This Week's Shabbat Times

February 17 - 18
Shevat 22

Begins: 17.05

Ends: 18.16

Fri Mincha/Ma'ariv 17.00



Shabbat morning


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Sedra Archive 5772

Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5772

Shabbat Succot

The Bible as we know it was not finalised until the Talmudic period. Three books in particular caused the Rabbis problems and they debated their inclusion in the canon. ‘The Song of Songs could be seen as simply a love poem and the book of Ezekiel seemed to contradict the Torah. Ecclesiastes, which we read this Shabbat, was regarded with suspicion because it contradicts itself. All three books were eventually included in the Bible. In the case of Ecclesiastes, the Rabbis attempted to reconcile the contradictions but also included it in spite of it’s paradoxes. You can have seeming opposites that are both true depending on the situation or the perspective. This has been the lesson of the four species which we have taken this week. Though each one seems to be different we manage to join them together in one mitzvah. The same is true of the Succah, which is a symbol of the unity of the Jewish people. We can invite all sorts of people to our Succah, some of whom may live very different lifestyles, but all come together in one succah. The last two days of the festival are also a paradox, especially in Israel where they are on one day. One the one hand we have the solemnity of Shemini Atzeret, with its prayer for rain, on which all life depends. On the other we have Simchat Torah, with its wild rejoicing. Yet they are both part of the same festival..This may seem strange but in fact is a mirror of real life. Most things are neither black or white, totally good or totally bad. The Rabbis ask a difficult question. If someone’s parent dies and leaves them a fortune what blessing do they say: dayan ha’emet –the true Judge or ha’tov v’hametiv—Who is good and does good? The answer is they say both, the sadness at their parent’s passing being intermingled with the joy of receiving a large amount of money. Life is thus full of paradoxes. Thus, the festival of Succot, which is a source of blessing for the whole of the year, is full of paradoxes and on it we read the book of paradox. It is also the happiest time of the year. We can waste much of our time attempting to resolve the contradictions in our lives. We may try to be only one thing or another because we think we can’t be both. This makes us unhappy because we are in effect both things and in denying one we are denying part of ourselves. True happiness thus comes from learning to live with the paradox of our lives and so become whole. On this festival of paradox let us learn to live with the contradictions in our lives and so learn to be happy.

Parshah Ha’azinu

The Haftorah for Shabbat Ha’azinu, as for the seventh day of Pesach, is David’s great song of praise near the end of his life. In it he basically thanks G-d for looking after him through thick and thin and acknowledges that he has been under Divine protection for his whole life. This theme fits in well with the idea of the festival of Succot and with the concept of the succah in particular. On Yom Kippur we are brought face to face with our own mortality. We not only recognise our failings but also the very frailty and uncertainty of our earthly existence. Although Yom Kippur is not a sad day this reflection may cause us anxiety and effect our ability to enjoy life. So we have following Yom Kippur the mitzvah of dwelling in the succah for a week. The succah is a symbol of Divine protection. We are meant to stay in its shadow for as much as possible. We should not only eat, drink and ideally sleep in the succah but try to centre our other activities there as well. The mitzvah of the succah is thus unique in that simply relaxing and doing nothing becomes a mitzvah, if it takes place in the succah. This teaches us an important lesson. It is not only when we are in shule or doing some other religious activity that we are under Divine protection but at every stage of our life. When we work or relax or travel G-d is with us. Our finances, security and health are under Divine supervision. Just as there is virtually no aspect of our daily routine that ideally shouldn’t take place in the succah, so every part of our lives enjoys Divine protection. Thus the mitzvah of succah teaches us not to be anxious or depressed about our situation but to trust in G-d. It is for this reason that Succot is the happiest of the festivals with a special mitzvah to rejoice. True joy can only come from peace of mind and the concept of Succot teaches us how to achieve it. Many people spend their whole lives worrying about the future or some difficulty that may occur. Through the combination of Yom Kippur and Succot we are taught that this is a unwise way of looking at things. Yom Kippur teaches us that we don’t know the future for good or evil, so it is silly worrying about something that might never happen. Succot teaches us the importance of trusting in G-d and knowing that whatever comes our way, we are not alone. David did not have an easy life. In his youth he was pursued by Saul while in later life his own children rebelled against him. Yet he learned to trust in G-d and appreciate what he had. May the mitzvah of succah enable us to do the same and, like David, learn to trust and rejoice in G-d.

Yom Kippur

During the evening service on Yom Kippur we recite a beautiful liturgical poem, where each stanza ends with the word salachti or forgiven. In this hymn there is a verse that begins with the words: 'silence the accuser and let the defender take his place'. The words used probably derive from the Greek terms for prosecution and defence, and set the scene for Yom Kippur as a trial, one however where the prosecution is absent. This refers to the traditional concept that Satan, the accuser, has no permission to accuse on Yom Kippur and thus is silenced on this day. This is in keeping with the idea that Yom Kippur is a day when G-d seeks us out in order to pardon us if we respond to Him. Yet I think that the idea can be widened. It is customary on the eve of Yom Kippur to ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged. A paragraph in Mussaf, following the recital of the High Priest's service on this day, talks of Yom Kippur as a day to abandon competition, envy and strife. In other words, Yom Kippur is not only a day of reconciliation between us and G-d but also between ourselves. We are asked to forgive those that have wronged us without continuing to judge them for what they have done. This, I believe, enables the phenomenon referred to above and hinted at in the hymn. Throughout the year we are often accusatory and judgemental towards our neighbours. We accuse and judge them harshly for their actions while defending our own. On Yom Kippur, in a way, this situation is reversed. We stand before G-d and openly and honestly confess our own faults while forgiving the misdemeanours of our neighbours. This is what silences Satan on this day. If we don't accuse others on earth the Accuser can't accuse in heaven, thus silencing the prosecution in the heavenly court and assuring our acquittal. Because we do not judge others harshly but forgive them, G-d refrains from judging us harshly and forgives us. Thus the reconciliation between ourselves on Yom Kippur leads directly to our reconciliation with G-d.

Parshah Vayelech / Shabbat Shuva

The penultimate mitzvah in the Torah, found in this week's Parshah, is the mitzvah of Hakhel. The Torah commands that every seven years the Torah should be read in public to the whole people, men women and children. The commentators discuss in particular the reason for bringing the children to the ceremony and what children the Torah is speaking of. Rashi quotes the sages as saying that the reason for bringing the children is to accrue merit to their parents who bring them. He is therefore obviously referring to very small children who derive no personal benefit from the occasion. Ramban disagrees with this opinion and believes the children being referred to are those of an age to understand what is going on. They will be prompted by the great spectacle to ask questions of their parents who will then use the opportunity to educate them about Judaism. The Seforno combines the two opinions in a fascinating manner. The children being referred to are indeed also very small children who don't understand what is going on. The point of bringing them is, however, that when they grow older they will ask about what they remember experiencing, providing an opportunity for Jewish education. These three opinions provide three different approaches to Jewish education. For Rashi, the essential thing is the attitude of the parents. If they show a commitment to educating their children by bringing them along to the Hakhel even at a very young age they will certainly be able to successfully cater for their Jewish education. For Ramban, it is the understanding of the children that is the main point. In a similar way to Seder night they will see something different and unique and ask questions which will provide an opening for their parents to instruct them in Torah. The Seforno, on the other hand, believes in the efficacy of the religious experience in instilling Jewish values. Though the kids don't understand, their very presence at such an event will impact on their psyche in such a way as to facilitate their later Jewish education. Of course all three of these approaches are necessary and should be implemented in our synagogues and schools. Without the commitment of the parents there will be little or no Jewish education of the children. The children themselves have to be taught in such a way as to inspire them to learn more about their religion. But they must also experience Judaism from a young age in a way that will cause them to be connected to Judaism for life.

Parshah Netzavim – Rosh Hashanah

'You are all standing here today before the L-rd your G-d'. Thus begins the Parshah of Nitzavim that is always read before Rosh Hashanah. It aptly describes what we dio on Rosh Hashanah: we stand together before G-d and like the people standing before Moses reaffirm our commitment to G-d and His Torah. Standing before the Divine Throne we both acknowledge G-d as sovereign and are judged by Him. In this sense Rosh Hashanah, in contradistinction to Yom Kippur, is a day of passivity. We stand before G-d, not move towards Him; our actions are judged and evaluated, rather then us trying to change them. If Yom Kippur is a day of movement, with G-d and Israel reaching out to each other, Rosh Hashanah seems to be a day of standing still and accepting G-d and His evaluation of our lives. Yet this is only part of the story. Our Parshah ends with the people still standing before Moses but here he challenges them to act. Specifically he puts before them the choice of good or evil, life or death and calls on them to choose life. In this challenge that echoes through the ages Moses calls on the people to choose G-d. A similar call is made by Joshua and Samuel at the end of their lives. This, also, was the purpose of the great assembly convened by Ezra on Rosh Hashanah itself. Here, therefore is no passive acceptance of the covenant but an active choice to choose G-d. The same can be seen as applicable to Rosh Hashanah. On the anniversary of the creation of the world we proclaim G-d as its ruler and with the shout of the shofar crown Him as our King. Yet this idea can also be viewed in another way. Not as a coronation but as an election. On Rosh Hashanah we are called upon not to passively accept G-d as our ruler but to actively choose him. We have the free will to reject G-d and Judaism but we freely affirm our commitment to both. This dual nature of the day is reflected in the two essential shofar sounds. The Tekiah is a joyful proclamation of G-d's sovereignty while the Teruah is a clarion call to action, to make a choice. Like Moses and the Israelites we stand before G-d as our King but also freely choose Him as our Sovereign. This Rosh Hashanah, as we stand before G-d let us vote for G-d and life.

Parshah Ki-Tavo

At the end of the series of Mitzvot that comprise the central section of Deuteronomy, we have the mitzvah of the 'tithe confession'. Every three years we make sure we are up to date with all our tithes and then make a declaration to that effect, ending with a prayer that G-d look down from heaven and bless us. This declaration is divided into two parts, one detailing the positive actions taken and the second proclaiming that what we have tithed we have not misused, by eating it in an unclean state, for example. At the end of each section we have a general declaration of compliance. Following the declaration that we have tithed properly we state 'I have not transgressed your commandments and not forgotten'. At the end of the second section we proclaim that 'I have done all You commanded me'. The comments of Rashi on these two phrases are fascinating. On the phrase 'I have not forgotten' he comment: 'to bless on the taking of tithes', while on the phrase concerning doing as G-d commanded he comments: 'I rejoiced and made others happy'. These two comments encapsulate within them two cardinal principles in the fulfilment of the mitzvot. Firstly, that we must recognise Who commanded them. By blessing over the mitzvot we proclaim that we are not doing them because we feel like it or because it is 'tradition'. Rather we are performing the mitzvah because G-d commanded us. In this way the mitzvah, rather than becoming a mere habit, is transformed into a way of connecting with the Divine. The second comment is even more basic. In performing the mitzvot we are required to be happy and to positively influence others. Separating tithes, and especially eating the second tithe in Jerusalem, is meant to be a joyous experience. Fulfilling the mitzvot grudgingly and without enthusiasm, is not doing as G-d commanded. This command to serve G-d with joy is also found in the mitzvah of First Fruits at the beginning of the Parshah and one of the counts against the Jewish people in the reproof section is that we did not serve G-d with joy. We are also meant to make others happy. Being observant is not about being judgemental or harsh but setting a positive example that others want to follow. A church in Edinburgh advertises that its services are about 'enjoying G-d'. If that sounds strange to us we need to pay more attention to our Parshah.

Parshah Ki-Tetze

In this week’s Parshah the Torah sets out the law of divorce. The most important law we learn from this is that a divorce is effected when the husband writes out a bill of divorcement and hands it to the wife. This is the basic law of divorce and only in this manner can a divorce be valid. The Rabbis also learnt from the verses that a man cannot be compelled to give a divorce. Since the enactment of Rabbenu Gershon in the 10th century, which also outlawed polygamy, a man cannot divorce his wife against her will. The corollary of this is that either side in the marriage can prevent a divorce. This of course has led to abuse and the modern version of the agunah (which in the past normally meant a woman whose husband had disappeared). This, in turn, has created great controversy over the issue of Jewish divorce and whether the Rabbis are doing enough to solve the situation. Without going in to that argument it is instructive to examine the law of divorce, as set out in the Torah, and contrast it with other legal systems. On the one hand, it contrasts favourably with systems where the husband could simply arbitrarily get rid of his wife by a verbal declaration. The Torah requires that he take the time to write a bill of divorcement, something that requires reflection. In later days this became also a public act in front of witnesses, which therefore needed to be in some way justified. On the other hand we may think that the Jewish law of divorce compares unfavourably with the secular systems prevalent in our day, where the courts as representatives of the state can order a divorce. While this can prevent abuse of the system it is fundamentally at odds with the Jewish view of marriage, and human responsibility. In Judaism, marriage and divorce are not the business of the state but a contract between the husband and wife. They freely enter into that contract and only they can dissolve it. While witnesses are required to testify to the contract it is fundamentally the responsibility of the couple, not any public or state body. The court did not marry them; therefore the court can not divorce them. In this way the Torah expresses its demand for human responsibility. We cannot place responsibility for our private lives on others or the state. We alone have responsibility for dealing with these most intimate issues. While this can lead to abuse that is the price we pay for free will and responsibility, a price common to all human transactions. The ultimate responsibility for resolving these issues thus lies with the couple alone.

Parshah Shoftim

Our Parshah this week is the source for Rabbinical authority. The Torah sets up a judicial system and stipulates that if the judges have a dispute they should go to the court in the place that G-d will choose and follow everything they decide. When speaking of this institution, the Torah talks of 'the judge that will be in those days'. On this the Rabbis comment that Yiftach, one of the less important judges is the same as Samuel, one of the greatest leaders in Jewish history. Even though the judges in the past may have been more knowledgeable or righteous, you have to rely on the opinion of the judge in your time, as he is what you have and only he can understand the precise situation about which the judgement needs to be made. This principle is especially important to remember today, in the age of the internet, when people can surf on line to find a Rabbi or an answer they like. The sages tell us to 'get yourself a Rabbi', meaning choosing one authority to ask your questions, preferable someone who knows you and your situation. For this reason, even though there may be more knowledgeable Rabbis, the Rabbi of each community is the arbiter of the Halakha in that community, as only he understands its unique situation. Shopping around for Rabbis, either historically or geographically, is what the Torah warns us about in this passage. Conversely, the whole of this section is concerned with the setting up of a superior court in Jerusalem, to decide cases that the courts 'in your gates' find too difficult or disagree about. This is prefigured by Moses when he sets up a judicial system in the wilderness. He instructs the new judges that easy the cases they should judge and the hard matters they should bring to him. Thus we have the principle that not every judge is competent to judge every case and he should not be reluctant to ask someone more knowledgeable. The same is true of Rabbis. No Rabbi is an expert in everything and there are questions that he needs to consult on. His ability is not only judged on his personal knowledge but knowing when he needs others to advise him. A Rabbi that thinks that he alone can decide everything and never needs to consult is both foolish and dangerous. But, crucially, only he can make that determination, not the person asking the question. Thus this section in the Torah requires people to consult their local Rabbi and not go searching for others, while at the same time cautioning Rabbis to not be afraid to ask advice from those more knowledgeable.

Parshah Re'eh

One of the catch words of the age is 'Interfaith'. The idea of different faiths getting together to discuss their respective religions is supported by governments and promoted by numerous different organisation. Within Judaism, as in other religions, there exist differing opinions on the desirability or even permissibility of engaging in such activities. This ranges from those that see no point in engaging with other faiths, to those who are willing to discuss theological issues and even learn from other religions. The Torah in this week's Parshah, however, seems to frown on such activity. The Torah warns the Israelites that when they have come into the Land they should not inquire about the religious practices of the previous inhabitants 'saying how did they serve their gods? I will do the same'. The majority of the commentators see this verse as not merely another warning against serving idols but a prohibition of adopting the religious practices of others in the service of G-d. This section, therefore, would seem to preclude Jews engaging in meaningful theological dialogue with members of other faiths, and certainly believing we can learn anything from them. Yet the issue is not so simple. The Torah goes on to give a reason for this prohibition and an example. 'For all that is abominable to G-d, that He hates, they did to their gods, for even their sons and daughters they burnt with fire to their gods'. One can ask what this verse adds to the prohibition unless the Torah is coming to qualify this warning. It is wrong to learn from other religions because what they do is abominable and hated by G-d. But if, as is generally the case today, what other religions practice is not fundamentally abominable and not hated by G-d, is there really a problem in learning from them? Especially as these practices often have parallels in Judaism, and it can be helpful to our own religious commitment to learn from the commitment of others. To understand the Buddhist concept of 'mindfulness' or to see how Muslims deal with the problems of the calendar or to learn from the Sikh concept of service, can be extremely beneficial for our own religious life. If our own religious commitment is strong we have nothing to fear in learning from the devotion of others. Judaism has a lot to teach other people but we can also learn much from others.

Parshah Ekev

'And you shall eat and be satisfied and thank the L-rd your G-d for the good land that He gave you. Watch yourself, lest you forget the L-rd your G-d... These two verses form the break between the aliyot of Rishon and Sheni. For this reason we do not connect them and regard them as belonging to two different sections. Yet in fact they are part of the same section. If we look at them in this way we notice a strange anomaly. We have just been told to bless G-d for the land He gave us. Directly afterwards we are warned not to forget G-d from the midst of prosperity. This seems to make no sense. Surely if we are thanking G-d for the Land we are not forgetting Him. After all that is the whole purpose of the benching, which is based on this verse. Why directly after commanding us to thank G-d for the Land are we warned not to forget Him? The answer is very profound and extremely relevant for us today. The Torah is telling us that despite performing the mitzvot we can forget G-d. The observance of the Torah, is by itself, no guarantee of spirituality or Jewish continuity. If we are merely doing things by rote, or because of tradition, performing the mitzvot will not necessarily keep us mindful of G-d. If we bench without thinking about what we are saying we can indeed forget G-d, despite benching. Merely doing things because of tradition is not enough. This has been amply borne out by the events of the last two centuries. Before the enlightenment many Jews kept the Torah out of habit or tradition, without necessarily having a deeper understanding of its meaning. When the Jews were emancipated at the beginning of the 19th century this tradition was not, by itself, enough to stop mass defections from Jewish life that lead to the majority of Jews not being observant even before the Holocaust. Without the understanding of what they were doing these Jews, when confronted by the ideas of the enlightenment and the new opportunities of emancipation, also stopped doing. The same is true on an individual basis. Families that are merely traditional or even observant without the knowledge to back it up will not succeed in transferring their way of life to their children. The lucky ones will become more observant; the majority assimilate. Virtually none will follow the path of their parents. The most these families can do is provide the opportunity, through synagogues or youth groups, for their children to learn more and hopefully be more Jewish. The fact is, that observance without knowledge is simply not enough.

Parshah Va'ethanan

A major portion of the beginning of the Parshah is a warning by Moses against straying from G-d and serving idols and the dire consequences of doing so. The major passage of this section, which forms the Torah reading for the morning of Tisha B'Av, warns that when they have been a long time in the Land they will forget G-d and stray after idols. G-d will then remove them from the Land and scatter them among the nations. Yet, in their time of trouble in exile, Israel will turn again to G-d who will in turn redeem them. This is a common theme of the book of Deuteronomy and many of the prophets. Yet this passage does not end there but carries on with a further exhortation. This is to understand the greatness of G-d who has redeemed them from Egypt, an unequalled feat in the annals of history. They therefore should understand that G-d is unique. We may ask what is the purpose of this passage and its relevance to what has gone before? Is it merely reinforcing the stupidity of idolatry or does it have a deeper meaning. I believe that this section follows on directly from the section before where Moses talks about exile and redemption. He has just told the people that if they sin they will be exiled but that is not the end of the story. If they turn to G-d in exile they will be redeemed. This may seem to the people to be improbable. It is the way of the world that nations rise and fall. Like humans they grow into maturity, sometimes found empires but in the end decline and die. That has been the fate of every empire in history. Moses, however, tells the Israelites that they are different. Even after their national existence has ended they will be able to return and reconstitute it. The proof that this is possible is the Exodus. Because G-d is above nature and history he can change the rules of nature and history and has already done so when he redeemed them from Egypt. A similar message is given in the Haftorah. The prophet is bidden to comfort Zion but most of this prophecy is a call to the people to contemplate the greatness of G-d. The exiles may think, as Ezekiel says they did, that their time as Jews was over and they would disappear among the nations. Isaiah, in the Haftorah, is telling them that this is not the case. Because G-d is the Creator and Ruler of the universe he is able to make their case different and bring them back to Zion. Thus in both the Parshah and Haftorah we have a message of comfort. G-d's uniqueness guarantees Israel's uniqueness and immortality.

Parshah Devarim

This year the date of Tisha B'Av falls on a Shabbat and the fast is postponed to Sunday. On Shabbat there are no restrictions of mourning: we eat meat and drink wine, wear nice clothes and have a joyous Shabbat atmosphere. This is in contradistinction to the Karaites who maintained that you fast and mourn even when a fast falls on Shabbat. Where does this rule come from? Both the mitzvah to delight in Shabbat and the institution of the fast days is found in the prophetic writings, the first in Isaiah and the second in Zechariah. Why, then, do we prefer one over the other? The answer might lie in the way we learn about the mitzvah to fast on these days. After the return from exile, at the beginning of the Second Temple period, the people ask Zechariah whether they should continue to fast on the four days commemorating the destruction of the Temple. The prophet's answer is that 'the fast of the fourth month, the fifth month, the seventh month and the tenth month shall be for the house of Israel for joy and rejoicing'. Thus, the way we learn about the institution these four fasts is in a verse prophesising their transformation into festivals. This idea needs further examination. One might have thought that following the redemption they would be simply abolished, not transformed into the opposite. Yet the truth is that these days of calamity are not inherently tragic and have with in them the kernel of redemption. Tisha B'Av for example, were it not for the negative report of the spies, would have been a day that commemorated our triumphant entry into the Land, a ancient Yom Ha-atzmaut. Because of this fact these days themselves can be turned into festivals and it is this inherent quality that comes to the fore when they fall on Shabbat. But there is an even deeper reason for Shabbat overcoming these fasts. The verse from Zechariah continues as the prophet adds: 'and love peace and truth'. Here Zechariah is telling the people how these days can be transformed into joyous occasions. If they will build a society based on justice and amity, then they can hasten the redemption. Shabbat epitomises these qualities as a day of peace and essential equality. Thus every Shabbat we have a taste of the redemption and therefore can experience the fasts of festivals. If you don't want to fast this Tisha B'Av, then love truth and pursue peace.

Bamidbar (Numbers) 5772

Parshah Matot-Masei

At the beginning of this week's Torah reading we have a detailed account of the war against the Midianites and the disposition of the spoil taken in that conflict. The Torah gives us in great detail the amount of each item that was captured and who got what. The spoil is divided in two ways. Firstly it is divided up between the warriors and the rest of the people, with each getting half. Each side then has to give part of their share to the Tabernacle. Here we find a difference between the army and the rest of the people. The army has to give only one in five hundred or 0.2% of their spoil to the Tabernacle. The people, on the other hand, are required to give one in fifty or 2% of their share of the spoil. This dividing up of the spoil can be instructive in enlightening us as to the proper relationship between the military and the nation. First of all, the spoil is not just given to the warriors who fought for it but half is taken from them and given to the people as a whole. This teaches us that however efficient or brave an army may be they cannot in the long run function without the support of the society from which they come. The nation as a whole must be given a stake in the military endeavour to enable the whole people to be behind them when they engage in battle. The second division is a differing tax on the spoil between the army and the rest of the people. The army has to pay less tax than everyone else. Here we see a recognition of the special role the military plays in society and an acknowledgement of the extra service they perform. The soldier is thus given an added incentive to put himself in danger on behalf of the nation. These two points are especially relevant for armies in modern democracies. In countries with a volunteer army, not only is it important that the military be incentivised to serve but also vital that they have the support of the nation as a whole. They must feel that when they put themselves in harm's way the whole nation is behind them and supports their efforts. This is even more true in the case of countries with conscript armies. It is important that every one serve, not just a few, and that the public feel that the burden of military service is being shared equally. It is also important that those that do more, such as those in combat units or who stay on in the reserves, should be suitably acknowledged and rewarded. The details concerning the Midianite war, that the Torah takes the time to tell us, thus teach us that the role of the military in our society is the responsibility of all of us.

Parshah Pinchas

At the beginning of the Parshah G-d promises Pinchas 'a covenant of eternal priesthood', as a consequence of his actions in killing Zimri and his Moabite lover. The meaning of this covenant is not exactly clear, as Pinchas was the son of Elazar and the grandson of Aaron, and thus seemingly a priest anyway. The commentators differed as to the precise nature of, and reason for, this Divine Promise. Rashi and others explain that the priesthood devolved only on those sons of Elazar born after it was bestowed on Aaron but Pinchas was alive before that and therefore not included. Only when he killed Zimri was he bestowed with the priesthood. Others explain that G-d gave to him and his descendents the High Priesthood, with all the High Priests even until the beginning of the Second Temple tracing their lineage back to him. A completely different approach is taken by the Hizkuni. He connects this promise to the Halakha that a priest who kills someone is disqualified from the priesthood. Pinchas was afraid that by killing Zimri he was no longer fit to be a priest. G-d reassures him that because he performed a mitzvah his status remains intact. In a similar vein the Rabbis of our time have ruled that soldiers in the I.D.F who kill the enemies of Israel are not disqualified from saying the priestly blessing, as they are performing a mitzvah in defending G-d's people and His land. If we look at these two ways of interpreting G-d's promise to Pinchas we can discern two completely different attitudes to the justifiable use of violence in a higher cause. According to Rashi, Pinchas was rewarded for his actions and achieved a higher spiritual status by his actions. According to this approach righteous violence is not only permissible but ennobling or even holy, increasing your spiritual state. An opposite approach is presented by the Hizkuni. Pinchas, by his use of violence, was in danger of losing his position. The use of violence, even when justified in a good cause, has a negative effect on those who use it. Rather than becoming holier their spiritual state can be damaged. These two opinions thus present diametrically opposed viewpoints on the use of violence by religious people. What then is the correct approach? We learn that when Abraham was involved in a war he was afraid of losing his spiritual status because of all the people he had killed. Like Pinchas, G-d had to reassure him. From this we learn that violence may be necessary but it is never good.

Parshah Balak

'You shall not curse the people because it is blessed'. Thus G-d informs Balaam that he should not go with the messengers of Balak to curse Israel. The Rabbis see in this verse a double instruction. On the one hand he is not to curse the people. But even if he thinks to go along and bless them, he is not required as they are already blessed. This idea is illustrated by the folk saying about bees and honey: 'not your honey and not your sting'. We should examine this idea more closely, especially since G-d, in the end, does use Balaam as an instrument of blessing Israel, with his blessings still used by Jews today. What is the problem with Balaam going to bless the people and why is he allowed to bless them after all? The answer lies in the folk saying. Honey is a great substance in much demand that provides much gastronomical pleasure. Yet in contains within it a danger. It is made by bees who have a sting and it may be better to forgo the pleasure of the honey rather than risk being stung. Thus it is, the Rabbis explain, with the blessings of the wicked. While on the surface it may seem profitable to accept their blessing, this comes at a price. Like the bee they have a sting and you don't know what the real motivation of their actions are. Contained within their blessing may be a curse. This idea is borne out in the Haftorah where the prophet states that G-d changed Balaam's blessing to a curse. Indeed the Rabbis deduce from his blessings how he wanted to curse them. Thus contained within his very blessings was a curse. Yet he was allowed by G-d to bless them. The reason may be that his last two blessings were genuine. Unlike the first two attempts where G-d had to force him to bless and not curse, the last two blessings appear to be genuine, spoken in a true spirit of prophecy. For this it was worth letting Balaam bless Israel. This teaches us an important lesson. There are many people out there that want to support the Jewish people or Israel. Not all of them are totally genuine or without exterior motivations. We must judge carefully which groups are worth associating with and which of our 'friends' contain within the honey of their support a nasty sting. We shouldn't naively embrace everyone who says they love us or want to support us. We should learn from the story of Balaam that not all friends are worth having.

Parshah Hukat

The section concerning the Red Heifer lies between the two halves of the book of Numbers. Before it the book is concerned with events that happened in the second year of the Exodus, ending with the rebellion of Korach. After this section we begin to read of the events of the fortieth year and the new generation ready to enter the Land. The place of this section, as with the other Halakhic portions of Numbers is not random and comes to teach us something. The mitzvah of the Red Heifer concerns purification from having touched or been in the same room as the dead. It provides a pathway out of the impurity associated with death to full participation in the spiritual life of the community. It enables the bereaved to move forward with their life. Placing this section between the stories of the two generations the Torah teaches us something more. The generation of the wilderness had been condemned to die. They knew that for them their was no future. They thus could become increasingly negative and preoccupied with death. Yet the portion of the Red Heifer came to teach them that they still could contribute to the future. Like this portion they could be the link to the next generation, preparing them for life in the Land that they would never see. This idea is strengthened by an interesting fact concerning this mitzvah. The Torah states that the Red Heifer is to be prepared not by Aaron but by his son and successor Elazar. The Rabbis saw in this a punishment for Aaron for making the Golden Calf and argued over whether this disqualification also applied to future High Priests. Yet there can be another explanation. That is that this section was promulgated in the fortieth year, after the death of Aaron, when Elazar had succeeded him. This Mitzvah thus has a special resonance for Moses. Not only does he now know that, like his generation, he will never enter the Land, he is now bereft of his great companions in his mission, his brother and sister. He could easily fall into despair. Yet the section of the Red Heifer comes to tell him that he, too, is not finished. He can carry on alone and in the year left to him do great things. Indeed it is precisely during this period that Moses devotedly prepares the new generation for the challenges ahead, appoints a successor and leaves us perhaps his greatest personal legacy: the book of Deuteronomy. The historical placement of the section on the Red Heifer thus teaches us, both that there is life after bereavement and that we have the ability to achieve great things, no matter what our future holds.

Parshah Korach

The rebellion of Korach made a great impression on the Jewish psyche and led to extensive rabbinical elaboration upon the basic story. This is especially true concerning the arguments put forward by Korach against the leadership of Moses. One such story connects with the end of last week's Parshah, the mitzvah of Tzitzit. Korach brought before Moses a totally purple garment and asked if it needed Tzitzit with the thread of purple. Moses answered yes whereupon Korach began to mock him. If the Torah commands on a normal garment to put a thread of purple, surely a totally purple garment is superior and does not need Tzitzit. This argument goes to the heart of Korach's rebellion. He argues that all the community are holy, so there is no need for rabbinical leadership. In a similar way an all purple garment doesn't need a thread of purple hung on to it. However, Korach totally missed the point. The purple thread in Tzitzit is relevant precisely because it contrasts with the white. Korach wanted conformity, with everyone being the same, while Moses understood that it is precisely in the differences within society that it finds its strength. We can only begin the morning service when we can distinguish between the blue and white of the Tzitzit. Only when we can appreciate the diversity in G-d's creation we can begin to serve Him. This argument also has an ethical aspect. To the charge that he has lorded it over them, Moses replies that he has not taken from the people even one donkey. He is stating that he has put a clear boundary between himself and the people and thus between his property and the people's, while his opponents want to abolish such differences, with the inevitable consequence of abuse by the powerful. Furthermore, this argument is also a discussion about linguistic and moral relativism. For Korach just as everyone is the same so all ideas are equally valid. Just as there is no distinction between different types of people, so their is no moral distinction between different types of behaviour. This is an affliction we are familiar with today. Words like genocide, war crimes and human rights are bandied about without moral distinction, thus emptying them of meaning. If every military action is genocide and every criticism racism, the nothing is. If everything is a human right, then the term ceases to have meaning. If the whole community is holy, the no one is.

Parshah Sh'lach

An interesting aspect of the Rabbis' attitude to the Sin of the Spies is their hints that it was premeditated. In several places they interpret the verses as meaning that the spies intended from early on in their mission to bring back a negative report. This idea can maybe be explained by considering the whole mission of the spies and why it went wrong. The key to understanding this episode lies with an examination of the spies themselves. Some commentators have explained that the people sent on this mission were simply not suitable. They were distinguished elders, unused to warfare, and therefore easily scared. This theory, however, doesn't stand up to closer scrutiny. If we look at the ages of the spies we see that they were men in their prime. Caleb we know from the book of Joshua was forty and Joshua himself was probably younger. The other information we have about these men suggests that the spies, who are not the princes mentioned leading their tribes, were in fact military leaders. They knew very well how to fight and were well able to make a strategic assessment of the situation. So why was their mission a disaster? I think the answer lies in the opinion of the Rabbis' that the spies intended from the beginning to deliver a negative report. This does not necessarily mean that there was a conspiracy between them to make sure the their mission failed. Rather they embarked on their mission with the an attitude that made their failure inevitable. They had a concept of what was possible and were not prepared to go beyond that. Whether or not the inhabitants of the Land were in fact giants didn't matter. The fact was that the spies felt like grasshoppers. Whatever they saw was interpreted through a negative lens because they had already prejudged the outcome. It was not possible for freed slaves to defeat a highly organised, technologically superior society and that was that. This is a common problem in military and political leadership. People's preconceived notions prevent them from objectively analysing the facts. A famous example is the Yom Kippur war, when the military leadership ignored all the evidence of an impending attack because they were convinced such an attack would simply not happen. Thus the Parshah teaches us an important lesson about not letting our biases cloud our judgement and so make bad decisions.

Parshah Behalotcha

As we have celebrated the Diamond Jubilee, the perennial questions about the place of the monarchy have arisen. While the present monarch has certainly earned her place, people are not no sure about other members of the royal family. The debate centres on the correctness of being born into such a role or whether it should be earned by merit. This tension between the hereditary principle and meritocracy is found also in our Parshah, and indeed throughout the first sections of the book of Numbers. We have the initiation of the Levites into service in the Tabernacle. The Torah states that they are instead of the Firstborn, who G-d had acquired when he killed the firstborn of Egypt and saved them. They were meant to be the original priests and Levites. According to tradition they lost this privilege when they sinned, along with the rest of the people, in the incident of the Golden Calf. The Levites, on the other hand, not only did not participate in this sin but stood with Moses in rectifying the situation and punishing the perpetrators. While the First-born had shown a lack of leadership in going along with everyone else, the Levites had displayed the qualities needed to be the special servants of G-d. Thus they, and not the First-born, would henceforth serve in the Tabernacle. We could see here a triumph of the principle of merit over that of birth. The position of the First-born was based on birth, not on any intrinsic merit, while the Levites had, by their actions, earned their place as the servants of G-d. But the matter is not so simple. While it is true that the replacement of the first-born by the Levites was due to merit, the Levites henceforth would also follow the hereditary principle. You are a Levite or Cohen because you are born one, not because what you have done. We thus seem to have the hereditary principle functioning along with the idea of a meritocracy. We also see this in the tradition that the son of a High Priest should be able to follow his father, but only if he is considered worthy. In the monarchy, as well, especially in the House of David, it was not always the first-born that became king. We thus have a possible model for the future. The future monarch would be chosen from amongst the royal family, but not necessarily the eldest child. The throne could pass to the member of the family that is considered most worthy and would do the best job. This could be decided by Parliament or in some other way. We thus, like in our Parshah, could have the best of both hereditary succession and meritocracy.

Parshah Naso

At the heart of our Parshah are two sections that at first glance seem to have little to do with each other: the Sotah and the Nazir. The Sotah deals with the trial by ordeal of a woman suspected of adultery. The Nazir is someone who effectively takes upon himself, normally for a limited period, the restrictions required of the High Priest. In the first instance, the person fails to keep to the standard required by the Torah, in the second case they add to it. The Rabbi's however, connect the two. Whoever sees the Sotah in her disgrace is driven to become a Nazir. If we look more closely at these two cases we can see that they represent two extremes. The adulteress throws away all moral restraint and does what she pleases. The nazirite goes to the other extreme, adding restrictions far beyond the normal rules of society. The Rabbis connect the two by telling us that the consequences of going too far in one direction is a push to the other extreme. Total abandon will cause a reaction leading to severe restriction. In societal terms the Torah gives us an example of this. At the beginning of the book of Genesis, we learn of a totally degenerate society where everyone did as they pleased with no moral restraints. This lead the cataclysm of the flood. Next we read of a totalitarian society that seeks to control everything in total conformity. The license of the society preceding the flood led to the restrictive conformity of the Tower of Babel. Both these stories and the two cases in our Parshah warn us of the dangers of extremism, whether in our personal or communal behaviour. Going too far in one direction will lead to a pull too far in the other. Both are highly damaging to society and thus condemned by the Torah. The irreligious nature of our societies today is largely caused by the stultifying restrictions of religion in the past. And the overly secular nature of today's world is giving rise to extremism and fundamentalism. Our Parshah warns us of the consequences of abandoning the middle way. Far from being a betrayal of religion or society, a sensible moral balance is in fact mandated for the good of everyone.

Parshah Bamidbar - Shavuot

The book of Numbers is a book of division. It begins with the division of the people into tribes and standards and ends with the division of the Land amongst them. In the middle we have many divisions and quarrels between the people, the people and Moses and the people and G-d. In contrast, the Giving of the Torah which we celebrate on Shavuot is marked by unity. The commentators point out that when the Torah describes the arrival of the people at Mt Sinai the verb used is in the singular, rather than the plural used for every other encampment. The people are offered the Torah and accept it as a whole entity and the covenant is made with all the people. In contrast to the separation of the priests in the Parshah, at Mt Sinai G-d warns Moses that not the priests are also not to approach the mountain, just like the rest of the people. We thus have in our Parshah and Shavuot the contrast between division and unity. As Shabbat Bamidbar and Shavuot this year follow side by side is it possible to join these two opposing concepts into one thematic whole? An answer may lie at the end of the numbering of the people in the Parshah and elsewhere in the book. At the end of the enumeration of the different tribes the Torah brings them all together in one figure, joining the different parts into a whole. This teaches us that division and separateness contained within a whole body is not necessarily the antithesis of unity. Rather it can, in fact, enhance that unity. After all, not everyone can be a priest or a Rabbi, and we would be in a bad situation if they were. A nation needs all sorts of different people from beggars to kings and each of the enhances the complete product. Indeed this, according to the Chief Rabbi, is whole purpose of the Jews as articulated at Sinai. Conformity leads to totalitarianism and the persecution of difference, as seen in the history of Christianity and Islam, not to mention the secular religions, such as communism. Total separateness leads to rampant individualism and alienation and to the eventual breakdown of society. Judaism avoids the trap of either of these alternatives. At Mt Sinai, a universal G-d makes a covenant with a particular people. They, and only they, are obligated to keep it. Other nations are free to find their own way to G-d. The unity of G-d in Judaism therefore does not lead, as in Christianity and Islam, to the conformity of a universal religion. It rather leads to the diversity of religious tolerance. This idea is vitally important in our increasingly globalised world were many smaller groups fear being subsumed in the whole. Thus the message of both the Parshah and Shavuot is more relevant than ever.

Vayikra (Leviticus) 5772

Parshah Behar - Bechukotai

At the end of the book of Leviticus we have the various rules regulating donations to the Temple. Following on from the numerous laws contained in the book, and the outlining of the consequences of both obedience and disobedience; the Torah talks about the voluntary sector. It seems to be saying that after setting up the framework of the mitzvot; that framework by itself is not enough. In order to have a truly religious society, based on spiritual values, it is necessary to go beyond the letter of the law; transcending mere obligation with genuine enthusiasm. This enthusiasm, however must also be regulated; lest it inadvertently cause harm. The Torah thus provides a framework for our voluntary activity, which while encouraging our initiative protects us from our excesses. It thus maintains a fine balance between stifling conformity and anarchic individualism. The lifeblood of our society, like that envisaged by the Torah, is voluntarism. Without volunteers we would have no youth groups, charities or even religious communities. Like the Torah our society believes that volunteer activity needs to be regulated. Unlike the Torah, however, we may not have got the balance right. It is a fundamental principle of the Torah that the vulnerable must be protected. No observant Jew, or any other moral person, can reasonably object to laws and regulations designed to protect children and vulnerable adults. But we also should understand another principle that emerges from the end of our Parshah. Regulation of voluntary activity should not be such as to discourage that activity. The rules the Torah lays down for voluntary donations are clear, simple and easy to administer. Volunteering is not made onerous but rather encouraged within a fair and readily understandable framework. The same cannot be said for the situation that pertains today. Too often regulations are intrusive, cumbersome and discourage people to come forward and volunteer. When teachers are afraid to take pupils on trips, rugby coaches refrain from necessary and normal physical contact and clergy are wary of counselling members of the opposite sex; something is seriously out of balance. Our rules regulating the voluntary sector are in danger of becoming redundant by putting that sector out of business. We need to return to the balanced approach of the Torah so we don’t lose this vital component of our society.

Parshah Emor

The first sections of our Parshah deal with the special rules governing the cohanim or priests. These deal with everything from whom they may marry to who they can bury. Included in these regulations is the stipulation that disabled or deformed priests are not allowed to serve in the Sanctuary. While they have all the other rights and obligations of their brother cohanim they are forbidden to actually perform the service of the Temple. This is a disturbing notion for us today and seems to breach basic human rights. Furthermore, it seems to be in contradiction to the spirit of the rest of the Torah. The Torah constantly admonishes us to be mindful of the weak and defenceless and not to oppress those who are different. It time and again promotes equality before the law of all members of society; irrespective of social class or origin. Yet when it comes to the service of G-d in the Sanctuary it appears this rule breaks down. Not only are deformed priests forbidden to officiate but animals, even with minor blemishes, are not allowed to be sacrificed: even by non-Jews as voluntary offerings. It appears that G-d ,while exhorting us to tolerate weakness and difference in our society is Himself not prepared to put up with it in His own house. Are the disabled, then, not good enough for G-d? The answer lies in understanding the purpose of the Sanctuary. The Temple, as the dwelling place of G-d among us, is meant to reflect the glory of G-d. While it is true, as the Torah  hints to us, that G-d’s greatness can often be found precisely in the weak and disabled, human perception instinctively is drawn to the aesthetic. We are called on to serve G-d with beauty because physical perfection, to our human eyes, reflects the spiritual perfection of G-d. We see G-d’s presence in nature in the spring of the running deer not in the savagery of the lion devouring its prey. Both are created by G-d  and are equally important; but only one leads our hearts to sour towards the divine. The same is true in the Sanctuary. G-d requires perfection in His service not for His sake but for ours. By seeing a beautiful service, in a beautiful building, carried out by perfect people; we will be moved to reflect on the perfection of G-d and strive to emulate it in our own lives. Only by creating that perfection in G-d’s house will we be spiritually moved to be better and so better the lives of others less fortunate.

Parshah Acharei Mot / Kedoshim

One of the strangest mitzvot in the Torah is that of the scapegoat sent to its death as a central feature of the Yom Kippur rite. The famous hint of both the Ibn Ezra and Nachmanidies connects this rite to the prohibition, 33 verses later, of sacrificing to the demons in the wilderness. Many have wondered at this connection which raises more questions than it answers. Yet the context of this prohibition may give us a clue. The verses before speak of the necessity of slaughtering animals only at the entrance to the sanctuary. Those that do not will be counted as those that shed blood, and receive the appropriate Divine punishment. The Rabbi’s disagreed whether this prohibition refers only to sacrifices or to all slaughtering of meat; this being permitted outside the sanctuary only after settlement in the Land. Nachmanidies, who accepts the more general interpretation, makes a fascinating comment on the connection to shedding blood. G-d permitted us to eat meat, thus allowing the shedding of blood of animals. One, however, who breaks the rules regarding the proper slaughter of animals has violated the basis of their permission to kill animals and thus is regarded as a murderer. This comment throws an interesting light on the attitude of the Torah to the eating of meat. The eating of meat is permitted, and in some cases even mandatory. Since the terrible confusion between man and beast that characterised the generation of the flood, leading to the cheapening of human life, humans are meant to eat meat. We must never forget the difference between human and animal life. Yet this is on condition that we do so in the way commanded by G-d. The eating of meat is not a prize but a necessary concession to human weakness. Animal life must suffer in order that human life should remain sacred. In this way animals are the ‘scapegoats’ for human failure. Maybe this is why on Yom Kippur we symbolically confess our sins on a goat and send it to die in the wilderness. On this day of human atonement we also remember that animals also suffer because of our human weakness. This idea provides us a middle way between animal extremism and animal cruelty. We need to eat meat but we should never forget what it entails. Only by sanctifying human life will we justify the sacrifice of animals.

Parshah Tazria - Metzora

A central character in this week’s Parshah is the Cohen. It is the Priest that investigates a case of leprosy and decides whether the person or object is leprous or not. It is also the priest that plays a central role in the purification ritual that returns the leper to society. If we examine the role of the Cohen, we see an interesting dichotomy. Hedged in by specific rules and definitions, he nevertheless seems to have a certain leeway. On the one hand, the Torah states that ‘he is pure; the Cohen shall purify him’. On this the Rabbis state that an impure person that the Cohen shall pronounce pure does not become pure but remains impure. In other words, the priest has leeway to define purity or impurity only in so far as he follows the definitions laid down by the Torah. On the other hand, the Rabbis learn that when coming to declare someone a impure that appears to have the symptoms of leprosy, the priest can waive the timing of the declaration, with all it entails, according to personal circumstance. ‘A bridegroom is given the seven days of rejoicing; during a festival we wait the days of the festival. In other words it would appear that the Cohen does have some leeway after all and is not strictly bound by the rules. The difference lies in the basis of the leniency. In waiting a week to pronounce a bridegroom a leper the priest is not pronouncing him pure, but rather using his discretion in the application of the rules. On the other hand to pronounce such a person pure when he obviously has leprosy would be to undermine the very system itself, and is simply impossible. This lesson from our Parshah has great relevance for us today. Much is made of the issue of Rabbinical flexibility or inflexibility. ‘Where there is a Rabbinic will there is a Halakhic way’ is an oft quoted aphorism. But it is not accurate. While Rabbis can, and often should. be flexible when applying Halakha, that does not mean they should throw it out the window. If one takes the issue of conversion for example. I have often argued for a more flexible conversion policy. What that means, however, is making it easier for people to go through the process of preparation for conversion. What it does not mean, is relaxing the basic Halakhic criterion for conversion; including a basic commitment to lead an observant Jewish lifestyle. Method is one thing; principle is quite another. As the above popular aphorism illustrates the distinction is to often lost. Our Parshah thus gives us a timely reminder of the basics.

Parshah Shemini

This week’s Parshah is divided into two parts: the first part dealing with the culmination of the inauguration of the Tabernacle; while the second part deals with laws of kashrut. Most people would see contemporary relevance only in the second part; but they would be mistaken. From the story of the death of Nadav and Avihu on the final  day of the dedication of the Tabernacle; we learn many of the laws of mourning. But we learn them in a strange way. From what G-d tells Aaron not to do by way of grieving for his sons, we are learn what the normal practices of a mourner should be. This highlights an interesting and important detail about Jewish mourning practices; they are suspended because of public rejoicing. Shiva is postponed or stopped early because of a Yom Tov and public mourning is forbidden on Shabbat. Why should this be? The answer lies in the Jewish view of death as gleaned from today’s special maftir. The ritual of the Red Heifer has one purpose: to purify people from impurity in order that they may, among other things, eat consecrated food. For this reason we read about it before Pesach, when, in Temple times, every Jew had to eat of the Paschal sacrifice. This impurity that only the ashes of the Red Heifer can purify is the most serious type in Jewish law: contact with a dead body. Contact with death is ultimately incompatible with the service of G-d. it is for this reason that, even today, we ritually wash our hands when leaving the cemetery. Judaism is a religion of life. Death, in a very real way, is a negation of the whole purpose of the Torah. A dead person cannot perform mitzvot or actively serve G-d. Indeed, the ultimate destiny of a Jew is not a disembodied spiritual existence but a perfect earthly existence following the resurrection of the dead. Jews are not allowed to dwell on death nor to wallow in grief. While Judaism allows ample time for mourning; in the end the demands of the living Torah come first. Therefore, a festival cancels or suspends mourning. The joy of serving G-d both demands and has the power to effect a rising above individual grief and a connection to the eternity that is the living community of Israel. The Jewish laws of mourning we learn about this week are therefore framed in the negative. Not only do we not dwell on death; our very practices of mourning are designed to teach us the importance of life.

Pesach 7 & 8

As we come to the end of Pesach we look ahead to the weeks of the Omer leading to Shavuot. This is one of the most intense periods of the Jewish year, rivalled only by the three weeks between Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah. In the six weeks between the end of Pesach and Shavuot there are no less than six minor festivals or commemorative days. Some are barely noticeable like Pesach Sheni, while others are fully fledged rabbinical festivals with the saying of Hallel and special meals like Yom Ha-atzmaut. Some are of Talmudic or even Biblical origin, while others are modern. What is it about this period of the year that gives it its special character. The most obvious thing is that this is the period of the counting of the Omer. The Omer count connects between Pesach and Shavuot and thus creates a sort of HoL-Hamoed: intermediate days of the festival. Thus we should expect this period to be more special than other times of the year. Yet if we look closely, virtually all of the festivals of this period are during the month of Iyar. What is it about this month that gives rise to this uniqueness. The answer lies in the least commemorated of these days, even though it is of Biblical origin. Pesach Sheni is marked only by the omission of the sad daily prayer of Tachanun and by the custom of some to eat Matzah. This was the day, when according to the Torah, people who where impure on Pesach got a second chance to bring the Paschal offering. Why was it possible to do this? After all if you don't blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah or take the Lulav on Succot, you can't do it a month later. One answer lies is the vagaries of the Jewish calendar. Seven times in nineteen years we have a leap year and add an extra month before Pesach. This means that Pesach that year falls in what would have been the month of Iyar had we not decided to lengthen the year. Iyar thus always contains within it the redemptive power of Pesach. In some ways then Iyar is a continuation of the redemptive nature of the month of Nisan. For this reason many great historic events happened during this period, not least in modern times. We thus carry on our celebration of Pesach all the way to Shavuot.


'In every generation a person should regard them self as personally having left Egypt'. This saying of the Sages seems to mandate us re-experiencing through the medium of the Seder the experience of the Exodus undergone by our ancestors. Yet, if we look closely, this does not exactly fit. Our main experience of the redemption from Egypt is on Seder night. This was not true for those who left Egypt. For them the Exodus was a frightening experience. If we look closely at the text we see that after a night of curfew, they were literally driven out of Egypt by the fear crazed Egyptians. This was no triumphant march to freedom as portrayed in the movies, but rather a forced expulsion reminiscent of the ethnic cleansing of modern times. The true experience of redemption for our ancestors came at the Reed Sea. When they saw the Egyptians dead on the shore then they felt the elation of freedom and burst into song. Therefore the paradigm for the Hallel we say on Seder night is the Song at the Sea, not anything that happened at the time of the Exodus. For us, of course, the opposite is true. The main part of Pesach, including the saying of full Hallel, is on Seder night, with the seventh day, commemorating the crossing of the Sea, being secondary with only half-Hallel being recited. This being the case how are we to understand the command to act as if we personally had just left Egypt and what does this tell us about the purpose of Seder night. It would appear that what is required of us is not a re-enactment of what our ancestors experienced at the time of the Exodus. It is rather a re-enactment of the ideal of what they should have experienced. The Exodus was a triumphant demonstration of G-d's power and concern. It ideally should have been experienced as an uplifting and inspiring event. But because of the nature of the events the Jews of that generation experienced it as a trauma, only being able to appreciate their redemption seven days later at the Sea. Our job on Seder night is to reconstruct that night of terror and trauma into the night of elation and praise that it deserved to be. Therefore, it is several times mentioned in the Torah that the purpose of the Exodus is for future generations to praise G-d, those that experienced it being unable to do so. That is the true meaning of the saying of our Sages. In every generation we must re-experience the Exodus as if it was us leaving, who freed from the terror of the moment, can appreciate the great events that occurred. So when we celebrate the Seder we are not merely imitating our ancestors but having the party they couldn't enjoy.

Parshah Tzav / HaGadol

Our Parshah this week deals in detail with the institution of the Todah: the Thanksgiving offering. This was brought, according to the Rabbis, on four occasions of personal deliverance: recovery from sickness, release from prison or successful crossing of the desert or the sea. It took the form of a sacrifice of both an animal and bread and the lions share of the sacrifice was consumed as a festive meal by the person bringing the offering and their family. Today, in its stead, we bless the Gomel offering on being called to the Torah after such a deliverance. If we pay close attention we can notice that the Todah is very similar to another offering that was brought at this time of year the Pesach, or Paschal offering. The Pesach was also mostly eaten as a family sacrifice and had to be consumed with bread: Matzah. Like the Todah it could only be eaten for that night and not for longer, (unlike other peace offerings that could be eaten for two nights). Indeed it could be said that the Pesach offering, brought over the deliverance of the Jewish people from Egypt is the model on which other such 'deliverance' offerings are based. Yet there is an importance difference between the Pesach and the Todah. The Pesach is forbidden to be eaten with Hametz or even offered by someone with any leaven in their possession, which is why we need to stop eating Hametz before midday on Erev Pesach. The Todah on the other hand must be eaten with Hametz. The Torah stipulates that, in addition to the Matzah meal offerings brought with other sacrifices, we must bring with the Todah loaves of Hametz. Why with a Todah is Hametz so important that is one of the few exceptions to the general rule that Hametz is not offered in the Temple? The historical reason for the prohibition of Hametz on Pesach is well known. In addition the Rabbis saw Hametz as a simple of human pride and arrogance, the very qualities the Exodus was meant to destroy. On Pesach we are meant to stand in awe at the power of G-d and realise our true place in the universe. One can speculate, however, that the opposite may be the case in the situation of the person bringing the Todah. Someone who has survived danger or been in captivity has undergone an experience that may have severely dented their ego or self-confidence. Rather than being brought down a notch that need to be built up. For this reason the Torah stipulates the Todah must contain Hametz. The saved person must reintegrate his own sense of worth before he can begin to properly thank G-d.

Parshah Vayikra / Rosh Hodesh / HaHodesh

Our Parshah deals with the various types of offerings that could be brought in the Tabernacle. These can be divided into various types: sin offerings, thanksgiving offerings ect.., all brought on differing occasions. A basic division between the different type of offerings is between the olah: the offering that is completely consumed on the altar and the shelamiim: offerings that are also consumed in part by the people bringing them. Virtually all public offerings, such as the additional offerings brought on Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh we read about today, are of the olah type and are completely consumed on the altar. Private offerings can be of both, with offerings brought in thanksgiving being the most prominent example of shelamim, where the supplicant also partakes of the offering. An interesting anomaly is the subject of our special reading for today: the Paschal sacrifice. This, on the one hand, is a private offering brought by every individual or family. Yet on the other, it is brought as part of a public celebration by the whole community at a specific time on a specific day. The Pesach offering is normally classed as part of the shelamim category, as not only one must bring the offering but there is also a mitzvah to eat it. Yet if we look at the rationale behind the offering we can question why this is. Unlike the Matzah that commemorates Israel's trust in G-d, the Pesach sacrifice commemorates how G-d saved us at the same time as punishing the Egyptians. The Israelites were totally passive observers in the events of the first Seder night, absolutely dependent on the mercy of G-d. Surely then a fitting commemoration for that event would have been an olah, something totally consumed on the altar, reminding us of our utter dependence on G-d. Why is an integral part of Pesach the eating of the sacrifice? The answer may be that the bringing of that first sacrifice and the observance of the laws connected with it were in themselves an active participation of the Jews in their own redemption. Our Sages tell us that the Israelites were unworthy to be redeemed so G-d gave them these mitzvot. By beginning to obey G-d's commands the Jews began to raise themselves out of Egyptian assimilation. By eating the Pesach sacrifice we therefore proclaim that every step towards G-d, no matter how small, can bring tremendous results in its wake.

Shemot (Exodus) 5772

Parshat Vayakhel - Pekude / Parah

Parshat Parah this year coincides with the last two portions of the book of Exodus. This gives us an opportunity to examine the two responses of the Jewish people to the sin of the Golden Calf. According to tradition the laws of the Red Heifer were a conscious atonement for that sin. So the fact that a heifer was taken was seen as the mother coming to clear up the mess of her son, the Calf. Similarly the ritual of the heifer was performed by Elazar, Aaron’s son, as Aaron had disqualified himself by making the Golden Calf. This was one response to this crisis. The second was to build the Tabernacle. Moses comes down from the mountain with the second tablets and G-d’s message of forgiveness on Yom Kippur, and the next day assembles the people and instructs them in the building of the Tabernacle. It is this process we read about in our two Parshiot. This continues until Rosh Hodesh Nisan, which we celebrate next Shabbat, thus further connecting us to this topic. The people had wanted a visible sign of G-d and the Tabernacle gave them a physical dwelling place for the Divine Presence in their midst. Yet these two responses are very different and can inform us about different ways of responding to a crisis or tragedy. The Red Heifer is a ritual, aimed at purification from contact with death. In Judaism it is the classic example of a ‘statue’ , a law that defies explanation. Its details seem to make no sense and lead us into the world of mysticism. It looks inward rather than outward and focuses on the individual rather than on the community. It looks backwards to the sin which it seeks to expiate or the death it seeks to be purified from. The building of the Tabernacle, on the other hand, is almost the opposite. It takes the crisis of the Golden Calf and turns it into an opportunity. It enables the people to focus their energies outward in a positive manner and unites the whole community into a forward looking endeavour. It looks to the future rather than the past and concentrates on the positive. These two responses to the tragedy of the Golden Calf thus show us ways we can deal with crisis or tragedy. One way is to turn inward. The tragedy is constantly part of you and you escape into mysticism and self reflections. It can be beneficial but keeps the tragedy as something to be remembered rather than something to be transformed. The other is to use the crisis to build something good, something that would not have been there before. That transformative approach is what we see in the building of the Tabernacle.

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 / Zachor

Parshat Zachor deals with the difficult issue of the command to annihilate Amalek. This is of course problematic from several angles, including the very idea of a command to genocide. Leaving that aside it is possible to ask what was the nature of the sin of Amalek to warrant such a fate and what is the relevance of this command for our moral life today?. The Torah gives a clear answer as to the overwhelming transgression the Amalekites committed: ‘they did not fear G-d’.  One may then ask, what does this exactly entail? The phrase ‘fearing G-d’ is used in the Torah in two main senses. One, with regards to Jews, seems to denote matters where one can escape human punishment by claiming good intentions, but are warned that G-d knows the true story. The second, relevant to our case, is used in connection with non-Jews and refers to a basic universal morality that exists outside of the realm of the Torah and to which all humans subscribe. Here we come to a basic definition of two types of Torah legislation. We have commands that are wrong, mostly only for Jews, because the Torah said so but not necessarily because they are intrinsically morally wrong. For example, it is wrong for a Jew to eat pork or to work on Shabbat but only because the Torah said so. There is no universal moral opprobrium attached to such actions. A Jew who violates these commands is derelict in their duty as a Jew, not necessarily an immoral person. On the other hand we have commands that are based on a concept of universal morality and are intrinsically wrong. If a Jew murders, steals or commits adultery, they are not only breaking the Torah but universal morality; they are not only failing as a Jew but are immoral people. It is with reference to this second group of laws that the Torah uses the phrase ‘fearing G-d’. Amalek, by their targeting of the weak and powerless had put themselves beyond the bounds of civilised society and thus merited annihilation. This Parshah thus teaches us an important moral lesson. While theoretically all the Torah’s commands are equal, in effect the moral commands hold greater weight. A Jew who breaks Shabbat or eats pork only offends against G-d and doesn't bring Judaism into disrepute. A Jew who steals, murders or commits adultery, on the other hand, profanes G-d’s Name and puts themselves in the realm of Amalek.

Parshat Terumah

We begin this week to read the account of the building of the Tabernacle, which takes up most of the rest of Exodus. The Tabernacle, and later the Temple, was the heart of Jewish spiritual life. The Torah famously comments at the beginning of the Parshah, that the building of the Tabernacle will enable G-d to dwell, not in the structure but within the people. Individual spirituality is to be inextricably bound up with the communal. It is noteworthy in this regard that at centre of the service of the Tabernacle lies the daily offering. This, unlike the individual offerings that are recorded in the beginning of Leviticus; is mentioned in next week’s Parshah: at the end of the instructions concerning the setting up of the Sanctuary. This communal offering, therefore, is not merely incidental to the purpose of the Tabernacle but the very essence of its function: the channelling of individual spirituality into communal service. This idea, of course, continues on in later Jewish practice. While it is a mitzvah to pray three times a day; that is not enough. The real mitzvah is to pray three times a day with a community; in a minyan. Judaism believes that, while G-d can and should be found in the life and practice of the individual; His true dwelling place is within the community. Judaism has always been wary of individuals and movements that seek to go their own spiritual way, apart from the community. Individual spirituality can lead to selfishness and self righteousness certainty. We need our ideas challenged by others and our hearts touched by their closeness. While the Torah certainly believes that G-d can be found in books; our true experience of Him is found in the face of our fellow human beings. It is through service of others that our faith is tested; not in high sounding ideals or abstract mystical concepts. Too often today people seek personal spiritual fulfilment outside communal institutions; spurning communal involvement as a path to G-d. In doing so they forget a great Jewish insight. G-d dwells among us when we dwell among others.

Parshat Mishpatim / Shekalim

As we contemplate the many mitzvot in this week’s Parshah some may strike us as old fashioned or even barbaric; causing us to question their Divine origin. The regulations concerning slavery, for example, can seem to us antiquated precepts of a less civilised world. These difficulties can be resolved, however, if we put the mitzvot of the Torah in the context in which they were given. Indeed without that contextual framework we are unable to either appreciate the actual meaning of some mitzvot; let alone their true greatness. For example, when discussing the penalty for the owner of an ox whose animal has killed someone, the Torah adds that the law is the same if the ox had killed their son or daughter. This seems to make no sense; unless viewed in its historical context. According to the Code of Hammurabi, the common law at the time, if your ox killed someone else’s child; your child, not you, would be punished. The Torah is here, therefore, specifically prohibiting this barbaric and unjust practice; this verse only being comprehensible if we understand its background. The same is true of the laws concerning slavery. If one understands that in the ancient world, and indeed for long after, slaves could be abused and killed with impunity; the truly revolutionary nature of Torah legislation becomes apparent. A legal system that not only freed slaves abused by their masters but punished as murderers slave owners that killed their slaves; was at the time truly amazing. Does this approach, however, not call into question the eternity of the Torah? Not at all. The Torah does not mandate us to own slaves; only to treat them humanely if we do. Many mitzvot are inoperative today, not because they are not eternally binding but because the situation they refer to no longer exists. In the case of slavery, at least, this can in fact be seen as the triumph of the eternal values underlying these mitzvot; values which are still relevant today. It is only by not being afraid to use science and history to understand the Torah that we can appreciate its true greatness.

Parshat Yitro

Much is made of the apparent dichotomy between religion and democracy. On the face of it the two systems seem to be fundamentally incompatible. On the one hand religion makes absolute and unchanging demands while democracy allows dissent and adaptation to accommodate current concerns. Furthermore, even though the Bible provides evidence of democratic approval of monarchs; in the final analysis, religious systems themselves seem not to favourable to democratic governance. The source of this seemingly unbridgeable gap between religion and democracy lies in the divergence of their basic governing principle; the source of authority. In democracy, power flows from the people and it is in their name it is exercised. For religion a higher, incontrovertible, authority dictates the rules of the game. Yet this dichotomy is not as stark as it may seem; especially in the Torah. While G-d, through the medium of the Torah, is the ultimate source of authority in Judaism; the source His authority may in fact not be Himself. A careful reading of this weeks Parshah, as well as parallel sections in the Torah, leads one to the conclusion that the basis of G-d’s authority over the Jewish people is in fact the Jewish people. G-d does not demand that the Children of Israel accept his covenant or the Torah that is its basis. Rather he asks them for their informed consent. ‘Now, if you will listen to My voice and keep My covenant, then…’.If not shall or must. We could have said no. Indeed it was so easy and seemingly rational to say no, that Jewish tradition regards it as our crowning glory that we so readily said yes. Having said yes, of course, we are subject to the authority of the Torah. In the same way the American states having ratified the Constitution could not then walk away from it; the basis on which Lincoln fought the Civil War. Yet the fact remains that the original choice was democratic and expressed the will of the people; men and women. As Jews we need not be apologetic about our relation to democracy; our very religion is based on it.

Parshat Beshalach

As Pharaoh’s forces approach the Israelites at the shore of the Reed Sea, the people panic. They turn on Moses and reproach him for leading them into this situation. They sarcastically ask whether it was because of a lack of graves in Egypt that he brought them to die in the wilderness. ‘Is this not what we said to you in Egypt? Leave us alone to serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’. Commentators throughout the ages have puzzled over this statement. Firstly, there is nowhere recorded that the Jews previously made such a statement to Moses. Secondly, the focus seems to be on dying in the wilderness rather than the more immediate threat of being massacred by Pharaoh’s forces. Rashi, connects this statement to what is recorded at the end of Parshat Shemot, where the Israelites remonstrate with Moses for causing trouble with Pharaoh and worsening their situation. This seems to connect the present situation with their fear of the Egyptians. In this context, what the Jews appear to be saying is, that we told you in Egypt not to cause trouble with the Egyptians and now you’ve lead us into a situation where they are going to kill us in the wilderness. While this explanation has the benefit of connecting the present complaint of the Israelites to a recorded statement in the Torah, it ignores the fact that in both places the Jews talk about dying in the wilderness and not being killed by the Egyptians. Nachmanidies, therefore, postulates that the Israelites made this statement at a time not recorded in the Torah, probably as they were getting ready to leave Egypt. We must remember that, after the plague of the First Born, the Israelites were literally driven out of Egypt, not even having time to take many provisions. It is this experience, later eulogised by the prophet Jeremiah, that forms the basis of the Jews’ complaint against Moses in our Parshah. Why, however, does it appear at this moment when the danger is from the Egyptian army? It appears that the Jews may have believed that G-d, or even they themselves, could defeat the Egyptians, as they do to Amalek at the end of the Parshah. But the situation they find themselves in reminds them of their existential doubts concerning the whole project. It is brought home to them that their initial fears have been realised and the Exodus is not going to be a simple stroll to the Promised Land. Rather the period ahead is going to be full of challenges such as they now face, and it is for this they now, and continually, blame Moses.

Parshat Bo

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

Parshat Va’era

One of the central themes of this week’s Parshah is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This is not only part of the narrative of the plagues but is also specifically foreshadowed by G-d before the whole drama begins. In other words, not only is G-d portrayed as hardening Pharaoh’s heart but he specifically announces to Moses beforehand that he is going to do so. The moral question raised by this course of action is obvious. It is tackled by the two main commentators in very different ways. Rashi states that G-d knows that Pharaoh is not truly interested in doing His will and therefore prevents him from capitulating in order to prove His power to Israel. In other words, Pharaoh is a lost cause. While he may temporarily give in, as he eventually does, the plagues will have no lasting effect on his behaviour. Israel, on the other hand, is able to be reformed. G-d therefore hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to teach Israel of His power and thus change their behaviour. Nachmanidies, on the other hand, sees the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a punishment. Because Pharaoh has been so appalling in his behaviour to the innocent Israelites G-d does not give him an opportunity to repent. Pharaoh is prevented from capitulating too early, as for him to do so would enable him to escape the punishment he deserves for his past crimes. These two explanations seem to postulate two different purposes for the plagues brought upon Egypt. According to Rashi they are aimed at educating Israel and only incidentally effect the Egyptians. According to Nachmanidies, the opposite is true. The plagues are to punish the Egyptians, with Israel’s liberation being their consequence but not their main object. Both commentators can use proof texts for their opinions. In several places in this Parshah, Moses says that the plagues are directed at Pharaoh, yet at the beginning of next week’s Parshah they are said to in order that Israel will tell of G-d’s power to future generations. An interesting pattern here emerges. As Nachmanidies points out, for the first five plagues G-d didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart. It is also here that we find that Moses directs the purpose of the plagues to Pharaoh. As soon as G-d is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart, the purpose of the plagues is directed elsewhere. We thus can see that both these opinions are right and add to our understanding of the events portrayed.

Parshat Shemot

The book of Exodus begins with a small paragraph that connects us with what has gone before. It could have conceivably begun with ‘there arose a new king in Egypt who knew not Joseph’ but the Torah decides to repeat the names of the sons of Jacob who immigrated to Egypt. It also adds two more verses. The first tells of the demise of Joseph and his whole generation; the second informs us of the demographic and geographic expansion of the Israelites. If we think about it the order of these two verses is rather strange. Surely the story of the descent of Jacob’s family to Egypt should have been followed by the verse telling us of their proliferation and the death of that original generation should be placed directly before we are informed of a new king ‘who knew not Joseph’? The order of the verses seems to indicate that it was the death of the generation that immigrated to Egypt that was, in some way, the cause of the rapid expansion of their descendents. Indeed, the Seforno seems to sense this difficulty. Drawing on a rabbinical tradition that links the expansion of the Jews with their increasing assimilation, he states that the moral deterioration of the Jews did not begin until the death of Joseph’s generation. In other words, the death of the immigrant generation removed the last barrier to the full integration of their descendents into Egyptian life. This can then be also connected to what follows. When the Jews forgot where they came from and who they were, the Egyptians soon started reminding them. This is a common feature of Jewish history. Yet it is possible to draw a more positive lesson from this verse order. Every generation has its own mission and its own way of doing things. The generation that immigrated to Egypt came from a different place and time and may not have fully understood life in Egypt. Yet they were the ones still calling the shots. This restricted the growth of the next generation. Only when they were gone was it possible for the Israelites to truly prosper in their new home. This teaches us that sometimes it is necessary for the old way of doing things to be changed and for old leadership to step aside and make room for young blood. But the true lesson of these verses is the need for a balance between these extremes. If we totally abandon the past we lose our identity but if we are stuck in the past we can’t progress. The best path is one which draws on the experience of the past while adapting that experience to the present in order to ensure the future.

Bereishit (Genesis) 5772

Parshah Vayehi

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

Parshah Vayigash

Parshat Vayigash almost always falls the week after Hanukah and the week before the fast of the Tenth of Tevet. In a leap year it also falls at the height of the gentile ‘festive season’. These things may not seem connected but in fact have an important relevance to each other. The Jewish months are defined by the festivals that fall in them. For example, at the opposite ends of the festive spectrum Adar is defined by Purim and Av by Tisha B’Av . Hanukah is the only festival that falls during, and thus defines, two months. Hanukah does not only fall in Kislev, the month most associated with it but at least a quarter of the festival can fall in Tevet, a month normally associated with the fast that bears its name. What connects the victory of Hanukah with the breach of the wall of Jerusalem by the Babylonians on the tenth of Tevet? The little known ‘fast for the righteous’ of the ninth of Tevet. That was the day when, according to tradition, the translation of the Bible into Greek, known as the Septuagint, was completed. The fact that the Rabbis regarded this day as a fast day shows their attitude to this event. Like the physical breach of the walls of Jerusalem the day following, this was seen as a breach in the spiritual wall of the Jewish people. Once non-Jewish culture had free access to the Jewish scriptures they could pervert them for their own purposes and use the Jews’ own Bible as a weapon against them. Christianity, of course, did exactly that. On Hanukah of course, we bet off an attempt to breach the walls of Judaism. But by allowing Greek culture in through the back door, we enabled them to succeed in penetrating our defences in a way that the frontal assault in the time of Hanukah did not. We thus in the dark month of Tevet also need some of the light of Hanukah to sustain us. This brings us to the festive season. Not living in Israel, we are surrounded by the sights and sounds of the season. It is possible, as the Chief Rabbi has stated, to appreciate this period of the year for its good qualities. But only from the outside. We should not breach the walls of Judaism by bringing the season into our homes. It is not our festival and it is not really necessary to acknowledge it in any way. We need learn the lessons of this month, with its last days of Hanukah and its fasts, and not let assimilation in by the back door.

Parshah Miketz / Hanukah

There are times when the Torah is concise in its narrative and times when it tells stories at length. The story of Joseph is a narrative that is told at length and this is nowhere more so than at the beginning of our Parshah. The Torah after telling of Pharaoh’s dreams could have merely related that he told them to Joseph. Instead it repeats the dreams in Pharaoh’s own words. This enables us to gain a fascinating insight into the Joseph’s interpretation, as we first get the dreams as dreamt and then the same dreams in the form Pharaoh remembered them. If we compare the two, and especially the interpretations given by Pharaoh’s advisors and Joseph’s interpretation, we see something very interesting. Though in the first narrative the dreams can be seen as two separate dreams, Pharaoh does not see them that way. Pharaoh always describes them as one dream. The mistake of Pharaoh’s advisors was that they listened to the facts about the dreams but didn’t pay attention to Pharaoh’s perception of them. Pharaoh related both to his advisors and to Joseph that he had dreamed a dream. Yet as the Seforno, among others, points out the advisors couldn’t interpret his dreams to Pharaoh. Joseph, on the hand, listened carefully to what Pharaoh had to say and thus the first thing he says back to Pharaoh is ‘Pharaoh’s dream is one’. The rest of his interpretation followed from that. It wasn’t merely the facts of the dream that were important but Pharaoh’s perception of them. This importance of understanding perception is also important in the story of Hanukah. While the main miracle of Hanukah, and the reason for the festival, is the liberation of the Jews from religious oppression, the Rabbis chose to emphasise the miracle the of the oil. There are various reasons for this to do with the political and ideological situation at the time. However, the miracle of the oil, is above all one based on perception. It was quite possible to have lit the Menorah with the oil available. Yet the Jewish leadership of the time understood the importance of the people’s view, and wished to make a completely new beginning, free from the taint of Hellenism. They thus insisted on uncontaminated oil. We thus see that often, even more than the facts of a situation, the perception surrounding it is just as important. Therefore, it is important when dealing with people to listen to what they are actually saying to you, rather than putting your own construction on their story. If we wish to help others, the most important thing we must do is first of all properly listen to them.

Parshah Vayeshev

The final quarter of the book of Genesis tells the exciting story of Joseph. This can often be read on a superficial level with heroes and villains and the good guy triumphing in the end. The actual story and its implications are, however, far more complex and this is true right from the beginning. The first aliyah of our Parshah details the relationship between Joseph and his brothers leading up to the nasty events contained in the next two aliyot. It immediately informs us that the young Joseph was no saint. He behaved like a spoilt child, was overindulged by his father and lorded it over the rest of the family with dreams of domination. According to tradition he also told tales about his brothers to his father. Indeed, the relationship between Joseph and his brothers was so bad that they could hardly bear to even speak with him. Thus the simple designation of Joseph as the hero and his brothers as the villains is far from reality. What light does this throw on the brothers’ subsequent actions? Can we see the Torah as bringing this introductory narrative to explain or even justify what they did? The answer is clearly no. It is plain from several places in the Torah that no justification whatsoever is given for what the brothers’ did to Joseph and they themselves believe they are worthy of punishment. Later Jewish tradition is even less forgiving, seeing in the sale of Joseph a sort of ‘original sin’ of Jewish history, leading to all sorts of other calamities down the line. The narrative of the Torah thus serves a different purpose. In narrating the provocative actions of Joseph while still condemning the brothers for their action, the Torah teaches us an important moral lesson. Just because someone behaves in unacceptable manner, that does not justify an equally unacceptable response. Joseph was a pain. That did not justify selling him as a slave. Furthermore, the brothers’ action had precisely the opposite effect they intended. Rather than put an end to Joseph’s dreams of domination they caused them to be fulfilled. The brothers in overreacting to Joseph were the instruments of their own downfall. They, furthermore, caused disaster for their descendants, leading to a split in the Jewish people that, in many ways, is still to be healed. The easiest thing in the world is to respond to a provocation like Joseph’s by overreacting. All of us are prone to do exactly that. For this reason the Torah provides us at length with this cautionary tale. If provoked, check that the consequences of your reaction are not ten times worse than original provocation.

Parshah Vayislach

One of the most dramatic episodes in the Torah occurs this week, when Jacob encounters and fights an angel. In this night time struggle Jacob is hurt in his thigh. Because of this incident the Torah forbids us to eat the sciatic nerve in the thigh of any animal. The commentators have seen in this struggle, and the mitzvah that follows from it, deep significance. They almost universally have regarded the angel in question as the guardian angel of Esau and thus seen the struggle as a forerunner of the struggles of Israel with the descendents of Esau, identified as the Romans and the Christian Church. The injury sustained by Jacob thus takes on a great significance, amplified by its concretisation in a mitzvah of the Torah. The Sefer Ha-Hinuch, who lists and explains the 613 mitzvot by Parshah, states that this mitzvah is to remind us in our struggles with our enemies that they may be able to hurt us but they can never defeat us, and in the end we will prevail. Other commentators follow his path, with some like the Ramban seeing the injury Jacob sustained as prescient of the persecutions of the Romans and the Christians and the damage they did to our people. The Hizkuni, however, takes a different and novel approach. He points out that G-d had promised Jacob that he would look after him and ’protect him wherever he went’. How then was the angel able to injure him? He gives a fascinating answer. Because Jacob was afraid of Esau, as testified to at the beginning of the Parshah, he was able to be injured. It was Jacob’s own fear that gave an opening for Esau’s angel to hurt him. The Seforno, in a similar vein sees Jacob’s injury as symbolising the shortcomings of the Jewish people, and especially their leaders, that will enable our enemies to injure us. The mitzvah of not eating the sciatic nerve is thus an constant reminder of our own weakness and the consequences it brings in its wake. By keeping this mitzvah we are eternally reminded that we can often be our own worst enemies. More damage can be done to us by our own internal weakness than can be inflicted upon us from our external foes. Moreover, these enemies sense our divisions, fears and doubts and use the opening they provide to injure us. Maybe the greatest lesson we can learn from this pivotal incident in our history is thus that the greatest thing we have to be afraid of is our own anxiety.

Parshah Vayetze

Our Parshah is one of the most exciting in the Torah. We have a hero, two women heroines fighting over him and a wicked uncle. Deceit, jealousy. sibling rivalry and dodgy dealings, with country scenes and lots of sheep. It could be a biblical version of Emmerdale. Yet the Parshah deserves a more serious look. It is easy to see the characters in the one dimensional version portrayed above, yet all of them have hidden depths. Both Rachel and Leah are victims of their father’s scheming, yet he may merely be trying to make a good marriage for them both. Rachel appears to be the aggrieved party among the sisters but the one that has really been used is Leah. The same is true for the relationship between Jacob and Laban. Superficially it is easy to see the relationship as one between a scheming uncle and an innocent nephew or an honest worker and their unscrupulous employer. Yet a closer examination reveals a more nuanced picture. Laban is not without a voice in the Torah. He gives reasons for his actions and his arguments deserve closer examination. While he can be seen as cheating Jacob out of his preferred wife, he essentially maintains that what Jacob was asking for was simply impossible. It is perfectly reasonable to give the eldest daughter way first and Jacob should have realised it. Laban is also perfectly justified in being angry with Jacob for leaving without telling him. Jacob’s great speech of justification comes after Laban has failed to find the images stolen by Rachel. But this is predicated on a false assumption as Rachel has in fact stolen them. He is also not entirely wrong in pointing out to Jacob that all his success come from the fact the Laban gave him a chance in the first place. So Laban is not necessarily a wicked person but he is profoundly wrong in his basic assumptions. And it is this that lies at the heart of the dispute between him and Jacob. At the end of the Parshah he asserts that everything Jacob has, including his family, is his. He is maintaining that society is basically paternalistic and no one has the right of independence from control from the centre. Laban is the head of the family, therefore everything, including the fruit of Jacob’s own hard work, ultimately belongs to him. Jacob asserts his independence as a free agent. What he has worked for is his. A child is not owned by his parents and an employee is not a slave of his employer. Thus our Parshah foreshadows the great struggle between freedom and slavery and dignity and oppression that is one of the principle themes of the Torah.

Parshah Toldot

A major preoccupation of the commentators throughout the ages has been Isaac’s choice of Esau, as the son to carry on his legacy and receive his blessing. This of course is based on Isaac’s favouritism towards Esau, while Rebecca favoured Jacob. If we look closely at the personalities of those involved we can maybe discern a reason for these dynamics within the family. Isaac is portrayed as a quiet non-confrontational man. He seems somewhat withdrawn, a state that intensifies as he grows older, in contrast to his extrovert elder son. This may explain his choice of Esau. He is projecting onto Esau his desire to be a more active, and maybe aggressive character, like his father and step-brother. He lives vicariously through the exploits of his eldest son the life that the trauma of the Akedah prevented him from living. A similar explanation can present itself for Rebecca’s choice of Jacob. In her serious, contemplative younger son, she sees the qualities that originally attracted her to Isaac. This becomes especially important once Isaac has effectively withdrawn from the world into blind solitude. Thus each parent projects there own desires on to their favourite child, promoting their interests at the expense of the other, thus leading to the breakup of the family. The moral lesson here is clear. Parents should never have favourites among their children and if they do have a favourite child they should never make it obvious. Yet it is interesting to examine the outcome of this saga from another point of view. In the end, Jacob was chosen as the bearer of Abraham’s legacy. Esau was left out in the cold. What quality did Jacob have that enabled this choice to not only be made but ultimately ratified. If we look at the careers of the two brothers we find something interesting. Esau remains Esau. Whether as the chivalrous warrior seen by some moderns and partly supported by the text, or the evil progenitor of Rome and the persecuting Church, as seen by the Rabbis, Esau’s character doesn't alter. Jacob on the other hand transforms himself. From when we meet him until the end of the book, Jacob seems to grow, and take on some of the better qualities of Esau. He, unlike Isaac, does learn to confront and outwit his enemies, and, like Abraham, live successfully in both the spiritual and physical worlds. This is epitomised by his conquering of Esau’s angel, taking into himself some of Esau’s strength. The lesson is that our parents may project their desires onto us but, in the end, we are what we make of ourselves.

Parshah Haye-Sara

It is a feature of some Parshiot that they are foreshadowed at the end of the previous Parshah, normally in the Maftir. Thus the coming destruction of the world and the exception of Noah is mentioned in the Maftir of Parshat Bereishit. At the end of Parshat Vayera we are informed of the birth of Rebecca, the story of whose marriage to Isaac is the main topic of this week’s Parshah. Yet this narrative is interrupted by the story of the death and burial of Sarah, which the Rabbis connect to the Binding of Isaac, also at the end of last week’s Parshah. If we look more closely at these stories and the connections between them, a pattern emerges. We see that Abraham, comes to bury Sarah from elsewhere, he wasn’t around when she died. Isaac is not involved in the search for his future wife and when Rebecca comes to him he is in a completely different place than Abraham. There appears to be a jarring aspect to these stories if they are seen together, which can lead to a startling conclusion While traditionally the death of Sarah was seen as following directly on from the Akedah, that does not necessarily follow from the text. What does seem to be clear is that Sarah and Abraham are not living together at the time of her death. It seems likely that they had become estranged by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. It is also clear that Isaac and his father have parted ways, almost certainly another consequence of the Akedah. What we are therefore presented with at the beginning of the Parshah is a family torn apart by the consequences of the Akedah. The rest of the Parshah is the story of the resolution of this situation. There are many aspects to this process, beginning with Abraham’s efforts in securing a proper burial for Sarah. But the most important aspect of this reconciliation is the finding of a wife for Isaac. Through this marriage, the family can be brought back together. The key text in this regard is the statement that on his marriage ‘Isaac was comforted for his mother’. The introduction of Rebecca to the family, thus reconciles Isaac to what has gone before and enables the reconstitution of the family we see at the end of the Parshah. Unlike the beginning with its disjointed narrative, the end of the Parshah reads smoothly. Abraham resolves his family issues and dies old and happy. Thus the form of the text itself tells us the story behind the story.

Parshah Vayera

Abraham, as well as being a great religious figure, is also revealed by this week’s Parshah do be a great humanist, in the true sense of the word. He shows concern for the welfare of his fellow human beings, even in the face of G-d. Twice in the Parshah Abraham is disturbed by the intended fate of the people around him and seeks to have that fate averted. Interestingly, twice he fails. He tries to save the people of Sodom but fails to find even ten righteous people. He is upset at Sarah’s demand to expel Ishmael but is informed by G-d to listen to her opinion. We normally concentrate on Abraham’s effort but overlook the fact that in the end he was not successful. It is, of course, an important part of Abraham’s character that he cares for and tries to save those around him. But a no less important trait is the attitude he takes when he fails. In both cases he realises when the game is up. He understands the important principle that there are times, that with the best will in the world, situations cannot be fixed and drastic action needs to be taken. If we look more closely at these two cases we can see this principle in action. When Abraham is informed of the impending destruction of Sodom he takes up their case in the belief that things are not irredeemable. If only fifty, or even ten, righteous people can be found in the city, then things can be turned around. Yet, in the end, he is forced to accept that there are no forces in these cities that can change their behaviour, and therefore acquiesces in their destruction. The same is true in the case of Ishmael. It is clear that there have been issues around Ishmael’s behaviour for some while. The juxtaposition of an older son of a concubine and a younger son of a wife by itself was enough to tension. When Sarah sees Ishmael’s behaviour towards Isaac at his weaning party, she becomes convinced that the situation is no longer tenable. Abraham is not so sure and attempts to save the position of his eldest son. Yet G-d informs him that Sarah is right. He is given to see that it is not possible for someone with Ishmael’s attitude and behaviour to continue to be part of the family. Abraham then accepts this wisdom and takes steps to deal with the situation. Abraham thus teaches us an important lesson, how to act when our efforts at reform and co-existence fail. We should not continue to let the situation fester but rather take the action needed to resolve the situation for the benefit of everyone else. Not everyone can be saved, and like Abraham, its important to know when to stop trying.

Parshah Lech L’cha

‘And the Canaanite was then in the Land’. This verse, written at the beginnings of Abraham’s journey through the Land, has excited the interest of commentators throughout the ages. Biblical critics, who believe that the Torah is of much later origin than Moses, use this text as proof. This verse was written at a time when the Canaanites were no longer in the Land. Yet, as Hertz points out, this interpretation is nonsensical, as a cursory reading of the rest of the Bible shows that populations of Canaanites existed right through the biblical period. Indeed, non-Jewish cities, of Canaanite origin, existed well into the Second Temple period, long after the latest date for the canonisation of the Bible. The correct interpretation of this verse is as an explanation to a later generation that at the time of Abraham the Canaanites were already occupying the Land. Later generations might have thought that their title to the Land came from the fact that they were their first, the people they had conquered the Land from arriving subsequently, as did, for example, the Philistines. The Torah therefore informs us, directly before G-d’s promise to Abraham that his descendents would inherit the Land, that it was already occupied by the Canaanites. Nevertheless, G-d’s promise would come true, as He is true owner of the title to the Land and He has given it to the descendents of Abraham. Aside from the political importance of this idea, the fact that the Land was already inhabited also highlights the greatness of Abraham. Though he was one amongst many he was able to earn the respect and trust of the population, and thus also have a positive influence on the society around him. This point is emphasised in the context of the next use of the phrase, some verses later. Here, the shepherds of Abraham and Lot are quarrelling and the Torah informs us that the ‘Canaanite and Perizite were then in the Land’. This argument among Abraham’s family had the potential to sour relations with the local inhabitants and thus Abraham moves to separate from Lot, before he can cause further harm. These stories contain within them an important message. Though a small minority in a larger society, one person can still have an influence on the whole of that society. Abraham could positively influence the people around him, just a Lot had the potential to negatively impact on his environment. We should never delude ourselves about the damage one troublemaker can cause, or underestimate the good that one individual can effect.

Parshah Noach

A common discussion in modern Jewish life concerns the eating of meat. Some Jews are convinced vegetarians and maintain that this is the real position of the Torah. After all, humans before the flood were not permitted to eat meat, and the whole attitude of the Torah to this practice is one of reluctant concession. Those Jews who reject vegetarianism point out that G-d, in our Parshah, gives specific permission to eat meat, and later Jewish law mandated both animal sacrifices and the eating of meat on Shabbat and Festivals. The crux of the argument therefore centres round the transformation in our relation to animals brought about by the flood. Before the flood humans were not permitted to kill animals for food; afterwards this was permitted. What had changed? It is clear from the creation chapter that animals were created for their own sake. Though Adam was given ‘dominion’ over other living things, this did not imply ownership or the right to do with them as he wished. Neither, did it necessitate a special responsibility towards them. While Adam gives the animals names as part of his search for a mate, he is not required to ‘look after them’ as he is with regard to plant life. They were created by G-d and thus had an existence independent of humans. The flood, however, changes this relationship. It is Noah that is commanded to gather the animals and put them on the Ark, thus saving them from the destruction of the flood. It is thus not only to G-d but also to humans that animals owe their continued existence. The relationship has changed. This has a twofold implication. On the one hand, humanity is now given complete dominion over the animal kingdom. Humans can kill animals for food and generally use them for their own benefit as they wish. On the other hand it also implies a heightened responsibility for animal welfare. As their second ‘creator’, humanity has the duty to look after the general welfare of animals, ensuring their continued existence and their humane treatment. Thus the consumption of meat is intrinsically linked to the philosophical underpinnings of our relationship with animals, which was radically transformed by the experience of the flood. This implies that while vegetarianism is not in accord with Jewish tradition, concern for animal welfare in its broadest sense, certainly is.

Parshah Bereishit

An difficult aspect of the first portion of the Torah is the apparent contradictions between the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis and that in the second. One of those discrepancies concerns the creation of Woman. While it originally appears that Man and Woman were created together, Woman is later described as being formed from Man’s rib. The traditional explanation for this difference is that originally Man and Woman were created as a composite hermaphrodite being, connected back to back; and later divided into two separate beings, becoming whole again in the face to face encounter of sexual union. This is the meaning of the verse that follows: ‘therefore Man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his Woman and become one flesh’.  While some see the ‘one flesh’ as signifying the child born from their union, the literal meaning expounded by many of the commentators is that it refers to the  sexual union itself. It is thus G-d’s will that rather than being joined at the hip with a similar being, we must achieve oneness with a face to face encounter with a different being. We become whole only by intimate connection with the ‘Other’. This can also be seen in the list of forbidden sexual relationships enumerated in the Torah. The vast majority concern incest, or intimacy with members of our own family. In our intimate relationships we are forbidden to seek the comfort of the familiar, safe home environment. Rather we are enjoined to seek fulfilment in what is different from us. Therefore the verse, traditionally seen as prohibiting incest for all humanity, stresses the need to leave our parents: the familiar, and cleave to our partner: the different. This idea, of course, has a resonance far beyond our sexual relations. If in the most important and intimate area of our lives G-d enjoins us to leave the safe and familiar and seek out the exotic and different, how much more so in other spheres. At the very beginning of the Torah we are warned not to cocoon ourselves in a comfortable environment, eschewing the challenges of confronting the new and  the divergent. Only by facing difference are we enabled to emotionally and spiritually grow. Only in the mirror of the face of the other can we truly see ourselves.

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