Forth Light Weekly Sedra
The Torah is called in various places, the Torat Moshe or the Torah of Moses. Being that the Torah is traditionally regarded as the Word of G-d, how do we understand this appellation and what connotations does it have for our relationship to Torah? The book of the Torah that can most be understood to be the words of Moshe is that of Deuteronomy. The book itself begins with the introduction that these are the words that Moses spoke. Yet the book includes not only a recapitulation of the wanderings in the desert but also various laws and regulations that are regarded as no less Divine and authoritative than those in other parts of the Torah. So what exactly is happening at this juxtaposition of Moses’ words and Divine writ? One of the recurring themes of the book, especially its narrative sections, is the fact that Moses will not join his people in crossing over to the Land. The pathos of these repeated reminders of the distinction between Moses and his listeners, serves to punctuate his speeches. Aviva Zornberg explains that what Moses is doing here is sharing with the people his personal experience. He is opening a window on to his own relationship with G-d in order to deepen the people’s appreciation of the possibilities that lie before them as they enter the Land.
In this book, in a very real sense, Moses is imprinting his personal stamp on the Torah, thus creating, Torat Moshe. According to Yoram Hazony, in his examination of the philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy is the central book of the Tanakh. It lies in the middle of the historical books that form the crux of the Bible and its philosophy is central to understanding the meaning and purpose of the whole Tanakh. Thus what we learn about Deuteronomy is relevant to our relationship with the rest of the Torah. What Moses teaches us in this book is the necessity of bringing our own experiences to Torah. The Torah must not be merely a book written in the past but something that is understood in the light of our own experiences. Rabbis, especially, must interpret and teach Torah in the light of the needs and experiences of their own generation, that necessarily will be different to those of past generations. That is what Moses is doing for his generation in Deuteronomy and what transforms the Torah into Moses’ Torah. That is what we must do for ourselves and our generation so that the Torah of Moses can also become our Torah.
When the tribes of Reuben and Shimon come to Moses and ask to receive their inheritance in Trans-Jordan, Moses’ instinctive reaction is to see this as a repeat of the Sin of the Spies. He thus lambasts them in precisely these terms, until they agree to cross the Jordan as a vanguard in the conquest of the Land. His initial retort on hearing their request is even more visceral and more basic: ‘Will your brothers go to war and you stay here’? In this short sentence Moses encapsulates the basic principle of mutual responsibility. It is simply morally unacceptable that people with whom you live or you have a relationship should be in danger and you do nothing. It is simply not feasible that your family or community or nation, should be engaged in a struggle and you sit on the sidelines. The question arises, when does this apply? In cases of direct danger to someone who is near you and whom you can help, the Torah already states: ‘Do not stand by the blood of your neighbour’. Our case, however, is somewhat different. The two tribes are being accused of not wanting to join the other tribes in conquest of the land beyond the Jordan, land that they will not inherit. Now Moses could simply mean to say, that just as the whole of the people helped conquer the parts of Trans-Jordan, these two tribes now want to inherit, so should they help the other tribes conquer the land that is their inheritance. But this statement has an even deeper resonance. Moses is calling on these two tribes to engage in a basic act of empathy, identifying with the needs of the whole people, rather than only their own requirements.
What disturbs Moses about their request is a disinterest in the conquest of the rest of the Land, as they would have already received their inheritance. It is thus against this attitude that his rhetorical question is directed. Should you ignore the needs of your brothers simply because you are already taken care of? That, for Moses, is simply unacceptable. Only if they are prepared to help others obtain what they already have will they be allowed to keep it. If they refuse, then their own accomplishments will be put in jeopardy. This is a fundamental principle of any community or society. If everyone only looks at their own requirements you cannot have a cohesive group. For example, if people who do not have children or grandchildren, are disinterested in the future of education in their community, they are ignoring the needs of those that do and for whom the issue is of vital importance. If the younger generation, on the other hand, fails to appreciate the need of older people for stability, then they are also making the same mistake. By concentrating only on their own narrow perspective they are both undermining the cohesiveness of the society in which they live, and thus their own position. Conversely, by understanding and attending the needs of others, they are in fact also helping themselves. This is Moses’ challenge to the two tribes and one that is as relevant today as it was then.
Our Parshah gets its name from the praise given to Pinchas by G-d for taking decisive action in killing Zinri and his paramour and thus halting the plague. The commentators express various opinions about Pinchas’ action and its justification. One strong midrashic tradition is that Pinchas did not become a priest (he was later High Priest), until he killed Zimri. Only children born to Aaron’s sons after they were inaugurated into the priesthood counted, and Pinchas was born before. It was only Pinchas’ action that qualified him for this position by express Divine command. We may ask what it was that led to this change. Do we really want our religious leaders to engage in acts of violence, even in a good cause? While Pinchas’ action may have been necessary, how does it specifically qualify him for leadership? I think the answer lies in who Pinchas was and who he killed. Pinchas was, as we have seen, not part of the leadership of the people. He killed a prince of one of the tribes. Furthermore there is a tradition that his mother was a Midianite convert. It would have been a lot easier, and safer, for Pinchas to do nothing. He was not Moses and was not a priest. Why was it his role to deal with the situation when others did not? Yet he chose not to run away from responsibility but to embrace it.
That is what qualified him for leadership. He chose to face the challenge rather than running away from it. In modern Hebrew there are two phrases that succinctly encapsulate this idea. Rosh Katan and Rosh Gadol – ‘small head’ and ‘big head’. Rosh Katan essentially only looks at their limited role, does not see the bigger picture and runs away from extra responsibility. ‘Not my business’ is their motto. Rosh Gadol looks with a wider perspective, thinks out of the box and is not afraid to do what is needed. ‘After me’ is their catchphrase. Pinchas could have acted as a Rosh Katan, staying out of the ugly confrontation but chose to be a Rosh Gadol, thus qualifying himself to lead others. The Jewish world faces many challenges. These challenges are made worse by the fact that too many of our religious authorities act as Rosh Katan, choosing to play safe and not put their head above the parapet. Yet this was not the attitude of previous generations. Our greatest religious authorities understood that they were in their position to help others, even if it meant pushing the boundaries, refusing to cower behind a Halakhic fence. Even in our own generation, Rabbis like Ovdiah Yosef and Shlomo Goren were prepared to risk their reputations to do justice and solve difficult problems. Like Pinchas, they were Rosh Gadol. In a Jewish world where too many of our leaders are Rosh Katan, who will be our Pinchas?
Contemporaneous with the events related in the Parshah, the Israelites were unaware of them. They would not have seen or heard Bila’am, and only became aware of the incident through it being transcribed in the Torah. The question then arises, why is it in the Torah? Why was it considered important that we know about it? The first thing to note is that blessings and curses were not regarded as simply words but were thought to have a real effect on reality. Being blessed or cursed by the right person could change the trajectory of your life. Therefore, G-d turning Bila’am’s curses into blessings is as important as the plagues or the crossing of the Red Sea. It is thus mentioned in our Haftorah from Micah as evidence of G-d’s care for Israel. But the inclusion of this narrative in the Torah teaches us a more general lesson While some people contend that words do not matter, Judaism believes that they can be potent weapons for good or evil. This is especially true with regard to the issue of reputation. We are called upon by our actions to magnify G-d’s reputation - kiddush hashem - and not to profane it - hilul hashem. But this concern with reputation extends to the reputation of the Jewish people as a whole, the community and the individual.
While it is unhealthy to be overly obsessed with what people think of us, reputation does matter. A good reputation can open doors, facilitate friendships and enhance credibility, while a bad reputation, can deny us opportunities and cause people to turn away from us. How Jews are perceived by others and how our community is perceived is important to our safety and future. For example, if we continually talk about anti-Semitism or the Holocaust, people get the impression that Jews are people that everyone hates and wants to kill. There must be something wrong with them. Rather we need to talk up the contribution of Jews to society and the beauty of Judaism. The same is true when it comes to talking about our community. If we are constantly telling visitors that we are a dying community then no one will want to join us. If, on the other hand, we explain that we are a small but vibrant community with a lot to offer, then people will think we warrant a closer look. How we talk and what we say is always important but the story of Bila’am teaches us that how we present ourselves and how we are perceived by others is even more important. Reputation really does matter.
This Parshah begins the second half of the book of Numbers and we are transported forty years to the new generation about to enter the Land. It also marks the last chapter of Moses’ career. If we look at this stage of Moses’ life we can learn an important lesson for our own careers and life trajectories. In some ways, if we examine it from Moses’ point of view, it is a difficult period. In this week’s Parshah he loses both his brother and sister and is informed by G-d that he will not enter into the Land. While it is not mentioned specifically until later in the book, it is clear from the context that the previous generation whom Moses brought out of Egypt has gone. Moses is virtually alone of all his contemporaries and bereft of his brother and sister. He is dealing with a new generation that are significantly younger than him and that he knows he will not see complete their mission. It would not be surprising that Moses felt at this stage incredibly lonely and even dejected. Yet what is fascinating about this time in his life is what Moses does with it. He continues to lead the people while at the same time preparing them for the time when he will no longer be there. He leads the conquest of Trans-Jordan, arranges the future division of the Land and settles accounts with the Midianites. Most of all, he bequeaths us his magnificent orations in the book of Deuteronomy, which in many ways lies at the heart of the Hebrew Bible.
In doing all this Moses shows us how to deal with the sunset of our lives or careers. Despite being lonely and, in some respects, isolated, he leaves aside that which he will not be able to accomplish and concentrates on what he can yet achieve. In setting a clear goal for this final period of his life and career, he manages to zero in on what is truly important for him to do and thus manages to accomplish much and leave us all an unparalleled legacy. Moses’ dilemma at this time is one we will all face. When we know that our time in a position, career or in life, is limited and approaching its conclusion, we have a choice. We can choose to concentrate on what we have not achieved and now will never accomplish. We can feel lonely or isolated without those who helped us on the way and who now have gone. Or we can not dwell on the past but concentrate on the future, however limited. We can set ourselves clear goals that are achievable in the time remaining to us and that can form a lasting legacy. We can devote ourselves to providing for the future, even if we will ultimately not be part of it, and in so doing, enrich our present. We can learn from Moses that while the final period of our life can be lonely and sad, it does not have to be. If we follow his example, it can also be the most enriching and significant time of all.
The Torah does not specifically mention the time period when the rebellion of Korach occurred and there are differing opinions on the matter. The most likely explanation is that this incident took place following the Sin of the Spies and its aftermath. This can be discerned not only by hints in the text but by the very fact of the rebellion itself. Before this moment, there had been complaints and demands but never a direct challenge to the leadership of Moses. Only following the sin of the Spies was such a thing conceivable. The reason is clear. Before this period Moses had always come through for the people. He had generally provided for their needs and defended them against the wrath of G-d. But now he was seen to have failed. While he may have deflected G-d from immediately destroying them, G-d had still decreed that that generation would die in the wilderness. This was a catastrophe from which Moses had not succeed in protecting them. Moses is thus seen to have failed and so now, for the first time, is open to challenge. Of course, the real fault for the catastrophe lies with the people themselves and their actions. Yet they choose to blame Moses and turn against him. It is easier for them to pretend they are the victims and place the blame on Moses than to take responsibility for their own actions. Unfortunately, this is a common phenomenon.
When you suffer because of your own negative behaviour it is far easier to pretend that everyone is against you than realise that your own actions have contributed to the situation. That, of course, would require change and it is so much easier to wallow in self pity. Unfortunately, of course, this attitude solves nothing and only makes the problem worse. Another reason for turning against Moses is that he provides a substitute for G-d. We have already seen this phenomenon before. The people are really angry at G-d for the end of their hopes and dreams but it is far easier to be angry at Moses, who is tangible and available to vent their anger upon. This is also not uncommon. Sometimes people in a community after certain crises or tragedies, turn on the Rabbi, finding an excuse to attack him. Yet they are really angry at G-d, but He is not so available and it is easier to vent ones anger upon a human leader than confront the emotional and psychological implications of being angry at G-d. What connects these behaviours is of course an unhealthy sense of victimhood and an even more unhelpful refusal to take responsibility for their own actions and confront their own real feelings. Unfortunately, such behaviour has dire consequences, preventing a healing process or taking steps to remedy the situation. It merely reinforces a negative situation and makes it worse. Only by ceasing to blame others, being honest with ourselves and taking responsibility for our actions, can we solve the problems that we face.
There is a famous contradiction in the story of the Sin of the Spies. In Deuteronomy, the people are represented as initiating the enterprise, while in our Parshah the initiative appears to come from G-d. The traditional way of resolving this paradox is by saying that the people asked for the mission and G-d then agreed. Rashi explains that when the people requested to check out the Land, G-d decided that if they did not trust Him, he would give them a possibility of making an error in order that they should not inherit it. In other words the mission of the spies was G-d’s negative response to the people wanting to investigate the Land. On the surface it seems a simple case of tit for tat. You did not believe Me, so I will arrange things so you end up forfeiting what I wanted to give you. Yet Rashi’s comment speaks a profound truth. The people’s very wish to investigate the Land meant they were prone to think they could never conquer it. Looked at realistically, how could a rabble of former slaves defeat thirty-one powerful city states. Looked at using normal political/military calculations, they could not. Only seen through the eyes of faith in the G-d who promised it, was it at all possible. In the same way, was it possible in 1897, when Herzl wrote ‘today I founded the Jewish state’, that one would come into existence fifty years later? But it did.
If we look at the history of the last century, we can perceive that every major world event has had the effect of strengthening the Jewish hold over and success in the Land of Israel. None of which could have been predicted or even seemed reasonable; much of which seemed impossible. But it happened. If those involved had based their calculations only on realistic projections, they never would have even begun. That was the real issue with spies and the significance of Rashi’s comment. Once they based their decisions on normal rationales and not on belief in G-d, they were bound to err and decide they could not conquer the Land. G-d merely agrees with them and postpones the project until the next generation. By making realistic calculation they had in effect made the enterprise impossible. The spies describe seeing giants and feeling like grasshoppers, which is how the giants regarded them. Jews, in comparison to the forces arrayed against us, will always by natural criteria be grasshoppers and if we use such criteria, so we will seem to ourselves and others. Yet with trust in G-d, we are in fact giants and will seem that to others, as we ourselves have seen. The choice we face today is the same as in the time of the spies: to be grasshoppers or giants.
After putting up for a while with the complaints and rebellions of the Israelites, Moses has finally had enough. He turns to G-d and asks to be relieved of this burden. He has two main complaints. One is that the people’s demands are unreasonable. He accuses G-d of expecting him to act like a nursing mother to the people and how is he supposed to provide meat for everyone in the desert? Secondly, he complains that dealing with all this is too much for one person and he would rather die than carry on like this. G-d answers his complaints with two different actions. Firstly, he instructs Moses to create a council of seventy elders that will help him. This becomes the genesis of the later Jewish high court and parliament, the Sanhedrin, which also had seventy members. G-d then acts to demonstrate to the people that their demands are unreasonable and not appropriate. They do indeed get the meat they demanded in the form of quails. But they are given so much and eat so greedily that they become seriously ill and many of them die. They thus learn, at least temporarily, to moderate their demands. What can this incident teach us about leadership and the relation between leaders and those over whom they have power. Firstly, that while singular charismatic leadership has its place, it is not by itself enough.
Sharing both power and the responsibility is far better. It prevents both the danger of a leader becoming out of touch and thinking they are indispensable. Being forced to listen to other opinions and compromise with other interests serves to create a far more healthy form of governance. Secondly, G-d’s dramatic rebuke of the people’s demands should teach us the limits of our expectations of our leaders. Politicians or the government should not be expected to be ‘nursing mothers’, as Moses complains that the Israelites expect of him. Not every problem can or should be resolved by government action. The population and society needs to also take responsibility for their own welfare. This is a lesson especially relevant for today. The massive and generally necessary government intervention of the last two years may have given people unrealistic expectations of what politicians are capable of doing. In the face of global forces out of their control, there is only so much any government can do, and people need to be made aware of this. In the end not everyone can get the level of assistance to which they feel entitled. It may be that the current crisis, like the incident related in the Parshah, will serve as a healthy corrective, forcing people to have more reasonable expectations in the future.
In the centre of the Parshah we have two teachings from which we can learn an important ethical lesson. Firstly, the Torah commands that certain people are to be excluded from the camp: the leper, those with certain bodily emissions and those who had contact with a corpse. From here and other places the Rabbis discerned what parts of the camp each group is to be barred from entering. What is interesting is that those with the most serious form of impurity, contact with a corpse, are only barred from the Sanctuary precincts themselves, while the leper is barred from the whole camp. Traditionally, leprosy in the Torah is understood as punishment for slander. Thus the leper must, unlike other impure people, be banned from the whole of the society his evil talk has damaged.
The Torah continues by talking of the giving of certain offerings to the priest, followed by the ritual of the woman suspected of adultery. On this juxtaposition the Rabbis comment that if someone neglects the tithes due to the priests he will be forced to go to the priest with a case of adultery. This again reinforces the idea of the negative consequences of moral delinquency. The person who is not prepared to support those members of society worthy of assistance, will himself be forced into a situation where he needs assistance. He seeks to hoard his wealth and not contribute to the well being of the society to which he he belongs. His punishment is to be forced to expend that wealth in a public and humiliating way.
These two cases teach us an important and timely lesson. We are part of society and our interaction and contribution to that society are not only important for the health of society as a whole but also vital for our own well being. If we refuse to properly contribute to the community in which we live, or even worse, like the slanderer, engage in behaviour that damages that community, we will pay the price. We will suffer both financial loss and social humiliation.
The Torah this week thus teaches us a basic lesson. Selfish or inconsiderate actions that we might take as individuals can have an effect on the whole of our surrounding environment and in the end, return like a boomerang to negatively affect our own lives. We cannot escape the society we live in and we we thus to strengthen it, for in its fortification we ourselves become stronger.
The Festival of Shavuot is given two main names in the Torah. Hag Ha’Shavuot: the Feast of Weeks and Hag Ha B’ikurim: the Feast of First Fruits. Both are connected to Pesach through the counting of the Omer. In connection with that count, the Torah commands that we should count seven complete Sabbaths, using the word Shabbat. In other words Shavuot is the culmination of seven observances of Shabbat. Just as we noticed that the Jubilee year, after seven Shemitah years, was an extension and intensification of the ideas contained in the Sabbatical year, so Shavuot, coming after seven weekly Sabbaths should be an intensification of the concept of Shabbat. Indeed, we notice when reading the Torah that the concept of Shabbat is taught to the Israelites through the laws concerning the Mannah before the Giving of the Torah on Sinai. The basic concept of Shabbat is the acknowledgement of G-d as creator of the world. By refraining from our own creative activity, we recognise that the world is not ours to do with as we like but, as the Torah states with regards to the Sabbath of the land, we are but temporary occupants.
We are to desist both from exploiting the physical world we inhabit and the labour of our fellow creatures, whether human or animal. By doing so, we are to acknowledge that things exist not only for our benefit but in their own right as creations of G-d. This idea is basic to Judaism, which is why Shabbat is both contained in the Ten Commandments and was taught even beforehand. The Torah’s fundamental principle, contained in its many mitzvot, is precisely this concept of relinquishing ownership. Whether concerning our relationship with our nature, animals or humans, we are constantly taught to restrain our appetites and realise that not everything in the world is for our taking. Through both the ritual and social legislation of the Torah we are mandated to treat everything as having intrinsic rather than just utilitarian value. This is also the lesson of the First Fruits, whereby the farmer has to give away the choice fruits of his hard work, in recognition that nature is not there simply for his benefit. These are the lessons taught primarily by Shabbat and in order to properly absorb them, it is first necessary to observe seven Shabbatot before being able to accept the Torah which puts these concepts into practice.
The main focus of the Parshah this week is the list of the Blessings and Curses that will be the destiny of the Jewish people depending on their observance of the Torah. These are not individual fates but something that will occur to the whole people. Prosperity or famine, security or exile, are predicted for the nation not only its individuals. This raises the question of collective punishment. Surely by punishing everyone, G-d is being unfair. After all, in our modern world, collective punishment is outlawed in international law. There is however, a difference between collective punishment and collective responsibility. One targets innocent individuals for the crimes of other individuals, while the other targets a society as a society. If we take the most extreme use of collective punishment, that used by the Nazis, we can see the difference. The Nazis would respond to partisan attacks by taking people at random and executing them. Wholly or mostly innocent individuals were made to pay for the crimes of other individuals, with which they may have had no connection and upon whom they exercised no control. To take the other extreme, sanctions on apartheid South Africa targeted the whole of the society, especially white society, for the crimes of the regime they lived under and mostly supported. Here people were not being punished for something they did not do but being chastised for the actions of a society of which they were a part.
This is of course precisely the moral basis for the actions being taken against Russia at the present. Even though the Russian people may not all support the action of their government, or may be being misled, as part of Russian society they must bear responsibility for the actions taken by that society. In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet predicts catastrophe for his people if they do not return to G-d, but is ignored. Seeking to defend his people, he tells G-d that the false prophets are misleading them. G-d replies that those prophets will indeed be severely punished but that will not save the people. As part of a sinful society, however deceived, they must still pay the price. G-d seems to be saying that if they really wanted to, they could see the truth and change their society. The same can be said for Russian society today or for German society in 1945, where the catastrophic truth stared them in the face but they still did not act to change and save themselves. The confusion today between collective punishment and collective responsibility is a consequence of a world-view that sees society as merely an amalgam of individuals who therefore cannot be punished for what other individuals do, even in their name. Yet this is gravely mistaken. Any study of history, sociology or simple reality can show that societies are entities in themselves with a corporate identity. They therefore can be held accountable, as a corporate entity, for their actions. This is not collective punishment. It is collective responsibility.
The Shabbat is one of the most basic elements in Judaism. It is found in the Ten Commandments and is several times emphasised in other passages in the Torah. The concept of Shabbat is also extended to the Land with the institution of the Sabbatical year. Indeed the Torah labels the Shemitah year as ‘a Shabbat for G-d’. This expansion of the concept of Shabbat, however, is not limited to the Shemitah year. It is further expanded in two other institutions. One is the Counting of the Omer, which we are presently in the middle of. This consists of seven Shabbatot, seven times seven weeks, which culminate in the fiftieth day which is Shavuot. The Torah also institutes a similar concept with regard to the Shabbat of the Land, the seventh year. We are to count seven such years, making a total of forty nine years, with the fiftieth year being a Yovel, or Jubilee year. If we look at the regulations concerning this year, we can discern that they are an expansion of the ideas contained in the Shemitah. The rules surrounding the Sabbatical year consists of three main concepts. They are the non working of the Land, the remission of debts and the limit to Jewish slavery (though this latter rule is based on counting years from the time of sale). The Yovel or Jubilee year expands all three. Slaves, even before their seven years of service are up or if they have chosen to remain with their master after this period, are automatically freed with the advent of the Jubilee.
The Sabbath rest of the Land is extended to include the actual ownership of the Land. Not only must we desist from working the Land as a sign of G-d’s ultimate ownership, but we must give active expression to that ownership by transferring the Land back to its original possessor, thus stating by our actions that we have no ultimate ownership of it. In a similar way, the Torah concept of overall economic equality expressed by the command to remit monetary debts in the seventh year, is expanded to include ownership of property, which must also be ‘remitted’ in the Jubilee year. Other than the important lessons taught by the regulations themselves, we can learn something else from this system. The Torah does not impose its moral vision all in one go. Rather there is a progression from the weekly Sabbath, to the seven yearly Sabbath to the Jubilee, each stage progressively expanding the moral horizons of the people. We can utilise this idea to understand the thrust of Torah legislation in general, in issues such as slavery or women’s rights. The Torah does not make change overnight but sets a direction for later generations to follow. The moral thrust of this legislation is clear and enables later Sages to expand on it in the spirit of the Torah, thus continuing the progressive approach towards change of the Torah itself.
The first part of the Parshah deals with the special regulations concerning the priests. This includes restrictions on their behaviour, duties they are to perform and special rights that accrue to them. Included in these rules are restrictions on priests with certain physical disabilities taking part in the Temple service. This includes both clearly visible disabilities such as lacking a limb but also less obvious blemishes in the eyes. This restriction jars harshly with us today. Our society, in theory at least, does not accept restricting people simply because of a disability and thus how should we approach these rules in our Parshah? Firstly, of course, we need to understand them and the context, both textual and historical, in which they appear. The first thing to note is that these regulations impinge on neither the restrictions concerning, or the rights accruing to, the priests. A disabled priest is, for example, still forbidden to defile himself with a corpse except of his close family. He also is specifically included in the privilege of receiving and eating the priestly dues, including from the sacrificial offerings. His disability only prevents him carrying out the duties of a priest in the sacrificial service. We should also note that these regulations appear in the same section that forbids the sacrificing of blemished animals. Indeed many of the disabilities are the same for both. This can serve to provide an insight into the reasoning behind these rules.
Offering blemished animals to G-d is seen as an insult. As the prophet Malachi decries centuries later, would you offer it to your ruler and would he accept it? In the same way, in a society that saw disability as a blemish and devaluing somewhat the individual, having disabled priests offering the sacrifices would have been seen as an insult to G-d. And considering the views of that society, this would indeed have displayed an attitude of contempt for the Divine service. The fact that we today would feel the opposite is to our credit and clearly in keeping with the general spirit of the Torah, but that was not the society the Torah was dealing with when these laws were given. It may indeed be that in the Third Temple, these laws will be modified to reflect modern sensibilities. Meanwhile, we should understand them in their context and learn from them the important principle that underlies this whole section of the Torah: What you give to or for G-d is not second best and should not be treated as if it is. Judaism and Jewish life deserves just as much attention and resources as other areas of our lives and that is the real message of our Parshah.
‘You shall be holy because I the Lord your G-d am holy’. This charge to be holy at the beginning of the Parshah and its relation to the many mitzvot that follow, has been given various interpretations by the commentators. Famously, Nahmanides regards this verse as an exhortation to go beyond the rules set out in the Parshah and ‘sanctify yourself in what is permitted to you’. Just as G-d, as it were, was holy by stopping the positive work of creation and sanctifying Shabbat, so we are to refrain from doing even those things they may be permitted to us, in order to sanctify ourselves. While this idea may seem overly burdensome to many of us, who may regard the restrictions placed on us by the Torah as more than sufficient, this idea has important resonances for our current situation. The government has removed most of the covid restrictions that were placed on our lives. Nevertheless, the strong recommendation is that we should continue with some of the practices that have kept us safe during the past two years. This is especially true of the wearing of face masks, which while no longer legally required, are recommended still to be worn in places such as shops, public transport and other public meeting places.
Now while it is true that face masks do protect the wearer somewhat, their main purpose is to protect others, at which they are relatively effective. Thus the main reason we should continue with this practice is not for our own sake but out of consideration for others. That thinking and respecting the needs of our fellow humans is of course a thread running through the social legislation we read in our Parshah, summed up by the injunction ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. While the idea of being holy by going beyond the letter of the law is often applied to ritual matters, it is even more important when dealing with relations with our neighbours. In the issue of wearing face masks, therefore, we have a perfect example of ‘sanctifying ourselves in what is permitted to us’. Yes, this practice is no longer a legal requirement. But surely by continuing to follow it, and thus showing consideration and care for others, we are practically fulfilling the injunction of the Torah to be holy. It is fascinating that today simply by looking at people’s faces in the supermarket or the synagogue we can see who is practically fulfilling the injunction of the Torah to aspire to be holy.
The book of Leviticus has a clear order to its many injunctions. We firstly have the regulations concerning the sacrificial service followed by laws of personal holiness such as kashrut and issues of purity and impurity. Following this we have laws concerning holiness of sexual relations, general integrity and right conduct in everyday life, the special regulations concerning the priests and the holiness of time found in the Festival Cycle, followed by the holiness of the Land and the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. One would therefore expect the special sacrificial service of Yom Kippur to be found either in the instructions concerning sacrifices at the beginning of the book or, more probably, appended to the instructions concerning the festivals. Instead it is found right at the centre of the book, after the laws of kashrut and impurity and before the ‘holiness code’. Why is this ceremony placed especially here? I think that the placement of Yom Kippur at the centre of the various laws of personal holiness carries an important message. Indeed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also at the centre of the list of festivals in this book, Pesach and Shavuot on one side and Succot on the other, which is also the way we divide the aliyot when we read this section of the Torah. Why does Yom Kippur have to be central to both the other festivals and the other mitzvot in general?
The essence of Yom Kippur, as stated at the end of the account we read this week, is the idea that on this day G-d will forgive us. Atonement will be made for all our sins both of commission and omission and a new start made. This idea is both basic to Judaism and our very ability to keep the Torah. G-d created humans imperfect and they therefore will constantly fall short of what the Torah requires of them. Therefore G-d instituted the ability for us to repent, change our ways and begin again. This process finds its crescendo in Yom Kippur, on which G-d promises us He will make atonement for us, enabling us to begin anew. The importance of this idea to the observance of the rest of the Torah can be found in the rather strange traditional Christian idea that the Torah was given to Jews as a punishment as it can never be possible to be fully kept and Christianity came to liberate people from this terrible yoke. In contradistinction, the Torah promises us that we can indeed fulfil its precepts and if we fail sometimes it gives us a day on which we can be forgiven and begin again. Thus Yom Kippur, in an important respect, enables the possibility of keeping the rest of the Torah, and the section describing its central ceremony is thus rightly placed at the heart of the book of Leviticus and its laws.
The essential ritual mandated by the Torah for the night of the 15th of Nisan is the eating of the Pesach sacrifice, offered during the afternoon of the 14th. Since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer have the possibility of carrying out this ritual and indeed much of our present Seder can be seen as the attempt of the Rabbis to compensate for this lack. While today people are sometimes not so sure about slaughtering and eating an animal as part of a religious ritual, the bringing of the Pesach sacrifice is regarded by the Torah as essential to identification with the Jewish people. Therefore, even though we are presently unable to perform this ritual, we should examine its purpose and meaning then and now. The Jews who left Egypt were essentially passive observers in their liberation, except for this one thing. They were commanded to kill and eat a lamb, the god of Egyptians, and publicly smear the blood on their door-posts. They thus took action to demonstrate that the rules of the Egyptian state held no meaning for them and they no longer felt bound by its ideology or its laws.
In that moment they ceased to become slaves and became free. In the same way as, for example, those Berliners who physically danced on and then destroyed the Wall, showed that the strictures of the totalitarian state could no longer contain them and thus liberated themselves. That was the meaning of the Paschal lamb then and it is its meaning for us today. Every generation has to understand that to be Jewish is to reject the right of an unjust or oppressive regime to rule over us or others and to, if necessary, take action against that state. Every year we must learn anew that freedom is not achieved without action. Especially this year we must contemplate that as our freedom is again threatened by tyrants, it is not enough to merely show sympathy or leave an empty chair at the Seder (as has been suggested). Rather we must do, and especially urge our governments to do, much more to actively support those fighting for both their freedom and ours. That determination should be the substitute for the Pesach sacrifice at our table this year
The two Parshiot on either side of Pesach this year both contain a set of animals, one of which is killed and the other of which is set free. In this week’s Parshah the initial purification of the leper is obtained by a ceremony including birds, one of which is killed and the other set free. In the Temple ritual for Yom Kippur, which we read about the week after Pesach, we similarly have two goats. One is sacrificed and its blood sprinkled inside the Sanctuary, while the other is, in the original rite in the desert, set free to wander. (Later on in settled country it was thrown over a cliff. In the midst of reading about these pairs of animals we commemorate the most important sacrifice of the year, the Paschal sacrifice. This is of course singular and sacrificed and eaten, not set free. Is there a connection between all these three sets of animals and their respective fates? If we look at the two sets of animals where one is killed and the other released, we can see the symbolism in this action. In the case of the leper, the leprosy is, as it were, placed on the live bird and removed from the leper. In the case of the two goats of Yom Kippur, as well, the sins of the people are placed on the live goat which is then set free. In these cases the negative situation of the individual or the nation is removed from them on to the animal and sent away. The release of the bird and goat also symbolise at the same time the release of the person or nation from their affliction or guilt.
Thus the same act both removes the problem from and sets the affected person free. When we come to the Paschal sacrifice, we see that there is only one animal and that is sacrificed and eaten. Missing is the second animal that is let free. This has a simple explanation. Instead of an animal being set free to symbolise the release of the people from their affliction, in this case slavery, the people themselves are set free. This is the ultimate pair if you like, explaining why the eating of this sacrifice is, along with circumcision, regarded as the most important positive commandment in the Torah. What can this narrative of sets of animals tell us? Maybe, that if we are faced with difficult situations or difficult people, there are differing ways of dealing with the situation. In some cases one has merely to deal with the situation by working on yourself dealing with the negativity causing the problem, symbolised by killing one of the pair of animals. Sometimes, especially when faced with difficult people or bad influences you have to remove the problem from yourself, like sending away the animals. But in the hardest cases, even that is not sufficient. Sometimes you are in a situation that you can only deal with by you removing yourself from the source of the problem, as the Jews had to physically leave Egypt in order to free themselves from Egyptian influence, whether material or spiritual. What to do in each case will depend on the person and the situation but the Torah in these texts gives us the tools to deal with the problem and so free ourselves
This week we read three different sections of the Torah dealing with different aspects of holiness in time. Firstly, we read at the beginning of the Parshah of the obligation to circumcise a male child on the eighth day after birth. Then we read, in the second scroll, the additional offerings of Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh, two different aspects of holy time. This is emphasised in the third reading dealing with the establishment of the calendar and the festival of Pesach. In these three different mitzvot we can see on the one hand holiness within time as distinct to holiness beyond time, holiness in nature and holiness beyond nature and various gradients of human involvement. Starting from Shabbat, we have holiness within time, the regular seven day cycle with which G-d created the world. Yet this seven day cycle is connected to no natural phenomena and is something beyond the natural world. Furthermore it has no human involvement, happening every seven days no matter what. The next aspect of holy time is that of the calendar, Rosh Hodesh and the Festivals. On the one hand, this is something that is connected to nature, the appearance of the new moon. As such it also has the aspect of holiness within time, not beyond it. Lastly, it requires human involvement, ‘this month shall be for you’, the Jewish people decide which day is Rosh Hodesh and which not. Finally, the mitzvah of circumcision is one which takes us both beyond time and nature, occurring on the eighth day (beyond the seven day cycle), and being an action that improves or fixes the natural body.
It is also the mitzvah requiring the most human involvement, physically changing our bodies. We can see these three mitzvot, then as providing us with differing ways to approach G-d. The weekly Shabbat we receive as a gift from G-d, without a connection to the natural world and without human involvement. On Shabbat we are required to stand back from nature and refrain from interfering in G-d’s creation. This enables us, on a weekly basis, to experience holiness within time. Rosh Hodesh and the festivals, on the other hand, are intimately connected to nature, through the cycles of the moon and to human action, by our proclaiming of each New Month. Thus we are able to experience G-d’s presence both in nature and history. Circumcision combines these aspects. On one hand, it exceeds even Shabbat in occurring on the eighth day, thus reaching beyond the confines of time. It also transcends the connection to nature and history of the festivals, requiring human action to improve on nature. It thus demonstrates how we can not only find holiness within time and nature but by performing G-d’s will even rise above them to reach into eternity. Thus the various Torah readings we read this Shabbat provide us with differing routes to holiness and various ways of approaching G-d.
The ritual of the Red Heifer is designated as a hok or a statute. This is traditionally interpreted as meaning a law whose reason is not readily apparent or does not make sense. So the ritual of the Red Heifer purifies the impure but all those involved in its preparation themselves become impure. Indeed, this mitzvah is regarded as the example par-excellence of this type of law. Yet the commentators mention a few other laws that come into this category, including the laws of kashrut, which we also read about this week. The designation of various animals or categories of creatures as kosher or not kosher is regarded in some ways to be arbitrary or not readily apparent. In both cases these laws are regarded as Divine decrees to be followed despite, or indeed because of, their defying rationality. Yet this explanation is not as simple as it seems. The various laws of kashrut are certainly amenable to understanding and various commentators, both traditional and modern, have endeavoured to do so. They have given various explanations for the types of animals forbidden for consumption and other aspects of the kosher laws. Even when it comes to the classic example of a statute, the rite of the Red Heifer, explanations have been given and understandings offered. We thus need to interpret the idea of hok and what it teaches us in a slightly different way.
If we look at the laws of kashrut, a clear explanation for them is given by the Torah itself at the end of the Parshah. We are to make a distinction between pure and impure animals because we are to be distinguished from among the nations. We are to become holy by observing these rules because G-d is holy and we are His people. Thus according to the text, these laws have two main functions, to distinguish Jews from other nations and to raise us to another level of spirituality. In that context the precise reason for the designation of certain animals as pure or impure is less important. In a similar fashion, the ritual of the Red Heifer has as its main purpose to purify the Jewish people and orient them to a religion of life not death. By making a dead body the most defiling object and creating such a complicated and expensive rite for purification from contact with it, the Torah is marking a clean break from the death cults of the pagan world, especially of Egypt. In this context, the precise reason for the details of the ceremony are less important. Thus by calling something a statute, we are not saying it cannot be explained, rather emphasising its true meaning and purpose. The same is true of the rest of the Torah. While, we can and indeed should seek to find rational explanations for the mitzvot, we should never lose sight as to their primary purpose of spiritualising our existence and bringing us closer to G-d.
One of the offerings discussed in the Parshah is that of the Todah, or Thanksgiving offering. This could theoretically be brought at any occasion when the worshipper felt a need to thank G-d for some positive event in their life. However, as mentioned below, the Rabbis restricted the obligation of bringing of this particular offering or of saying the Ha’gomel in the synagogue blessing to four specific cases. Those who have been travelling by sea or through the wilderness or have been sick or in prison are to bring a Todah or say Ha’gomel, on their safe arrival or deliverance. The Rabbis learnt these cases from Psalm 107, which mentions each of these incidences of peril and deliverance, followed by the instruction that those rescued or recovered should thank G-d for His mercies. What is fascinating about this source is the context in which these four cases are placed. While, in terms of ritual practice, anyone in this situation needs to bring an offering or say Ha’gomel, the individuals mentioned in the Psalm are placed in a specific historical context. Psalm 107 is the last of a series of psalms dealing with Jewish history from Creation to Redemption. Psalm 106 dealt with the disobedience of the Jewish people and their exile from the Land and ends with a plea for the ingathering of the exiles. Psalm 107 deals with this process, talking of the redeemed of Israel whom G-d has rescued from the four corners of the earth. It ends with restoration of the barren land to prosperity.
In the middle lie these four cases of peril and deliverance. Thus, in the context of the Psalm, these individuals are people returning from exile to the Land of Israel and their peril and deliverance are part of the historical process of Redemption. For this reason, as mentioned below, this Psalm is said in many communities on Yom Ha’atzmaut. What is interesting is that the Sages took these cases from their historic context and widened their scope to include any individual, who was in danger and survived. This underlines a basic concept of Jewish thought. Historical events in Jewish history, whether past or anticipated in the future, serve not only as sources of instruction for the nation but for individuals. By contemplating the lessons of the various events that have shaped being Jewish, Jews can derive lessons not only as a collective but also as individuals. Thus the story of Pesach can teach us how to emancipate ourselves from the things that enslave us and hold us back, while the events commemorated by Succot can instruct us on the correct attitude to, and use of, material possessions. As we celebrate Purim the characters and actions of Mordechai and Esther have much to teach us not only as a nation but also as individuals, on how to live as politically active and identify as Jews in a non-Jewish society. Thus history for Jews is not only about commemorating the past but drawing lessons for the present and future.
Throughout the journey in the wilderness, especially in the book of Numbers, we have a record of the Israelite’s misbehaviour being followed by dire consequences. Normally this takes the form of a plague or other Divine visitation. This pattern is prefigured in the plague that visits the people after the sin of the Golden Calf and kills three thousand of them. What is fascinating about this depressing pattern of events, however, is that it appears that it could have been avoided. If we examine the events following the sin of the Golden Calf, we will find that after the initial punishment and Moses’ successful intercession with G-d to spare the people, another consequence of this sin is mentioned. G-d informs the people that they will indeed proceed to the promised land but be guided by the medium of an angel. The presence of G-d Himself will not, however, go with them lest they again misbehave and He ‘consume them on the way’. The idea seems to be clearly expressed that proximity to a direct manifestation of G-d imposes standards of behaviour that if violated can lead to serious consequences. It is safer, in G-d’s first take on things, for there to be a certain distance between Himself and the people. The people, and prominently Moses, do not however accept this plan. The people go into mourning and remove their jewellery while Moses spends the next few sections of the Torah demanding that G-d change his mind.
In the end, Moses succeeds in his quest and G-d does agree to, as it were, personally accompany the people. Yet the consequences of such Divine proximity have not been ameliorated, as the record of rebellion and punishment found in the book of Numbers amply demonstrates. It would appear, therefore, the gain of Divine proximity is worth the danger of such a closeness. Having G-d among us is worth the extra demands and consequent risk to which that exposes us. The same may, of course be said, of the whole relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. The prophet Amos famously states that ‘you alone have I known of all the nations of the earth, therefore upon you will I visit all your iniquities’. Being Jewish is a privilege that carries with it obligations and dangers. One is reminded of the joke about the Jews who being informed by G-d that they are indeed his chosen people, respectfully ask Him to choose some one else for a while! This attitude can be seen in those survivors of the Holocaust who understandably chose to run as far away from Judaism and the Jewish community as possible. Who would circumcise their children, knowing what it had meant for those caught by the Nazis. Yet the same resolve to continue being Jewish despite the risks can be seen in those who despite everything they had suffered chose to continue to be Jewish, circumcise their children and rebuild what had been lost. Like the Israelites in the Parshah, being G-d’s people is simply still worth the risk
One of the eight garments of the High Priest is the robe. Famously, the robe contains bells in order ‘that his voice will be heard when he goes into the holy place’. The commentators provide varying explanations of this verse and the reason for the bells. The Hizkuni regards them as required for the sake of the people. The people should hear the bells when the High Priest enters to perform the service and thus know the time of the service and direct their hearts to heaven. Nachmanidies has a more mystical explanation. He connects this verse to one in the passage detailing the service on Yom Kippur. There it is written that ‘no man shall be in the tent of meeting when he enters the holy place until he leaves’. The bells are to signal to everyone, including the angels, that the High Priest is going in to serve G-d and everyone should thus vacate the place leaving him alone with G-d. These two explanations may seem to be contradictory. On the one hand, the people are meant to be connected with the service of the High Priest performed in their name. They should also presumably pray at the time he is serving. Yet, on the other hand, the High Priest is to be left so totally alone with G-d that even the angels must leave when he arrives.
This paradox however, lies at the essence of Jewish prayer. Prayer in Judaism is at one and the same time both communal and private. The mitzvah of ‘praying with the community’ consists at its heart of ten or more men praying the silent Amidah together. While without a minyan the value of the prayer is considered less, yet this is not public prayer in its normal sense. Jewish law also mandates that it is forbidden to pray in such a way that you can be overheard by your neighbour. We at one and the same time pray privately in public; with our neighbour but alone before G-d. This dichotomy goes to the very heart of Jewish spirituality. Judaism is not a religion of individuals but of a nation. Our connection to the Divine is, essentially, through the medium of being part of the Jewish people. Yet as part of that people, we all stand individually responsible before G-d. We are all responsible for each other yet we cannot escape the consequences of our individual behaviour. We stand before G-d as part of his people; yet can have an intimate personal relationship. This is the dual nature of Jewish spirituality, symbolised by the bells of the robe of the High Priest and actualised every time we pray together as a community
One of the themes that runs through the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle is that of unity. Several times it is stated that the Tabernacle should be one or should form a united structure. This idea, however, has two distinct applications. When it comes to the outer structure of the Tabernacle various components are to be put together to create a united structure. So when it comes to the coverings or the wooden structure the separate pieces are joined together ‘in order that the Tabernacle should be one’. However, when we turn our attention to the interior furniture, we find that a different concept is in play. For both the Ark Cover and the Menorah the Torah is clear that the various parts of the vessels are not to be made of different pieces which are then put together. Rather they are to be hammered out from a single block of metal. All their various parts shall come ‘from out of it’. We thus seem to have two different concepts of unity connected with the construction of the Tabernacle. One is to take distinct separate items and join them together to make a coherent whole. The other is to fashion different components of an artefact out of an existing united structure. We could call the first model the co-operative model, where various pieces cooperate to make something greater than themselves. The second model we could perhaps label basic, where the coherence of the distinct components emerges out of a base structure. If we apply these themes to human affairs we can therefore discern two distinct paths to achieving human cooperation and harmony.
One is to different people with different ideas to cooperate on a certain project or undertaking, using compromise in order to enable them to achieve a consensus for their mutual benefit. The other, which is more difficult, is to seek to create a meeting of minds on common idea or value, through which people can achieve their own goals, while benefiting the collective. The distinct activities thus emerge out of a common goal. Which one of these models is most useful is suitable? That depends on what you wish to achieve. In the realm of practical affairs, such as trade, for example, the cooperative model seems more appropriate. People or nations can be brought together to cooperate for their mutual benefit and thus create a form of agreed unity. When, however, it comes to values or the ideas underlying society or the world system, this model falls short. People coming from different value systems will find it hard to reach mutual agreed norms that enable them to cooperate. Rather we need to go to the core of the issue and attempt to find values that everyone agrees on. Once those values are made part of a general consensus cooperation between different entities will be assured by the common base of values that unite them. One of the basic problems with the universal enforcement of human rights is the lack of agreement of what rights should be considered basic. If we could reach a base agreement on that, then everyone could be truly held to the same standard. Thus the Parshah provides models of unity that are as relevant today as then.
Parshat Mishpatim in a regular year is normally also Parshat Shekalim, so the Haftorah reflects that occasion. However in a leap year the Haftorah is chosen to reflect the themes of the Parshah. Of the many issues covered in the law code of this section, the one chosen to be reflected in the Haftorah was the release of Hebrew slaves after six years. The passage is taken from the book of Jeremiah and tells of the last months of the Jewish monarchy of Judah. The Babylonians are besieging the city and the people in desperation to elicit Divine aid, make a covenant to obey the instructions of the Torah and release their Jewish slaves, which they had obviously not been doing. No sooner, however, had the Babylonians broken off the siege to go and deal with the Egyptian army, the people renege on their promise and re-enslave those they had released. Jeremiah is dispatched to warn them of the inevitable consequence of their actions, the return of the Babylonians and the destruction of the city and the enslavement and exile of its population. It is interesting that this passage was chosen to highlight the laws of the Parshah. Possibly, it was simply a readily available story with a direct link to a regulation in the Parshah. Yet I think there is a deeper thematic connection that explains and amplifies a message found also in the Parshah. The laws we are presented with are not merely suggestions of good practice but vital components of how a Jewish state is meant to operate.
Failure to observe these laws is not only a moral offense but undermines the basis of society and will lead to actual consequences in the real world. The Parshah itself occasionally states this in forceful terms. We are admonished not to oppress the widow and orphan and warned that if we do so, G-d will destroy us, and our wives will be widows, and our children orphans. It is this idea, of course, that is given life dramatically in the Haftorah. The people disregard the law of the Torah obligating them to release their slaves, so they themselves will be overcome by the enemy and themselves become slaves. They proved untrustworthy by breaking their promise to G-d and their fellow Jews. G-d will therefore break off his rescue of them by means of the Egyptians, who will return home, leaving the Babylonians free to return and take Jerusalem. Their breaking of the laws of Mishpatim led to real and tragic consequences for the whole nation. By choosing this passage as the Haftorah for this week, the Rabbis were teaching us an important lesson. Social justice is not a luxury or something nice to do. It is an integral part of the structure of a state, especially a Jewish state. Failure to adhere to the norms set out in this weeks Parshah will inevitably lead to the disintegration of the national polity. In a time of renewed Jewish sovereignty, it is a lesson worth heeding.
Following the Revelation at Sinai, the people approach Moses and ask that he become an intermediary between them and G-d. While they now understand that G-d can speak to humans, it is not an experience they wish to repeat. Moses tells them not to be afraid and that G-d has come: נַסּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶ֔ם which either means to test them or to elevate them. In this context, one could say that here the word means to elevate. G-d spoke to the Jewish people in order to raise them up and bring them close to Him by means of the Torah. Yet many of the commentators take a different approach. They see the word as implying some sort of test, one, which by being afraid of the Revelation, the Jews in some way failed. Even though the Torah seems to indicate that G-d was not displeased by their awe of Him, a strong midrashic tradition maintains that Moses, at least, was. If we combine the two meanings of the word נַסּ֣וֹת, we can maybe gain a deeper understanding of this idea. The Idea of the Revelation was to elevate the people and bring them closer to G-d. The test was whether they would be able or want to continue with this closeness. The answer, in this case, was no. Essentially, they answered ‘it was nice and nice that it was’. They reacted with fear rather than desire. It is true that hearing the voice of G-d is an awe inspiring experience that produces a certain necessary fear of G-d, and it is this that G-d is seen approving of.
On the other hand to remain at that level needs something more. It needs a passion for G-d and Torah and it is this that the Midrash finds lacking. While Moses certainly agrees with G-d that being in awe of the Divine is a worthy trait, in the people’s fearful reaction to G-d’s Revelation, he senses that an opportunity has been lost. A possibility of a different type of relationship based on desire and passion, rather than only duty and awe, has been squandered. This understanding of this passage is extremely important for these generations. In the past, much emphasis was put on fear of G-d and ideas of reward and punishment. This was especially true in many of the philosophical and mystical works of the Middle Ages. It reflected the religious context of the time. Today, however, such admonitions simply do not speak to people. Jews will not be cowed or frightened into keeping the Torah: they need to be seduced. A Judaism without passion simply based on tradition or fear of consequences has no appeal today. One based on commitment and love born of understanding is what people will connect to. That attitude to Torah, indeed, is the basis of the Messianic age. By instilling in our generation a passion for Torah based on knowledge, we are not only saving Judaism for the future, but reclaiming the opportunity lost by our ancestors when they recoiled from the original Revelation.
There are two main stories that make up the Parshah this week. One is the crossing of the Reed Sea and the other is the arrival of the Manna. These narratives may seem on the surface very different but actually are connected by an underlying theme. In both the Crossing of the Sea and the laws regarding the Manna, the Israelites were required to put their trust in G-d. As they stood by the shore of the sea with the Egyptians behind them, they had to have the faith to go forward into the sea at Moses’ command, trusting that something would happen to save them. With regards to the Manna, they were required to not leave anything over for the next day, trusting that the Manna would return in the morning. In a similar vein they had to believe that the Manna would not fall on Shabbat and prepare food for the next day on Friday. Admittedly, this was easier, as they had already received a double portion for Shabbat. In all these cases, they had to trust the assurances of Moses, speaking in the name of G-d, that things would work out. This was not easy. According to tradition it took one individual to take the plunge before the sea split and the others followed. In both cases concerning the Manna, there were people that did not listen to Moses and kept over some Manna or went out on Shabbat to look for it. It is interesting that the Parshah begins with the requital for such trust.
Joseph believed that the Jews would eventually leave Egypt and asked that his remains be taken with them when they did. We are told how indeed when they left, Israelites did take Joseph’s bones with them. One wonders whether Moses, when the people had doubts about the future, pointed to these bones as evidence that trust in G-d actually pays off. If we look at these two main narratives in the Parshah we see that one deals with a moment of supreme national crisis while the other concerns far more mundane, though no less important, matters of sustenance. This juxtaposition teaches us an important lesson. It is easier sometimes to trust in G-d during major crises, like war or serious illness. The acute nature of the event leads to a stripping away of our normal illusions and often enables us to see more clearly where our true support lies. To do this in daily life, in such matters of earning a living, can be much harder. That is maybe why, in the daily Amidah, before we get to the requests concerning the large things like the ingathering of the exiles or the rebuilding of Jerusalem, we ask for things like health and sustenance. Once we trust G-d to help us with the basic things of life, we may be more able to have hope concerning the greater, national, issues. And once we trust G-d in our daily lives we may also merit to see His redemption universally.
The story of the Exodus reaches its climax. All the Firstborn of Egypt are killed and the Jews are finally freed. Egypt lies in ruins, its people traumatised. It is this event that we are bidden to remember everyday and celebrate every Pesach. Yet should we be celebrating an event that caused a whole nation to suffer? In the rather peculiar stage rendition of the film ‘Prince of Egypt’, the writers have Moses apologising for acting as he did at the request of a brutal divinity. In a complete distortion of the text and history, the victims are turned into criminals and the persecutors into the oppressed.
Putting aside the rather weird thought processes of some West End script writers, is it not true that our freedom did .involve the suffering of the Egyptians? Could not G-d have arranged things some other way, such as miraculously transporting all the Israelites out of Egypt. This question is even more pertinent when it comes to the possession of the Land of Israel, which involved the conquest of the Canaanite cities or other such events in Jewish history, such as Purim, which involved slaughter of thousands our enemies. The simple answer is that G-d works through humans in achieving His purposes. If the Jews are to be freed or have a land, as far as possible natural means need to be used. This does involve the suffering of our enemies but that is simply the way the world is set up. Indeed, G-d ideally wants us to be instruments of our own redemption, even if it involves us getting our hands dirty.
This was actually true in during the Exodus as well. Even though the Israelites were not capable of physically fighting at that stage, they were required to resist. This was a basic component of the paschal sacrifice. Earlier, when speaking to Pharaoh, Moses had explained the need to travel to the wilderness by the negative reaction of the Egyptian population to the Israelites sacrificing sheep, which the Egyptians held sacred in front of them. Yet that is precisely what G-d now commands the Israelites to do. They are to emphasises the powerlessness of the subdued Egyptians by flaunting in their eyes the ability to wound their most sacred religious feelings with impunity. Thus the Jews, also, must take part in the fight against the Egyptians.
>All of this teaches us an important lesson. If we wish to have freedom, security, justice, this things cannot be won without a fight and in that fight people will get will get hurt. In a lot of the public discourse today there is a naivete about what it takes to keep us safe in our beds at night. We expect the security forces to keep us secure but don’t care to look to closely at the methods required to achieve this. Judaism by the story of the Exodus, Purim and other events puts it right in front of our faces and forces us to take ownership of it.
The introduction to the Parshah has been the subject of great controversy, especially in the modern period. In it, G-d tells Moses that he appeared to the patriarchs as El Shaddai or G-d Almighty but his name Hashem or the ‘four lettered name’, was not made known to them. Commentators have struggled with this verse, as the name Hashem is used frequently in the patriarchal narratives and even by the patriarchs themselves. Modern biblical criticism has seen traditionally this verse as proof that the Torah was written by several authors who used different Divine names, so the author of this narrative must have been different to the author of the texts in Genesis that used Hashem.. Contemporary scholars have generally rejected this division of the Torah based on names of G-d, but the difficulty still remains.
Rashi interprets the statement as signifying that G-d made promises to the patriarchs using the name G-d Almighty, but the fulfilment of those promises, signified by the name Hashem, they did not experience. He now, however, going to fulfil these promises, which is why He is revealing Himself by this ‘four lettered name’. If we examine this issue more closely, we can see that the text itself supports this type of approach. If we analyse the narratives in Genesis we can see that that the name most commonly used in G-d’s revelations to the patriarchs is indeed El Shaddai, especially to Abraham. Later G-d normally introduces himself as the G-d of the fathers, as he indeed initially does to Moses. Only once, does G-d Himself use the name Hashem when talking to a patriarch, and that is at the ‘Covenant of the Pieces’, when specifically presaging the exile and redemption in Egypt. Indeed, the few times the patriarchs address G-d by the ‘four lettered name’,it seems to be in the context of recalling G-d’s promises to them, such as when Jacob is facing his confrontation with Esau and prays for Divine assistance.
Thus we can see that Rashi’s comment and other traditional explanations of this verse are both based on grammatical analysis of the word ‘made known’ and a close reading of the texts in Genesis. They did not need to introduce fanciful concepts of different authors based on different Divine names, something that a close examination of the text simply doesn’t support. This highlights a general problem with classic modern biblical criticism. It asks good questions, most of which however been already asked centuries earlier. The answers, however, are rubbish. As Hertz points out, if the meaning of the verse ids actually that G-d is revealing a new name unknown to the patriarchs or presumably to their descendants, how will that help Moses in his mission. It directly contradicts his earlier worry about the people not knowing G-d’s name!
Rather, biblical critics came up with a seemingly simple theory which in reality doesn’t work and solves nothing. The traditional explanation, on the other hand, is based on a close reading and understanding of the text and, if understood properly, provides a good explanation of the verse. This is but one example of the unsatisfactory nature of classic biblical criticism and the need to take it the a very large grain of salt.
In the synopsis of the Exodus story from Deuteronomy which we read on Seder night, it is written וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים which is normally translated as ‘the Egyptians were evil to us’ but actually can be better understood as the ‘Egyptians made us seem evil’. This can be seen at the beginning of our Parshah when Pharaoh suddenly declares the Israelites are a security threat and therefore need to be dealt with. Persecution always begins with delegitimisation. As it was in the first exile of the Jewish people, so it has been throughout history. Jews have learnt the hard way that words can kill. While these verbal assaults have taken various force, none has been more damaging or lasting than that perpetuated by Christianity.
It is impossible to conceive of the litany of physical assaults on Jews over the centuries, including the Holocaust, without the delegitimisation of Jews and Judaism by Christianity. This goes back to the gospels, where Jewish leaders and often Jews in general, are portrayed as the enemy. The most insidious feature of this delegitimisation is the wholesale identity theft of Judaism by Christianity. Not only are Christians now the new Israel and Jews rejected, but Jewish texts and narratives are misread to support the story.
This can be clearly seen in the nativity story where a passage from Isaiah is wilfully mistranslated to create a virgin birth and the story of Moses and the Exodus is used to manufacture the tale of Herod (another Jewish villain), seeking to kill all the male babies (sound familiar) and the holy family fleeing to Egypt, in a re-narration of the Egyptian slavery. Thus are Jews rejected and Jewish stories made Christian. Despite the welcome rejection by mainstream Christian denominations, especially Catholics, of this identity substitution, the Christian assault on Judaism continues unabated. Not only does intense Christian missionary activity specifically targeted at Jews continue uncondemned by mainstream churches, but it uses exactly the same type of identity theft pioneered in the gospels.
A brief search on the internet will discover Christian Haggadahs, Rabbis, Parshah talks and so on. None of this has anything to do with genuine Christian identity but is a method of suborning Judaism and authentic Jewish life. This of course has recently culminated in the uncovering of ‘deep sleeper’ Christian missionaries disguised as Orthodox Jews. A religion that has to stoop to using secret service tactics to win converts cannot have very convincing arguments. If the Churches are serious in their rejection of supersessionism, then all this must be roundly condemned and fought. If not, then Christian professions of friendship are just that, and Jews are justified in believing that nothing much has changed since the nativity stories were written.
When Jacob is about to bless Joseph’s grandchildren, he suddenly seems not to recognise them, asking who are these? This seems rather strange, as he has just adopted them, making them full tribes along with his other sons. Something else obviously is going on here. There could be various explanations. One is that the two young men were dressed as Egyptian princes and Jacob did not recognise them. The midrash gives a deeper explanation. Jacob saw in his heightened spiritual state that wicked kings would come from the tribes descended from these two boys, Jerobam, Ahab and Yehu, and his inspiration temporarily left him. His question is thus, who are these descendants of mine from whom will issue such evil? He is taken aback by this disturbing vision and struggles to connect it with Joseph’s sons. If we connect these two explanations, we can possibly understand that Jacob, in seeing before him two boys who appear completely Egyptian, sees the spectre of assimilation. He further perceives the long term negative effects of the Egyptian exile, corrupting the future of Israel even in its own land. The negative influence of Jews living in the Diaspora is thus not only confined to Jews living outside Israel but also can negatively affect the moral well being of an independent Jewish state. The longer Jews stay in the Diaspora, the worse and more lasting this damage is. As the Rabbis said, if the Jews had stayed in Egypt a moment longer, they would have been lost forever. Thus, from a religious point of view, Jews living in exile is on the one hand sometimes necessary and on the other, dangerous to Jewish life and identity. The prophet Ezekiel expresses this most clearly. On the one hand, G-d states that the Jews needed to be exiled for their sins and to save themselves from being totally corrupted.
Just as a machine which becomes dirty and clogged with filth needs to be taken apart and cleaned, so did the Jewish people need to be scattered in order to be purified. Conversely, exile itself, as well as causing G-d reputational damage, exposes the Jews to the negative influences of their host societies. As in the case of the Jews in Egypt, the threat of assimilation and negative culture threaten to overwhelm Jewish life and identity. Therefore, the return of Jews to their land and especially Jewish sovereignty may occur even if the Jewish people are not really worthy in order to prevent a worse outcome. This concept, examined in light of modern Jewish history, may provide a non-messianic explanation for the return of Jewish sovereignty in our day. This is indeed the narrative adopted by Rabbi Yehudah Heinkin. Despite the rosy hagiographic vision of pre-Holocaust Jewry we are often presented with the reality was very different. Rampant assimilation, intermarriage and apostasy, including in the heartlands of European Jewry, meant that Judaism was on the road to nowhere. People at the time talked openly of the end of the Jewish people. In such a scenario, the return of Jews to sovereignty in their own land can be understood as G-d working to save the Jews from being overwhelmed before it was too late. Israel was created, as Rabbi Henkin puts it, in order to give the Jews ‘the strength to repent’ before they were totally lost. This concept has important ramifications for how we see Israel today. Rather than necessarily on a straight or even meandering road to the inevitable final redemption, we have been given a chance to save ourselves. As chances can either be exploited or wasted, this places upon us a tremendous responsibility not to squander this one.
When Joseph sends his brothers back to their father, with the news of his being alive and important, he tells the brothers not to ‘tirgzu badarekh’. This phrase can be explained in various ways, such as ‘don’t be troubled by the way’, or ‘don’t fall out on the way’, or ‘don’t be afraid on the way’. The commentators take two main approaches in interpreting Joseph’s words to his brothers. One is that held by Rashi, which sees it as an attempt by Joseph to prevent his revelation of himself from creating more division in the family. He tells the brothers not to engage in mutual recriminations concerning how they treated him. Instead of blaming each other for his fate they should rejoice, as he does, in the eventual outcome, which has resulted in them having security in a time of famine. The second approach is that taken by the Ramban, who sees Joseph as trying to assure the brothers of his protection on the way. Even though they will be travelling laden with riches, Joseph tells them not to fear attack as his reputation will protect them. No-one will dare to attack the caravan of the viceroy of Egypt. How do these very different interpretations of the same short phrase connect to each other? Is it possible that Joseph is saying both of these things in one statement? Surely the protection afforded by his position is based on the brothers’ relationship with him, and ultimately each other.
If they are now going to spend the whole journey arguing about their past relationship with Joseph, will this not undermine the very relationship that is the basis of their safety? The unity of the family is a prerequisite for the security of being part of Joseph’s extended household. At the end of the Tanakh we find another group of people travelling back to Israel under the protection of a powerful patron, or rather two patrons. Ezra and his entourage travel under the protection of the Persian monarch but without escorts. Ezra is embarrassed to ask for physical protection as this would undermine the reputation of their true patron, G-d. But this Divine protection is based on the internal unity of this group. If they fought among themselves they could not expect G-d to protect them. The Sages explain the military success of Ahab, one of the worst kings of Israel, as being due to the fact that even though they served idols they were united. In order to be regarded as part of G-d’s household, we must act as one family, not as a rabble of quarrelling tribes and sects. If we want protection against our external enemies, we must not regard members of the family with different views as internal enemies. Jewish unity is the essential prerequisite for Jewish security.
One of the striking features of Joseph’s rise to power is his total attribution of his success to G-d. Both in his appearance before Pharaoh, the naming of his children and his reconciliation with his brothers, Joseph avers any personal credit for his situation but clearly sees in it the hand of the Divine. This is in despite of the fact that, unlike his patriarchal ancestors, G-d never directly speaks to him, and Joseph is not regarded by the Torah or later Jewish thought as a prophet. Everything he does could be explained as a result of his personal acumen and industry but he attributes it all to G-d. This understanding of Joseph’s career fits nicely into an important concept concerning the celebration of Chanukah. The Maharal of Prague in his famous essay of Chanukah, interrogates the role of the miracle of the oil in the establishment of Chanukah. Surely, in line with Jewish tradition concerning other festivals, we establish a day of celebration in order to commemorate a victory over our enemies or being saved from danger, not in simply being able to perform a certain mitzvah. It is clear therefore that Chanukah primarily celebrates the victory over the Greeks and the subsequent ability to practice Judaism in freedom. What then, the Maharal asks, is the role of or necessity for the miracle of the oil and the primary mitzvah of the festival, lighting candles? His answer connects us to the attitude of Joseph. Because the victory of the Hasmoneans was not accompanied by direct Divine intervention, as in the Exodus, but seemingly took place through normal military means, one might have thought G-d was absent from the story. The miracle of the oil, coming as it did directly following the victory, provided the proof of Divine involvement.
The oil that lasted longer than it should has symbolised G-d’s presence not only in the Temple but in the armies of Israel, demonstrating that G-d was also behind the military victory. Just like Joseph, if we look behind the surface reasons for events, we can perceive the hand of G-d. Maybe, this is one of the reasons that Chanukah is the most ‘weekday’ of the major festivals. Unlike other festivals, there is no prohibition of work or requirement for special meals. We continue with our ordinary routine but add some prayers to the service and, of course, light candles every evening. The specialness of these days is found precisely in the fact that they are mostly ordinary. Just as the small candles light up the surrounding darkness, they serve to teach us that the light of G-d can also be found in the seeming ordinariness of normal life and events.
In the Pesach Haggadah, we interpret the verse in Deuteronomy ‘arami oved avi’ as an Aramean wished to destroy my father, and explain that this refers to Laban. The commentators have given various explanations as to how exactly Laban sought to destroy Jacob and how this led to the descent to Egypt, referred to in the same passage. One explanation has a direct connection to the situation described at the beginning of the Parshah. We are told that Joseph as a young lad of seventeen hung out with the children of the maidservants. He furthermore brought gossip about the other brothers to their father(according to Rashi the reference is to the children of Leah). We see the children of Leah on one side, led by Reuben or Judah, and on the other side the children of Rachel and the maidservants, clearly led by Joseph. This situation, of two increasingly hostile factions within the family of Jacob, leads to increasing discord, the sale of Joseph and thus the eventual descent to Egypt. It is this situation which is the basis of the idea that Laban tried to destroy Jacob. By his deception on Jacob’s wedding night, swapping Rachel for Leah, he caused the family to consist of two wives and two concubines, which eventually form into the two hostile camps described above. These two camps not only led to the exile in Egypt but also to the subsequent division of the united monarchy and the destruction of the first Jewish state.
Indeed, it could be said that the damage done by Laban’s deception almost destroyed Jacob and the House of Israel. If we look more closely at these two camps, we see something very interesting. At first sight it could seem that they are the insiders and the outsiders. The children of Leah are older and a coherent group that, as we see from the sale of Joseph, clearly dominate the family. Joseph clearly associates himself with the outsiders, the children of the maidservants, who, according to the Rabbis, are mistreated by the others. Yet Joseph, as the Torah explain, is his father’s favourite, and clearly not an outsider. The giving to Joseph of a special garment and his dreams of domination, clearly indicate the possibility that the outsider group, led by him, might be planning to take control. This fills the children of Leah with dread and, seeking to cut off this threat at its source, they remove Joseph from the scene. This is repeated in the times of Solomon and his successor when dissatisfaction with Judean dominance of the state is mishandled, leading to the breakup of the state. Similarly, the Hasmonean kingdom, arising from the victory of Hanukah, was directly destroyed by factional struggles for power. The lesson from all this is clear. If we want a strong united Jewish people and Jewish state, we need to avoid factionalism and resolve our differences without forming ourselves into mutual hostile groups, whose conflict serves no one but those who wish to destroy us.
During the encounter between Jacob and Esau, in the course of which Jacob presents his family, one person is conspicuous by their absence. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is missing from the roll call of those introduced to Esau. The Rabbis pick up on this absence and the Midrash narrates that Jacob hid her in a trunk in order to stop Esau laying his eyes on her and getting romantic ideas. For this action, however, the Midrash rather surprisingly, criticises Jacob. Esau becoming romantically involved with Dinah might have been good for Esau and caused an improvement in his behaviour. As a consequence of preventing this possibility, continues the Midrash, Jacob had to experience the taking of his daughter by Shechem, related in the next section. How should we understand this rather strange assertion? In an interesting 1943 essay by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, he distinguishes between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism. The first sees the human moral obligation extending equally to all humans and societies, whereas the latter sees our primary moral obligation to our specific community. At stake in this dichotomy is to what extent our actions on behalf of our specific community or society need to take into account the consequences for other societies and communities. To use a contemporary example, to what extent does the obligation of Israel to act in order to provide security and well being for its citizens also need to encompass the security and well being of others affected by those actions outside the Israeli community.
To return to our Parshah, we may say that in hiding Dinah in a box in order to prevent her having any relationship with his brother, Jacob was adopting a strictly communitarian approach, while the Midrash in criticising his actions is presenting a more cosmopolitan argument. Most of us, I suspect, would tend to see Jacob’s approach as the more sensible while regarding the Midrashic argument as naive. What is the normative Jewish approach and can it bridge the gap between these two extremes? I believe it can be found in the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers that ‘if I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself what am I?’ Judaism would contend that cosmopolitanism must of necessity be based on communitarianism. Without looking after your specific society, you can not help others. Without caring for the specific it is impossible to extend that concern to the general. All attempts to build justice and equality universally without first building them in one society are doomed to failure. Only by first building one, or even several, just and equal societies that succeed in surviving and prospering in an otherwise unjust world, can this model then be applied more widely. Any attempt to prematurely apply these principles more widely at the expense of the security of those specific model societies, will not lead to universal peace and justice but the collapse of those societies and no peace and justice anywhere. That is why Jews have also regarded the moral path as first defending themselves and then extending that defence to others. Supposedly super moral, dead Jews, cannot help anyone.
The love triangle between Jacob, Rachel and Leah is one of the most tragic and yet important stories in the Torah. Jacob loves Rachel but is forced to marry Leah as well. Leah is desperate for her husband’s love and Rachel for children but Rachel gets the love and Leah the children. It seems that G-d is deliberately giving each of the sisters what the other wants. Through this competition, of course, the Jewish people are born. What is the lesson we are meant to learn from this narrative and what relevance does it have for us today? The answer lies in the incident that transforms the relationship between the sisters and seems to also finally lead to Rachel having children. Leah’s eldest son Reuben finds some mandrakes (according to Rashi, jasmine), which were regarded as a fertility drug and gives them to his mother. Rachel, desperate to become pregnant, asks for some. Leah retorts that ‘is it not enough that you stole my husband that you also wish to take my son’s mandrakes?’ Rachel could make a cutting remark about who stole whose husband, but she does not. Instead she offers up one of her scheduled nights with Jacob (who seems to have no say in the matter), in return for the mandrakes. What is happening here?
Rachel, who is caught up in her own pain and resentment with her sister for firstly, taking her place on what was meant to be her wedding night and then giving Jacob children, hears for the first time her sister’s narrative. Finally understanding her sister’s pain and sense of rejection, she is able to relinquish some of what she has in order to help her sister and vice versa. This then breaks the Gordian knot of this tangled relationship and enables the establishment of a healthier family dynamic, probably much to Jacob’s relief. By hearing the other’s narrative, the two sides were able to understand where the other was coming from and move towards her. This process is essential in any dispute resolution procedure whether individual, communal or international. I remember hearing how Israeli and Palestinian children, were asked to draw what they saw out of their window and were astounded. Both sides suddenly realised that they had the same fears of each other and the same sense of insecurity. That, surely is a vital prerequisite for any hope of reconciliation. Too often we refuse to listen to each other’s stories, fearing that it will undermine our own identity. Yet only by doing so can we, like Rachel and Leah, truly create a different relationship and a different future.
The confrontation between Jacob and Esau is often presented as a contest between spirituality and materialism. Esau is the materialist only interested in the sensual pleasures and willing to sacrifice more intangible spiritual benefits for their satisfaction. Jacob, on the other hand, is the spiritual studious one who understands the value of non-material assets. A closer examination of the text, however, reveals a more nuanced picture. The blessings Jacob desired from his father, which were meant by Isaac for Esau, are all material, economic and political. Only when Isaac sends Jacob away to Haran does he bless him with the spiritual ‘blessing of Abraham’. Furthermore when forcing Esau to relinquish his birthright for food he has cooked, Jacob shows a keen appreciation of material advantage. Where in this story is the famed hospitality of an Abraham? Surely charity starts at home! Rather, what we can see is a relationship between the brothers and indeed in the family that we may call transactional. Isaac is said to favour Esau because he provides him with game, Jacob uses his brother’s hunger to extract a heavy price and Jacob’s only concern with stealing his brother’s blessing relates to the consequences of being caught out. This transactional approach to the world in the end leads to the break up of the family.
Only when Jacob is prepared to turn this model on its head by sending Esau gifts which Esau tries to refuse, is fraternal reconciliation somewhat achieved. Thus the essential issue between Jacob and Esau, and indeed even between Esau, and Isaac seems to revolve around a transactional approach to each other. If this understanding is correct, it contains an important lesson for us today. Many of the challenges we face in the world today are caused precisely by this attitude. Is not the climate emergency the result of our exploitative approach to nature? Is not the global income and well-being disparity the consequence of our transactional approach to others and our consumptive approach to economics? Surely, then, the answer to the problems facing the world is not more of the same but a fundamental reappraisal of the economic, political and social systems under which we live. If we know that carrying on as we are will lead to environmental and social catastrophe, surely we are able to find a better way? Since a greener, more just world, will clearly be better for all of us in so many ways, what are we waiting for? When Jacob was faced with the consequences of his transactional approach to his brother, he understood the necessity for change and turned from a taker to a giver. As we increasingly face the dire consequences of our own transactional society, should we not follow his example?
The majority of our Parshah is taken up with the story of Eliezer’s search for a wife for Isaac. The Torah describes at great length the test Eliezer sets in order to discern the right girl, the operation of that test and the recounting of the incident to Rebecca’s family. There are many questions concerning this incident, including the nature and suitability of the test Eliezer arranged. Yet, there is a far more basic question, why was a test necessary at all? Abraham instructs Eliezer to go to his family in Aram and bring a wife for Isaac. The primary concern for Abraham was that his son should not marry a Canaanite but rather someone from his family. Abraham certainly knew about the situation of his family in Aram, as the Torah tells us at the end of the last Parshah that he was so informed. Therefore Eliezer had exactly the information he needed to proceed to fulfil his master’s instructions. Therefore, why was it necessary for him to devise an additional test to discern the right partner for Isaac? There is no simple answer to this question but I would like to propose one based on Eliezer’s own situation. Eliezer is not a member of the family of Abraham but rather his most faithful follower, who has been converted to Abraham’s mission not by family ties but by the content of the message. For him, perhaps more than for Abraham, character is more important than family. He is not prepared to entrust Isaac to any woman, simply because she comes from the right family. The most important thing is that she has the right qualities to be a partner with Isaac in carrying on Abraham and Sarah’s mission, a cause to which Eliezer has also dedicated his life. He thus devises a test which he hopes will, with G-d’s help enable him to discern precisely those all important character traits. What lesson can this understanding of this incident impart to us? As Jews being ‘part of the family’ is important. Often being part of the precise part of the family we identify with, can also be important. How someone dresses or how they daven our what they eat or do not eat, may be important factors in deciding how we relate to them. Yet Eliezer reminds us that appearances can be deceptive. A seemingly religious person can be a cheat and someone who seems externally dodgy may be full of kindness. We should never base or judgements about, or our relationships with others, solely on an external appraisal but rather on a closer acquaintance and deeper investigation. As Eliezer teaches us, appearances do not tell the whole story.
The story of Abraham and Sarah is in the main contained in two parshiot of the Torah, Lech L’cha which we read last week and this week’s Parshah, Vayera. These two readings highlight two different aspects of their lives. In what we read last week Abraham is concerned mainly for his own family and their future. His interactions with others, whether Pharaoh or the kings, are prompted by their impact on him or his relatives. This week, however, we encounter a very different story. From the beginning of the Parshah, Abraham is concerned with others, personally entertaining wayfarers with a sumptuous meal. Next we see him standing up for the people of Sodom, threatened with destruction by G-d. He prays for Avimelech and his family and then agrees to a treaty with him. In contrast to the more inward looking Abraham we saw last week, we encounter an expansive, outgoing character concerned with the welfare of those around him, even the sinners of Sodom. How do we understand these two aspects of Abraham’s character and what lessons may we Jews draw from this today? If we look at last week’s Parshah we can see that Abraham was seeking to establish himself. His main concern was ensuring the security and future of his family and mission. At the end of the Parshah, after being promised the Land and having Ishmael, he is promised another son who will carry on his legacy. With the future now seemingly secure, he has the space to look outwards and interact expansively and positively with the world around him.
But only because he had first secured his own physical and spiritual future was he able to help others. This perspective of Abraham’s life offers an important lesson for his descendants. Judaism is both universalistic and particularistic, inward and outward looking. Achieving the correct balance between these two orientations has been a constant challenge throughout Jewish history. Abraham’s experience gives us a pointer. Before one can help others one must first be secure yourself. Both physically and spiritually a Jewish people whose position is precarious will not only look after themselves but end up failing others. In order to be a light unto the nations, we first must strengthen the light within us. Thus as Jews it is not a betrayal of our universal mission to campaign on issues of ant-Semitism or the security of Israel but the prerequisite for it. Jewish schools are not an impediment to Jewish ethical and moral influence on the wider society but are the necessary foundation to enable it to occur. Ignorant, insecure Jews cannot be a light to others.The same is true for the individual. There are those who the moment they obtain a bit of Jewish learning immediately want to teach others. This a mistake. You first need to build up your own base of learning and then, when you have a mature understanding, convey that to others. Seeking to teach others on the basis of a few shiurim or books read will not help your pupils but only confuse them. Thus, while it may seem unusual at first sight, the division of Abraham’s life into an interior and exterior phase is actually the correct way of proceeding and one we should emulate.
After Abraham returns from defeating the four kings who had captured Lot, he is greeted by the king of Sodom, whose property and people he has also rescued. The king of Sodom offers him the spoils but Abraham refuses to accept anything from the Sodomite. However, while refusing to take anything for himself, he makes an exception in respect of his neighbours and allies Aner and Eshkol and their followers who had assisted him in his expedition. From this we learn an important principle. Abraham was entitled to take a share of the property of Sodom he had rescued by his efforts, but wanting to be independent and not at all associated with the wicked Sodomites, refused. Yet he did not extend this principled refusal to his allies. He had no right to inflict his heightened religious sensibilities on others, and left to them the choice whether to accept the reward. This principle applies to religious life in general. People may have certain religious sensibilities but that does not mean that they have the right to inconvenience, far less endanger, the lives of others. Your personal religious needs do not trump others’ rights and treating others with respect and taking account of their sensibilities is also an important religious value. Furthermore, insisting on the maintenance of your particular religious strictures to the detriment of others may often create a hilul hashem or profanation of G-d’s name, a cardinal religious transgression that far outweighs other religious sensibilities. An obvious example is the behaviour of certain people who for reasons of modesty do not wish to look at or sit next to women. This reluctance is often also a product of a sheltered upbringing where they are generally prevented from coming in contact with non-familial women. When faced with having to do so, such as on a plane or bus, how should they behave? According to the example set by Abraham, they should if they want look down, read a book or close their eyes for the duration of the encounter. That can be respected by others as conforming to their personal heightened sense of modesty. What they should not do is inconvenience everyone else by demanding other people move so they do not have to sit next to a woman. That is not being religious but being selfish and not in accordance with the values of the Torah or of Abraham. If they are unable to deal with the world outside their religious community then they should not leave it. If they do leave it, they should show the basic respect the Torah demands we show to others and not use religious observance as an excuse for doing otherwise. In other words they should learn from the sensitive and respectful behaviour of Abraham.
Humanity corrupts their way on the earth and G-d decides to destroy them. Noach, a righteous man in a wicked world, is chosen to be saved and builds an ark which outlasts the Divinely dispatched flood. These are the basic outlines of the story which sees Noach as separate and distinct from his generation. Yet an interesting Jewish tradition, with practical halakhic consequences, tells a different story. It is well known that children should mourn for their parents for twelve months but only say kaddish after them for eleven months. Less well known is that the basis of this time period derives from the story of the flood. By a careful reading of the verses, it can be deduced that the duration of the flood was a full year of twelve months. Now, in Jewish thought all punishment, including that of hereafter, is regarded as rehabilitative, thus having a fixed duration. Reasoning that there were few generations more wicked that that of the flood, who were annihilated by G-d for their behaviour, the Rabbis decided that the maximum duration of punishment in the hereafter is twelve months. However, since we do not generally regard our parents or relatives as completely wicked, we only say the kaddish on their behalf for eleven months, for surely by then they will have received any possible chastisement they deserved. Except this analogy is not so simple. The generation of the flood did not actually suffer for twelve months but surely perished in the first forty days of intensive rainfall. Those who did suffer for a year, until the waters receded, were Noach and his family cooped up in the Ark with a load of animals. So it is from the travails of Noach that we learn the twelve month limit of posthumous punishment. This indicates that Noach was meant to be chastised in some way, even while he was being saved. In other words, Noach’s conduct was not totally without reproach. This idea chimes with the opinion of those commentators who see Noach’s acquiescence in G-d’s plan as not a sign of righteousness but rather is reprehensible. Unlike Abraham or Moses, when told of G-d’s destructive intent, he is silent. For doing nothing, therefore, he was forced to suffer for a year in the Ark and endure a lifetime afterwards in a ruined and empty world, echoing with the silent screams of the perished multitudes. The lesson for us is clear. We learn the limit of punishment of the wicked not only from those who acted wrongly but from those who failed to act. Wickedness can exist not only in activity and speech but also in inactivity and silence. Noach was so unable to live with himself that he sought escape in the oblivion of inebriation. If we today are silent in face of the destruction that threatens our planet, how will we live with ourselves?