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Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5773
Parshat Shabbat Succot
One of the main mitzvot of Succot is that of taking the Arba Minim or Four Species. The Torah divides this mitzvah into two parts. We are told that on the first Yom Tov we are to take for ‘ourselves’ the Four Species, while we are to rejoice ‘before G-d’ seven days. From this the Rabbis deduced that on the first day it is a mitzvah to take the Arba Minim everywhere, while on the other days it is only an obligation in the Temple. This is in contradistinction to the mitzvah of Succah which is from the Torah for all seven days of the festival. What is the reason for this distinction? We may gain some enlightenment from a similar distinction with regards to Pesach. There also, the mitzvah of eating Matzah applies from the Torah only on Seder night but not for the remainder of the festival. The reason for this appears to be that Matzah is the symbol of the redemption from Egypt, an event whose full force is felt only on Seder night. While the Exodus was the pivotal event of Jewish history its immediate effects were limited to the one event. On Succot we remember two historical events. One is the wandering in the wilderness, symbolised by the Succah, while the other is the Arba Minim, which, as symbols of the fruitfulness of the Land, commemorate the entry into the Land of Israel. G-d’s protection, demonstrated most clearly in the wilderness, extends to all times and places. Therefore the mitzvah of Succah is for all seven days. On the other hand, the entry into the Land was a one-off historical event, which, like the Exodus, can be experienced only once and therefore is commemorated only on the first Yom Tov. Why then does the Torah command us to take the Arba Minim for all seven days in the Temple? Maybe, because it is in the Temple that the tremendous power of the holiness of the Land of Israel is most felt. The Divine Presence manifest in the Temple is the visible sign of the intrinsic holiness of the Land and thus a continual reminder of the distinctiveness of living in the Land. It is interesting that the Sages after the destruction of the Temple instituted that the Four Species should be taken on all seven days everywhere. Bearing in mind the rationale behind the Arba Minim we can suggest an explanation for this extension. Once the Temple no longer existed, and especially if the Jews were increasingly living scattered in other lands, the holiness of the Land could be forgotten. Jews might even think that they could observe the Torah just as well outside Israel. The taking of the Arba Minim for the whole of Succot, reminds us of the centrality of the Land of Israel to Judaism.
There is a well known discussion concerning Yom Kippur that falls on a Shabbat, as is does this year. Do we add the phrase normally used in our prayers on Shabbat ‘accept our rest’ or do we omit it. Those who hold the latter opinion contend that there is no ‘rest’ on a Shabbat that is also Yom Kippur, as it is a day of ’afflicting our souls’, the opposite of ‘rest’. This discussion is linked to another concerning the use of spices during Havdalah at the end of Yom Kippur that falls on Shabbat. On a normal Yom Kippur or other weekday Yom Tov we omit this blessing, which is a symbol of the departure of the ’additional soul’ we receive on Shabbat. Again the issue is whether we have this additional soul on a Shabbat that is also Yom Kippur. This is dependent on the nature of this ‘additional soul’. Rashi, on the Talmud, says that this ‘soul’ enables us to eat and drink more than usual and not be harmed. We see here a common link. For those who regard a Shabbat that is also Yom Kippur as not having the same nature as a normal Shabbat, this is connected to the ability to serve G-d through physical enjoyment, something obviously absent on Yom Kippur. Those who disagree regard the ‘additional soul’ or the aspect of ‘rest’ on Shabbat as something more than just based on physical enjoyment but an extra spiritual strength that is given to us on Shabbat. They could cite in support of their opinion the fact that on Yom Kippur that falls on Shabbat we miss out various prayers, such as Avinu Malkenu’ which are never said on Shabbat because of their somewhat mournful nature, which is considered not appropriate for Shabbat. The fact that we miss out these prayers even on Yom Kippur, if it falls on Shabbat, seems to indicate that there is a spiritual nature to Shabbat to that is present even in the absence of the normal physical comfort of Shabbat. Furthermore, this spiritual aspect of Shabbat seems to obviate the need for these omitted supplications. Thus, it could be argued, that rather than Yom Kippur detracting from Shabbat, Shabbatadds an extra dimension to Yom Kippur.
Parshat Ha'azinu / Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah is called in our prayers ‘the Day of Remembrance: the Day of Blowing of the Shofar’. All the festivals are designated in the prayers by two names. The first deals with the mitzvah that is central to that festival such as the Festival of Matzot or Succot. The other explains the idea behind the festival, that the mitzvah is meant to help us connect to, such as the ‘time of our freedom’ or ‘the time of our joy’. When it comes to Rosh Hashanah the order is seemingly reversed. One would expect it to be called the ’Day of the Blowing of the Shofar’: the Time of Remembrance’, meaning that the mitzvah of hearing the shofar on that day is meant to cause us to remember. Yet we in fact talk of Remembrance first and the Shofar second. This seems to indicate that the mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is Remembrance in order to understand the idea of the Shofar. How do we understand this reversal? To explain this, we need to examine the meaning of the Shofar. In the Torah Rosh Hashanah is called ‘the day of Teruah’, the central sound of the shofar. What is a Teruah? There a different opinions but the common theme among them is that the Teruah is a cry of pain or distress. It is the call of someone in a crisis to G-d. Thus the meaning of Rosh Hashanah is a day of crying out to G-d in our distress This being so we can know, using the rubric set out above, begin to understand the phraseology of our prayers. Rosh Hashanah is the day when we are commanded to remember in order to cry out to G-d in our distress by means of the Shofar. What, however, are we meant to remember that has relevance to the blowing of the Shofar from the midst of trouble. The answer is, I believe, that we are meant to remember why we are in trouble. In order to cry out to G-d to save us from the crisis we found ourselves in, we first have to understand how we got into trouble in the first place. Without that reflection, which is meant to lead to a change in the behaviour that led us into our current situation, we cannot properly cry to G-d with the Shofar. Rosh Hashanah is thus the day when we are commanded to reflect on our problematic behaviour in order to be able to make the sound of the Shofar more than merely a sound but a true cry from the heart.
After the series of curses in the last Parshah and the warning of exile and destruction of the Land at the beginning of this week’s Parshah, the Torah turns to the theme of repentance and redemption. If the Jewish people in exile will return to G-d then G-d will end their exile and return them to the Land of Israel. If we look closely at these verses we see that there appears to be a process of mutual return happening here. First the Jews in exile ‘reflect in their heart’ and return to G-d. Then G-d has mercy upon them and returns them to the Land from the ends of the earth. Then G-d ‘circumcises their heart’ to love G-d. This is followed by all the curses being transferred to the enemies of the Jewish people, followed by a further return to G-d and a blessing of prosperity because we will return to G-d. Thus three periods of return are followed by three types of redemption. We return to G-d in exile and he returns us to the Land. We deepen our attachment to G-d and He punishes our enemies. Further progress in our spiritual life leads to general prosperity. If we examine the wording in these verses we can discern something interesting. The type of return to G-d. is different in each case. Firstly the Jews return to listen to G-d’s voice’, this is enough to lead to the end of the exile. Circumcising our hearts to love G-d leads to the curses suffered by the Jews to occur to their enemies. Finally, actually doing all G-d commanded us leads to prosperity. These connections are not random. The last two are easily understandable. Our enemies being punished is a direct consequence of loving G-d. If you have a lover, that person will stand up for you and penalise those who seek to hurt you. It is also easy to understand why practically doing what G-d commanded will lead to G-d practically helping us and giving us material success. More difficult to understand is why simply listening to G-d is enough to lead to an end of the exile. The answer may lie in what comes before. At the beginning of the Parshah exile is presented as a direct consequence of not listening to the warnings but stubbornly ignoring them. The people refuse to understand that what is happening to them is the consequence of disobedience to G-d but put it down to normal events. Political independence in their Land had caused them to forget that what happened to them was the result of their actions. Thus they are exiled and put in a situation, where both their survival in exile and the destruction of their land is proof of G-d’s involvement. When the Jews again return and realise that what happened to them is a result of their sins then it is possible for them to return to the Land and begin the process of redemption.
Our Parshah begins with the mitzvah of Bikurim or the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple. The middle of this passage is familiar to us from the Haggada but it is a phrase from the beginning of the passage that warrants more investigation. The Torah commands that we should bring the Bikurim to the ‘priest that will be in those days’. The commentators struggled to understand the relevance of this qualification to the context. Rashi simply states that you have the priest that will be in your day, no matter what he is like. Nachmanidies has difficulty with this interpretation as he cannot understand what relevance the quality of a priest has to the established ritual of bringing first fruits. He therefore explains that one should not bring a priest from his own city but use one stationed at the Temple. He, in trying to explain Rashi, also brings the Midrash which states that even if you think that that there may be a family defect in the priest, you should not refrain from bringing the first fruits to him. The Hizkuni, similar to Nachmanidies, comments that you shouldn’t give the first fruits, which are eaten by the priests, to a priest of your choosing but give them to whatever priest is officiating. The Seforno connects the verse to the use of the term ’the L-rd your G-d’, a term normally reserved for people of stature. You should not think that because, in your opinion, the current priest is not of such good quality, you should refrain from addressing him in this way. Rather he is the person appointed by Divine law to serve in the Temple and he is therefore deserving to receive the first fruits. If we examine these varying opinions we find they fall into two different categories, both of which, however, have a common denominator. One the one hand one should not favour one priest over another, shopping around for one that finds favour in your eyes. On the other hand, you should not constantly question the qualifications of the priest because you think he is not as good as priests in the past or another one you are acquainted with. What connects these two attitudes is a inability to accept the objectivity of Jewish law. It is an attempt to bend the law to their personal needs rather than seeing how the law can be applied in your particular circumstances. These attitudes are, unfortunately, common today. People ‘shop around’ for Rabbis that will give them the decision they want and disparage their local rabbi if he doesn't give them the decision they desire. Both attitudes undermine Judaism and the Torah warns us against them.
One of the more difficult mitzvot in the Torah to understand is that of the rebellious son. The idea of executing children for their behaviour is considered abhorrent, no matter how sorely tried the parents. The rationale for this law is also not readily evident. There are several approaches one can take to this matter. One is to say that the law was promulgated in a context where parents had absolute power over their children, something evident right down to Roman times and beyond. What this law then does is to take the severe punishment of the child out of the hands of the parents and put it in the hands of an independent tribunal. This is a common feature of Torah legislation as seen, for example, in the case of murder, where the decision of guilt or innocent and appropriate punishment is taken out of the hands of the victim’s family and given to the court. Some rabbis took a different approach, declaring that this law was never carried out, nor was it meant to be. It was in the Torah as a warning to parents and children of the consequences of delinquent behaviour. In this vein it is fruitful to examine the mitzvah more closely and to seek to understand the lesson it is trying to teach us. In explaining the rationale behind the mitzvah Rashi explains that the Torah looked at the eventual fate of the child. If even at a young age the youth was drinking and partying to excess he is going to get himself in trouble. In the end when his parents are no longer willing to support his lifestyle he will end up stealing and worse and being executed for his crimes. It is thus ‘better that he dies innocent and not guilty’. If we look at this explanation we can notice that the youth has not yet reached the stage that he is doing anything crimminal. Rather he is on that path and it is better we deal with it now before it becomes worse. Taking on board the opinion that this law was never meant to be literally carried out, we can see that the Torah is here giving a serious warning and important advice to parents. Your child is on a path that will eventually lead to criminality and to his premature demise. Before it gets to that stage it is your duty to act. Furthermore, the Torah commands the child is taken to the elders for judgement. It may be that the parents can no longer cope or have influence. It is then their duty to call in outside authorities to deal with the situation, The Torah is thus here advocating what we would call today early intervention, a crucial tool in the fight against youth crime and its consequences.
Our Parshah talks of the institution of monarchy. The commentators have puzzled over the seeming contradiction between our Parshah, where the reason for the institution is the people’s desire to be like the other nations and the book of Samuel, where Samuel and G-d seem to criticise the Jews for precisely such a request. A way of resolving this paradox is to closely examine the verses in the Parshah that talk of monarchy. Firstly, the Torah conditions monarchy on the Jews being already settled in their land. Secondly, the monarch is not to accumulate horses, women or money. Lastly, the monarch is write or have written for him a special Torah scroll that is to accompany him at all times. Taking these conditions as a whole it is possible to construct the model of monarchy envisioned by the Torah and another model that the Torah wishes to discourage. A hint to this negative model is found in the reason given for the prohibition of a monarch having many horses: that he should not return the people to Egypt. The commentators have puzzled over the definition of and reason for this prohibition. In our context we can understand the rationale. Egypt was the supreme example of the model of monarchy the Torah wished to discourage. The Pharaoh was regarded as divine, a divinity that was emphasised by extreme power and wealth. The Pharaoh was also seen as the source of prosperity and military success as well as the supreme source of law. This is the precise opposite of the ideology of the Torah, where G-d is the cause of success and the source of law. Thus, in setting up a monarchy, the Torah forbids a monarch to accumulate possessions in a way that can be seen as aspiring to divine status. And rather than being the source of the law he is the guarantor of G-d’s law. The Torah provides for a monarch only after Israel is settled in their land. The monarch is not to be a war leader or the source of material success. That is the role of G-d. Rather, when Israel is secure in their land they can establish a form of government that, like in the surrounding nations, promotes stability and continuity. But in content it should be different. A Jewish monarch is not in place of G-d but an the guarantor of His laws and an example of how serve Him. The people in the times of Samuel, however, wanted a monarch like the other nations in the sense of being in place of G-d. They requested a monarch not when Israel was at peace and as a guarantor of stability, but in order to create that security. They wanted not only the form of monarchy found elsewhere but also the content. Thus Samuel opposes their request. We may borrow form from others, but the content should always be Jewish.
The Parshah this week is centred on Jerusalem. The central message of the Parshah is the necessity to have one centre of worship in ‘the place which G-d will choose’ and not in every place that someone chooses to offer sacrifice. After beginning this theme with the command to destroy the idolatrous places of worship of the Canaanites, who worshipped ‘on top of every mountain and under every tree’ and before going on to command the Jews to only worship in the central sanctuary, the Torah interposes a rather strange verse: ‘you shall not do the same to the L-rd your G-d’. The commentators differ in their interpretation of the verse. Some connected it with what follows. Unlike the Canaanites, who sacrificed to their gods everywhere, G-d is only to be sacrificed to in the central sanctuary. Some connected it to what goes before and learn from this a prohibition of destroying part of the altar or rubbing out the name of G-d. A unique Talmudic interpretation connects this verse to the above command to destroy the Canaanite places of worship because of their evil acts. The Torah warns us not to do the same to G-d’s place of worship. We are not to cause G-d to drive us from the Land and destroy His Temple, because of our evil acts. This interpretation continues a theme found throughout Deuteronomy and in the rest of the Torah. The Canaanites were driven from the Land because they behaved in an immoral way. The Jews, who with G-d’s help, take their place should not think themselves immune from the same punishment. If we misbehave in the same way we will suffer the same fate. This interpretation also explains the nature of the contents of our Parshah. We begin and end with the necessity to worship in the central sanctuary. In the middle, however we have laws about false prophets and idolatry, as well as a recapitulation of the rules of kashrut. Bearing in mind the above explanation we can understand why. The endurance of that same central sanctuary we are commanded to build, depends on our observance of the other mitzvot found in the Parshah. If we don’t serve G-d in other areas of our lives, worship alone, even in the Temple in Jerusalem will not suffice.
One of the most famous verses in our Parshah is that ‘not on bread alone does a man live but on everything that comes out of the mouth of G-d a man lives’. This is the lesson we are meant to learn from the Manna G-d supplied to Israel in the wilderness. It is unclear the precise meaning of this verse. It could mean that only following G-d’s commandments will guarantee material success or that it is G-d that decides our wealth not our own efforts. Both of these explanations are possible. But I would like to propose another explanation based on the second word in our Parshah, which gives it its name: Ekev. The word is normally translated as ‘because of’ or in ‘consequence of’. Thus the first verse says that: it will be because of you listening to these laws and keeping them that G-d will keep for you the covenant. The word Ekev also means heel, and its meaning of consequence is derived from the fact the body follows the foot or heel, as in the English word footprints. The Rabbis used this double meaning to explain that here the Torah is referring especially to those commandments that people don’t care about or ‘trample under foot’ without noticing it. If we are careful to keep these laws then G-d will keep His covenant with us. On the surface this seems are rather demanding condition. In order for G-d to keep His promise, we are required to pay attention even to the smallest detail of the mitzvot. What the Rabbis are saying here, however, is deeper and more encompassing. By trampling on mitzvot we don’t think are important we are in effect putting our own priorities ahead of those of the Torah. We are thus really turning the Torah into something we use for our own benefit, rather than as a vehicle for a relationship with G-d. This, I believe, is another meaning of the verse about not living on bread alone. The giving of the Manna necessitated various laws that went against normal human interests, like not storing it and not gathering on Shabbat. It required G-d’s understanding before their own. This taught us that we need to see things from G-d’s point of view and prioritise what is important from a spiritual view: ‘what comes out of G-d’s mouth’ more than material interests: ‘bread alone’. The Parshah, in these two verses thus requires us to examine our priorities. Are they ones that cause us to advance spiritually or the opposite? Do they contribute to society or help weaken it? In short this week’s Parshah asks us to consider what is truly important.
This week is a week of two parts. We have the period before Tisha B’Av and the period afterwards. One is a period of mourning, the other of comfort. This division exists on Tisha B’Av itself. The period until noon is one of intense mourning and focus on the past, while the period after noon sees a turn towards comfort and the future. Our Parshah is also similarly divided into two. The first half is a continuation of the review of the past forty years started last week. This culminates in our Parshah with Moses relating how he begged to enter the Land and was refused by G-d. This idea of being excluded from the Land as a punishment for misbehaviour is continued in the next aliyah, which includes the passage read on Tisha B’Av. The second half of the Parshah is very different. It recounts the Revelation at Sinai and also includes the Shema. Rather than warning of the punishment for disobeying the Torah, it sets forth the possibilities for a positive relationship with G-d based on fulfilment of the mitzvot. Like the week preceding it, the Parshah begins with disaster and ends with hope. What, however, is the dividing line that separates these two halves and enables the transition from despair to hope.? An answer can be found in the Parshah. In between the first and second halves of the Parshah we have a small section seemingly out of place. This relates how Moses sets aside three cities of refuge in Transjordan. One would think that this information would be found when the following the commandment to set up these cities found at the end of Numbers. Yet it is placed here. This comes to teach us something. Even though Moses was debarred from entering the Land, he still did what he could to fulfil the mitzvot he could perform. A similar idea is found in the rabbinic commentary on the fact that the laws in the first paragraph of the Shema are repeated in the second, after the warning that disobedience will result in exile. The rabbis commentated that even when in exile we should keep the mitzvot we can, in order to not forget the Torah in exile. It is fascinating, therefore, that one of the differences between the morning and afternoon of Tisha B’Av is the fulfilment of one of those mitzvot of the Shema. Unlike every other weekday we do not wear Tefilin in the morning but only in the afternoon. Like the recommendation of the Rabbis and the example of Moses we respond to tragedy but doing what we can accomplish, not dwelling on what we can’t achieve. Through positive acts we can transform tragedy to opportunity and despair to hope. This is the lesson of this Parshah and the week that precedes it.
The book of Deuteronomy, which we begin this week, is different from the other books of the Torah, and indeed is unique in the whole bible. Unlike the rest of the Torah that either recounts history or contains direct commands from G-d, Deuteronomy is basically the lecture of Moses before his death. The words ‘G-d spoke to Moses saying’, which preface the mitzvot in the rest of the Torah, do not appear in this book, even with regards to the various commands contained with it. They too are presented as the words of Moses. Yet Deuteronomy is an integral part of the Torah, equal in stature and authority to the other four books. A Torah scroll that misses even one letter of the book would not be kosher and the mitzvot contained within it have the same authority as mitzvot prefaced by a direct Divine command. How then are we to understand this book? Is it the word of G-d or the words of Moses? The answer is that it is both, and the two are not contradictory. Firstly, except for the Ten Commandments, spoken directly by G-d to the people, Moses is also the conduit for the other mitzvot of the Torah. G-d commands Moses to tell the Israelites the commandment. Moses speaks in Deuteronomy as a prophet with direct access to G-d, even though in this book the form of the words is his own. Yet there is a deeper meaning to the uniqueness of this book. Deuteronomy is the beginning of the oral tradition, the Divinely inspired interpretation of the Torah. This is clearly seen in the Ten Commandments where Moses talks of the commands as something that ‘G-d commanded you’ and in some cases expounds them with an explanation not found in the original. This is also true in other places in the book, in both its historical and legal sections. Moses is here, with the Divine sanction of his words, providing the model for all those who come after him. He is showing how the explanation of the Torah provided by the sages of each generation has in itself Divine approval. We should not think that the way a mitzvah is traditionally interpreted is merely of human origin and the product of human ingenuity alone. Rather it is the expression of the Divine will through the medium of the Jewish people and their sages. In this way the revelation on Mt Sinai and the written Torah has to be seen as not the end of the story but its beginning. It is the direct Divine initiation of an ongoing process of revelation that comes through the medium of the Jewish people and its interpretation of the Torah. This essential component of Jewish vitality throughout the ages begins with Deuteronomy.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 5773
The war with the Midianites presents us with difficult ethical questions. Some of these are unable to be answered from the perspective of the modern world and can only be dealt with in the context of the methods of warfare of the time. One issue that does have relevance for us, though no less difficult, concerns the justification for the attack on the Midianites. This was in retribution for their program of seduction of the Israelites which led in the end to 24,000 deaths. This is described in one verse as being the revenge of the Israelites, while in the next it is designated the revenge of G-d. On this discrepancy Rashi comments that ‘whoever attacks Israel it is as if he attacked G-d’. This statement itself is problematic. It appears, on the surface, to be a most extreme example of ethno-centrism. How are we to understand this statement in a way that is palatable to our modern ears? The answer lies in another statement of the Rabbis. In fact, it was the Moabites who seduced the Israelites, not the Midianites, though both of them were involved with Balaam in the planning of the strategy. Why then, were only the Midianites to be punished? The answer of the Rabbis is very instructive. The Moabites had reason to fear the Jews who were encamped next to their border and seemed to threaten their national security. The Midianites, on the other hand, were nowhere near the Israelites and had nothing to fear from them. They, according to the Rabbis, were motivated by pure hatred. They had no reason to dislike the Jews but were consumed by prejudice. They objected to the Jews not because of what they did but because of who they were. They were against the whole project of Exodus and the progress of Israel to the Land of Israel. The idea of a Jewish people believing in one G-d was anathema to them. We can now begin to understand the above equivalence of the Rabbis between Israel and G-d. The Midianites hated Israel precisely because they were the people of G-d. Therefore they are, in effect, not only fighting against Israel but ultimately against G-d. Therefore, the purpose of the war against the Midianites is not only to exact the revenge of Israel but also that of G-d. This idea is just as relevant today. Israel has many enemies. Some, like the Palestinians, have actual cause for their enmity. Those enemies of Israel in Scotland have none and are motivated by pure hatred and ideological opposition to the very idea of a Jewish state. They are thus also the enemies of G-d.
At the beginning of the Parshah G-d grants to Pinchas two covenants as a reward for taking action in the matter of Zimri. One is a covenant of peace; the other a covenant of priesthood. About the latter, the sages make the enigmatic statement that Pinchas didn’t become a priest till he killed Zimri. The Priesthood in Jewish tradition is known for two seemingly contradictory character traits. One is a love of peace and facilitating good relations between people. Conversely priests are also known for having a short temper and being prone to extreme actions. These traits appear variously in different members of the tribe: Aaron is known for his love of peace while Pinchas is known for his extremism. How then, do these two opposite traits mesh together in the same Priesthood? These two traits are, however, not necessarily totally opposed. Their appearance in the history of the Priesthood is dependent on the time and circumstance. The priest is indeed a teacher whose role is to spread knowledge and to create good relations between people. On the other hand, he is also a guardian of the tradition and the Torah. At times when the Jewish future of the people of Israel is in danger, as in the case of Zimri, it is necessary for him to take extreme action to remedy the situation. In general it is necessary to get on with people and like Aaron ‘love peace and pursue peace’, seeking compromise rather than confrontation. Yet there exist circumstances and times when compromise is not possible and confrontation inevitable. There are ideas that cannot be accepted and actions that leave no place for compromise. When the futures of Judaism and of the Jewish people are at stake even the most peaceable person may be forced to take extreme action. Yet there is an important difference between these two traits. The trait of peace is something that Pinchas inherited from his grandfather Aaron, though after his violent action it was something G-d wished to strengthen. According to tradition, however, Pinchas’ eligibility for the priesthood was earned not inherited. Only after he killed Zimri did he become a priest. This highlights an important difference between these two priestly traits. The trait of moderation and seeking compromise is something that can and should be taught. It should be the normal nature of the priest and the way he generally conducts himself. On the other hand, the trait of anger and extremism is not something that should be taught, rather come to the fore only in the appropriate circumstances. Only the person living in that situation can decide on such an extreme course of action and accept the attendant dangers. Extremism should never become the norm.
One of the perennial questions about the story of Balaam is why G-d at first tells him not to go, then allows him to go and then gets angry when he does go. A close look at the story may provide an answer. Balaam does inform the messengers from Balak that G-d has refused permission for him to go with them but he withholds the information that the people are blessed and it is thus not possible to curse them. Balak then sends even more important messengers. To these Balaam at first replies that even if Balak would give him a house full of riches he would not be able to go. He then tells then to wait to see what more G-d has to say. G-d then allows him to go with them, on condition that he does as he is told. G-d then becomes angry with him. Looking at this sequence of events we see that Balaam is in effect playing a confidence trick on Balak, and dragging G-d into it. He withholds the important fact that it is not possible to curse the Jews, while at the same time raising the issue of money. He then says he will go back to G-d for further instructions. All this gives the impression that G-d can be persuaded to change his mind, and even worse, for money. The messengers of Balak probably understood that G-d’s change of mind was occasioned by an offer by Balaam to give part of the fee he would earn to G-d. It thus appeared that G-d can be bribed to allow what he before disallowed. This had the potential of causing great damage to G-d’s reputation among the non-Jewish nations. The only way to resolve the situation is for Balaam to go to Balak and fulfil G-d’s will rather than Balak’s. The anger of G-d and the incident with the angel was an indication of G-d’s displeasure with Balaam and a guarantee that there would be no more tricks. This story has great resonance for our time. Two of the most damaging charges against religion is that it is only interested in money and preys on the weak and gullible. Often these two activities go together, with religious groups promising various benefits in return for donations. They pretend to be able to heal people or help them find a job, when they can do no such thing. A small donation to the church is marketed as a good way to increase your wealth as your finances will then be ‘blessed’ by G-d. These organisations mostly target the less fortunate members of society who are looking for a way out of their predicament. These ‘pray later, send money now’ outfits constitute a monstrous profanation of G-d’s name and religion in general into disrepute. Like Balaam they need to be convincingly proved a sham.
Parshat Korach/Rosh Hodesh
The rebellion of Korach seems to bring together various different people, Korach and his followers, various members of the tribe of Reuben and two hundred and fifty other officials. The attitude of the majority of the people is not clear; it seems to be one studied neutrality, though they later also criticise Moses. What joins all these groups, if anything, and what is the real cause of the rebellion? The commentators differ about the basis for the revolt. Rashi links it to Korach’s personal grievance against Moses and sees him as a demagogue who was able to draw others after him. Many other commentators find a common link between these various groups in that they were all firstborn. The revolt was then about their resentment at the firstborn being replaced by the Levites in the service of the Tabernacle. Why then did this revolt not break out at the time of that change rather than months later? This timing suggests to us another aspect to the story. At the time of the inauguration of the Tabernacle Moses was still popular and unassailable. Only after the sin of the spies and the crushing knowledge that they would have to die in the wilderness, were the people ripe for a revolt against Moses. We thus have three different strands to this story. There is the personal bitterness and demagoguery of Korach, the specific grievance of many of the leading firstborn at their replacement by the Levites and the general atmosphere of disaffection that suffused the people following the sin of the spies. All these things came together to produce the revolt of Korach and he was able to exploit them to lead a serious attempt to replace Moses. This story has an important lesson for our own time. The rise of fanaticism, xenophobia and the success of extremist groups are often connected to these conditions. An embittered or disappointed leader with demagogic abilities is able to gather around him others with a variety of different grievances to challenge the existing political consensus. This will often take the form of an direct or indirect attack on minorities living within the society. But in order for this to succeed the general conditions must be right. The population as a whole must be feeling unsettled or angry with the current situation. The answer to this situation is also found in the Parshah. It is not to seek to outflank the rebels by conceding some of their demands. Rather it is to do what Moses did. To take the arguments of the rebels seriously and to answer them head on. It is to expose the contradictions within and the consequences of the policy of the extremists and thus defeat them. Thus a biblical revolt has lessons also for us today.
The sin of the spies is recounted in two places. One is in our Parshah while the other is at the beginning of the Deuteronomy. The two accounts diverge in various aspects. The most striking diversion concerns the initiative for the sending of the spies. While in our Parshah the instruction seems to come from G-d, in Deuteronomy it is the people that originate the idea for such a mission. There are various ways of reconciling the differences. One, favoured by Rashi, places the initiative firmly in the hands of the people. G-d merely agreed to the plan and gave instructions how it was to be carried out. Rashi,however goes further. G-d is portrayed as complaining that He told them it was a good land but they want to check it out. Therefore He opens up the possibility of them being led astray by the spies in order that they would not inherit it. This midrash is problematic in various respects. First of all it portrays G-d as encouraging a bad course of action rather than seeking to prevent it. Secondly, it seems that the mission of the spies was doomed to failure from the start. G-d seems to be merely using it as a pretext for barring them from the Land because he was miffed that they had asked to check it out. For a true understanding of this midrash, however, we have to look below the surface and at the context surrounding the incident. The nation was about to enter the Land of Israel. Unlike the wilderness, where all their wants were provided, life in the Land required a different level of faith. Here they would have to work the land, depending on the unpredictable climate for the success of their endeavours. Rather than being able to rely on the Manna falling each day, a farmer would sow not knowing what harvest he would eventually reap. In life in the Land there are no certainties, only probabilities buttressed by faith in G-d. In order to successfully exist in Israel they would have to accept uncertainty as part of the normal order of things. G-d had promised them a good land. By asking to see it first the people were seeking the level of certainty that they had in the wilderness. They therefore cast doubt on their ability to successfully exist in the Land. G-d therefore accedes to their request. But the mission of the spies will be a test for them not G-d. If they are put off by the strength of the people or the nature of the land, then they are showing themselves not worthy of living in the Land and confirming the unsuitability hinted at in their original request. Thus G-d, rather than purposefully trapping the people, tests them in a way they themselves determined.
When discussing the inauguration of the Levites into their service the Torah famously makes abundant use of the term ‘Children of Israel’, even to the extent of mentioning it five times within one verse. The commentators generally point out that this shows the affection with which G-d regards the people of Israel. Yet one can ask why is this affection expressed specifically here. The reason seems relatively simple. The Levites are being separated from the rest of the people in order to serve in the Tabernacle. Furthermore they are replacing the firstborn who by definition are more representative of the whole people, one being taken from a family. It might have been thought that from now on only the Levites had a connection to G-d or an obligation to study and observe the Torah. The rest of the people may have felt alienated from the Tabernacle or the service of G-d in general. Indeed we see an echo of this in the later rebellion of Korach, where his rallying cry was ‘the whole community are holy’. Therefore the Torah here emphasises that this is not the case. By repeated use of the term ‘the Children of Israel’ the Torah emphasises that all the people remain beloved of G-d and are connected to the Torah. The positioning of the repeated use of this term also has another message. It is used precisely where the Torah talks of the replacement of the firstborn by the Levites in order to perform the service of the Children of Israel. The Torah emphases that the Levites are not working for themselves but for the whole people. They are in the nature of sh’lichim or agents. A shaliach in Jewish Law is not someone who takes upon himself the responsibilities of another or exempts him from their obligation. Rather a shaliach is like an extended hand of the person that appointed them. So, for example, someone can appoint an agent to divorce their wife. Obviously the person who gives the get to the woman is not himself divorcing her. Rather he is only physically acting instead of the husband. In the same way, the Levites are not releasing the rest of the people from their obligations to G-d. Rather they are merely physically performing the service that everyone is obligated. For this reason the Rabbis instituted ’watches’ of Israelites that would witness the Temple service. We may indeed have Rabbis and other teachers in Judaism or people who can take a service. But they do not release everyone else from their obligation. Judaism only works when everyone is involved.
Shavuot / Parshat Naso
The festival of Shavuot festival has several different aspects. In the Torah it appears as primarily an agricultural festival, marking the beginning of the harvest season in the Land of Israel and the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple. In later Jewish tradition, Shavuot is regarded as the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. On this festival we also read the Book of Ruth, telling the story of the Moabite convert who through her selfless kindness merited to become the ancestress of King David and eventually the Messiah. These different themes of this festival have much to teach us today. We live in a material world and in many ways a material society. Yet the connection of the agricultural festival of Shavuot with the Giving of the Torah teaches us the importance of the values that we hold dear. The strength of a society or nation is measured not only by its economic success but by the values on which it is based. We need a strong economy, but also strong communities informed by strong values. These values have to be part of our education system, inform our political debate and form the basis for our civic communities. One of the most important values for any society is that related to the story of Ruth. Our Sages teach us that Ruth was only written and included in the Bible in order to teach us the supreme importance of loving kindness. It is on the willingness to help others and in some cases sacrifice for them that the world is built. Kindness, consideration and mutual assistance are the glue that holds a society together and makes it strong. Without these values even the most powerful state will eventually disintegrate and the strongest economy fail. This message is also found in Parshat Naso. In between the role of the Levites and the role of the Princes in the Dedication of the Tabernacle, we have two main mitzvot. The mitzvot of the Sotah and the Nazir both deal with dangers to the fabric of society. In between the record of the setting up of the institutions of society, the Torah warns us of the dangers breakdown of the values on which society is based. The adulterous woman not only betrays her husband but also her family and the society in which she lives. She undermines the trust on which healthy families, and thus a healthy society is based. The portion of the Nazirite warns us of the dangers of a holier than thou attitude which rather than strengthening moral values actually undermines the moral basis of society. Both the Sotah and the Nazir are supreme examples of selfishness, a concern only for themselves that undermine the basic glue that holds society together. Shavuot and Naso thus have much to teach our society
This week’s Parshah which opens the book of Numbers begins with lists of numbers. The Torah gives us the results of the census of the tribes. It then goes on to specify that the Levites are not to be counted in the general census but separately. The criterion for counting the Levites is also different from that of the rest of the nation. While the rest of the tribes are counted from twenty years and upwards, the Levites are counted from the age of only one month. On this Rashi comments that this was connected to the later decree that their generation would die in the wilderness. This decree only applied to those who were numbered from the age of twenty. G-d therefore ordered the Levites to be numbered differently in order to save them from the general decree of extinction. The reason for this is that the Levites did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf. This statement needs further explanation. Why should the fact that the Levites didn’t sin with the Golden Calf exempt them from the decree concerning the sin of the spies? If they also didn’t participate in that event why would they be punished and if they did why would they be exempt? One could say that they would also have to suffer because of the principle of national collective responsibility. Yet during the incident of the Golden Calf this principle was not applied and the Levites, far from being punished, were rewarded for being loyal. The commentator on Rashi, the Siftei Hachamim, solves this conundrum in a fascinating way. The Levites did indeed participate in the sin of the spies along with everyone else. The decree of death in the wilderness, however was a punishment for both the sin of the spies and the sin of the Golden Calf. As the Levites were not guilty of the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d ordered them to be numbered differently in order to exempt them from the punishment that was decreed after the sin of the spies, even they were guilty of that sin. This explanation also needs to be understood. What is the connection between the incidents and why does one influence the other? I think it is possible to understand it in this way. The behaviour of the Jews in the wilderness, from the incident of the Golden Calf to the sin of the spies culminated in their exclusion for the Land. The sin of the spies was merely the nail in the coffin, the final proof that this generation was simply not ready for a life of freedom and responsibility. For the Levites, who didn’t sin with the Golden Calf, there was still the possibility of improvement. This teaches us an important lesson. Everyone deserves a second chance. However we also must realise when, unfortunately, there is nothing more to be done.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 5773
I remember an Israeli-Palestinian peace group telling us of a visit they paid to the House of Lords. They were introduced to the Lords thus: ‘these are the pro-Israeli Lords and these are the pro-Palestinian Lords’. They were shocked at this designation which contradicted everything they stood for. Unfortunately this polarisation is all too common in this country. It has also spread to the churches where there is an increasing theological divide. Either you believe the Jews have a right to the Land of Israel, in which case the Palestinians have none, or your support for the Palestinians leads to a denial of any Jewish claim to the Land. The Torah in this week’s Parshah provides us with a different model, a model that has been adopted by most Jews since the beginning of the modern return to the Land. The Torah makes it a mitzvah for the family of a Jew enslaved to a non-Jew to redeem him and commands that if they don’t he automatically goes free at the Jubilee. The Talmud debates which non-Jew is meant here, one under Jewish sovereignty or one free of Jewish control. The conclusion is that a non-Jew that is under Jewish sovereignty is meant. The question can be raised why the Torah needs to go to such lengths to free a Jew from gentile slavery when Jews have the power to simply free him? Why do his family have to pay to redeem him or he has to wait to the Jubilee when a Jewish government could simply liberate him. Rashi gives an exceptional answer. The Torah specifies the various ways such a slave can be freed precisely to repudiate the notion that the Jewish authorities could simply order the slave freed. The non-Jew must be properly compensated for his slave and enjoys the protection of the law. Even though the Torah, as made clear at the end of the passage, does not approve of Jews being slaves, the non-Jewish owner’s rights must still be respected. It was in this vein that Rabbi Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, made an important assertion. Commenting on Jewish purchases of land in the interwar period, often at vastly inflated prices, he stated that even though G-d had given us the Land and it therefore really belonged to us, we were not allowed to simply take it. We need to properly pay for it, even if sometimes exorbitant prices. This is the model of looking at the Israeli-Palestinian that most Jews would subscribe to. Our right to the Land doesn’t necessarily negate the right of the other. Only when each party recognises the right of the other can true peace be achieved. Maybe the churches need to look again at the Bible.
‘And from the hand a non-Jew you shall not offer the bread of your G-d from any of these’. Thus the Torah prohibits the offering of a sacrifice with a blemish even if it is offered by a non-Jew. The need for this prohibition is explained by Rashi. Even though offering blemished animals is not one of the laws applying also to non-Jews, only offering an animal with a limb missing, this only applies on their altars. If they wish to offer a sacrifice in the Temple, however, they must obey all the laws pertaining to it, the same as a Jew bringing an offering. This law brings to our attention an important principle. Judaism is a tolerant religion that does not seek to impose its regulations on non-Jews or force its beliefs on others. We do however seek to preserve our way of life and our beliefs. We are quite prepared to let each person or group serve G-d in their own way. This tolerance, however, does not extend to what is done within the Jewish community. Non-Jews that seek in various ways to be involved with the Jewish community must accept the regulations that govern Jewish life and respect them. The same is true for some one who is not personally observant. They may lead a non-observant lifestyle but when they enter the precincts of an Orthodox synagogue they need to respect the rule of Jewish Law and not seek to change it for their own benefit. If you belong to an Orthodox synagogue or burial society you accept the rules of that society in the same way as joining any other organisation means you commit to observing the rules of that organisation. If, for example, someone has chosen to belong to a Jewish burial society then they have by doing so expressed a wish to be buried in accordance with Jewish tradition. It is thus completely unacceptable for their relatives to try and introduce innovations that are not in accordance with that tradition. If you choose to belong to a Orthodox synagogue you have chosen to belong to an organisation whose affairs are managed in accordance with Halakhah. It is thus not acceptable to behave within the synagogue in a manner which contradicts Jewish Law. One would not go into a house of worship of another religion and behave in a way not in accordance with their traditions. Jewish organisations deserve the same respect. One would not join a club that requires a certain dress code and attend in shorts and a t-shirt. The Jewish club requires the same consideration. Its simply a matter a basic respect.
Parshat Aharei-Mot / Kedoshim
One of the more famous mitzvot in our Parshah replete with mitzvot is that of not putting a stumbling block before the blind. The Rabbis interpreted this very widely, seeing in it a prohibition not only of giving someone bad advice but also leading them astray materially or physically or even putting temptation in their path, such as giving a drink to an alcoholic. In contemplating this wealth of interpretation we often ignore the first half of the verse. This is the prohibition of cursing the death. This is a more difficult prohibition to understand. While it is certainly not a nice thing to do, what is the specific issue of cursing someone that cannot hear the curse or even someone that will not learn of it, even if they can hear. The famous interpreter of the 613 mitzvot the MInchat Hinuch, brings three possible reasons for this prohibition. The first is that curses have real power. Even if the deaf person cannot hear the curse can still be effective and cause damage, material or spiritual, to the deaf person. A second interpretation sees the prohibition in its wider application of cursing someone that you think will not hear of it. The danger is that they will somehow hear of it and this will cause them distress and also to hate the other person. Maimonides, as he often does, sees an educational motive behind the mitzvah. The problem is not with the person cursed who is indeed not harmed but with the person cursing. The anger and hatred that causes someone to curse another causes spiritual and emotional damage to that person and leads to the type of personality defects the Torah seeks to prevent or correct. I believe that their is also a fourth reason. A person that curses the deaf or anyone that they do not intend to know of their curse, is practicing a basic and very damaging deception. On the one hand they are exhibiting hatred towards the person, even to the point of cursing them. On the other they are probably giving the impression of being friendly towards the same person. Thus the victim is doubly damaged. He is not only cursed but is unaware of the true feelings of the offender towards him. Later on in the Parshah the Torah specifically warns us to confront those we are angry with, yet this person chooses to do the opposite. This also connects the two halves of our verse. Just as putting a stumbling block before the blind deceives them, cursing the deaf is also a form of deception. In both cases the victim is lead by the offender to an erroneous and often damaging conclusion. This type of deception is very common, especially in public life, often with very negative consequences. Pretending when you hate them is one the worst forms of deception.
‘He is pure and the Priest shall purify him’. In this verse we see one of the dichotomies of the laws of leprosy that make up most of our two Parshiot. On the one hand we have objective physical symptoms upon which the Priest judges if the person is pure or not. On the other hand the decision appears to at the discretion of the Priest. So, for example, if the afflicted person is a bridegroom he is given the seven days of feasting; if it is before a festival, he is giving days of the festival. Yet, as Rashi comments on the above verse, if he is not pure, even if the Priest purifies him he remains impure. How are we to understand this paradox? It appears that the Torah lays down rules for the diagnosis and treatment of leprosy. These rules create a framework whereby the person can be examined. On the other hand every case is different. Therefore the Torah gives the Priest the discretion to make the ultimate decision. He can only do so, however, within the framework set out by the Torah. We thus have a clear set of rules but one that has built within it the necessary flexibility to deal with changing circumstances. This is not only true of the laws of leprosy but of the whole of the Torah. The Halakhic system set up by the Torah does precisely this. It sets up a framework within which Jews are meant to live. On the other hand it gives to the Rabbis of each generation the power to interpret it in accordance with the circumstances of their generation, but they must do so within the framework. So, for example, the Rabbis could not abolish the prohibition of Hametz on Pesach. But they could help the Jewish tavern owners by allowing the selling of Hametz to a non-Jew. Unfortunately this system has been challenged in our generation. Under the pressures of modernity the ultra-Orthodox declared that ‘anything new is forbidden from the Torah’, thus destroying the flexibility. The reform movement and the secular basically threw out the framework. This process can be seen by examining how Jews theologically reacted to the Holocaust and the State of Israel. In both cases the ultra-Orthodox essentially gave them no ritual recognition despite clear Halakhic precedent for such action. This left a vacuum which was filled by totally secular celebrations. This is a clear indication of the breakdown of the Halakhic system. Only the ‘Modern Orthodox’ used the framework of the Halakhah to create religious commemorations for these two unprecedented events. In doing so, the showed that they are the true preservers of traditional Halakhic Judaism.
A central portion of the first half of our Parshah deals with the death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, who brought a strange fire to the altar and were killed by G-d. The commentators have identified two differing reasons for their singular punishment, which on the face of it seem to contradict each other. On the one hand they are punished for their own behaviour. Either they were publically disrespectful to Moses or entered the Tabernacle drunk. Conversely their is a tradition that their deaths were punishment for Aaron’s role in the Golden Calf incident. This is based on the recounting of that incident in Deuteronomy where G-d is portrayed as furious with Aaron and Moses had to pray for him. The tradition is that Moses’ prayer only partly avoided disaster and saved only two of his sons while the other two were killed. So who was responsible for the death of Aaron’s sons? Did they die because of their father’s action or because of their own misbehaviour. The truth seems to be more complicated. Aaron’s sin set the stage for disaster but the specific timing and individuals were a consequence of the actions of his sons. The Rabbis bring both explanations to explain both the general context of the disaster and its immediate cause. We might have thought that Aaron’s sons were totally the authors of their own misfortune, so we are informed that there was a general threat of punishment hanging over the family. We conversely may have thought that Nadav and Avihu were the innocent victims of Divine retribution against Aaron’s family. We are therefore told that they themselves had misbehaved. From this story we thus learn an important lesson about how to understand catastrophes in Jewish history. There can be a difference between national and individual misbehaviour. Sometimes disasters are caused by one or the other and sometimes by both. Just because we cannot understand why individuals suffered does not mean we cannot understand the general context of the event. As we approach Yom Hashoah we need to think about our approach to the Holocaust. The general attitude has been that the event is impossible to explain in normal theological or historical terms. While that may be true in the context of individual suffering and death it is not true when looking at the Jewish people as a whole. If we refuse to critically examine the state and actions of Jewry in the pre-Holocaust period, how can we properly understand what happened?
The last days of Pesach are a tale of two songs. On Shabbat Hol Hamoed we recite the Song of Songs and on the 7th day of Pesach we read the Song of the Sea. There would seem to be little to connect them. One is a love song between a man and a woman while the other is paean of praise to G-d. Yet if we look a little closer we can discover a deep connection between them. The Song of Songs was called by Rabbi Akiva the ‘holy of holies’. It is understood as a record of the relationship between G-d and Israel throughout the ages, with a special emphasis on the Exodus. For this reason many have the custom of reciting it at the end of the Seder. This relationship is cast in terms of the relationship between human lovers with all the highs and lows that this entails. For this reason Rabbi Akiva regards it as so holy. The ability to use secular motifs to epitomise spiritual ideas is the epitome of holiness. The whole purpose of the Torah and indeed of human existence is to unite the physical and spiritual. This can only be achieved by human beings that are fashioned from both elements. By using the tale of two lovers to represent the relationship between G-d and Israel we thus reach the heights of holiness. The same is true of the Song of the Sea. The sages tell us that a maidservant at the Reed Sea had a greater experience of G-d than Ezekiel the prophet who beheld the Divine chariot. What the sages are explaining to us is that it was possible for a totally unlearned or even spiritually apathetic person to perceive the presence of G-d through the unique combination of the spiritual and the physical that occurred at the Crossing of the Sea. It is even possible to say she reached a higher level than the prophets. Ezekiel’s reaction to his vision was one of awe or even fear while the maidservant burst into song. It is also not coincidence that this high level of spirituality occurs through the medium of song. Singing is the epitome of the marriage between the spiritual and the physical. We use our physical voices to create a spiritual state. Thus as we come to the end of Pesach we can learn from these songs how we can unite the physical and spiritual and achieve new spiritual heights.
Parshat Tzav / Hagadol
Parshat Tzav in a normal year is always the Shabbat before Pesach. This year it is merely two days before the Seder night. Yet there exists a contradiction between the two. The Parshah talks about the Todah or thanksgiving offering. On Pesach we should bring the Paschal sacrifice: a national thanksgiving offering. Yet there is a important difference between the two. The Todah is one of only two sacrifices that come from Hametz, which is normally not allowed to be part of the sacrificial service. The defining characteristic of Pesach is the prohibition of Hametz We stop eating Hametz on the morning before the Seder precisely because it is forbidden to even own Hametz at the time of the sacrifice of the Paschal sacrifice that afternoon. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? Why is it necessary to offer Hametz with an individual thanksgiving offering while it is totally forbidden for the national thanksgiving offering. A possible explanation lies in the different emotional states of the people offering the respective sacrifices. An individual who has escaped from danger or had some other stroke of good fortune feels grateful and relieved. They can also feel a sense of vulnerability. Someone who has had a serious illness can worry about their future health, for example. There can be a loss of self-confidence that needs to be restored. Hametz is a symbol of comfort and pride. Normally these are not emotions appropriate to someone to sacrifice and come close to G-d. In the case of the person offering the Todah, on the other hand, theses are precisely the state of mind that it is necessary to restore. By bringing a rich thanksgiving offering to G-d, including Hametz, the person can regain their confidence in themselves and their sense of trust in G-d that may have been damaged by the shock of their original misfortune. When the nation celebrates it has a different feeling. The Torah warns us against feeling that ‘my strength and power made all this victory’. The nation saved from danger can forget the miraculous nature of their deliverance and think that they were responsible for their success. This can lead to a dangerous hubris. To counter this, on Pesach: the festival of national deliverance and thanksgiving, Hametz: the symbol of pride and confidence is totally forbidden. Not only to bring it with the Paschal sacrifice but to eat it or even own it is not allowed for the whole festival. On Pesach we are meant to realise that our freedom and prosperity comes from G-d. This recognition brings us the ability to truly appreciate and rejoice in the festival of Pesach.
Shemot (Exodus) 5773
Parshat Vayakhel-Pekude / Ha-Hodesh
This week, we read about two different projects of Jewish life, the construction of the Tabernacle and the Pesach Seder. Both concern a coming together of individuals for a joint purpose, but the nature of that union is quite different in each case. If we look at the construction of the Tabernacle, this was achieved by a community. Moses calls together the community of Israel and instructs them in the task of building a sanctuary for the Divine Presence. When, however, G-d instructs the people in the taking and eating of the Paschal sacrifice, it is as family groups. It is as a family, not as a community, that we are to celebrate the Exodus. What is the difference between these two concepts? In both cases individuals come together and create something more than just their separate individuality. Yet the two are constructed and operate in very different ways. A community is made up of different individuals who come together for a common purpose. A family is a network of relationships the meshes together to become a whole. A community becomes; a family exists. One’s place in a community is often defined by what one does; ones place in the family depends on who one is. While a community often works on a functional, rational basis; a family interacts on an intimate emotional level. These differences are profound and inform the structure and operation of each entity. The Torah commands that the Tabernacle be built by a community. In the public sphere of religion it is merely necessary that people subsume their individual pursuits for the good of the whole. Each person has their place according to their special ability and rational discourse should inform the workings of even a religious community. This is religion as institution, public worship and social organisation. All of these are vital for the future of the faith and wider society. Yet there is a deeper, more emotional side to religion. This is religion as felt, rather than reasoned; experienced, rather than constructed. This is the religion of the family, with its fluid structures and intermeshing relationships. Here one does not merely perform rituals but live them; not only talk about G-d but feel His Presence. The Tabernacle may be the structure of our relationship with the Divine, but the Seder is at its heart. Only by re-enacting in the family the experience of G-d of the Exodus, we make possible the animation of the community among whose G-d’s Presence dwells in the Tabernacle. Only by combining communal involvement with personal religious experience can we truly experience our faith.
Parshat Ki-Tissah / Parah
This Shabbat is a story of two cows. In the Parshah we learn of the sin of the Golden Calf and its consequences. In the special Maftir we are commanded concerning the ceremony of the Red Heifer. What connects these two things as well as the special Haftorah that we read this week? After the sin of the Golden Calf and Moses’ successful resolution of the problem, his main concern is to repair the relationship between Israel and G-d. The main focus of this effort was the issue of the Divine presence accompanying the people. As a consequence of the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d notifies the people that He will not personally dwell among them but send an angel to lead them. The people are very distressed at this news and Moses is not satisfied. G-d warns him of the consequences of the fulfilment of his request. If G-d will dwell among them they are open to immediate punishment. In other words the more intimate and direct the connection between G-d and Israel the less scope there is for leniency if they sin. Yet in spite of this, Moses persists in his request for G-d Himself to dwell among them and his request is granted. The benefits of a close relationship between G-d and Israel outweigh the risks. A similar idea can be found in the ceremony of the Red Heifer. This comes to allow people who have been defiled by contact with a dead body to again be purified and be able to enter the sanctuary. The ceremony of the Red Heifer is difficult and expensive and yet regarded as essential in the life of the nation. The ultimate communion with G-d in the Temple is not something to be lightly relinquished and is worth the expenditure of large amounts of time and money. This idea of the importance of the direct connection between G-d and Israel, despite the difficulties involved, is also found in the Haftorah. The prophet Ezekiel explains that even though the people are not worthy to be redeemed G-d will still return them to the Land of Israel for His name’s sake. Even though it involves a bending of G-d’s own rules of justice, is still worth it for G-d to have His people back in His land. We should likewise strive to be worthy of the privilege.
Parshat Tetzaveh / Zachor
In two separate places the Torah commands us to remember Amalek. In Exodus, in the passage we read on Purim, Moses is told to record that there is war between Amalek and G-d in every generation. In the passage in Deuteronomy, which we read this Shabbat, we are told to remember what Amalek did to us and to take action to revenge it. The two commands are in fact complimentary and closely related to each other. At the dawn of our history Amalek came and tried to destroy the Jewish people. We are told to remember what they did and, by destroying Amalek ourselves, prevent it from ever happening again. We are to identify our enemy and not wait for him to attack us when we are weak and helpless but take preventative measures while we have the power to do so. We are, however, also to do something else. We must be aware that Amalek is not merely an historical people or even a type throughout history. Amalek is an idea, or a series of ideas that are directly opposed to Judaism and a belief that these principle are incompatible with the existence of Jews in the world. For this reason the Torah commands us to record that G-d has an eternal war with Amalek. Not only on the physical but also on the ideological plane there is a war by Amalek against the Jewish people. Furthermore, this war is in every generation. In every generation we are faced by a different Amalek but the basic tenets of his belief are the same. These two acts of remembrance are based on each other. It is necessary to be vigilant in every generation for the re-emergence of Amalek and take measures to combat him. But in seeking to do so we need to realise that his first attacks against us are in the realm of ideas. It is not enough to wait for the physical manifestations of hatred. We must be alert for the ideological poison that precedes Amalek’s attacks and combat them before they turn into something worse. This is important also in our generation. Jews are often accused of conflating criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. Precisely the opposite is true. Because we are alert to the ideological underpinnings of anti-Semitism, when Israel is singled out in terms reminiscent of classic attacks on the Jews we understand what is happening and call it by its name. In every generation Amalek wears a different mask, in ours it’s an ant-Israeli one.
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. Jewish spirituality can only be properly experienced in a community. The heart of a community lies in its a ability to join together for a minyan. A Jewish community without a regular minyan in in some ways a contradiction in terms. The Talmud says that a person who lives in a place with a synagogue and doesn't visit it is called a bad neighbour. Furthermore, G-d waits in the synagogue for a minyan and if it doesn’t arrive he becomes upset. Those that are not willing to come and make up a community are thus not only letting down those who do come but driving away the presence of G-d. G-d dwells among us when we dwell among others.
Parshat Mishpatim / Shekalim
Our Parshah begins with the laws of slavery. The nation freed from slavery is to treat its own slaves with humanity and dignity. One of the laws concerns a master who wishes to use his Jewish slave to have children with a non-Jewish slave, in order to make more slaves. Jewish tradition is understood to mandate that this can only be done if the Jewish slave is married. If the Jewish slave is, however, single then it is forbidden to pair him with a non-Jewish slave for this purpose. One might have expected the reverse to be the case. The commentators explain, however, that this rule is to prevent the Jewish slave from wanting to stay with his master after his maximum six years of servitude. A married man is more likely to want to go back to his Jewish wife and not become so attached to his non-Jewish concubine that he is willing to remain in slavery. Having attachments in the outside world helps the slave remember that he is destined to be a free man and helps him resist the blandishments of slavery. This Halakhah teaches us an important lesson. The world is full of many temptations than can cause us to abandon our Judaism. It is not easy to be Jewish in a non-Jewish society, especially for the youth. You are different from your peers, you may not be able to eat everything with them or go out with them at certain times. It is hard to find a Jewish partner. Its far easier to fit in and slowly assimilate than to struggle to remain Jewish. The Torah here teaches us that the main influence on how Jewish your life will look is what you start out with. A slave that starts out married is more likely to want to return to freedom. Someone that is given a good Jewish education, taught to be proud of being Jewish and, above all, shown an example from their parents, is more likely to remain committed to Judaism than someone who has none of these things. The same is true with regards to Israel. If we want our youth to be attached to Israel, support Israel and even move there, we have to inculcate into them the importance of Israel and the love of Israel. Just like the slave, the attitudes with which we enter into adulthood are what will shape our lives.
‘Now I know that G-d is greater than all the gods, in the mattter that they sinned against them’. Thus Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses describes his response to the Exodus. It is not, however, entirely clear to what Jethro is referring. The Targum, or Aramaic translation, provides an answer. It translates the verse: ‘they sought to drown them in water and were themselves drowned in water’. In other words the Pharaoh and his court had tried to exterminate the Jews by throwing their male children into the river. However, they themselves were in the end destroyed by being drowned the sea. This, says Jethro, is proof that G-d is great. What he is referring to is the idea of midah kneged midah or measure for measure. G-d punishes people by doing to them what they had done to others. They, or those who observe what happens to them, are then given to understand the evil of their behaviour, and are able to learn the lesson. This idea is found in several places in the Torah, most clearly in the law against murder found in the book of Genesis. There the Torah states: ‘he who sheds the blood of man; by man will his blood be shed’. In principle, only G-d has the right to decide when someone’s time on earth is over. The murderer has taken that right from G-d and his victim and abrogated it to himself. So his right to have only G-d decide the span of his life is taken from him and handed over to his fellow humans. Thus the principle above is reinforced. This way of Divine justice demonstrates the greatness of G-d Who is able to fit the punishment to the crime and so teach a better way. A human actor may punish a criminal out of a desire for revenge or even deterrence but not succeed in making the world better. G-d, on the other hand, is able to hit the mark and show to the people concerned the error of their ways. Thus Joseph’s brothers, who sold him into slavery though he was innocent are faced with exactly the same situation when they are wrongly accused of being spies and threatened with imprisonment or worse. This brings them to admit their guilt. Being forced to face the same situation brought home to them the seriousness of what they had done. This can also be the case in our individual lives. G-d will often put us in a difficult situation to remind us of what we have done to others. If we are listening we will hopefully get the message.
In the Parshah we read of one of the most dramatic moments in Jewish history: the crossing of the Reed Sea. One of the most dramatic moments of that event comes when the Jews are trapped by the sea and the they see the Egyptians bearing down upon them. The people cry out and berate Moses for leading them into this situation. Moses tells them to ‘stand still and see the salvation of G-d’ and that G-d will fight for them, so be quiet’. G-d then tells Moses to stop crying to him and tell the people to move into the sea. If we examine more closely this conversation we uncover a fascinating symmetry. Moses tells the people to be quiet and stand still; G-d tells Moses to be quiet and tell the people to move. Thus Moses cries out at the same time as he instructs the people to be quiet; he tells the people to be still when G-d wants them to move. In this dissonance we can understand two different perspectives on how to deal with a crisis. In answer to the people’s complaints Moses tells them that they should not worry or complain but stand and wait for G-d to save them. The way to deal with the situation is to pray and passively wait for G-d to act. G-d has other ideas. The situation will be resolved not merely by standing still and praying but by taking action. The people must trust in G-d but actualise that trust by going forward to help themselves. Then G-d will deliver. These verses thus portray two different types of religious attitude. There are those who believe that true piety consists of waiting for G-d to help you. To seek to help yourself would show a lack of faith. Others understand that in order to have G-d assist you, you must verse help yourself. To take action does not show lack of faith but a deep belief in Divine support for our actions. These two approaches are found in the two parts of the Exodus. In Egypt the Jews were to be passive observers, cowering in their homes while G-d struck the Egyptians. At the Reed Sea Moses is informed that this is no longer enough but they now have to be active participants in their redemption. These two approaches have existed throughout Jewish history, and occasionally Jewish leaders, like Moses in our Parshah, have got it wrong. Many Rabbis made precisely this mistake when they opposed Zionism. G-d, as in the Parshah, chose a different way.
‘Go unto Pharaoh....in order that you will tell your children and your children’s children how I abused the Egyptians and my wonders which I performed in their midst’. On this verse there is a version of Rashi that comments ‘written in the Torah so you can tell them’. In other words the ‘telling to your children’ will be the reading by future generations of the story that is written in the Torah. This may seem to be a simple answer but it is not so accepted. In many versions of Rashi this comment is missing and in those it does appear it is put in brackets. Later commentators did not accept the idea that what G-d is talking about is that the story of the Exodus should be written in the Torah. Rather, they understand the verse in its plain sense as referring to the telling of the story by fathers to their children and grandchildren. The Halakhah supports this view. The mitzvah of relating the story of Exodus on Seder night is not fulfilled by simply reading the story in the Torah but by each parent personally relating it to their children. This argument over differing versions of Rashi may seem academic but in fact contains an important principle that goes to the heart of Jewish life. We don’t learn about Judaism simply by reading a book but by discussing it, learning the traditions associated with it and understanding its relevance to our own time. We don’t learn of the story of the Exodus simply by reading it in the Torah but by hearing and discussing it at the Seder. More importantly, the future of Judaism and its transmission to future generations cannot be achieved merely by giving people books to read but by personal example and contact. The point of the Torah in commanding the parents to personally relate the story of the Exodus to their children is precisely because only such a transmission has the ability to engrave the story on their hearts. Each parent knows the best way to relate the story to their children. In the same way each Rabbi can make the Torah relevant to their specific community. We need to relate to the Torah not as a book written years ago but as a living tradition relevant to us today.
Parshat Va’era / Rosh Hodesh
At the beginning of our Parshah we find the Jewish people at a dead end. Pharaoh has refused to let them go, their own leaders have failed to change the situation and Moses himself is in despair. At the end of last week’s Parshah we saw how all the institutions which the Jews may have expected to ameliorate their situation had in the end failed them. They hoped Pharaoh would change his policies. Not only does a new Pharaoh fail to do so but he makes things worse. Then they may have hoped that their own leaders could persuade Pharaoh to at least be reasonable and give them back straw for building. This too is a false hope and the Jewish leadership utterly fails to change the situation. Finally, Moses, who claims to speak in the name, of G-d, not only makes things worse rather than better but himself despairs and refuses to believe in his own ability. It is only when all these institutions have failed does G-d act and the Ten Plagues begin. The same is true, say the Rabbis, for every redemption of the Jewish people whether the building the Second Temple, or at the time of Purim and Hanukah. And the same will be true of the final redemption. Why should this be the case? Surely G-d could redeem them in a simpler and less problematic way? The answer seems to be that the people need to understand that only G-d can redeem them and they shouldn’t put their trust in human assistance. All the institutions that they rely on to help them are in themselves important. But Jews have to understand that, in the end, the course of Jewish history is determined by G-d. Thus all these human institutions have to fail or be discredited in order for the people to understand that only G-d can help them. This lesson is especially relevant for us today when we contemplate what is happening in Israel. You have a election where their is no one most people actually think is any good and a foreign minister facing trial. Now, the top leadership of the army has been revealed to have been trying to undermined the democratically elected Minister of Defence. There is also increasing disregard and even open revolt against the religious establishment. All the great institutions of the State, Government, Army, Rabbinate, have been revealed to be deficient or corrupt. We must realise that Israel can only really rely on G-d.
At the beginning of the Parshah the Torah details the stages of the oppression of the Jewish people, designed to limit their numbers. The Torah relates that the more the Egyptians oppressed them the more their numbers increased and ‘they were ill because of the children of Israel’. The Hebrew word used is vaykutzu, which either comes from the noun for thorn or the verb meaning to vomit. The plain meaning is thus either that the Jews were like thorns in the eyes of the Egyptians or that they made the Egyptians feel sick. A interpretation found in some versions of Rashi, however, has a slightly different and fascinating take on this verse. This interpretation explains that the Egyptians were sick of themselves because of the Israelites. This interpretation can also several interpretations. It could mean that every time the Egyptians thought about the ’Jewish Problem’ they felt sick., with either frustration that they were still continuing to increase despite all the efforts to stop them or that they were sick with worry at the threat they supposed the Israelites posed. One can, however, put a more positive spin on this idea. The Egyptians were ashamed of themselves because of what they were doing to the Israelites. This is also connected to the first part of the verse where the Israelites continue to increase. The Egyptians had gone along with the initial discriminatory measures against the Jews in the belief that they would solve the problem. But as the problem seemed to be getting worse harsher and more extensive measures would be needed. The Egyptians were sick of what they felt they had to do and ashamed of what they had become. Yet despite this they still did nothing to stop it. A writer in Germany was travelling on a train 10th November 1938 and noticed that people were looking down and not looking out the window at the burning synagogues, as if they were ashamed of what was happening. He asked the question: if everyone was so ashamed who had set fire to the synagogues? Just like the Egyptians, the Germans may have felt sick at what was happening but chose to look away rather than do something about it. The lesson we learn from this is clear. It is no good merely being ashamed of ourselves or our society if we don’t take steps to rectify the situation.
Bereishit (Genesis) 5773
The Parshah of Vayehi is different to all the other Parshiot in the Torah. A new Parshah normally begins after a significant break, while between Vayigash and Vayehi there is only the width of a letter. This is very noticeable when you are actually reading the Torah and looking for where to end or begin. One of the reasons given by the Rabbis for this is that the Parshah tells of Jacob’s death, upon which the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed by the beginning of the Egyptian oppression.. This explanation is problematic both logically and textually. It is hardly likely that the oppression would have begun while Joseph was still alive. Furthermore the Torah at the beginning of the book of Exodus specifically states that it was only after Joseph and all his brother’s had died that the oppression began. An explanation may be found in Nachmanidies’ introduction to the Parshah where he compares the Egyptian exile to that of his own time. Just as the Egyptian exile had begun because of our actions, the brother’s sale of Joseph and Jacob’s move to Egypt, so did the Roman exile occur because we made an agreement with the Romans in the time of the Hasmoneans. And just as Jacob and his sons thought that they would leave after the famine but ended up staying two centuries, so the Roman exile lasted two thousand years. This is in contradistinction to the Babylonian exile which had a fixed term of seventy years and which was imposed by G-d. It appears that an exile caused by our own actions has longer lasting consequences than one set by G-d. It is now possible to understand the Rabbi’s explanation of the ‘closed’ beginning of our Parshah. The most obvious time for the family to return to Canaan was when Jacob did. They had to bury him there anyway and the famine was long over. Yet they chose, or were pressured by Pharaoh, to return to Egypt. It is thus at this point that they make the choice that leads to their own enslavement. If we have a choice to leave exile and choose to stay we should not expect G-d to protect us. Unlike past generations today we have that choice. We should choose wisely.
Following Judah’s impassioned speech offering himself instead of Benjamin the Torah states that Joseph could not restrain himself and ordered everyone else to leave the room. The commentators differ as to the meaning of this verse and Joseph’s actions. Rashi explains that that Joseph didn’t want to shame his brothers. He explains that Joseph couldn’t stand the fact that everyone would learn of his family’s dirty secret. Nachmanidies, doesn’t except this explanation. Instead he postulates that there were many of his advisors that felt sorry for Benjamin and were pressing him to agree to Judah’s request and let Benjamin go. He could no longer resist their entreaties and needed them to leave so he could have the peace reveal himself to his brothers. The Rashbam and others give the simple explanation that Joseph was unable to control his feelings and so needed everyone to leave. These three explanations give three different insights into Joseph’s state of mind at this crucial time in the history of his family and indeed the Jewish people. According to the simplest explanation he was simply unable to stand the repeated references to his father’s pain and was forced to reveal himself. Alternatively, he was unable to stand the pressure of those around him and had to remove himself from the situation. According to Rashi, however, Joseph was not forced to do anything by internal or external pressure but made a conscious decision to spare his brothers embarrassment. These three explanations of Joseph’s actions can serve as paradigms of three types of people who react differently in situations of pressure. There are those who are totally cool and rational and do everything with calculation. Alternatively, there are those who are guided by their emotions, allowing their feelings to dictate their actions. A third type of person is extremely sensitive to those around them and often guided by their social environment. All three attitudes have positive and negative attributes. A cold calculating person may be unable to form lasting relationships, while someone guided by their feelings is open to making irrational and harmful decisions. A person that only cares what others think is unable to be truly themselves. Maybe the commentators differing interpretations of Joseph serve to teach us that to be a complete human being we need all three types of personality.
Parshah Miketz / Hanukah
When Joseph is brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams the Torah relates Pharaoh’s telling of the dreams to Joseph rather than merely stating that Pharaoh told his dreams to Joseph. This recapitulation is important. Earlier in the Parshah we are told of Pharaoh’s dreams from an objective standpoint, while now we hear the dreams as Pharaoh perceived them. This is vital for Joseph’s understanding of the dreams. When Pharaoh asks Joseph to interpret his dreams he describes him as one who ‘hears a dream to interpret it’, which Rashi interprets as ‘listen to a dream’. In other words, critical to Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams is his ability to listen to what is being said from the standpoint of the person saying it. He is thus able to correctly interpret what Pharaoh dream by what he says. While it may seem obvious that a dream about cows and wheat has something to do with agriculture, how did Joseph know, for example, that the two dreams referred to the same thing and a period of seven rather than fourteen years was meant? Because he listened to Pharaoh describe how he woke up between the dreams and regarded them as two separate dreams, rather than relating to them as one dream. Thus Joseph understood that there were two dreams meaning the same thing and that the repetition signified urgency. He also understood to whom he was talking. If such a dream came to Pharaoh it meant that he was being warned of something in order to take action. He wasn’t told that a famine was coming simply for his elucidation but that he could, as Pharaoh, take action to deal with the impending crisis. Thus Joseph’s rise to power was predicated above all on his ability to listen to what people were saying to him, without immediately interrupting with his own interpretation. This ability is extremely important in dealing with other people especially when they are in need of advice or help. Too often we don’t actually listen to what they are saying but rather immediately interject our own experience and reinterpret their words in the light of our own experience. Just as on Hanukah they could not relight the Menorah from oil contaminated by the Greeks, so we cannot understand the light of others if we contaminate it with our own. Only if we are prepared to listen to others can we truly understand them.
‘And Jacob settled in the land of the wanderings of his fathers—in the land of Canaan’. The rabbis comment on this verse that Jacob wanted to settle down and have a quiet life after his travails but G-d had other plans. The conflict between stability and change; conservatism and reform, is at the heart of our Parshah. In a famous essay the great modern Jewish rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soleveitchik, postulates that this was the root of the conflict between Joseph and his brothers and draws conclusions for our time. Joseph’s brothers wanted things to stay as they were and didn’t appreciate the dreams of Joseph who envisaged a different world. Yet Joseph was in the end right and it was his vision that saved his family. The antithesis to Joseph throughout the story is Judah. It is he that seems to lead the brothers in the attempt to get rid of Joseph and he that takes on the leadership role in the family, seemingly usurped by Joseph. It is easy, therefore, to see Judah as a verse of tradition and conservatism as against Joseph as an agent of reform and change. Yet the picture is not that simple. It is Judah that learns to adapt to new situations, whether in his personal life or in leading the family. It is Judah that persuades his father to let go of Benjamin and he who radically changes the situation by offering himself as a slave in his brother’s place. Judah, rather than being an obstacle to change is the member of the family that is adept at adapting to change. He knows how to manage reform in a way that preserves the past while embracing the future. Thus it is no surprise that it is Judah that Jacob sends ahead to prepare the families new life in Egypt. This tension between the old and the new, modernity and tradition is at the heart of the story of Hanukah. It is easy to characterise the Hellenists as modernists and the Maccabees as traditionalists. Yet it was those same Maccabees that in the end adopted appropriate Greek ideas and clothed them in a Jewish garment. The clash between tradition and change is not black and white and the best future is created when they work together to create something that preserves the tradition in a modern guise.
Two Parshiot deal with Jacob’s travels before he settled down in Hebron. The two Parshiot detail the struggles he had to overcome until he reached his final destination. They are, however, very different. Parshat Vayetze deals with Jacob’s struggles with Laban and the conflicts within his family. Parshat Vayishlach tells of Jacob’s confrontations with his brother Esau and the people of Shechem. These two sets of challenges are of a different nature and seriousness. In Vayetze we find Jacob dealing with private problems. He contents with the difficulties of marriage and making a living. He is concerned with quarrelling wives and an unscrupulous employer. In Vayishlach Jacob confronts a different order of challenge. He deals with a the confrontations with Esau and the people of Shechem, where he faces not only an individual but a collective, and a different worldview. He has to contend not only with private or family matters but issues of war and peace and the very existence of his family. In Vayetze Jacob acts as a individual; in Vayishlach as a collective. This change is emphasised by the fact that the narrative portion of the Parshah, containing the confrontations with Esau and Shechem, is bracketed by Jacob’s change of name to Israel. This marks the transformation of Jacob from an individual to the nucleus of a nation. The name Israel is always used to signify the collective and national nature of Jacob’s family. There is one other important difference between the two Parshiot, one that underlies the difference between them. Vayetze is the story of Jacob in exile, outside the Land of Israel. Vayishlach is the story of Jacob in Israel. The difference is profound. Outside Israel Jacob acts only as an individual. Dealing with personal private problems. In Israel he acts as a collective dealing with big issues of war and peace and collective morality. This is true of us today. Judaism outside of Israel is essentially a private religion. Jews exercise an influence on the public square as individuals but not as a group. They may contribute to national life but they don’t control it. Only in Israel can Jews control the agenda, set the priorities and grapple with the moral dilemmas. Their triumphs and failures are theirs and no one else's. Only in Israel can Judaism influence the collective and thus only in Israel can Jews truly act as Jews.
This week’s Parshah is one of unfulfilled expectations. Jacob wants Rachel but gets Leah instead; Laban wants a cheap employee but ends up with a rival. But the main focus of disappointment and frustration concerns the love triangle of Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Each of the two sisters has what the other wants and wants what the other has. Rachel has Jacob’s love but wants children; Leah has children in abundance but craves her aggrieved husband’s affection. G-d has given Leah children precisely because her husband ‘hated’ her but this does not satisfy her. G-d, seeing Jacob’s love for Rachel, sees no need to give her children as well, but this is what she craves above all. How is this vicious circle to be broken? The pivotal point in this family saga comes when Leah‘s son finds mandrakes, a fertility drug, and brings them to his mother. Rachel requests some, to which Leah bitterly replies: ‘is it not enough that you have taken my husband, that you also want to take my son‘s mandrakes? Rachel then offers her ‘night’ with Jacob in return for the mandrakes, which Leah accepts. Leah sleeps with Jacob and has more children, while Rachel, also, finally gets the child for which she craved. What has gone on here? Obviously, something more than a simple sordid deal. G-d Himself takes notice and acts to give each woman their desire. In fact what has happened is something quite profound. Each woman has understood the pain of the other, and their need for what the other has. Rachel, rather than replying that it was her sister that deceitfully stole her lover, comprehends the pain that Leah must feel at her husband’s rejection and willingly surrenders her intimacy with him to her sister. Leah, overcoming her own pain, understands her sisters need for children, and surrenders her son’s fertility drug. By giving up what they have but what the other needs, both sisters finally attain their most desired wish. Can there be a more profound lesson to us all? How often do we enviously look at others, thinking them more fortunate than us, not realising that they may need what only we can give them. No one has everything and no one has nothing to give. It is precisely by giving of what we have but that others need, that we can open the door to the solution to even the most intractable problems.
Isaac, like his father, lived and interacted with the Philistines. We are told that after becoming economically successful the Philistines became jealous of him and asked him to leave their country. A familiar story repeated often in the course of Jewish history. Isaac had earlier opened all the wells that had been dug by Abraham but covered up by the Philistines. Rashi comments that the Philistines justified wanton destruction by contending that these wells could help support an invading army. This story is related, however, after we are informed that the Philistines hated Isaac. As the Siftei Hahamim, a super-commentator on Rashi, points out this is to show us that the reason given by the Philistines was merely an excuse. It was not politically correct to justify their vandalistic actions in terms of hatred for Isaac, so they came up with the justification of national security. So too it has ever been. Those who hate the Jews but wish not to admit it have often covered up their real motives with noble sounding ideas. At so it is today. Whether on the issues of Israel, shechitah or circumcision the new anti-Semites on the left pretend they are motivated by the highest of ideals. Yet if one uncovers the dirt with which they have stopped up the truth, their true motive, hatred of the Jews, is often only too visible. This is especially worrying in the case of many churches. Eschewing many other issues, several churches in this country and abroad have chosen to take a virulently anti-Israel stance often accompanied by visceral hatred for Jews who dare to stand up to them. Is it unreasonable for Jews to question why, with millions starving to death in Africa, chaos and murder in Syria and ethnic cleansing in Burma, these representatives of a religion that for 2000 years demonised, persecuted and murdered Jews, davkah choose to campaign against the Jewish state? One suspects the true reason. It is for us, like Isaac, to uncover the true nature of these actions and not let them get away with this liberal veneer. In the end the Philistines admitted their mistake and made peace with Isaac. We can hope that the churches will soon follow suit.
The Sages made a seemingly strange statement: ‘that it is better to live in Israel, even in a city mostly inhabited by idolaters than to live outside Israel, even in city mostly inhabited by Jews’. Before examining the substance of this statement we can ask from what source the Rabbis learnt this idea. I believe its basis can be found in this week’s Parshah. Abraham instructs his servant to not marry Isaac to a local girl but to go to his family to find him a bride. Eliezer asks what should he do if the girl or her family don’t want to let her come with him. Should Isaac then travel to her? Abraham is adamant. Under no circumstances is Isaac to return to Abraham’s family even, it is implied, if it means him marrying a local Canaanite girl. Thus the Rabbis learnt that it is better to live in an unfavourable Jewish environment in Israel than to be surrounded by Jews outside the Land. We may ask what is the reason for this ruling? Surely someone has a better chance of remaining Jewish among Jews than among idolaters? The answer is that the Rabbis looked at the overall environment surrounding the person, not just the immediate one. It is true that living among idolaters may lead someone astray but if you live in Israel the very atmosphere of the Land is conducive to a Jewish life. After all, it is here that the Torah intended for Jews to live, and where the festivals, for example, correspond to the correct seasons. On the other hand, even if someone lives among Jews outside of Israel they are influenced by the surrounding environment. Even in a totally Jewish area you cannot escape the effect of the dominant host culture. That is even more true today when Israel is a Jewish state. You may think that it would be better to live in the holy precincts of Brooklyn or Skokie than in a secular neighbourhood in Tel Aviv or Haifa. But that would be mistaken. A Jew living in the US, even in a religious neighbourhood, still sees Sunday as different and will be aware of Christmas. A secular Jew living in a non-religious neighbourhood in Israel will still be aware of Shabbat and the holidays and not be so aware of non-Jewish holidays. He may be secular but he is influenced by the Jewish nature of the country, not to mention its inherent holiness. People may have valid excuses for not moving to Israel; lack of a Jewish atmosphere is not one of them.
‘And G-d said; should I hide from Abraham what I intend to do.... For I have known him in order that he will instruct his children and household after him and keep the way of G-d to do righteousness and justice’. With this introduction G-d announces His intention to tell Abraham of His plan to destroy Sodom. The commentators differed in interpreting this verse in its context and sought to understand the connection to what follows. There are two main schools of thought, based on this verse, on the reason for G-d telling Abraham about his plans for Sodom. According to Rashi, this was connected to Abraham’s ownership of the Land and its people. It would have been bad manners to destroy five cities in the Land together with their inhabitants without letting him know beforehand. Others connect G-d’s disclosure to the moral lesson to be learnt from this event. G-d giving Abraham forewarning of what was to happen enabled him to try and save the cities, thus demonstrating the necessity of communal solidarity even when don’t live in the most salubrious neighbourhood. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Meir had heretical neighbours that caused him much grief. He wanted to pray to G-d that they should die but his wife persuaded him that a better course was to ask that they see the error of their ways. This proved to be a more effective method of dealing with the situation. We thus learn that we should never give up on people, no matter how bad they are, just as Abraham tried to the last to save the people of Sodom. We never know whether our kind attitude to them may cause them to modify their behaviour. G-d’s revelation to Abraham was also meant to teach us something about G-d. By revealing that He intended to punish the people of Sodom G-d informed Abraham that He also does not easily give up on people, even the very worst criminals. He was prepared to let Abraham bargain him down to just ten righteous people in order to save the city. These lessons would enable Abrahams descendents ‘to do righteousness and justice’. Knowing that G-d doesn't give up on people will enable them to strive to be better, even though they have gone astray. Furthermore it will teach them to judge others with the same forbearance and strive to make them better rather than simply condemning them. Thus this story in our Parshah provides an important lesson on how to deal with difficult people or situations. It teaches us that just as G-d doesn’t give up on us, we should not give up easily on others or, for that matter, ourselves.
Parshah Lech L’cha
‘And there was a dispute between the shepherds of Abram and the shepherds of Lot and the Canaanite and Perizite were then in the Land’. The precise meaning of this verse, and especially the meaning of the last phrase and its connection to the first half of the verse, has always exercised the commentators who have given various explanations as to its meaning. A close examination of the text and its plain meaning can provide interesting insights into what the Torah is telling us and the lessons we can learn from it. Firstly, we should take note that the verse does not say that there was a dispute between Abraham and Lot but between their shepherds. It was the minions or followers of these relatives that were causing the trouble. This in turn created a rift between Abram and Lot. In many religious or ideological disputes it is likewise not the religions or even the ideas that are in conflict but those who speak on their behalf. We therefore need to be very wary of who represents us and what they are doing. As with Abram and Lot, their actions can drag us into a conflict which we don’t want and which they have manufactured, but we are nevertheless implicated in. Turning to the second part of the verse, we can in fact discern a similar lesson. The simple explanation for why the Canaanite and Perizite are mentioned in connection with this dispute is their possible reaction to it. Abram’s family did not live alone in the Land but he had neighbours he had to get on with. The dispute between the two parts of his family damaged his reputation in their eyes reflected badly on his whole mission. How could Abram preach the unity of G-d to his neighbours when his own family were disunited and in conflict with one another. This too is a lesson for us today. Our actions don’t only matter to ourselves or to our immediate surroundings but impact on the Jewish people. The way we behave reflects, for good or ill, on the whole Jewish people and we have to take this into account when considering the way we behave. Both of these lessons can be summed up in a single world: arvut. This basically means our responsibility for one another. It comes from the same word as evening. Just as evening is a mixture of light and dark, so we are inextricably linked with others and their behaviour. We thus also have the right to regulate or comment on such behaviour when it impacts or reflects on all of us. Whether concerning Israel or other communal issues this is an important lesson for us to learn.
At the heart of our Parshah lies a dichotomy. At the beginning G-d declares that He will destroy humanity because of their evil and at the end He declares that He will refrain from destroying humanity because they are evil. Before the flood ‘all the inclination of his heart are evil’ while after the flood ‘ the inclination of his heart is evil from his youth’. The two expressions are, furthermore, too close to be coincidental. They are meant to refer to each other. What then happened in the middle to cause a different consequence from the same situation. The answer is of course the flood, or more specifically, the failure of Noah to prevent the flood.. At the beginning of the Parshah G-d informs Noah of His intention to destroy humanity. This is a signal to Noah to disagree. Both in the case of Abraham and Moses G-d informs them of an impending calamity. In both cases they argue with G-d and attempt to prevent the disaster. Furthermore, in the case of Abraham specifically, and in the case of Moses ecliptically, the revelation by G-d of His intentions is meant to produce a reaction. The person informed is meant to try and dissuade G-d from carrying out His terrible resolve. We thus can assume that in our case also Noah was informed of the coming flood in order to try and prevent G-d from implementing it. Unfortunately, he does no such thing. He spectacularly fails to stand up for his fellow humans and seemingly nonchalantly accepts their coming extinction. G-d had informed Noah of His plan to solve the problem of human evil in order to have him come up with a less destructive solution. Noah’s failure to do so thus necessitates G-d to resolve in future not to threaten universal destruction because of human evil but to punish the specific evildoers. It is not that G-d has changed His mind but that the righteous cannot be relied upon to act in a way that prevents wholesale destruction. G-d therefore, in addition to dispensing with universal destruction also dispense with universal advocacy. In future He will no longer rely on general righteous people to argue with Him but choose a specific person and his descendants who by their nature can be expected to act as a loyal opposition. Thus the Jewish role in the world is not merely to be G-d’s representatives to humanity but be humanities’ representatives to G-d; something we should remember.
The first chapters of Genesis have long exercised commentators and laity alike. How are we to approach these texts that if read literally seem to contradict both each other and our general knowledge. For many centuries these texts have thus been read as not trying to present scientific or historical facts as we know them but tell us a narrative about the human condition and the relationship between G-d and man. If we take this approach we may ask what is the underlying narrative of the story of the Garden of Eden. What is the fruit of the tree of knowledge, why was it forbidden to be eaten and what were the consequences of its consumption? An answer to these questions may be discovered from starting from the end, the consequences of human disobedience. The man and woman are given separate punishments for their misdemeanour. The woman’s basic punishment is that she will bear children in pain. This, on the surface seems a simplistic mythological explanation for why childbirth is painful. Yet it is actually extremely insightful. Why, biologically, does the human female have such difficulty in giving birth compared to other animals? The explanation seems to be that our heads are too big. The human brain, our greatest asset, needs a large skull to contain it and it is this that cause the pain of childbirth. In other words, it is human intelligence and perception that is at the root of Eve’s curse. We can now begin to understand that the tree of knowledge contains not moral knowledge, which humans had before, but the ability to cognitively interact with the world around them. We can now also understand the punishment of Adam. Before he achieved this cognitive awareness he was satisfied with gathering his food from the environment around him. Following his acquisition of this new found knowledge, this no longer satisfied him. He understood that he could grow his own food rather than merely relying on what was around at the time. But this required backbreaking work, and took time to perfect, according to tradition till the invention of the plough. Thus we can understand the story of the Garden of Eden as the acquisition by humans of a high level of intelligence. This brought great benefits and has indeed, in the words of the snake, given humans semi-divine knowledge. Yet it also brought less desirable consequences, such as the pain of childbirth and the necessity of hard labour. Adam and Eve learnt, as we have discovered to our cost in the modern world, that technological progress is a mixed blessing.