Forth Light Weekly Sedra
‘Remember the days of old, examine the years of each generation’. Moses, in his valedictory address, calls on the Jewish people to remember their history and learn from it. Each generation should seek to take the relevant lessons from past historical events and apply them to their situation. One of the ways the Torah seeks to teach us historical lessons is through the festivals, especially the Shalosh Regalim or three Pilgrimage Festivals. Pesach, Shavuot and Succot mark not only seasons of the year but historical events in the life of the Jewish people. Succot commemorates the fact that G-d caused us to dwell in succot when we left Egypt. Future generations are to understand this historical fact. Unlike the commemorations of the Exodus or Revelation on Pesach and Shavuot respectively, it is not entirely clear what is the lesson we are meant to learn from this. This may pivot around the Talmudic dispute concerning what succot are actually meant to represent.
According to the opinion that the Torah is referring to the Clouds of Glory, then we are supposed to remember G-d’s care for the Israelites in the wilderness and understand that we should have faith in G-d’s protection. However, according to the opinion that regards the Torah as referring to actual booths, the lesson may be somewhat different. Remembering that we survived as a people living in flimsy succot in a wilderness may be intended to teach us we can make do with a lot less than we think. Since in our prayers Succot is also designated ‘the time of our joy’ it seems to indicate that we are meant to understand that we do not need masses of material possessions to be happy or satisfied. Indeed, it may be the case that less is actually more. Heeding Moses’ instruction to listen to the voice of history for our generation, we can indeed find a strong resonance in the lesson of the succah. We have destroyed the planet and endangered our existence by overconsumption. We urgently need to realise that we can be both happier, safer and more successful by making do with less. That is the lesson of Succot for our time.
‘Seek G-d when he is to be found; call upon him when He is near’. Our Rabbis famously state that there are times when G-d is to be found and times when He is near. When is G-d both to be found and near? The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This statement requires further reflection. What does it mean that G-d is close during this period? Does He have office hours? Surely G-d is approachable all the time?
An answer to this question might be found in another conundrum to be found in this week’s Parshah. G-d instructs Moses to write down his ‘Song’, either Ha’azinu or the whole Torah, in order that it should be a witness against Israel. For, G-d says, He knows that after Moses’ death the people will stray from the right path and disaster will overcome them. How are we to explain this statement? Even putting aside the old paradox of foreknowledge and free will, what is the point of informing the people that they will sin?
I think the answer lies in the nature of the world that G-d has created. In a material, imperfect world sin or failure is inevitable. Perfection is in fact an unattainable goal. If G-d had wanted people to be angels He would have made us so. Instead we are created to fail and fall; but crucially to rise again and improve. And that is the point. G-d is telling the people that they will sin in order that they should realise the necessity for improvement. Moses’ song, which we read next week, is more than merely a list of failings but a call to be better. Just as sin is an integral part of being mortal; repentance is the point of being human. For this reason many of the selichot we recite during these days refer to Teshuvah as preceding creation. Our return to G-d after falling is intrinsic to the very fabric of our existence.
Therefore, G-d gave us these days of repentance. Our lives are evaluated during this period not for G-d’s sake but for ours. We are given an opportunity, if only for a few days, to realise our full potential. As Teshuvah is so basic to our existence G-d didn’t leave it to chance that we would repent when we felt like it. He rather gave us an intense period of time when we would be more likely to avail ourselves of the opportunity. And even though He is always available, G-d made Himself especially close to us during these days to help us feel more spiritual and thus come closer to Him. As Maimonidies puts it, foolish are the people who spent these days like any others. G-d has brought himself closer to us. Should we not reciprocate?
You are all standing here before G-d..’. Thus Moses gathers the Jewish people as individuals and a community from the leaders of the people to the manual workers. Everyone, as both individuals and a community, was to enter into the covenant with G-d. This Parshah is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and forms a fitting introduction to this period of the year. On Rosh Hashanah, we also all stand before G-d as both individuals and a community. As the Zichronot section of the special Rosh Hashanah Musaf states, G-d pronounces judgement on nations and individuals, each in their own sphere. Yet there is a third aspect to this yearly accounting that is hinted to in our Parshah. The Torah talks of a person who hearing the terms of the covenant decides it does not suit him and he will go his own way. The consequences of this attitude of ‘I’ll be alright mate’ are the destruction of the land and the exile of the people. By choosing to go his own way without regard for the general welfare, this person hurts everyone. Thus, on Rosh Hashanah we are also judged on how we interacted with the community and how our individual actions affected everyone else.
Were we sensitive to other peoples‘ needs or only thought about what we wanted? Did we think we knew best or were we willing to listen to the opinion of others. Did we consider for a moment how our actions affected everyone else, or did we simply not care? These are the types of questions we should be asking ourselves on Rosh Hashanah and on which G-d will be interrogating us. While during the last eighteen months we have seen many acts of public spiritedness and concern for others, we have also seen those who have simply disregarded the rules meant to keep everybody safe. They know better than the experts, they will make up their own minds about risk and no one else should tell them what to do. We all know people like this and they too will have serious questions to answer this Rosh Hashanah. Let us thus take these lessons to heart and resolve this year to think more of other peoples’ needs, listen more to other peoples’ opinions and act less as selfish individuals and more as a community whose members can put aside their own desires and opinions for the good of all.
The Torah in Parshat Re’eh commands that the entry of the Israelites into the Land should be marked by a ceremony of Blessing and Curse. The Torah this week fleshes out the nature of that ceremony, with half the tribes standing on one mountain, half on the other and the Levites pronouncing the blessings and curses in the middle. The Torah also provides the text for the ceremony, in the form of eleven imprecations beginning with the words ‘cursed be’. The blessings were the opposite of these imprecations. The commentators have pondered why these eleven actions were chosen for special condemnation. The simplest answer is that these prohibitions, such as removing a neighbour’s landmark or smiting someone in secret, were actions unlikely to be discerned or so punished or reprimanded by the authorities. This idea raises the question of to what extent Judaism believes the state or religious authorities should take an interest in private actions. Looking at Judaism’s daughter religions, we see a marked difference in their attitude to this matter. Christian authorities were not only interested in people’s private actions but in their beliefs and regularly persecuted and killed people for heresy. On the hand, we learn from Maimonides and others, that even a fanatical Islamic regime such as the Almohides, were only interested in public conformity, allowing Jews under their control to practice Judaism in private, so long as they publicly conformed to Islam.
Judaism holds a position somewhat in the middle. On the one hand, we learn that in the case of idolatry it was the duty of even a family member to inform on someone trying to lead them astray. On the other, even serious sexual transgressions needed two witnesses in order to be acted on and a judge who disagreed with the decision of the supreme Court was only punished if he publicly ruled for others in accordance with his opinion. Thus Judaism does not search out heresy or really seek in an official manner to interfere in what people believe, provided they do not seek to convert others. This does not however mean that the Torah is indifferent to people’s private actions. The very ceremony we are discussing impresses upon the nation at the beginning of their national existence in their own land, that private actions have consequences for everyone. If people are slandering others, even in private, or engaging in acts that undermine family life, they are undermining the foundations of communal life and endangering the national polity. The fact that the Jewish state or religion does not normally seek to legally punish private deviation does not mean that it regards such behaviour as neutral. Rather, as the public ceremony described in our Parshah emphasises, the responsibility for the welfare of the community falls on every member of the community, also concerning their personal behaviour.
One of the most difficult passages in the Torah is that of the ‘rebellious son’, which provides that if a son will persistently refuse to listen to his parents the local court should stone him. Relying on the details spelled out in this passage the Rabbis surrounded the application of this law with so many conditions it became in effect a dead letter. Indeed, there is even an opinion that it was not only never carried out but never meant to be carried out. Rather, it exists in the Torah for purely educational purposes. That being the case, what important lesson can we take from this passage? The Rabbis state that the ‘rebellious son’ is killed ‘in cognisance of his future’. His riotous and licentious behaviour today will eventually lead him into crime and violence which will most probably result in him being eventually executed. It is better that he dies innocent today than guilty tomorrow. While this idea sounds harsh to our ears and is most likely based on ideas about the afterlife, as well as avoiding future damage to society, it contains within it and important lesson. You see young person going astray by leading a life of gluttony and excess. In order to support this lifestyle they will eventually have to resort to crime and end up as part of the criminal justice system.
The Torah teaches us in this passage that you don’t simply wait for this to happen. Rather you take strong action now when the youth is still relatively innocent in order to forestall the later damage they will do to themselves and the society they live in. If we look at the epidemic of drug deaths in Scotland, this is a lesson we need to learn and act upon. As the Torah points out with regard to the rebellious son, eventually they will not be able to support their habit and turn to crime in order to do so, with all the negative consequences for themselves and others. The time to act is before that moment when it is still possible to save them. Unfortunately, it is in this regard that we are failing abysmally leading to the highest drug death rate in Europe. We need a variety of different measures such stronger earlier educational, more support services and even safe supply possibilities, to end this disgrace. We shouldn’t wait until we have early deaths and grieving families to take action but introduce strong preventative measures at an early stage. Too many of our young people are dying guilty rather than being helped why innocent and only by following the Torah’s prescription of early and effective intervention will we be able to begin to turn things around.
One of the special mitzvot mandated for a Jewish king is to write a Torah scroll for himself. (This seems to be in addition to the similar mitzvah commanded to all Jews at the end of Deuteronomy.) The Torah when commanding that the king should write a copy of the Torah adds ‘from before the Priests, the Levites’. It is interesting to consider the purpose of this addition. It could be merely an instruction as to where the king would find a scroll to copy from. We learn at the end of the Torah that Moses wrote it down and gave it to the Levites. The king would then need to copy it from them. But it is still not clear why this practical and somewhat obvious bit of advice needed to be included in the mitzvah.
If we contemplate the matter more, however, we may find a somewhat deeper and more relevant reason for this addition. The reason that the Torah commands a king to have his own special Torah scroll is to impress upon him the source of his power and its limitations. The monarch in Judaism is subservient to, not above, the law and his job is to uphold the laws of the Torah, not ride roughshod over them.
Yet there is another danger of no lesser importance and one very familiar to us from European history. This is the possibility that the king, far from ignoring the Torah, will use it for his own purposes. He will write a Torah scroll for himself, but see this as taking ownership of Judaism and then manipulate it for his own political ends. The Torah therefore emphasises the necessity of the king taking the Torah from ‘before the Priests, the Levites’. He must go to them to receive instruction in the Torah and acknowledge the existence of an independent religious hierarchy into whose keeping the Torah has been given. It is up to the Levites, and later the Rabbis and scholars in each generation, to determine the interpretation of the Torah, not for the monarch to subvert it for his own ends.
The opposite is, however, also true. The Levites are guardians of the Torah from whom the king learns religion. They do not however instruct him in politics. The Torah thus sets up an important separation of powers. The monarch, while obligated to obey the Torah, is not bound by the political opinions of its interpreters. The scholars of Torah are also free to work without political interference. Each serves G-d in his own way and the nation benefits. The breakdown of this system in our days, especially in Israel, and the intertwining of religion and practical partisan politics have caused great damage to both politics and the Torah.
The book of Deuteronomy is distinguished by its emphasis on the centrality of worship, though this idea is also hinted at elsewhere in the Torah. The central section in this regard is at the beginning of our Parshah. Understanding these passages in conjunction with what is described in the books of Judges and Samuel, the Sages defined five main periods. The period of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the initial conquest of the Land, the period of the sanctuary at Shiloh, the interval following the destruction of Shiloh and the time since the building of the Temple by Solomon. During the time of the Tabernacle, Shiloh and the Temple, it was forbidden to sacrifice outside these places. In the interim between these periods it was permitted for certain sacrifices. However, even after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, it was not permitted to sacrifice anywhere else. The question is why? If the issue is that when you have a central sanctuary you should only sacrifice there, why after the destruction of Jerusalem cannot we sacrifice anywhere? And if once we have a central place of worship, private sacrifice is forbidden, that should also have applied to the interregnum between sanctuaries. I think the answer is very instructive. The difference between the first interregnums and the period after the destruction of the Temple was that they were in the Land of Israel.
The nation was together under one sovereignty of that of Joshua, Samuel or Saul and David. The destruction of Shiloh did not lead to the dissolution of the nation or to the exile of the people. There was thus no chance that temporary permission to sacrifice on private altars would lead to the disintegration of Judaism. The setting up of altars in Israel after the split of the monarchy led to dire consequences because it was done in opposition to the Temple in Jerusalem, not in the absence of it. A very different set of circumstances obtained after the destruction of the Temples. In both cases this catastrophe led to the loss of Jewish sovereignty and the exile of the nation. Scattered in foreign lands and subject to the influences of alien cultures the Jewish people and religion were in danger of disappearing. Allowing people to sacrifice on private altars would have led to numerous splits in the form of worship and eventually the content of belief. Judaism would have vanished. Only being forbidden to sacrifice outside the Temple in Jerusalem forced Jews to look to one city and one place as the centre of their religious aspirations. The fact every synagogue and worshipper faced Jerusalem united a people scattered to the ends of the earth. By connecting them to Jerusalem and Israel, they preserved Jews and Judaism as one people united around one G-d and one land, enabling us in the end to survive and return.
At the beginning of the Parshah this week, we read the verse that forms the basis for the Birkat Hamazon or Bensching: ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the L-rd your G-d for the good land He has given you’. The Rabbis derive from this verse that we are only obligated in Bensching from the Torah when we are sated, but we bensch even when we have only eaten a kaziet or olive’s worth of bread. The Talmud links this to G-d’s discrimination in favour of the Jewish people. When accused of favouritism, G-d answers that should He not be well disposed to a people who when He commanded them to bless Him only when they are satisfied, do so even when they have only eaten an olive’s worth. We need to understand the meaning of this statement. Is it merely about the Jews doing more than they were asked to, or is there something deeper. If we think about the Torah’s wording it requires us to bless G-d only when we have a feeling of satisfaction, when things are going well and we might naturally be conscious of a feeling of gratitude.
The Jewish people, however, thank G-d even if they have only eaten as little as an olive when they may be feeling far from satisfied. Indeed they may be still feeling quite hungry. Yet they are still grateful and manage to express that in praising G-d. This dictum of the Sages then is about our relationship with G-d. Are we only connected with G-d when things are going well or also when things may not be so good? Are we only interested in a relationship with G-d because of what He can give us or for its own sake? By blessing even when we are not satisfied, we are demonstrating that our connection with the Divine is not just about benefit but relationship. G-d, in turn, shows us favouritism but relating to us not only when we are behaving but even when our behaviour leaves much to be desired. A true relationship is verified not by what happens when we are satisfied and things are going well but how it copes when things are not so good and we may be less than satisfied. By blessing G-d even when not sated we show that our relationship is not dependent on superficial benefit but is strong and deep and can survive the vicissitudes of history to exist unimpaired to our own day.
The essence of the book of Deuteronomy is in some ways very different from that of the rest of the Torah. While all of the Torah tells us the story of events from a certain perspective, as indeed does all retelling of history even in modern times, the recall of events in Deuteronomy clearly has a different purpose than the rest of the Torah. Rather than informing us of what has occurred, the discourses of Moses in Deuteronomy seek to impress upon us a clear lesson. Moses, before his death, is reviewing the events of the past forty years in front of a generation that is about to cross over into the Land. Despite the troubled relationship between G-d and Israel in the wilderness, the challenges to that relationship when everyone is settled down and farming their own plot of land are even greater. We can see precisely the dangers inherent in this situation, in the circumstances narrated in the book of Judges. Thus Moses, in reviewing the events of the past forty years, emphasises the shortcomings of the Israelites vis a vis their relationship with G-d and urges them to do better in the future. In this context, we can examine the recollection of the Revelation at Sinai found in our Parshah. Rather than concentrating on the content of the Revelation itself, as is more the case in the original story in Exodus, it focuses on the experience of Revelation.
This may be why in Deuteronomy, the site of Revelation is called Horeb rather than Sinai. It focuses on the area where the Israelites were encamped, Horeb, rather than the mountain where G-d spoke, Sinai. The focus is on Israel and their experience rather than the Divine revelation itself. Two issues are zoomed in on. One is the lack of any visible representation of G-d and the corollary that the Jews should therefore not worship any such representation. The other is the reaction of the Israelites to the Revelation, which is one of fear. While G-d seems to approve of at least their awe of Him, the Sages detected in the wording of the text a sense of disappointment that the Jews could not respond to G-d with love. While this ‘fear of G-d’ may serve, at least temporarily, to ensure obedience to the dictates of the Torah, it is no real substitute for the desire for a relationship. It is this need for a relationship with G-d, expressed shortly afterwards in the Shema, that is lacking from the people and which will store up problems for the future. This is a regret which is expressed by Moses throughout Deuteronomy and only at the very end of the book is there a hint that such a desire arises in the people. As we begin the seven week countdown to Rosh Hashanah, this is a question that should concern us all. Are we practicing our Judaism by rote, as a learnt tradition without purpose or feeling, or do we truly see it as part of a relationship with G-d?
This week we begin the book of Devarim or Deuteronomy, which consists of Moses' farewell address to the Jewish people before his death. The book begins with what appears to be a geographical and chronological delineation of the time and place of these speeches. Yet these markers are themselves uncertain and don’t seem to provide a clear indicator of the exact location, for example. Therefore, commentators ancient and modern have interpreted the names given at the beginning of the Parshah in a homiletical sense, seeing them as part of Moses’ rebuke of the people for their misbehaviour over the previous forty years. It is interesting that this also applies to descriptions of timing that seem to be clear in themselves. For example, Rashi interprets the statement that Moses spoke to them after the defeat of Sihon and Og and the possession of their land, as indicating more than simply a chronological note. Rather, Moses is making a conscious decision as to the timing of his discourses, one that has relevance for us today. According to this interpretation, Moses reasoned that if he had spoken to the people before they had possessed some of the Land, they could have retorted that he was merely a windbag. He is coming to rebuke them but had not fulfilled his promises or done any good for them. Only after the conquest of the Amorite kings and the possession of their land did he have the moral authority to rebuke them. Having at least partially delivered, Moses had the stature to be heard by the people, even when he reminded them of their faults. According to this view, if you are going to rebuke people or even ask them to do something, you need to have benefited them in some way first. This idea is important for how we approach Judaism and the running of Jewish communities today. Too often Judaism and its proponents are seen as only making demands on people. You need to be involved, come to a minyan, do this and not do this. This approach often turns people away who are interested in Judaism and being part of a Jewish community but are afraid of being caught up in a seemingly endless list of obligations. Rather, like Moses, we first need to demonstrate to people what we can do for them and how we can enrich their lives before hitting on them for something we want. We need to show to them that we care for them as individuals not just as bodies to make up the numbers. Only when people feel appreciated and supported will they want to make their own contribution. Thus our initial approach to any Jew interested in Judaism or the community should not be based on a question of what they can do for us but on an offer of what we can do for them.
The beginning of the book of Numbers deals with the counting of the people and their division into camps based on the twelve tribes. The end of the book deals with a similar division into tribes, the division of the Land. The very last sections reinforce that division. We read last week how in a family without sons, the daughters inherit the family’s portion of the Land. This opens up the possibility that when such a woman would marry, the land could be transferred to another tribe, if her husband was not from her tribe. Indeed, according to Rashi, this possibility is why the inheritance by a woman is always referred to as the ‘transfer’ of the land. In this final section of the book, the law is suitably amended to proscribe a woman who inherits land from marrying outside her tribe. We thus seem to have in this ultimate part of the book a strengthening of the tribal divisions annunciated at the beginning. However, it is not so simple. According to tradition, the necessity of a female inheritor marrying within her tribe only applied to that generation, when the Land was being divided. Obviously, there was no purpose in carefully dividing the Land among the tribes as prescribed in the Torah and implemented by Joshua, if immediately this was to be undermined by parcels of land being transferred by marriage to a different tribe. However, once this initial division was complete and the Israelite settlement stabilised, this prohibition no longer applied. Indeed, one of the origins of the festival of the 15th Av, which we will celebrate in a couple of weeks, is said to be rejoicing over the expiration of this restriction. All of this leads us to interesting conclusions concerning the rigidity or fluidity of definitions and identity within the Jewish people. As pointed out, a cursory reading of Numbers might seem to indicate that sectarian or ethnic/cultural identity within Judaism is important, just as the division into different tribes was important. Yet the fact that not only was the prohibition of marrying outside the tribe eventually abolished but that the day on which this happened became a festival that is still celebrated today, tells a different story. Particular identity within the Jewish people is important but Jewish unity is more important. The Sages certainly did not belittle the importance of differing customs or ideological positions, such as those between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. But they also passionately believed that those differences should not be allowed to impair Jewish unity, so despite their divergent opinions, including about marriage, these two groups of scholars did not refrain from marrying each other. Indeed, it is the possibility of fluidity of identity between the various ideological and cultural sects within Judaism, that enable diversity without causing division. In our time, when too many Jews regard their particular Jewish identity as the only valid Jewish identity, this attitude of our tradition needs to be emphasised and embraced.
Our Parshah this week contains a unique sentence: ‘Moses spoke to G-d saying’. This is the inversion of the normal ‘G-d spoke to Moses saying’. In the same manner in which G-d relays His commands to Moses, Moses now relays his request/demand to G-d. What is the vital issue at stake in this singular
inversion of roles? The appointment of a successor to Moses. Having just been told that he must shortly die, Moses immediately asks G-d that He appoint a successor who can take his place. The idea of leaving such an appointment till after his death is unacceptable to Moses. He sees part of his role as a leader as providing leadership for his charges even when he is no longer around. In displaying this attitude, he shows two of the qualities needed for true leadership, realism and humility. He does not unrealistically think he will be there forever and he does not regard himself as indispensable. Facing up to the reality of his own demise, he has the humility to understand that he can and should be replaced. Furthermore, it is part of his role as a responsible leader to ensure the availability of that replacement and the smooth transfer of power. In his actions in this regard, Moses provides a template for the future and a model for other Jewish leaders. The Sages teach us that Rabbis should ‘raise up many disciples’. The more potential future leaders that a leader encourages the better. Like Moses, they did not see these future replacements as a threat but as a measure of their success. Unfortunately, too many leaders do not follow Moses’ example. Their ego and often delusion convince them that they are both irreplaceable and able to go on and on, neither which is ever true. Power always seeps away in the end and once you are gone, someone else will inevitably take your place. Seeking to deny this is damaging for the leader and those he leads. We do not need to look very far to see the results of such a misguided attitude. Far better to learn from Moses, who by accepting inevitable loss of power and sensibly providing for the succession, did both honour to himself and good for his people. If only more leaders today would follow his example.
One of the most well known parts of the Torah is the Parshah of Balak, which deals with the story of Balaam. Balaam is hired by the Moabites to curse Israel but is forced to bless them instead. There are many questions that can be asked about the details of this Parshah and which have been discussed by the commentators throughout the centuries. However, there are two basic queries that arise from this section of the Torah. Firstly, why was this story important enough to be related in the Torah and indeed recalled by later prophets such as Micah in the Haftorah? Why was it important to G-d that Balaam not only did not curse Israel but bless them and why is that important for Israel to know? Secondly, seeing that ‘the Parshah or Book of Balaam’ is regarded as a distinct section of the Torah (indeed in a Torah scroll there are no breaks in the text of the story), why does our Parshah end with the unedifying story of the sin with the Moabite women and not at the end of the story of Balaam? I believe that the answer to both these questions sheds an important light on our relations with other nations. The fact that G-d goes to great lengths to have Balaam bless Israel, rather than simply desist from cursing them, demonstrates that such a blessing is worthwhile. Furthermore, it is important that the Jews are aware of such a blessing. Sometimes it is regarded as a sign of weakness to worry about ‘what will the goyim think’. Jews should do what they think is right and what others think does not matter. That attitude, however, ignores the role that Jews are meant to play in the world. Abraham is told that through him and his descendants, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Jews are meant by their teaching and example to guide the world to the perfection of the messianic age. That is especially true when Jews are able to fulfil this function as a sovereign state amongst the other nations. It thus matters what people think of us. While of course, this does not mean that we should make dangerous and erroneous decisions simply to find favour with others, it also does not mean that how others perceive us is unimportant. We have a duty to do what is right and to explain that to the world. This leads us to the answer to the second question which provides a counterpoint to what we have just discussed. The story of the sin with the Moabite women, warns us of the negative consequences of our own bad behaviour. As Hertz puts it, Balaam may not have been allowed to curse the Israelites but he could advise the Moabites how the Jews could curse themselves. Which, by their behaviour, they proceed to do, only Pinchas’s prompt action preventing a catastrophe. This teaches us that simply explaining ourselves to others will not be effective if our bad actions bely good words. All the ‘hasbara’ in the world will not help if we are acting in an incorrect or destructive manner. This Parshah thus teaches us that what others think does matter and we must firstly act in a way that is proper and then make sure we explain that to others. Only thus, can we properly fulfil our function as an example to the world.
An interesting passage in our Parshah deals with the successful war of the Israelites with the Canaanites of Arad who had attacked them. Most commentators place this event in the 40th year, prior to the conquest of Transjordan. Hertz, however, basing his opinion on geographical considerations, argues that this event took place shortly before the sending of the spies in the 2nd year of the Exodus. It was probably placed in its present position in order not to disturb the record of the litany of disasters leading up to the ultimate failure of the spies and to enhance the record of triumphs that form the main theme of the 2nd half of Numbers. Despite the geographical difficulties, I would, however, argue that the first opinion is more valid. The main reason for doing so lies in an examination of the behaviour of the people. If we look closely at the passage, we see that the people take the initiative, proposing to G-d the dedication of the spoils if they are victorious. This is in stark contrast with the behaviour of the Israelites of the 1st generation, both in the incident of the spies and before. During both the crisis at the Red Sea and the war with Amalek, it is Moses or G-d that take the initiative in dealing with the situation. The people are almost always passive. The actions in this passage, however, are consistent with the behaviour of the Israelites of the 2nd generation, described later in the Parshah. In both the crisis of the serpents and the wars with the Amorites, it is the people that take the initiative. Indeed in the war with Sihon, G-d’s intervention is not even mentioned. The 2nd generation provide an example of a more mature relationship with G-d. Unlike their parents, they are not stuck in childish dependence, unable to act for themselves. They realise that G-d wishes them to act like responsible adults, making decisions on their own, while bearing responsibility for those decisions to Him. This is also seen in one of Bilaam’s blessings. Rather than seeking to discover the future by way of magic, Israel waits to be told by G-d’s prophets His will; and meanwhile gets on with it. This view of religion is a far healthier one than the childish one often held and proposed by so many. G-d may be regarded as our father, but that does not mean we should behave like children.
As we read again the story of Korach, we are struck by the demagogic nature of his appeal. Despite being one of the most important leaders of his tribe, he poses as the person standing up for little guy. He claims that everyone is holy and no one is better than anyone else. Moses and Aaron, therefore, should not lord it over the rest of the community. What is left out, of course, is how having Korach in charge is going to make any difference. Indeed, according to the Midrash, it is precisely this point that is understood by the wife of On ben Pelet. While mentioned at the beginning of the story, he mysteriously disappears by the denouement. Persuaded by his wife, he decides to withdraw from the rebellion, thus saving himself and his family. His wife points out that whatever happens, he was not going to benefit. Even if Korach is successful, he will just exchange one master for another. This inherent deception in populist demagoguery can be seen in politics today. We have massively wealthy businessmen and public school boys posing as defenders of the underprivileged and the left behind. They promise that they will take on the Establishment on behalf of the disadvantaged when they themselves are of the Establishment. This demagogic deception is, of course, not new. The Rabbis have already warned us to be careful of politicians ‘who only befriend someone for their benefit and do not stand by a person when they really need them’. Yet today this phenomenon has taken a new and frightening turn, one however, also presaged in the story of Korach. Korach claims to be the democrat par-excellence; he is standing up for the will of the people ‘all the people are holy’, against the autocratic rule of Moses and Aaron. The institution of the Priesthood, according to Korach, is not there to serve the people but to oppress them. Much of this sounds familiar to us today. The judicial system or parliament, the very things that safeguard our democracy, are attacked as being undemocratic and thwarting the will of the people. In a further twist, opposing these demagogic pretensions is trying to stifle free speech and persecuting those who stand up for their ‘democratic’ rights. This too is foreshadowed in the Parshah. Even after the singular destruction of Korach and his followers, his remaining supporters accuse Moses and Aaron of responsibility for their deaths. Only an outbreak of plague stops the rebellion and even then the people seem merely cowed into sullen acquiescence. This shows just how dangerous and corrosive such demagoguery can be to our national institutions and how hard it is to combat. The story of Korach thus serves as a timely reminder of the dangers of populist demagoguery from wherever it comes and the vital necessity to oppose it.
As fighting rages in the Land of Israel, the pre-eminent scholar of his generation is writing what will become the classic commentary on the Torah. At the very beginning he chooses to make a statement about the Land and the Jews. For his opening explanation he selects a midrash that explains why the Torah did not begin with the first mitzvah in Exodus but rather with the creation story. This is to counter those who claim Jews have no right to the Land of Israel. Genesis teaches us that G-d created the world and thus has the right to dispose of it as He wishes. As the rest of the Torah sets out, He gave the Land of Israel to the Jews. The scholar is Rashi and he is writing at the period of the crusades when Christians and Muslims are fighting over the Land. Rashi is pointing out, right at the beginning, that they may say and do what they like, but the Land really belongs to the Jews because that is what G-d said, in texts accepted by both. That answer is the same answer we should give today. While of course, it is not sufficient in our secular society, it is still important for three reasons. Firstly, we as Jews ourselves need to know of our right to the Land. Israel is ours first and foremost because G-d gave it to us. We thus have a moral right above any historic and legal right. If we ourselves do not believe in our own right no one will believe us. Secondly, while this answer may not cut much ice with secular people, it is a challenge to those churches and other religious groups that attack Israel. We must be bold in confronting them with the words of the Bible they say they believe in and which clearly states that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. Thirdly, because the conflict over the Land is at its heart religious conflict, we must have a religious answer. Religious people expect Jews to believe and act on what their scripture says. Muslims will not respect us if we do not respond to their faith with our faith and their determination with our own. For all these reasons, the answer Rashi gives at the beginning of his commentary on the Torah is just as valid today as it was in the time of the Crusades. We see in the Parshah how the inability of the spies to provide just such an answer caused them to lose heart and blow Jewish history off course. They regarded themselves as grasshoppers and so others regarded them. We must not repeat the same mistake. We need to believe in and clearly state our title to the Land without fear or favour and only then, others will regard us as worthy of respect.
One of the strangest incidents in the Torah is that of the slander spoken by Aaron and Miriam against Moses. Famously, Miriam is chastised directly by G-d by being stricken with leprosy, a punishment that the Israelites are later specifically called on to remember. However, what is not clear and has puzzled the commentators, is the exact nature of Miriam’s complaint concerning ‘the Cushite woman he had taken’. Their explanations range from Miriam defending Moses’ wife whom he had separated from for religious reasons or accusing Moses of racism, to attacking the marriage itself as either not worthy or as a sign of Moses’ haughtiness. All of these explanations have their support in the text, especially G-d’s rebuke of the two siblings for their words. Yet the plain meaning of the text seems to be that Aaron and Miriam objected to Moses taking another wife who was a Cushite or Ethiopian. Either her colour or her lineage or both were considered unsuitable for Moses. They could indeed have seen him marrying such a woman as setting a bad example to the rest of the people. We would here, therefore, have a simple case of racism and prejudice. Such attitudes are, unfortunately, not unknown in the Jewish community. Yet, if we look deeper, something else may be going on here. How did Moses come to marry such a woman? There are traditions that when Moses was an Egyptian prince he ruled over Ethiopia, but a plain understanding of the Torah would place her as one of the mixed multitude that joined the Israelites in leaving Egypt. Jewish tradition has an ambivalent attitude to this group. They are seen as being responsible for the sin of the Golden Calf and earlier on in the Parshah are specifically blamed for inciting the grumbling of the Israelites. Moreover, their inclusion in the Exodus was regarded as the specific decision of Moses, without G-d’s prior approval. Thus Moses’ siblings objections to his wife may have been based on more than just prejudice and may even have had in principle some justification. This distinction is important to remember as we engage in the important task of tackling racism and prejudice within the Jewish community. Someone may be not able to join a community because they are not Jewish or cannot prove it satisfactorily, not because of their colour or other background. Especially when dealing with this issue within the Orthodox community, this distinction is important to make. If those leading this important campaign are seen as attacking the right of communities to use Halakhic criterion to determine membership, they will have lost the fight before they begin. Lets us then be clear about this distinction and so be able to successfully tackle racist attitudes and behaviour within our communities, so everyone is treated equally and fairly.
The Nazirite, whom we read about in the Parshah, has to bring a sin offering ‘for what he sinned against his soul’. Famously, Rabbi Elazar HaKfar relates this to the very fact of the Nazirite taking the vow he did. We can perhaps understand this better by contemplating the Giving of the Torah that we celebrate on Shavuot. It is important to note that the Torah was given to the whole Jewish people. It was not given to the Patriarchs. While Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may have, according to some sources, kept the mitzvot; they did so voluntarily. The obligation to keep the Torah began only at Mt Sinai, when it was given and accepted by the whole people. Understanding this gives us an important insight into the purpose of the Torah and the role of the Jewish people. G-d did not want to give the Torah to individuals, no matter how exalted, because the purpose of the Torah was to guide the life of a nation. The Jewish people by accepting and living by the Torah enable G-d’s presence to permeate every aspect of human life; whether public or private. By keeping the Torah, the Jewish people demonstrate to the world that not only individuals can aspire to holiness; but a whole nation. Not only hermits or monks, divorced from society, can be spiritual; but a whole society and even state with all its organs. This is the task the Jewish people took upon themselves at Mt Sinai; and this is the task that the Nazirite is abandoning. By taking the vow he does, and thus separating himself from society, he is in some way defeating the purpose of the Torah. Anyone can take vows of abstinence and reach spiritual heights. But Jews aspire to creating a whole society, living normal lives; that is holy. By divorcing himself from that society for his own spiritual ends, the Nazirite abandons his task as a Jew; and thus must bring a sin-offering. This is an important lesson to remember as we reflect on recent events. Morally, it may seem easier to be stateless or live in the Diaspora. That way we can stand for all the moral principles while not having to really subject them to the test of reality. We, after all, are a powerless minority not responsible for the security of the nation. Yet that is essentially like the actions of the Nazirite, a cop out. Our task is to have to make the hard decisions and deal with the moral dilemmas of statehood and being responsible for ourselves. However uncomfortable it may make us, that is the role of Jews and that can only be performed in Israel.
The main topic of this week’s Parshah is the census of the Israelites in the Desert. Indeed the very name, Numbers, for the book we begin this week, refers to the many counts within it. It seems then, that counting Jews is important. The Torah takes the time to enumerate the people both by raw numbers, fathers’ houses and tribes. All of this comes to teach us that every Jew is important and every person has his own unique role within the Jewish people. According to tradition there are 600,000 letters in the Torah, corresponding to the number of Jews recorded as receiving the Torah on Mt Sinai. While an actual letter count gets significantly less, what is important is the idea behind this accounting. Every Jew is regarded as having their own letter from the Torah, their own unique contribution to make to the preservation and continuation of Judaism and Jewish tradition. This idea has a special relevance in a small community, where lesser numbers mean that every person does literally count. The viability of an event, service or even of the community as a whole, depends on each individual's unique contribution. This is emphasised even more at a time of crisis, like we have experienced over the last year. Only by people being willing to step forward and contribute can a community hope to survive. In this respect, we have much to be proud of in the magnificent way the community as a whole has responded to this crisis and how we have preserved and increased many of our activities. An important part of the life of any Orthodox community is the ability to pray with a minyan. This enables people to say kaddish, recite important prayers like the kedushah and pray together as a community. Here, especially, numbers matter. Particularly at a time when not everyone is able to join us, the attendance of anyone who feels safe and healthy is even more important. Every person that can attend a service holds the future of that service in their hands. If they come we will have a minyan, we can hold a proper service, and people can say kaddish. If they choose not to come, then none of that is possible and the future of the service itself is called into question. Indeed, as having a regular minyan is such an important part of the life of an Orthodox community, the very viability of the community as it is currently constituted may be at risk. The same is true of other aspects of our communal life. Each of us must realise that our unique contribution is valued and vital. Each of us by our action or inaction holds the future of our community in their hands. In a very real sense, then, for all of us, Jews really do count.
The laws of the Shemitah or the Sabbatical Year have various rules and regulations relating not only to the actual rest of the land but to the disposal of the produce that grows during that year. These rules have much to teach us concerning our relation to the environment and how we should live our lives in a way that respects and preserves G-d’s creation. One of those rules relates to how one is allowed to treat food that comes from produce that has grown during the Shemitah year. This produce is regarded as having kedushat shivi’it or the holiness of the Sabbatical Year and must be consumed in a special manner. The basic rule regarding the consumption of food that has kedushat shivi’it is that it cannot be wasted or thrown away. Every bit of the fruit must be eaten or disposed of in a useful manner. This means that leftovers have to be recycled and peel pits must be given to animals to eat. If you eat at a home in Israel next year that uses this produce, you may be told to be careful only to take what you actually will eat as disposing of leftovers is a problem! This also has implications for Jewish ritual practice. One should not use wine that is holy with kedushat shivi’it for Havdalah as you cannot pour it out in order to extinguish the candle. Likewise, if one uses such wine for Seder night one cannot spill drops of wine during the recitation of the ten plagues. Thus when eating this special food during this year we need constantly to be aware of what and how we are consuming our food. This teaches us an important lesson for other years on how we should consume food in general. One of the great causes of environmental degradation is the appalling amount of food that is wasted. Both private homes, restaurants and supermarkets throw out enormous amounts of ‘unwanted’ produce. This sometimes may be recycled into compost or animal fodder but often serves to simply fill up landfill. Furthermore, in ordering more food than we need, we produce more food than we need, thus increasing the cost to the environment of greater land use and other damage. The special regulations concerning the use of food during the Sabbatical Year teach us that we can behave in a more responsible way. We can buy what we need and eat what we buy and find constructive use for the rest. A ‘best before date’ is only a suggestion, not a command. For this, G-d gave us a sense of smell and taste that can reliably inform us when something is really no longer consumable. If we have a large gathering with lots of food, we could find out in advance what organisations or people would be grateful to have what is left over. As we approach this Shemitah year, which begins on Rosh Hashanah, let us all look at how we consume food and how we can do so more responsibly. Let us take to heart the lessons of this special time and ingrain them in our daily routine, thus saving ourselves and the planet.
At the end of the Parshah we have two mitzvot that are connected with two of the three items of furniture in the main part of the Tabernacle: the Menorah and the Table. The Torah commands the lighting of the lights of the Menorah every evening and the placing of twelve loaves of bread on the Table every Shabbat. What is the purpose of these acts and do they not look suspiciously like pagan ideas of ‘feeding the gods’. The Torah was cognisant of this possibility and for this reason, with regard to the Menorah, the windows of the Temple were designed in such a way that one would not say: ‘He needs its light’. In a similar fashion, the twelve loaves were not offered up on the altar but left on the Table until the following Shabbat when they were replaced and eaten by the priests. All of this served to deny the supposition that they were the ‘food of God’. Rather, according to the Rabbis, these acts were connected to human needs. ‘Whoever wants to gain wisdom should look south (the position of the Menorah) and whoever wants to grow wealthy should look northward’(the position of the Table). In other words the Menorah and Table symbolise the Divine bounty of wisdom and wealth and the lighting of the Menorah and the placing of bread on the Table serves to connect with these Divine gifts. This notion contains within it an important concept. Rabbi Kook explains that people err in trying to approach G-d as a direct personality, seeking to connect to the actuality or essence of the Divine. As G-d is beyond human comprehension, this leads either to idolatry, reducing G-d to an image of our own making, or atheism, not comprehending anything at all. The way to avoid these pitfalls is to approach G-d by the way He relates to us, through the ideals He has put into the fabric of creation. By seeking to connect to and even imitate, where appropriate, Divine ideals of love, wisdom, compassion etc., we can serve and connect to G-d. That, then, is the meaning of these mitzvot in our Parshah. By lighting the Menorah in the Temple, we connect with the Divine ideal of wisdom, by placing the bread on the Table, we approach G-d through His bounty of wealth. Even though today we no longer have a Temple and these two commands cannot be carried out, they have replacements in our daily lives. By lighting the Shabbat candles every week we can also relate to Divine wisdom and by giving charity, we can connect to G-d’s bounty. Indeed, many have the custom of giving charity before lighting the Shabbat candles. Through these and other such commands, we can associate with the Divine ideals that permeate creation and thus connect to G-d.
‘You shall be holy because I the L-rd your G-d am holy’. Thus begins the second of our two Parshiot, a Parshah which lies both physically and thematically at the heart of the Torah. The command to be holy is the essence of all the legislation of the Torah, of which a large portion is found in this week’s reading. But what is holiness, what does it mean to be holy and how does this relate to imitating G-d? Most commentators regard the command to be holy as connected to not doing certain things. Indeed the Torah connects this idea to such areas as kashrut or sexual relations, where we are enjoined to eat certain foods or engage in certain intimate associations. But how does this relate to the rest of the Torah and to the imitation of the holiness of G-d? According to Jewish mystical thought the world was created by an initial Divine contraction. Because G-d filled all reality in order to allow for something other than Himself, He had to withdraw and thus create a space for other beings. This was not only a one time event but continues in the way G-d manages creation. He created the laws of nature and by and large does not contravene them. G-d’s management of the world is characterised by his restraint, the most obvious example being the way He enables us to exercise free will and in ways He disapproves of. Thus, we could say that the holiness of G-d is demonstrated by His restraint and respect for the autonomy of His creations. In a similar way, the Torah commands us to show restraint and respect in the way we behave. We are not to eat everything we want, sleep with everyone we want or take what we want from others, even if we have the ability to do so. We are to show respect to G-d’s creatures both animal and human by exercising restraint in how we interact with them. That is what is meant by being holy as G-d is holy and therein lies the essence of the Torah’s attitude to life. This attitude also extends to the physical world itself as expressed in laws concerning the forbidden mixing of species or not eating fruit of young trees and of course in the institution of the Sabbatical year. In this time of increased concern about the damage humans are doing to our planet, the call to be holy by exercising restraint and showing respect to creation is more pertinent than ever. If we want to save the planet we need to take heed to the admonition at the heart the Torah and lead lives of restraint, respect and thus holiness.
The Torah introduces the topic of leprosy in houses with the words that ‘I will put a plague of leprosy on the houses in the land that you possess’. The Rabbis interpreted this peculiar form of words as signifying a positive announcement. The Canaanites had hidden treasure in their houses and when the Jews, who now possessed them, were forced to take them apart because of the plague, they would discover the hidden treasure. This rather unusual interpretation seeks to teach us a profound truth. Hidden treasures are often concealed in seemingly negative occurrences which turn out in the end to be blessings in disguise. This is especially true in the Land of Israel and can be clearly observed in the history of our return to the Land in our time. If we look at the history of the past century we can see that seeming setbacks or serious threats served in the end to catapult the whole project forward. The First World War seemed to threaten the Zionist project with extinction, with many of the Jewish inhabitants of the Land forced to flee or be under severe restrictions. Yet from that conflict emerged the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate and a massive step forward for Jewish aspirations. The rejection by the Arab world of the 1947 Partition Plan, again threatened the population with destruction, yet the result of the ensuing conflict was an enlarged Israel including part of Jerusalem. A similar scenario played out, of course, in 1967. And the Second Intifada and its economic consequences, despite its terrible human cost, forced reforms that led to a more secure and especially more economically vibrant country. This pattern may be compared to a sling or arrow which needs to be drawn back in order to fire into the distance or a jumper that needs to step backwards in order to jump higher. The greater the step backwards the more the jump forwards. This should give us confidence when we contemplate the ongoing political and social crises in Israel. While this seems to us incredibly damaging, and in the short term it is, it may also turn out to be the catalyst for a more mature political system and greater, rather the lesser, social cohesion. This model however does not only work on a national level but can also be true for us as individuals. Often seeming setbacks are actually the gateway to something greater that we would never have achieved without that setback. The lesson that the Torah teaches us by the phenomenon of leprosy in houses may be, therefore, that every step backwards has the potential to propel us two steps forward.
The central narrative of the first half of the Parshah concerns the death of the sons of Aaron. Nadav and Avihu presume to bring a strange offering into the Tabernacle on the day of its inauguration and are struck down by an act of G-d. Aaron and his remaining sons, despite being technically mourners, are told not to mourn. Indeed, from the list of things they are told not to do, we learn what a mourner is expected to do in normal circumstances. When told by Moses of this decree, it is written that ‘vayidom Aaron’, Aaron was silent. This silence is seen by the Rabbis in a positive light, Aaron being regarded as someone who accepted upon him the Divine decree and did not complain of his fate. We have, however, other biblical characters, notably Job, who do cry out concerning their fate and are indeed answered by G-d. The Bible seems to provide us, then, with two separate, and indeed contradictory, approaches about how to respond to tragedy. This should not surprise us, Judaism often provides us with various ways of dealing with situations. In this case, our approach will depend on the nature of the tragedy and our understanding of it. In the case of Aaron, he was specifically told by Moses not to engage in recriminations. This week we commemorate Yom Hashoah. In asking what approach Jews should take to the events of the Holocaust, we are therefore presented by our tradition with several options. The route taken by many Jews, especially religious Jews, has been that of Aaron. We have been silent and accepted these events as an unfathomable Divine decree that we cannot understand or investigate. This was understandable considering the vast nature of the tragedy, almost unprecedented in Jewish history. This approach was also taken out of respect for survivors, since an attempt to give theological explanations was always likely to be upsetting to those who had actually experienced the terrible events. Yet, this approach is in the end not really satisfactory. It removes a pivotal event in Jewish history from any reference to either what came before or after and from the normative Jewish theological framework, as if it was some alien event, not of this world and time. It was of course neither of these things and to act in this way in the end does a disservice to the memory of the victims. As we approach the eightieth year of the height of the Holocaust and as the survivors mostly are no longer with us, the time has come to engage in the other approaches given to us by the tradition. We must re-anchor the events of the Holocaust both in the wider sweep of Jewish history and in the normative Jewish theological framework. By doing so we will not only understand the true nature, causes and effects of the events of those years but restore both the Holocaust and its victims to their rightful place as an integral part of the journey of Jewish history
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 contemplate the constant chorus of attacks against Jews both in and out of cyberspace and the plots of which the spurious ICC investigation of Israel is merely the latest, 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. That indeed is also the lesson of the Song of Songs we read today. The Lover is not always visible and at times it feels to the beloved as if he has abandoned her. But he is constantly working behind the scenes for their reunion. 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.
Parshat Tzav in a regular year always falls on the Shabbat before Pesach, occasionally, as this year, on Erev Pesach itself. One of the themes that connects this Parshah to Pesach is the instructions concerning the kashering of dishes, something mentioned in the Parshah in conjunction with the sacrifices. The need to make dishes kosher or kosher for Pesach in turn comes from the idea of the absorption of the taste of the food being cooked into the dish. In order that this taste should not infect the food being subsequently cooked in the dish, such as hametz entering food on Pesach, the dishes needs to be koshered by the taste being purged. This idea, however, has a deeper resonance with the story of Exodus. The Rabbis tell us that the Israelites were so sunk in the mire of Egyptian slavery and culture that had they not been redeemed when they were, they could never have been freed. This is maybe the true meaning of the statement in the Haggadah that if G-d had nor redeemed us, we would still be slaves in Egypt. Like the taste absorbed in dishes, slavery or negative cultural influences can be absorbed into people and nations and require much work to purge. Indeed, in the end, it took forty years of privations in the desert before the Jews were ready to enter the Promised Land. The opposite is also true, however. Positive cultural influences can also be absorbed into ourselves, and concepts like freedom and justice can remain with us even in the most dire situations. During the last year, despite the difficult situation we have found ourselves in, we have proved that the values we hold dear are not so easily purged even in the most difficult circumstances. Our community, in particular, has come together to assist each other and others, adapting the principles that make us who we are to an unprecedented situation. As we look forward this Pesach to a new beginning, it is these values, which have only been strengthened by our adversity, that will hold us in good stead as we build the future.
Among the various offerings detailed in this week’s Parshah is a special guilt offering. This covers various offences all of which have at their heart the appropriation of someone else’s property. This is differentiated from simple theft by the fact that the person has sworn falsely concerning the issue, essentially claiming the object is theirs. In doing so, they are not only stealing an object from someone but in a sense also their identity. In the age of digital technology we have become used to the idea of identity theft but this crime goes back for centuries, especially in the religious sphere. The most egregious case of religious identity theft, of course, is Christian supersessionism. The Church from its inception claimed to be the new Israel and thus stole the identity of the Jewish people. Part of this usurpation was the re-imagining of the Hebrew Scriptures in Christian terms. One of the striking examples of this concerns the festival of Pesach. Pesach no longer commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt but the sacrifice on the cross. This displacement is basic to traditional Christian theology. While scriptural relations have improved greatly and supersessionism has been officially disclaimed by many Churches, these scriptual interpretations are still alive and well. For this reason, one should be hesitant in inviting Christian groups to a Seder or responding positively to a request by a church to perform one for them. One needs to be aware that what they are celebrating may be very different to us. Other than the specific issue of the Seder, however, how Christians wish to see Pesach should not necessarily concern us too much today. Except for a new phenomenon which I discovered when looking for a new Haggadah; apparently, there are such things as Christian Hagaddahs. According to one, ‘Broken for You’, ‘Passover has an even more significant meaning’ than the Exodus and this is ‘a guide to celebrating a Passover Seder from a Christian point of view’. What is problematic about this? We have already mentioned that Christians have their own interpretation of Pesach. The issue is that neither the Haggadah nor the Seder are biblical terms, part of the Hebrew scriptures which both Jews and Christians lay claim. The Haggadah and the Seder are specifically Jewish terms and Jewish ceremonies which Jews have developed over the past two thousand years to fulfil the biblical injunction to recount the Exodus. There is a clear difference between a book which is entitled ‘A Christian View of Passover’ or something similar and a ‘Christian Haggadah’ or ‘Christian Seder’. One is presenting a Christian view of scripture, the other is a clear appropriation of Jewish terms and practices for specifically Christian purposes. For Christians to utilise these very terms and ceremonies for their own ends is at best highly disrespectful and at worst the latest chapter in the sorry history of Christian supersessionism. We must point out to Christians that while we respect their right to interpret scripture in their own way, to arrogate for themselves specifically Jewish terms and practices is not acceptable. It commits the very same offences of misappropriation listed at the beginning of book Leviticus.
This Shabbat is Parshat Ha’Hodesh, the fourth special Shabbat in the run up to Pesach. We read the passage from the Torah that deals with the preparations for the Exodus and especially the Pesach sacrifice. Yet, as can be seen from the name of this Shabbat, the passage actual begins with the topic of the calendar. ‘This month shall be to you the beginning of the months’ is the first commandment given to the Jewish people, even before their liberation from slavery. Why is this considered so important that it needs to precede the urgent instructions concerning the Pesach sacrifice and the night of redemption? The answer lies in the traditional interpretation of this verse. ‘This month shall be to you’ means you shall have control over the calendar. It is the Jewish people, by means of the Sanhedrin, that proclaim the new month. Though this is done by witnesses coming forward attesting to the appearance of the new moon, in the end if the court does not proclaim the month, it is delayed to the next day. So if they wished for any reason it to be a month of 30 rather than 29 days, they could simply ‘be out for lunch’ and not accept the witnesses until it was too late. It is this control of the calendar that enabled the Rabbis, seeing the increasing dispersal and oppression of the Jews, to establish the fixed calendar we use today. How, however, is this connected to the Exodus? Possibly the most essential difference between a slave and a free person is their control of time. A slave’s day is controlled by their master, when they do what is in the power of others. A free person, by contrast, has a great measure of control over their own time, though they can enslave themselves to work or physical gratification. Therefore, even before they are actually freed from bondage, G-d gives the Israelites their freedom by handing them the control of time. By placing the calendar under their supervision, G-d says to the Jewish people, that they now can direct how they use their lives, for good or for evil. They can use their time in pursuits that elevate themselves or in acting in ways that denigrate themselves. They can choose to be truly free or become re-enslaved to their physical desires or material pursuits. Even the building of a holy edifice such as the Tabernacle can become a source of bondage if it becomes an end in itself. Therefore, the Torah warns the Israelites before they begin the undertaking, to take control over the process by controlling time. On Shabbat they are to stop the work, thus demonstrating that they control the project, it has not enslaved them. Thus the Torah readings this Shabbat teach us that of all the things that enable us to be truly free, wisely controlling our time may be the most basic.
As things stand it would appear that we are set to celebrate another Pesach without being able to invite others, which means for many people, holding a Seder without family or by themselves. This is made more difficult this year by the fact that Erev Pesach falls on Shabbat, restricting even more the permitted use of technology. People will of course make their own individual decisions on how to act, but as various accusations were last year levelled at the Orthodox rabbinate concerning their supposed ‘inflexibility’ on this issue I thought it would be useful to examine the basic principle concerned in light of our Parshah. The beginning of the Parshah concludes the list of instructions for the building of the Tabernacle. At the end of these directions, the Torah reminds people of the importance of the observance of Shabbat. Similarly, before the actual construction commences, Moses again reminds the people about Shabbat. The inference is clear. The building of the Tabernacle does not supersede the observance of Shabbat. Indeed, the activities forbidden on Shabbat, are learnt from those used in the construction of the Tabernacle, which had to cease on Shabbat. Why should this be so? The Tabernacle exists primarily to fulfil a need of the people. Whether as a response to the sin of the Golden Calf or to a basic human need to connect to G-d in a tangible manner, the Tabernacle comes as a response to a human demand. Shabbat, on the other hand, while being for human benefit, exists as a basic condition of creation. The observance of Shabbat is a necessary condition for establishing the kind of world G-d wants to see. Whether as a memorial of creation, with its message of human restraint in exploiting the physical world or in remembering the Exodus, with its lesson of social justice and equality, observing Shabbat is about us obeying G-d’s plan for His world. This is prior to our need to approach G-d through prayer or sacrifice. Indeed it is a condition of such an approach. As the prophets constantly remind Israel, engaging in sacrifice without obeying G-d’s commands, as epitomised by the Shabbat, is worse than a travesty. Thus breaking Shabbat in order to build the Tabernacle is undermining the very basis of the Tabernacle itself. While the desire to approach G-d through the means of the Tabernacle was legitimate, it could not come at the expense of the basic principles of Torah epitomised by Shabbat. The Seder night is the most important Jewish ritual of the year. Its primary purpose is to remember the lessons of the Exodus concerning G-d’s power and concern for humanity as well as the mission of the Jewish people. In this it is similar to Shabbat, which is also a remembrance of the Exodus. It is of course natural and right to want to share this special occasion with family and friends. Yet to break Shabbat in order to do so is to undermine the very lessons we are meant to learn on this night and Rabbis are correct in not permitting it.
The second half of our Parshah deals with the ceremony of the inauguration of the priesthood. With little difference in detail, the implementation of this ceremony is described in Parshat Tzav which we read before Pesach. The same is true of the details of the Tabernacle itself that are described in what we read last week and this week but will then recount two weeks later. What is the necessity for this repetition? An answer may lie in the special character of this Shabbat, which is Shushan Purim. It is a unique feature of Purim that the festival is celebrated on different days in different places. Cities walled since the time of Joshua celebrate Purim not on the 14th of Adar but on the 15th. In practice today the only place that does this is Jerusalem, though several places in Israel celebrate both days. As we do not read the Megillah on Shabbat, Jerusalem this year has a triple Purim, with some aspects occurring on Friday, Shabbat and Sunday. But what is the reason we have two separate days for Purim? Because the Jews in the capital Shushan asked for an extra day to finish dealing with their enemies and fought also on the 14th and celebrated on the 15th. By celebrating the 15th of Adar as well, therefore, we are commemorating the fact that the Jews were allowed to finish the job. This teaches us the importance of finishing what we begin. The same is true of the repetition of the details of the Tabernacle and the inauguration of the priests. The Torah repeats these details virtually verbatim because it is recounting their implementation. We are thus being taught the importance of not only beginning a task but completing it. Despite the doctrine found in the Ethics of the Fathers that: ‘it is not up to you to complete the work’, the Sages taught that the reward for a mitzvah goes to the one who completes it. For this reason, traditionally the most important aliyah during the Torah Reading was Hagbah and Gelillah. To be called up to complete the Torah Reading by lifting and dressing the Torah was considered the primary honour and often given to important Rabbis. Thus the Sages emphasised the importance of not only beginning actions but carrying them to a successful conclusion. Even though David made all the preparations for the building of the Temple and raised most of the money, the Temple is called by the name of Solomon who completed it. Thus both the repetitive nature of description of the tabernacle in these Parshiot and the celebration of Shushan Purim, teach us the important lesson that while it is always important to begin something it is also important to seek to finish what you started.
G-d commands the Israelites to take various materials and ‘build for Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them’. The commentators of course point out the purpose of the Tabernacle is not that G-d dwells in it but that He dwells among the people. As Solomon stated at the dedication of his Temple, the heavens cannot contain G-d, much less a human-built house. Therefore, we may ask, what is the purpose of the Tabernacle? Why is it necessary to have a building dedicated to G-d’s Pretence? One could answer that this is a symbol for humans and comes to take the place of more problematic representations of G-d, such as the Golden Calf. That is undoubtedly true but there is a deeper reason that underpins the whole of Judaism and indeed human purpose in the world. It is related that when Abraham instructs his servant to find a wife for Isaac, he says that the ‘G-d of heaven’ who took him from his father’s house will assist him. The Rabbis pick up on this expression and the missing other half of the phrase ‘G-d of the earth’. They explain that when Abraham left home, G-d was only the ‘G-d of heaven’. Only when Abraham began his mission and caused people to recognise G-d, could He be called the ‘G-d of the earth’. Without human recognition and involvement, G-d is like a king without subjects or a ruler only in name but without real power. Because G-d has chosen to give humans freewill, if humans choose to ignore him, then his writ does not run in human society. The fact that this is inimical to human happiness and progress does not alter the fact that it is possible. Of course, matters can reach such a pass that G-d decides to give up on the world altogether, as in the time of the flood. It was only Noah’s choice to follow G-d that enabled G-d’s presence to remain in the world and humanity itself to survive. The Jewish people at Mt Sinai agreed to follow Noah’s example and be partners with G-d in creation. Our actions are what determines whether G-d’s writ runs on earth and whether He is present or absent from human society, with all the implications which that presence or absence implies. This Shabbat we remember the crimes of Amalek and our duty to oppose his evil in every generation. Some find the episodic necessity for violence in this regard as distasteful. But, based on what we have said, if we are not prepared to fight to destroy evil, we cannot expect G-d to do so. We are the instruments by which G-d acts in the world and if we do nothing, evil will triumph. Without the purposeful activity of Mordechai and Esther, the Jews would not have been saved. In order to have G-d dwell among us, we must make a place for Him by our own actions.
One of the issues in Judaism that people sometimes struggle with, is the relationship between what is written in the Torah and how that is interpreted by the Rabbis. Some see the idea of an oral tradition of interpretation as merely a cover for the Rabbis making up their own laws and think we should adhere closely to what is written in the Torah. This is especially true of sections like that found in our Parshah, where on the issues concerning damages and labour relations, we have a whole tractate of the Talmud in a few verses. However, the approach that is sceptical of the Oral Law and rabbinical interpretation, itself contains a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the legal sections of the Torah. As was proven by the Karaites who rejected the rabbinical tradition and ended up having to provide their own interpretation, it is impossible to live according to only to the written Torah. On a whole range of issues, it simply does not provide enough information in order to do so. It is clear, therefore, that it is not meant to. In order to understand this we need to see the Torah in its ancient Near Eastern context. To do so is not to deny the authority or eternal relevance of the contents of the Torah but to better understand the form in which this content is presented. It is clear that any message, even a Divine one, needs to take a form intelligible to the people to whom it is being presented. That, in the case of the Torah, means the Near Eastern tradition of law codes, such as the famous Code of Hammurabi. These codes were neither comprehensive nor necessarily practically applicable. They were not meant to be. What they were was a statement of the general principles of law or as, Joshua Berman points out, common law as opposed to statutory law. These principles for example, as in the case of common law, are often based on example, such as in our Parshah, the case of someone stealing a sheep or an ox. If it is still in existence, the thief pays double, if he sold or slaughtered it, four or fivefold respectively. In both cases the Torah mentions a sheep and an ox as an example. What the oral tradition or rabbinical interpretation then does is translate that principle into a practical statutory law, deciding whether the example of a sheep or ox is extended to all articles (as it does in case of regular theft) or is restricted to only the animals mentioned (as in the case of the selling of the animal). Thus the law stated in the Torah concerning theft of objects is not meant to be taken as read, rather used as an example or principle for either an oral tradition for later interpreters to translate into statutory legal practice. Until the late Second Temple period, these interpretations remained oral and flexible. The genius of the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud was to create from this flexibility a corpus of practical law able to accompany the Jewish people through their long and difficult exile. If we understand the Torah in its context, we will thus also appreciate the meaning of its legislation and the oral and interpretive tradition that makes it an eternal way of life.
We have just commemorated another Holocaust Memorial Day. I have mentioned previously, in various forums, my doubts about the efficacy of this annual event. It is undeniable that in the twenty years since its inception, anti-Semitism has markedly increased, rather than the opposite. Why should that be? The reason may be found in this week’s Parshah. Prior to the giving of the Torah, G-d offers the Jews a deal: If they will accept the Torah they will become a ‘chosen people’. Whatever that term signifies, it certainly means that Jews will be, in the words of Balaam, ‘a nation that dwells apart’. Again, this can be interpreted in differing ways but clearly means that Jews will be different. And just as Jews are different, so is anti-Semitism different. The same phenomenon is found in ancient Alexandria and modern Japan, among white supremacists and BLM activists. No other form of racism has the historic reach and ideological breadth of anti-Semitism, which this way is unique. One of the reasons, as brilliantly charted by David Nirinberg, is that different peoples have used Jews and Judaism as a normally negative foil, to make sense of their own world. So the alt-right see Jews as behind globalisation, while black activists see Jews as behind the slave trade and black disempowerment. Much of this utilization of Jews goes back, of course, to Christianity, which from the beginning used Jews as a foil to understand their own religious ideologies and a measure by which to sift them into a coherent structure All of this, therefore, means that anti-Semitism is not only, or primarily, about lack of tolerance or acceptance of difference or fighting racism in general. All of which, of course, form the cornerstone of the messages put out by HMD. Anti-Semitism, of course, encompasses these things but its roots go much deeper. And unless those roots are dealt with, such events will do nothing to combat it. Au-contraire. Because anti-Jewish ideas are utilised by a wide range of groups to comprehend their own particular situation, concepts like human rights and anti-racism can be used to attack Jews, who are seen as at the root of the problem not its victim. HMD itself can and is attacked as proof of the Jewish disposition to parochialism and self centred egoism. Thus the very concepts meant to be used to combat anti-Semitism are turned into weapons to spread its poison to new audiences. Unless we understand the uniqueness of the Jewish place in the world, and thus the uniqueness of anti-Semitism, we will get nowhere in combatting it. Bland statements about tolerance and diversity, will not be enough, they may even be used as weapons against us. We need to have events that concentrate only on anti-Jewish hatred and its deep roots in the European psyche, if we are to make any progress in mitigating its spread. The uniqueness of the Jews as set out in the Parshah at the beginning of our history as a people, necessitates a unique response to the hatred directed against us. Anything less is a waste of time.
The Parshah begins with G-d sending Moses to Pharaoh, because He has hardened his heart, in order that G-d can perform His wonders in the midst of Egypt. This is in order that future generations should tell the story of how G-d crushed the Egyptians. What is fascinating about these verses is that it seems to imply that the primary purpose of the Exodus is not necessarily the event itself but the narration of the story in future generations. This understanding of the Exodus is important for our understanding of the Torah and the Tanakh generally and how we should approach it. Often, people treat the Bible in either one of two ways. Those who wish to discredit religion dismiss it as non-factual myth, while those who want to uphold traditional belief insist on treating it as historical fact. Neither approach actually does justice to the intention and nature of the text. The Torah is not meant to be read as history but as a religious basis for life. That does not mean that it is unimportant whether the Exodus, for example, actually took place. Without some historical basis for the events described, Judaism loses much of its historic basis and even religious validity. But what is even more important is the way the Exodus is narrated in the Torah. This may indeed be only a version of events but that should not trouble us. All history in the Bible is a version of events. This can most clearly be seen in the history of the monarchy in Israel. We have two, often quite different, versions of the same events narrated in the books of Kings and Chronicles. This is because the authors of those books had different objects in mind. The author of Kings was concerned to chart Israel's descent into idolatry leading to destruction and exile. The author of Chronicles, living at the beginning of Return to Zion and the Second Temple, was preoccupied with strengthening the role of Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty in Jewish life. They were relating real historical events but from a different perspective. The same is true of the narratives in the Torah. They are a version of the events that occurred, the version we believe, that G-d sanctioned. Being that, as we have seen, G-d Himself says that the real purpose of the Exodus is the future narration of the events more than the events themselves, we should not be too concerned if what we read in the Torah is only a version of those events. Especially, if it is the version G-d approves of. Thus when reading these passages, we should worry less about the literal historical accuracy than the message the Torah wants to convey and what we can learn from it. That is the correct way to read the Torah.
This week’s Parshah begins with a resounding assurance of redemption after the despair that engulfed both the people and their leader at the end of last week’s reading. The main part of the Parshah deals with the plagues that hit Egypt while Pharaoh refuses to let the people leave. Yet in between these two sections that naturally follow each other we have the genealogy of Moses’ family. Why is it necessary for us to know in detail about Moses’ family and why is this section inserted precisely here? Interestingly this genealogical insertion is neatly bracketed by almost identical paragraphs. These tell of G-d’s command to Moses to go to Pharaoh and Moses’ retort that the Israelites will not listen to him so why should Pharaoh. Moses has just been reassured by G-d in glowing terms of the ultimate success of his mission. What he doubts, however, is not G-d’s ability to redeem Israel but his own part in the plot. He feels a failure and probably believes that G-d can manage without him. Future generations may also think that Moses was not integral to the story; after he gets no mention at the Seder. Yet the Torah inserts Moses’ genealogy before the beginning of the story of the redemption as if to say that without him there would have been no Exodus. Without his leadership nothing would have happened and G-d’s plan might not have come to fruition. Moses’ human participation was necessary for Divine action. This is an important lesson indeed and one we have seen play out over the last year. The success of various countries responses to this crisis has been in large measure due to the nature of the leadership in those nations. We have seen this both in the different experiences of the nations of the UK and in the contrast between Israel’s early success and later relative failure in dealing with the crisis. The key factor in these cases was the committent and personality of those at the top. The same is being seen to be true with the roll out of the vaccine. The lesson is, as in the case of the Exodus, that individual leadership matters. To a lesser extend this is true not only of leaders but of each one of us. We may at times feel overwhelmed by historical or natural forces. We may feel helpless to change the course of history or even of our own lives. We can seem to be trapped in a fate over which we have no control. The Torah tells us it is not so. Our actions are essential for the unfolding of the Divine plan for the world. Indeed we may even shape it. It is true that we cannot achieve everything. Yet courageous, moral and resolute action by ordinary people can transform the world and change the course of history. In the end, the truth is that each one of us can make a difference.
At the beginning of the book of Exodus the Torah repeats the names of the sons of Jacob that descended to Egypt, relates their passing and tells us that the Israelites increased greatly in number. This is followed by the description of a new Pharaoh ‘who did not know Joseph’, who begins to persecute them. The Rabbis in their midrash on these verses link the increase of the Israelites to this new situation, Various midrashim describe how the Israelites were to be found everywhere in Egypt, going to all the best theatres and entertainments and generally taking an active part in the life of the country. This behaviour, they postulate, directly caused the ensuing persecution. Considering this idea, we could question if we are meant therefore to learn that Jews should not integrate into the society in which they live. Should Jews always separate themselves and not take an active role in the life of their host country? The Rabbis of the Talmud, themselves, did not live in ghettos and many of them had positive interaction with the surrounding culture. I believe that the key to this idea lies in the seemingly superfluous statement that Joseph and his brothers passed way. This statement seems unnecessary unless it is seen as an explanation for what follows. Not only the later persecution by a new Pharaoh ignorant of Joseph but the increase and prosperity of the Israelites is therefore commented on by these midrashim. The Torah is thus informing us of the passing away of the original generation of immigrants because their physical demise also led to a lessening of Jewish identity. It was not only Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph and what he stood for but the Israelites. Their integration into Egyptian society was accompanied by a loss of values and identity. This increasing assimilation led directly to Pharaoh’s actions. It was this process that the Rabbis were highlighting. This phenomenon was not unique to Egypt. In both medieval Spain and 19th century Germany, integration at the price of Jewish identity led to persecution and catastrophe. As the great Orthodox leader of German Jewry, Samson Raphael Hirsch, put it when replying to a community in southern Germany some of whose members wanted to cease circumcising their sons in order to integrate better. Did they really think that abandoning circumcision would make the non-Jews like them better? We know the tragic answer. What the Parshah and Jewish history tells us is that seeking to assimilate to the surrounding society increases rather than decreases hostility to Jews. We should certainly seek to be part of the societies in which we live. But not at the cost of losing our Jewish values and identity. That path leads to tragedy.
A blind man approaches death and wishes to bless his descendants. He stretches out his hands and gives his blessing. Against all expectation, however, he blesses the younger son before the elder. This scenario occurs not only once but twice in the book of Genesis and both in the life of Jacob. In the first instance, it is Jacob who is the younger son, at the instigation of his mother, ‘tricking’ his father into giving him the primary blessing. In the other it is Jacob who is the blind patriarch, blessing his younger grandson above the elder against the wishes of their father. It is fascinating to think of these two stories in parallel. What was Jacob thinking as he short-sightedly but purposefully placed his right hand on Ephraim not Manasseh’s head? Did he flashback to standing before his own father in Esau’s clothes receiving his brother’s blessing? Standing in his father’s place, does he now understand, as Aviva Zornberg speculates, that his own father was never really deceived? Or is it his own history that drives his determination to bless the younger before the elder? What is also similar in both instances is a clash of wills. On the one hand we have Isaac and Joseph who stand for the rule of primogeniture. The orderly rule of society is that the elder comes first. This is not surprising. Isaac is seen as the embodiment of the principle of justice and Joseph, as well, is the great organiser, the authority that orders whole nations according to a fixed plan. Opposing them are Rebecca and Jacob both more spontaneous and willing to break convention. Rebecca goes above and beyond in her kindness to Eliezer and Jacob throws aside the shepherd’s normal practice in his eagerness to help Rachel. Yet what is interesting in these two scenarios is that the character of who his blind and the nature of that sightlessness changes. Isaac, the symbol of order, is blind and therefore lacks knowledge; Jacob the original rebel is blind and nevertheless or possibly therefore, has greater insight. I would suggest that a new paradigm has been created. Isaac was preferred over Ishmael but he was not the son of Sarah. Esau was the son of Rebecca, like Jacob, but nevertheless was rejected. Ephraim was favoured over Manasseh but unlike Ishmael and Esau, he was not rejected but continues to be part of the family. In each case it was the father who resisted this change yet were in the end overruled. The pattern therefore is now set. When it comes to the leadership of the Jewish people, being eldest is no longer an advantage. In fact the opposite, as seen in the careers of Moses, David and Solomon. What we learn from this is that change, upsetting the old order, can often take time and may evolve in several steps. Change can also be institutionalised, the expectation of non-order becoming a normal pattern. Thus, in blessing the younger before the elder, Jacob was completing the process in which he himself was crucial and thus completing the circle of his own life.
The story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax this week with Judah begging for the release of Benjamin and offering himself as a replacement. This, however, is the fourth proposed punishment for the theft of Joseph’s goblet, and the third proposal by Judah himself. As Avivah Zornberg points out Judah’s offers increase in their absurdity. Firstly, he proposes that the person in whose possession the goblet is found should die and the rest should be slaves. In response to Joseph’s officials reply that only the guilty person should be a slave. Judah then offers to Joseph himself that all the brothers should be slaves. Joseph again replies that only the guilty should be punished and the rest should go free. Judah then makes his impassioned speech offering himself in place of Benjamin, meaning the guilty person should go free while the innocent should be punished. How are we to interpret this behaviour? We can understand that Judah, who has taken responsibility for Benjamin’s welfare, is prepared to offer himself in his stead. What is perplexing, however, is the constant proposal that all the brothers should be punished even when this is not what is required. This could be understood as the brothers, seeing in their predicament, punishment for the sale of Joseph, seeking to this time all stand up for Benjamin. Yet I believe their could be another factor at play. The midrashic tradition sees in Judah’s speech to Joseph a tone of accusation. The brothers believe part of plot by Joseph to entrap them, which is of course true, and Judah is in his speech subtly letting Joseph know that they know. The various offer of collective punishment can possibly be seen in this light. The law is that only the guilty person should be punished. That is the constant position taken by the authorities, in the person of Joseph and his officials. By insisting on an unjust outcome, however, Judah is perchance seeking to unmask the injustice of Joseph’s behaviour itself. Judah is in effect saying, both to Joseph himself and his retinue, that their behaviour from the beginning to the end has been unconscionable. From the improbable accusation of spying, through the mysterious appearance of their money in their sacks until the appearance of Joseph’s goblet in the sack of the very person most important to the family, the whole affair stinks. If that is the case, Judah challenges Joseph, then why even pretend to be just. Simply imprison all of us while you are at it. This scheme, however, doesn’t work and Judah is forced to finally offer himself in Benjamin’s stead. Yet this strategy is in fact valid when faced with injustice masquerading as justice. When faced with an oppressive system or idea that tries to present itself as upright one way of fighting it is to refuse to play along with pretence. You may not win in the end but what you can do is unmask the masquerade, leading more people to question the system and making it more likely that cause of justice will eventually triumph.
The end of the book of Genesis concentrates on two main characters Joseph and Judah and often the interaction between them. These two very different personalities form the leadership of the Jewish people until the end of biblical times. Judah is the progenitor of the Davidic line of monarchs leading eventually to the messiah. Joseph is the ancestor, through his son Ephraim, of both Joshua but also Jerobam the founder of the northern kingdom of Israel. Both Judah and Joseph were successful leaders their descendants became efficient rulers. Yet there is a characteristic of Judah that is not found in Joseph and not in his descendants. Judah, when faced with the challenge of his pregnant daughter in law, acknowledges his responsibility for what has occurred, even though doing so must have resulted in embarrassment and some loss of face. He was prepared to admit that he made a mistake. This is something that we find also in his descendants, notably David, who when confronted with his sins of adultery and murder, readily confessed and accepted responsibility. This is in stark contrast to the behaviour of the monarchy established by Jerobam. Despite, clearly realising that the original establishment by Jerobam of alternative cult centres to Jerusalem had led to the degeneration of the people, they did not abolish them. Even kings such as Jehu, who eradicated Baal worship in Israel, refused to also abolish the cult centres in Beit El and Dan, that were the root of the problem. To admit that this policy was wrong was a step to far. The Sages relates that even when Jerobam was offered the World to Come in partnership with David, he refused to go back on his original action. We can also see this refusal to admit a mistake in the actions of Saul, the first king and also a descendant of Rachel. Even when confronted by Samuel he never really admits that he is wrong but instead blames the people. This indeed seems to be the natural, maybe understandable, instinct of most political leaders. It is, therefore, the uncharacteristic ability of the descendants of Judah to take personal responsibility for their failings, which qualifies them for Jewish leadership. We can therefore maybe understand while the Hasmoneans, like the kings of the northern kingdom, were not in the end successful rulers and why Nachmanidies, for example, criticises them for taking the kingship. However brave and resourceful they were, as priests, they didn’t have the Judean genetic code of self-criticism crucial for a successful Jewish leader.
The Parshah begins with the meeting between Jacob and Esau. Twenty years earlier Jacob fled from his brother but now he will be forced to confront him. However, the connections between the two brothers go deeper than these two incidents. The midrashic tradition paints Esau in the background, even when he is physically absent. So Esau is connected to both Leah and Rachel. Leah has weak eyes because of her weeping at the general assumption that as the eldest daughter she will marry Isaac’s oldest son. Rachel apparently fears that because of her lack of children Jacob will divorce her and she will be married off to Easu. This theme continues with the midrash commenting on the absence of mention of Jacob’s daughter during the meeting with Esau. This is because he his her in a trunk, lest Esau see her and want to marry her. Because of this, the midrash continues, Dinah was later raped by Shechem, Esau’s influence continuing into the future. How are we to understand this midrashic ghost at the feast haunting Jacob’s life and seemingly haunting his relationships. Is it simply a guilty conscience concerning taken his father’s blessings or something even deeper. The midrash declares that in hiding Dinah from Esau Jacob showed a lack of empathy or kindness towards his brother, as she could have changed his behaviour for the better. To put it another way, Jacob lacked a sense of imagination concerning his brother. He doesn’t believe that responsibilities of the firstborn or his father’s blessing will change Esau, so he takes them for himself. He again corners the family heritage by marrying both possible prospective suitable women, leaving nothing for Esau. Finally, he goes to great lengths to prevent even the possibility of his brother having anything to do with his own family. This could be seen, given Esau’s apparent character, simple common sense. Yet the Sages hold him responsible for not having the imagination to envision other possibilities. By closing off options with regards to his brother he denies the possibility of a different type of future for both of them. For this he is held accountable. This understanding serves to teach us an important lesson. When dealing with difficult people or groups, whether on an individual or collective plane, we should always leave open the possibility of change. If we simply take a risk free defensive approach, being afraid to engage lest we suffer, we close off the possibility of dialogue and a different type of relationship. We condemn both parties to a similarly negative future relationship. However, if we are prepared to take the risk of engaging, however difficult, we open up the possibility of a more positive future. Dealing with the Esau’s of the world is never easy. Yet if we are prepared to hazard it, engagement rather than aloofness may yield unforeseen rewards.
The relationship between Jacob and his uncle Laban is a complicated and ultimately unhappy one. Indeed in the Haggadah we state the Laban was worse for us than Pharaoh. This relationship reaches its climaxes near the end of the Parshah when Jacob finally confronts Laban with his grievances. After listing how Laban had cheated him several times and acted contrary to the established fair working practices of the time, he ends by stating that G-d himself had rebuked Laban the previous night. Laban’s answer is interesting. He doesn’t refute any of Jacob’s accusation which are substantially true. He rather contends that everything that Jacob has achieved is due to him and jacob would be nothing if Laban hadn’t taken him in and given him a start in life. Besides the fact that this ignores several salient facts, such as the fact that, for example, it was Laban that begged Jacob to continue working for him and agreed to the terms that Jacob employed to increase his wealth, the fact that someone gives you a job or even their daughter doesn’t mean that you can therefore cheat and exploit them. Yet Laban’s answer reveals an interesting mental state that is unfortunately extremely common. Jacob had been at first dependant on Laban and so under his control. Later, as Jacob struck out on his own, his success grated on Laban. He could no longer continue to exercise any power over him. This was especially true that he now had the audacity to leave without his permission. We see in the agreement the two reach that all the conditions are on behalf of Laban. Jacob doesn’t ask for anything. Laban is still trying to exercise control remotely. He simply can’t let go. This phenomena is unfortunately not unusual. It can be very difficult for someone or a group of people who have had power over another individual or group to let go or accept that they can now exercise their own power or autonomy. This is of course one of the greatest challenges of parents, to allow their growing children the independence to make their own decisions. But is is also common in the area of politics and international relations. Some of the anti-Israel sentiment in world politics and discourse comes from a reluctance to accept that Jews now have power. Many people, especially on the left, loved Jews as an oppressed minority they could, sometimes, stand up for. The fact that Jews decided to stand up for themselves and wielded real power on their own behalf is something they find hard to swallow. This syndrome doesn’t, of course, exist only in regards to Jews or Israel. It seems also to be alive and well in London. However, in the end, following this path eventually leads to failure. Just as in the case of Jacob and Laban, these attempts at perpetual control will not in the end succeed.
The main theme of our Parshah is the conflict between Esau and Jacob. This conflict is portrayed as beginning in the womb, as Rashi comments: ‘they were struggling over the inheritance of two worlds’ or as the Rabbis put it if one is up the other is down and visa versa. What is this fundamental struggle between the two brothers, which as we saw at the end of last week’s Parshah, does not apply to the relationship with Isaac and Ishmael. If we follow the traditional view that Ishmael stands for Arab and Islamic civilisation and Esau for Christian or Western civilisation, we can begin to understand this conflict. While Jews and Muslims have many differences, their basic approach to life and religion is similar. Through there religious practices they seek to sanctify this world and there is no or minimal, history of asceticism or monasticism in our traditions. Very different is the classic position of Greek thought and traditional Christianity that was, in many ways, its heir. Augustinian theology that formed the basis both for the Catholic church and the Protestant revolt against it, had a very different view of the world. This world is essentially evil and the way to the ‘City of G-d’ (as his most famous work was titled) was to reject the world and concentrate on things of the spirit. This attitude indeed went back to Paul who made a distinction between the ‘covenant of the flesh’ and that of the spirit. Jews were rejected precisely because they clung to the covenant of flesh, namely the practical mitzvot while Christians had progressed to a more spiritual religious dispensation. Thus while Judaism believes in sanctifying the world through the practice of commandments that elevate physical activities, Christianity regarded such an approach as mistaken and even evil. Thus the practices of circumcision, keeping Shabbat or eating kosher were regarded as illegitimate and in converted Jews or other Christians punished harshly by the church. This basic dispute between two irreconcilable world views is foreshadowed in the struggle between Esau and Jacob narrated in the Parshah. It is still alive and well today even in those regarded as friends of the Jewish community. At a civic reception once when I was looking for the kosher food, this person said to me that ‘of course we Christians have gone beyond that’. This also plays out in attitudes to Israel. We cannot understand nor combat some Christian positions on Israel without understanding the spiritualisation of concepts such as the biblical promise of the Land. This does mean we cannot and should not seek to have good relations with the Christian churches. But as we do so we must understand, especially in areas were there are disputes, the diametrically opposed world views we are starting from.
When negotiating with his his Hittite neighbours over a burial plot for Sarah, Abraham uses two different expressions to describe himself. He says that he is ‘ger v’toshav imachem’ ‘a stranger and settler among you’. These two terms seem to contradict each other. On the one hand a ger is a stranger or temporary resident. On the other toshav, coming from the root to sit or dwell, seems to imply permanency. Rashi picks up on this discrepancy and links it to the ambivalent status of Abraham. On the one hand he is a stranger among them but if they don’t want to sell then G-d has already promised him the Land, so it is his anyway. This comment brings out the complicated relationship Jews have with the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Land of Israel. The strictures found in the Torah regarding the Canaanites, don’t apply to other peoples, especially those who are monotheists and follow a moral code. On the one hand the Land of Israel is given by G-d to the Jewish people, on the other we have a moral obligation to treat others living there fairly. That is what we learn from Abraham’s words. Even though the Land is by rights ours we will still pay fairly for it and not just take it. This indeed was the opinion of Rabbi Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel who stated that even though the Land was really ours it was correct that the Zionist movement paid high prices for purchasing it. But if the other people in the Land reject our right to be there and seek to prevent us for living buying land there then we can state unequivocally that G-d has given the land to us and we do not need their permission to exist there. Thus, when the other inhabitants of the land seek to stop us living there and indeed attack us we have the right and duty to not only defend us but take land away from them. This indeed, is of course what occurred. Despite the fair purchase of land at often exorbitant prices the Arab inhabitants refused to accept any Jewish presence in the land and sought to drive us from it. In the course of the battle that followed much more land fell in to our hands. In such circumstances we have no obligation to return or pay for any of it, for the whole Land is ours by right. This is what, according to Rashi, Abraham is saying to his neighbours. If you treat fairly with me I will act as if the Land is yours and buy it from it. If, however, you treat me unjustly, then the Land is mine by right and I will act accordingly. Thus, we are neither thieves nor conquerors. Despite our right to the Land we should treat all its inhabitants fairly, if they do the same to us. If not, the Land is ours and we will know to act in the necessary fashion, so they should be warned.
When examining the story of Abraham, his mission seems to contain an internal contradiction. On the one hand, he is told that he ‘through you all the families of the earth will be blessed’. On the other hand his family story is one of exclusion and selection. Ishmael and Esau are not included in this blessing. Abraham is told that his posterity will be continued through Isaac, not Ishmael, and Isaac blesses Jacob, not Esau, with the ‘blessing of Abraham’. I believe that the key to solving this paradox lies in a comment of Rashi on the very phrase ‘all the families of the earth will be blessed’. He states that while there are other interpretations the plain meaning is that a father will say to his son ‘be like Abraham’. The simple meaning of this is that he should follow in the ways of Abraham. The blessing of Abraham to the world is that they should follow his example and ‘engage in justice and charity’ as G-d describes Abraham’s activity. Thus the universal inheritance of Abraham is not the specific promises of progeny and land, which are reserved for his descendants through Isaac and Jacob but his ethical inheritance that is available to all who follow his path. Unfortunately, Ishmael and Esau misunderstood this point and thought they also had a right to the other inheritance of Abraham. Christianity and Islam, also made the same mistake. Not content with the ethical inheritance of Abraham, they sought to also take on the mantle of G-d’s election of people and land and thus replace the Jews. Not only did this lead to the denigration of and the persecution of, G-d’s actual chosen people but the combination of a universalist outlook with the idea of particular election led to untold tragedy. This combination of universalism and particularism led to the idea of only one true religion, resulting in intolerance, persecution and genocide. In seeking to succeed to the particular inheritance of Abraham reserved for his actual descendants, Christianity and Islam actually forfeited in many ways the universalist inheritance of justice and charity and in the name of ‘Abraham’s’ religion, perpetuated injustice and cruelty. Thus the illegitimate attempt to supersede the Jews as the inheritors of Abraham, led to the practical abandonment of much of the his ethical inheritance. Only, when Christianity and Islam renounce their claims to the particularistic inheritance of Abraham can they truly embrace his universal heritage and themselves truly become a blessing to the world.
Because of the wickedness of humanity G-d resolves to bring a flood to destroy the world and begin again with Noah. The Torah in describing the degenerate state of human affairs uses two different words hamas and hashchata. The first is generally translated as violence and the second as corruption, so ‘humanity corrupted their way on the earth and the earth was filled with violence because of them’. The Rabbis generally saw hamas as referring to robbery and hashchata to sexual promiscuity. But if we examine the root meaning of these two words we can discover an indictment of the generation of the flood that is relevant for our own. Hamas actually means an uncontrolled desire for the possessions of others and the belief that you have the right to acquire them by any means. It is summed up in the statement of the Mishna ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine’. In this world view I should have anything I want if I can obtain it, no matter what the price to others. Hashchata really means destruction or vandalism. It is the wanton destruction of the world around us as illustrated in the prohibition of the Torah to destroy fruit trees in war. Bal taschit then becomes a general prohibition on wantonly destroying anything. In this light we can see the true sin of the flood generation. They were consumed with an uncontrolled desire for acquisition and use of resources both material and human. This led to them totally disregarding the basic rights of others, whether animal or human. People’s possessions or their bodies were fair game if you were strong enough to use them to satisfy your desires. This in turn led to the destruction of society and nature inevitably leading to the complete destruction of the world in the environmental catastrophe of the flood. This may sound somewhat familiar. Our generation and those preceding have also had an unquenchable desire to use resources, both material and human, to create ever more wealth to satisfy our need for ever more possessions. We thus have depleted the natural world of its resources and led to the degradation of our own environment. Unregulated capitalistic exploitation has led to vast discrepancies of wealth, health and education, that threaten to tear about society and cause conflict between nations. All of this is inexorably leading to an environmental catastrophe from which no one will emerge the winner if anyone survives at all. The pursuit of hamas and hashchata in our generation threatens to lead to the same result as it did in the generation of the flood. The Rabbis say that Noah spent 120 years building the ark in order to warn his generation of the impending catastrophe, they did not listen and were swept into oblivion. We have far less than that time to change our ways before it is to late. Will we maybe, this time, take heed?
In commenting on the narrative of creation the Rabbis in the Midrash tell two stories that at first sight may seem like fanciful myths but are in fact contain a deep philosophical understanding of the nature of the universe. They noted that while G-d commanded that fruit trees should bear fruit, the next verse merely states that the earth brought forth trees bearing fruit, omitting the word fruit. G-d, they postulated, commanded that the bark of the tree should also have the taste of its fruit, but the earth rebelled and only the fruit not the bark had the correct taste. Later on, they noted it states that G-d created the two great lights but then calls them a great light and a small light. They again posited that the sun and moon were meant to be the same size but the moon complained that this equality wouldn’t work, so G-d reduced the size of the moon. What are we to make of these stories? What message were our sages trying to convey to us? If we look at them carefully we see that they tell of an original plan for creation that went wrong. Ideally, a the body of a tree should faithfully reflect the fruit it bears, the two luminaries of day and night should be of equal size. Yet in reality this was not possible. The original Divine plan when it came into contact with physical reality had to adapt to the inherent imperfection of the material world. This is a process described in kabbalistic terminology as the ‘Breaking of the Vessels’. The world by its very nature is imperfect and couldn’t be otherwise. But there is also an important moral understanding behind this concept concerning the role of humanity. The world is created with imperfections in order for us to perfect it. We are deliberately placed in a flawed environment because it is our job to correct the flaws. That is part of the Divine wisdom behind the nature of the universe. Indeed, according to Jewish mystical thought, our ability and responsibility to repair the defects of creation extend beyond this world to the very structure of the universe. Thus what the Rabbis are telling us in these midrashim is that we should not be perturbed when we live in a world that seems to us to be not quite right, where we have to deal with epidemics and other such issues for example. That is the way the world is meant to be in order that we can have a role in healing it. So as we continue top face our current predicament the first chapter of the Torah teaches us not to be astounded at such occurrences, rather to understand that they exist precisely in order for us to overcome them.