This Week's Shabbat Times

February 17 - 18
Shevat 22

Begins: 17.05

Ends: 18.16

Fri Mincha/Ma'ariv 17.00



Shabbat morning


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Sedra Archive 5775

Just click on the Parshah name to see the text.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5775

Parshat Vayehi

Parshat Vayehi concludes the life of Jacob, the last patriarch and the one most identified with the Jewish people. It is instructive to examine a phenomenon that occurs at least three times during his life, twice in our Parshah. The Rabbis characterised it as the loss of the holy spirit, which in Jewish terms means Divine inspiration. Three times Jacob loses his ability to see clearly. One is when Joseph disappeared, presumed dead. Jacob's grief did not allow him to think intelligibly or to connect to G-d in a transparent way. The last case was on his death bed when the he tells his sons he will narrate to them what would happen at the end of days. The Rabbis saw this as a code for the Messianic age but stated that the Divine spirit left him so he spoke of other things. Here Jacob attempts to see to beyond his capacity and determine a future that is not definable. The second moment of blindness, however, is maybe the most tantalising. Jacob sees Joseph's sons and asks who they are. The Rabbis said that he saw the evil kings of Israel that would come from these two tribes and wondered how they could be his descendants. Here he looks into a future he had not counted on and loses his equilibrium. He is unable to reconcile his vision of himself and his role in the world with the actions of his descendants. What links these three cases is an inability to anticipate or accept the future. Jacob is someone who has always tried to control his life manipulating events to his advantage. Whether dealing with Laban or Esau or even the Egyptian Viceroy, Jacob plans how to approach them and how to act to achieve the best result. If possible, nothing is left to chance. Yet in these three cases the unexpected throws his life into turmoil. He plans to settle down in peace and Joseph is wrenched from him; he tries to control his children's future and is unable to do so. Jacob's experience thus teaches us neither that our own life nor Jewish history is necessarily predictable and is likely to go off the path we mapped out for it precisely when we least expect it.

Parshat Vayigash

When Jacob and his family descend to Egypt the Torah tells us a seemingly trivial piece of information. He sends Judah before him to 'show him the way'. The simple explanation of this statement is that Judah was sent beforehand to make practical arrangements, such as finding a suitable place to live and similar concerns. The Rabbis, however, saw a deeper significance. They postulated that Judah was sent in order to set up Synagogues and Houses of Study, in other words to prepare the spiritual necessities for the Jewish sojourn in Egypt. These two requirements of Jewish life, the material and the physical resonate throughout history with the emphasis swinging from one to another according to the circumstances. There is often a tension between them, a situation where what is good for the material well being of the Jews may be injurious to their spiritual welfare or visa versa. For example, there was a famous dispute between two Hassidic Rebbes at the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Should Jews want Napoleon to win, which would improve their material situation but carry with it the spiritual dangers of the enlightenment, or stay religiously secure with the oppressive rule of the Tsar. This determination is not always so simple. A particularly tragic instance of a wrong decision was the advice given by many Rabbis in Europe in the inter-war period. Fearing for their flock's souls in 'treif' America or Zionist Palestine, they told them to stay put, thus unwittingly condemning them to death. Maybe the lesson from all this is that we have to act in a way that the two interpretations of Judah's mission are complimentary not opposed. If we use freedom, security and wealth as an aid to being more Jewish rather than as an invitation to assimilation we will not have to make such challenging decisions but can have both material success and a secure Jewish future.

Parshat Miketz/Hanukah

When Jacob and his family descend to Egypt the Torah tells us a seemingly trivial piece of information. He sends Judah before him to 'show him the way'. The simple explanation of this statement is that Judah was sent beforehand to make practical arrangements, such as finding a suitable place to live and similar concerns. The Rabbis, however, saw a deeper significance. They postulated that Judah was sent in order to set up Synagogues and Houses of Study, in other words to prepare the spiritual necessities for the Jewish sojourn in Egypt. These two requirements of Jewish life, the material and the physical resonate throughout history with the emphasis swinging from one to another according to the circumstances. There is often a tension between them, a situation where what is good for the material well being of the Jews may be injurious to their spiritual welfare or visa versa. For example, there was a famous dispute between two Hassidic Rebbes at the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Should Jews want Napoleon to win, which would improve their material situation but carry with it the spiritual dangers of the enlightenment, or stay religiously secure with the oppressive rule of the Tsar. This determination is not always so simple. A particularly tragic instance of a wrong decision was the advice given by many Rabbis in Europe in the inter-war period. Fearing for their flock's souls in 'treif' America or Zionist Palestine, they told them to stay put, thus unwittingly condemning them to death. Maybe the lesson from all this is that we have to act in a way that the two interpretations of Judah's mission are complimentary not opposed. If we use freedom, security and wealth as an aid to being more Jewish rather than as an invitation to assimilation we will not have to make such challenging decisions but can have both material success and a secure Jewish future.

Parshat Vayeshev

The story of the sale of Joseph seems to be a simple one but in fact is quiet complicated and full of uncertainties. There seem to be at least four players: the brothers, the Ishmaelites and the Midianites, with the Medanites (possibly different to the Midianites) being the ones accredited with the final sale of Joseph to Potiphar. Who sold him to whom and when is thus not entirely clear. It appears from the text that the brothers didn't actually sell him but Joseph later talks of them selling him to Egypt. The commentators have differed in their interpretation of the events. The simplest scenario that accords with the text is that of the Rashbam which is basically as follows. The brothers put Joseph in the pit, intending to sell him to the Ishmaelites, and distance themselves to have lunch. A group of Midianites, hearing Joseph's cries, takes him out and sells him to the Ishmaelites who sell him on to Egypt. Thus the brothers do not actually sell him and when they find an empty pit believe him killed. This is substantiated by the fact that when faced with the hostility of the Egyptian viceroy, they confess their crime, concluding with the statement 'behold now his blood is required'. Joseph, however, thought they were behind his sale to the Midianites and so says that they sold him. This also explains why, seeing the distress of their father, no one tried to see if they could find him. Everyone thought he was dead and no one knew what had really happened. The ambiguous way the Torah narrates the events has something to teach us. When bad things happen we seek clear answers, scapegoats and accountability. While all these things have their place things are not always so simple. It is important to realise that mishaps often have many authors and clear lines of responsibility are not always apparent. Misfortune can have many authors and various causes and the search for simplistic answers can actually obscure the truth. As in the case of Joseph the truth can be complicated.

Parshat Vayishlach

Jacob is left alone and is confronted by a strange being who attacks him but does not succeed in overcoming him. He does, however, succeed in injuring him in his thigh. He then demands that he bless him and the being changes his name to Israel. Many interpretations have been given to this incident. It has been seen as a prototype of all the attacks on the Jewish people which will not be victorious even though they succeed in wounding us. It is interesting therefore to note the comment of the Italian commentator Seforno, on the prohibition of eating the gid ha'nashe, the sciatic in the hind-quarter, in memory of this incident in the life of the Patriarch. He explains that this is in order that the damage done to the thigh in this incident will be damage that we don't regard as important. By not eating this part of an animal we are showing it doesn't matter to us. How are we to understand this rather mystifying comment. If we, like the Seforno, regard this incident as a precursor of later Jewish history and the injury done to Jacob as a precursor of the wounds inflicted by our enemies against us, we are being taught an important insight. In facing the various stratagems that our enemies use against us we need to focus on the main battle and not worry to much about the peripheral damage they can inflict. This can be of assistance to us in our battles today. Certain groups or incidents are more important than others. Not every attack requires the same level of response. An overreaction can merely play into the hands of our enemies. Just as Jacob ignored the injury to his thigh and concentrated in overcoming his assailant so we need to be selective about where we fight and what we respond to. As with Jacob, injuries can be healed. The important thing is to ultimately prevail.    

Parshat Vayetze

The figure of Rachel can be seen as a tragic one. She falls in love only to have to share her husband with her sister. She then doesn’t have children while her sister is prolific. Finally she gives birth but dies in childbirth while having her second son. Looked at from another perspective, however, we can discern an attitude of Rachel's that worsens the situation. She never seems to be satisfied with what she has but wants what other's have. She has her husband's affection but is jealous of her sister's ability to reproduce. She is even prepared to give up intimacy with Jacob in order to obtain a fertility plant from her sister. This attitude can be most clearly discerned by the way she names the child she finally has. She names him Joseph (addition), asking G-d to give her another child. This is in contradistinction to her sister who names her children as expressions of thanksgiving to G-d or of her relationship to her husband. Sarah, who also gave birth after long years of barrenness names her child after her joy. Rachel expresses her emotions by asking for another child. This sense of dissatisfaction is what makes Rachel truly tragic. Yet, she in the end, is the matriarch chosen to fight fore her children's return from exile. Maybe it is this sense of dissatisfaction that enables her not to accept exile as permanent and to fight for a better future. The figure of Rachel thus exemplifies the dual nature of yearning for what you don't have. On the one hand, it can be deeply destructive, preventing some one being happy and leading to rivalry and hatred. Yet not being satisfied with your situation can also be a spur to act positively to change your life and that of others for the better. Rachel exemplifies both possibilities and their consequences, thus presenting us with a choice.   

Parshat Haye Sarah

Our Parshah contains a special note: the shalshelet. This note appears only four times in the Torah, three of them in Genesis. It normally is seen as indicating hesitation on the part of the character in the story. It appears in Genesis when Lot hesitates to leave Sodom, when Eliezer arrives in Aram to search for a wife for Isaac, and when Joseph refuses to sleep with Potiphar's wife. In two of the cases we can categorically characterise this hesitation: in the case of Lot it was a mistake, while Joseph was absolutely right to be wary of acting immorally. In the case in our Parshah, however, the issue is less clear. Eliezer is given a mission and takes a moment to think how best to carry it out. This may seem wise. Yet the Rabbis criticise his eventual course of action. The test which he devised is seen as not seemly and open to error. Thus his hesitation was in fact counter productive. Eliezer was given a mission to get a wife for Isaac from Abraham's family. Yet instead of taking responsibility and making inquiries as to the most suitable match, he essentially abrogates his responsibility and gives it to G-d. Thus his hesitation can be seen as not a sign of wisdom but of lack of confidence. He lacked the belief in his own abilities and therefore resorts to a test which, as the Rabbis point out, had no guarantee of success. There is a middle way between recklessness and passivity and forethought is not the same as indecision. We should not use the excuse of caution as a mask for our timidity. Being over cautious is just as damaging as being injudicious. There are many cases when an excess of caution is simply a dereliction of duty. When we are tempted to dodge our responsibility to act by hiding behind the excuse of thoughtful hesitation we should remember the Rabbi's comments concerning Eliezer. He was fortunate that in the end it turned out alright. We might not be so lucky. 

Parshat Vayera

A feature of rabbinical exegesis is that careful attention is paid to each word of the text and even the order in which they are written. The Rabbis do not simply make frivolous comments and often important ideas can be gleaned from seemingly simple or obvious observations. We thus find that the Rabbis noted that when our Parshah recounts the behaviour of the people of Sodom it describes both their actions and their punishment in a similar way. When the Sodomites seek to rape and humiliate Lot’s angelic guests the Torah says they surrounded his house ‘from the least to the greatest’. When the angels protect themselves and Lot by striking the mob with blindness the Torah also describes their affliction as being ‘from the least to greatest’. Noting this, the Rabbis comment that just as the sin began with the least important among them so did the punishment. One could merely regard this as an interesting pedantic observation but if we think more deeply it contains an important lesson. The Rabbis are pointing out to us the fact that the evil in Sodom started with the public. It was not that the city had bad leaders which lead the populace astray. Rather it was the populace that set the tone with leaders following. We might think, from a democratic perspective, that this is a good thing. After all politicians are meant to represent our views. We don’t wish to live in an authoritarian regime that ignores the wishes of its citizens. Yet the polar opposite of dictatorship is not democracy but anarchy. We elect leaders because of their policies in order to implement them. Leaders are meant to give a lead to society not just blindly follow the mob. Sometimes they need to do unpopular things whose necessity is only appreciated later. The problem with our politics today is that we don’t have leaders but followers, basing their policies on what they think the public wants rather than presenting their own vision. No wonder political participation is so lacking. People want their leaders to present real choices between competing visions not leaders as chameleons, constantly adapting to focus groups and opinion polls. That way, after all, leads to Sodom.

Parshat Lech L'cha

Our Parshah contains the first promise to Abraham concerning the Land of Israel. In several places G-d promises him that his descendants will inherit the Land and, indeed, his wanderings in the Land were seen by the commentators as putting down markers for future possession. Thus the Parshah is a classic text of Zionism and Abraham is seen by many as the first Zionist. This promise of the land seems to implicitly require the dispossession of the current inhabitants of the Land and seems to imply that Jewish rights to the Land render irrelevant any claim of other people living there. This, indeed, is the way it is often viewed today especially by religious Zionists. Yet a closer examination of the Parshah can lead to a different conclusion. The Torah relates how there was tension between the shepherds of Abraham and those of his nephew Lot, leading to their separation. The Torah adds the rider that ‘the Canaanite and the Perezite where then in the Land. The commentators have puzzled over the provenance and meaning of this phrase. Some see it as an explanation for the dissension between Abraham and Lot. According to this understanding Lot was causing difficulty by grazing his sheep on other people’s land. This was done on the assumption that he was Abraham’s heir and that G-d had promised the Land to Abraham. The Torah thus states that the Canaanite was still in the Land, meaning that the time for full Israelite possession had not arrived. Just because G-d had promised Abraham the Land didn’t mean he could blithely ignore the rights of the people currently living there. This is an important understanding of the concept of Jewish ownership of the Land of Israel. Rabbi Kook stated in the 1930’s that even though the Torah gave the Land to the Jews it was still right that the Zionist movement purchased land from the Arabs inhabitants. The ultimate Jewish entitlement to the Land does not obviate the necessity of dealing fairly with those also living there. That is also the Zionist message of our Parshah.

Parshat Noach

The flood has always excited the imagination and has led to a plethora of different interpretations and stories, including many rabbinic midrashim. The episode of the sending of the raven and the dove have proved especially fertile ground for the rabbinic imagination. One such midrash takes its starting point from the fact that the second time the dove returns it has an olive branch in its mouth. The rabbis saw significance in this choice of plant, the olive in its natural state being a bitter fruit. They have the dove declaring that ‘it is better to have a bitter olive from the hand of G-d than honey from the hand of man’. In other words, even though the dove had been receiving tasty food in the Ark, given to it by Noah, it preferred the bitterness of the olive obtained by its own efforts. This midrash is teaching us an important lesson about the need to be self-reliant and about the dignity of work. A person may be financially better off receiving hand outs but they are psychologically better off when they earn their own keep, even if it less than welfare. The consequences of unemployment for a protracted period are not only financial but also emotional. Those dependent on the generosity of others or the state lose their self respect and confidence and can fall into lethargy than can make it difficult to return to a productive life. One of the major factors contributing to the growing in equality in the country is the phenomenon of generations of unemployed concentrated in certain areas. Children grow up in families where no one has ever worked leading to a lack of self respect or a desire to stand on their own feet. Those that seek to deal with social issues by only throwing money at them make a grave mistake. It doesn’t address a major cause of poverty: the poverty of aspiration. It merely increases the dependency of those whose greatest need is to learn to become independent. Without a change in attitudes, education and motivation nothing will change. People need to be given the possibility of employment and the capability to be employed, in order to restore their essential dignity. Children need to see work and its rewards as part of their future rather than something that is beyond them. We need to heed the words of the dove and act before another generation is condemned to the indignity of dependency.

Bamidbar (Numbers) 5775

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekude/Parah

This year, unusually, Parshat Parah is read in conjunction with the double Parshah of Vayakhel-Pekude that ends the book of Exodus. Is there a connection between the Parshah, that deals with the building of the Tabernacle, and the special Maftir concerning the mitzvah of the Red Heifer. The regulations concerning the Red Heifer famously contain within them a contradiction. While the ashes of the cow themselves purify the impure all those involved with their preparation themselves become impure. Some have explained this paradox as signifying that those who create great and holy things can themselves become corrupted in the process. The opposite can also be true. Things that may seem negative can be used for a positive purpose. Famously the honey that comes from a non-kosher bee is itself kosher. A similar idea is found in the Parshah. The laver was made from the mirrors donated by the women. Though Moses didn't find them appropriate G-d overruled him. Similarly some of the ornaments donated were rings worn in intimate places on the body. These examples serve to teach us that it is not necessarily the original nature of object itself that is important but the use to which it is put. The same is true of organisations and movements. There is much debate about cross-communal co-operation with some totally for and others totally against. While there are arguments on both sides the real issue is what will be the consequences of such a move. Will it be overall beneficial or harmful? Will it strengthen the organisations involved or weaken them? Will the results of such co-operation be greater than those of obtained by working separately. Our reading this week teaches us that from pure can come impure and from impure, pure. Things are judged not necessarily through the prism of pre-existing ideology but by ultimate consequences. That is the Torah way of looking at it and the way we should regard it.

Parshat Ki-Tissa

The majority of our Parshah consists of the episode of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. One of the most difficult things to understand in the story is the role of Aaron. Generations of students have puzzled how it was that this towering figure, who was the role model for all the priests that followed him, played a leading role in enabling this terrible incident to occur. Most of the commentators seek to extenuate his actions by explaining that at every stage he was trying to divert the impetus of the people in a better direction. Proof of this is found in the text, where following the making of the Calf, Aaron declares to the people that 'there will be a festival to G-d tomorrow'. Aaron was convinced that the making of the Calf would not lead to idol worship but through Moses' return or another occurrence lead the people back to G-d. Aaron also seems to be surprised by the making of the Calf, saying to Moses in extenuation that he put the gold in the furnace 'and this Calf appeared'. All of this leads to the conclusion that Aaron, perceiving the mood of the people, tried to reassure them by methods he thought would be consistent with the Torah and bring them back to G-d. At every stage he believed he was doing the right thing and that his actions would strengthen rather than weaken the Torah. He was tragically wrong and thus unfortunately created a precedent that was repeated throughout Jewish history. Great Jewish leaders have been lead astray by movements they thought would bring redemption but in the end brought tragedy. Rabbi Akiva thought Bar Kokhba was the messiah and so supported the disastrous revolt against Rome. Many important rabbis supported the false messiah Shabbatei Zvi, whose movement caused untold damage to the Jewish People. Even today some people believe that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the messiah, something totally opposed to Jewish tradition. All this should serve as a warning to us to be extremely sceptical concerning new religious movements in Judaism, which seem to promise heaven but end up delivering purgatory. If someone like Aaron could be so mistaken, how much more do we need to be cautious.

Parshat Tetzaveh/Zachor

In Parshat Tetzaveh we read of the special clothes worn by the High Priest. One of the more obscure items are the bells on his robe. The Torah states that these are so that 'his voice may be heard when he enters the holy place ... and not die'. It is not clear for whose benefit this is. Some have wanted to explain that it refers to the assembled people who know that he is going into the Tabernacle and behave accordingly. Yet the plain meaning seems to be that it is G-d who hears his approach. The bells are thus a device for protecting G-d's privacy. This is not a simple concept. However it is basic to our understanding of the Divine relationship with the world. No one can directly experience G-d as He is and live. His presence is thus hidden and not overwhelmingly obvious. There are places, such as the Tabernacle, where the Divine Presence is less hidden. These, however, are also restricted to human access, thus the necessity of the High Priest's bells. This concept of the hiddeness of G-d is of course a basic idea of the festival of Purim. Yet here the concept is taken to a new level. On Purim we have the concept of Hester Panim or the hiding of G-d's face. This is, to a certain extent, the withdrawal of G-d's protective involvement in the world and is conceived of in the Torah as a punishment. The Jews have gone away from G-d, so G-d withdraws from them. On Purim the Jews tried to assimilate, forgetting G-d, so G-d withdraws his protection from them Thus the assault of Haman. Yet it is precisely the negative consequences of G-d 'hiding His face' that cause the Jews to seek G-d, reversing the process. So on Purim the Jews, faced with the threat of Haman, seek G-d and are saved. Indeed the underlying story of the Megillah can be seen in large part as the attempt to restore the relationship between the Jews and G-d, thus again revealing G-d's hidden presence. The lesson of Purim, and of the Parshah, is that while G-d's presence in the world may be hidden we can by our actions cause it to be revealed. As a famous Hassidic Rebbe once said 'G-d is found where He is let in'.

Parshat Terumah

The instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, that are the subject of our Parshah, contain within them many details that have not only practical significance but incorporate within in them moral lessons. One of the most striking instructions concerns the making of the gold objects, namely the Ark Cover and the Cherubim on top of the Ark and the Menorah. The Torah specifically commands that these vessels should not be created in pieces but out of one block of gold. So, the Cherubim are not made separately and then attached to the Ark Cover but they are hammered out together from the same piece of metal. The same is true of the various parts of the Menorah, such as the six arms, they are not made separately and attached but all made out of the same piece of material. This instruction of the Torah serves to teach us an important lesson. It is possible to have different ideas or personalities working in one structure. But in order for them to be successful they have to all be animated by a single unifying goal or idea. The trouble with making say, the Menorah, from different pieces is that they are easier to detach whereas being hammered out of a single piece of gold means that it is more likely to remain whole. In the same way, in an organisation without a unifying ideology people are more likely to break off in different directions rather than working together. But this idea is just as important in our personal lives. Do we have clear goals and a unifying idea that directs our life or are we left like a leaf in the wind, blindly running from one thing to another without direction. It is interesting that this instruction is stated concerning the gold objects of the Tabernacle. The above lesson is maybe especially true when it comes to money. We all wish to use money wisely and not simply waste it. The best way to do this is to have clear goals and an ideology that teaches us the true value of material things and how to use them to lead satisfying and worthwhile lives. Without a clear direction we can all fall apart.

Parshat Mishpatim/Shekalim

‘If he enters by himself, he shall leave by himself’. This verse refers to a ‘Hebrew slave’ a legal category in the Torah that refers to a situation analogous to an indentured servant. A Hebrew slave is either someone who was sold by the court to pay for theft or a fine, or someone who sold himself because of dire poverty. If he had a wife or children, his master is responsible for their upkeep, though they are not slaves. His master can also give him a non-Jewish maidservant, in order to produce children who belong to the master. It is to this practice that this verse traditionally refers. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, states that this verse means that if he didn’t have a wife when he became a slave, his master is not allowed to give him a non-Jewish maidservant. Only if he is already married is the slave permitted to engage in such a sexual liaison. This may seem to us quite an extraordinary statement, and the complete opposite of what we would expect. Surely a single man does less harm in engaging in such activities than one who is married! Yet the Torah has a different perspective. While a Hebrew slave must be freed after six years, he has the option of saying that he loves his ‘master, his wife and children’, and signing on for more. The Torah, while allowing such a situation, strongly discourages it. Such a slave is pierced in his ear as: ‘the ear that heard on Mt Sinai “the Children of Israel are My slaves” went and acquired himself another master’. The Torah is also aware, however, of the seductiveness of slavery. Witness the Jewish people’s constant hankering to return to Egypt, almost as soon as they had left. For an unattached male, the charms of a non-Jewish maidservant and his attachment to their children provide a powerful incentive to remain a slave. Only, someone that has the emotional attachment of a wife beyond the cocoon of slavery will have the incentive to return to the risky world of freedom. This deep psychological understanding of the Torah, has much to teach us today. Most people believe our criminal justice system is failing, partly because our prisons are failing. Re-offending rates are appallingly high. Largely this is because, like the single Hebrew slave, prisoners have nothing waiting for them on the outside, except a life of crime. They have no incentive, and often little encouragement, to take the difficult road of going straight. We need to listen to the Torah and give our modern day slaves a reason to be free.

Parshat Yitro

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

Parshat Beshalach

The Israelites are trapped between the advancing Egyptians and the sea. The people give vent to cries of fear and despair. Moses quiets the people by telling them that G-d will fight for them and 'as you see the Egyptians today, you will never see them again'. This appears to be merely an encouragement, saying that they should not fear the Egyptians because they will shortly be destroyed and will no longer be able to harm the Israelites. One could even interpret it psychologically. After witnessing the destruction of the Egyptian army you will never again see them in the same way as your all powerful oppressors. Yet this verse is given an additional and surprising new meaning by a mitzvah found later on in the Torah. In the book of Deuteronomy Moses is setting out the rules governing the institution of monarchy. One of the special laws pertaining to a king is the prohibition of acquiring a surfeit of horses. The rationale for this is that horse purchasing was done in Egypt and the Israelites would therefore go down to Egypt to buy horses. And the Torah continues, 'G-d has said to you never to return that way again'. In other words there appears to be a prohibition to return to Egypt. Searching for the source of this prohibition the commentators all come back to the verse in our Parshah that 'you will never see them again'. How are we to understand this rather mystifying mitzvah? An answer may lie in the reproof section in Deuteronomy. There, the culminating punishment of disobedience to the Torah is that the Israelites will be returned to Egypt as slaves. In other words the revocation of the Exodus. Based on this curse we can begin to understand the verse in our Parshah. The Israelites are about to be conclusively freed from subjugation, both physical and psychological, to the Egyptians. The Torah warns them that they should not seek to reverse this process and again seek to be culturally or politically in thrall to the Egyptians. They must resist the temptation to seek alliances that compromise their independence. Unfortunately, this message was not listened to by successive Jewish rulers, ultimately leading to disaster. We face the same temptation today and need to heed the Torah's warning.

Parshat Bo

In our Parshah the plagues of Egypt reach their climax. The last plague before the final warning to Pharaoh and the preparations for the first Pesach is the plague of darkness. This plague, more than the others, has occasioned various explanations, being more of a psychological blow than a physical one like the locusts or hail. It is primarily aimed at Egyptian religion as the Egyptians worshipped the sun. Rashi, however, gives two explanations that are connected with the idea of darkness as concealment. Either the darkness was to cover the fact that there were Israelites who did not want to leave Egypt that had to be disposed of before the Exodus, or it gave a chance for the Jews to suss out the houses of the Egyptians for the valuables they would later request. Both of these explanations are problematic in various way and a topic of discussion in themselves. Yet it is also instructive to connect the two. The Israelites were instructed to ask the Egyptians for valuables to take with them in order to fulfil G-d's promise to Abraham that they 'would leave with great treasure'. The Torah relates that the Egyptians 'willingly' gave them. The reason for this is surely that after the plagues they were terrified of the Israelites and what further disasters may befall them if they did not comply. As the Torah testifies Moses was very great in their eyes. A major reason for this was that the plagues did not effect the Israelites. However, if they see Jews also being punished this will lessen the effect and cause them to lose their fear of the Israelites, and thus be less likely to give them of their treasure to take with them. Thus, according to this opinion, the plague of darkness enabled the traitorous Jews to be punished while preserving the Egyptian respect required in order to leave with treasure. This is in fact a dilemma that has vexed Jewish communities ever since. Jews are not perfect and it is necessary to occasionally do some housekeeping. Yet by publicly upbraiding fellow Jews do we lessen the respect that our neighbours have for Jews generally thus weakening our position in society? This is of course most acute when it comes to the issue of Israel. Many Jews disagree with this or that policy or action of the State. Yet if we publicly criticise Israel are we not playing into the hands of those who wish her no good? For the sake of protecting ourselves from our enemies is it sometimes necessary to conceal our faults and disagreements in darkness? 

Parshat Va'era

At the end of last week's Parshah, following Pharaoh's worsening the situation of the Jews, Moses complains to G-d who reassures him of redemption. This week, before we get to the plagues, G-d repeats in different language His promise to redeem Israel but the Jews don't listen. Moses then complains that how is he to speak to Pharaoh when his own people will not listen to him. These two passages can be seen as complementary or parallel. The traditional view is that G-d's promises at the beginning of our Parshah are the answer to Moses' complaints, even though He has already answered these last week. Another way of looking at this is to see the two portions as parallel, offering differing perspectives on the beginning of Moses' mission. One contains a failed approach to Pharaoh, the other doesn't. The difference between these two perspectives is the reason for the Israelites refusing to heed Moses. If we connect the two portions then the Israelites reject Moses' message because he has already tried and failed. However, if we see the two portions as providing two differing interpretations of events, in this week's Parshah the Israelites refuse to heed Moses because of the very fact of their slavery. The text seems to bear this out as it says they would not listen to Moses because of 'impatience and hard labour'. There is an important difference between the two situations. Someone that is 'so oppressed they could not stand' as the song goes may have a hard time accepting the possibility of redemption but may be able to be slowly persuaded by incremental steps. However, someone that has believed in the possibility redemption but seen it fail, as in the story in last week's Parshah, will be totally cynical about any possibility of a betterment in their situation. Only clear steps that actually change things on the ground will be believed. Israel today lies at the end of a failed peace process and people are extremely cynical about any possibility of a resolution. Only actions that actually change the situation people live in will have any credibility. As Israel approaches elections we can only hope leaders emerge that can fulfil that requirement.   

Parshat Shemot

'There arose a new Pharaoh who didn't know Joseph'. The Rabbis famously comment 'who made himself as he did not know'. The commentators have presented various constructions on this idea. The Seforno writes that while Pharaoh obviously knew of Joseph as he knew who, for example, had arranged that he was paid a fifth of all the produce of Egypt, he could not connect this achievement with Joseph's people. This comment can be seen in the context of the commentator's understanding of the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. He interprets the first verses of the Parshah, dealing with the increase of the Israelites, on the basis of the prophet Ezekiel's reconstruction of the period. Chastising the exiles in Babylon, Ezekiel presents the Israelite stay in Egypt as one of assimilation to Egyptian moral and religious norms. He describes G-d's anger towards his straying people and the Seforno in his commentary connects this directly with the oppression of the Egyptians. The Egyptian bondage was punishment for the sins of the Israelites in Egypt. If we follow this reasoning we can understand the idea that Pharaoh did not connect Joseph's services with the Israelites. Joseph was known as being faithful to his heritage, even when at the pinnacle of Egyptian society. The Israelites in Egypt did not behave like Joseph and they did not seem to follow Joseph's ideals. It was thus hard for Pharaoh to connect this group of people as Joseph's descendants. Thus the wickedness of Israel in Egypt was the direct cause of the Egyptian oppression. This understanding has an important lesson to teach Jews in every generation. When we are faithful to Jewish values and practice and proudly identify as Jews we can earn the respect of the surrounding society. When we forget our identity and seek to assimilate we lose all respect and arouse envy and hatred, just like our ancestors in Egypt.

Vayikra (Leviticus) 5775

Parshiot Behar-Behukotai

In these days of concern over global warming a staple of science fiction is the revenge of the earth. Finally responding to human pillage and destruction of the land and its resources, the ecosystem turns on them and removes them from the globe. We might think this personification of the earth is a modern phenomenon, influenced by neo-paganism. It is however found in this week's Parshiot. After, in the first Parshah, setting forth the laws of the Sabbatical year, in the second it graphically describes the consequences of not 'giving the land her rest'. The destruction and exile described in the 'reproof section' are specifically linked to the non-observance of the Shemitah. When the Jews are in exile, then the land will have the rest it was not accorded when they lived there and ignored the injunction to rest on the seventh year. In the Torah, however, this phenomenon is seen less as an act of the personified earth than as a Divine decree. The statement that links our two Parshiot is found after the injunction to keep the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee. 'For the land is mine, you are strangers and sojourners with me'. The land is G-d's and we do not, therefore, have the right to use it as we wish. Just as the weekly Shabbat reinforces this lesson in general, so does the Shemitah with specific reference to the natural environment and our use of it. The Land is G-d's and if we abuse His loan of it to us the Land itself will rebel and remove us. This warning was given specifically in regard to the Land of Israel but can also be applied more widely to environmental degradation in our days. In the Torah, the land rests while the Jews are 'in the land of your enemies'. However, if the earth rebels against us and removes us in order to have her rest that we did not accord her, where will we end up?     

Parshat Emor

In the beginning of the Parshah we read of various laws pertaining to the priests. Some of these, such as not marrying a divorcee, apply only to the priests. Others, however, like not cutting the corners of the beard or making permanent marks on the body are mentioned elsewhere as applying to everyone. The Rabbis explain this repetition by finding details in one passage that aren't in the other and learning from the comparison. Yet the fact that laws applying to everyone are repeated for the priests is in itself instructive. On the one hand this can be seen as emphasising that the priests are not exempt from regulations applying to other Jews. Rather than exemptions their special status occasions extra restrictions. This is a general principle of Judaism. The more important a person the more they are expected to behave in an exemplary manner, something our politicians could take to heart. Yet looking it from another aspect the repetition of these laws in the section dealing with the priests could teach a parallel but complementary lesson. It could be seen that these rules are in essence 'priestly' regulations, similar injunctions existing in other cultures. The fact that they are extended to include the whole people can be seen as an indication of the special status of the Jewish people as 'a kingdom of priests'. It reminds Jews of their role in the world. Just as the priests are the spiritual servants and teachers of Israel, so are Israel meant to be the teachers of the other nations. Just as Ezekiel in the Haftorah exhorts the priests to live up to their position so should Jews strive to be worthy of their role in the world.

Parshiot Aharei-Kedoshim

In the beginning of our Parshah we read of the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. Interestingly, though, Yom Kippur is not mentioned till the end of the section. The Parshah is simply introduced by stating that after the death of Aaron's sons he is instructed not to go whenever he wanted into the Holy of Holies but only when performing the rite subsequently detailed. That this is only to occur on one day a year is not mentioned. The commentators have puzzled over this omission. They debated whether in fact this ritual was only restricted to Yom Kippur or merely to every time Aaron wanted to enter the holy place. The conclusion, gleaned from the end of the section, is that indeed it is only on Yom Kippur that the High Priest is permitted to enter and perform this rite. So why is this not mentioned at the beginning. The commentator Kli Y'kar seems to connect the restriction on entering the Holy of Holies to the sins of Israel. The transgressions of the Jewish people, as maybe epitomised by the fatal misconduct of Aaron's sons, have prevented the intimacy with G-d symbolised by frequent access to the holiest place. The priest, who is but an emissary of Israel, is thus also prevented from this right. Only on Yom Kippur, whose purpose is the reconciliation between G-d and Israel, can this barrier be overcome. We thus see that even though Aaron himself might be worthy of entering the Holy of Holies the sins of the people prevent him from doing so. Looking at it from another angle it is possible to say that as High Priest Aaron is held accountable for the misconduct of the people. This teaches us an important lesson. However correct we may think our own behaviour to be, our relationship with G-d is also affected by the actions of those with whom we interact and whom we can influence. As long as our society is not righteous neither really are we.

Parshiot Tazria-Metzora

An interesting but seemingly technical argument develops between Rashi and Nachmanidies in our Parshah over the issue of leprosy in hair. While the details are somewhat complicated, in essence Rashi understands that the leprosy is part of the hair, with normal hair developing symptoms of the disease. Nachmanidies brings various arguments to dispute this and interprets the passage in a completely different way. According to Nachmanidies normal hair cannot become infected. What the Torah is describing is a situation where a persons hair has either partially or totally fallen out. Upon the bare head there then appears yellow infected hair. Understanding that the diseases detailed in the Parshah are physical manifestations of a spiritual deficiency we can go beyond the technical details of this dispute and perceive a deeper discourse. According to Rashi the disease is external, the infection of a person's normal hair. Nachmanidies, on the other hand, sees the infection as being of the skin under the hair, discernible only when the hair is absent. One can see in these differing interpretations two ways of approaching spiritual problems. One approach believes that normal people, without other deficiencies, can also be subject to spiritual maladies. A spiritually healthy person can suddenly become afflicted with something that impairs their religious life. The other position is that as long as you are spiritually healthy you are protected from these type of problems. Only if you have lost your normal religious vitality and already have problems can you become afflicted with spiritual ill health. Looking at it another way, it could be said that according to one view if you are spiritually sick it must ultimately have been your fault, while the other position is that this is something that can happen to anyone. When looking at spiritual or psychological maladies this is an important distinction. In the past we often thought that these were the fault of the sufferer and normal people didn't get these things. Today we understand that everyone, even someone 'with all their hair', can be become afflicted. Mental illness is thus the responsibility of all of us.   

Parshat Shemini

In a normal (non-leap) year Parshat Shemini is always read the week after Pesach. The Parshah itself has two distinct sections, marking an important transition within the book of Leviticus. The first half of the Parshah tells of the completion of the induction of the priesthood, linking it both to the first section of the book dealing with sacrifices and the second half of Exodus, dealing with the erection of the Tabernacle. The second half of the Parshah deals with the laws of kashrut and related topics, marking the transition to the second half of the book, dealing with the general conduct of Jewish life. Most of the laws of the Torah are found in this section, marking it out as the centre of the Torah both geographically and thematically. If we look at the cycle of Torah readings we can notice something interesting. During the winter months leading up to Pesach, the feast of history par excellence, we read Parshiot that deal with the origins of the Jewish people ending in the inauguration of the Tabernacle. In the summer, after Shavuot and preceding Tisha B'Av, we read Numbers with its account of the rebellions in the wilderness. In the late summer, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we recite Moses' great call to observance and repentance, the book of Deuteronomy. And during this period of the year, between Pesach and Shavuot, we read the centre of the Torah, the mitzvot that are the essence of Judaism. Each part of the year thus comprises of Torah readings appropriate to that season and contains a theme that we are meant to reflect on. From this week until Shavuot, the period of the Omer, we are meant to deepen our commitment to a Jewish life through observance of the mitzvot. Reminded by each week's Torah portion of the essence of Judaism we are enabled to embark on a process of self improvement leading up to a renewed and strengthened acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot.

Parshat Pesach 7 & 8

  1. On the Eighth Day of Pesach this year we read the Song of Songs. This book, with its erotic imagery, is traditionally seen as an allegory of the relationship between G-d and Israel. One theme of the book is especially appropriate for the last days of Pesach. The two lovers are often separated, one just missing the other. They are always searching for each other but not always finding each other. This has been seen by the rabbis as an allegory of the complicated relationship between G-d and Israel. Throughout history, either the Jews have strayed from G-d or G-d appears to hide His face. In the Song, the man knocks on his lover's door late at night. Having gone to be she is reluctant to get up to greet him. When overcome with desire she finally bestirs herself it is to late, he has gone and she wanders the city searching for him and being abused by the guards. This has been related to the situation at the beginning of the Second Temple period when the Jews are allowed to return but most choose to stay in Babylon. Because of this, say the Rabbis, the Second Temple was eventually destroyed with the subsequent long exile and persecution. This is a theme often repeated, on both sides, in Jewish history. When Jews are ready G-d isn't and visa versa. Maybe for this reason we have to count a fix number of days to the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. The Counting of the Omer ensures that we have an agreed time of coming together. As, on the last days of Pesach we look forward to the ultimate redemption, we should remember that we can also miss the opportunity.

Parshat Pesach 1 & 2

One of the central mitzvot of the Seder night is the eating of Matzah. Indeed Pesach is called in the Torah and our prayers 'the Festival of Matzot'. Yet if we look at the Torah we can see a paradox. The reason given for eating Matzot is that the Israelites were thrust out of Egypt and they didn't have time to bake bread. Yet earlier in the same Parshah they are commanded to eat Matzot as part of the first Seder, before they left Egypt. If we investigate the various commands concerning Matzah in the Torah, we will see another intriguing fact. There are in fact two different festivals: Pesach (the sacrifice and eating of the Pesach sacrifice) on the 14th of Nisan and the following night and the 'Feast of Matzot' for seven days from the 15th. We can thus discern two different mitzvot concerning Matzah. One to eat it with the Pesach sacrifice and the other as part of the 'Festival of Matzot'. The Rabbis emphasise this distinction deciding that only on the first night, as part of the Seder, is eating Matzah obligatory, with the consumption of it during the remaining seven days being only voluntary. We can perhaps understand these distinctions by concentrating on two different meanings of the Torah's term for Matzah, 'Lechem Oni'. According to one opinion this means the bread that we 'answer' or speak things about while another opinion calls it the bread of 'affliction'. We can see that the Matzah we eat on Seder night is part of the telling of the story of the Exodus. Along with the Pesach sacrifice and Maror with which it is eaten, it serves to make the tale tangible to each generation. It is thus obligatory on that night. The Matzah we eat for seven days, however, serves as a reminder of how we left Egypt in a hurry and where not able to bring bread with us, relying on G-d for our sustenance. This Matzah is not obligatory, it is enough not to eat Hametz and to use Matzah instead of bread if we wish to eat bread. Thus the two mitzvot of Matzah bring home to us two different but equally important lessons of the festival of Pesach.

Parshat Tzav / Hagadol

At the beginning of the Parshah we have the law of the burnt offering which is to be totally consumed on the altar. For this purpose the Torah links this to the mitzvah of having a fire continually burning on the altar. Fire is a central component in the service of the Tabernacle; so much so that it is permitted to be used there even on Shabbat. If we look at the rationale behind this phenomenon we can see that the consumption of offerings by fire on the altar is the way of 'giving' them to G-d. In many pagan temples offerings were left whole, for the god to eat, though they were actually eaten by the priests. In Judaism there was no such pretence. G-d doesn't need the sustenance of our offerings. So the offerings are burnt and the ashes placed outside the camp. The essence of Jewish sacrifice lies in the act of giving. Thus some sacrifices have portions that are given for the maintenance of the priests while others have also parts that are eaten by the person offering the sacrifice. This week we will be engaged on another type of consumption, traditionally also by fire. This is the removal of Hametz before Pesach. The juxtaposition of this to the mitzvot in our Parshah can enlighten us as to its meaning. The removal of Hametz is not merely a negative cleansing in preparation for Pesach. Rather it is a sacrifice of something we hold dear to G-d. Matzah is called 'the bread of poverty'. In contradistinction Hametz is a symbol of affluence and luxury. In getting rid of Hametz before Pesach we show our willingness to serve G-d, even at the cost of some our wealth. As our ancestors did we are willing to follow G-d into the bread-less wilderness, at least for a week.

Parshat Vayikra

Our Parshah consists entirely of details of the various that were brought in the Tabernacle. Sacrifices consisting of domesticated animals, birds and grain and brought for atonement, thanksgiving or in fulfilment of a vow. All these details may seem irrelevant to our religious life today, and indeed Vayikra is not the easiest Parshah to preach on. Yet if we examine the Parshah through the eyes of the Rabbis we see that they found gems of moral teaching within these intricate regulations. One constant theme that they see running through the details of the various sacrifices is that of inclusion, especially of the less well off. The Torah itself prescribes differing sacrifices dependant on the financial circumstances of the person. The Rabbis also discerned hints of the importance of the poor person's sacrifice in the details of the sacrifices generally brought by the indigent. When the Torah describes the meal offering it begins with the words 'a soul that shall sacrifice', a hint that the poor person who sacrifices a meal offering is giving his soul, much more than a rich person giving several animals. They also note that the feathers of a bird offering are also burnt on the altar, even though burning feathers are not the most pleasant odour. This is 'in order that the altar will be full and beautified with the offering of the destitute'. All this teaches us the importance of including in our communities those who are on the periphery. Those who because of physical, financial or family circumstances are found on the outside should be given a place inside. The Parshah teaches that G-d doesn't look at a persons ability to contribute or where they come from but at their willingness to be involved. The person from the periphery that contributes how and what he can is more important than someone more integrated who contributes little. Treating everyone equally is a basic principle of the religious community envisioned by the Torah and should be a basic value of ours today.

Shemot (Exodus) 5775

Parshat Matot-Masei

  Our Parshah begins with the record of the journey of the Israelites through the desert. It lists the various stopping places of that journey, giving certain markers to help identify the time period they took place in. the commentators examine the reason for this list and what it is supposed to teach us. They generally see it as a record of G-d’s kindness to Israel, or more specifically, a defence of G-d’s behaviour during the people’s forty years of wandering. These commentators point out that if you take out of the list of stops all those in the first and fortieth year, the people spent most of the thirty eight years of wandering staying put in one place. We should not think, therefore, that G-d dealt so harshly with the people. The Seforno, however, takes a completely different approach. He sees the list of the wanderings in the desert as a vindication not of G-d, but of Israel. This is proof of the ‘love of your youth’ that Jeremiah mentioned in last week’s Haftorah, the ‘going after Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’. The list of forty two stopping places bears witness to Israel’s dedication to G-d. These two interpretations, of course, are not mutually exclusive. They are in fact two sides of the same coin. According to both commentaries, the record of the wanderings in the desert bears testimony to the strength of the relationship between G-d and Israel. The Jewish people are prepared to follow G-d into the wilderness, despite the hardship involved. G-d continues to care for His people, even when their own rebellion has necessitated a thirty eight year delay in reaching their destinations. Like most relationships, the relationship between G-d and Israel is only truly tested in hard times. The list of wanderings in the desert demonstrates to future generations that both sides passed the test, and can do so again. It is thus no coincidence that we read this portion at the beginning of the saddest period of the Jewish year. The first nine days of Av, symbolise the seeming breakdown of our relationship with G-d, with all the tragic consequences. Yet this portion of the Torah tells us that it is precisely at this period that our bond can be strengthened and teaches us that these days contain within them great potential. G-d may seem distant during this time, but actually He may never be closer.

Parshat Hukat

The mitzvah of the Red Heifer is famously considered the most mysterious in the Torah, an example of an inscrutable Divine decree. Notwithstanding, commentators old and new have sort to explain its rationale and particulars. One of laws pertaining to its preparation is that the heifer is taken outside the camp and slaughtered there. The prepared ashes are then kept in proximity to the Temple. The only other sacrifice connected with the Temple service where the animal is killed outside the Temple precincts is that of Azazel: the scapegoat on Yom Kippur, who is sent to die in the wilderness. Interestingly, in both cases the people involved in this process themselves become unclean. The two ceremonies, however, are diametrically different. The Red Heifer is slaughtered outside the camp and then its ashes used to enable people to enter the Temple. The Scapegoat has the sins of the people placed upon it and then is sent from the Temple to die. Both ceremonies seek to resolve a situation where people through their impurity, either through interaction with death or being stained with sin are unable to properly relate to G-d. One seeks to remove the impurity by bringing an external source of purity to the people at the gates of the Temple while the other endeavours to remove the impurity from the people to outside the Temple. These two methods of purification or atonement can instruct us in how to deal with various psychological ailments. The ashes of the Heifer purify someone who has come in superficial contact with the dead. Sometimes just the perspective of another person can work wonders. A grieving or lonely person may simply need some one to talk to. A year's worth of sins, on the other hand, require the problem itself to be removed. There are some ailments where the issue is more entrenched. Then it is necessary to seek to remove the cause of the malady by delving deeply into their personality and dealing with the root of the difficulty. Thus the Torah, by means of these ceremonies, shows its profound understanding of the human psyche.

Parshat Korach

If we examine the rebellion of Korach we can see that there were two separate rebellions that joined together to oppose Moses' leadership. One was led by Korach and consisted of Levites unhappy with the monopolization of the spiritual leadership by Moses' family. The other consisted mainly of the tribe of Reuben led by Datan and Aviram who had wider grievances about the current state of affairs. While Korach and the Levites argued for spiritual equality the Reubenites accused Moses of political failure and false promises. The two groups are united, however, in the underlying motivation for their actions. Both sought to dethrone Moses in order to take power for themselves. Korach wanted to be High Priest and the Reubenites felt, as Jacob's first born, that they should lead the nation. They are also linked by another character trait: both had a clear goal they wanted to achieve and an ideological rigidity that precluded heeding any arguments against their perspective. Even though Moses both tried to compromise with the rebels and warned them of the dire consequences of their actions, they simply refused to listen. They were determined on their course and no logical argument was going to dissuade them. In fact, this inflexibility is another form of ego, and the most dangerous kind. When someone is pursuing a course of action for financial, political or other personal reason it is often possible to dissuade them by pointing out the flaws in their plan and informing them of the possible negative impact this could have on them. This is what Moses, indeed, endeavoured to do. But when someone has convinced themselves that their way is the only solution, the correct and moral course of action, it is often impossible to persuade them otherwise. No argument will work and any evidence contrary to their position will simply be dismissed. This is what happened to Korach and his followers, with the dire consequences that serve as a lesson to us until today.

Parshat Sh'lach

In examining the story of the mission of the spies we notice that there appear to be two different versions of the story. The narrative in our Parshah begins with G-d commanding Moses to choose twelve men to tour the Land, while in Deuteronomy the initiative comes from the people. This and other differences in the two accounts have exercised the minds of the commentators. Nachmanidies and other commentators solve the dilemma by pointing out a crucial difference in the purpose of the mission of the spies. In Deuteronomy the spies are meant to investigate the Land while in our Parshah the twelve leaders are supposed to tour the Land. The people asked for a military intelligence mission while G-d commands a fact finding tour. Moses appears to have combined the two, telling the spies to both report on the nature and fertility of the Land while also investigating its defences. A clue to this double mission is found in the fact that while ten of the spies were tribal leaders, Joshua and Caleb were military men. The combining of these two aims in one mission was a disaster. The non-military component of the group was unable to properly assess the strategic outlook and so gave up on the whole project. This teaches us an important lesson for any project or inquiry. There are two different types of investigation. One is a general appraisal of possibilities and the exploration of new ideas. The other is a detailed analysis of these proposals, examining their practical feasibility. They require two different types of people to be involved. A general brainstorming of possibilities needs people of broad vision and big ideas. A larger group of people is also likely to contribute more. The detailed analysis, on the other hand, needs a small group of experts, with the capability to hard headedly investigate any proposal. Mixing up these two groups normally leads to disaster. A small group of people brainstorming is less likely to come up with new ideas while a large group working out the details will result in conflicting messages and overall chaos. Each person has their own place in this scheme and only a few gifted individuals like Moses can combine both. Each person doing what they do best rather than everyone trying to do everything is the policy most likely to lead to success. The Parshah contains a stark warning of the consequences of ignoring this lesson.   

Parshat Behalotecha

The first part of the book of Numbers describes the setting up of the camp that would journey through the wilderness to Israel, the four standards, the Levites, the order of the march. One can ask what is the point of this narrative? It seems to merely of historical significance. It is possible, however, to learn various lessons of relevance to us today from this description. One place where there is a coming together between history and Halakhah concerns the use of the silver trumpets. On the one hand, these instruments were used to call the people together and as signals during the wilderness journey. On the other hand, the Torah commands us to blow the trumpets in the Temple during times of trouble or celebration. According to some authorities they were blown every day in conjunction with the daily sacrifice. There are two trumpet sounds,a Tekiah and a Teruah, familiar to us from the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The straight sound, Tekiah, was blown to summon the people and later over sacrifices in the Temple. The broken alarm, Teruah, was sounded as a signal to journey and later on as a cry for succour during times trouble. Thus the Tekiah symbolises stability and unity while the Teruah signifies change and difficulty. It is instructive that both were used during the Temple service, depending on the circumstances. There is a famous argument whether there is a mitzvah of prayer from the Torah every day or merely at times of trouble. Do we pray only when in motion and uncertain or troubled or also when our lives are fixed and seemingly stable. The Torah seems to indicate we need both types of prayer. Certainly when we are uncertain and troubled we need to turn to G-d. But being in a state of inertia or certainty also necessitates us to contemplate our lives and seek G-d's assistance. Life is made up of both movement and inertia, stability and disruption. In both situations we need prayer.

Parshat Naso

In the centre of this week's Parshah we have a series of laws that deal with the issue of inclusion and exclusion. There are those that are to be excluded from the camp, the convert who has included himself in the Jewish people, the adulterous woman who has excluded herself but by means of drinking the holy water can prove her innocence and thus be re-admitted. Lastly, we have the Nazirite who chooses to separate himself from the community. It is instructive to examine more closely two of these instances that seem totally removed from each other but in fact are closely intertwined. The leper is sent totally out of the camp. Traditionally leprosy was seen as a punishment for slander. By his words the slanderer has sought to divide the community, placing one against the other. His punishment is therefore to himself be totally excluded from the life of the community. At the other end of the spectrum the Nazirite separates himself from the community for seemingly the best motives. He wishes to be stricter with himself and live on a higher level than everyone else. It is instructive therefore that, according to one opinion in the Talmud, the Nazirite has sinned by his action. In fact the Nazirite and the slanderer can both be said to share the same demeaning attitude towards the community. The slanderer regards himself as important and abrogates the right to belittle others. The Nazirite thinks that he is more frum than anyone else and so separates himself from the normal life of the community in order to pursue his own selfish spiritual goals while looking down and everyone else. Both demean the community, one directly and the other by implication. Slandering others is a terrible thing leading to dissension and hatred and severely damaging the community. But so is an abundance of self-righteousness, looking down on others and regarding yourself as the true guardian of religiosity. Both destroy communities and both are wrong.

Parshat Bamidbar

  1. The Parshah talks of the choice of the Levites to serve in the Tabernacle. One of the twelve tribes is taken and especially dedicated to the service of G-d. They are thus subject to additional obligations and privileges. On Shavuot we commemorate the choice of Israel as a 'Kingdom of Priests'. This choice also entailed additional duties and prerogatives. In the modern world, where equality is a supreme value, this 'choseness' is subject to question. What is the necessity for a special group of people to serve G-d? Surely everyone is equal in G-d's sight and should have the same opportunity to come close to Him? This question misunderstands both the role of the priest or the priestly nation and human nature. While spiritual equality sounds good in theory, the fact is that most people are more concerned with material things. Without a spiritual focal point people think of G-d only rarely and the Divine is in danger of being forgotten from the world. This, indeed, was the case before the advent of Abraham or indeed with the Jewish people themselves during the incident of the Golden Calf. Both a nation and the world need a group of people especially dedicated to the service of G-d. They serve as a living example of G-d's presence in the world and the upholders of spiritual values. By their conduct they should inspire others to improvement and be a motor of spiritual progress in the world. This is the function of the Levites in Israel and is the role of the Jewish people in the world. If we imagine a world where Jews had never existed we can see both the vital necessity and the inestimable contribution of a 'Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation'. 

Bereishit (Genesis) 5775

Parshat Vayelech

Especially at this time of the year the perennial debate about the role of children in the synagogue often takes place. The spectrum of opinion ranges between those that believe that children should be seen and not heard and if at all heard shouldn't be there at all and those who think it is wonderful to have the children running about in the middle of the service. Our Parshah makes an important contribution to this discussion. As mentioned below it contains the mitzvah of Hakhel. The Torah commands that everyone, including young children, be included in this gathering. In a quote attributed to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariya, the Talmud asks, what is the purpose of bringing the children. The answer given is, in order to accrue merit to those who bring them. This explanation can be understood in various ways. It could imply that by bringing their children to hear words of Torah the parents show their commitment to their Jewish education, was being worthy of commendation. Alternatively, the merit referred to could be that of actually succeeding in raising Jewishly committed children. By bringing them along from a young age they absorb the atmosphere of Torah and Jewish life, something that makes an important impression on them, and holds significance for the rest of their lives. Either way, the Torah firmly comes down on the side of wanting children in shule. It is unlikely that in the excitement of the Hakhel ceremony the youngsters brought were particularly quiet, so it is clear that the importance of bringing them outweighs the need for silence. Of course there is noise and noise and parts of the service that need more decorum than others. Nevertheless the attitude we should take is clear. At season of introspection and repentance we should perhaps reflect on the need to be a bit more tolerant towards some of the most important members of our community. 

Parshat Nitzavim

Moses ends his discourse to the Jewish people by presenting them with a choice between life and death. If they follow the Torah they will prosper but if they break G­d's covenant they will be ruined. Indeed, this Parshah is one of the main sources for the belief that we have free choice between good and evil and the ability to decide our own destiny by the decisions we make. This is, of course, one of the major themes of Rosh Hashanah and the days of penitence. One of the important choices that we make concerns our relation to the community. Are we involved or indifferent, active or apathetic? Especially, are we prepared to take responsibility for the impact our individual acts have on the welfare of the group. The Torah, earlier in the Parshah, presents us with a stark warning of the consequences that the actions of a few people can have on the whole nation. When warning the people of the dangers of idolatry Moses talks of the person who deludes himself that the covenant doesn’t apply to him. Firstly, he and his family will be punished, but the Torah then goes on to describe the devastation of the Land as witnessed by the visitor from afar. The commentators point out the message. One person by his actions can lead to disaster for the whole nation. His lack of civic responsibility did not only impact on himself but on the whole community. That is a potent lesson for us this Rosh Hashanah. How do we relate to the community? Do we only come along when it suits us depending on other people to support what we want, while not supporting what other people need? If we are unhappy with something do we try and change it or simply walk away? If we don't get our own way do we threaten to go elsewhere, or try and work with people of differing opinions for the good of everyone. How we answer these questions this year will determine the future of our community. As Moses put it, it's a matter of life or death.

Parshat Ki Tavo

The Parshah begins with the mitzvah of bringing Bikurim or First Fruits. When talking of the procedure for fulfilling this mitzvah, the Torah instructs that you should present the First Fruits to the priest 'that will be in your day'. Rashi explains this as indicating even if the priest in your day is not up to the standard of those in the past. The Ramban disagrees with this analysis. He contends that while that is an appropriate criterion for a judge or an elder who has to make critical judgements, it does not apply to a priest who only performs a ritual function. Instead, he explains that the statement enjoins the farmer not to bring with him a priest from his city or family but use the one available in the Temple. This discussion opens a fascinating insight into the different roles of leadership found in Judaism and can also inform our attitudes today. What the Ramban is in effect saying is that provided the priest is qualified for his role (from Aaron's descendants and not married to a divorcee ect..), his level of learning, religiosity or even morality does not come into play. He is merely there to fulfil a mechanical function prescribed by the Torah. Rashi seems to indicate that the quality of a priest really should matter, just that you have to make do with priests you have available in your time. In modern times we could talk of the standards required of a Rabbi or a Cantor. Few would dispute that the learning and moral qualities of a Rabbi are important to his function and a criterion for his selection. What Rashi and the Ramban would seem to discuss is whether this also applies to a Cantor. Do his moral qualities or learning matter or is it merely important that he be able to competently and melodiously lead the services. Jewish law equivocates on this question. The base line is that any Halakically qualified person can lead the services, irrespective of their other religious qualities. On the other hand, it is certainly recommended that the community chooses someone morally worthy, especially for the High Holy days. Maybe we conclude like Rashi than when it comes to leading us in prayer, virtue does matter, but we need to work with what we have.

Parshat Ki Tetze

Parshat Ki-Tetze contains the most mitzvot in the Torah. These mitzvot do not always seem to be in any particular order but in his commentary Rashi often provides a thematic connection between them. This is frequently in the form of a casual connection, one mitzvah or situation leading to another. This is often done in negative terms, one sin leading to another. For example, in discussing the case of the husband who accuses his bride of infidelity, the Torah begins by saying that he married her, hated her and then slandered her. Rashi comments that he began with the sin of hating and carried on to the offence of slander. Or linking the first three paragraphs of the Parshah: if you will marry a woman captured in war you will end up hating her and having a delinquent child. These linkages are easy to understand and ring true to life. Yet Rashi also links positive actions. For example, the Torah places the mitzvot of sending away the mother bird, building a parapet, not sowing fruit and seed together, not ploughing with an ox and ass together and not wearing linen and wool together, one after the other. On this Rashi comments that if you will send away the mother bird you will merit to have a house, vineyard, field and nice clothes. This causation is not the same as above where negative actions lead one into each other as a consequence of bad decisions. Here we are talking of the possibility to perform mitzvot occasioned by the acquisition of material goods. This consequence is more in the nature of a reward. It contains within an important teaching on our attitude to material possessions. Do we see them merely as means to our own aggrandizement and pleasure or also as tools for spiritual ends and the benefit of the less fortunate. The Torah in placing the mitzvot in this order comes, according to Rashi, to teach us a lesson. We may think that by spending our hard earned money or precious time on spiritual endeavours we will be worse off. The Torah promises that on the contrary we will be better off. By showing that we have a correct attitude to what we have, we merit to have more. Just as a bank will lend to someone who has a good credit record, G-d will enable those who use what He gives them properly, even more opportunity to do so in the future by increasing their wealth. We may think that by giving charity or spending our time helping others or the community we lose something. On the contrary, we end up gaining much more than we gave.

Parshat Shoftim

In the beginning of the Parshah, we are forbidden to erect a matzeva, which is 'hated by G-d'. A matzeva is a pillar (or a standing stone) that was worshipped or used for idolatry. The commentators deal with the statement that G-d hates them, which problematic because we find the Patriarchs erecting them. There are two main approaches to resolving this difficulty. Rashi and the Ramban hold the view that while these pillars were acceptable in the times of the patriarchs since the Canaanites used them for idolatry they became abhorred. The Seforno on the other hand takes a different approach. Rather than the Canaanites it was the Jews that served the Golden Calf and thus caused G-d to abhor sacrifices on most types of altars, leaving only a restricted category that could be used for serving G-d. Thus the blame for this mode of worship falling out of Divine favour is either that of the non-Jewish idolaters or of the Jews themselves. These two approaches raise an interesting question about how we deal with various negative changes that happen in our personal, communal or national life. Do we take the attitude that it is the fault of others and that everything was fine until they mucked it up. So Jews quite happily sacrificed on pillars until those wicked Canaanites caused them to be hated by G-d. Or was it our own falling from the standards of our ancestors that caused what was permitted to them to be forbidden to us. The difference between these two approaches is crucial. One conveniently shifts the blame onto someone else, absolving us of all responsibility. The other accepts that we are to blame for our own misfortune, enabling us to change our behaviour. How often do we hear a sermon or talk about an issue or problem and react not by self examination but by self-righteousness. We don't say this is referring to me and my behaviour but 'he's really giving it to so and so, its about time. That sort of attitude merely means that we will never change, are unable to improve and thus keep making the same mistakes. If we realise the fault lies with us, however, we can begin the process of rectifying the mistakes of the past and moving forward.

Parshat Re'eh

Our Parshah talks of the importance of sacrificing only at the central sanctuary. This is presented as a change from the existing practice where 'everyone did what was right in their eyes' and sacrificed on local altars. The Rabbis identified four main eras with regard to the laws of sacrifice. During the period of conquering and settling the Land it was permitted to offer voluntary sacrifices on local altars. During the period of the existence of a central sanctuary at Shilo it was only permitted to sacrifice there. After its destruction it was again permitted to use private altars but following the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem it became permanently forbidden to offer any sacrifices outside its precincts. The existence of these differing periods can have several explanations, some of them strictly practical. Yet there is a deeper ideology at work. The purpose of the central sanctuary is to promote both the oneness of G-d and the unity of the Jewish people. The ideal of a single G-d worshipped in one place by a united nation. Why then were their periods when private altars were permitted? The difference can lie in the underlying motivation for this practice. At a time when there was no central sanctuary as such, it was understandable for people to sacrifice privately. It signified no particular idealogical position but was merely a matter of geographical dispersion. During the existence of of a central place of worship, however, the continuation of sacrifice elsewhere symbolises a division within the covenantal community and even a rebellion against G-d. This distinction can be applied to later divisions within the Jewish people. On the one hand differences based on geographical dispersion such as that between Sefardim and Ashkenazim have contributed to the diversity of the Jewish people without damaging its essential unity. On the other, disputes based on idealogical differences, such as those between Hassidim and Mitnagdim or Orthodox and Reform are prejudicial to the integrity and survival of the Jewish people. One is acceptable and helpful while the other is objectionable and detrimental. In the Parshah the Torah sets out a vision of Jewish unity whose the disregarding of is threatening the future of the Jewish people.

Parshat Ekev

Our Parshah seems to contain within it an inherent contradiction. On the one hand large parts of the Parshah are devoted to the theme of reward and punishment. If the Jews observe the Torah they will be showered with blessings while if they stray after other gods they will merit destruction and exile. A good synopsis of this is found in the second paragraph of the Shema, where obedience brings rain in its season and prosperity while disobedience leads to drought and deportation. The corollary of this would seem to be that if things are going badly we are doing something wrong and need to examine our deeds while if we are peaceful and prosperous we must be doing something right. The central portion of the Parshah, however, comes to contradict exactly such an understanding. We are specifically warned against believing that our success or good fortune is down to our good deeds.  Indeed this can even be seen to be contained in a warning earlier in the Parshah. We are cautioned not to believe that 'my strength and the might of my hand achieved all this success'. While this is normally seen as referring to physical or mental prowess in can, in light of what follows, be seen also to attribute our attainments to our moral strength. In the Jewish scheme of things while misfortune should be a prompt to introspection and repentance, success is not a reason for feelings of moral superiority. G-d has His own plans for the Jewish people. As the Parshah points out good things may happen to us not because of our own worthiness but because of wider Divine considerations. While regarding misfortune as caused by bad behaviour enables us to improve our conduct, thinking that success is down to our superior morality is dangerous and arrogant. One leads to constant self-improvement while the other leads to a complacent self satisfaction that can blind us to our faults.  So, if things are going well don't think it's because you are so good. G-d may merely be tolerant.

Parshat Va'etchanan

'It's not for you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it'. So goes the famous dictum from the

Ethics of the Fathers. In other words, don't use the fact that you cannot finish all the task or undertaking as an excuse

to do nothing. This saying has its roots in our Parshah. The Torah tells us that Moses took the time before he died to

set aside three cities of refuge in Transjordan. Rashi explains that even though these cities would not become

operative until the other three were set up in Canaan, Moses attitude was that he would to what he could, even if it

didn't complete the job. It is specially relevant, and poignant, that it is Moses that teaches us this lesson. He is the

example par excellence of someone who was not allowed to complete what he saw as his mission and take the Jewish

people into the Promised Land. In this regard it is instructive to contemplate the continuation of this passage in the

Torah. It is told that Moses begins to expound the Torah to Israel and in this regard the geographical location is

delineated. It is again repeated that this was the land conquered from Sihon and Og and the boundaries of the are

defined, even though this was done earlier in the book. What is the point of this repetition? Maybe to teach us the same

lesson. Moses expounds the Torah in part of the Land of Israel, even though the Torah is designed to be operative in

the whole Land. Indeed, certain mitzvot don't necessarily apply in Trransjordan. Yet Moses regards what they have as

enough to build on. He doesn't take an all or nothing approach but is thankful for what has been achieved and works

with that, while hoping for the future completion of the mission. This lesson is especially relevant for us today, in the

era of a Jewish State. Zionism is faced with two extremes both of whom reject the present. Both the ultra­Orthodox

and the extreme right wing consider the present reality to be unacceptable. Unless we have the Messiah or the whole

land of Israel, what we have isn't acceptable. Yet Moses, and Zionist history, teaches us otherwise. The ability to take

what we have and build on it while not giving up on the original dream has been an essential ingredient in the

astonishing success of the Zionist movement. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have always rejected anything less

than everything and ended up with nothing. We should take heed. It is better to learn from the example of Moses than

that of Arafat.

Parshat Devarim

The original catastrophe of Tisha B'Av was the sin of the spies, which is reviewed in our Parshah. It thus can serve as a basis for understanding the root of other catastrophes and also situations today. A key addition to the story found in our Parshah is the contention by the Israelites that 'because G-d hated us' he took them out of Egypt to be killed by the Canaanites. There are two main interpretations of this extraordinary statement. Rashi comments that this is an inversion of the true situation. It was they that hated G-d but projected their feelings onto Him. The Seforno explains that the Jews believed that G-d truly hated them because they served idols in Egypt and took them out to revenge Himself on them. Both of these explanations describe psychological phenomena that have been present throughout Jewish history and persist today. They may be best described by the hackneyed cliché 'self-hating Jew', a designation that today normally describes those Jews opposed to Israel. The first group are those with a problem with their Jewish identity. They really hate being Jewish and would rather have been born otherwise but feel stuck with it. Like the Israelites who said that G-d hated them they attribute their loathing not to their own identity conflict but to the actions of other Jews, especially those of Israel. Anti-Zionism provides the perfect foil for expressing their own discomfort at being Jewish by 'respectably' attacking supposed bad Jewish behaviour. There is however another group, those who like the Israelites according to Seforno truly believe that they are hated because of their actions. The unrelenting attacks on Israel convince them that indeed Israel is the source of all the trouble and if only it would behave properly they could be left in peace. Both attitudes are not new in Jewish history and weaken our ability to face the threats facing us. Both fail to realise that, as Lord Sacks has succinctly put it, anti-Semitism is the fault of the anti-Semites not the Jews. Unlike our ancestors in the wilderness we need to have the confidence in our own cause and the faith in G-d to face these challenges. Thus we can repair the mistake of Tisha B'Av and bring the redemption. 

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