral interpretation, the idea that this was given on Shavuot appears less than accurate. According to the two main traditional opinions on the matter, the Torah was either given during the year long stay of the Jewish people at Mt Sinai or over the period of the forty years wandering in the wilderness. The final form of the Torah, according to tradition, was only written down shortly before Moses' death, as detailed at the end of Deuteronomy. So what exactly happened on Shavuot that is regarded as the 'Giving of the Torah'? The basic event we celebrate today s the transmission by G-d Himself to the whole Jewish people of the Ten Commandments. While some commentators have tried to see the whole Torah contained within these ten Divine utterances, this is not by any means the whole Torah or even a decent summary. What it is however, is the direct communication of G-d to the Jewish people. What we actually celebrate on Shavuot is the experience of revelation, the fact that G-d spoke to an entire people, who accepted His words. This is what we mean by 'the Time of the Giving of our Torah'. Yet in what sense is this revelation the 'Giving of the Torah'? An answer may lie in our Parshah. When Moses has had enough of the burdens of office G-d sets up a council of seventy elders to help him. They are inaugurated by receiving a level temporary of prophecy. Two of them, however, continue to prophesy leading Joshua to want them stopped. Moses, famously answers that 'would that all of G-d's people be prophets'. Looking closely at this incident and connecting it to the events of Shavuot, we can see that Moses had a specific view of revelation. The revelation of G-d to the whole people at Sinai was not merely a singular event. Rather, the fact that G-d had revealed Himself to the whole people meant that any Jew had within them the potential of prophecy. Thus the two elders were merely continuing the experience of Sinai, not starting something new and dangerous. This is true for future generations. While, no future prophet or sage can contradict the Torah, future generations by their interpretation of its words continue in some way its ongoing revelation. Thus the Revelation at Sinai was in a very real way the 'Giving of the Torah', enabling all future generations to be part of the dynamic interaction with the Torah that started at Sinai on Shavuot.

Parshah Naso

The first half of the book of Numbers deals with the setting up of the camp of Israel in preparation for the journey to the Promised Land. It deals with the tribes and their position in the camp and the role of the Levites and ends with the dedication of the Tabernacle by the Princes and the initiation of the Levites. In the middle of this section we have two long and seemingly unrelated passages, dealing with the rite of the adulterous woman and the nazirite respectively. The positioning of these passages seems strange and unconnected to what precedes and follows them. A clue as to their purpose may be gleaned by comparing the first section of the book of Numbers with the last half of the book of Exodus. There, the main focus is again on the setting up of the Tabernacle. First the instructions are given and then carried out and the Tabernacle erected. Yet here also in the middle of this section lies the seemingly unrelated story of the Golden Calf. In the middle of construction of a place for the Divine Presence the Torah informs us of an incident that almost banished that Presence from Israel for ever. It appears that when contemplating the essential structures of Jewish life we are to reflect on dangers that threaten the vary existence of that life. The same can maybe be said about the passages in our Parshah. When relating the construction of the Community of Israel in the wilderness the Torah warns us of two dangers that threaten to undermine the very existence of that community. One is symbolised by the Sotah, the adulterous woman. The Torah sees her actions as a betrayal not only of her husband but of G-d. She leaves the community to seek her pleasure elsewhere and thus undermines its viability. This is the threat of the defectors. Those who see their destiny in joining with the wider world at the expense of their own people, who join up with our enemies in a vain attempt to save themselves. The second danger is in many ways the opposite. This is symbolised by the nazirite who wishes to go to an extreme and become something he is not. If we look closely we can see that the nazirite is an ordinary Jew that in effect wishes to usurp the role of the High Priest. He is not worthy of the office but seeks to overturn the established order in order to fulfil his personal ambition. Both of these characters are in fact putting their personal desires in before the needs of the community. Both of them pose a mortal danger to its future. For this reason we are warned about them at the very moment of its construction

Parshah Bamidbar

When undertaking the census that forma a large part of this week's Parshah, Moses is instructed to number the Levites separately. Instead of being numbered from twenty years old and upward they are numbered from only a month old. One of the reasons that Rashi gives for this is that G-d knew that a decree would be issued that those numbered from twenty would die in the wilderness and G-d wanted to exempt the Levites from it because they had not sinned with the Golden Calf. So being exempted from the decree against the rest of their generation was a reward for remaining loyal to G-d during the incident of the Golden Calf. An difficulty with Rashi's explanation immediately springs to mind. According to Jewish tradition the Levites also remained loyal during the sin of the spies and for that reason were exempted from the punishment of dying in the wilderness that was meted out to the rest of their generation. It would therefore appear that G-d made the decree only on those numbered from twenty in order to exempt the Levites. Why then does Rashi present G-d as doing the opposite: numbering the Levites from a month in order to reward them for previous loyalty by thereby exempting them from the decree? A simple explanation could be that G-d had promised at the time of the Golden Calf to in future 'visit their sin upon them'. The severe punishment for the sin of the spies was thus also part of the punishment for the Golden Calf. The Levites of course were not implicated in either and thus exempt from both angles. A deeper explanation however can be found in the words of the Rabbis in the Ethics of the Fathers that: 'a mitzvah brings another mitzvah while a sin causes more sins'. Here our Sages are expressing a profound truth. Our actions not only have an immediate effect but influence our subsequent behaviour. Resisting temptation once makes it easier the next time, while committing one sin makes others more likely. Good or bad actions influence our character in positive or negative ways respectively. The Jewish people that sinned with the Golden Calf lacked the moral fibre to withstand the dispiriting report of the spies. The Levites, on the other hand, who had remained loyal under pressure during the incident of the Golden Calf, were also able to withstand the hysteria caused by the negative report of the spies. Thus because of their actions during the Golden Calf incident, G-d knew they would also not fail Him with the spies and could exempt them in advance from the consequences

Vayikra (Leviticus) 5771

Parshah Behukotai

One of the features of our democracy is the setting up of commissions of inquiry. For everything from the war in Iraq to police mishandling of an arrest people demand a public investigation to indentify what went wrong and who is responsible. While some of this may be seen to have gone to far, inhibiting innovation and flexibility, the notion of holding an investigation when something bad happens goes right back to the Torah. In the reproof section which we read this week one word stand out. The word keri is used both for the bad behaviour of the Jews and G-d's angry response. 'If you will behave with me with keri, I will behave with you with the anger of keri'. What then does this word mean. Many commentators connect it to the Hebrew root for chance as in the word mikre or coincidence. Thus if the Jews will behave casually will G-d, He will respond with casual anger. Maimonides takes this idea and turns it into an Halakhic concept. The sin of the Jews is to see the various bad things that are occurring as coincidence and not a warning or punishment from G-d. Thus, as the message hasn't got through, things continue to get worse. When bad things happen, he says, we have an obligation to not to simply ignore them or put them down to chance but to investigate their cause and seek to put what is wrong right. This idea can find support in various incidents in the Bible, notably the story of Achan. After the Jews had successfully conquered Jericho, they badly lost their next battle. G-d informs Joshua that this is because there is an evil person amongst them. After investigation they discover that Achan had taken from the spoil of Jericho, against the specific command of G-d. After he is removed from the scene the Jews go on to spectacularly win the battle they had just lost. Jewish communities throughout the ages have taken this story, and Maimonides admonition very seriously. When bad things happened, such as a Torah being dropped, unexplained tragedies or other catastrophes, they called a fast day and examined their deeds. They looked at what was wrong in their community and tried to put it right. They understood the lesson of our Parshah that if something is wrong externally it is because something is amiss internally. They heeded the warning of the Torah that if you ignore problems they won't go away, but only get worse.

Parshah Behar

The Parshah this week deals with the Shemitah or Sabbatical year. It in fact deals with two types of Sabbatical year, the Shemitah or Sabbatical year and the Yovel, the Jubilee. The Torah commands us to count seven Sabbatical years and in the fiftieth year hold the Jubilee. We thus have two Sabbatical years one after the other. In their prohibitions these two years are identical. As Rashi points out on the relevant verses, exactly what is prohibited in the Shemitah is prohibited in the Yovel. The difference between the two years comes in their purpose which is encapsulated in their positive mitzvot. The Sabbatical year is about rest. The land is to receive its rest and also debtors are to receive their 'rest' from their debts. The same basic word, the Hebrew root for rest, is used for Shabbat, the rest of the land on Shemitah and the remission of debts. The Jubilee year on the other hand is concerned with freedom and equality and social justice. On the Yovel all slaves are set free and land has to return to its original owners. The Torah thus seeks to ensure the perpetuation of a society of free, relatively equal citizens, with a personal stake in the land. What is interesting to examine is the connection between the two. The Torah requires that we must count seven sabbatical years before we can hold a Jubilee, in the same way that we need to count seven Sabbaths in order to celebrate Shavuot. In order to achieve a year of freedom we need to first observe seven years of rest. This connection is very significant. The ability to take time out is a necessary requirement of enabling people to strive for and appreciate freedom. Pharaoh understood this very well. When Moses asks him to let the Jews leave, he responds by increasing their work load, specifically in order that they will not have time to think such dangerous thoughts. On a more positive note it is customary in the intellectual professions for employees to be given a sabbatical, in order to better fulfil their tasks in the future. The time and space to think are crucial to the maintenance of a informed democracy and a free society. It is no coincidence that democratic participation has fallen in tandem with the rise of the internet and social media. We are so bombarded with messages that we do not have time to contemplate their import or digest their meaning. Instant communications can lead to revolutions but only if people are given the time to think radically. Our Parshah teaches us that what we need to achieve the world of the Jubilee is first of all a Sabbatical.

Parshah Emor

The centrepiece of our Parshah is the section on the festivals, which makes it the most read part of the Torah: we read it four times in the course of a year. One of the issues that has arisen in contemporary Judaism is that of the second day of Yom Tov in the Diaspora. Because of large scale tourism and connection to Israel the second day of Yom Tov kept in the Diaspora has come under scrutiny in a way unknown in previous generations. If we examine the original reasoning behind it as well as our present observance we can see that in fact this tradition does not really conform to normal Halakhic practice. The second day of Yom Tov was instituted because of a doubt in Diaspora communities as to when the new moon had been sighted. Today of course we have a fixed calendar but for various reasons the Sages instituted that we should continue this observance. The general rule in cases of doubts is that we err on the side of caution, not doing prohibitions but not actively saying blessings over doubtful mitzvot, for example. Applying this rubric to the second day of Yom Tov, would mean not doing work but also not saying Kiddush or Havdalah, putting on Tefilin and praying a weekday service. Yet we do not act in this way. Rather we treat the day as a full Yom Tov in every respect, as if it had its own holiness and was not simply observed from doubt. How do we explain this approach and thus relate to these days? I believe the answer lies in the source of the holiness of the festivals. While on Shabbat we bless G-d 'who has sanctified the Shabbat', on festivals we say 'who has sanctified Israel and the festivals'. That is because unlike Shabbat which is established by G-d from creation on every seventh day, the festivals are dependent on the calendar and that is dependent on us. In olden days this meant the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem had to certify the appearance of the new moon and sanctify the new month. Today this finds expression in our fixed calendar, sanctified in advance by the sages that established it. This means that in a very real sense the holiness of the days of Yom Tov is created by the action of the Jewish people, to which G-d, as it were, merely gives his seal of approval. It is therefore maybe possible to understand the concept of second day Yom Tov. In the same way the sages sanctified the other festival days they also extended that sanctity to the second day in the Diaspora. Thus second day Yom Tov receives its holiness from the same source as all the festivals, from the holiness of the Jewish people.

Parshah Kedoshim

'Don't go about as a talebearer among your people; don't stand by the blood of your neighbour'. The commentators have given various interpretations to this commandment in our Parshah and the connection between the two parts of the verse. One of the most interesting commentaries is that of the Hizkuni, who gives three different explanations of this mitzvah. In the first two he connects the two parts of the verse. One should not go around telling someone that someone else is slandering them. because that will cause the injured party to possibly take violent action against the slanderer. Secondly, if you know that someone is planning evil against his neighbour or giving him bad advice, it is your duty to inform him. Thus while in the first explanation the two halves of the verse complement each other: you should not slander lest your words cause blood to be shed, the second explanation uses the end of the verse to qualify the beginning, you should not tell tales unless not doing so will cause harm to your neighbour. In the third, most interesting explanation, the Hizkuni connects our verse to the preceding one, dealing with equality before the law. A judge should not say to the losing party in a law suit that in fact I was on your side, but what could I do as I was out voted. What links all these three explanations, and forms the overarching theme of many of the mitzvot in our Parshah, is the necessity to take responsibility for your actions and not hide behind facile, seemingly moral excuses. One should not engage ones penchant for tale bearing under the rubric of your friend's 'right to know', when such knowledge serves no useful purpose and will only make things worse. Conversely, one should not shirk ones responsibility to inform people of the true intentions of those that are likely to harm them by hiding behind the law prohibiting slander. Even if people may think you are being nasty you have an obligation to warn them about someone you consider harmful to their interests. Lastly, leaders have an obligation of collective responsibility. You can't seek to justify yourself at the expense of your colleagues, going along with a decision and staying in post, only to privately assure everyone that you actually think the opposite. The Torah in this verse demands we act responsibly, even if doing so can make us unpopular.

Shabbat Pesach

The prevailing custom is to read the Song of Songs on the Shabbat during Pesach. This song is set in the Spring, the period of Pesach, and is a love poem between a man and a women. It has traditionally been seen as describing the relationship between G-d and Israel, and commentators have seen in it hints at various events in Jewish history, such as the Exodus. Yet the song is primarily concerned with love, a passionate love that causes the beloved to leave their normal safe surroundings and follow their lover. One of the catch phrases of the song is 'flee my beloved', a phrase taken up by the medieval poets in their hymns for the festival. This idea fits in with the major theme of Pesach following the Seders. The rabbis say that Israel called the festival Pesach, in honour of G-d 'passing over' their houses in Egypt, while G-d called the festival by the name we use in the liturgy, the Feast of Matzah, in recognition of Israel's faith in going into the wilderness without proper provisions. Strictly speaking the name Pesach only refers to the Seder night, while the rest of the festival is the Feast of Matzah. Thus, while on the first days and at the Seder we commemorate G-d's redemption of Israel from Egypt, during these final days we concentrate more on our readiness to leave everything and follow G-d into the wilderness. Indeed, the theme of our passion for G-d, allegorically described in the Song of Songs is specifically mentioned by G-d when describing the events of these days. In the days of Jeremiah, a time when the relationship between G-d and Israel was almost at its nadir, G-d tells Jeremiah to remind the people of this journey into the wilderness. He instructs the prophet to tell the people that G-d remembers how they followed Him into the wilderness, a place with no provisions. And in an echo of the Song of Songs he calls this 'the love of your betrothal'. Like the lover in the Song Israel had followed G-d into the unknown, and this is not forgotten even in their darkest hour. Thus the last days of Pesach call on us to remember our ancestors passion for G-d and their readiness to take risks in following Him. And challenges us to also be ready to take risks for G-d.

Pesach

A general principle of Jewish law is that one is not punished for not observing a positive commandment. There are two exceptions to this rule both of whom have the most serious consequence for their non observance. They are circumcision and the bringing of the paschal sacrifice. Both are in fact also connected to each other, it being forbidden for an uncircumcised man to bring the paschal sacrifice. This connection is reinforced by the Haftorah we read on the first day of Pesach. It tells of a critical juncture in Jewish history, when the people have just crossed into the Land. The first thing they are commanded to do is to be circumcised, as the generation born in the wilderness were all uncircumcised. They next observe Pesach, after which (following the bringing of the Omer) they first eat of the produce of the Land. When they have circumcised themselves G-d tells Joshua that today He has 'removed the reproach of Egypt from them'. There are various interpretations of this statement but Rashi connects it to Pharaoh's assertion that 'evil is before your face' and the whole Exodus project was doomed to failure. Moses, according to a strong Midrashic tradition, constantly reminds G-d of Pharaoh's prediction when G-d is tempted to give up on the Israelites. Thus having arrived in the Land, and for a second generation performed the mitzvot of circumcision and Pesach, G-d can state that Pharaoh's dire warning of disaster has been thwarted. The Exodus project has been successful. Thus these two mitzvot, circumcision and Pesach, are not only basic symbols of Jewish identity but also proof of Jewish survival and continuity. They are the answer to all those that constantly predict and often hope for, the demise of the Jewish people and what we stand for. Every time we circumcise a Jewish child we state that we are still around and carrying on the covenant of Abraham into the future. Every year when we sit down at the Pesach Seder we declare to the world that the Jewish project is alive and well. By retelling the story of the Exodus we attest to its success. By reliving our past we ensure our future. It is no coincidence that these two mitzvot, despite being among the hardest in Judaism, are the most observed. Virtually no Jewish family doesn't circumcise their sons or have some sort of family Seder. We instinctively realise that these symbols of Jewish identity are basic to who we are and vital for our survival. As we sit at the Seder we connect to the generations past all the way to the Exodus, denying the predictions of Pharaoh and his ilk and truly becoming an eternal, indestructible people.

Parshah Aharei-Mot / Shabbat Hagadol

What connects our Parshah, the special Haftorah and the meaning of this last Shabbat before Pesach? While one reason why this Shabbat is called the 'Great Shabbat' is because of the last line of the Haftorah, others give a deeper reason, based on the original date of this day. According to Jewish tradition the Jews left Egypt on a Thursday, meaning that the 10th of Nisan fell on a Shabbat. That was the day that G-d had commanded the Jews to set aside a lamb for the Paschal sacrifice. This was a special mitzvah only for that generation and not replicated in commemorations of Pesach in the future. Its purpose was publically declare to the Egyptians that the Jews were going to slaughter a sheep, which they held sacred, as part of their liberation from Egyptian control. The Egyptians, who the Torah tells us were already terrified of what would happen next, would take no action. Thus the Jews would be liberated from their fear of their Egyptian masters. As the day which this great event took place was Shabbat, we celebrate it every year on the Shabbat before Pesach: the 'Great Shabbat'. Our Parshah also talks about the possibility of psychological liberation. Yom Kippur is the day when G-d enables us to start afresh, free from the shackles of the past. By creating a day on which He promises to forgive us, G-d prevents us from feeling chained to our past actions and thus enables us to move forward. The Haftorah also speaks of people in need of psychological freedom. The prophet speaks to a generation that have returned to the Land but because of their own failings have not met with great success. They are caught in a vicious cycle of despair, believing that it is useless trying to serve G-d because it will make no difference to their lives. G-d speaks to them, calling on them to break free of their fears and trust in Him, promising that if they do He will shower them with blessings. The message of this Shabbat before Pesach is of the necessity of breaking free of the mental chains that bind us. In Hassidic thought, the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is connected with its root which means narrow or conscripted. Egypt is the paradigm of the things that constrict us, preventing our growth. The liberation from Egypt is thus our ability to be liberated from our mental prison and proceed towards our own promised land. We have seen in the events of the last months how the crucial moment of liberation has been when people are no longer afraid. This Pesach, let us break free from our own fears and achieve liberation.

Parshah Metzora

This week's Parshah deals with the rehabilitation of the leper. This process of returning to society is not simple and in fact comprises four stages. Firstly the leper has to be healed of his leprosy. The priest checks to make sure this is so. Then we have the ceremony of the purification of the leper. This enables him to return to the main area of the camp, but he must live outside his house for a week. At the end of the week he must again purify himself. Then, on the eighth day, he brings the sacrifices that enable him to again take part in the worship at the Tabernacle. Jewish tradition sees the leprosy discussed in the Torah as a spiritually induced malady which come about as the punishment for slander. As a consequence of the slanderer trying to divide people one from another, he himself is excluded from the community. The process of purification from leprosy, therefore, is in fact also the spiritual and societal rehabilitation of the slanderer. First he must have stopped his nefarious activities. The community must be sure that he is not returning simply to carry on where he left off. He must then truly repent and make amends, symbolised by the first stage of purification, with its ritual ingredients such as hyssop, symbolising humility. The slanderer is then let back into society but still not fully accepted. He must undergo a period of internal exile, outside the mainstream of the community, symbolised by his living outside his tent for a week. Even when this period is finished however the slanderer is still excluded from taking a full part in the spiritual life of the community. Only after waiting yet another day, is he finally allowed to enter the Temple. The difficulty of this process shows the seriousness with which the Torah views the sin of slander and its deep understanding of its lasting damage. Unlike theft or physical assault, which can often be easily repaired and restitution made, the damage done to someone's reputation and their relationships with others is far harder to undo and can have long term consequences. The slanderer in Jewish eyes is equivalent to a murderer and thus his rehabilitation is long and arduous. All this normally refers to one who slanders an individual. How much more is it true about someone who slanders a whole community or even the whole Jewish people. Just such a person has finally publically admitted this week that he actually got it wrong. The damage he did by his false accusations was, and continues to be, immense. We may hope his rehabilitation as a Jew will be far from easy.

Parshah Tazria / HaHodesh

At first glance there seems to be little in common between the two sections of Torah we read today. One deals with issues surrounding childbirth and leprosy, while the other is concerned with the bringing of the Pesach offering and the first Seder night in Egypt. Yet on closer examination there is a common theme that connects the two passages. That is the issue of arrogance and the humbling of the proud. In both the Parshah and the Maftir we have events and rituals that are designed to put those who arrogantly think they can behave as they wish in their place. The Rabbis tell us that the leprosy mentioned in the Torah is the punishment for slander. The person going round defaming others self-righteously thinks he is better than everyone else, and certainly than his victim. He is therefore humbled by a plague that causes every one to shun him and is effectively ostracised from normal society. He regarded other's as outcasts and is now forced to spend his time among outcasts. Furthermore, the Torah requires him to appear before the priest, who is the one that decides his fate. As an important member of society he probably looked down on the priesthood as mere religious functionaries who could be ordered around and were dependent on his handouts. Now he is forced into a position of subservience before a priest who alone has the power to declare him pure or impure. The Egyptians too thought they were better than others. The top of the power structure had absolute power over others whose wishes could be disregarded. This was symbolised by both the esteem given to the firstborn, representing hereditary and political power, and the worship of the sheep, representing wealth. Before the firstborn were humbled by G-d, the Israelites were commanded to take a lamb and slaughter and eat it. The symbols of Egyptian arrogance are thus humbled before those they had looked down on. These passages provide an important lesson for every generation. In every time there have been people who think that their wealth or position gives them the right to treat others as they wish. In the Jewish world as well there have always those that thought that because of their money or political connections they could lord it over everyone else. The lesson of the readings off this week to these people is: either learn some humility or G-d teach it to you.

Shemini / Parah

Unlike most other religions, Judaism is defined by genealogy rather than belief. Jews are Jews because they are born of a Jewish mother, whether or not they wish to be. A Jew therefore is obligated to keep the Torah by dint of the fact that his ancestors made a covenant with G-d, not by his or her personal choice. What is the moral basis for this binding of future generations? The prophets seem to suggest the rationale of benefit. In chastising Israel they point out that the Jews benefit from the covenant, by the events of the Exodus and the possession of Israel, and therefore are obligated to G-d to keep His Torah. This argument however, breaks down after the destruction of the Jewish state and exile of its population. Ezekiel, therefore, has to continue to insist that the covenant is still valid. In answer to those who say that now the Jews are in exile they don't have to keep the Torah, he proclaims that G-d will continue to obligate them whether they want it or not. In this week's Haftorah, he also points out G-d's continuing commitment to His side of the covenant. But why? Our Haftorah may provide an answer. In explaining why He will redeem Israel even though they are not worthy, G-d declares that the downtrodden state of the Jews in exile causes a profanation of G-d's name. We here have a different argument for the binding nature of the covenant, that of reputation. When G-d and Israel made a covenant on Mt Sinai, something fundamental changed. The two were bound together in a basic fundamental way. The Rabbis express this by saying that Israel, the Torah and G-d are one. This is not to say Jews are divine, but that G-d's very presence in the world is from Sinai intimately bound up with the Jewish people. How Jews behave and how we are treated reflects on G-d, whether or not either of us want it. Therefore neither for the Jews or G-d is it possible to break the covenant between us, even if at various times in history we may have wanted to. This fact also has another important consequence. Because Jews are identified with the Divine presence in the world, people who want to attack G-d attack Jews. At the heart of anti-Semitism, if even on only an unconscious level, is the desire to drive G-d's presence from the world. In some cases, such as the Nazis, this is explicit. Therefore ant-Semitism is not a function of what Jews do but of who we are. It is not Jewish actions that annoy those that hate us but our very existence as Jews in the world. People who hate Jews, therefore, really hate G-d and thus in effect themselves.

Parshah Tzav / Zachor

Our Parshah is one of the four places in the Torah we have a special note: a shalshelet. This elongated note is traditionally seen as denoting hesitation. In the three other places where it occurs this is relatively obvious. Lot hesitating to leave Sodom, Eliezer wondering how to find a wife for Isaac and Joseph wondering whether to succumb to the wiles of Potiphar's wife, all fit in with this concept. In our Parshah, however, the note is found at the point of the slaughtering of the dedication sacrifice, inaugurating Aaron into the priesthood. It is les clear what this is meant to signify. Jewish tradition, however, also sees here an element of hesitation. Aaron was reluctant to take up his position, either because he thought Moses was more worthy or because he was disqualified owing to his role in the Golden Calf incident. Another tradition postulates that Moses himself may have had momentary regrets at seeing the supreme religious office pass to another. The centre of the Megillah also has an important moment of hesitation. Moderchai asks Esther to go to the king and seek to save the Jews from Haman's plan. Esther hesitates to go to the king unannounced, as this carries with it grave risks. What lessons can we learn from the hesitations we read about this weekend? While the hesitation of Aaron is a spiritual one and that of Esther caused by physical fear, both are in fact afraid of taking a leap into the unknown. Both are asked to change what they have been until now and become something greater. Aaron must be transformed from merely Moses' spokesman to the premier religious symbol of the nation. Esther must transform herself from a timid girl living quietly in the palace to a real Queen, the equal of Ahashverosh. Both must in some way leave behind their mentors and stand on their own feet. When Aaron stands before G-d, he must do so without Moses, and in a position unique to him. Esther must also leave the guidance of Mordechai and make her on way through the labyrinth of palace politics. Both successfully do so. The secret of their ability to overcome their fears lies in a famous line in the Megillah. In one of the few hints at Divine providence in the book Mordechai tells Esther that it is maybe precisely for such a situation that she has become queen. In asking Esther to fulfil her potential Mordechai invokes G-d's purpose for her. Despite his misgivings, Aaron also, was meant to be High Priest, and not Moses. If we need to move forward to fulfil our true potential, it is often G-d that is pushing us.

Parshah Vayikra

There is a famous dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanidies as to the rationale behind sacrifices. Maimonides explains that the purpose of the sacrificial service is to wean the Jewish people away from idolatry. It is merely a method of transferring the people's allegiance from idols to G-d. Nachmanidies strongly disagrees with this assertion and argues that the sacrificial service has its own inherent spiritual meaning. These differing approaches also feed into the discussion of whether the sacrifices will be reconstituted in the Messianic era. Maimonides suggests in various places that possibly not, while Nachmanidies sees them as integral to Judaism. A possibility in reconciling these two views can be gleaned from the very beginning of our Parshah and the book of Leviticus. The Torah, unusually, states that 'a man that shall offer a sacrifice'. The word used for man is not the normal ish but Adam. The commentators learn several things from this change but one is that a person who brings a sacrifice is in some way offering themselves. The sacrifice of animals, therefore, thus becomes a substitute for human sacrifice. This is in fact a common theme in the Torah. In the Akedah, a lamb is substituted for Isaac. In the mitzvah of the firstborn, while animals are sacrificed, the firstborn son is redeemed. Indeed at the end of Leviticus the Torah provides for the monetary redemption of humans vowed to the Tabernacle. Thus, in a Maimonidean vein, the Jews are to be weaned off human sacrifice, prevalent at that time, by animal sacrifice. Yet the above understanding of the Torah that a person who brings a sacrifice should see himself as the one being sacrificed, goes beyond this. It invites us to a deeper appreciation of the motives that caused people to sacrifice even their children to their gods. It postulates that in serving G-d simple prayer is not enough. People have an innate need to sacrifice something of themselves to G-d. Thus the sacrificial service does indeed hold a deep spiritual meaning as argued by Nachmanidies. What the Torah does is enable that need to be expressed in an acceptable form. Thus both great commentators are in fact correct but merely looking at the issue from different perspectives. If so, the question remains for us in a world without the sacrificial service, how do we best express our need to sacrifice of ourselves to G-d?

Shemot (Exodus) 5771

Parshat Pekude / Shekalim

We are witnessing an extraordinary series of upheavals across the Middle East. An area that was thought to be stratified is proving itself seemingly capable of radical change. As we look back to the crumbling edifice of authoritarian rule and forward to the future, our special Haftorah may give us an insight in how to build a revolution. Josiah, too, was seeking to radically reform his country. Part of this project was the renovation of the Temple that had been neglected by previous generations. Interestingly he is forced to bypass the old structures of the priesthood and go directly to the people to achieve his goal. The Haftorah in telling of how things proceeded uses a word that is at the heart of building a truly just and participatory society or organisation. It mentions that both the donors and the workmen worked in emunah. This word is normally translated as faith but actual has three basic meanings that are crucial to the success of any enterprise and whose lack brings the whole edifice crashing down. The first meaning is that of integrity. It means standing up for what you believe and meaning what you say. When people say they believe in one thing one week and then change their opinion the next because it is expedient or advantageous to do so, they lose all credibility. Without integrity a society can’t progress and a political process can’t take root. The next meaning of emunah is loyalty. Without this basic trait the glue that binds people together weakens. If loyalty is requited with disloyalty; support with a stab in the back, it becomes impossible for long to hold any structure together. Lack of true loyalty is at the heart of the collapse of autocratic societies and its restoration a basic component of building something better. The third meaning of the word is that of trust. In its most basic form it means an openness of dialogue and being able to know what is going on. When people begin to suspect that what is being said is only half the truth and that what is being hatched in secret is what is really important, any society is in deep trouble. A basic lack of trust undermines any regime and its restoration is essential for the building of something more stable. Thus these three components of emunah, that were so important to Josiah are just as important today. Their lack was at the heart the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and their restoration basic to their success. Yet lack of all three of these components is also evident in our own society and political system. Thus what is happening in the Arab world should also serve as a warning to us.

Parshat Vayakhel

This week we recount the actual construction of the Tabernacle. The Torah relates that when Moses asked the people for donations they responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. They brought so much material that the workmen came to Moses and told him that they already had enough and more for the completion of the project. Moses then caused a proclamation to go forth that no one should bring anymore materials. We can learn many things from this passage. One is the nature of true religious and political leadership. The Ramban points out that in telling the people to desist from donating, Moses was making sure that the donations were only for the project at hand and not being used to further his own position. He resisted the temptation to simply pocket the difference. This is in contradistinction to those rulers, in evidence also today, that see their position as an opportunity to advance their own or families interests and fortunes. In community and religious life this should also serve as a lesson for us. True communities are built on the work of volunteers who give of their own time and often resources for the good of the community. This is in contradistinction to those religious individuals and groups who see believers or communities as an asset to be fleeced. Therefore, in our interfaith work in Edinburgh we try as much as possible to seek funding for projects, rather than simply to pay running costs or salaries. Others, unfortunately, have not followed this model and thus given religion a bad name. But this section of the Torah can teach us an even more important lesson about the nature of religion itself and what G-d wants from us. The people are commanded to bring materials for the construction of the Tabernacle to house G-d's presence. Once that goal is achieved G-d does not continue to want that the people constantly give their money to him. Moses as well is aware of the dangers of unbridled religious enthusiasm. While appreciative of the motivation of the outpouring of donations to the Tabernacle, he does not allow it to continue. It must be kept within reasonable bounds. The Rabbis also restricted the amount of money that could be spent on fulfilling the mitzvot. We are neither required nor allowed to impoverish ourselves in G-d's service. What G-d wants from us is to use the riches He has given us wisely, in helping others and supporting worthy causes. He also however wants us to enjoy our money and have a good life. This is the sensible approach to these issues we can learn from our Parshah

Parshat Ki-Tissah

At the centre of this weeks Parshah we have the famous incident where Moses asks to see G-d’s glory. He is told that he cannot see G-d’s face but only His back. The marked anthropomorphism of this statement is made more striking by the assertion by the Rabbis that what Moses saw was the knot at the back of the Tefilin. Leaving aside the question this raises of the Talmudic Sages’, and indeed Rashi’s, view on G-d having a form, how are we to understand this passage? This section of the Torah should be examined in its context. If follows the sin of the Golden Calf and G-d agreeing to forgive Israel for that sin. Yet He tells them that from now on they will not be lead by Him personally but by an angel. The people are upset at this news and Moses informs G-d that he does not accept this state of affairs. It is in the context of this dialogue, leading up to the revelation of G-d’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, that the passage above occurs. What then is being talked about here is the concept of the hidden nature of G-d. To what extent can G-d be revealed to us and to what extent must His presence remain hidden? This is also a major theme of Purim, which was regarded as a time when’s G-d’s presence was hidden. Purim is about acknowledging the presence of G-d even when it appears not be present. Mordechai and Esther revealed that one can find G-d even if he seems to be hiding and not readily available. That is also the conversation that is taking place in our passage. Moses has succeeded in persuading G-d to personally lead the people and do cause His presence to dwell among them. Yet he wants more. He asks to see the full extent of G-d’s glory. G-d informs him that this is not possible but offers to show him His back. This the Rabbis said was the knot on the back of the Tefilin. Tefilin are called a sign, a visible representation of the relationship between G-d and Israel. By showing Moses this, G-d is telling him that the way to achieve the fullest appreciation of the Divine in this world is not by seeking to perceive G-d in a direct manner but by performing the mitzvot. By carrying out Divine commands in the physical world we are enabled to taste the spiritual world beyond and to reach a communion with G-d. Furthermore, in times when G-d seems distant the prayer and mitzvot are what can serve to bring Him closer. This is why we read the passage of G-d’s revelation to Moses on public fast days. This is the template that G-d gives to Moses in the Parshah, and which found its most famous expression on Purim.

Parshat Tetzaveh

This week's Parshah is famous for the fact that Moses' name is not mentioned. Tetzaveh also always is read close to the 7th of Adar, the day when Moses died. (Even in a leap year, as yartzeits are commemorated in Adar I). Thus, on the Shabbat closest to Moses' departure from the world, we ignore him. This is in contradistinction to a normal practice on a yartzeit where we seek to remember the deceased. There are several lessons to be learnt from this anomaly. The first is that Judaism is about G-d alone and not any intermediary, no matter how important. Our most important historical figure is not to be given undue reverence or commemorated in a way that could become idolatrous. In Judaism, unlike other religions, all our festivals commemorate historical events or the relationship between G-d and Israel, not leaders or prophets. Even the 7th of Adar is used not to commemorate Moses but to appreciate the important work of the Jewish burial societies. Yet we can also glean another important lesson from Moses' apparent absence from the Parshah. For if we look closely we can discern that Moses is not really absent, only his name is not mentioned. Yet it is clear that the 'you' in the Parshah that G-d is commanding refers to Moses and not initially the whole Jewish people. This is explicit in the second paragraph where the Torah begins the detailing of the priestly garments. 'And you bring close to you Aaron your brother and his sons with him'. It is clear that it is Moses that is being spoken to even though he is not named. In like manner Moses' influence is felt throughout the Parshah, even though his physical presence seems absent. This teaches us an important lesson about how Judaism perceives religious leadership and legacy. Moses' importance is not in his name or his appearance or even in his personality. It is in the ideas he taught and the Torah for which he was the conduit. It is noteworthy that until the modern period, there were virtually no biographies of the Talmudic sages or other religious luminaries. No one cared to read about what they looked like, how they ate or other details of their private lives. That was simply irrelevant. What was important was what they taught. It was their ideas that were their true legacy. This is an important lesson for us to take on board in an age obsessed by celebrity. Whole magazines and now a TV channel are devoted to the most intimate details of their lives. Yet they stand for nothing. For Jews its not what you look like that is important; its what you stand for.

Parshat Terumah - Rosh Hodesh

One of the questions that arises in connection with the construction of the Tabernacle is that of the origin of the building materials. While many of these can be traced to the spoil the Israelites took with them when they left Egypt, others are not so easy to explain. This is especially true with regards to the boards that were used to make the basic structure of the Tabernacle and which the Torah tells us were made of acacia wood. Commentators have wondered where the Israelites obtained such would in the wilderness. A simple answer is that for large parts of their journey the Jews were not travelling in real desert. Indeed for the period of the construction of the Tabernacle the Jews were not travelling at all. They stayed in the vicinity of Mt Sinai for just under a year and so that area obviously had the wherewithal to sustain them. It is, therefore, not unlikely that the wilderness of the Sinai region also contained many of the materials needed for the construction of the Tabernacle, including acacia trees. This, indeed, is the approach taken by some modern commentators. Yet the Talmudic Sages took a different and more interesting approach. They postulated that Jacob had planted these trees during his last years in Egypt and commanded his descendents that when they left they should take the wood with them. It was from this wood that the Tabernacle was later constructed. How are we to understand this story. It can been seen as merely a flight of rabbinic imagination. Yet if we contemplate it more closely it contains an important and deep lesson for us all. The Rabbis are telling us that in that the beginning of the Egyptian exile Jacob had the foresight to plant the seeds of trees that would be needed for the Tabernacle of G-d's presence after the redemption. He is thus planting the seeds of Israel's spiritual rebirth at the very time that they are most in danger of spiritual atrophy. Jacob is not only showing his faith in the ultimate redemption at a time of great uncertainty about the future but actively planning for that future. This example has been repeated throughout Jewish history by both the prophets and the Rabbis. At times of uncertainty or even disaster, they have worked to plant the seeds of redemption, thus ensuring its eventual realisation. The spiritual revivals of Hezekiah and Josiah and the rabbinical academies founded in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, made possible the Judaism we have today. In these interesting times, that is an important lesson to remember.

Parshat Mishpatim

One of the more interesting regulations in the compendium of laws found in our Parshah is that concerning the theft of livestock. The Torah requires that someone that steals an ox or sheep and proceeds to slaughter or sell it, must pat fivefold for an ox and fourfold for a sheep. If the animal was not slaughtered and remains in the possession of the thief, then only the normal payment double the value required of all theft is requited. The commentators discuss at length why the ox and sheep were singled out for special treatment and why there is a difference in the payment between them, giving various answers to both questions. Yet another question, which receives less attention, is why the thief must pay more if he has slaughtered or sold the animal, than if it is still alive in his possession. The Hizkuni provides a hint to the answer when discussing why an ox requires a higher level of payment than a sheep. An ox, he explains, is not as easy to steal as a sheep. Therefore the person that steals an ox is a more brazen and habitual criminal, deserving a greater punishment. In the same manner, one could say that it is one thing to steal an animal. It is quite another, and more serious offence, to then treat it as your own and slaughter or sell it. This is taking criminality to another level. The Ibn Ezra seems to imply this understanding of the law when he postulates that if the animal is still in his possession the thief will be more afraid of being found out. He may in fact then repent of his actions and return the animal, something he cannot do if he has killed or sold it. He has thus by disposing of what he has stolen crossed a point of no return in his criminal career. This understanding of the Torah of the different types and stages of criminal behaviour has great relevance for today. It teaches us to be aware that not all criminals are alike and their is a progression in criminality, withy each stage needing to be treated differently. There is a difference between someone that may have stumbled into petty criminality and a hardened thief who plans his crimes and disposes of the proceeds. Unfortunately we too often lump everyone together throwing them all into the same prison where the young first time offender learns from the professionals how to do it better next time. This is sheer madness. We should pay more attention to the wise system found in our Parshah.

Parshat Yitro

Among the numerous mitzvot of the Torah, some have a reward attached to them, such as honouring parents or keeping the Sabbatical year. Others have various punishments assigned for their infraction. Contained in the Ten Commandments is a commandment that G-d specifically announces he will not overlook: that of taking His name in vain. 'G-d will not forgive those who take His name in vain' states the Torah unequivocally. What is the nature of this sin that causes it to be unforgivable and why is it necessary to proclaim that G-d will not over look this crime? Someone who swears in the name of G-d involves G-d in their actions and beliefs. They associate G-d with what they are doing or the proposition they are affirming. Furthermore, they are doing so precisely because of the power of the Divine name. They are using G-d's reputation in order to enhance their own standing, like someone using a professional organisation such as the BMA or Law Society in order to vouch for their own professional standards. When they swear falsely, therefore, or act in a unacceptable manner they bring G-d's reputation into disrepute. In the same way people guilty of professional misconduct will be expelled from a professional organisation, G-d takes care to publically disassociate Himself from those that misuse His name for their own nefarious ends. By proclaiming that He will not overlook or acquit those who take His name in vain, G-d is on the one hand protecting His own reputation but also letting us know that those who use G-d's name for their own purposes do so without His consent. This is an important point to consider when we appraise the actions of religions, clergy and others who claim to speak for G-d. Just because someone purports to speak in G-d's name doesn't mean that they do. They may in fact be saying and doing the precise opposite of what G-d actually wants. People are often turned off faith or religion by the actions of those call themselves religious. They will sometimes turn from G-d altogether because of the bad behaviour of some of those that claim to speak for Him. Yet while these people are responsible to G-d for their actions, G-d is not responsible for their behaviour. If I claim to be a doctor and go round killing people rather than curing them, that is not the responsibility of the professional medical profession. G-d in the Ten Commandments has warned us not to trust everyone that claims to speak in His name. It is our responsibility if we don't heed the warning, not His.

Parshat Beshalach

'A maidservant at the Red Sea saw more than Ezekiel the Prophet'. This statement of the Rabbis sets out the basic Jewish approach to mysticism and Jewish history. Ezekiel was the prophet that experienced the highest level of mystical experience and his visions formed the basis of later Jewish mysticism. Yet the Rabbis point out that a ordinary Jew, a maidservant, experienced a greater appreciation of G-d through the historical experience of the Crossing of the Sea. G-d's actions in history are a more actual and reliable indicator of His presence and nature than sublime mystical experiences. Mystical experiences are all very well but they are no substitute for a proper understanding of G-d based on His actual redemption and concrete revelation. Except for Lag B'Omer, a late and minor festival, no Jewish holidays celebrate a mystical experience. Rather they commemorate G-d' s actions in the concrete reality of Jewish history. Judaism has therefore always been somewhat wary of mysticism and claims of mystical experiences. Unlike history, which while open to interpretation, is based on verifiable events, mysticism is based on claims that cannot be verified and therefore are open to both misinterpretation and abuse. While redemption and revelation based in history are secure anchors for a moral Jewish life, mysticism can in fact lead to quite the opposite. Mystic texts can and have been interpreted to permit the forbidden and promulgate doctrines fundamentally opposed to traditional Judaism. From ancient times to today mystic movements have arisen that have asserted that dead or apostate messiahs, sexual license or general abrogation of parts of Jewish law can be contained within Judaism. The Talmud relates that of four great Rabbis that delved deeply into Jewish mysticism only one emerged unscathed. Likewise Judaism has not emerged unscathed from the ravages of misunderstood and perverted mysticism. Our Parshah therefore does not end with the Song at the Sea but carries on to teach about Shabbat and other laws. According to tradition the moment the Jews had experience the great revelation of G-d presence at the Sea, they are instructed in some of the basic laws of Judaism. Judaism is not about personal mystical experience but collective redemption; not esoteric practices but concrete Halakhah. The maidservant at the Sea with her feet on the ground is a better role model for Jews than Ezekiel the prophet and his visions. Mysticism may have its place in Judaism but certainly not a central one.

Parshat Bo

At the beginning of our Parshah, Pharaoh is warned of an impending plague of locusts if he doesn't let the Israelites go. While this warning seems to have little effect on him, it does worry his advisors. 'For how long will this be a mokesh for us...do you not know that Egypt is ruined', they complain. The word mokesh translated in various ways. The classic Aramaic translation of Onkelos renders it takalah, a word that is also used in modern Hebrew and means fault or something wrong with an object or situation. The word mokesh itself in modern Hebrew means a mine but the best understanding of the way it is used in the Torah is probably as some sort of trap. All these renderings have the sense of a something holding you back and preventing things going forward or functioning properly. In other words, what Pharaoh's advisors are telling him is that the continued enslavement of the Jews is entrapping Egypt, holding it back from progressing. The enslavement of the Jews is in effect enslaving Egypt. Pharaoh's stubbornness is entrapping him in a downward spiral which is leading Egypt to disaster. The only way to escape this trap is to let go and free the Israelites. Pharaoh of course cannot let go and thus leads himself and his people to ultimate destruction. Yet their story has an important moral message for future generations on both a collective and individual level. We can be become enslaved by our unwillingness to let go. This can on a national level refusing to let go of territory or people under our control. Indonesia, for example is a relatively successful fledgling democracy. Yet its real freedom only began when it let go of East Timor, a territory it had occupied and oppressed for decades. On a personal level we can bear grudges or harbour resentment for what people have done to us. Yet until we are able to let go of our hatred towards our enemies they still have a hold over us and control our lives. Especially in cases, where unlike Pharaoh, we are morally right, it can be hard to relinquish our desire for revenge or even justice. Yet failure to do so prolongs the original pain of the wrong inflicted upon us and in fact entraps us in a prison of our own making. The key to freedom is being able to relinquish our past and move on to a better future. In freeing those we imprison, even if only in our minds, we in fact free ourselves.

Parshat Va’era

At the beginning of the Parshah we find that despite G-d's promise of redemption, neither Moses, the Jews or Pharaoh particularly want to listen. In midrashic sources we find that Moses, though not the Israelites, is criticised for this scepticism. However in the Torah itself the fact of their disbelief is simply stated without comment. Pharaoh, on the other hand, is punished for refusing to heed G-d's commands. This raises an interesting question. To what extent are required to believe in the promises of religious figures, even if they are accompanied by what seem to be miracles? After all the world is full of charlatans masquerading in the guise of holy men, many of them calling themselves Reverend or Rabbi or even a prophet. You only have to look at religious channels on television to come across the 'believe later, send money now' crew, who promise that 'miracle water or a 'faith tool' will cancel your debts or make you rich or heal your cancer. On a more serious note, large parts of the Jewish people have been deceived by false messiah's promising that the redemption is at hand, most notably by Shabbetai Zvi. Surely then, a healthy degree of scepticism is in order and that is what is shown by the characters in our Parshah. Pharaoh's magicians, after all, could replicate some of the plagues, so why is Pharaoh described from the beginning as stubborn and hardening his heart? The same criticism is not applied to Moses or the Jews. I think the answer is very profound. Pharaoh was not chastised for not believing in Moses or even ignoring the plagues. He was punished from the start for not doing what was right. If your actions are wrong you shouldn't need miracles to persuade you to behave correctly. Moses and the Israelites were not required to act at this stage, therefore their scepticism occasioned no opprobrium. Pharaoh, on the other hand, knew what he was doing was fundamentally wrong and therefore needed to be chastised. The plagues main purpose was to force Pharaoh to do what he should have done all along. This teaches us an important lesson. Well meaning people often seek to strengthen Jewish observance by pointing out miracles that occurred to people who kept Shabbat or gave charity or performed another mitzvah. This is fundamentally misguided. We keep the Torah because we believe it to be the will of G-d. We do mitzvot in order to get close to G-d, which in itself is the highest reward. Reducing Judaism to a miracle play demeans its whole purpose and totally misses the point.

Parshat Shemot

The story of the Exodus begins with Pharaoh becoming increasingly concerned at the growing amount of Jews in Egypt. His precise concern is spelled out by the Torah: 'and if there will be a war, they will join our enemies and fight us and go up from the land'. The precise nature of this last concern is somewhat unclear and has occasioned differing interpretations. What exactly is the worry that the Jews will leave the land? Some have seen it as psychological projection: a metaphor for the Egyptians themselves being displaced and the Jews taking over the land. Others have taken it literally as the Jews leaving, either with the spoils of war or by simply leaving impoverishing Egypt. These two explanations are unfortunately both common in relations a host country and immigrants. On the one hand immigrants are accused of not being connected to the land they live in. They still belong in some way to their original country and are to be suspected of holding dual loyalty or of wanting to bleed the country dry and then leave. On the other hand immigrants are accused of fundamentally wanting to change the society they have arrived in or even of wanting to take it over altogether. Pharaoh's answer to this fear was to oppress the Israelites, a plan the Torah tells us, that spectacularly backfired. 'The more they oppressed them, the more they flourished'. Oppression only strengthens the identity of minority communities, causing the fears of the majority to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately modern leaders have often not learnt from Pharaoh's mistakes and are on the way to achieving the same sort of result. Yet a difficult question may be asked. It is easy to combat such attitudes in Britain where it can be shown that, with a few exceptions, fears such as Pharaoh's, are baseless. But in Israel the situation is not so simple. While by and large, Israel's Arab minority have not really helped or co-operated with the country's external enemies, the second fear is more grounded. By their own admission, the majority of Arabs in Israel do not accept the right of the country to exist as a Jewish state and seek to change its basic identity. This has caused some, especially in the present government, to attempt to emulate the policy of Pharaoh. Yet the Torah informs us that such a policy does not work. The only answer, therefore is a dialogue which seeks to create a situation where Israel's minorities can feel equal, while maintaining the Jewish nature of the state. Our own history teaches us the futility of acting otherwise.

Bereishit (Genesis) 5771

Parshah Vayehi

When Jacob finishes blessing his children, he turns to Joseph and declares that he has given him 'a portion above your brethren that he took from the Amorite with my sword and my bow'. The commentators have differed on the interpretation of both parts of this verse. The extra portion given to Joseph is either the granting of tribal status to Joseph's two sons or the granting of a burial place to Joseph in Shechem (portion in Hebrew), where he was eventually buried. The meaning of the second part of the verse has also been interpreted in different ways. Some interpret it in military terms as either meaning the events surrounding the incident of Dinah, which took place in Shechem or the military conquest off the Land by Jacob's descendents. Others, following the Sages, interpret it metaphorically as meaning my wisdom and prayer. This fits in with the general rabbinic reinterpretation of militaristic biblical passages into meaning Torah learning, that took place following the failure of the Bar-Kochba revolt. Thus the commentators point us to us two ways of Jewish struggle. One is a militaristic physical struggle, using force of arms. The other is an intellectual battle, using the force of ideas. At different times in Jewish history one or the other have been appropriate. Today we require both. It is necessary for Jews to be able to defend themselves physically, whether in Israel or abroad. We have implacable enemies that again wish to exterminate us. Yet another, no less important struggle, is also occurring. This is taking place in the realm of ideas. A concerted effort is being made to delegitimize Israel's right to exist and inter-alia the right of Jews to be counted among the family of nations. An assault is also being made on the right of Jews to freely practice their religion, on issues such as Shechitah and circumcision. These assaults need to be combated by the force of ideas. While we have been quite good at defending ourselves physically over the last sixty years, we have often failed to defend ourselves intellectually. That must change, and while in the realm of physical struggle Israelis must necessarily take the main role, in the battle of ideas the Diaspora must lead. It is here, especially in the 'hub of hate' that Britain has become, that we must make a concerted and effective effort to combat our enemies. Its time to stand up and be counted.

Parshah Vayigash

A question I am often asked is what is the Jewish view of the afterlife. One of the first things I say, especially to non-Jews, is that Jews don't believe in Hell. We do however believe in a place of purification or purgatory, of limited duration. This is named Gehinom, after a valley in Jerusalem used for fiery human sacrifices. It is interesting that all three Abrahamic religions conceive of post mortal punishment of consisting of fire. This maybe because they originated in the heat of the Middle East. If they had evolved in Scotland, Hell may have been thought of as an eternal Scottish winter. Yet I believe that there is a deeper reason for this visualisation, an example of which is found in our Parshah. On two occasions in the Parshah the idea of spiritual or emotional discomfort is mentioned. The first is when Judah explains that he is responsible for Benjamin and if he fails in his duty he will have sinned against his father forever. The nature of this status is illustrated in the second case, where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and they draw back from him. Rashi explains that there reaction was caused by their overwhelming sense of shame. The same is true for Judah. If he fails to return Benjamin to his father safe and well, he will be totally ashamed for the rest of his life and unable to face his father. This I believe is also the nature of the spiritual purification undergone after death, whose closest physical comparison was fire. The pain of being ashamed of your actions, which in life creates a burning sensation both on the face and in the heart, was likened the heat of burning flames. Furthermore, unlike in life, where one can run away from shame by ignoring or excusing your actions, after death there is no escape. There is another difference between the two states. While after death there is nothing you can do anymore about your life, while alive, shame can prove an important spur to repentance. Indeed, the feeling of shame at your actions is an important step in improving yourself in the future. Someone that is ashamed of what they have done is truly sorry and less likely to offend again in the future. If someone apologises to you but your are not sure if they are genuine, check if they are ashamed of what they have done. If not, they are probably insincere. As none of us are perfect, we thus have a choice. We can be ashamed of our actions in this world and seek to improve on them, or we can arrogantly pretend we have done nothing wrong and be ashamed in the world to come. The first is definitely preferable.

Parshah Miketz / Hanukah

An important turning point in the story of Joseph is when he succeeds in interpreting Pharaoh's dreams, while all Pharaoh's advisors fail. We may ask, what ability did Joseph possess that the others didn't? An answer may be found in the story of Hanukah. According to the Rabbis the Greeks specifically focused on three mitzvot whose abolition, they hoped, would lead to the demise of Judaism. Those three mitzvot were Shabbat, circumcision and the Jewish calendar. All three teach us special lessons which are also related to the story of Joseph. Shabbat teaches us the need for delayed gratification and the need to prepare for the future. We set aside special food and clothes for Shabbat and we need to prepare everything before hand. As the Rabbis said: 'he who wants to eat on Shabbat must prepare on the eve of Shabbat'. Circumcision teaches us that the natural world is not perfect and that we can improve on it. The Greeks regarded this as the mutilation of perfection and so opposed it. Judaism, however, understood that we can improve and strengthen nature by our actions. Finally, the Greeks believed that we were controlled by fate and thus unable to change our destiny. They thus sought to destroy the Jewish calendar. In Judaism, the fixing of the months and the festivals is given by G-d into our hands, thus teaching us that we have control over our destiny and we can change the future by our actions. All three lessons were vital to Joseph in interpreting Pharaoh's dreams. Joseph understood that people could act to change their destiny and prevent the famine, it was not simply a fate that had to be endured. Furthermore, he understood, being circumcised, that nature can be improved on. If he acted correctly he could save the environment from degradation. Lastly he knew that we sometimes have to give up our present gratification to safeguard the future. He thus could advise Pharaoh to save grain and not use the years of plenty as an excuse for a binge. Pharaoh's advisors, like the Greeks, didn't share this belief system and thus couldn't properly understand the import of Pharaoh's dreams. These lessons are just as relevant for today. We too need to learn how to consume less and save more and use our knowledge and technology to save the environment. Above all we need to believe in our ability to change our destiny and save ourselves from destruction. Like Joseph we have lessons from our Jewish heritage that are vital to the world we live in. At this time, as in those days, we need to apply them.

Parshah Vayeshev

The story of Joseph and his brothers is in many ways the 'original sin' of Jewish history. Because of it the Jewish people had a fault line running down the middle which led to division, defeat and exile. The story we read this week is therefore not very edifying and no one comes out of it with much credit. Yet at its heart is an unspoken undercurrent, a fact we know which the protagonists of the story don't. The whole thing is engineered by G-d in order to ensure the Jews go to Egypt and thus begin to fulfil the promise of exile and redemption given to Abraham. We can therefore ask how this Divine manipulation influences our understanding of the behaviour of the brothers? Does it, for example, in anyway mitigate their responsibility? I believe it may do so. The most common point in the story highlighted for Divine intervention is that of Joseph being lost and finding a man in the field who shows him the way to his brothers. Yet I believe there is another more important point in the story where G-d intervenes, and this intervention has moral consequences. If we read the story closely we can find a progression in the brothers ideas about how to treat Joseph. They first want to simply kill him and be done with it. Reuben then persuades them to not kill him directly but throw him in a pit where he will presumably die of exposure or starvation. They then sit down to eat, but obviously with Joseph still on their minds. For when a caravan appears in the distance Judah persuades them to sell him instead, rather than having his death on their hands. Leaving aside the issue, which the Torah itself leaves unclear, whether they actually sold him or he was simply discovered and taken by the caravan, another question presents itself. What would have happened if the caravan hadn't appeared? Would they have actually continued their plan to simply leave him to die or, maybe, would they have relented and taken him home after a good fright to puncture some of his arrogance? We don't know of course because G-d intervenes to make sure Joseph is taken to Egypt. Yet this uncertainty maybe enables us to slightly exonerate the brothers for an otherwise heinous crime. It is very easy to simply condemn people for their wrongdoing. But, sometimes, like Joseph's brothers, events prevent them from making amends and thus others from knowing their true character.

Parshah Vayislach

At the beginning of this week's Parshah Jacob sends messengers to Esau to inform him of his imminent arrival. He states: 'I have lived with Laban and delayed until now'. The commentators have noted this somewhat strange formulation and given various opinions as to what Jacob is actually telling his brother. One explanation given by the Rabbis is that Jacob is saying that despite living with Laban he kept the 613 mitzvot and didn't learn from his evil ways, (the numerical value of the word garti-to live, is 613). How is one to understand this comment? As a statement of Jacob's general morality it is all very well, but the context of the verse is a message Jacob is sending to his brother. Esau is not known for his concern for Jewish observance, so what possible reason would Jacob have for informing him that he had remained faithful to the Torah? Surely the possibility that Jacob might have learnt some of Laban's devious ways and thus be more akin to his brother would have given Esau pause for thought? I think the answer lies in another Rabbinical interpretation, that of the blessing given to Esau by his father. Isaac states that Esau will serve his brother but 'when you shall be disturbed you will break the yoke from your neck'. The Rabbis interpret this as meaning that when Esau will have a right to complain, be disturbed, over the blessings given to Jacob, because Israel isn't keeping the Torah, then he will have an opportunity to remove Jacobs supremacy from him. In other words Jacob's dominance over Esau is conditional on his moral behaviour. Thus when Jacob returns after twenty years of living with Laban he takes care to inform his brother that he hasn't lost his moral status. Esau shouldn't think he can now defeat him because he has learnt from Laban, but rather he has kept the Torah and thus his dominance over his bother. The Rabbis are here making an important point concerning the nature of what it means to be a chosen people and our relations with the non-Jewish world. Our special status is predicated on our acceptance and observance of the Torah. We may have a special relationship with G-d, but that is because do for Him what others don't. This is an idea that can be accepted by the world. But when we cease to observe the Torah our claim to be a chosen people is seen as merely an example of arrogance and racism and causes hostility. It is a fact that the worst anti-Semitism has occurred where Jews have tried to assimilate, not where they remained observant. It's a lesson worth remembering.

Parshah Vayetze

Our Parshah opens with one of the most well known passages in the Torah, that of Jacobs ladder. Fleeing from his brother to his uncle's place in Haran, Jacob sleeps and has a dream or vision. He sees a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. G-d stands above promising him that he will look after him and bring him back safely. The commentators have given various interpretations to this strange vision of an angelic ladder. One of the most common, brought by Rashi, is that this was a changing of the angelic guard. The angels of the Land of Israel were departing and the angels of outside Israel were coming to escort him. This interpretation is given more credence by the fact that at the end of the Parshah he is also greeted by angels, interpreted as the changing of the guard in the opposite direction. This thus creates an angelic symmetry to the Parshah. Other than a slight geographical problem, Bet El is not on the border, this interpretation also throws up an interesting question. What does it mean to have angels of Israel and angels of the Diaspora? In what way is the spirituality of the Exile different from that of the Land of Israel. There can be many answers to this question from the prosaic to the mystical, but the simplest explanation is one of responsibility. Jews outside Israel are, no matter how well integrated, living in someone else's land. They are not, ultimately, responsible for the destiny of that country. They do not bear responsibility for its conduct or direction. Jews in Israel, however, have responsibility for the state, its destiny and conduct. This difference has a profound effect on the application and even philosophy of Judaism. Simply put, in the Diaspora, Jews rely on non-Jews to lead a Jewish life. A simple example concerns Shabbat. Observant Jews rely on there being electricity, police and ambulance services and other facilities that work on Shabbat, run by non-Jews who do not have to observe Shabbat. In Israel, however, such a situation is not possible. In a Jewish society the running of essential services on Shabbat poses profound challenges for Jewish law and the Rabbis who interpret it. Unfortunately, the Rabbis have often not risen to the challenge. In effect, observant Jews today in Israel treat non-observant Jews as goyim, a situation that is profoundly unacceptable from both a Halakhic and philosophical standpoint. In the parlance of our Parshah we are still using Diaspora angels in Israel. We need the Rabbis to rise to the challenge and create angels of Israel.

Parshah Toldot

It is interesting to compare Abraham's and Isaac's relationships with the Philistines. Both had misunderstandings over their wives, disputes over wells and requests for treaties. It is interesting to note the different attitude of Abraham and Isaac to the making of a treaty with the Philistines. Abraham readily agrees, while at the same time rebuking Avimelech over his servants actions in stealing a well. Isaac, on the other hand, is much more reluctant. He rightly points out that the Philistines had asked him to leave their immediate vicinity and makes the strong accusation that the Philistines hated him. Being that the reason the Philistines give for requesting his departure is merely that he is to rich and powerful to peaceably live in their society, this statement needs some explanation. I believe Isaac's attitude came from the actions of the Philistines concerning the wells of Abraham. The Torah tells us that Abraham had dug wells which the Philistines then filled up after his death. Isaac then returns and opens them, upon which the Philistines start claiming rights over them. This attitude reveals much of their state of mind. If the wells had been left open and Isaac suddenly started using them one could understand the Philistines making a fuss. But the Philistines themselves close them and only when Isaac reopens them to they show an interest ad start claiming ownership. This reveals an attitude of pure hatred, with no benefit to them at all. The Philistines are not interested in the wells for their benefit, they are merely determined to ensure that Abraham's family should not have them. They are prepared to have the wells remain closed as long as Isaac can't use them. For this reason Isaac accuses them of hating him and is reluctant to make peace with them. The parallels to today are obvious. There have been many cases of 'imperialism' and 'occupation'. In virtually every case when the 'occupier' has left the people have used the structures built by them for their own benefit. The British built railways in India are a clear example of this. Yet in Gaza, after Israel left, none of the industrial infrastructure left behind has been used and much of it has been destroyed. These people, like the Philistines, are not interested in their own development of the land, only that the Jews should not have it. With such people we should, like Isaac, be wary indeed of making peace.

Parshah Haye-Sara

At the end of this week's Parshah the Torah narrates the central events of the final part of Abraham's life. The three main incidents are his remarriage to a lady called Keturah, the disposal of his assets and his funeral. The last two events throw an interesting light on his thoughts about the future of his Divine mission and our relationship with other ideologies and religions today. The Torah relates that Abraham sent the 'children of the concubines' away to the east, after giving them presents. Afterwards, he willed everything he owned to Isaac. It is unclear where Ishmael is included in this division. On the one hand he seems to be included as one of the children of the concubines, sent to the east. Yet the Torah states in the next section that his descendents lived by the border of Egypt, which is to the west not the east. Furthermore, unlike Keturah's children, Ishmael joins Isaac as the lead mourner at his father's funeral. It would appear then, that while Ishmael did not inherit with Isaac, he was not sent away from the area and indeed remained part of the family. Esau later marries one of his daughters. So there would seem to be a qualitative difference between Ishmael and the other 'concubine children', a difference accentuated by the midrashic tradition that says that Keturah was in fact none other than Ishmael's mother, Hagar. According to many traditions the gifts given to the children of the concubines were not only material but also spiritual. Some have seen in their journey to the east with these gifts a connection between Judaism and the religious traditions of East Asia. If we explore this further we can see in Abraham's actions the creation of a separation between the religious trajectory of the Middle East and that of the Orient. This is strengthened by the midrashic tradition that Abraham gave to these descendents 'a name of impurity'. We can see Abraham protecting Isaac from religious ideas that he saw as simple incompatible with his Divine mission. None of this of course applied to Ishmael, who in large part carried on the religious tradition of Abraham. This would then explain the different treatment of him, as distinct from the other children of the concubines. These ideas have relevance for us today. While we respect all genuine religion and see it as a way of serving G-d, the religions of the East contain ideas and practices that make true religious dialogue between us extremely difficult. On the other hand with Christianity and Islam we share a tradition that makes such dialogue imperative.

Parshah Vayera

An interesting aspect of the interpretation of the Torah is the issue of the use of the plural of the term lord, which can refer both to human lords or to G-d. Indeed in its latter form it is the term we pronounce when reading the ineffable four letter name of G-d. In several places in the Torah there are differing opinions on whether this term is secular, referring to humans or angels or whether it is holy referring to G-d. This is especially pronounced in our Parshah, where three angels visit Abraham and then go on to rescue Lot from the destruction of Sodom. In several instances where this term is used it is unclear whether it refers to the angels or to G-d. This confusion tells us something about the nature of angels. Unlike humans, who in this respect are superior, angels have no free will and are merely messengers of G-d. Unlike human emissaries, therefore, they have no freedom of action. They therefore can and are interchanged with G-d. In several places in the Bible it is not clear who is actually talking G-d or the angel, and it doesn't really matter. It is the same Divine message being given, and therefore G-d's name can also be used in this regard. However there is another way of looking at these cases of indeterminate identity, especially in the incidents that occur in our Parshah. Both Abraham and Lot thought they were conversing with humans. Even though the beings involved were in fact angels, they acted like humans and even seemed to eat and drink. It is in indeed because of this factor that there is a confusion about the nature of the name by which they are addressed. Are Abraham and Lot addressing them as mere humans 'lords' or are they in fact addressing G-d as the 'L-rd'. Do they see through the human disguise of the angels to approach their Divine master or do they merely converse on a mortal level? This way of approaching the conundrum in our Parshah teaches us an even more important lesson. In every human being there is a Divine spark and each has the potential to be a messenger of G-d. Indeed, G-d often uses people for His own purposes without them being aware of the fact. How then do we approach other people? To we merely treat them as someone we can gain benefit from or uses for our own purposes or do we seek to uncover the Divine spark within them? Do we listen to what they are saying to us or are we too concerned with our own opinion? Our Parshah teaches us that G-d sends us messages through many means, including our fellow humans. The question is are we attuned to listen?

Parshah Lech L’cha

'And Abram travelled in the land to the place of Schem to Elon Moreh, and the Canaanite was then in the land'. This expression has caused difficulty for interpreters of the Bible and led some to even conclude that it was written after the days of Moses. Historically, however, the Canaanites were in Israel throughout the biblical period, so this really doesn't solve the problem. A better reading of this expression however is that the Canaanites were already in the land. This however raises another question about the purpose of the Torah telling us this fact. The answer lies in the following verse where G-d promises Abraham that he will inherit the land. The fact that the land is already inhabited by someone else makes the fulfilment of G-d's promise not without difficulty. Indeed, later on in the Parshah, we see how the promise of the land is also predicated on the experience of exile and persecution, making its fulfilment even more complicated. The same is true of the second major promise G-d makes to Abraham, that of children. Other than the fact that both Abram and Sarai are rather old to be starting a family, the fulfilment of this promise is also bound up with difficult and convoluted circumstances. Abraham first has to have a son by his handmaid, who is later rejected in favour of Sarah's son. Later on his grandchildren also will fall out, with only one carrying on the family tradition. Both these events bear ominously on the future and complicate the fulfilment of G-d's promise in history. Indeed, these complications effect us until today. The promise of the land is still a source of conflict, while the relationship of Judaism with its, and Abraham's, other, children: Christianity and Islam; has not always been smooth to say the least. So G-d's promises are not simple and indeed seem to contain a sting in the tail. This should teach us something about the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. Being a chosen people does mean we have a special relationship with G-d. But this is not a one way street, with G-d doing what we want. We are also tools in the hand of G-d, even if it would be simpler otherwise. G-d has his own plan for the world and that plan may contain elements that make life difficult for us. It may have been easier for Jews without daughter religions or if our land had been empty. G-d, however, thought otherwise.

Parshah Noach

When did the flood begin? This is the subject of a dispute between two Talmudic Rabbis. Rabbi Eliezer says it began in Heshvan, while Rabbi Joshua believes it began in Iyar. The Torah says it began in the second month. Being that the months throughout the Torah are numbered from Nisan and whenever the second month is mentioned in the Bible it always refers to Iyar, Rabbi Joshua would appear to be correct. Yet the generally accepted opinion, followed by the commentators, is that the flood began in Heshvan. One could explain this by simply saying that according to Jewish tradition the world began in Tishrei, on Rosh Hashanah, but I believe the discussion goes deeper. Iyar is in the spring, when the rainy season is over. For the flood to begin then would signify a clearly supernatural event. Heshvan, on the other hand, is the beginning of the rainy season. The flood thus began as the normal seasonal rainfall. It just didn't stop. Looked at in this light the flood is nature gone wrong. It is the climax to a series of climatic events that lead to the extinction of most of life. This in fact fits in better with Jewish tradition. According to the Rabbis, this was not the first major natural catastrophe. Years before, in the generation of Enosh, the oceans overflowed and wiped out a third of the world. Furthermore, this phenomenon of nature out of control is the consequence of humans out of control. The Rabbis paint a picture of a world were rapacious human desire despoils nature, corrupts wildlife and oppresses the weak. In describing the period before the flood, the Torah interestingly uses the very same word, haschit meaning destroy or lay waste, that it does when later forbidding the wanton destruction of fruit trees, even in war. This of course was extended to prohibit any wanton destruction. So before the flood everything was 'destroying its way on the earth'. Human beings, animals, the earth itself was being degraded until an end was reached. 'The end of all flesh has come before me', states G-d. Nature, and G-d's patience, have reached their limit. So it begins to rain. But this time it doesn't stop. Rabbi Joshua, placing the flood in spring, may give us a view of a supernatural flood, brought upon the world by a wrathful G-d. Rabbi Eliezer shows us something more disturbing. G-d simply giving up on a world devastated by human greed that destroys habitats, wildlife and human dignity. A series of natural catastrophes, including a massive tsunami, are precursors of total climatic devastation. Sound familiar?

Parshah Bereishit / Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah

Shemini Atzeret is in many ways the parallel festival to Shavuot. Both are regarded as the concluding festival of a longer period, Shemini Atzeret relating to Succot in the way Shavuot relates to Pesach and the Omer. Neither has a particular mitzvah associated with it and both celebrate the Torah. Indeed there is even a Halakhic connection between them, with Shemini Atzeret being the end of the optimal period for bring First Fruits to the Temple, that began on Shavuot. Yet there are important differences in their celebration. On Shavuot we celebrate by staying up all night and studying, something limited to those who can study; while on Shemini Atzeret we dance round with closed scrolls, a celebration everyone, even children, can take part in. The reason for this lies in a fundamental difference between our celebration of the Torah on these two festivals. The connection of Shavuot with the Torah is historical, it is then we received it. We did not chose to celebrate our connection to the Torah on that day, like other festival commemorations, that was a choice made by G-d. The celebration of Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret is fundamentally different. It is not something mandated by the Torah but something we chose to do. Simchat Torah as a festival has its origins in the fact that the Babylonian custom of Torah readings, which became universal, ends the cycle of Torah readings on Shemini Atzeret. The Jewish people then decided to also begin again with Bereishit on the same day, and turn the whole occasion into a celebration of the Torah. Thus Simchat Torah is a festival created by us. Unlike Shavuot whose celebration was given to us by the Torah, Simchat Torah is our initiative. If Shavuot shows G-d's love for us in His giving us His Torah, on Simchat Torah we demonstrate our love for the Torah by celebrating with it. Unlike the receiving of the Torah that needs a certain intellectual ability, the celebration of our connection to our Jewish heritage is something that everyone can take part in. This is an important lesson to take with us as we begin again the Torah from the beginning. Unlike other books, Genesis has only three mitzvot, commands of G-d to us. Yet it contains invaluable stories of how people interacted with G-d, using their own initiative to change history and occasionally G-d's own decisions. Both Simchat Torah and the book of Genesis teach us that Judaism is not only about what G-d gives us but what we can give back to G-d.

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