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Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5768
Succot is the most universalistic of the Jewish festivals. On it, famously, sacrifices were offered on behalf of all the nations of the world. What is it about this festival, however, that gives it its universalistic flavour. The key can be found in the Haftorot we read during the festival. At first glance that seems a rather strange proposition. On both the first day of Succot and on the intermediate Shabbat we read of the final cataclysmic battle preceding the messianic age, known in Hebrew as Gog u’Magog. Hardly guaranteed to express warm sentiments towards the non-Jewish world. Yet if we look closely a these two Haftorot, a different picture emerges. The Haftorah we read on Shabbat is taken from the book of Ezekiel and provides the most graphic description of this battle. Lots of blood and gore. Yet the end of the Haftorah tells us how G-d will command the Jews to provide a proper burial for their fallen enemies and how they meticulously do so. It provides an example of a concern for basic human dignity overcoming national boundaries and enmities. The Haftorah for the first day is even more concerned with the aftermath of this battle. The prophet Zechariah informs us that all the nations will come up to Jerusalem to the Temple on Succot, and those that don’t will be denied rain. Succot is, of course, the festival on which we pray for rain. Until now this has been the prerogative of the Jewish people, who have also prayed for the other nations. G-d now seems to extend this to all the world, providing for them the same system of reward and punishment connected to rainfall that we find in the Shema. In other words they, at least on Succot, become Jews. If we examine these two issues we can see that they relate to basic human needs. By burying the enemy dead the Jews show that fundamental human kindness can unite the world. The basic human necessity for water, and the realisation that we are dependant on G-d for our basic needs, also serves to bring the nations together. These themes of course are basic to Succot. The Succah teaches us to trust in G-d for our needs while the four species teach us the need for differing personalities and types to work together. These two ideas thus serve to make Succot an appropriate festival to emphasise our common humanity and interest with the other nations. Judaism is of course both a particularistic and universalistic faith. Sometimes we need to emphasise our difference. On Succot, however, we are reminded of our bond with and duty towards the whole of humanity.
Yom Kippur / Ha’azinu
A central part of the Afternoon Service on Yom Kippur is the reading of the Book of Jonah as the Haftorah. This book teaches us many important things but there are three lessons that are especially relevant to our personal lives, as we engage in a serious evaluation of our life on this day. The first lesson Jonah learns is that you cannot run away from your problems. Jonah seeks to put distance between himself and his issue with G-d, only to find that this difficulty chases after him. Problems cannot be escaped, they need to be faced up to and dealt with. The next experience that Jonah has, is of being imprisoned in a fish, where only prayer to G-d enables him to escape. He learns that he needs outside intervention to solve his difficulty. This is also an important idea to reflect upon. We often think we can solve all of our problems by ourselves, that we are emotionally or physically self-sufficient. But our Sages already warned us that ‘a prisoner cannot free himself from prison’. We all need others, and often only the help of another person, or turning to G-d, can lift us out of the hole we find ourselves in. Yet maybe the most important lesson of the book is that we are not alone. Jonah is taught, through the lesson of the gourd, that G-d cares for all His creatures, no matter how far they have fallen. The people of Nineveh may have been truly terrible, but G-d cared enough about them to send Jonah to save them, and immediately accepted and aided their attempt to change. We must never believe the lie that we are not important enough or too far gone to be helped. No one is beyond the care of G-d and everyone deserves and can get a second chance. These lessons are especially relevant to our young people. The shocking fact is that more young people, especially males, die of suicide than of any other cause, including car accidents. This Yom Kippur let us think of them and internalise and teach the important lessons of the Book of Jonah, in order that we truly can help those that need it and seal them and us for life.
Parshah Vayelech / Shuva
Even though Vayelech is the shortest Parshah in the Torah, it has much to discuss and be puzzled within it. Indeed, the whole last section of the Parshah raises interesting questions. After Moses has almost completed writing the Torah and commanded Joshua as to his task, G-d tells Moses to write a song. This is next week Parshah: Ha’azinu. G-d informs Moses that after his death the people will stray from G-d and terrible calamities will befall them. This song will then be a witness against them. Moses then repeats this message to the people before writing down the song contained in the next Parshah. How are we to understand this command? What is the purpose of telling people in advance that they are going to fail and then having on hand evidence against them as if to say: ‘I told you so’? Even if Moses needed to know, why tell the people? I think that the answers to these questions contain important insights into the process of Teshuvah, repentance, that we are meant to be currently engaged in. The people are informed that they are likely to fail. Moses expresses his certainty that after his death they will go astray. This indeed can be disheartening. But it can also be seen as a challenge. The Jewish people now have to show their great leader he was wrong and that they can remain loyal to G-d. Indeed, even though Moses stated they would sin ‘after his death’, the Bible tells us that they remained loyal to G-d not only in the time of his successor but also in the time of ‘the elders that lengthened their days after Joshua’. The possibility of failure is not always an impediment to change. It can also be a spur. And temporary success can also be valuable. Yet there is an even deeper message contained in this section. The song is written not for that generation or even for the generation of the destruction, but for those that come after. G-d is playing a long game. He knows, and indeed states, that this generation or their immediate descendants is not up to the task. Yet Moses is to write his song for their descendants, the ones who will read it and because of it make a revolution in Jewish life, returning to G-d and His Torah. This is indeed what happened in the time of Ezra. Seven hundred years after Moses, his words had the desired effect. This teaches us, also, to be patient. Even if we may not see an immediate effect in our or others lives, by seeking to return to G-d during this period we may cause ripples of change whose reach we cannot even imagine.
The central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah, is the blowing of the Shofar. If we take a closer look at some of the laws of this mitzvah we can gain some interesting insights. The first thing to note, is the blessing we say before performing the mitzvah. Rather than saying G-d commanded us ‘to blow the shofar’ we say ‘to listen to the sound of the shofar’. The mitzvah is therefore to listen rather than perform. If we wish to change our lives, the Torah is hinting to us, we have to stop always blowing our own trumpet and listen to what others have to tell us, even if it sometimes contains not only the tekiah of praise but the teruah of criticism. Often others can see what we cannot and provide valuable insights into our own behaviour. Yet this command to listen also comes with a health warning. The commentators puzzled over the fact that while the mitzvah is to listen to the shofar, we only fulfil the commandment if we hear the shofar sounds from someone obligated in the mitzvah. A child, for example, cannot blow the shofar for adults. It appears that what we listen to must be blown by a proper person. This seeming paradox teaches us an important lesson. While it is important to listen to the advice of others, it is also vital to be aware of where the advice is coming from. Is the criticism designed to help or hurt. What personal or ideological motivations lie behind the message of the person we are listening to. While it is important to be open to the opinion of others it is also necessary to be discerning to whom one pays heed. The key to this balancing act can also be found in some other rules concerning the shofar. While all shofarot are kosher it is preferable on Rosh Hashanah to take a bent or curved one. This is because the more bowed one is on this day of judgement the better. On this day we are enjoined to put our ego to one side and be a bit humble Above all we need to be honest and look beyond the obvious. ‘all shofar sounds are kosher’, even if not aesthetically pleasing but even a beautiful deer’s antler is not a kosher shofar. We need to look beyond outward appearances and learn to judge others as G-d judges us, from the inside. Then we can truly grow during these days of introspection and return.
As we contemplate the events of the last few weeks, an interesting feature of our Parshah seems to resonate. Moses, sealing the covenant between G-d and Israel before his death, spells out the consequences of rejecting it. The individual might think that they can ignore the warnings about breaking the covenant saying: ‘peace will be with me’ or in modern parlance ‘I’ll be alright mate’. The Torah warns against such dangerous complacency, threatening that person and his family with extinction. Yet, as the commentators point out, the Torah then goes on to describe a ruined land devoid of its inhabitants, that will excite astonishment in all who see it. It would seem that one person sins and the whole land is destroyed! In the light of recent events, however, we can more readily comprehend what the Torah is getting at. Here we have an individual that knows that he is taking a risk. He is aware of the danger that lies in wait and the possible consequences of his action. Yet he carries on nonetheless, believing that he can get away with it, that it will be alright for him. When it all goes wrong, however, it affects not only the person concerned but also his family and eventually the whole nation. His personal irresponsibility, and that of those like him, brings the whole national edifice crashing down. One person’s blatant disregard for the moral norms can ultimately lead to the destruction of the nation. This is, of course, exactly what we are currently facing. The present financial crisis is not some natural disaster but the consequences of the greed and irresponsibility of the banks and other financial institutions. Disregarding the rules of probity or even common sense, these bankers convinced themselves that they good get away with taken unconscionable risks, deluding themselves that it would all come up roses. Of course it did not and, as the Torah warns us, their actions have first brought down their ‘families’, the financial institutions, and threaten the rest of us with disaster. It is therefore still pertinent and urgent to heed the warning contained in this Parshah. Individuals must not be allowed to act in ways that threaten all of us, and future regulation must ensure that those who irresponsibly bless themselves don’t end up cursing the rest of us.
At the beginning of this week’s Parshah, we find the declaration to be pronounced when the Jew brings the offering of first-fruits to the Temple. The first four lines of this declaration are, of course, well known to us from the Passover Hagadah, where their historical synopsis forms the basis of our exposition on the story of the Exodus. At the beginning of this section we find a strange phenomenon. We state that: ‘arami oved avi’, the plain meaning of being, that a wandering Aramean was our father, either referring to the journeys of Abraham or , more probably Jacob, leading to the descent to Egypt. This is the opinion of most of the commentators. Yet Rashi, following the Sages, translates that ‘an Aramean sought to destroy my father’, referring to Laban’s pursuit of Jacob, and it is this exposition that we are familiar with from the Hagadah. How are we to explain this violence to the plain meaning of the text and is there some connection between the two explanations? The link between them is of course the Hebrew word oved, which basically means to be lost. One can be lost by wandering from the path or from home and one can lose ones life by being killed. How then did the Rabbis see the action of Laban as causing Jacob to be lost? Jacob was on his way back home after spending twenty years in Laban’s household. He fled without telling Laban, precisely because he feared Laban would try and stop him leaving. Thus Laban’s main purpose was to prevent Jacob returning to Israel and his destiny. This the Rabbis saw as seeking to totally destroy him by causing him, as it were, to wander from his Divine path. Thus the two meanings of oved actually converge in the explanation of our Sages. By being caused to wander from G-d’s path we are essentially destroyed. These same Rabbis saw both the physical destruction of the Jewish state and the attempted spiritual genocide of Judaism during the Hadrianic persecutions. They thus understood the full evil of Laban’s scheme. Indeed, throughout history our enemies have tried both methods: trying to cause us to lose our physical existence by killing us outright or our spiritual destiny, by causing us to wander from the path of the Torah. The person bringing the first-fruits thus thanks G-d for bothpreserving the Jewish people physically and spiritually. Let us pray that this year G-d keeps us from both physical and spiritual loss, so we can return home from our wanderings to His Torah and Land.
On the law of returning lost objects, found in this week’s Parshah, the Rabbis make an interesting comment. On the instruction that you should look after such an object ‘until your brother requests it’, they question: ‘and how should you return it if he doesn’t ask’? In other words the instruction appears to be redundant. Rather, they say, this means that you should ask questions of the person requesting its return in order to make sure that he is not lying. If we connect this comment with the warning of the Torah not to ignore or pretend not to see, a lost object, we can come to some interesting moral and practical conclusions. The Torah commands us to have our wits about us and not to walk about in a daze. A moral person is not one who lives in some hermitage, physical or mental, that isolates them from the world outside. It is not someone who is always on such a high spiritual or intellectual plane that they don’t notice what is going on under their noses. Rather, a moral person, in the Torah’s estimation, is someone who is acutely aware of their surroundings and sensitive to the nuances of the real world. The law of returning lost objects teaches this in two different aspects. The first is contained in the command not to turn a blind eye, repeated in several places in the Torah. We are forbidden to live our lives in ignorance or disdain for the problems or needs of others. We cannot simply pretend not to see what is going on around us, because it doesn’t personally concern us or is distasteful and we would rather not know. Rather we are enjoined to take notice and act accordingly, as our ability and means allow. Yet the Torah, in this section, also warns us against another pitfall. We must search out the true owner of the object and not simply rely on everyone being honest. We are not allowed to be naive. We must be aware of the true nature of the world we live in, where not everyone is totally honest and not everything can be believed. We must go beyond the outward appearance of people or organisations, and try and discern what they really are about. Thus the Torah in this law gives us a sensible moral compass for living. Be aware of what is happening and use that awareness to act to help others. But do so with discernment that supports those truly in need.
Three mitzvot were Israel commanded upon entering the Land: ‘to establish a monarchy, exterminate Amalek and build the Temple’. Thus the Talmud comments on the command found in this week’s Parshah to ‘place upon you a king’. This statement needs some elucidation. There are surely many other mitzvot that only apply in the Land and only were applicable once the people entered the Land, yet these three are singled out. Furthermore they come as a package, one being dependent on the other, and the Talmud establishes a strict order among them. The Jews must first establish a monarchy, then exterminate Amalek and only then build the Temple. What is the meaning behind these statements? These three mitzvot can be seen as essential prerequisites for the ultimate establishment of Israel as a holy people in a holy land, serving as a light to the nations. Upon this journey there are various steps. Firstly, there must be established strong leadership with a clear vision that can unite the people around their sacred task. Afterwards, an uncompromising struggle must be waged with those who are the implacable enemies of Israel and inimical to their Divine mission. Only after these two missions have been accomplished can the Temple, the permanent abode of the Divine presence on earth, be built. We thus have a clear program for building Jewish national existence, and it begins with the mitzvah found in our Parshah: the establishment of a monarchy. Why is a king considered essential for the fulfilment of Israel’s mission? Why does it form the building block upon which the other goals are achieved? I believe the answer lies in one word: vision. It is the person of the monarch, at the pinnacle of national leadership, that provides the strategic, long term vision necessary to progress the nation towards its ultimate goals. Both the rooting out of Amalek and the building of the Temple, need a long term commitment, a strategic vision that eschews short term expediency. For Israel to achieve its full potential it must know where it is going and have the stamina for a long and difficult journey. That was the role of the monarch and that is what we lack today. Whether in the political or religious spheres and in both Israel and the Diaspora, we lack leadership with vision. We are afflicted with short term expediency and lack strategic planning. We desperately need the long term view that the Torah postulates. We need a king. Anyone looking for a job?
In repeating the prohibition of consuming blood in this week’s Parshah, the Torah uses an interesting formulation: ‘Only be strong not to eat the blood’. This unusual emphasis is the subject of a dispute between two talmudic sages. Rabbi Judah maintains that eating blood was common among the Israelites at that time, therefore the Torah had to especially warn them against transgressing this prohibition. Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai takes the opposite point of view. If the Torah emphasises the necessity of observing the prohibition against blood, which is easy, as people generally recoil from eating it; how much more so must we careful to observe the other mitzvot. We can see in this discussion something more than a mere historical dispute concerning the dietary preferences of our ancestors. Underlying the two opinions is a possibly fundamentally different approach to the observance of the Torah. According to Rabbi Judah, the Torah is generally easy to keep. It is something natural for the Jewish people to keep the mitzvot and not an overly cumbersome burden. Therefore, in the case of not consuming blood, which is more difficult owing to previous dietary predilections; the Torah has to especially encourage and warn them. Not so, holds Rabbi Shimon. The Torah is not easy at all. It is hard to keep the mitzvot and requires a constant struggle. Therefore, the Torah has to warn us even about an easy mitzvah, like not eating blood, which people anyway don’t normally do. These two viewpoints concerning our relationship to the Torah are found throughout Torah literature and influence everything from Halakhic decisions to educational policy. Do people need to be coerced into doing something they won’t do naturally or merely encouraged to find their real self? How high do the walls protecting the Torah have to be and how much can we trust the natural moral instinct of the Jewish people? These are disputes that have resonated throughout Jewish history, from Moses’ time to ours. There is of course no final answer, for as the old saying goes, both opinions are right. Therefore, as we enter the month of Elul, we should realise that sometimes we do need a bit of a push in our observance, but to also strive to reach the level where the Torah comes naturally.
This week’s Parshah seems to meander a bit. On the one hand it continues Moses’ introduction to the restatement of the mitzvot in which exhorts the people to be faithful to G-d’s teaching. He also, however, digresses into a lengthy reminiscence of the story of the Golden Calf. The Parshah also includes praise for the Land of Israel and the second paragraph of the Shema. Is there an over arching theme to this section of the Torah? A clue may be given in the comment by the Rabbis, quoted by Rashi, on the very first verse: ‘ And as a consequence (Ekev) of you listening..’. Commenting on the word Ekev, which normally means heel, they state that these are the small details that a person may walk over without realising it. If we examine this more deeply, we can see that Moses is here making an important statement. In his great oration he calls on the people to love and fear G-d and keep His commandments. He sets out important and basic values and high ideals. Yet at the beginning, he reminds us that these values must find expression in our every day lives. It is in the concretisation of these ideals in details that they are able to effect society. If values remain in the realm of philosophy then they can have little or no effect in practice. The example Moses brings is that of the sin of the Golden Calf. G-d reveals Himself to Israel and states the values they should live by. Moses the ascends the mountain to receive the tablets. But while he is in an idealised state above them, the people turn to idolatry as if they had never heard G-d’s revelation. It is significant that G-d tells Moses to ‘go down’, to leave his idealised state and bring the Torah to the people. After the incident of the Golden Calf, the people are instructed to make the Tabernacle and the tribe of Levi are appointed to administer it. A specific detailed embodiment of the Divine ideal is to be run by a specific group of people. The values of the Torah are to be brought down to earth and made real in specifics. This too is found in the Land of Israel. Divine holiness is embodied in the very soil and our specific behaviour leads to specific climatic results: rain will fall or otherwise, according to our observance of the Torah. This Parshah is thus teaching us an important lesson. Ideals are all very well, but unless they are embodied in details and structures, they can float above, while the people sin below. Ekev teaches us that the highest values must also be found in the smallest details.
A strange aspect of this week’s Parshah, is the interposition of a historical note in the midst of Moses’ speech. This section relates that Moses set aside three cities of refuge in Transjordan. The commentators puzzle over this insertion and its relation to the rest of the Parshah. Some see it as a historical sequence: Moses set aside these cities at the time he started on his exposition of the mitzvot, found in the rest of the Parshah. Others reject this assertion as farfetched and posit a thematic connection with what comes before and after. Having just exhorted the people to follow G-d and observe His commandments, Moses leads by personal example, setting aside three cities for of refuge as commanded at the end of Numbers. Even though they would not come into operation until the conquest of the rest of the Land and the establishment of three cities in western Israel, Moses took the opportunity to do what he could. This understanding of the text provides us with important religious lessons. Firstly, it shows the importance of leadership by example. It is not enough for religious leaders to simply exhort or even educate their flock in the ways of G-d. They must show by their own behaviour how a religious person is meant to live. Personal example provides the best moral education. Moses also teaches us another important lesson. He knows that he will not cross into the Land and thus will not be able to complete the mitzvah of establishing cities of refuge. Yet he does what he can, trusting that others will complete the work. Judaism does not require us to be perfect, neither to do what is beyond our capability. It does require us to do what we can and to observe and perform what is within our grasp. We are not allowed to use the excuse that we cannot perfectly observe everything to observe nothing. A corollary of this is the understanding that sometimes we cannot achieve all we wish. We are not G-d and cannot single-handedly save the world. Some things may indeed be beyond our grasp. That does not mean we should despise or despair of what we have. That does not mean that what we do have or achieve is worthless. It after all takes seven full weeks to go from the despair of Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. Yet each stage by itself is important and brings us closer to the ultimate goal.
The book of Deuteronomy is different from the rest of the Torah. While the other four books are regarded as the direct word of G-d, Deuteronomy is the speech of Moses; given with Divine approval. The book’s traditional Hebrew name is Mishneh Torah, or the repetition of the Torah. It is an exposition of what is in the rest of the Torah. It consists not only of historical reminiscences and moral exhortations, but of mitzvot. Some of these are restatements of laws found earlier; some new laws designed for the settlement in the Land. In, this way, Deuteronomy can be seen as a exposition of the Torah, restated and reinterpreted for the new generation. To a certain extent Deuteronomy is thus the beginning of a tradition of Torah exegesis that culminated in the Talmud, Moses being the first Rabbi. The inclusion of this book in the Torah, thus teaches us the importance of interpreting and explaining the Torah to each new generation, as Moses did for the children of those that experienced the original revelation on Sinai. As he explained the mitzvot to his generation in light of their impending entrance to the Land, so to must those who follow in his footsteps to their generation. In this respect, it is interesting to note that Moses begins and ends his introductory historical overview with the issue of leadership. He begins by recounting the appointment of judges to administer and interpret the Torah. He ends, at the beginning of next week’s Parshah, by being refused entry to the Land and having to appoint Joshua as his successor for the new generation. This also has much to teach us. It is not only the interpretation of the Torah that must be suited to each generation but also those doing the interpreting. Moses had finished his mission on the borders of the promised land, and it was now for Joshua to carry forward the message to a new generation in new conditions. A Rabbi needs not only to understand the Torah but to understand his generation. The greatest scholar that fails to perceive the needs of his time and place, may make decisions that lead to disaster. That, indeed, is the lesson that cries out to us from the stories surrounding the destruction of the Temple. Great sages who failed to understand the situation, led the Jewish people into tragedy. That is a lesson we should heed today. We need great Torah scholars. But above all we need sages that understand our generation and can, like Moses, make the Torah newly relevant to us.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 5768
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 bear 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.
Our Parshah opens with the subject of vows and vowing. A vow is a promise, normally to G-d, to do something or refrain from doing something. As such it is to be taken very seriously indeed. The first lines of our Parshah warn us not to profane our word by breaking it. Yet the rest of this section seems to undermine this lesson, dealing with ways of getting out of a vow. Either a father or husband can annul a vow, as can a Sage or a Beit Din. Indeed the annulment of vows has become part of the ritual of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. How are we to explain this paradox; either our word is sacred and inviolable or it is not. The fact is, that the Torah doesn't really approve of vows. In the same section of Deuteronomy that it warns us against breaking our word, it reminds us that if we don’t vow at all it will not be held against us. G-d does not need our vows. It is possible to do good or to show gratitude to G-d, without making rash promises. Indeed, in the case of the Nazirite vow, the Torah seems to indicate that the person has sinned by making such a promise. It is possible to surmise that the Torah thinks that a person making a vow may have a psychological problem, a spiritual deficiency that causes them to want to promise something not required of them. For this reason, the Torah requires the person who later regrets their vow to go to a Sage to have it annulled. The Sage can only do this by examining the motivations of the person who made the vow, seeking an opening to declare that if the person had realised the ramifications of his words, they would not have vowed in the first place. This is in some ways similar to a person going to a professional for counselling. Though he may come presenting one problem, the counsellor seeks the deeper motivations and problems that are causing them to seek help. We can now also understand while the annulment of vows occupies such a prominent place in the liturgy of the High Holidays. This is a period of repentance and introspection. By seeking to have our vows annulled, we are not only repenting for our rash statements but examining the problematic motivations that caused us to make them. We can therefore see that the possibility of annulling vows is not in contradiction to the Torah’s concern with the power of speech but an essential part of it. By causing us to thoroughly examine why we speak the way we do, we learn how to use our power of speech better in the future.
At the beginning of this week’s Parshah, G-d instructs the Israelites to attack the Midianites, a command that is carried out in next week’s Parshah. The reason given for this attack is the damage caused to the Jews by the Midianites during the episode of Peor, related at the end of last week‘s Parshah. In this explanation, Bilaam is also given the blame for this incident, and is later killed for his part in it. This reasoning needs closer examination. Neither Bilaam or the Midianites physically harmed the Jewish people. In one case they seduced some of them and induced them to serve idols. In the other, Bilaam sought to curse them and gave advice to others how to hurt them. Yet the Torah finds them guilty of causing real harm to the Israelites and commands that they be severely punished. This teaches us an important lesson. Propaganda, creating an impression about someone or leading people astray, can be just as effective, and just as damaging, as actual physical harm. Its effects are often more pernicious and longer lasting. Those who engage in it are just as guilty and deserving of punishment as those who commit actual acts of violence. This was underscored by the conviction at Nuremberg of Julius Streicher, the editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer. He was convicted of crimes against humanity even though he neither personally killed, or ordered killed, a single Jew. Neither was he even in a position to do so. Yet, the prosecutor contended and the judges agreed, he was just as guilty of genocide as the others, because he made it possible. His vicious defamation of the Jews influenced those who carried out the killing and gave them the moral and psychological justification for doing so. This lesson should not be lost on us today. What is said about Jews and Israel in the media is in some ways more important than the occasional actual anti-Semitic attack. It is the former that makes the latter possible. The war being fought to defame and delegitimise Israel is just as real and vital as that being fought by terrorists. We, therefore, have a duty not to dismiss it as irrelevant but to fight against it whenever and however we can. Judaism has never accepted that ‘words can’t hurt you’. Jews know that words can hurt and can and do kill.
The purpose of the story of Balak is not entirely clear. What did it matter whether Bilaam cursed Israel or not, when G-d makes clear to him that they are already irrevocably blessed? The Midrash, quoted byRashi, seems to hint at this point when it asks why G-d deigned to prophesy through a wicked person like Bilaam. The answer is fascinating. It postulates that G-d gave the gift of prophecy to the non-Jews, so they could not complain that because of the lack of G-d’s word they were not righteous. The midrash goes on to point out the negative uses to which Bilaam, and by implication the other nations, put this gift. If we look somewhat deeper at this midrash and widen its implications, we can see that it has relevance to the rise of Christianity and Islam, and our relations with them. Both religions have stemmed from Judaism and taken as their basis the Divine revelation to Israel. Christianity took over our scriptures wholesale, while the Koran is largely based both on the Hebrew Bible and on its Rabbinic interpretation. Yet both those religions have not only changed the meaning of our sacred texts but also used our own scriptures to denigrate and demonise us. Indeed, from the point of view of Jewish self interest, it would have been better for these two religions never to have come about. We had far less problems with the pagans, who at least were generally tolerant. Yet G-d had other plans. Just as, in the case of Bilaam, G-d didn’t hide His revelation from him, even though He knew it would be misused; so G-d enabled the emergence of religions based on His word, even though He knew they would abuse the privilege. From the point of view of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are an improvement on paganism, despite the terrible consequences their success has had for our wellbeing. Both religions will, at the end of time, be severely punished by G-d for the harm they have inflicted on G-d’s people and for their base ingratitude towards us. Yet it was still important, from the Divine perspective, for other nations to have a chance at hearing and following G-d’s revelation. This should inform our attitude to these faiths. While deploring their past and, often present, hostility towards us, we should recognise them as expressions of G-d’s love for all mankind and His wish that they all should ultimately hear His word. Meanwhile, we hope, as in the case of Bilaam, for their curses to be turned into blessings.
One of the major religious or spiritual questions that people contemplate, is why bad things happen to good people. In Jewish theology this question is made more pointed by the idea that bad things often happen davkah to good people, or to be exact, are more likely to happen to the righteous than the wicked. The source for this rather strange idea, is the notion, found in rabbinical literature, that G-d is more exacting with a righteous person than with anyone else. The better you are, the more likely it is you will pay for your mistakes. A classic formulation of this, is Amos’ famous statement that ‘you alone have I known of the nations; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities’. A classic example of this principle in action is, of course, the punishment of Moses and Aaron over the incident at Merivah. Their exact offence is so unclear that the commentators go to great lengths to try and explain it, with each one coming up with a different idea. The punishment seems totally out of proportion to any sin they may have committed, yet G-d consistently refuses to commit it. It would appear that we have a clear example of the above principle in operation. Yet how do we explain such an idea? Normally people are more lenient with their family than with others, why is G-d more harsh with those who love Him than with those who despise Him? The answer lies in the nature of Divine love and Divine punishment. G-d understands that the highest gift he can give us is moral responsibility, which includes bearing the consequences of our mistakes. Divine, punishment is designed, not for retribution, but for education; both for ourselves and others. When a great person is held up to a higher standard it is a lesson not only to that individual, but to the whole of society. The more ability or knowledge you have, the more that is expected of you. When G-d is stricter with a righteous person, He is showing His love for that person, by expecting more of them, and thus enabling them to reach their moral potential. When we make excuses for people who can do better, we actually let them down, denying them the possibility of improvement. The Divine system of justice, though it may superficially seem to be unfair, is actually, in the long run, far more beneficial.
The rebellion of Korach really comprised two rebellions: one of the Levites and one of the Reubenites. These two revolts had distinct causes and arguments, though a single aim; to undermine the authority of Moses. The Levites, or Korach’s faction, were upset and not being given the status of priests. They contended that the whole nation was holy and G-d was among them and therefore Moses had no right to religious leadership. The tribe of Reuben were disaffected by the failure, as they saw it, of Moses to fulfil his promise and lead them into the Land. The fact that their generation was condemned to die in the wilderness was seen as Moses’ fault, and therefore he should be replaced. Do these two contentions have anything in common? One argues for spiritual egalitarianism, while the other for political accountability. Both place the power with the people, a seemingly laudable aim. Yet herein lies the problem. Both these ideas, if not nipped in the bud by severe Divine action, would have fatally undermined the future of Judaism and the Jewish people. Korach contends that all the people are holy, all heard G-d’s voice on Mt Sinai and therefore all are equal in the interpretation of the Torah. There is no need for a Moses or a Rabbi Akiva. Yet traditional Judaism says something different. All have the possibility of being able to become interpreters of the Torah but only through the acquisition of sufficient knowledge and thus authority. This is very far from Korach’s essentially Protestant contention that each individual has the right to interpret Scripture according to their conscience. This would have lead, as it did it Protestant Scotland and elsewhere, to a proliferation of interpretation and practice that would have made a united Judaism in exile impossible. The Reubenite’s proposal of political accountability is also problematic. Because Moses has appeared to fail, he must go. His ideas had been proved wrong by history and should die in the sands of the desert along with the generation they had condemned. This short-sighted contention would have fatally undermined trust in G-d and the ability of the people to endure adversity. It is our belief that we will ultimately triumph despite historical setbacks, that has made the Jews an eternal people. Both these ideas are still around today and are just as dangerous. We, like Moses, must reject them and believe in our ultimate vindication, when all will admit that Moses is true and his Torah is true.
The spies are sent by Moses to reconnoitre the Land and bring back a accurate and dispassionate report. Instead they give a highly coloured opinion, emphasising their own weakness and their enemies strength. If we look at the basic source of this failure, we can see it in the fact that they compare themselves unfavourably to the inhabitants of the land. Rather than merely reporting that the people were of large stature, they declare that ‘we were as grasshoppers in their sight’. They thus subsume their own identity and own strength to that of their enemies, causing them to make a fatal strategic error. This is a common problem. Often, rather than concentrating on our own strengths and personality, we insist on constantly comparing ourselves to others. This, for the last two centuries, has been a major problem in the traditional or ‘Orthodox’ Jewish world. The rise of the Reform movement caused traditional Judaism to define itself in contrast to it. Too often this has meant defining what we are not, rather than what we are and acting in order to counter the other, rather than out of our own conviction. Nowhere has this constant comparison to Reform been more pernicious and damaging, than in the realm of Halakhah. The Halakhic system has been undermined by referral to the practices of the Reform movement as a basis for prohibition, rather than true Halakhic norms. Rabbis have objected to women saying kaddish or holding prayer services, not on the basis that they are inherently forbidden, but on the fear of ‘imitating the reformers’. This is a weak argument, that actually serves to undermine the integrity of the tradition it seeks to defend. This is not, however, a new problem in Judaism. Our Sages outlawed various things as being the ‘ways of the Amorite’ or non-Jewish religious practice or superstition. Looking at the Halakhic literature we see that some tried to outlaw certain things, such as decorating the synagogue with greenery on Shavuot, for example, because the non-Jews did it. Yet the majority of authorities rejected this view, holding that if Jews have their own reason for doing something, the fact the non-Jews also do it is irrelevant. We should do what is right and Halakhically correct, irrespective of what anyone else does. That is true traditional Judaism.
This week we read how the Children of Israel kept Pesach in the wilderness on the 14th of Nisan of the second year. This is earlier than the census that was recorded at the beginning of the book, which took place on the 1st of Iyar. In answering the question why the Torah waits until now to inform us of the event, Rashi quotes the midrash to the effect that this was to hide the shame of Israel, who kept only this Pesach but no other, during their sojourn in the wilderness. Yet there is a problem with this explanation. The reason that the Jews did not keep Pesach in the wilderness, as given by the book of Joshua for example, was that the new generation were not circumcised, thus disqualifying them from bringing the Pesach sacrifice. And the reason for not being circumcised, say the Rabbis, was that it was dangerous to circumcise in the conditions of travel in the wilderness. In that case, what was the shame of following the Torah’s injunction to put life above even keeping most of the mitzvot? The Ramban, who feels this difficulty, gives a fascinating explanation. The shame was in the fact that they had to wander in the wilderness for forty years as a consequence of the sin of the spies. It was their rebellion that caused them to be punished in this manner, thus rendering it impossible for them to circumcise their sons and so keep Pesach. This is a wonderful psychological and moral insight into human responsibility. We often hear the use of duress as a mitigating factor in non-observance of the Torah. Indeed, the Halakhah itself recognises coercion as a reason for exemption. Yet the Ramban asks us to not let ourselves off so lightly. It may be that we are presently unable to observe this or that mitzvah because of circumstance. But if that circumstance is the cause of our choices or failings, then we cannot claim to be totally not responsible for our non-observance. A classic case is Maimonidies’ instructions to a group of Jews living under a coercive Moslem regime. While he presently absolves them from responsibility for their outward conformity to Islam, he requires them to leave that country as soon as practicable. They cannot choose to stay in such a situation and then claim to be acting under duress. These comments require us to examine our own excuses for non-observance. Are they really the consequence of circumstance or the result of choices we have made and which we can and should change for the better.
Parshah Naso / Shavuot
As we again celebrate the Giving of the Torah, and the covenant between G-d and Israel, we should reflect on a basic component of that event. When G-d wanted the Jews to receive the Torah, He asked them whether they wished to accept it. The freely replied in the affirmative, and it is that which is the basis of the agreement between them. While the Torah has coercive elements, it is, in the final instance based on the free choice of the individual. It is interesting, in this regard, that we always read on the Shabbat close to Shavuot, the details of the donations of the Princes at the dedication of the Tabernacle. These gifts, which are basically the same for each Prince, are seemingly superfluously, repeated twelve times for each Prince. Yet there is an important message in this repetition. Each Prince had to choose of his own free will to bring his offering, so each offering was as in fact separate and different. Only that individual could make that choice. We are thus reminded, during the period of Shavuot, of the importance of free will in acceptance of the Torah. This is especially important in the modern world where, as many great rabbis have recognised, coercion is no longer appropriate. Yet this is often the way the Torah is presented and acted upon, with dire consequences. This can be seen in some religious communities where coercion is the norm. One only has to go to a restaurant in Jerusalem, or walk down the main street, to see youth from these communities behaving in ways considered inappropriate by their parents and teachers, and certainly without their knowledge. Yet the consequences are far worse. The levels of drug abuse and youth delinquency of these communities are among the highest in Israel. This is a direct consequence of the coercive environment in which they live. Forced into a lifestyle they do not want and are often unsuited to, they go off the rails. Denied choice, they choose the worse options. Yet the implications are far wider. It often seems that the message of coercion permeates the whole message of Torah emanating from religious institutions. Whether concerning conversion, Shabbat observance or the Sabbatical year, the aim seems to be to force people to conform to the Torah, whether or not they want to. This of course merely alienates Jews from their heritage. The message of Sinai is that Jews must be allowed to chose to keep the Torah, rather than being beaten into it. This Shavuot, we must rediscover the voice of G-d proclaiming: ‘let my people go so they can serve me!’.
The middle of our Parshah is taken up with the exchange of the firstborn with the Levites. The Firstborn, whom G-d acquired title to when He saved them from the death of their Egyptian contemporaries, lose the duty of serving in the Tabernacle and their place is taken by the Levites. According to Jewish tradition, this was a consequence of the sin of the Golden Calf, in which the Firstborn participated, while the Levites stood aloof. One can, however, see in these two groups, two models of religious and communal leadership, each of which has its positive and negative points. The priesthood of the Firstborn is leadership from within the community. All families with firstborn sons provide them to the tabernacle to serve G-d and instruct the people. In turn, not all their children are firstborn, so they return to their family origins. There is thus a continual bond between the Priesthood and society, and movement between them. This while making the religious leadership more responsive to society also opens it up to corruption by it, as seen in the participation by the Firstborn in worshipping the Golden Calf. Indeed, this was the system of the Catholic priesthood in the middle ages which led to widespread corruption, becoming a major spur for the Reformation. The appointment of a whole tribe as priests, as in the case of the Levites, avoids some of these shortfalls. They are in many ways separate from society, and as such can be the guardians of its morals and values. They can stand aloof from passing fashions, such as the Golden Calf. Yet this system, of leadership distinct from the general community, has its own shortcomings. It can lead to snobbery and class distinction, causing a rift between the society and its religious leadership, which in itself can lead to abuses. This is indeed what happened to the Priesthood at the end of the Second Temple period. Yet the Torah provides a correction to this problem by having both types of leadership. The Levites, distinct from society, are ritual leaders, serving in the Temple. The Judges, and later Rabbis, are the educational leadership, stemming from society. It is they, whose position is based on merit, not inheritance, that eventually became the true guardians of Torah and spiritual leaders of the Jewish people.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 5768
At the end of the ‘reproof’ section, that forms the bulk of our Parshah, G-d promises that even when the Jewish people have been sent into exile He will not abandon them. Despite the serious sins that have lead to their plight and the terrible punishments detailed in the Parshah, G-d promises to uphold the covenant. A similar promise is found at the end of the Torah. Yet, this is on reflection, strange and illogical. A covenant is an agreement, in this case between G-d and Israel. An agreement is normally binding on both sides and if one side breaches the agreement, various consequences can follow. Usually a serious or substantial breach of contact results in the agreement becoming null and void and, whatever the compensation required of the guilty party, no longer binding the other side. Yet in the covenant between G-d and Israel we have an agreement that was breached by the Jewish people in the most fundamental way, yet G-d still promises to honour it. How are we to understand this anomaly? An answer may lie in the second part of the Parshah that deals with the dedication of objects to the Temple. The Torah mandates that if someone donates an animal it is not possible to exchange it, even if it is to swap a lesser animal for a better one. If the person donating the animal does so, both become holy. Why should this be so, even in a case where the Temple benefits by getting a better animal? The simple answer is that the moment that a person sanctifies an animal by donating it to the Temple, it becomes holy. The name of G-d is now associated with it and it is therefore no longer able to be used for secular purposes. To do so, even in order to improve ones donation, is to in effect profane G-d’s name. The same applies to G-d’s relationship with the Jewish people. By all rights after we broke the covenant, G-d should have had no obligation to us and should have left us to our fate. But this was no ordinary agreement. By making a covenant with us, G-d ensured that His name is forevermore associated with the people of Israel. What happens to us is a reflection on him. As the prophet Ezekiel points out, G-d’s justified punishment of us becomes an occasion for the profanation of his name among the nations, so He has no choice but to save us. G-d cannot totally break the covenant, for to do so would diminish His reputation that is inextricably bound to our fate. And, since G-d has associated His name with ours, we should try not to let Him down.
What is the Torah’s view of modern economic systems? Does the Torah support a socialist or capitalist world view; is it in favour of public ownership or private property? From this week’s Parshah we do not seem to get a clear answer. On the one hand our Parshah can be seen as very socialist. The Sabbatical year mandates that the lands and its crops belong to everyone, with equal access to rich and poor. All have rights to the produce, and no one can stop someone entering their land to take it. This legislation is concluded by the declaration that the Land is G-d’s and we are but tenants. All very old Labour. But when we examine the laws of redemption of property, a different picture emerges. Here the Torah places a great emphasis on the right of private property and especially the rights of inherited land. Rather than land being in common it is important that land remain in the family, and even a purchase of a plot can only be temporary. Here the Torah seems to restrict social mobility and take the side of what we would call the landed gentry. All very Tory. How are we then to understand this dichotomy at the heart of our Parshah? Can the two seemingly different world views be reconciled? A clue may lie in the fact that the above statement about the land belonging to G-d is actually said in conjunction not only with the Sabbatical year but with the selling of land. ‘The land should not be sold in perpetuity, because the land is mine’. In another words the source of the property rights of the landowner is the fact that in effect G-d owns all the land. It is He who has parcelled out the land to each family, and we are thus all tenants with Him. To let land fall forever into the hands of those that could buy it would be to upset the Divine order. G-d believes neither in socialism, nor capitalism but a property owning society, were it is ensured that all own property. At the same time property owners are to regard themselves as tenants of G-d, releasing the land to public ownership once every seven years. In this way, the Torah seeks to create a society that avoids the dependence culture of socialism while preventing the extremes of wealth of unfettered capitalism. This is the Divine system, and one worth contemplating today.
One of the laws we learn in this week’s Parshah, is that of Hadash. This law states that it is forbidden to eat of the new crop (hence the name), before the offering of the Omer on the second day of Pesach. A corollary of this is the prohibition of bringing an offering to the Temple from the new crop until the offering of the ‘two loaves’ on Shavuot. Thus, this law spans the present period of counting the Omer. One would think that this prohibition would only apply in Israel, along with other laws pertaining to the land, like tithing and the sabbatical year. Yet according to the plain meaning of the Torah that states that this applies ‘in all your habitations’, this would apply also outside Israel. Indeed, while there is Rabbinical disagreement on the subject, the generally accepted Halakhah today is that this prohibition does in fact apply in the Diaspora. But we my ask why this should be? Something connected to both agriculture and the Temple service should surely be a ‘law of the Land’ par-excellence. Why in this case do Jews not living in Israel, also have to observe it? If we look at the basic theme of this law we may find an answer. The fundamental basis of this mitzvah waiting and expectation. The farmer that has his hard earned new crop ready to eat, must wait to both enjoy its fruits materially and wait even longer to benefit from its fruits spiritually, by offering it to G-d. He must learn to anticipate what he will enjoy, without immediately being able to bring his desire to fruition. He must learn both restraint and patience. He must learn, at least temporarily, to live with his gratification theoretically available but in fact just beyond reach. These lessons are basic components of Jewish religious life. As we celebrate our return to the Land of Israel, we know that most of the time our desire for the Land has not been able to be satisfied. For most of our history the Land of Israel has been theoretically ours, but practically beyond reach. We have had to be patient. We have had to wait, anticipate and hope. These, are precisely the lessons taught to us by the mitzvah of Hadash.. It is therefore understandable, while of the many laws connected to the land, it is this one that the Torah mandated should be kept in the Diaspora. It is davkah those living outside the Land, those who hope and wait for her redemption, that need the lesson in patience that this law teaches. We have merited to have our desire partially gratified; may we soon see its complete fulfilment.
The Crossing of the Reed Sea, which we commemorate today, was a strategic trap, planned by G-d. G-d tells Moses to lead the people back towards the sea, in order that the Egyptians should think they were lost and pursue them. G-d and Moses knew that this was in order to trap and destroy them, but this was not obvious to the Jews. They merely saw the pursuing Egyptian army bearing down upon them, with no obvious avenue of escape. They believed that this was the end. The rest is history. Contemplating this story I have always been reminded of the way people felt in the weeks preceding the Six Day war, when it looked that Israel was surrounded and would be annihilated. Yet in the end it was her enemies who were deceived by their false confidence and routed. Then, too, many felt the end had come, but G-d had other ideas. As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the State of Israel, and regard with some trepidation the problems that face it, we should reflect on these stories in light of the history of Zionism. The whole history of the Zionist movement is one of seeming disaster leading to greater achievement. After the entry of Turkey to the First World War, and the subsequent persecution of the settlement in the Land, people thought Zionism was finished. Yet out of that war came the Balfour declaration and all that followed. The destruction of the Arab riots of the thirties led to the nucleus of Jewish self defence and a renewed impetus to immigration. Every trough or seeming disaster has led to a greater triumph. As in the case of the Jews standing by the sea, we only see the dangers facing us, not the hand that guides them. G-d lulls our enemies into a false sense of security, in order to more completely destroy them. We are made to seem weak, so our foes think they can attack us, but in the end they are falling into a trap. That is the lesson we should take from this Yom Tov. Many design plans against us, but G-d is a better strategist. We shall, like the Jews standing at the edge of the sea, see how our present troubles were merely a prelude to greatness, and like them, live to sing a song of triumph.
Parshah Aharei - Mot / Pesach
‘Go unto Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts’ of his servants, so I can perform my signs in their midst. And so that you shall tell your children and your children’s children’. So begins the Parshah of redemption and the primary mitzvah of the Seder night: to tell the story. It indeed seems from these verses as if the whole purpose of the Exodus is to tell the story. How are we to understand this idea? An answer may lie in another anomaly, the toast to G-d in the middle of the Hagadah. In the midst of telling the story of the Exodus, we raise our glasses and proclaim that in every generation some one has tried to kill us and G-d has saved us from their hands. What is the purpose of this statement in the middle of the Hagadah? Surely it should come at the end? An answer can be found in our Parshah, where we are commanded to observe G-d’s commands and to ‘live by them’. From this verse the Rabbis learnt that all the mitzvot can be broken to save life, except murder, apostasy and adultery/incest. There is, it appears, a religious obligation of Jewish survival. As long as one is able to continue being Jewish, being alive is more important than temporarily transgressing the Torah. A living Jew, it appears, is the greatest witness to G-d’s greatness. This, I believe is the meaning of the ‘toast to G-d’ at the Seder, and indeed the whole story. The seder is not simply about telling historical events but relating the story of Jewish survival. G-d took us out of Egypt so that in every generation our survival attests to His power. When we sit at the table, and relate the story of the Exodus to our children, three thousand years later, we are living witnesses to an ongoing miracle. For this reason we relate as part of fulfilling the mitzvah of relating the Exodus, that in every generation G-d has redeemed us. Empires have fallen and nations disappeared, but we are still here. Those that sort to annihilate us are often but footnotes in history, but we live. In this we fulfil G-d’s statement that we He redeemed us, in order that we should tell our children and grandchildren. The book Exodus, by Leon Uris, ends on such a note. In a reborn Jewish State, despite the problems they face, the family sits down at the Seder, and relates: ‘slaves we were in Egypt’. No matter what our problems or who our enemies, if every year we can do this, we triumph over them. We will outlast them and continue to tell the story. That, indeed in the promise that has stood by us in every generation, and sustains us today.
If we look at the ritual for the purification of the leper, we can notice an interesting parallel. This ritual requires the taking of two birds, one of which is killed and the blood used to sprinkle on the leper. The other bird is then dipped in the blood and freed in the open field. This sounds similar to another famous ritual, that of Yom Kippur. There we have two goats, one of which is killed and the blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. The other, is set free in the wilderness, or in Temple times thrown from a cliff in the wilderness. The parallel is made more exact by the comment of the Hizkuni that the freed bird, which was stained red from the blood, was killed by its fellow birds because of its weird appearance. Indeed Nachmanidies specifically connects the ritual of the birds with that of the goats on Yom Kippur. What, then, is the common theme behind these two rituals? The two identical goats on Yom Kippur can be said to symbolise essential unity of people. Yet one goes into the Holy of Holies, why the other is cast into the wilderness. This teaches us that all of us are capable of both good and evil and it is often circumstance rather than total free choice that determines our fate. Thus we should neither regard ourselves as particularly righteous or wicked, but all with human frailties that need to be both worked on and forgiven. The leper, by engaging in slander, has drawn attention to his neighbour’s failings. He has set himself above his fellow, regarding himself as better. The ritual of the two birds teaches him the same lesson we are taught on Yom Kippur. His good fortune or supposed moral superiority may be more due to circumstances than choice. He, indeed, may have exactly the same shortcomings as the person he criticised. The fact that we take the live bird and dip it in the blood of the other bird, may symbolise precisely this point. Both rituals teach us not to regard ourselves as better than others and to realises that, given the right circumstances, we could be in the other’s predicament. The process of getting rid of hametz we are currently engaged in, gives us an opportunity to apply this in our own lives. The puffed up leaven of hametz is a symbol of pride. In the weeks before Pesach we work to rid ourselves not only of physical hametz, but of spiritual arrogance. In order to properly celebrate Pesach we must humble ourselves before the One who humbled the pride of the Egyptians, and thus taught us that all men are equal.
This year, unusually, Parshat Ha’Hodesh falls on Parshat Tazria. At first glance the subjects of the two readings for today would seem to have nothing in common. Leprosy and Pesach don’t seem to share many similarities. Yet if we look deeper we may be able to discover a common theme. The Rabbis, basing themselves on several incidents in the Torah, most notably that of Miriam, saw the leprosy talked about in our Parshah as a punishment for slander. In doing so they also made a shrewd psychological analysis. The slanderer engages in defaming other people in order to enhance his own stature. By running down others he himself feels important. For this reason he is punished with leprosy, a plague that totally demolishes his status in the community; causing the sufferer to be isolated outside the camp. Yet Divine punishment is always remedial, seeking to correct or purify the wrongdoer. In this case the experience of isolation is meant to, on the one hand, break the pride and self-importance that motivated the slander in the first place, while on the other, causing the slanderer to experience the pain and loneliness caused to others by his actions. If we look at the mitzvah of the Pesach sacrifice, we can find a similar theme. The Jews were commanded to take the sheep, which was the god of the Egyptians, and sacrifice it in front of them. The Egyptians worshipped this animal as a symbol of strength. Just as they prized the firstborn as the choicest of humans, they saw in the ram the best of the domesticated animals. They prized strength and pride over values of justice and mercy. The slaughtering of this Egyptian divinity was therapeutic for both sides. The Jews learnt that the Egyptian beliefs had no basis, and that material strength was not the essence of life. The Egyptians, who had shown scant regard for the rights of the powerless Israelites, learnt what it was like to have their sensibilities trampled on, without being able to do anything about it. In the case of both our Parshiot, the oppressor is turned into the oppressed, his pride humbled, and hopefully, his character reformed. We too, in working hard to prepare for Pesach, are meant to reflect on the true nature and purpose of life and to humble ourselves to serve G-d with joy at the seder.
Parshah Shemini / Parah
An interesting dichotomy exists between our Parshah this week and the special maftir of Parah. In the Parshah, the tragic death of Aaron’s sons is followed by an instruction to Aaron not to mourn. Indeed much of our mourning practice is learnt from what G-d tells Aaron not to do, with the inference that a normal mourner should do these things. In Aaron’s case his grief over the death of his sons is not to intrude on the rejoicing over the inauguration of the Tabernacle. Religious celebration overcomes mourning. In Parshat Parah, however, we seem to have the opposite scenario. A person who is defiled by touching a dead body is not allowed to enter the Temple or to take part in religious ceremonies, until he is purified by the ashes of the Red Heifer. From the end of Deuteronomy, we learn that he is also not allowed to consume holy foods. Here mourning seems to trump religious expression An simple answer to this seeming paradox lies in the distinction between public and private mourning. A normal mourner must mourn and is prohibited from religious celebration. Aaron, however, who is engaged in public celebration is not allowed to let his private grief interfere with public rejoicing. This attitude exists in Halakhah today. A Yom Tov either cuts short shivah or sheloshim, or postpones them till after the festival. The public rejoicing of the festival trumps private grief. How are we to understand this concept? An answer lies in the continuation of Moses’ command to Aaron not to mourn: ‘the whole house of Israel will mourn the conflagration G-d has made’. Aaron is not alone in his grief, but, in the proper time, will be comforted by the whole people. The Jewish experience of grief and mourning is not a solitary one. The mourner is comforted in his grief by the community that joins with him in his experience. While they are not going through his immediate pain, they can by the presence and solidarity lessen his trauma and isolation. In a very real way, therefore, the whole community shares in the mourning over every death. This however cannot be expected to occur when the community is commanded by the Torah to rejoice. They cannot abandon the festival celebrations in order to share in the grief of the mourner. And so essential to the Jewish notion of mourning is communal solidarity, that , therefore, the mourner himself is not allowed to mourn. Without the support of the community, mourning cannot take place; a Jewish mourner is never alone.
Parshah Tzav / Shushan Purim
In the middle of the inauguration of the Priests that forms the second half of this week’s Parshah, we have an unusual note. The shalshelet occurs only four times in the Torah, mostly in Genesis. It normally occurs in the middle of a story, and is generally held to signify hesitation on the part of the protagonist; as in Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife, for example. What, then, is this note doing in the middle of Moses’ inauguration of his brother and nephews into the priesthood, precisely at the slaughtering of the ‘ram of inauguration’. The Rabbis learnt from this, that indeed there were various hesitations and uncertainties at this moment. Firstly, Moses, who had served in the priestly function until then, was giving up this role to his brother. As someone with a direct connection to G-d, could he have deep down regretted relinquishing the priesthood to someone on a lesser level? Aaron, also, according to tradition, was uncertain of his role. After all, he had been responsible not so long ago for the sin of the Golden Calf, and felt unworthy of taking on the position of G-d’s High Priest. Maybe, indeed, G-d would not accept his service? These types of hesitations are very common in spiritual life. We often, either feel we are deserving of better from G-d or feel unworthy of stepping into the role that G-d has assigned us. We are hesitant about our spiritual path and uncertain of our relationship with G-d. similar fears and doubts were expressed by the people of Malachi’s day, as we find in the Haftorah. ‘It is not worth serving G-d’, they complain, despairing of their relationship with the Divine. The Prophet reassures them that they will indeed see a difference between those who serve G-d and those who do not, and that G-d has not abandoned them. These same doubts are common today. We look at the world and wonder whether anyone is really in charge. The problems we face, both as Jews and members of the global community, seem to be overwhelming and insoluble. Rather than freedom, prosperity and peace, the world seems to be in the grip of tyranny, poverty and conflict, and no one seems to be able to do anything about it. Yet the festival of Pesach teaches us otherwise. Even the most despised group of slaves that had lost all hope, could be redeemed and led to a new existence. We too, should not give up hope, but rather, like Malachi, have confidence in G-d who will in the end redeem us, as he did from Egypt., long ago.
Parshah Vayikra / Zachor
This week we begin the book of Vayikra, with the details of the various sacrifices mandated by the Torah. Whether in expiation for sin or in thanksgiving, for festivals or as fulfilment of a vow; sacrifices are the main form of regular worship found in the Torah. A sacrifice, however, involves the killing of an animal. We worship G-d by taking sentient life. What is the reason for this form of worship? Various explanations are given. Maimonidies explains that this was the universal form of worship throughout the ancient world. In order to wean the Jews from idolatry, the Torah allowed them also to worship in this way, but only to G-d. Others explain that seeing the dead animal before them, the worshippers would realise that it is them that are worthy of death for their sins or that just as the animal’s life is in their hands, their life is in G-d’s. It is this last idea I would like to explore more closely. By commanding us to sacrifice animals, and indeed allowing us to eat meat, G-d has transferred part of His power over life and death into our hands. It is not only G-d who decides who will live and who will die, but humans now have some of the same power. We too can experience the responsibility of having another sentient being’s life in our hands and having to decide on its ultimate fate. What is the purpose of G-d giving us this power? Is it merely another manifestation of our being created in His image, or is there a deeper reason? In life we encounter many vicissitudes. Loved ones may be suddenly taken from us, we may lose money, possessions and even our health. Looking around, these travails often seem random, unfair and even cruel. We may question the methods, justice and even existence of G-d. We may feel that G-d has abandoned the world to the dictates of blind chance, and nothing we do makes a difference. G-d therefore puts us in His position. He enables us, too, to be the arbiters of life and death. In doing so, He hopefully teaches us how difficult it is. Any child that had to kill their favourite lamb or calf for festive meal or sacrifice, would learn how what a hard thing it was to decide ‘who will live, and who will die’. They would learn that G-d is not cruel or capricious; simply making difficult decisions.
Shemot (Exodus) 5768
Parshat Pekude / Shekalim
A sense of excitement pervades this week’s Parshah. This may seem a strange idea as the Parshah seems to repeat much of what has gone before. Still more design instructions for the Tabernacle. The excitement is not in the fact that week read from three Sifrei Torah; though that is in itself special. The excitement lies in the tenor of the text itself. The detailing of each stage in the erection of the Tabernacle until it reaches its crescendo in the last verses. The Tabernacle has been completed as G-d commanded and now the Divine Presence fills the Tent; so that even Moses cannot enter. The great project is completed; the project that has at its heart the indwelling of G-d among the Jewish people. It is this spiritual excitement that we sense as we read this week’s Parshah. This excitement and commitment was institutionalised by the giving of the half-shekel that we commemorate this week. That money was used for the daily sacrifices; thus connecting the whole people with the ongoing service of G-d in the Tabernacle they had created for His dwelling. It is this sense of spiritual excitement, of the desire and possibility of experiencing G-d; that is so lacking from our synagogues today. It is this gaping hole at the very heart of our communities that is the cause of so much of the apathy and cynicism that seems to bedevil British Jewry. When synagogues become mere venues for social interaction they have lost their primary purpose. When people run away after kiddush so that, G-d forbid, they won’t be asked to stay for Minchah; something is seriously wrong. A real and urgent question must be asked about the future viability of places of worship where people come to do everything and anything; except worship. We need reintroduce spiritual excitement into our synagogues. We need to look at how we can make our services relevant and inclusive. We need to educate our members about the spiritual nature of Jewish ritual. There are synagogues, even in this country, where the excitement we find in the Parshah is present. Where people come to shule to find G-d. If our communities are to have a future we must no longer shirk this challenge. It can be done. It must be done.
This week, we read about two different projects of Jewish life, the construction of the Tabernacle and the Pesach seder. Both concern a coming together of individuals for a joint purpose, but the nature of that union is quite different in each case. If we look at the construction of the Tabernacle, this was achieved by a community. Moses calls together the community of Israel and instructs them in the task of building a sanctuary for the Divine Presence. When, however, G-d instructs the people in the taking and eating of the Paschal sacrifice, it is as family groups. It is as a family, not as a community, that we are to celebrate the Exodus. What is the difference between these two concepts? In both cases individuals come together and create something more than just their separate individuality. Yet the two are constructed and operate in very different ways. A community is made up of different individuals who come together for a common purpose. A family is a network of relationships the meshes together to become a whole. A community becomes; a family exists. One’s place in a community is often defined by what one does; ones place in the family depends on who one is. While a community often works on a functional, rational basis; a family interacts on an intimate emotional level. These differences are profound and inform the structure and operation of each entity. The Torah commands that the Tabernacle be built by a community. In the public sphere of religion it is merely necessary that people subsume their individual pursuits for the good of the whole. Each person has their place according to their special ability and rational discourse should inform the workings of even a religious community. This is religion as institution, public worship and social organisation. All of these are vital for the future of the faith and wider society. Yet there is a deeper, more emotional side to religion. This is religion as felt, rather than reasoned; experienced, rather than constructed. This is the religion of the family, with its fluid structures and intermeshing relationships. Here one does not merely perform rituals but live them; not only talk about G-d but feel His Presence. The Tabernacle may be the structure of our relationship with the Divine, but the Seder is at its heart. Only by re-enacting in the family the experience of G-d of the Exodus, we make possible the animation of the community among whose G-d’s Presence dwells in the Tabernacle.
The two classic commentators on the Torah disagree as to the chronological exactness of the text. According to Nachmanidies, things are generally in chronological order; while Rashi disagrees. The order of the second half of the book of Exodus is a famous case in point. Nachmanidies argues that the command to build the Tabernacle came before the sin of the Golden Calf, while Rashi changes the textual order and postulates it came afterwards. This dispute leads directly to another concerning the ratification of the covenant described in the last section of Parshat Mishpatim. Again, Nachmanidies says that this took place as described in the text, after the Revelation at Sinai and the laws contained in the rest of that Parshah. Rashi, believes this took place before the Giving of the Torah. This allows him to explain that these laws were revealed to Moses during his first forty days on the mountain, while for Nachmanidies, following the textual order, Moses then received the instructions concerning the Tabernacle. This understanding of the dispute can lead us to the essence of the difference between the two approaches: what was the Golden Calf a rejection of, a rejection instinctively understood by Moses when he breaks the tablets of stone. For Nachmanidies, it is the idea of an incorporeal G-d. The people desire a physical fetish to worship. For this reason Moses obviates the command concerning the Tabernacle, which would merely turn into another fetish, taking the place of G-d. Only, after the repentance of the people does he return to the commandment of the Tabernacle, for which reason it is virtually repeated verbatim in the last two Parshiot of Exodus. For Rashi, on the other hand, the Tabernacle only comes after the Golden Calf. What Moses received on Mt Sinai was the laws in Mishpatim, and it was this covenant, the notion of obedience to the Torah, that the people rejected. For this reason the covenant contained in Mishpatim is again repeated almost verbatim in our Parshah, after the repentance of the people. These two approaches, of course, are both valuable. Both the rejection of the constraints of the Torah ,on the one hand, and turning of ritual into a mindless fetish, are dangers we must guard against, ones Moses understood only too well.
One of the eight garments of the High Priest is the robe. Famously, the robe contains bells in order ‘that his voice will be heard when he goes into the holy place’. The commentators provide varying explanations of this verse and the reason for the bells. The Hizkuni regards them as required for the sake of the people. The people should hear the bells when the High Priest enters to perform the service and thus know the time of the service and direct their hearts to heaven. Nachmanidies has a more mystical explanation. He connects this verse to one in the passage detailing the service on Yom Kippur. There it is written that ‘no man shall be in the tent of meeting when he enters the holy place until he leaves’. The bells are to signal to everyone, including the angels, that the High Priest is going in to serve G-d and everyone should thus vacate the place leaving him alone with G-d. These two explanations may seem to be contradictory. On the one hand the people are meant to be connected with the service of the High Priest performed in their name. They should also presumably pray at the time he is serving. Yet, on the other hand, the High Priest is to be left so totally alone with G-d that even the angels must leave when he arrives. This paradox however, lies at the essence of Jewish prayer. Prayer in Judaism is at one and the same time both communal and private. The mitzvah of ‘praying with the community’ consists at its heart of ten or more men praying the silent Amidah together. While without a minyan the value of the prayer is considered less, yet this is not public prayer in its normal sense. Jewish law also mandates that it is forbidden to pray in such a way that you can be overheard by your neighbour. We at one and the same time pray privately in public; with our neighbour but alone before G-d. This dichotomy goes to the very heart of Jewish spirituality. Judaism is not a religion of individuals but of a nation. Our connection to the Divine is, essentially, through the medium of being part of the Jewish people. Yet as part of that people we all stand individually responsible before G-d. We are all responsible for each other yet cannot escape the consequences of our individual behaviour. We stand before G-d as part of his people; yet can have an intimate personal relationship. This is the dual nature of Jewish spirituality, symbolised the bells of the robe of the High Priest and actualised every time we pray together as a community.
As we look at the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, contained in this week’s Parshah, we can notice an interesting distinction. One of the major themes of the Parshah is the integral unity of the Tabernacle repeatedly emphasised in such phrases as ‘and the Tabernacle shall become one’. Yet the method of achieving this unity varies for the different parts of the Tabernacle. When it comes to the outside structure we have various pieces put together to make one framework. The wooden boards, for example, are joined together in order to consist of one structure. The vessels contained in the inside of the Tabernacle however, and especially the Menorah, are to be constructed differently. Rather than being made of different pieces put together, the Menorah, for example, must be hammered out of one block of gold. Its various parts therefore come from one source. These two methods of construction can enlighten us about the concept of intellectual unity. It used to be, as in the example of Maimonidies or Francis Bacon, that one man could know everything. That is no longer possible. With the explosion of human knowledge and the advent of specialisation, the mastery of one field of knowledge is hard enough, without the possibility of a more general specialisation. Yet this lack of general knowledge also has its dangers. We are in danger of losing an overarching sense of knowledge as a unity that combines the various branches of wisdom. The various methods used in the construction of the Tabernacle can help us solve this conundrum. On the one hand, the physical construction of the Tabernacle, its outer frame, can consist of various parts joined together. In dealing with practical pursuits, different branches of knowledge can work separately and come together as necessary for mutual benefit. But the Menorah, the symbol of wisdom and the Divine Presence that animates the Tabernacle is different. It must be made of one block, all its parts coming from one source. Similarly, the values and philosophies that inform human life cannot be confined to various specialities. Rather they need to stem from one overarching system of ideas that informs and animates our actions. Thus can our Tabernacle that is our world, truly become united.
A fascinating law, among the many found in the Parshah, is that concerning the theft of a ox or sheep. The Torah provides that the thief has to pay fivefold the value of the ox and fourfold the value of the sheep. Unlike most such cases, where the tradition sees ox or sheep as generic terms, the sages here considered the Torah to be referring specifically to these two animals, and not others. Furthermore, interesting explanations were advanced by the Rabbis to explain the difference in penalty between the two. This was not simply that an ox is worth more than a sheep. Rather two sociological explanations were advanced. Rabbi Yochanan considered the honour of the thief. Because he needed, when stealing a sheep, to carry it on his shoulders, he is required to pay less than for an ox he could simply lead away. We take into account the degradation of the thief’s human dignity. Rabbi Meir looks at the intrinsic value of the animal itself. Because an ox works for a living, ploughing and the like, his theft is regarded as more injurious than that of a sheep that does nothing. The Torah here is upholding the dignity of work. If we look at these two concepts we may consider whether they are in fact really contradictory or actually complement each other. On the one hand we have the importance of the dignity of a human being, even a thief. The fact that he has had to degrade himself in the course of his theft is a reason to lighten his punishment. This is an intrinsic dignity, irrespective of the situation or actions of the individual. Yet the Torah also believes in another type of dignity, conferred on the person by their actions. The importance of work is based in Rabbinic literature on the concept that it confers dignity on the human being, enabling him to be a partner with G-d in creation. These two concepts can be seen as the basis for two different types of human rights. We have human rights based in actuality; those that protect our right to life and freedom, and prohibit torture, starvation or degradation of our humanity. Yet we also have human rights based on our potential. The right to education, work and responsibility. The right to be an active and valued member of society. That is no less important. We hear lots of talk about rights balanced by responsibilities, as if they were two opposing ideas. Yet according to our reading of our Parshah, they are in fact the same thing. For as in the case of the ox’s right to work, responsibility is also a human right.
‘As you have seen Egypt today; so you will never see them again’. This statement of Moses can be seen as words of reassurance to a frightened people, as the Egyptian army bears down upon them. They have nothing to fear, for they will never again see their former oppressors, who will be destroyed. It can also be seen in a psychological vein. The frightened Israelites will never again perceive their former masters in the same light, and after their overwhelming defeat at the sea, will never again be afraid of them. Jewish tradition, however, has seen these words as signifying something else: a mitzvah. There is a prohibition on returning to Egypt. This is based on the law of kings in Deuteronomy. In Parshat Shoftim, G-d forbids a king to have many horses, lest he goes down to Egypt to acquire them; and G-d has forbidden going back to Egypt. Looking around for where exactly the Torah has forbidden this, most commentators refer to this verse in our Parshah. This is in fact not so far fetched. The Parshah itself begins with G-d’s fear that the people will want to return to Egypt. Indeed, throughout the wanderings in the wilderness, the Jews often express their desire to return to Egypt. In fact they do so just a few verses before, when they see the approach of the Egyptian army. So, we can indeed see this promise that they will never see the Egyptians again, as also a command. But what relevance does it have for future generations? Why must we always be aware of this danger? If we look at the desire to return to Egypt, so often expressed by the generation of the wilderness, we can see that it is based in a self-indulgent nostalgia. It is a desire to go backwards rather than forwards. If the present is difficult and the future uncertain, the Jews wish to retreat to the certainties of the past; seen, of course, through rose-tinted glasses. This is a common human trait and one that grows more pronounced as we grow older. As, objectively, more of our lives is actually in the past, it is tempting to dwell there. Yet the Torah forbids this. The injunction not to return to Egypt, is a command to face the future rather than look to the past. We are ordered to stride forward; rather than retreat backwards. We can and should learn from past history, but never dwell there. The past, for better or worse cannot be changed, the future, for better or worse, can. Whether we are nine or ninety, as long as we look forward we have hope, and our best days can still be ahead.
One of the themes repeated concerning the Exodus, is that of the necessity of taking presents from the Egyptians. The Jews are to ask their neighbours for gifts, which they will then take with them. This is again emphasised in this week’s Parshah, as a prelude to the final plague. Rashi explains the importance of this action in order for G-d to fulfil his promise of the Jews ending their oppression with ‘great wealth’. G-d would have thus fulfilled both parts of his original promise to Abraham: exile and redemption. Hertz gives a different explanation, explaining the taking of gifts from the Egyptians as preventing long term enmity over the Egyptian’s treatment of the Jews. Because of this, forty years later, Moses could command the Israelites not to hate the Egyptians. A slightly different perspective can be understood by looking at a interesting midrash on the plague of darkness. One of the reasons for this plague, according to the midrash, was in order for the Jews to freely wander the Egyptian’s houses and see their valuables. They thus knew later exactly what to ask for. If we examine this midrash more closely we see how it amplifies and expands Hertz’s comment above. The Jews, who had been sorely oppressed by the Egyptian’s wander their houses while their oppressors sit helpless in darkness. Yet they take nothing. They see all their master’s riches but wait, in order to ask for these presents to be freely given. Not only does this action have a salutary moral effect on the Jews, teaching them to see the Egyptian’s as human beings and dampening feelings of revenge. It also served to undo the negative State propaganda about the Jews. These so called dangers to Egyptian society cannot be so bad, if they refuse to take advantage of their helpless fellow citizens. It is interesting that at the end of the plagues the Torah states that Moses was ‘great’ in the eyes of the Egyptian populace; not feared but respected. This enabled future relations to overcome the wounds of the past; as the mitzvah in Deuteronomy testifies. Here lies an important lesson in interpersonal relations. If one can show an adversary that you in fact do not wish to hurt them, or bear a grudge, it can often lead to a new relationship. Great is the one who turns an enemy into a friend.
In this week’s Parshah, G-d tells Moses what to do when Pharaoh asks him for a wonder. Perform the trick with the rod turning into a snake and back again. The same trick that Moses performed when telling of his mission to his own people. The great Italian commentator, Seforno, notes that in the case of the Children of Israel the trick is called a ‘sign‘, while in Pharaoh’s case it is called a ‘wonder’. He explains that in the case of the Israelites, what was needed was proof, not of G-d’s power, but of Moses’ authenticity. The sign was proof that G-d had indeed sent Moses to redeem them. Pharaoh, on the other hand, doesn’t recognise G-d, as he clearly states at his first encounter with Moses. What he asks for is some type of wonder that will convince him of G-d’s existence and power. The result of the performance of these two tricks is very different. Contrary to Moses’ fears, the people immediately believe in his mission. Pharaoh, on the other hand, takes more persuading. Despite the trick with the rod, and despite the fact that Moses’ snake swallows up those of his magicians, he refuses to believe. The wonder hasn’t worked. It is interesting to psychologically examine the motivation between the demand for these different types of authentication. When the Israelites ask for a sign of Moses’ authenticity , they are seeking to examine his ability to carry out the mission he is proposing. They are willing to keep an open mind. Pharaoh, on the other hand, has already declared that he doesn’t recognise G-d, and acted accordingly. It is somewhat strange, therefore, that without any change in circumstance since that statement, he suddenly asks for a wonder. Pharaoh, however, is not interested in the answer. He already knows it. He is interested in humiliating Moses, and proving his opinion that he is a charlatan. The question is not for elucidating the truth, but for strengthening his own prejudices. These two types of question and discussion are familiar to us today, and call for differing responses. Those who ask for a ‘sign’, who are truly perplex, seeking after the facts and have an open mind, should be seriously engaged with. With these people it is possible to have a true discussion, even if in the end they are not convinced. On the other hand, those who sarcastically ask for a ‘wonder’, who are merely interested in confirming their own prejudices and aggrandising their own position, are not worth wasting your breath on. Leave well alone.
A puzzling incident in the Parshah, concerns the blessings of Joseph’s sons. Jacob, when blessing them purposefully crosses his hands in order to bless the younger, Efraim, before Menasheh, the older. This annoys Joseph, who attempts to place his father’s hands in the correct position, whereby he is told by Jacob that Efraim will indeed be greater the Menasheh. This attitude of Joseph is rather strange if we remember that Joseph himself has just been given a double portion, both his sons becoming tribes, in preference to Reuben, the firstborn. Why, then, is Joseph so upset about Jacob doing the same thing, when it comes to his own sons? The answer is very revealing. Joseph apparently did not regard what Jacob did with him as putting the younger before the elder. While it was true that Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn, Joseph was Rachel’s firstborn, and Joseph regarded Rachel as Jacob’s only true legitimate wife. For this reason Joseph is also evidently upset at Rachel not being buried in the family burial place in Hebron. Joseph thus regards his father’s actions in elevating his two sons to an equal status with his brothers as only right and proper. While, on the other hand, the placing of Efraim before Menasheh, disturbs the natural order, and therefore is wrong. Jacob, however, is working to a different paradigm. If we look closely, we can see that Reuben does not totally lose the rights of the firstborn, but that they are distributed among several of the brothers. Reuben, still remains the firstborn in that he is always counted first in the lists in the Torah, and indeed, is called firstborn. Judah receives the effective leadership of the family and Levi, as becomes apparent in Egypt, takes on the task of preserving the family traditions. Joseph only receives the right of his sons to be called tribes, equal with his brothers; but no more. Jacob, therefore, is willing to upset the hierarchical structure of the family, in order to give to each member the task beat suited to them. Joseph, however, cannot escape from his need for order and structure, and therefore objects. Maybe, for this reason, Joseph never graduates to the level of a Patriarch, one who can change the set order for something new. Jacob, however, is in the end, following in the footsteps of his own father. As Aviva Zornberg beautifully puts it, the blind Jacob, blessing his own younger grandchild before his elder, realises now, that his own blind father was never really deceived at all.
The Joseph story reaches its climax this week, with Joseph revealing his true identity to his brothers. In doing so, he deals head on with their crime against them, by claiming that it was all really part of G-d’s plan. Because they sold him, he became Viceroy of Egypt, saved the nation from starvation, and can now provide for his family. Therefore the brothers’ actions towards him were, in the end, really a blessing in disguise. As Aviva Zornberg explains, this is Joseph’s way of constructing a narrative that he can live with, that makes sense of his life. As such we can appreciate it. We can also appreciate the Divine hand at work behind the scenes, bringing His plan to fruition. Yet we can question whether for the brothers, Joseph’s narrative provides a satisfactory answer. Their anxiety concerning Joseph’s attitude to them after their father’s death, seems to indicate that it wasn’t. Despite the fact that Joseph gives them the same reply, the matter never seems really resolved. We should also ask ourselves whether Joseph’s narrative is an acceptable moral construct. Is it really true that if bad actions have unintended good consequences, this absolves the perpetrators? There are many terrible events in history that have led to great progress. Does that excuse the crimes committed? Following that dubious moral route would lead us to absolve everyone and everything, from the Egyptians to the Nazis. Surely people have to be judged according to the morality of their actions; not the benefit or otherwise of the consequences. Thus, the rejection of Joseph’s absolution of his brothers should be the message we take from this story. Indeed, as later Jewish history shows, Joseph’s actions did nothing to resolve the issue; leaving a festering wound for future generations. This is an important idea for our time. For while people increasingly reject a relativist justice system, excusing crime because of its causes or intent, they are not so aware of its origin in relativist history. When historians, in the name of objectivity, cease to make moral judgements, they damage the basis of a moral society. If we absolve the sins of the past, we will come to excuse the crimes of the present and create an unsafe future. Joseph was wrong to absolve his brothers, and we should learn from his mistake.
Parshah Miketz / Hanukah
This week’s Parshah, seems to have little to connect it with Hanukah, on which it is almost always read. Yet a closer examination of both may yield a similar theme. One of the underlying plots of the Joseph story is the attempt of the parties to escape from their destiny. Joseph seeks to integrate himself in his new life in Egypt, while seemingly forgetting his family background. Indeed he even names his eldest son after this amnesia. The brothers have seemingly forgotten about Joseph, carrying on with their lives and suppressing the memory of their past crime. Even Jacob, for all his grief over Joseph, has transferred his affection to his youngest son, Benjamin, and hopes merely to live out his life in peace. Yet it is precisely in this Parshah, that all these plans unravel. Joseph comes face to face with his brothers and is forced to deal with the problem of his family. His brothers, trapped by the Egyptian viceroy, are forced to confront their past actions and their consequences. And Jacob is compelled to relinquish his youngest son to the vagaries of fate. In the background, all the actors are required to play their part in G-d’s grand plan for the Jewish people, starting with the sojourn in Egypt. The Torah marks this compulsion of destiny in an interesting way. It is well known that the Torah uses the names Jacob and Israel interchangeably; Jacob symbolising more the individual, Israel the national destiny. Precisely at the point when Jacob, with great reluctance, finally accepts the need to send Benjamin to Egypt, he is suddenly called Israel, as he is to the end of the paragraph. Here the inescapable destiny of the Jewish people, Israel, is begun to be fulfilled, by individuals who can no longer escape their fate. The same process took place at the time of Hanukah. Many Jews at that time were quite happy to assimilate into the surrounding Greek culture, even to the extent of trying to hide their circumcision. They sought to escape the destiny of Israel and live their lives as Greeks. Yet in the end, they were forced to confront their origins and their fate. They Seleciud attack on Judaism left them no choice but to face their Jewish destiny. And created a renewed Jewish life among the people. Today, the renewed wave of Jew-hated, centred on Israel, is causing many who had thought themselves immune from such matters, to question their relationships and their true values. As in those days, so in our times, we will emerge strengthened in our common destiny.
When Joseph is sent by his father to visit his brothers he gets lost on the way. He meets a man who asks him what he is seeking. Famously, Joseph replies ‘I am seeking my brothers’, whereby the stranger points him in the right direction. This is, of course, in ironic contrast to the attitude of the brothers of whom it is said: ‘before he even reached them they plotted how to kill him’. Joseph seeks his brethren; yet they reject him before he even arrives. The story of Joseph is in many ways the ‘original sin’ of Jewish theology; the basic fracture that reverberates down through the generations. The prophet Amos, in our Haftorah, sees it as a metaphor for the oppression of the poor in his own day: those that ‘sell the righteous for money and the poor for a pair of shoes’. Our generation can also learn from this story, and especially the ironic paradox mentioned above. In our days we have many Jews that are estranged from Judaism. Whether because of an assimilated upbringing, youthful rebellion or intermarriage, they have had little or no connection with Judaism or the Jewish community. Yet many of these lost Jews are seeking a way back. They approach our synagogues searching for an entrée into the Jewish world they have lost or never known. Like Joseph, they would reply to a enquiry about their intentions by saying ‘I am seeking my brothers’. Yet how many Jewish communities welcome these people with open arms, and how many behave like Joseph’s brothers. How many of our synagogues before they even ask for anything, reject them out of hand. Because they may be intermarried, assimilated or have some other defect, before they even reach us, we plot ways of getting rid of them. Rather than being more lenient with these lost souls, we are more strict; rather than showing kindness, we display callous disregard. Joseph’s brothers are condemned precisely because they do not recognise Joseph as their brother, while he approaches them in precisely this spirit. He stretches out his hand in brotherly love; they bite it off. Are we not guilty of the same crime, when we reject fellow Jews simply because of their background. Joseph’s brothers later pay a terrible price for their actions. What future price will we have to pay for not learning from their mistake.
A famous incident from this week’s Parshah is the struggle of Jacob with the angel and the changing of his name to Israel. Several puzzles surround this incident, however. The identity of the angel, why G-d again changes his name at Beit El, when the angel had already done so, and the meaning of the injury Jacob sustains. According to the Rabbis, the angel Jacob fought was none other than the angel of Esau. They saw this struggle as the precursor of the struggle between the Jewish people and their enemies throughout history. Seen, in this light, the injury sustained by Jacob, indicates that this struggle will leave its mark on the Jews. We do not emerge unscathed. Yet what is the nature of this injury and how does it relate to the change of name that immediately follows? Jacob is injured in his leg and walks away limping. In last week’s Parshah it was those same legs that lifted Jacob up after his angelic dream with its promise of divine protection. The sages explain that his legs were made light by this vision, he was filled with self-confidence. Esau’s angel, however, injures Jacob’s thigh, impeding this lightness. The enemies of the Jewish people have the ability, even when defeated, to impinge on our confidence, making us doubt our own mission and integrity. We can be left limping, wondering if, perhaps, there is something in all their baseless accusations after all. For this reason Jacob insists that the angel bless him and change his name to Israel. Not only can we struggle with our enemies in the material world and defeat them, but we are also morally right before G-d. We can struggle in the realm of higher justice and also emerge vindicated. And this must be conceded, davkah, by the angel of Esau. It cannot wait until G-d’s vindication of Jacob in Beit El. Our very accusers must be forced to own up to their lies and admit our moral superiority. Like Bilaam they must turn their curses into blessings. That is the true struggle that faces us today as we struggle with the demonic angel of anti-Semitism. Seeking to destroy us by delegitimisation, it can strike at our own self-confidence, causing us to doubt the justice of our cause. Like Jacob we must overcome this injury by forcing our accusers to swallow their words and admit their own base motivations. We must glory in the name of Israel, signifying both physical and moral victory, standing up with confidence for the truth. That is the path of the sons of Jacob who became Israel.
Our Parshah famously opens with the dream of Jacob. Jacob sees a ladder stretching to heaven with angels ascending and descending. G-d stands at the top and promises Jacob He will take care of him. Many explanations, literal, metaphorical, psychological and mystical, have been advanced to understand this passage. Nachmanidies explains that the angels are G-d’s lackeys in controlling human affairs, while G-d promises Jacob that G-d will personally deal with his destiny. In a similar vein, Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud, sees the angels as the arbiters of the destiny of nations, each nation having its own angel, while Jacob is promised that, unlike other nations, Israel will be under the direct providence of G-d. How are we to understand these ideas? One can comprehend that G-d may rule the world through indirect means, while Israel is directly accountable. In the same way that one may be shielded from the sun or radiation by clouds or have light refracted through water, G-d can limit His control of the world. Indeed that is not only the basis of our having free will but, according to the kabbalistic idea of ‘contraction’, the basis for the very possibility of the existence of the world. The Jewish people, however, have more direct exposure to G-d and their destiny, therefore, is more affected by their relationship with Him. In this context, however, it is enlightening to examine the ideas of Maimonidies with regards to Divine providence. Unlike many other religious philosophers, Maimonidies does not regard G-d as having intimate control over every aspect of existence. Animals, for example, are subject to only general species control, G-d not being directly involved in what lion eats what gazelle. With regards to humans, Maimonidies proposes that Divine providence is determined by the individual themselves. If they wish to place themselves in G-d’s hands, they will have direct Divine interference in their lives. If not, they will be subject to the vagaries of chance. Using this idea we can understand more deeply Jacob’s dream. The nations of the world who do not have an intimate relationship with G-d are, for good or evil, subject to the ‘angels’ of natural forces. Israel, G-d’s people, are for good or evil bound to the Divine. We choose to be connected to G-d, who thus controls our destiny.
A central feature of the story of Jacob’s acquisition of his father’s blessings, is the fact the Isaac eyesight had gone. The explanation for this blindness seemingly given in the Torah, old age, did not satisfy the Rabbis, who searched for a deeper explanation. They came up with three reasons. Isaac was blinded by the smoke rising from the idolatrous sacrifices of Esau’s wives, his eyes had been weakened by the tears of angels as he lay of the altar at the time of the Akedah, or in order that Jacob should be able to acquire the blessings. There is a dissonance in this trilogy, with the third explanation somewhat out of tune with the others. We can see the first two explanations, as Aviva Zornberg points out, as psychological reactions to traumatic events in Isaac’s life. He rejects the lifestyle of his daughters-in-law and uses his blindness to shut out the degeneracy that surrounds him. He uses the same blindness to suppress the full memory of his attempted murder at the hands of his father. In both cases his lack of sight serves to shield him from the harsh reality that threatens his sanity. Yet it is hard to see how the third explanation of the Rabbis fits in with this theme. Unless, perhaps, we invert the meaning of the midrash and understand it on a even deeper level. By postulating that Isaac went blind in order that Jacob should acquire the blessings, the Rabbis are perhaps commentating on the lack of foresight in Isaac’s relationship with his sons. Does Isaac lose his sight in order that Jacob, not Esau, should be blessed, because Isaac’s blindness to the true nature of his sons makes subterfuge the only recourse available? Is Isaac’s physical blindness a consequence of his moral blindness to the character of his eldest son? If so, we can indeed see a linkage between the three explanations. In every case Isaac’s blindness is a symptom of his desire to escape the unpleasant reality around him. Whether suppressing the memory of the Akedah, retreating from his daughter-in-law’s behaviour or ignoring the character of his son, Isaac seeks to escape behind the walls of a self imposed ghetto, leaving the harsh reality of the world outside. Rebecca’s actions, however, teach us that this is not the only, or even, preferred option. This indeed was not the way of Abraham or Jacob, who preferred to fight to change reality, rather than merely escape it. While Isaac’s way also has its adherents, the Parshah teaches us the dangers of mere escapism rather than positive action.
When Abraham asks his servant Eliezer to go and fetch a wife for Isaac from his family in Aram, he makes him take an oath. He is to swear by ‘the G-d of heaven and the G-d of the earth’ not to marry Isaac to a Canaanite. After Eliezer asks what to do if the girl won’t come back with him, Abraham promises him that G-d will help him. ‘The G-d of heaven’ that took him from his father’s house and promised him the Land, will make sure of a suitable wife for Isaac. The Rabbis noticed a discrepancy in the wording of the two statements. When making Eliezer to swear, G-d is referred to as the G-d of both heaven and earth, while when talking of the Divinity that took him from his former home, G-d is referred to only as the G-d of heaven. In explaining this difference the Rabbis make a fascinating comment. Abraham, when talking of his original journey from Ur, at G-d’s behest, only talks of G-d as the G-d of heaven, because that was all He was then. Before Abraham started on his journey and began making G-d’s Name known among people, G-d, as it were, was only the G-d of heaven. Only in his old age, after years of spiritual activity, has G-d, through Abraham’s efforts, become widely recognised and thus also ‘the G-d of the earth’. This profound understanding teaches us much about our role on earth. Of course, in reality. G-d is everywhere and indeed is the ‘place of the world’ itself. Yet, practically speaking, because G-d has given us freewill and thus hides His overt presence, G-d is only found where people recognise Him. Where people choose to ignore Him, it is as if G-d does not exist. It is thus our role, like that of Abraham before us, to make G-d’s presence known in the world. We are thus called by the Prophets G-d’s witnesses. The Jewish people by their life and history, evidence G-d’s presence and make Him ‘the G-d of the earth’. The same choice also lies before us on a personal level. Will G-d be an impersonal creator or the G-d of others, or will he be our G-d, someone with which we have a personal relationship. G-d does not imposes Himself on us but waits to be invited. It is up to us to make Him part of our lives, and the lives of others. As a Hasidic Rebbe once said when asked where G-d is to be found: G-d is found where He is let in.
Reading the incident of Sarah and Avimelech, the Rabbis noticed an interesting change of wording. After Avimelech has taken Sarah, whom he believes to be Abraham’s sister, into his harem, G-d appears to him and threatens him with death for abducting a married woman. Avimelech pleads ignorance, as Abraham had said she was his sister and states: ‘with an innocent heart and clean hands I did this thing’. G-d replies that he knows that he acted with an innocent heart, and therefore prevented Avimelech from touching her. The Rabbis pick up on the absence of any mention of clean hands in G-d’s reply. They portray G-d as answering that indeed Avimelech acted out of innocence but his failure to carry out the sin was not due to his ‘clean hands’ but rather G-d’s stratagem to protect Sarah. This little exchange may seem insignificant or merely a nice piece of clever exegesis, but it contains within it an important message: one heeded by the Rabbis themselves and relevant to us. There are two ways to stop people doing something wrong. One is education. By informing people of the consequences of their actions or the true nature of their activities, they can hopefully be dissuaded from acting in an unacceptable manner. Yet, this is often not enough. People need often to be prevented from acting in ways that are damaging to themselves and others, even before they can be educated out of such behaviour. Thus, G-d prevented Avimelech from sinning with Sarah and only then informed him of the danger he faced. The Rabbis, too, were great believers in the power of education. Yet they understood the need to create a ‘fence round the Torah’; distancing people from situations and actions that could lead to forbidden actions. Not touching work implements on Shabbat, or not being alone with a member of the opposite sex, are but two of the laws in this genre. The same debate can be had concerning the modern evils of tobacco and alcohol abuse. Are education campaigns enough? Or is it necessary to prevent people from sinning, through smoking bans and liquor taxes. The lesson of the Torah seems to be that both are necessary. That is an important message for our society. We often seem to think that education alone will solve our societal evils. Indeed, education may be the only long term solution. But in the present we have an obligation to limit the damage. That, as Avimelech discovered, can often only be done by prevention.
Parshah Lech L’cha
An old adage from Jewish life in the Diaspora when Jews do something questionable, is ‘what will the goyim think’? This worry, however, is not merely a product of the present exile, but goes right back to the dawn of Jewish history. In this week’s Parshah, we find that the shepherds of Abraham and his nephew Lot, have an argument over grazing rights. The description of this intra-Jewish squabble is followed by the seemingly irrelevant statement that ‘the Canaanite and the Pezarite were then in the land. Yet on the basis of the above adage, we can understand the Torah’s point. The Jewish family are having an internecine argument, while the surrounding peoples look on. What must they think of the adherents of this new monotheistic ideology, when its adherents cannot even get on among themselves. Jewish internal warfare thus causes a profanation of G-d’s name, causing the true message of Abraham to be lost. It is thus to be greatly regretted that the important mitzvah of Shemitah, or the sabbatical year, has caused a virtual civil war to break out in Israel and indeed throughout the Jewish world. While each side of the argument certainly has merit, the manner in which the debate is being carried on is a disgrace. Rather, than everyone working together to ensure the adherents of each opinion can observe this Shemitah year in the manner they wish, we have instead, each group trying to impose, by force, their opinion on the rest of society. The result is an unholy mess, a profanation of G-d’s name and the complete loss of the true meaning of Shemitah, in a squabble over its observance. This is a double tragedy, as the idea of the sabbatical year has an important message for the whole world. The notion of a basic respect for nature contained in the concept of non-exploitation of the earth for a year, is vital and relevant to modern society. The notion of the earth and its resources belonging to everyone and the remission of debts at the end of the year, sketches a solution to many of the challenges facing our world today. So in this matter, ‘what the goyim think’ should be of great importance. Yet the message of Abraham is lost because of the squabbling among his children. How can we be a light to the nations if that light is obscured by the smoke of fighting among ourselves?!
‘A seemingly minor detail in our Parshah, is the cause of a dispute among the Rabbis. The Torah says that G-d commanded Noah to put a tzoar in the Ark. This word comes from the Hebrew root for illumination, and seems to indicate some sort of light source. According to some this was a window; according to others a precious jewel that gave off light. This argument is very interesting and can be seen to have deeper significance than a discussion on the source of illumination in the Ark. A precious stone illuminates from within. It is a self-contained source of light not susceptible to outside stimuli. A window on the other hand looks outward. It not only lets in light but allows the person within to be affected by what is occurring outside. It connects the person with the natural world, the source of its illumination. These two aspects of light can be seen to provide guidance on philosophical enlightenment. Is our world determined and influenced by the natural world and what happens outside, or are we a self contained island impervious to, and thus protected from, outside influence. Do we look out to the world and risk being corrupted or do we enclose ourselves in walls, and risk suffocation. Can we indeed combine the two? This Shabbat may provide an answer. It is Shabbat Rosh Hodesh. These two days, encapsulate the above two approaches. Rosh Hodesh celebrates the cyclic natural world, the rhythm of nature. It calls upon us to find G-d in nature, interacting with the outside world and being influenced by it. Shabbat, on the other hand, is a self contained island that serves to insulate us from the world. Its light comes not from natural sources, but from the Divine light beyond the six days of material creation. While Rosh Hodesh symbolises the Jewish people’s interaction with history, Shabbat has often served to safeguard us the many vicissitudes of that history. This Shabbat, however being both Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh, serves to teach us that we can, and indeed need, to combine both. We need both the interaction and influence of exterior forces and the ability to cosset ourselves on our own. We need both the Shalom of Shabbat and the Tov of the Hodesh: the good that comes from the natural, material world. Indeed the Parshah seems to indicate just this combination. After the flood, Noah opens the window he made; indicating there was possibly both a stone and a window. So, Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov.
Parshah Bereishit / Shemini Atzeret
Shemini Atzeret is one of the more puzzling festivals in the Jewish calendar, and nowhere more so than in the Torah itself. In the list of the festivals in Leviticus, we are commanded to celebrate Succot forseven days, and on the eighth day have a Yom Tov. This is different wording to that found in connection with Pesach, where we are commanded to celebrate Pesach for seven days, with the seventh day being a Yom Tov. In other words, the seventh day of Pesach is part of the festival of Pesach, while the eighth day of Succot, is not part of the festival of Succot, that has only seven days. This idea is reinforced by the fact that in the repetition of Succot in the same section, as well as in the list of pilgrim festivals in Deuteronomy, the eighth day is not mentioned at all. This caused the Rabbis to definitively designate Shemini Atzeret as a separate festival. Yet it has no special name in the Torah, only described as the eighth day of Succot, even though Succot only has seven days. One way the Rabbis solved this conundrum, was to see Shemini Atzeret in relation to Succot, like Shavuot in relation to Pesach. Though Shavuot and Pesach are two separate festivals they are connected historically, liturgically, (by the Omer count), and thematically. The freedom we achieved on Pesach was only made complete by the acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot. In a like manner, we could perhaps look at Shemini Atzeret. During the days of Succot we dwell in the shadow of the Divine Presence. For seven days we learn to trust in G-d for our needs. On the eighth day, at G-d’s request, we reciprocate by agreeing of our own volition to stay another day. We do this without the Succah, the symbol of Divine protection. Rather, it is us that now take the initiative by completing the Torah and beginning again. We learn that G-d’s protection and care is not a one way street but that we can also take a part in the bettering of the world. That is, of course, a lesson taught in the beginning of Genesis. The first humans got everything from G-d but gave nothing in return. This ingratitude led to the expulsion from Eden, and eventually the destruction of humanity by the flood. Shemini Atzeret teaches us the importance of giving not only taking. It is thus, though a separate festival, an integral part of the celebration of Succot with its theme of Divine bounty. A good lesson for the long winter ahead.