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Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5774
This week the people of Scotland make what is the most important decision of their collective lives. Depending when you read this you will either know or not know the final result. This week’s Parshah is also one that talks about choice. Approaching death Moses sets before the people of Israel the choice of life or death, adherence or disobedience to G-d’s covenant. Approaching Rosh Hashanah and the days of judgement and introspection we are reminded that the choice of our future is in our hands. Yet the Parshiot we read this week have an even more important message for us, one that especially relevant this year. Choice is not the only theme that runs through the Torah reading this week. Another word that we frequently find is that of all or everyone. The Parshah begins with Moses assembling all the people from the leaders to the menial workers in accorder to inaugurate them into the covenant. He then speaks his final speeches to ‘all of Israel’. Moses finishes writing the Torah and gives it to ‘all the elders of Israel’. He then commands that once in seven years the Torah should be read to all the Jewish people: men, women and children. This commandment of Hakhel has served as the inspiration for the public reading of the Torah on a regular basis in the synagogue. All this emphasises the importance of including everyone in the life of the nation. The choice made in our Parshah is one that effects the future of the whole nation and everyone needs to be involved. But following this choice the whole people are enjoined to take responsibility for its implementation. Everyone must be involved in ensuring that the Torah is indeed the guiding light of the nation. A Torah that is the possession of only part of the Jewish people is, according to our Parshah, a contradiction in terms. This importance of unity has a special relevance for us as both Jews and Scots. After a very difficult summer for the Jewish community and approaching a new year that we all hope will bring better things, it is important that we stick together. Despite differing views on Israeli policy we need to join together to defend our interests and strengthen our community. As Scots we need to think of the day after the referendum. Irrespective of the result and the passionate debate that preceded it, it is necessary for everyone to unite and build the future. We have to reach hands across the divide and understand that only by working together can we build the country we all want to live in. That is the message of our Parshah.
The beginning of our Parshah contains two mitzvot that end the legislative section of Deuteronomy. Both deal with the issue of giving of the produce of the Land to G-d. The first mandates the bringing of first– fruits to the Temple, while the second deals with the correct disposition of the various tithes every three years, a tri-annual tax return. In both of these cases the gift of produce is followed by a declaration. These declarations are unique in the Torah. In no other cases does the Torah mandate that the performance of a mitzvah be accompanied by a verbal statement concerning the action performed. In effect the person performing the mitzvah justifies and explains what they are doing. What is so unique about these two mitzvot that they merit this special treatment? If we examine them more closely we can see that both of these mitzvot concern the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The first statement made when bringing the first-fruits to the priest, before they are even handed over, is a declaration that the farmer has entered the Land which G-d promised to the Jewish people. The Tithe Declaration ends with a request that G-d bless the Land which he promised to us. On this last verse Rashi comments ‘and who kept His promise.’ This, I believe is the crux of the meaning of these two mitzvot. G-d promised to give the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. He also commanded us various commandments unique to the Land, especially those connected with the produce of the Land. First-fruits can be brought and tithes given only from the produce of Israel. These two mitzvot thus symbolise G-d’s fulfilment of His promise to Israel and Israel’s loyalty to the mitzvot. Unlike other Divine promises the gift of the Land is one whose practical fulfilment depends on our fealty to G-d. By bringing first-fruits and disposing properly of tithes, with their accompanying declarations, we acknowledge that G-d fulfilled His promise to us while at the very same time declaring that we have fulfilled our side of the bargain. It is thus possible to understand while these two mitzvot conclude the legislative section of Deuteronomy and, except for a couple of additions, the mitzvot of the Torah. The Torah is a covenantal document recording the promise of G-d to Israel and the commitment of Israel to G-d. In these mitzvot we bear witness that both sides have kept their side of the bargain and the covenant is still robust. The Torah approaches its denouement with the importance of keeping our promises. We are presently hearing many promises from all sides. Let us hope that our politicians know how not only to promise but also to fulfil.
Our Parshah contains the most mitzvot in the Torah. As we peruse the many different commandments contained within it, can we discover some sort of theme or themes that connects them? I think a hint to one idea that links at least some of them can be found in one of the seemingly least exciting. The Torah commands that when we go to war we should ‘guard against any bad thing’. There is then detailed various instructions to do with purity and personal hygiene. The key to this mitzvah, however, lies in its context. Especially when you go out to war you need to be careful about your behaviour. Rashi links this to the fact that ‘Satan accuses at a time of danger’. In other words if you are in a dangerous situation and in need of Divine assistance, your deeds are more closely examined. Yet it is possible to see this mitzvah in a wider context. War is a time when normal restraints are removed. Normally it is a serious crime to kill someone. In war, however, it is not only permitted but required. The danger is that other restraints, such as that against rape, might also be loosened. Therefore, in such a situation you need to especially watch your behaviour. Furthermore it is in situations when wrongdoing may be more likely to occur and perpetrators less likely to be held to account, that a person’s morality is truly tested. Are the only superficially good but given the chance will behave badly or does their morality go deeper. This idea permeates several of the mitzvot of the Parshah. Starting with the obvious case of the ‘war bride’ and proceeding through marital and social legislation, the Torah details situations when we may be tempted to act immorally. When we have power over someone else and are in danger of oppressing them or in cases where no one will stop us or even know of our actions, we are warned not to act immorally. We are instructed that it is specifically in these situations that we need to fear G-d and act properly. It is in this context that our morality will be assessed and our fidelity to the Torah tested. If we can act properly in these situations then we will act morally generally and can truly be called a moral people. Thus when we examine the behaviour of Israel in the recent conflict in Gaza, we should not merely complain of media bias or an unfair focus on Israel. We also need to examine whether we passed the test. Did we act the way the Torah expect us to act in such situations , in a moral manner? If so, we can hold our heads up high as a truly moral nation.
The Parshah talks about the establishment of a monarchy. It does so in terms that seem the opposite of those found in the rest of the Torah and especially in Deuteronomy. Throughout the Torah we are warned not to follow the ways of the nations surrounding us. Indeed in last week’s Parshah alone this warning appears several times. Yet in this week’s Parshah we are told that if we wish to establish a monarchy ‘like all the nations around us’ that is permissible or even a mitzvah. The mystery deepens because of the famous contradiction between what is written in the Torah about this issue and the opinion voiced by Samuel the prophet at the time of the actual establishment of a monarchy. There, the very same rationale is seen as a rejection of G-d. Unlike other nations that have human kings Israel has G-d as their king. Yet, decries Samuel, they have demanded a human king. Indeed, the contradiction between the various biblical sources on this issue have led to a major dispute among the Rabbis. Some, like Maimonides, say appointing a king is a mitzvah, while others , like Abarbanel, see it as a transgression. How are we to make sense of this conundrum. I think the answer to this puzzle lies in the limitations which the Torah puts on a Jewish king. He is not to amass, wealth, horses or wives. These are all things that it is normal for a non-Jewish king to amass. Indeed the his greatness as a king is measured by the amount of his wealth, the number of his horses and the size of his harem., especially if these are taken from his enemies. In forbidding this path to a Jewish king the Torah is making a clear distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish monarchy. Here lies the answer to our conundrum. The question is what exactly is a king ‘like all the other nations’. The Torah makes clear that it refers to the fact of monarchy, not to the workings of that system, that are to be unique to Israel. In Samuel’s time, as is clear from his description of the powers of the king, what was contemplated was a non-Jewish form of monarchy, and to this he strongly objected. This has a lesson to teach us today. There has always been an argument as to what extent Jews should adopt the secular practices of their neighbours. Some seek to totally integrate while others seek to totally separate. The Parshah gives us another way. Just as the Torah permits us to adopt the non-Jewish idea of having a king but requires that it be established on a Jewish model, so with other issues. We can adopt non-Jewish systems but must convert them to Judaism.
The centre of our Parshah contains various mitzvot that have as their common theme the fight to eradicate idolatry from Israel. Yet there is also another theme that runs through these mitzvot. If we look closely at each one we see a similar warning. We are first warned to not follow the religious practices of the nations of Canaan, even in serving G-d. We are then warned not to follow the words of a false prophet and not to listen to even our closest family if they try and persuade us to serve other gods. Lastly, if we hear of a city that has served idolatry we are instructed to investigate the matter fully before taking action. What connects all these cases is an instruction not to accept things at face value but to investigate them for ourselves. We are not simply to adopt the way of worship of those who preceded us but examine whether they are suitable for worship of G-d. We are not to blindly follow someone who claims to speak in the name of G-d but must check his credentials. We should be wary of taking at face value the suggestions of even our own family but make our own mind up. Finally, we are not to believe the worst of people accused of idolatry but respond only if and when we are convinced of the truth of the accusation. The Torah cautions us to be exceedingly careful who we believe and what we regard as truth. We are not simply to accept rumours or what we hear from others. We must investigate properly and decide for ourselves. The Torah warns us of the consequences of blindly following other’s opinions, rumour or word of mouth. We can be led astray into idolatry or idolatrous practices or falsely accuse the innocent. This message is especially important for our society today. With the advent of the internet, Facebook and Twitter the dangers of false reporting are massively magnified. In the times of the Torah a false prophet could lead astray a city or even occasionally a society, while false rumours could be spread maybe in one area. Today one inaccurate report on the internet or rumour placed on Twitter can instantaneously reach millions of people all over the world. Yet not only is the reach and damage of false information greater today but the danger of information being false is magnified. In the mainstream media there is, at least in principle, some sort of editorial control over the accuracy of the story. That is emphatically not the case in the social media. Inaccurate or totally false information is spread in an instant and believed by millions without any check on its truth. Therefore the warning of the Torah not to simply accept information as true but to investigate it is a warning for our generation more than any other.
The month of Av contains two days that are both opposite in their character and differing in their cause and context. Tisha B’Av, which we observed last week, deals with the destruction of Jewish national life. It symbolises G-d turning his face from us and allowing our enemies to triumph. Tu B’Av which we celebrated this week, has its origin in the period of the judges. This commemorates not the destruction of the nation but its test. The people are not overcome by their enemies but sorely tried by them. These two Divine responses are famously exemplified by the Rabbi Soleveitchik in the difference between the destruction of the Holocaust and the trials faced by the State of Israel. Looking at the latter phenomenon we can examine the rational behind it. Why is the nation in its land tested by G-d with war or a lack of peace. The answer is given in our Parshah. Twice in the Parshah Moses warns the people against coming to erroneous conclusions about their sovereignty in the Land. They are, on the one hand, not to think that it is their martial prowess that has enabled them to overcome their enemies. On the other, they are also not to imagine that it is their spiritual perfection that has enabled them to defeat wicked enemies. In the normal course of events they would not have been able, with the forces at their disposal, to overcome their more numerous enemies. They are also not so righteous, as Moses proceeds to remind them at length. G-d has helped them for two reasons, neither of them related to the particular merits or qualities of the Jews. Their enemies are indeed evil and G-d is using the Israelites to punish them. Furthermore, G-d has a covenant with them and thus what happens to them reflects on Him. As Moses reminds G-d, if they are defeated He looks weak. Yet the Jews are constantly in danger of forgetting this. Indeed this amnesia will be a major factor in the national disintegration that led to Tisha B’Av. To prevent this G-d sends us various unpleasant reminders that we still need Him. He points out to us that our existence in the Land is not due to our military prowess or spiritual excellence but to G-d’s assistance. We can understand, therefore, that Tu B’Av is not only the antithesis of Tisha B’Av but its antidote. The trials of the period of the Judges made possible the peace and splendour of the reigns of David and Solomon. So, also, our present difficulties should serve to remind us of our dependence on G-d, and so set us on the road to a better future.
The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people. It contains history and law, rebuke and encouragement, warning and promise. Everything in the book is revolves around a central axis; the need to prepare the Israelites for the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel and ensure they are not subsequently led astray into idolatry. Thus the choice and manner of the recounting of past events or repetition of mitzvot is informed by this central goal. The first section of the book is a historical synopsis of the wilderness years. Yet it is not a simple historical narrative. In line with the aforementioned objective of the book, events are connected by their thematic similarity rather than by their chronological sequence. Thus the sin of the Golden Calf is mentioned in the third Parshah while the sin of the spies is recounted at the beginning. Bearing this in mind, we may enquire why the appointment of judges takes a prominent place at the beginning of the Parshah, being followed by the sin of the spies? An answer may be found in a comment of Rashi on this incident. The Torah recounts that when Moses ordered the appointment of judges the people responded with enthusiasm. Rashi comments that this was a failure on their part. They should have responded that it was better to have someone of Moses’ stature judge them than lesser personages. Rashi takes his cue from the fact that the first section of the book is traditionally regarded as consisting of a rebuke to the people for their behaviour over the previous forty years. Thus the recounting of the appointment of judges must also consist of a rebuke. This rebuke is that they did not appreciate the greatness of Moses or preferred to make do with someone of a lesser stature. They found it too hard to be constantly in contact with someone of his distinction and wished to be judged by others. This may remind us of a similar incident, recounted in next week’s Parshah. After the Divine revelation at Sinai the people beg Moses to be an intermediary between them and G-d, as constant contact with G-d was to hard. There, too, Rashi sees in the mention of this incident a rebuke to the people. We see here a negative progression. The people exchange G-d for Moses and then Moses for judges. They are afraid of being on such a high level and are motivated by fear rather than opportunity. This is also the connection to the sin of the spies which follows. There also the people let their fear overcome them with disastrous results.We commemorate that incident and its consequences on Tisha B’Av. Our Parshah should remind us of the cost of fear and encourage us to be courageous to do what is right.
In this week’s Parshah Moses, recounts the Revelation at Sinai. He places special emphasis on the fact that the Jews saw no vision of G-d at that event but only heard His voice. The experience of Divine revelation, therefore, was aural rather than visual. Moses then draws the conclusion from this experience and warns the Israelites against making any image of G-d or worshipping any image of a physical object. He contrasts this with the other nations who do look to the skies and worship celestial objects. This distinction is an important one. Jewish faith is based on abstract principles rather than on visual experience. We comprehend the Divine rather than seeing it. The difference between visual and non-visual perception is a crucial one, best illustrated in the difference between literature and film. When you see a story portrayed in film you are shown the characters: their features, actions and expressions. When you read the same story in a book you need to deduce these things for yourself. The primary difference between seeing and hearing or reading is the necessity to think not merely observe. Visual representation often robs us of the ability to properly understand the object in question. It also simplifies our perception of things, making it harder to truly understand their depth and complexity. Thus the Torah warns us not to make images of G-d. We need to think about the Divine in a multifaceted manner not merely worship a simplistic representation. It is appropriate that we read this Parshah in the midst of a difficult period for the Jewish people. We see Israel’s reputation damaged by the events we see on television. There are many reasons for this state of affairs but a major one is the issue we discussed above. When people see images they don’t necessarily think. They reach simplistic conclusions without necessarily understanding context or complexity. We, unfortunately, live in a society where this is normal. Politicians need to create simplistic sound bites or have a favourable picture taken in order to get heard. One of the main sources of information and debate is Twitter where the amount you can say is purposefully limited. Try explaining the situation in Gaza in a paragraph or by a picture. Yet our Haftorah gives us hope that this will not always be so. It uses the image that Moses uses, looking up to the heavens, but reaches a different conclusion. Rather than leading to simplistic idolatry, as in the Parshah, it causes people to contemplate what they see and so come to a true realisation of the Divine.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 5774
At the beginning of the Parshah we have a list of all the places where the children of Israel halted on their journeys. Various reasons are given as to why the Torah bothers to list these places names. Three main explanations are given. Rashi puts forward two of them. One, brought by most of the other commentators, is that the list of these names is a reminder of the mercy of G-d. Even though G-d condemned that generation to wander in the wilderness there are only 42 stops listed. About half of these were during the first or last year. Thus, even though condemned to wander, the Jews had a normal life for most of the time. Rashi brings another explanation, that the stopping points of the journey are to remind the people of the events of the past forty years, like a family that went on a journey reminding themselves of the incidents that happened at various places on the way. The Seforno gives a completely different reason. Rather than reminding us of G-d’s mercies the list serves to witness the faithfulness and love of the Jewish people in following G-d into the wilderness, as Jeremiah famously states in the Haftorah we read last Shabbat. These three explanations all have one thing in common. The list of the places Israel haltedduring their journey through the wilderness are not merely historical footnotes but a record of the complex relationship between G-d and Israel. They serve to remind us of G-d’s mercy to Israel or Israel’s loyalty to G-d or the experiences they, as it were, shared together in the wilderness. The fact that the Torah bothers to list these names, therefore, teaches us to look at our connection to G-d as a relationship with all the complexity that come with any serious relationship. It is not merely a one sided liaison with G-d giving everything to Israel. Rather it is a reciprocal relationship, where the Jews also show love to G-d. The experience of the wandering in the wilderness was not only the crucible where the Jews were forged into a people but the formative period of the relationship between G-d in the wilderness. As the Haftorot of these weeks demonstrate, this period was referred back to, for good or bad, by most of the prophets. As we remember the wilderness journey, with all its ups and downs, rebellions and loyalty, we are reminded of the parameters of our relationship with G-d today. When we recite the record of our ancestors journey we are not only reminded of history but of our own relationship with G-d.
We are now in the period of the three weeks between the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, that commemorate the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty. Various commentators, most notably the luminary of the 19th century German Jewry Shimshon Rafael Hirsh, have seen in the exile not only a tragedy but a positive development that allowed the Jews to be ’a light unto the nations’. Interestingly the great religious Zionist and first Chief Rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Abraham Kook wrote in a similar vein. He saw the forced exile from active participation in world politics as a way of preserving the moral stature of the Jews, until such time as international relations became a more moral and humane endeavour. This predicament is especially acute when it comes to the issue of morality in that most basic task of the sovereign state, defending its people. We see this dichotomy played out in our Parshah. The war against the Midianites was brutal and the methods used would certainly not be acceptable today. Yet even in this conflict we can see how the Torah showed its attitude to morality in war. It is related that after defeating the Midianites the soldiers brought back all the spoil to the camp, without taking any for themselves. The Rabbis saw in this evidence of the moral stature of the Jewish army, commenting that even soldiers during war acted morally. This seems to indicate that one can fight a war without it affecting your basic morality. Yet slightly further on in the Parshah a different approach can be discerned. The Torah commands that all the warriors that had been involved in killing the enemy are to wait outside the camp for seven days and be purified before they can re-enter. Even though they were involved in fighting the enemies of the Jewish people the very fact that they had killed human beings made then unclean and in need of purification. Despite the moral rightness of their cause and their personal integrity, the very act of participating in the violence of warfare had a corrupting effect on them that had to be dealt with before they re-entered society. It is this phenomenon that Rabbi Kook is referring to when he says that the corrupting influences of statecraft in the Roman world needed to be removed by exile. We again have a sovereign state that unfortunately still needs to defend itself. We thus need to be always aware of the corrupting nature of war, and seek to guard against it.
In our Parshah Moses is told by G-d that he is shortly to die. He responds by asking G-d to appoint a successor. G-d tells him to appoint Joshua in his stead. There is an interesting dichotomy between the request of Moses and G-d’s instructions. Moses asks that there should be a leader that ‘will go out before them and come in before them’. In other words he is to lead the people from the front. Yet when G-d instructs Moses to appoint Joshua, He uses the similar terms to refer not to Joshua but to Elazar the priest. Joshua is to stand before him and enquire by means of the ‘Urim and Tumim’, the stones on the High Priests breastplate. By this instruction Joshua and the people ‘shall go out and come in’. It appears that while Moses is looking for a single leader G-d is appointing a dual leadership. What is the meaning of this change? Moses combined in his person two types of leadership. He was a political and military leader judging the people and leading them in crisis. But he was also a prophet, bringing the word of G-d to the people and serving as their inspiration. That is a role that is unique to Moses and to the circumstances of the journey in the wilderness. It is not be replicated in future leaders in the Land. In appointing Joshua in the way He does, G-d is creating a different model of leadership. The political/military leadership will be separated from the prophetic/inspirational one. Joshua will lead the people in battle and provide the political leadership. Elazar will, through the medium of the Breastplate, provide the prophetic message. One will provide leadership and the other guidance; one organisation and the other inspiration. The Torah is here teaching us an important lesson in both the nature of leadership and the expectations we should have of leaders. Very few people combine both the ability to inspire and the capability to deliver. You can have great orators that have trouble in carrying through, while you can have extremely effective technocrats that are totally uninspiring. There are many examples of both. Yet leaders often try and combine both qualities, often with disastrous results. They need to realise that you often can’t be both and concentrate on what they are good at and delegate the other role. But the public have also to stop having unrealistic expectations of our leaders. We need to lower our belief in both what they can be and what they can achieve. If we continue to expect both inspiration and competence in one person we will continue to be disappointed. We need to learn from the model of leadership given to us in the Torah: inspiration and competence in separate but complementary leaders.
In the Jewish tradition every word in the Torah has importance. Any difference in the wording of two seemingly similar verses or concepts is significant. This is true at the beginning of our Parshah. Balak sends a message to Bilaam requesting that he come and curse the Jewish people in order to ‘drive them out from the land’. When Balak however conveys Balak’s request to G-d he explains that Bilaam wants him to curse the Israelites in order to ‘drive them out’. Rashi picks up on this difference and comments that while Balak merely wants to get rid of the Israelites from his neighbourhood, Bilaam hates them more and wants to remove them entirely from the world. This understanding is instructive. Balak comes with a seemingly reasonable demand, at least from his worldview. The Jews have just occupied the country next to Moab and seemingly threaten Moab. Balak wants them moved on in order to protect his own borders. He has nothing against the Jews as such, he would just prefer they were not on his borders. Yet the man he hires, Bilaam, has a different agenda. He wants rid of the Jews altogether. He objects to the whole concept of Israel and wants it removed from the world. It is noteworthy that, even though Balak and Bilaam’s motivations were different, in the Haftorah Balak is the one held mainly responsible for the incident. And it is the Moabites that are later barred from becoming Jewish. Even though Balak only wanted to remove the Jews from his neighbourhood he is regarded as the foil for Bilaam’s existential hatred. This may sound somewhat familiar. That is because this is a pattern that has repeated itself throughout Jewish history. People attack the Jews with seemingly reasonable complaints but behind this facade lies a basic hatred that seeks to get rid of Jews altogether. Together there is much debate about the relationship between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. Some accuse Jews of closing down any critique of Israel’s actions with accusation of ant-Semitism. It is of course obvious that Israel can be held accountable for her actions like any other state. But what people often fail to realise that anti-Israel sentiment is indeed often a foil for anti-Semitism. Behind the critique is a desire to get rid of Israel altogether. Many people, like Balak, seek merely a seemingly reasonable aim, like removing ‘the occupation’ yet they are the dupes for groups that want to get rid of Israel entirely. And like Balak, they too will be held just as accountable.
Parshat Hukat/Rosh Hodesh
One of the famously difficult incidents in the Torah is that which led to Moses and Aaron being barred from the Land of Israel. The commentators have puzzled over what exactly their sin consisted of and why the punishment was so harsh. It has been said, concerning all these explanations, that Moses committed only one sin but commentators through the generations have added many more, each with their own idea. The simplest explanation is that found in the Torah. G-d, in decreeing that Moses and Aaron will not enter the Land, says that it is because ‘they didn’t believe in me’. Their sin, therefore, seems to consist of a lack of belief. How are we to understand this lack of faith in someone who spoke regularly to G-d, ‘face to face’. What exactly was the subject of Moses’ doubt? An answer may lie in another puzzling aspect of the story. Uniquely, Moses insults the people calling them ‘rebels’ and asking sarcastically ‘will we give you water from this rock’? What is the meaning of this uncharacteristic behaviour? An answer may lie in the people he is speaking to. This is not the generation that left Egypt with their slave mentality. It is a new generation raised by Moses in the desert. Butt they too begin to complain of lack of basic necessities. After forty years Moses begins to despair of the people. It is not G-d whom he doesn't believe in but the Israelites. He sees them making the same mistakes made by their fathers and questions whether he can progress with such a people. This is his basic sin for which he is barred from leading them into the Land. You cannot lead a people that you don’t believe in. In order to see a project through to successful conclusion you don’t only need to have faith in the idea behind the project. You also need to have confidence in the people chosen to carry it out. Because Moses had lost that confidence, he was no longer able to lead them to Israel. Yet G-d accuses Moses of not believing in Him, not the people. This is because not believing in the potential of the people G-d has chosen is equivalent to not believing in G-d. It is tantamount to saying G-d doesn’t know what He is doing. The same is true today. When we lose faith in the Jewish people we loses faith in G-d. When we refrain from doing things because the generation isn’t ready or worthy we betray a lack of belief in the power of the Torah. We need to not only believe in the ultimate redemption but that our generation is able bring it.
We find several times in the Torah that G-d threatens to destroy the Jewish people and Moses intercedes and averts the decree. The classic example of this, which provides a paradigm for the others, is the sin of the Golden Calf. There, the Rabbis understood that G-d hinted to Moses that the outcome depended on his intercession. This is also true forother, similar situations. It is as if G-d creates the possibility of two options : one if Moses intercedes and another if he doesn't. If we look at the dialogue between and Moses and G-d in this way we can discern that the two possible outcomes actually represent two different ways at looking at the issue. Depending on your perspective you can arrive at differing views on what the outcome should be. This is also true of the cases in our Parshah. Korach incites the people to rebellion and organizes them to confront Moses and Aaron. G-d intervenes and threatens to destroy the Jewish people. Moses then points out that it is unjust that one person should sin and G-dpunish the whole community. G-d then instructs the people to separate themselves from the rebels. Korach and his company are then destroyed. In the dialogue between Moses and G-d we can discern two differing perspectives on the situation. The people have assembled in a rebellion instigated by Korach. G-d proposes that all the people are guilty of treason and should be punished. Moses disagrees. From his perspective the people are merely dupes led astray by Korach’s demagoguery. It is Korach and his followers that are the real rebels and only they should be punished. G-d ultimately accepts this argument but demands that the people should separate themselves from the rebels. G-d’s attitude seems, in the end, to be a synthesis of both perspectives. On the one hand the people are not really guilty because they were led astray by Korach; on the other they must prove their innocence by now disassociating themselves from the rebellion. This discussion elucidates an interesting moral dilemma. How much are the follows of an immoral or evil leader responsible for what is done in their name. Are they dupes and in some sense themselves victims or willing participants bearing full responsibility, this is the essence of the dialogue between G-d and Moses in the Parshah. In the end it transpires that G-d proposes a test to solve this moral conundrum. It is possible for innocent people to be duped by an immoral regime using various manipulative methods. Their true test comes when the true nature of the regime becomes apparent. If they then continue to support the immoral status quo they themselves become accomplices and bear full responsibility.
If we examine the story of the spies, which forms the main subject of this week’s Parshah, we can discern an interesting sequence. Investigating the speech of the spies we can see that it consists of various stages that progress from a dispassionate presentation of facts to an emotional rejection of the whole Exodus project. When the spies return they show the people the fruit of the Land and declare that it is indeed a land flowing with milk of honey. They then proceed to give a seemingly objective account of the strength of the nations currently dwelling there. After Caleb points out that indeed it is eminently possible to conquer the Land the mood changes. The spies hotly contend that it is impossible to take the Land. Furthermore, in a reversal of their previous position they then start to denigrate the Land, declaring that it is a land that ‘devours its inhabitants’ and all its inhabitants are giants. In other words it is impossible to even live there. The people then despair of the whole project and decide to return to Egypt, refusing to even listen to Joshua and Caleb’s words to the contrary and seeking to stone them. This sequence of events has universal application. It is the standard method of individuals or groups seeking to stop a project they are against or afraid of. They begin, disingenuously, by pointing out the good aspects of the idea. ‘It would be nice’ or is a ‘good idea in principle’ or other such phrases. Like in our Parshah there then follows the big ‘but’ in capital letters. It is too difficult, costly, uncertain or some other difficulties. The opponents thus present themselves as people who in fact support the idea in principle but are merely pointing out the practical difficulties. Yet when the proponents of the idea counter their arguments and point out that their project is in fact highly feasible with a good chance of success, they change their tack. Not only is the actualisation of the idea totally impossible beyond any doubt but, in contradistinction to what they maintained before, the very concept is wrong, dangerous and even immoral. They, like the spies, thus show their true colours. As their arguments are again countered they now simply refuse to listen and even threaten violence, verbal or actual. As a denouement the opponents of the change seek to turn the clock backward and reverse the progress already made ‘let’s go back to Egypt’. The story of the spies has always been seen as having relevance for future generations; the method of the spies no less so.
Famously, our Parshah contains a verse where the phrase ‘the Children of Israel’ is mentioned five times. This quoting Rashi ‘is to show their preciousness that they are mentioned five times in one verse according to the number of the books of the Torah.’. This verse is found in the description of the inauguration of the Levites. This is not accidental. At precisely the moment when the service of the Tabernacle is being placed on the shoulders of a specific group of the people the Torah emphasises the importance and special nature of all the people of Israel. A similar phenomenon is found during the descriptions of the giving of the Torah. The word ‘all’ is constantly repeated. G-d speaks to all the people and all the people accept the Torah. The message is the same. The Torah is not the preserve of an elite or one group of people but the inheritance of the whole of Israel. This idea is also illustrated by two incidents later in the Parshah. A group of people unable to bring the Pesach sacrifice because of ritual defilement demand not to be excluded. G-d creates a special second Pesach just to include them. Later on, when Joshua objects to the unauthorised prophesising of Eldad and Medad, Moses retorts that all of G-d’s people should be prophets. Even though the Torah is often called ‘the Torah of Moses’ it doesn’t belong to him but to all the people. This idea is at the heart of Shavuot, the festival defined and named by the counting of seven weeks leading up to it. The counting of the Omer is not, unlike the reckoning of the months or years of the Sabbatical cycle, the preserve of the authorities. Rather it is the obligation of every individual to count the days leading up to Shavuot. This ownership of the Torah by every Jew lies at the heart of Judaism and is vital for the vitality of the Jewish people. All Jews are connected to Torah, everyone has an obligation to cherish it, the privilege of studying it and the right to interpret it. The Torah is not the preserve of the Rabbi or the Orthodox or even the observant. The Torah is the inheritance of every Jew whatever their level of observance or worldview. For many years, unfortunately, this idea has been forgotten. Rabbis and those that define themselves as ‘religious’ or ‘observant’ have abrogated to themselves ownership of the Torah, often to the exclusion of others. This is, however, changing. Jews of every level of observance, knowledge or worldview are reclaiming it as their own and studying and observing it in their own way. From ‘secular’ Yeshivot to Kabbalat Shabbat groups on the beach Jews are reconnecting to Judaism. The Torah is again becoming the inheritance of all Jews, the way it is meant to be.
One of the inspired acts of Jewish tradition was to divide the Torah into fifty four different portions and arrange the reading of one each Shabbat. This connects the sequence of the Torah with the progression of the calendar and intimately connects each Shabbat with a part of the Torah. As far as I am aware, this system is not replicated in any other religion but a unique product of the Jewish religious genius. Yet, as with all things, this way of reading the Torah has also has a weakness. It requires a division of the narrative of the Torah in a way that sometimes breaks the flow of the Torah. The most famous example of this is found in the story of Joseph, when the great drama of Joseph and his brothers is divided at its critical point. This is also the case in our Parshah. We ended last week’s Parshah with the description of the duties of the Kohathites. The duties of the two other Levite families are found in this week’s Parshah. We thus can lose an understanding of the story of the appointment of the Levites as a single narrative. If we do however examine this issue in its entirety, something interesting becomes apparent. First the Levites are numbered as a whole, after which they are exchanged with the firstborn. The duties of the Levites are then detailed and only then are the numbers of the Levites actually engaged on these duties enumerated. This seems a strange order and the opposite of what has gone before. Surely it makes more sense to count the numbers of Levites available for service before assigning them their tasks rather than the opposite. It would appear that you need to know how many workers you have in order to know what they can achieve. This is especially so as it was not possible to hire more Levites for the tasks. The number of Levites between thirty and fifty was fixed and only they were allowed to serve in the Tabernacle. So why were there numbers enumerated only after they had been assigned tasks? Maybe it is to teach us that numbers are not the only determinant of success. I remember meeting Israelis on a business trip to Sweden who told me that they achieved in six months what it took the Swedes two years to complete. Furthermore, often the job makes the man. People step up and achieve tasks that they regarded as impossible beforehand. By detailing the role of the Levites before their numbers the Torah is telling us that it is not the amount of the people that determine success but their quality.
The Book of Bamidbar consists of various lists of numbers and censuses, from where it gets its English name, Numbers. Its opening Parshah, which we read this week, is especially full of such lists and calculations. This the main reason that the Parshiot in Bamidbar are so long. Indeed there seems, to be some repetition of the same details. Again, our Parshah is a good example of this. We begin with census of the Israelites, tribe by tribe. We then detail those tribes’ divisions into four camps, using exactly the same numbers and coming to the same overall figure. What is the meaning of this repetition? Surely it would of sufficed to merely note the division of the tribes into their four camps without repeating the numbers of the population of each tribe? However, the Torah by repeating the same numbers in the description of the camp is teaching us an important lesson. The numbers in the individual census and the census of the four camps are only superficially the same. When individuals join together they become more than the sum of their parts. They cease to be simply individuals but become a collective. From a conglomerate of different units they become a community. Thus the six hundred thousand Israelites numbered in the first census become in the census of the camp a united people. The Torah, this census, also provides us with two other ingredients for the successful transformation of a disparate collection of individuals into a community and a nation. One is leadership. In addition to the numbers of each tribe in the camp the Torah specifies the head of each tribe. Only with inspired leadership can the various individuals successfully work together as a single unit. The second ingredient the Torah gives us is a common purpose. The four camps surround another, that of the Tabernacle. In the midst of the people, whether stationary or mobile, is the symbol of their belief. The Israelite camp surrounds and is centred around the Ark with the Tablets and the Torah. It thus unites the four camps around a common idea and purpose. These three ideas have been essential to Jewish success throughout history, as demonstrated by the events of the two festivals we are approaching. When Israel received the Torah on Mt Sinai it is famously stated that they encamped, using the singular verb. They had an inspired leader in Moses and a common purpose as seen by their united acceptance of the Torah. They same was true during the events surrounding the Six Day War which we commemorate this week. The Jewish people were united, and inspired leadership and a common goal led to a miraculous victory. Ingredients conspicuously lacking today.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 5774
‘If you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments’. The very name of our Parshah — Behukotai, (my statutes), raises a conundrum. Rashi, commenting on this verse says that this word does not refer to keeping the mitzvot, that comes in the second half of the statement. Rather it refers to ‘being involved with the Torah’. This is a puzzling statement. Normally in the Torah the work Hukot or statutes refers to mitzvot whose rationale is not readily understood by human reason, in contradistinction to Mishpatim or judgements, ‘rational’ mitzvot like the prohibition of murder or theft. How does the mitzvah of learning Torah fit in to this definition. The answer may lie in the phrase quoted by Rashi ‘to be involved with the Torah’. What does this phrase refer to? Being involved with the Torah means far more than simply studying it in order to know the mitzvot or Jewish history. It is rather studying the Torah for its own sake. Study of Torah in Judaism is not merely a means to an end, such as keeping the mitzvot, but an end in itself. Its purpose is not merely to inform us how to serve G-d but a way of connecting to the Divine. We serve G-d not only with our bodies but with our minds. Studying Torah enables us to perceive the Divine mind. This idea of the study of a text for its own sake is almost unique to Judaism and not readily understandable by human reason. The same is true of another basic fundamental of Judaism: the connection to the Land of Israel. We are in the midst of Iyar, the ’Month of Israel’. Yom Ha-atzmaut, Lag B’omer and Yom Yerushalayim are all in their different ways connected to the struggle for and love of the Land. The Jewish connection to the ’Holy Land’ is unlike that of any other people or religion. For Christians or Muslim the Land is holy because of sites within it or events that happened there. For Jews the land itself is holy. Thus mitzvot like tithing or the Sabbatical Year only apply in Israel. Yet these mitzvot are in themselves the consequence of the inherent holiness of the Land, not its cause. Like the study of the Torah the Land of Israel for Jews is not a means to an end but an end in itself. Here, again, this is not understood by the rest of the world. For them religion is not fundamentally connected to physical objects or places. They are, for them, merely a means to an end not an end in themselves. Thus these Jewish fundamentals are indeed a statute, something beyond normal human understanding.
The fact that this is a leap year means that the Parshiot of Behar and Behukotai are read separately. This enables us to study the fascinating chapter of Jeremiah chosen for the Haftorah of Behar. The Parshah talks about the redemption of inherited land sold by someone in straightened circumstances by other members of the family. In the Haftorah, Jeremiah is imprisoned by the King and outside the walls the Babylonians are besieging the city, which they are about to capture. At this juncture G-d instructs Jeremiah to redeem land sold by his nephew in Anatot, to the north of Jerusalem. In doing so G-d proclaims to him that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’. Jeremiah is astounded and gives a long speech expressing his surprise that at this dire junction G-d is instructing him to redeem land. The Haftorah ends with G-d answering him that for G-d nothing is too hard. The passage continues with a long Divine speech whose main point is that just as it was G-d who was presently exiling the Jewish people for their sins it was He who would bring them back to their land. It is interesting that the Haftorah, however, ends where it does. This is, of course, a practical issue as the whole passage is quite lengthy. Yet, maybe, also the last line of the passage sums up the rest of G-d’s reply to Jeremiah. The return to Israel is possible because Jewish history is controlled by G-d and He can do anything. Many reasons have been given for ant-Semitism and the seemingly inability of even our friends to treat us as a normal people. People either loathe or love us, few simply treat us as normal and fewer understand us. I think the main reason is found in the incomprehension of Jeremiah in the Haftorah. Jewish history makes no sense. By all normal standards we shouldn’t exist, let alone have returned to our land. In the week of Yom Ha’atzmaut it is remarkable to remember that the only time from the formation of the UN until 1990 when the US and USSR voted the same way was to on the vote to establish a Jewish state. How is it possible that despite horrendous persecution Jews make an astounding contribution to the world, something that is not true of any other persecuted or exiled people? All of this should not be possible. And it isn’t, except by Him for Whom anything is possible. That is the conundrum that vexes our friends and enemies alike. They don’t understand; we should and need to.
The Torah instructs that priests with various blemishes are disqualified from serving in the Temple. To modern ears this sounds like discrimination against people, who through no fault of their own, are disabled. Surely G-d doesn’t discriminate based on physical characteristics? It is clear, firstly, that the ban on disabled people serving in the Temple is not based on any intrinsic fault with them. The Torah specifically states that they are to receive all the rights of priests, eating of the sacrifices for example. As we learn from the next section in the Parshah, non-priests and those impure or disqualified are expressly forbidden to do this., so their intrinsic fitness as priests is not the issue. We need to look for the explanation elsewhere. Later on, the Torah also forbids the offering of blemished animals on the altar, even by non-Jews. Indeed, the list of blemishes in the two cases is quite similar. It is clear, therefore, that it is the public, service, role of the priest that is at issue. The commentators have traditionally understood this ban as being based on a perception of disrespect to G-d. Seeing disabled priests offering blemished animals on the altar, seems to indicate that the service of G-d is a second-rate affair. We only use the human and animal material that we ourselves cast off. Now, of course, today the world has progressed to the extent that we no longer see disabled people as second rate, partly because of the social legislation of the Torah. So, today we wouldn’t see a disabled Rabbi or prayer leader as indicating our disrespect to G-d. Yet the basic principle remains. The public face of Judaism is meant to show beauty and respect. Not only the internal intention but the public expression of religion needs to be pleasant and acceptable. This is based on another important idea in the Parshah: ‘Kiddush Hashem’: the duty to act in such a way that brings honour to Judaism and G-d, rather than the opposite. Unfortunately, various groups of Jews have forgotten this lesson. By their actions, stone throwing, spitting and other such behaviour they make Judaism ugly in the sight of the rest of the population and the world. Yet all of us need to also examine our actions. How do we present Judaism? Do we show a pleasant or ugly face to others? Do we welcome newcomers or look at them with suspicion? Do we ignore visitors or invite them? These are not unimportant questions. As mentioned above this is connected with Kiddush Hashem and its opposite, a basic concept in Judaism. If because of our attitude even one person walks away from Jewish involvement we are guilty of one the most serious transgressions in Judaism. Something worth contemplating.
‘A person should fear their mother and their father and keep my Sabbaths’. This connection of two seemingly disparate topics in one verse has occupied the commentators throughout the ages. The traditional explanation, codified in Halakha, is that the juxtaposition of the two commandments is to qualify the first by means of the second. One is required to fear your parents but not if they tell you to not keep Shabbat, or by inference one of the other commandments. Honour of parents is not to trump obedience to G-d. One may still ask, according to this explanation, why specifically Shabbat was chosen in order to make this point. Any other mitzvah, such as kashrut or idolatry, could have been selected. One explanation could be that in the context of the home and seeing to the needs of parents it is a clash with the laws of Shabbat that might be most likely. A parent, could for example, request of their child to light a fire on Shabbat or to cook for them. Yet I think there can be discern a deeper connection between the two. Honour of parents symbolises the hierarchical aspect of human relationships. Parents are older, provide their needs and, at least for a significant period, have more power than their children. In all societies, even our own, parents are the focus of education and obedience to authority. They thus form the model for political and economic hierarchies: rulers/ruled, employer/employee. Shabbat, on the other hand is a source of equality in society. On Shabbat there are no employment relationships and even slaves and animals enjoy the same rest as their owners. On Shabbat the hierarchies of society, especially economic, are effectively abolished, creating for one day a week a society of equals. Both of these models are necessary for the good functioning of human communities. A society without hierarchical relationships of some sort leads to anarchy, and the impossibility of communal endeavours. A society without equality leads to oppression and stultification, eventually leading to atrophy and decline. Yet the Torah, in placing them together, makes a judgement as to which is more important, enabling us to create the right balance between them. In the end equality trumps hierarchy. We should not be surprised. From the Tower of Babel to Egypt and beyond the Torah is suspicious of too much human authority. In the end, human equality is the best path to service of G-d and a hierarchy based on a G-d that mandates equality the best guarantor of human freedom.
Pesach is in many ways unique in the Jewish year. It is the only festival with a unique set of dietary requirements and the only time when it is a mitzvah to eat something, Matzah at the Seder. The Pesach sacrifice is the only sacrifice where there is a penalty for not bringing it, excision, and the Seder the only time we say Hallel at night. This uniqueness is born out by the Torah itself. Pesach, not Rosh Hashanah, is the first of the festivals and the marker for the others, Nisan not Tishrei, being the first month. As we learn from the Haftorahs of the festival, all the religious revivals instigated by the various upright kings of the First Temple period where centred around Pesach and the celebration of Pesach was the prelude to the entry to the Land in the time of Joshua. Thus, despite the pre-eminence given by many today to the High Holy days it is Pesach that is the most important festival of the year. The reason why is not difficult to discern. On Pesach the Jews became a nation. The Exodus is the foundation of Judaism and Pesach celebrates that event. All the other festivals are ‘in memory of the Exodus from Egypt’ and thus hark back to Pesach. The key to understanding Pesach is in a mitzvah intimately connected to it, that of circumcision. Without being circumcised it is not permitted to eat of the Pesach sacrifice. Circumcision is also the only other positive mitzvah whose non-observance is punishable, by excision. Circumcision is regarded as a symbol of Jewish identity. It indelibly marks someone out as a Jew. Pesach is also a symbol of Jewish identity, thus the connection between them. Yet while circumcision connects one to what Rabbi Sacks called the ‘covenant of fate’, Pesach links us to the ‘covenant of ‘destiny’ . While circumcision states the fact of our Jewish identity, Pesach tells us the meaning of that identity. Thus Pesach is also the festival of questions and of education. We interrogate our identity asking ourselves what does it mean to be Jewish. We not only recount the story of the Exodus but seek to understand its reason and how that purpose speaks to us today. Thus we are told that ’in every generation one must see oneself as having personally gone out of Egypt’. What relevance does Judaism and Jewish identity have to us today? How do we relate to the story and how does it effect our lives? As we sit at the Seder with friends and family we are not only recounting an historical epic but exploring our own identity. Thus the Seder contains various voices, sometimes in dispute with each other. Listening to these voices we discover what it means to us to be Jewish.
In the middle of this week’s Parshah we have a series of laws dealing with sacrificing outside the Temple and the eating of blood. Indeed, at the time of the wanderings in the wilderness it was forbidden to slaughter any animal outside the precincts of the Tabernacle. This law is modified in Deuteronomy, in anticipation of the entry into the Land, to allow eating meat for personal use anywhere. Yet the prohibition of sacrificing outside the Temple remains. What is interesting is the extreme seriousness of this prohibition, with the punishment being to be ‘cut of from their people’. The language used to describe this prohibition is also extreme, those who transgress it being accused of spilling blood. This equivalence to murder has puzzled the commentators. Both Nachmanidies and the Seforno present a startling idea. Nachmanidies says that even though G-d made the blood of animals like water, this prohibition is rescinded if you slaughtered it outside the Tabernacle. The Seforno likewise says that while after the flood the killing of animals was permitted, if you transgress this prohibition it returns to being forbidden. What both commentators seem to be saying is that if you transgress the Torah’s laws about where to slaughter animals the killing of animals becomes equivalent to murder, punishable by death by the hand of heaven. We still need to understand why this should be so. The reference to before and after the flood gives us a hint. Only after the flood was meat permitted. Various reasons are given for this but a compelling one concerns inter-human and human-animal relations before the flood. Traditionally that period was characterised by a breakdown in the distinction between humans and animals. On the one hand, humans had relations with animals; on the other human life was cheap. To restore the balance and to emphasise the sacredness of human life, G-d allowed the killing of animals for food. For this reason this permission is followed by the reiteration of the seriousness of murder. Thus the eating of meat is conditioned on civilised human behaviour. The reason given in our Parshah for not sacrificing outside the Tabernacle is prevent sacrifices to ’demons’ in the wilderness. This worship traditionally consisted of all sorts of licentious and even murderous behaviour. If we thus become no better than animals our permission to eat them is rescinded. Eating meat is thus predicated on our treatment of humans.
Our Parshah continues to deal with the topic of leprosy. While in the last Parshah the emphasis was on the diagnosis of the disease, this week it’s on the cure and rehabilitation of the leper. Central to both processes is the priest. It is the priest who decides whether the leper is sick and to what extent. He pronounces who is pure and who is impure. This week, however, his task changes. Rather than condemning the leper to isolation, the priests role is to rehabilitate him and help him return to his place in society. This role is no less important than that of gatekeeper, protecting society from infection. Since at least the destruction of the First Temple the role of the priest in this regard has been taken by the Rabbis. It is their task to decide what is permitted and what forbidden, to be the gatekeepers of the Halakhah and preserve the tradition. It is also, however, their role to seek to bring people closer to Torah and to rehabilitate those who are presently outside the community and bring them back in. They must not only protect the tradition but also the powerless; not only defend the Halakhah but speak up for the oppressed. One might think that in the realm of leprosy the priest would have no leeway. But not only is it his decision whether someone is infected or not, he has flexibility in this regard. He can simply not check, a course of action recommended during a festival or for a bride and groom. The priest is to put the suffering of the couple in front of a simple interpretation of the law and save them the hardship and indignity of being declared lepers during their wedding week. Thus the Rabbis have also sought ways to mitigate the effect of Halakhah, even Torah law, in cases where its application would cause great suffering or loss. Thus they effectively abolished the death penalty and created expedients like the sale of Hametz or the method whereby businesses could charge interest or farmers could continue to work the Land in a Sabbatical Year. Even though all these laws are found in the Torah itself, the Rabbis where not simply prepared to sit back and do nothing in the face of necessity or suffering, but faced the problem head on and found a way to sympathetically deal with it. Unfortunately, on a whole range of issues from agunot to homosexuality, the Rabbis of our generation are not prepared to do this. They are not even prepared to seriously engage with these issues. In refusing to do so, they not only betray those concerned and the Jewish people but the very tradition they are purporting to defend. They have an obligation to deal with the issues and at least attempt to find solutions. That is the true role of a Rabbi.
This week’s Parshah deals with the topic of leprosy. It is clear from the symptoms given and the fact that it is curable that the leprosy talked about is not what we would recognise as leprosy today, which is incurable. We may ask, other than providing a hygiene manual, what is the purpose of the Torah in providing regulations for this subject, laws that cover two Parshiot. The Rabbis pondered the same question. They discern a deep spiritual meaning in the laws of leprosy. Using the later incident of Miriam as an example, they deduced that just as Miriam had been punished by leprosy for slandering Moses, so the leprosy detailed in our Parshah is a punishment for slander. This punishment is sought to fit the crime. The slanderer defamed his victim behind his back and sought to shame him and disturb his relations with others. By being afflicted with leprosy, the slanderer himself is publically shamed in front of everyone and forced to remove himself from society.Thus the spiritual malaise that is hidden in the slanderer is revealed to all but also to him. His punishment is also an opportunity to reform himself. This idea of the possibility of spiritual matters being revealed in physical phenomena is basic to Judaism. We find it not only here but, for example, in the Shema. If we do the right thing, then the Land and its people will prosper. If we stray from the right path, then the rains will be withheld and we will in the end be exiled from the Land. This idea is ultimately rooted in our concept of the Divine. G-d is hidden but not absent. We cannot see G-d as He is but we can perceive Him through his actions. G-d reveals Himself to us through physical phenomena both in nature and history. The central example of this in Jewish history was of course the Exodus, the preparations for which we read about in our special Maftir. The hidden G-d intervenes in history by using the natural world, of which He is master, to punish the Egyptians and redeem Israel. Just as the symptoms of leprosy reveal the hidden sin of the slanderer, so the redemption from Egypt revealed the hidden hand of G-d. As this idea is basic to Jewish belief, so the Exodus is central to Judaism. Unfortunately, many people forget this idea and believe because G-d is hidden He does not exist or care about the world. They don’t look for G-d in natural phenomena or historical events and so fail to find Him. G-d is hidden from our eyes but still able to be perceived. You just need do know where to look.
It is often contended by those who think that religion is a bad thing that religion is a major, if not the major, cause of conflict in the world. Defenders of religion normally dismiss such assertions as distorted and inaccurate, insisting that religion is rather a force for good in the world. Yet it is possible that both of these assertions are true. Being that religion seems to be an integral part of the human psyche, it is important to examine this issue and discern whatcauses religion to be either positive or destructive. The concept of this dual nature of religion can be found in our Parshah. The phrase ‘and fire went out from before G-d’ occurs twice in the Parshah, in very different contexts. The first is at the climax of the Dedication of the Tabernacle when fire ‘went out from beforeG-d’ onto the altar, symbolising the acceptance by G-d of the Tabernacle and the dwelling of the Divine Presence within it. This occasioned shouts of praise and rejoicing. The second time this phrase is used is when Aaron’s sons bring a strange fire into the Tabernacle and ‘a fire went out from before G-d’ and consumed them. This caused shock and grief among the people. The fact that the Torah uses the same phrase for both is not coincidental. G-d’s fire can be either positive or negative; constructive or destructive. A similar idea was put forward by the Rabbis when they explained the absence of idolatry among the Jews after the return from Babylon. They explained that the desire for idolatry was removed, seen as fire leaving the Holy of Holies. At the same time the fire of prophecy also ceased. The same idea is also found in the laws of the Red Heifer, which we read on this Shabbat. The very process of purification causes those engaged in it to become impure. Thus the religious impulse can be both good and bad. What, then, is the determining factor. The Parshah gives us a couple of hints. Nadav and Avihu brought a ‘strange fire’ into the holy place, ‘that they were not commanded’. They confused their will with that of G-d. Furthermore, there is a suggestion that they could have been drunk. They thus put their enjoyment at the heart of their religious experience. Both of these factors derive from the same problem. When religion ceases to become an expression of eternal spiritual values but a tool of our ego, used for our own purposes, it corrupts rather than uplifts. That is when religion becomes a dangerous force, causing war rather than peace; evil rather than good.
Purim is the earliest and preeminent festival of the rabbinical holidays. These days, including Hanukah, Yom ha-atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, are also known as ‘Days of Thanksgiving’. The purpose of these festivals, as implied in their name, is to express our gratitude to G-d for various historical deliverances. When coming to establish Purim the Rabbis were, however, aware of the Torah’s injunction not to add to the mitzvot. How then could they add another festival? The Talmud finds various hints in the Torah itself that allow for the establishment of Purim and subsequent holidays. But the inspiration for the very idea that one should establish a day of thanksgiving surely comes from our Parshah. The Torah talks of the bringing of a thanksgiving offering. The Rabbis learnt from Psalm 107, where this offering is mentioned, the various occasions on which it was brought. All of them concern being saved from danger of death. If this is true for the individual, the reasoning goes, how much more so is it true when the whole nation is saved from annihilation, as on Purim. Yet not only the rationale for these festivals come from the thanksgiving offering but also the nature of their commemoration. The thanksgiving offering is a ‘peace offering’, which means that not only is part of it sacrificed on the altar and part given to the priests. The larger part is eaten by the person bringing the offering and their family in a joyous meal. This indeed is the practice today for individuals celebrating deliverance from some danger. A central part of their private day of thanksgiving is a joyous festive meal. The same is true for the communal holidays celebrating our deliverance. A central part of their celebration is normally some sort of festive meal, Purim again being the example par-excellence. We may ask why a day that has as its central purpose thanksgiving to G-d should have at its heart human feasting? The answer goes to the heart of what it means to live a Jewish life. Judaism is based on the idea of the sanctification of the physical. We serve G-d not by rejecting the physical world but by making it holy. We can obviously only do this, however, if we are alive and well. Danger to a Jew or the Jewish people is also a threat to the continuance of the fulfilment of the Torah, which is impossible without Jews. By celebrating our deliverance with a feast dedicated to thanking G-d we reaffirm our basic purpose in the world, which was put in jeopardy by the mortal danger from which we have been delivered. For a Jew, there is no greater way of thanking G-d.
We begin this week the book of Leviticus. The first part of the book deals with the various sacrifices that were brought in the Tabernacle/Temple. At the heart of this section is the idea of giving something to G-d, but the idea of sacrifice goes much wider. One can sacrifice for your family, the community or those less fortunate. The concept of giving something of yours to others is basic to Judaism and all the major religions and indeed an ability that is part of what makes us human. The laws contained in these chapters, therefore, can teach us not only what happened when the Temple was still in existence but also provide insight and instruction for our daily lives today. What does it mean to sacrifice, to give up something that is yours? What are the motivators for sacrificing and what are those things that inhibit giving to others? Are there people that are more likely to give than others, and how can we motivate ourselves and educate others to sacrifice? At the very beginning of the Parshah the Torah introduces the concept with the phrase ‘a person who sacrifices’. The commentators have noted this emphasis on the person, especially as the word used is not ish or man but Adam the generic name for humanity. Various explanations have been given for this emphasis but I would like to suggest one based on human psychology. If we ask who are the people most likely to give or to sacrifice themselves for others we can often come to a simple conclusion. It is not dependent on the wealth or otherwise of the person giving, though that can obviously influence the size of a monetary donation. Rather it depends on whether the person feels that they have something to give, whatever that may be. They have to feel confident in themselves that they can help others in order to do so. Thus a rich person who is constantly afraid of losing his wealth will find it hard to give even a small amount while a person with less, if they are satisfied with what they have and confident of the future, will be able to share the little they possess with others. The same is true with giving up time or energy or even a seat on the bus. Do we feel secure enough with what we have to give to others or are we too insecure. For this reason the Torah uses the word Adam in relation to sacrifice. Only when we regard ourselves as Adam, a person secure within themselves, can we find the inner strength to give to others. Those that give or not reveal a lot more about themselves that simply the state of their bank account.
Shemot (Exodus) 5774
Our Sages tell us in the Ethics of the Fathers that ‘in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man’. A corollary of this could be that in a place where there are men refrain from being a man. In other words in a situation where no one is doing what needs to be done you have an obligation to step forward and do it yourself, but in a place where the work is already being done, you can possibly take a back seat. This may seem to be good advice, yet the evidence of our Parshah seems to indicate a more complicated picture. The Torah states at the end of the list of who donated what to the Tabernacle, that the Princes donated the precious stones. Rabbi Natan in the Talmud asks why they waited till the end when we find that when it came to the dedication of the Tabernacle they offered first? He answers that they intended to wait and see what everyone else would give and then they would bring what was still lacking. Nevertheless, because they were lazy in coming forward the Torah shows its disapproval by spelling their name deficient, without the normal aleph. The Princes seem to have thought, as stated above, that in a place where everyone else was donating, it was better to stand back, but we see that this was not the totally correct cause of action. How shall we explain this dichotomy? The difference lies, I believe in the type of action being undertaken. Our Sages in Ethics are talking of situations of leadership. There are places where no one is prepared to take on the mantel and then it is appropriate for you to step forward. Modesty in such a case is misplaced. Conversely, in a place where leadership is already being provided and the work being done, to step in and attempted to lead is both arrogant and ultimately harmful. The case of the Tabernacle, however, is different. This is a communal project for all the people. It is thus not appropriate to stand back and wait for others to give. The obligation is on everyone. For this reason the Half Shekel had to be brought by all the people. The connection to the Tabernacle and its service is universal. All the people take part in the purchase of the sacrifices as everyone, not only Rabbis, count for a minyan. The Temple and Synagogue are for everyone.
This week the Torah returns to the subject of the building of the Tabernacle. Recounting the actual building of the Tabernacle, it recounts all the details stated earlier. Last week we ended our detailing of the instructions for the Tabernacle with a warning to keep Shabbat. This week, before beginning the actual work of construction, Moses again admonishes the people to keep Shabbat. It appears that there is an intimate connection between the Tabernacle and Shabbat. The simple explanation is that the work of the Tabernacle is to be stopped for Shabbat. Indeed it is from this connection that we learn what activities are prohibited on Shabbat: those used in constructing the Tabernacle. On another level the Tabernacle is a microcosm of the universe whose creation ceased on Shabbat. In fact the same word, melacha, is used for the work of creation, the building of the Tabernacle and the activities prohibited on Shabbat. Yet if we look at the two concepts conceptually we can uncover a more profound message. The Tabernacle is an attempt to create holiness in space. It is the site of the revelation of the Divine Presence; in many ways a perpetual site of the Revelation at Sinai. Many cultures and religions have sacred places; indeed the concept sacred space was prevalent throughout the ancient world. Shabbat on the other hand seeks to create holiness in time. This was the unique invention of the Jewish people, and one that has been only imperfectly imitated by others. What the Torah comes to tell us at the beginning of this week’s Parshah, is that holiness in time trumps holiness in space. Shabbat takes precedence over the Tabernacle. The reason for this is a profound understanding of human nature. The Tabernacle or Temple is external to us; it is something we come to, or worship in. Shabbat, on the other hand, is something we experience. It exists primarily inside us; it effects a change in our soul. The external restraint from work is the vehicle which allows us to experience the extra spirituality Shabbat has to offer. The Tabernacle was built in order that G-d would dwell, not in it, but in the hearts of the people. Shabbat is precisely the vehicle for this to happen. Rather than Shabbat detracting from the building of the Tabernacle; its observance is essential for its function. The true home of G-d is not in a building but in a place in our lives called Shabbat.
One of the more dramatic moments of the story of the Golden Calf, which is the main theme of this week’s Parshah, is Moses breaking the tablets. This throwing down of destroying of G-d’s handiwork seems to be generally approved by the Torah. Indeed, according to the Rabbis, G-d Himself is represented as congratulating Moses on the act. How are we to understand this iconoclastic enthusiasm? An answer may lie in another puzzling feature of the Parshah. According to the traditional division of the text, the Golden Calf episode begins with the statement that when G-d finished instructing Moses, He gave him the tablets containing the Torah. This line would be more appropriately placed after the description of the event, before the description of the miraculous nature of the tablets, preceding Moses’ destruction of them. Indeed, according to the traditional layout, the actual sin of the Golden Calf is bracketed with statements about the tablets. This gives us a clue as to what is going on here and to what is the basis of the sin of the Golden Calf. The tablets are the physical manifestation of the word of G-d. As such they are susceptible to becoming a fetish, or even a substitute for G-d. This fear is made real by the sin of the Calf. The Jewish people, who have latched on to Moses as a semi -divine figure, in his absence create a new fetish, the Golden Calf. Moses, seeing this, is afraid that the tablets, or indeed maybe the Torah itself, will become merely another fetish to be worshipped; not a guide to serving G-d. For this reason he takes G-d’s handiwork and destroys it before their eyes. Nothing, even tablets made by G-d Himself, are sacred cows that stand in place of G-d. This is later further emphasised by the fact that, unlike in heathen temples where the god is annually paraded, the ark with its tablets never leave the Temple. We worship G-d and nothing else, not even the Torah. For too many people today, however, ritual and tradition have become an end in themselves, losing their spiritual meaning. They have become a fetish, mindlessly followed without serving their true purpose of bringing us closer to G-d. We should remember that every time we pray or perform a mitzvah without thinking about its meaning, we are guilty of the sin of the Golden Calf.
One of the eight garments of the High Priest is the robe. Famously, the robe contains bells in order ‘that his voice will be heard when he goes into the holy place’. The commentators provide varying explanations of this verse and the reason for the bells. The Hizkuni regards them as required for the sake of the people. The people should hear the bells when the High Priest enters to perform the service and thus know the time of the service and direct their hearts to heaven. Nachmanidies has a more mystical explanation. He connects this verse to one in the passage detailing the service on Yom Kippur. There it is written that ‘no man shall be in the tent of meeting when he enters the holy place until he leaves’. The bells are to signal to everyone, including the angels, that the High Priest is going in to serve G-d and everyone should thus vacate the place leaving him alone with G-d. These two explanations may seem to be contradictory. On the one hand the people are meant to be connected with the service of the High Priest performed in their name. They should also presumably pray at the time he is serving. Yet, on the other hand, the High Priest is to be left so totally alone with G-d that even the angels must leave when he arrives. This paradox however, lies at the essence of Jewish prayer. Prayer in Judaism is at one and the same time both communal and private. The mitzvah of ‘praying with the community’ consists at its heart of ten or more men praying the silent Amidah together. While without a minyan the value of the prayer is considered less, yet this is not public prayer in its normal sense. Jewish law also mandates that it is forbidden to pray in such a way that you can be overheard by your neighbour. We at one and the same time pray privately in public; with our neighbour but alone before G-d. This dichotomy goes to the very heart of Jewish spirituality. Judaism is not a religion of individuals but of a nation. Our connection to the Divine is, essentially, through the medium of being part of the Jewish people. Yet as part of that people we all stand individually responsible before G-d. We are all responsible for each other yet cannot escape the consequences of our individual behaviour. We stand before G-d as part of his people; yet can have an intimate personal relationship. This is the dual nature of Jewish spirituality, symbolised the bells of the robe of the High Priest and actualised every time we pray together as a community.
In many ways the central feature of furniture in the Tabernacle was the Ark. It stood in the holiest place, the Holy of Holies, and contained the most important artefact, the Tablets of the Covenant. These are referred to twice in the instructions for making the Ark: once concerning the making of the Ark itself and a second time in connection with the making of the Ark cover. This seemingly superfluous repetition is explained by some of the commentators to teach us that the Tablets should be put in the Ark and only then the cover affixed. However, there may be a deeper reason behind this repetition. At the end of the instructions for making the Ark the Torah states that G-d would speak to Moses from above the Ark cover all that He wanted to instruct the Jewish people. This follows the instruction to place the Tablets in the Ark. Looking at this proximity we can reach the conclusion that the two matters are related. While the first instruction to place the Tablets in the Ark was an explanation of its purpose, its repetition at the end of the section serves a different purpose. G-d speaks from above the Ark when He reveals Himself to Moses. In the Ark are the two Tablets symbolising the Torah. The Word of G-d is thus inextricably linked to the laws revealed in the Torah. The experience of Divine revelation is thus not merely a emotional mystic experience. Rather it serves as a practical guide for life. G-d is not found only in ecstatic prayer or visions but also, and primarily, in the mitzvot He commanded. Later generations formulated this idea in the statement that: ‘the word of G-d is Halakhah’ if you want to know the will of G-d and experience His presence, Judaism teaches that the best way is in the study and practice of Jewish law. Halakhah is not the sterile musings of past generations but a dynamic source of Divine revelation. This understanding of our Parshah also yields another insight. Not only does G-d speak to Moses but Moses replies. It is reasonable to assume that this conversation took place in the same place, in front of the Ark. Thus the lesson taught above also applies in reverse. Divine revelation is not a one way street. We are partners with G-d in the development of Halakhah. G-d didn’t only reveal Himself once on Mt Sinai but continues to reveal Himself in Halakhic discussions down through the ages. The place of Divine revelation revealed in the Parshah not only teaches us the importance of Halakha as the primary source of Divine revelation and spiritual experience but reminds us of our vital role in this ongoing Divine conversation. By learning, discussing and practicing Halakha we continue the Divine dialogue begun at Sinai.
The Torah in thirty seven different places warns us not to oppress or to look after, the stranger. In many of these cases the warning is followed by the justification ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’.Thisrationalisation has been interpreted in two main ways by the commentators.It has firstly been seen as a call to empathy. The Torah tells the Jewish people to remember that they too were strangers in a strange land. They know the position of the minority and understand what it is to be oppressed. They thus should emphasise with the stranger in their land and treat them properly. They are not to use their new found freedom to lord it over others but rather utilise their historical experiences to emphasise with the downtrodden. The Torah also warns us that if we will not emphasise with the powerless, he will arrange that we or our families will feel what it is like to be in their position; ‘your wives will be widows and your children orphans’. If we forget the lessons of Egypt we will be forced to repeat them. The other main explanation for the connection of the command to look after the stranger and the Exodus is an intellectual one. You yourselves were in the same position, so you should not look down on others who are now where you were. You should not reproach others for a defect that you also share. This rationalisation speaks not to our empathy but to our image of ourselves. It warns us against trying to escape our past but commands us to learn from it. As liberated slaves we may be tempted to try and suppress what happened to us, preferring to concentrate on our present prosperity. The Torah counsels us against such an attitude. We are to remember our days as strangers and utilise that memory to create a society where everyone is welcome and no one is oppressed because of how much money they have or where they come from. In these laws and their justification the Torah teaches us how to deal with trauma. We are not to let our ordeal to make us hard and unfeeling to the suffering of others. We are not to permit our experiences to twist us into mirror images of our oppressors, providing them with the ultimate victory. We are also not to try and run away from what happened to us, as if it never happened or happened to someone else. Rather we are to transform our suffering into something positive. The revival of Jewish life after the Holocaust and the tremendous contribution made by Holocaust survivors to their societies are evidence that this lesson of the Torah has not been lost.
The Parshah begins with the arrival of Jethro in the camp. No soon as he has arrived he starts giving advice. He sees Moses judging the people by himself and brings him to task for this way of conducting business. He then suggests that Moses appoints secondary judges to judge the lesser matters, which he does. There are several interesting aspects to this section which can teach us about the importance and nature of delegation and the pitfalls of leaders trying to be in control of everything. One might think that the main objection to trying to do everything by yourself is that it damages the leader, something that Jethro himself mentions. But it is interesting that when describing Jethro’s initial impression of the situation it is said that he saw what Moses was doing to the people. It was the nation that was suffering most from Moses’ trying to do it all himself. When airing his concerns to Moses, Jethro warns that not only Moses but the people would become exhausted. The obsession of a leader to oversee everything and to have to know all the time exactly what is going on creates an impossible situation for everyone. The person in charge can become paranoid, believing people are hiding things from him. Others become disillusioned, believing they are not trusted. People become unwilling to do things because they believe the leadership doesn’t have enough confidence in them to simply let them get on with it. In the end everyone loses. The Torah, however, presents to us a positive model of leadership, one which both avoids the dangers of obsessive control and lack of direction. Jethro tells Moses that he should direct the people as to G-d’s will while leaving the day to day judging to judges he will choose. What Jethro is teaching us is that a leader should provide the vision and overall direction while leaving others to get on with details. He needs to inspire people to want to do things and come up with good ideas to further the overall vision. He then needs to let them transform those ideas into reality, giving the people the support they need without micro-managing them. That is the Torah’s recipe for successful leadership.
The Torah describes how Pharaoh has a change of heart and regrets letting the Israelites go. He gets together his best chariots and chases after them, setting the stage for the miracle of the crossing of the sea. The Torah then describes how the Israelites left with a high hand. One may ask what the connection is to rest of the narrative. Furthermore, it was narrated in the last Parshah that the Israelites where driven out of Egypt in the middle of the night by the terrified Egyptians. How do these two descriptions relate to each other? If we look at the sequence of events we can see that the Jews were indeed driven from Egypt following the last plague. The panicked Egyptians even thrust valuables on them to encourage them to leave as soon as possible. Yet once they were out of Egypt the Israelites didn’t behave like a disorganised rabble but an organised army. The lowly slaves, at least on the surface, had been transformed into a proud free people. This was the meaning of the Torah’s description of them leaving with a high hand. The fact that the Torah relates this to us following the description of Pharaoh’s change of heart seems to indicate that the two are connected. It was the sight of the Jews leaving with a high hand, proud and free, that caused him to change his mind. A rabble of Israelite slaves escaping at night is something he could countenance. His former slaves marching as a disciplined host was an intolerable step too far. They had to be taught a lesson and put back in their rightful place. This understanding of the Parshah has resonances throughout Jewish history and especially for our generation. The Jews were for centuries an oppressed minority in other’s lands. Even when treated reasonably, they still were second class citizens. This subordinate status had, in the Christian and Moslem world, religious sanction. Since the establishment of the State of Israel that situation has changed. Yet for many Christians and Moslems, this is an intolerable state of affairs. For Moslems, the defeat of Arabs by lowly Jews is a stain on their honour that can only be expunged by the obliteration of Israel. But in the Christian world the same attitudes also exist, albeit less crudely. Many people in the West, especially in the Churches, while willing to be nice to the meek and passive Diaspora Jew, feel a profound unease when confronted by Jews who carry guns and vigorously defend themselves. Israel does not behave in the inoffensive manner in which they think Jews should behave. Like Pharaoh, they find the Jew who stands up for himself intolerable. Israel is just a bridge too far. However, like Pharaoh, they may come to regret their derogatory attitude.
Is G-d guilty of war crimes? This might sound like a strange question to ask. Yet Judaism has a long tradition of expecting G-d to abide by His own laws, from Abraham’s defence of Sodom forwards. So the question is a valid one. During the Exodus, G-d visits plagues on the Egyptians, making no distinction between government personal and civilians, attacking not only strategic targets but basic human amenities. Worse still, G-d deliberately targets a whole civilian population, killing the firstborn, most of whom are totally innocent. All the above could be tried before the International Criminal Court. If we wish to defend G-d’s actions in the modern context, what arguments can we make on His behalf? Firstly, while it is not permitted to punish the many for the crimes of the few, the nature of the nation state is such that when we go to war against a government the civilian population will suffer, as is the case, for example, with sanctions. You are, however, required not to deliberately target civilians and to seek to minimise their casualties. If we look at the first nine plagues, we can see that this in fact what happened. While the Egyptian populace was put in an uncomfortable situation and their living standards drastically reduced, casualties were limited and due warning was given to enable civilians to protect themselves, which many heeded. Yet none of this applies to the last plague, the deliberate killing of all of Egypt’s firstborn. How can we possibly justify this behaviour? I would suggest that it is here that the present system of international morality is deficient. The best defence of this action is that of necessity. After the first nine plagues had not had an effect and the threat of the death of the firstborn merely resulted in Pharaoh breaking off negotiations, the only way the object of the liberation of the Jews could be achieved was by the means of the terrible last plague. In such a case such an act becomes the moral course of action. This has implications for the modern world. For example, if a terrorist group uses civilians as human shields in order to carry out atrocities, it is necessary to kill the civilians to defeat the terrorists. Or a hijacked plane can, in extremity, be shot down, killing the civilians on board. Yet the defence of necessity is not widely accepted, to the detriment of counties like Israel that face such situations on a regular basis. Looking at it from this perspective, the Exodus, rather than being in contravention of international mores, should become a paradigm for them.
The ten plagues have always provided fertile ground for biblical exegesis. The nature of the plagues, their order and the connections between them have exercised commentators ancient and modern. One of the favourite methods of understanding the plagues is by placing them in groups, normally of three. The most famous of these is of course that of Rabbi Judah in the Haggada. One way of dividing up the plagues is by looking at the warning that precedes them. Here an interesting pattern emerges. The first nine plagues (the last is always regarded as unique) can be divided into three groups of three. Within each group a pattern emerges as each of the three plagues is introduced in a different way. The first plague is always preceded by a command to Moses to meet Pharaoh, normally in the morning and by the Nile. The second plague is preceded by a command to go into Pharaoh, presumably in the palace, while the last in the series starts without any warning. Thus, first Pharaoh is to be confronted in public, then spoken to in private and finally punished without warning. What message does this difference have to teach us. One can see it as a guide of how to deal with someone that feel has gone astray. Such a person may a first act casually, without thinking about what they are doing. We therefore need to meet them, using our daily interaction with them as an opportunity to point out to them that they are going astray. Hopefully this will cause them to reconsider their actions and improve their behaviour. As, however, their delinquent behaviour and becomes more destructive and ingrained a chance rebuke is not enough. It is necessary to make the time to go into them, privately having a serious talk about their harmful behaviour and its effects on themselves and others. This more intensive approach is often enough to have the desired effect. Yet if it doesn’t, more direct action may be needed. Someone's behaviour can reach a level of delinquency that only firm action can halt their self-destructive slide into ruin. Thus our Parshah gives us a model of how to deal with problematic behaviour that is just as relevant today as it was then.
Our Parshah describes the first attempt at genocide against the Jewish people. Pharaoh orders the midwives to kill all the Jewish boys. The midwives refuse to co-operate with this sinister plan and save the boys. The Torah tells us that ‘G-d rewarded the midwives and the people increased and became stronger’. The simplest explanation of this verse is that after describing in parentheses the reward giving to the midwives the Torah continues with describing how their actions enabled the continued expansion of the Jewish population. Thus the two halves of the verses have no intrinsic connection to each other. Yet it is possible to read the verse in another manner, according to which the verse should be read as a whole. Thus, the reward given to the midwives had a direct bearing on the continued growth of the Jewish population. What did this influence consist of? The next verse describes the reward given to the midwives, saying that G-d ‘made for them houses’. A simple explanation of this statement would be that G-d gave the midwives many children, a fitting reward for their saving of the Jewish babies. Yet the Torah could have said this. The use of the word houses seems to indicate something more. Indeed the Rabbis (who identify the midwives as Jewish), connect this expression to the royal and priestly houses of the future. Without going so far we can recognise that the term signifies something more than simply progeny. The term normally symbolises some sort of status and permanency within society. One can therefore reason that their stature increased in society as a result of their actions. One might of thought that they would have been shunned as traitors. Rather, they seem to have become heroes. This fits into the hints given several times in the Torah that Pharaoh’s genocidal attitude towards the Jews was not entirely shared by the general Egyptian populace. The brave actions of the midwives, which resulted in their increased status in society, both heartened the Israelites in their travail and encouraged others to help them. Thus the reward given to the midwives was a direct contributor to the Israelite’s ability to increase their numbers. There is, also, perhaps a wider lesson to be learnt from this episode. The midwives good deed was publically rewarded by G-d. This had a beneficial effect on the whole society increasing the assistance given to those that needed it. By thanking those that do us good we not only strengthen their hands but give ourselves the confidence to carry in difficult circumstances. everyone. We thus learn that publically rewarding good deeds is as important for the beneficiaries as for the benefactors.
Bereishit (Genesis) 5774
‘I have given you an extra portion than your brothers, which I took from the Amorite with my bow and sword’. Thus Jacob speaks to Joseph shortly before his death. This enigmatic verse has puzzled commentators throughout the ages and the question revolves around two main issues. Firstly, what was the extra portion given to Joseph. Most commentators see this as referring to either the burial place given to Joseph in Shechem (the word also means portion in Hebrew), or to the gift that Joseph’s two sons became tribes in their own right. Secondly, and even more enigmatically, what did Jacob take from the Amorite with his bow and sword. The Aramaic translation renders this as ‘my wisdom and prayer’. More literally, some commentators postulate that after the massacre of Shechem by his sons, Jacob was forced to gird himself for war. This however contradicts the statement of the Torah that the surrounding towns did not fight against Jacob. Nachmanidies links the verse to the tribal portions of Joseph sons, that were conquered with bow and sword. To the obvious question that this was not Jacob’s bow and sword, he answers that it was only in the merit of Jacob that the Israelites were able to overcome the Amorites. This elegant interpretation teaches us a fundamental principle of Jewish nationalism. Most nations have a connection to a land through possession. They live on the land like their father’s did. Even in cases of colonial occupation the claim of the indigenous people to their land is made by a people living in the country. For example the claims of the Maori in New Zealand or the Aborigines in Australia are made by a people living in a country that has been colonised and is controlled by others. Their claim to possession is not made by people living outside the country. Jews are different. The Jewish claim to the Land of Israel has always been made on the basis of historical right and Divine promise, not from a position of actual possession. The Jews leaving Egypt or living in Babylon laid claim to a land they didn’t actually live in. Yet they had a historic and moral right to possess it. The same is true in our day. The Jews are a distinct nation with a distinct claim to a national homeland in the Land of Israel. Yet, of necessity, that claim was made by people living outside the Land and had to be actualised by emigration. This has enable our enemies to claim that Israel is a colonial enterprise. Quite the opposite is true. Jewish nationalism, like many other aspects of Judaism, is simply unique.
The drama of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax at the beginning of this week’s Parshah with the confrontation between Judah and Joseph. Judah’s speech forces Joseph to break down and reveal himself, leading to the seeming reconciliation of the brothers, though this reconciliation is not complete, as seen by the events at the end of next week’s Parshah. This point is a good place to reflect on Joseph’s relationship with his brothers and the basic problem that plagued it. Joseph, in his dreams, prescribes a future for his brothers. He is the one who will lead them and he will decide their future. We see this in his role as informer in chief for Jacob, seeking to control his brothers’ behaviour. This continues throughout the story. Last week Joseph manipulates his brothers for his own ends. This week he continues to direct them, telling the family to come to Egypt, arranging where they should live and what they should do. He even makes them characters in his own story, denying the autonomy of their actions and subsuming them in a larger Divine plan with him at the centre. This continues right to the end of the story and is one of the reasons for the lack of true reconciliation between the two parts of Jacob’s family. This tendency can also be seen at the end of this week’s Parshah in Joseph’s dealings with the Egyptian populace. He is the one dictating to them, where they should live, what food they can have and when they should plant crops. He completely removes their autonomy. Of course, all of these actions of Joseph were done with the best intentions. He was only looking out for everyone’s best interests. But as he saw them, without consulting them. That was the problem. This is also a problem today. When we face a social problem such as poverty, domestic violence or drug abuse, we consult experts who dictate the solution. We really, if ever, deign to consult those who we purport to be trying to help. In our arrogance we dictate solutions for the most vulnerable in society, thus taking from those that have nothing even their dignity and autonomy. We thus repeat the mistake of Joseph.
Parshat Miketz / Hanukah
When the brothers come back without Simeon and with the demand to send Benjamin, Jacob refuses. Reuben counters by offering his two son’s lives in stead of Benjamin if he doesn't return him. Jacob flatly refuses his offer. Later Judah offers himself as surety for Benjamin, taking personal responsibility for his safety. Jacob then agrees to send Benjamin with the brothers. What changed in the meantime. One answer is that they had run out the corn brought from Egypt, making the situation more urgent. A more compelling reason is the different nature of the proposals of his two sons. Reuben offers not himself but his sons in stead of Benjamin lessening his personal responsibility and shifting the consequences onto others. He offers nothing to Jacob except more suffering to add to the potential loss of Benjamin. Judah, on the other hand, takes personal responsibility for Benjamin and furthermore offers his father, in the worse case scenario, both an outlet for his anger and someone to share the burden of his grief. It is clear why one offer is rejected while the other has the desired effect. This story teaches us some important lessons of how to act in times of crisis. Firstly, it is necessary to take personal responsibility. One doesn't stand back and expect others to take the risks of action but puts oneself forward into the firing line, leading others. Secondly, no matter how desperate the situation, you must offer hope, that success, can in fact be achieved. This was the case in thestory of Hanukah. The Hasmoneans were religious leaders, who normally took a back seat in conflict, ordering and motivating others from behind. Yet Judah and his brothers took the lead in battling the Greeks and led others by their personal example. Furthermore, if we read Judah’s speeches, we see that they did not regard the battle as hopeless, despite the odds against them. He reminded them of the lesson of Jewish history, that it is G-d who decides battles not numbers. This attitude made possible the miracle of Hanukah. The last point is especially important. Only those who look forward to a better future can hope to overcome a crisis. This is seen in the lighting of the Hanukah candles themselves. There is a famous disagreement whether you start with eight candles and lessen them each day or start with one candle and add one each day. The Halakhah follows the latter opinion and its easy to understand why. If you believe your best days are behind you will be unable to achieve anything. If, on the other hand, you have hope for an improvement, one day at a time, you will be able to achieve more than you believed possible, just like the lights of Hanukah.
The story of Joseph is one of the longest in the Torah stretching over four Parshiot. It is also one of the most important, dealing with a crucial turning point in Jewish history: the descent to Egypt. The stories in Genesis, however, have not only national significance but teach us lessons for life. Through the lives of the characters in the book we learn how to behave and how not to behave. From the Divine relationship with the individuals in the book we learn about G-d’s ways of interacting with humans in general. One of the principles that exists throughout the Torah is that of reward and punishment. If you behave correctly then good things will happen to you. If you behave badly then you will reap the consequences. Yet, we see from the book of Job that the Biblical writers were aware that this was not so simple and often the opposite appears to happen. The story of Joseph appears on the surface to be a classic example of the correct working of the system. The righteous Joseph ends up on top while his brother’s who wrongly hated him are forced to acknowledge his superiority. That is the general tenor of the story. Yet things are not so simple, especially if one looks at the details of the story. A turning point in the story is the incident with Poitiphar’s wife. Joseph is propositioned by the wife of his master, giving him a moral dilemma. Joseph was not only lured by sexual temptation but also by the status of his temptress, who was not a woman to be refused lightly. Yet he overcame both temptations and resisted her advances. His reward was to be thrown in prison. His state of mind at the time can be gleaned by what he says to the butler. I was kidnapped from home and here thrown into prison, and I never did anything wrong. Joseph could have been forgiven for thinking that the system of reward and punishment didn’t work very well. We know that in the end everything turns out alright but does that excuse the suffering Joseph endures. Joseph does believe it was worthwhile, saying so on several occasions. Yet he does so not in the context of his wealth and power but in the context of his ability to save his family and the nation. He specifically understands his various difficulties as being occasioned by a higher necessity. He reconstructs his own story by subsuming it to the Divine story. He thus manages to see the bigger picture. It is said that this occurs to all of us at the end of our life, when we stand before G-d. Joseph shows us how we can endeavour do it while still in the midst of our life’s story.
A central episode of the Parshah, and indeed of Jewish history, is Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel. From this encounter the family of Jacob become the future people of Israel, with all that implies. The background to this struggle, however, is also interesting. How was it that Jacob came to be alone at night, able to be confronted by a mysterious being? Jacob prepared for his encounter with Esau in various ways. He prayed, he sent presents and he divided his possessions. As a seeming afterthought, Jacob then transfers his immediate family to the other, presumably safer, side of the river. He then remains alone. Our Sages comment that Jacob returned to the now deserted riverbank to collect some small vessels he had forgotten. It was here that he had his momentous encounter. If we think about it, this is quite an amazing idea. One of the most important events in Jewish history took place only because Jacob forgot some small articles. Presumably, if he had not been forgetful, he would not have returned alone and so the whole incident might never have happened. The Rabbis, here, are giving us a profound insight into human life. It is not necessarily the big, important, actions that will change history. It can also be the seemingly insignificant matters of daily life that can have a profound impact on the world. Forgetting a few pots and pans can lead to the transformation of a nomadic family into a chosen people. The presence of G-d can be found in daily life as much as in great historical events. That is what Jacob learnt that night. Afraid of his brother, he seeks to protect his family. By ensuring that even the smallest detail is taken care of, he has the encounter that enables his descendants to confront Esau till the end of time. The Jewish people are still surrounded by many enemies. We are often unsure how to protect ourselves. Yet the surest strategy for Jewish survival is not found in large initiatives and public relations campaigns. It is found in the daily lives of Jews who make their daily lives Jewish. An accumulation of small acts by individuals enables us to confront Esau. Keeping kosher, putting on Tefilin, observing Shabbat; these are the true ingredients of Jewish continuity. Through these small vessels of Jewish life we can gain the strength to wrestle with the Esau’s of our time. Through them we cease being vulnerable individuals and become the chosen people of Israel; able to wrestle with G-d and man and prevail.
The Parshah describes the complicated love triangle of Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Both Rachel and Leah love Jacob but he, for obvious reasons, favours Rachel. G-d, seeing this, gives Leah many children while Rachel is barren. At first sight, this seems to compound the problem of the relationship between the sisters, rather than resolving it. If we take a closer look, however, the wisdom of the Divine plan becomes apparent. Both Leah and Rachel want what they don’t have: Leah wants Jacob’s love while Rachel wants children. Yet there is a difference in their attitude. Leah’s aim is to positively affect her relationship with Jacob, rather than necessarily competing with her sister. While she is resentful of Jacob’s seeming preoccupation with Leah, she names her children as a record of a relationship with Jacob, not as a record of rivalry with her sister. On the other hand, the Torah informs us that Rachel was jealous of her sister and thus demanded that Jacob give her children. Being her husband’s main focus was not enough. She also had to equal her sister in fecundity. Thus Leah saw her children as a constructive way of improving her relationship with her husband. Rachel seemed to see having children as a way of competing with her sister There was thus a deadlock. Until the incident of the mandrakes. Reuben brings home mandrakes, a ancient fertility drug, to his mother. Rachel sees it and asks for it for herself. Leah bitterly replies that Rachel has stolen her husband and she also wants to take her mandrakes. Rachel then offers her ‘night’ with Jacob as payment for the mandrakes. Afterwards G-d finally ‘remembers’ Rachel and she gives birth. Rachel was stuck in a sterile competition with her sister, trying to be like her. G-d was not going to give her children as part of such a competition. What happens in the mandrake incident is that Rachel for the first time listens to her sister’s needs. She understand that both want something only the other can give. Leah can give her the key to having children, which G-d has given her. Rachel, by giving up some of her time with Jacob, can begin to create for Leah the relationship with her husband she desires. Rachel’s action thus breaks the sterile deadlock and opens up positive new possibilities for both sisters, and maybe, finally some peace for Jacob. In an intractable conflict, as long as the two sides concentrate only on what they want, there is no way out. Only when they begin to understand what the other wants, and appreciate that only they can give it to them, can the vicious circle be broken and the road to peace embarked on. Often our present enemy is the one that holds the key to a better future.
On the Divine promise in the ‘covenant of the pieces’ where G-d promises Abraham that he will ‘come to his fathers in peace’, the Rabbis comment that this teaches that Terach repented, as the Torah would not promise that on his death he would join his wicked father. This opens up the issue of Abraham’s family and what their relationship was to his mission. There are varying opinions among the commentators but, at least according to some, Terach’s original journey from Ur to Haran was prompted by a religious motive and the desire to remove himself from his previous idolatrous surroundings. We know that Terach’s deceased son, Lot chose to go with Abraham, though he obviously did not share all of Abraham’s ideals and later separated from him. What we hear nothing about until now is the brother left behind in Mesopotamia, Nachor and his family. Until we meet them again in our Parshah. Abraham rejects the local population as a source for a suitable match for his son and insists that Isaac’s wife comes from his family back home. So Eliezer goes back to Mesopotamia and meets the family, and Isaac’s future wife, Rebecca. What is this family’s religious disposition and how does Rebecca fit into it? From our later encounters with the family, especially Laban, we can note that while they may have had some idea of Abraham’s G-d, they certainly did not follow his righteous way of life. What then about Rebecca? If we look closely we can see that Rebecca did not entirely fit into the family. We note that when given the choice to escape she immediately accepts and agrees to depart immediately, against the wishes of her family. From the beginning Rebecca is portrayed as a righteous person, in contrast to her family. So it seems that in Nachor’s branch of the family as well there was a residue of Abraham’s religious ideology, that came to fruition in the person of Rebecca. By marrying Isaac, Rebecca reunites the two branches of Terach’s family in the religion of Abraham. This process is one that has repeated itself throughout Jewish history. Periods of apostasy produce a righteous king who returns the people to G-d. In individual families this is also true. People from totally irreligious backgrounds find there way back to Judaism. For Jews there is always a way back. At the root of this phenomenon is the idea that every Jew, no matter how assimilated, has a Divine spark that with the right prompt can return them to their people and G-d.
If our Parshah has a theme it is one of moral dilemmas. The various characters are faced with morally ambiguous situations where they must decide how to react. Three of these situations concern Abraham’s relations with non-Jewish protagonists. G-d informs Abraham that He intends to destroy Sodom, G-d informs Avimelech that Sarah is really Abraham’s wife and Abraham chastises Avimelech about the well that his servant’s stole. In all three cases the reaction of the characters is instructive. The motif of their action is given by Avimelech in the final case. When Abraham reproves Avimelech over the issue of the well, he claims to know nothing about it and to only have heard of it that day. Whether true or not the implication of his statement is that if he had known of it he would have acted. We see this again in the earlier incident of Sarah. When G-d informs him in a dream that Sarah is Abraham’s wife, he gets up in the morning and warns all his people not to touch her. Not only does he return her but publically guarantees her safety. In both cases the expectation is that if Avimelech had stood idly by while wrong was being committed he would implicit in the crime. This idea receives its fullest expression, of course, in Abraham’s defence of Sodom. Abraham who, unlike Avimelech concerning his subjects, has no direct responsibility for G-d’s behaviour, is told of G-d’s plan to destroy Sodom. He immediately stands up in their defence and attempts to avert the decree. He not only asserts that there are universal moral principles that even G-d has to abide by. He also believes that it his duty to speak up for them and not remain silent. Indeed this concept seems to be behind the Divine intention in informing him. G-d does so ‘in order that he should command his children ...to do righteousness and justice’. From the context it is clear that this means standing up for the people of Sodom if an injustice is about to be visited upon them. Like Avimelech, Abraham understands that if wrong is being committed one doesn’t have the right to remain silent but the duty to protest. This concept lies at the heart of both the Jewish judicial and political system and has, in theory at least, become part of international norms. It is not always easy to do. Often people would rather that you remain silent and not rock the boat. Indeed, one must always chose wisely the method of your response lest you create a worse situation. Yet this should never be used as a cover to turn away and do nothing because by speaking out we are ‘making waves’ or upsetting people. If a situation is wrong we must, like Abraham, not be afraid to say so.
Parshat Lech L’cha
One of the more difficult episodes in the story of Abraham is his pretence in various situations that Sarah is his sister. This twice gets her taken by the monarch and only saved by Divine intervention. The Rabbis, rather than vindicating Abraham seem to implicate him further. On Abraham’s request to Sarah that her co-operation would benefit him, Rashi comments: ‘they will give me gifts’. Nachmanidies goes further and postulates that Sarah never agreed to the plan. Rather, when the Egyptians took her by force he told everyone that Sarah was his sister, rather than rescuing her by telling the truth. The Seforno goes even further in suggesting that the whole idea of Abraham telling people that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife was to enrich himself. Men would want to marry her and so give Abraham presents in order that he would agree to the match. Whatever way you look at it Abraham’s behaviour seems reprehensible. But that is surely the point of the story. Abraham is a human being that, like all people, had his failings and the Torah does not hide them from us. It is despite, and sometimes because of, these failings that Abraham is able to rise to greatness. The Torah, especially the book of Genesis, wants us to learn from the lives of people like us, with our failings, in order to teach us how to be better. The commentators had the same objective. In explaining the text they didn’t flinch from interpreting it in a way that reflected badly on our forefathers, no matter how important or central they were to the Jewish story. Unlike in other religions, in Judaism our heroes are human. They are born and die normally. They make mistakes and correct them; succeed and fail. What is important is not their perfection but their relationship with G-d and what they teach us. It is thus a shame that in the modern period the phenomena of hagiographies has come into vogue. Great Rabbis are portrait as being geniuses from birth, perfectly behaved and always destined for greatness. This is partly influenced by the Hassidic movement with its belief in perfect Rebbes; partly by the desire of fundamentalist Orthodox groups to portray themselves and their leaders in the best possible light. All of this is profoundly un-Jewish and profoundly damaging. Children who are taught about perfect rabbis and teachers will never aspire to be like them. On the other hand, if they are taught about people like them, who also initially failed and were less than perfect they will believe that they too can be great.
Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah Parshat Bereishit
On Shemini Atzeret, unlike the rest of Succot, we have no special mitzvot. Rather, we have the Halakhic requirement of beginning to mention rain in our prayers. This we do until Pesach. Interestingly, there is a difference between the beginning and end of the liturgical rainy season. While we stop asking for rain on the First Day of Pesach we begin mentioning rain again on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of the festival. The reason for this seems obvious. While we do not want mention rain from the beginning of Pesach, the festival of spring, we conversely don't want it to rain on Succot, the festival when we are commanded to eat in a Succah. We don't even want to begin to mention rain on Succot, as rain on Succot is seen as a sign of Divine displeasure. Yet, as soon as Succot is over we immediately request rain. What was a curse to be avoided on Succot has turned into a blessing to be requested on Shemini Atzeret. Rain can either be a curse or blessing depending on the circumstances. We see the same process at work at the beginning of the Torah. The earth which is blessed at creation, becomes cursed as a consequence of Adam's sin, and blessed again in the time of Noah. Indeed, the same development is at work concerning humankind. At the beginning of the Parshah G-d blesses humanity, while at its conclusion He resolves to destroy it. The same process can be seen with the Land of Israel. If Israel obeys G-d the Land becomes a source of blessing, while if they rebel, the Land will not give forth its fruit and vomit them out. There is a basic principle at work her. Objects by themselves are not good or evil. They acquire moral significance only by the way humans use them. Even the Torah itself, the prophet Hosea informs us, can become a stumbling block in the hands of the wicked. This teaches us a dual lesson. On the one hand, we are to understand that even things that on the surface appear to be beneficial can, if used wrongly, become extremely harmful. On the other hand, just because something can be used in the wrong way does not obviate its essential benefit, if used wisely. The internet, social media or globalisation are not developments to be shunned because they can have harmful effects if misused. Rather, they are neutral and it is up to us to use them properly and actualise their benefit. As we approach the winter, a period without major festivals focussed more on the material side of life, we are reminded that objects can, like the rain, become a blessing or a curse. Its up to us to decide.