Forth Light Weekly Sedra

Sedra 5783:

‘You are all standing here today before the L-rd your G-d’. Thus begins our double Parshah: short in length but containing some of the most significant and inspiring passages in the Torah. The word which gives its name to the Parshah, Nitzavim, has the meaning of not merely standing but being established or firmly fixed in place. This caused our Sages to see in this verse more than merely a geographical description. As Rashi comments: when the Jewish people heard the ninety eight curses we read last week plus the forty nine in Leviticus, they turned pale and wondered how it was possible to exist under the terms of such a covenant. Moses therefore reassured them saying: ‘you are standing here’, despite all the misdemeanours of the last forty years you still exist and G-d hasn’t destroyed you. Furthermore, it is the curses and sufferings that ensure your existence and establish you before G-d. What in fact are the Rabbis saying here? An explanation may be found in a famous story concerning Rabbi Akiva. On seeing a fox coming out of the ruined Temple he burst out laughing while his friends wept. To his astonished colleagues he explained that the prophets prophesise that foxes will prowl a ruined Zion. The same prophets also see old men and children playing in the streets of a rebuilt Jerusalem. He explained that now he has seen the fulfilment of the one prophecy he can be sure the other will also come to pass. Rabbi Akiva is making a profound comment about Jews and Judaism. Jews are not normal and Jewish history does not follow a normal pattern. This difference is symbolised by the stark warnings and curses contained in the Torah and prophets.

Yet is precisely these cruel and unusual punishments that ensure the eternity of the Jewish people and their future redemption. What both Moses and Rabbi Akiva are saying is that the very fact that the Jews have suffered unlike others shows the Divine nature of their punishment and therefore ensures the fulfilment of the Divine promises. Because of the fulfilment of the prophecies of doom, however extraordinary, we can be assured that the unheard of return of a people exiled for centuries to their land is also possible. Furthermore, Rashi adds, it is precisely these curses that serve to preserve you. However difficult, our troubles enable us to improve and move on to a higher stage. Just as a sling or bow must be pulled backwards in order to shoot further, so often we must descend in order to reach higher. This is an important message for us as we approach a new year. We can look back at this year with concern and forward with misgivings. Yet we should remember that our history is not simple or straightforward and that is sometimes the very things which we feel are to our detriment that turn out to be our greatest saviours.

The book of Deuteronomy, like the Torah as a whole, is modelled on a traditional Near Eastern covenant or diplomatic agreement. This consists of an historical introduction, the terms of the covenant, and the consequences of breaking the covenant. Deuteronomy is the restatement of the covenant between G-d and Israel which had suffered severe damage due to the behaviour of Israel detailed in the stories in the book of Numbers. Thus, the eleven Parshiot of the book are, in addition to each having their own unifying theme, divided into separate sections corresponding to these parts of a covenant. The first three Parshiot give a historical review creating the basis for the renewal of the covenant. The central section consists of the terms of the covenant, the three Parshiot full of mitzvot we have just concluded. We now come to two Parshiot that deal with the consequences of upholding or breaking the covenant. The end of the book and of the Torah deals with the last actions of Moses before his death. If we however look at the beginning of this week’s Parshah, we find two mitzvot that seem out of place. The mitzvot of bringing the First Fruits and the Tithe Declaration seem to fit in with neither what goes before or comes after. They do not seem to relate to the ‘consequences’ section of the book but also not to the mitzvot in last week’s Parshah. Their place would seem to be in Parshat Re’eh with its focus on the Central Sanctuary, tithing and the cycle of the year, with all of which they have an affinity.

What then are they doing here at the very end of the list of legislation and the beginning of the focus on reward and punishment? If we look more closely at these mitzvot, however, we can see that they contain verbal declarations that form a perfect transition. The declaration said on bringing the First Fruits contains a concise historical retrospect, one we in fact use as the basis for the Haggadah on Pesach. As we end the terms of the covenant and look to its fulfilment, the Torah reminds us that G-d has indeed fulfilled His part of the bargain and brought us to a good land. The Tithe Declaration is in essence a pat on the back, a statement that we have in fact done what we were meant to and a request or expectation that G-d will in turn bless us. Thus as we begin to read the serious consequences of obedience or disobedience and confront the frightening warnings contained in this section of the Torah, we take a breath and consider two things. One, where we have come from and what we have gone through. Despite all the crises of the journey in the wilderness, G-d has not abandoned us and has in fact fulfilled his promises to the Jewish people. Secondly, we state that we can indeed fulfil the terms of the covenant. We state that we have done everything G-d asked us, at least with respect to the laws of tithing, and this should give us confidence that we can also fulfil the rest of the Torah. Thus as we begin to talk of the consequences of the covenant and we approach the judgement of the High Holy days, we are strengthened by the knowledge that G-d indeed will not abandon us and we, for our part, can indeed fulfil the mitzvot of the Torah and go with confidence into the future.

One of the features of the legal sections of Deuteronomy, as compared to other such sections in the Torah, is the clearer connection between the disparate laws found in these portions. This is not only true, as we have previously seen, with regards to the Parshiot, with their unifying themes, but also in relation to the various laws within these Parshiot. Rashi, in his commentary, often highlights these connections, and elucidates how the wording introducing a mitzvah or the proximity of various laws conveys a deeper moral message. In last week’s Parshah for example, he highlights the fact that when talking of premeditated murder, the Torah begins by saying that the person hated someone and then lay in wait for him and killed him. The seemingly superfluous first phrase is meant to teach us that if you allow hatred into your heart, you will end up acting in a dreadful manner. Similarly, at the beginning of our Parshah, he explains the juxtaposition of the first three laws of a captive woman, an unloved wife and a delinquent child, by warning that if you marry a woman captured in war, you are likely to come to despise her and have children with behavioural issues. He also highlights the several places in the Parshah where mention of judicial punishment is preceded by the context of people arguing. The Torah is warning us that no good ever came out of a dispute. What Rashi, following the Sages, is doing here is elucidating the unique didactic purpose of the laws in this book.

While many of the laws in the Torah can be seen also or even primarily, to have an educational value, (such as Shabbat or Pesach, for example), it is in Deuteronomy that this concept is extended to virtually all the legislation and especially to the context in which it is framed. Moses himself often elucidates the legislation he is presenting by emphasising its moral context and the Rabbis and commentators extended this to explain that both the introduction given to a specific mitzvah and its proximity to other mitzvot, convey an underlying educational message. If we examine the laws of our Parshah in this light, two main concepts can be discerned. The first is that, as the Ethics of the Fathers puts it: ‘a mitzvah leads to a mitzvah and a sin to a sin’. If you spare the mother bird then you will merit to build a new house, have an ox to plough with and acquire new clothes, all connected to mitzvot in proximity to each other in the text. The other main concept which emerges from these laws is that the way you behave to others will in the end rebound upon you. If you treat others well, you will reap the reward but if you are constantly in dispute with your neighbours or bear them ill will, you will end up in litigation or facing criminal proceedings. What connects these two concepts is the idea that our actions do not occur in a vacuum. One action or way of behaving inevitably leads to other consequences. The connections between these various laws in the Parshah teaches us that a positive or negative outlook on life and a constructive or antagonistic attitude to others, will affect all of our actions and have consequences far beyond a single action or event.

The legal sections of the Torah in general, and the book of Deuteronomy in particular, are a blueprint for the way an ideal Jewish society is to be ordered. As such, these sections are interested in power, the uses and potential abuses of power, who wields it and how. This is especially true of our Parshah, which looks at governmental, judicial and military authority. The various laws in this Parshah clearly illustrated the most fundamental concept of the Torah about power: it must be limited. Judges must be scattered throughout society and not limited to one area or tribe, but on the other hand their decision can be scrutinised by a higher authority. The power of the highest authority in the state, the monarch, is not only limited by the laws of the Torah in general, but special restrictions are placed on his wealth and military authority. The power to exact revenge for a slain kinsman is taken from the family and placed with an impartial tribunal. The ability of the state to coerce its citizens into serving in the military is also limited with whole categories of vulnerable or unsuitable people exempted. The power to wage war is also not unlimited. Peace overtures must be first made, non-combatants must not be harmed, and wanton destruction avoided. The message is clear. Unrestricted power is dangerous and must be avoided.


This even applies to G-d. Though, of course, G-d’s power is in theory unlimited, Judaism expects G-d in practice to restrain Himself. We see this throughout the Hebrew Bible, most famously, in Abraham’s plea for Sodom and his demand that G-d act justly. This should not be surprising. Just as the Torah understands that a rules based order is vital for the functioning of a just and equal society, so a rules bound Divinity is vital for any possibility of a religious life. If G-d acted totally capriciously, using His power to act without regard for any standards, then we could never have a relationship with Him. His promises would be worthless and the whole concept of covenant, on which the Torah and Judaism are based, would be meaningless. If this is true of G-d, it is even more true of mortal rulers and leaders. Only by restricting their power can we live in a society which respects the Divine image in every human. Thus the Torah and Judaism in general envisages law as central to everything it stands for. Rather than being overly petty or stifling, the Jewish emphasis on rules, both in our relationship with humans and with G-d, is what enables both a decent society and a stable spiritual life. Thus these sections of the Torah are not merely tedious lists of regulations but, on the contrary, the beating heart of a just society and a fulfilled life.

In the centre of the Parshah this week we have three sections that deal with the possibility of being seduced into idolatry. They focus on three different groups of people that can lead someone astray and each has a different procedure in order to guard against this possibility. Firstly, we have the section dealing with a false prophet. Someone comes along and appears to perform miracles but tells people to worship other gods. The Torah is very clear that such a person is not to be listened to, their miracles are to be disregarded and they are to be put to death. The next group of people are members of your family who may use their closeness to you to lead you astray into idolatry. The Torah instructs us to disregard our feelings of affection for these people and not be seduced by their suggestion. Finally, the Torah deals with a city where the people have begun to worship other deities. Here we are instructed to be careful in ascertaining the facts and only when we are totally convinced that the city has really totally gone astray may we (theoretically) destroy it. If we examine these three case brought by the Torah we can ascertain a way to determine the truth of what we are told and the right course to follow in other cases. The Torah firstly outlines the types of sources from which we are likely to receive false information and delineates how we should handle such information. The most likely sources of disinformation are leaders of various sorts, political, religious, cultural.


Especially if they are advocating something that doesn’t seem exactly right or promising that following a certain policy or behaviour will bring wonderful results we need to analyse it from a position of scepticism. When it comes to something clearly opposed to our basic moral sense we should simply reject it, but even in other cases, the Torah later states that we should investigate carefully and wait and see rather than rushing to follow such advice. When it comes to our families we are on more uncertain ground as our natural feelings of affection come into play. Yet, here again, the Torah warns us that just because our parents or spouse tell us something doesn’t necessarily mean it is correct or their advice should be followed. Here again we need to use our discernment. Finally, we have the influence of our environment or the majority opinion. Here we are cautioned not to believe in rumours or second hand testimony but to ascertain the facts for ourselves. Before we rush into precipitate action we are to be careful to be sure that such action is necessary and justified and not just follow the mob. In bringing these cases, therefore, the Torah is teaching us an important lesson, one later also emphasised by Jeremiah to his errant generation. We do have the ability to discern truth from falsehood, no matter who is peddling it, and we will be held account for failing to do so.

The central motif that is found in this week’s Parshah, other than the recollection of the sin of the Golden Calf, is the centrality and importance of the Land of Israel. This emphasis on a specific place may seem strange in a monotheistic religion that believes in a universal deity. It would seem to be more in keeping with pagan ideas of local deities and the concept that each nation has its own god. Historians may see this as a hangover from the tribal nature of early Judaism and the notion of G-d as the deity of the Jewish nation. Yet from an early stage, G-d was also conceived of in universalistic terms. It is also true that a religion based on a certain ethnic group necessitates a place for that nation, but this does not fully explain the centrality of that land in Jewish religious thought and practice and the idea that the land itself is holy. I think that the answer to this conundrum lies in the way this land is portrayed in the Parshah. The Land of Israel is not only depicted as a place of great fertility and potential prosperity, but that fertility and prosperity comes with a caveat. The fruitfulness of the land is dependant on adequate precipitation and that rainfall is conditional on the behaviour of the inhabitants.


As the second paragraph of the Shema starkly describes it: If you will keep G-d’s commandments then it will rain and you will be prosperous; if you do the opposite then the rains will not fall and you will fail as individuals and a nation. In other words the Land of Israel demonstrates in the starkest possible terms the moral governance of the world and the effect of human behaviour on our environment. Throughout the Torah, from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to the final Song of Moses, it is emphasised that immoral behaviour in this land leads to dire consequences. We can now understand why a universal G-d would want to choose a certain land above all others and how important this land is to Judaism. If the Jewish people are meant to be G-d’s witnesses and their lifestyle and history a demonstration of G-d’s presence in the world, so the Land of Israel by its sensitivity to the moral behaviour of its inhabitants, demonstrates G-d’s moral governance of the world. Indeed it is the history of Israel in the Land, and their exile and return to it, that is the greatest witness of G-d’s presence in history. Thus the Land of Israel and the Jewish connection with it is an indispensable component of Judaism and of the fulfilment of the Jewish mission in the world.

The book of Deuteronomy is in many ways the central book in the Torah and contains within it the crux of how the Hebrew Bible views life. Each Parshah in the book can be perceived as having its own theme, each of which adds to our understanding of the Jewish view of life.  This central topic of this week’s Parshah is that of revelation, or more precisely revelation and how we live with it. The Parshah, of course, contains the Ten Commandments, and Moses talks of the events surrounding the Revelation at Sinai and the lessons to be learned from it.

But it also contains another famous passage, the Shema, which is fundamentally the response to that revelation and the way we live with it. The initial response to G-d’s revelation was not overly enthusiastic. Essentially the people recoil from hearing G-d directly and ask Moses to be an intermediary. How then will it be possible to live with this revelation and have a relationship with its Author without being overwhelmed and recoiling from the experience?

How can the overpowering and disorientating experience of G-d’s revelation be made more palatable and anchored in our regular existence? The answer is found in the Shema. This section of the Torah is unique in that the commandments contained within it are fulfilled by using the very words in which they are commanded.

We fulfil the command to recite the Shema and learn Torah by saying the Shema itself and to put on tefilin and affix a mezuzah by using the words of the Shema to do so. This is because the purpose of the Shema is precisely to take the revelation contained in the Torah, package it up into manageable portions and integrate it into our daily lives. We first of all, in reciting the first line and intensely reflecting on G-d, recreate for a moment the intensity of G-d’s original revelation, without it overwhelming us. We then are commanded to learn what has been revealed to us, starting by the manageable recitation of this passage twice a day. We are then able to transmit this to the next generation, ensuring the continuity of the experience. We are then commanded to concretize G-d’s words by physically binding them on our bodies and affixing them to our door posts.

In reciting the Shema each day, therefore, we are able to accommodate G-d’s revelation in a way that does not overwhelm us and yet make it a central feature of our normal lived experience. It is for this reason that the Shema has become so central to Judaism and to living Jewishly. If the only Jewish thing you do every day is say the Shema, the only action you perform is putting on tefilin and the only outward sign of your Jewishness a mezuzah on your door, you are intimately connected to G-d, the Torah and the Jewish people, even if you never enter the door of a synagogue or Jewish community.

If you want to be more Jewish, the Shema is a good place to begin.

When recalling the Sin of the Spies in his review of Jewish history at the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses adds various details that are not found in the original story in Numbers. One of them is the quite startling comment of the disgruntled Israelites that, because G-d hated them, he brought them out of Egypt. While this shocking statement appears at this juncture, according to the midrashic tradition, this idea has been around from the moment of the Exodus. How are we to understand such a sentiment? The idea that the event we celebrate every year on Seder night was regarded by the people who experienced it as a terrible thing designed to harm them, and that we should really treat Pesach like Tisha B’Av. In order to understand this we can imagine an analogy. A successful businessman has no children and thus adopts a child from a care institution with the idea of eventually leaving the business to him. The child is rescued from the institution and given a privileged upbringing, all with the idea the he will eventually succeed his adoptive father as head of the business. Even though the young person as he grows up should be grateful for the opportunity he has been given, he is also aware that he was adopted for a certain purpose and that a certain role is expected of him. He thus may come to resent the burden of expectation put on him and even fear that if he does not live up to expectations, he may be disinherited and replaced. He may secretly harbour suspicions that his father’s attitude towards him is not entirely benign.

In the same way, the Israelites are rescued from Egypt but for a specific purpose, that of being G-d’s people. They too may resent this burden and feel that G-d’s intentions towards them are suspect. G-d, after all, has several times at least, threatened to replace them and they have also been severely punished for not living up to expectations. Just as the child might feel that his adoption was not entirely altruistic or benign, so Israel is harbours suspicions of G-d that find expression in the crisis caused by the report of the spies. Of course this outburst is regarded as a terrible mistake, which not only led to that generation dying in the wilderness, but also the whole sequence of tragedies that occurred on the date it happened: Tisha B’Av. Yet it is interesting that several of the kinot we say on that day seem to echo, in less stark terms, the complaint against and suspicion of G-d. Starting with Job and Jeremiah, Jewish literature and liturgy contain protests against the unfairness of the Jewish lot. These are splendidly contained in the various ‘trials’ of G-d which took place, especially during the Holocaust. Invariably these end up with G-d being convicted for His crimes against the Jewish people, following which the court and spectators go off to daven. That paradox of loyalty to G-d and Judaism despite a niggling doubt whether this is actually in our best interest, lies at the heart of Tisha B’Av and Jewish life in general. Maybe it is this ability to be loyal to G-d while harbouring serious doubts concerning his actions or even very existence, is the characteristic of Jews that caused G-d to choose them in the first place.

This week we read one of the few stories in the Torah that is centered around women. A person called Tzelophchad from the tribe of Manasseh died leaving no sons but five daughters. At that time only sons were regarded as being able to inherit land. Tzelopchad’s daughters requested from Moses that they should also be able to inherit and he inquired of G-d. G-d agreed with their request and the law was adapted so that in the absence of sons, daughters inherited. But the story does not end there. At the very end of the book of Numbers the heads of the tribe of Manasseh come to Moses and point out that if daughters inherit land and subsequently marry a husband from another tribe, the land will be transferred from one tribe to another and their tribe would lose out. So the law is modified again, this time requiring daughters who inherit land to only marry within their tribe. The Torah duly informs us that this is indeed what Tzelopchad’s daughters did. There is however a further twist to the story. According to tradition, this new provision concerning marriage was only in force during the conquest and original division of the Land, afterwards falling into abeyance, its abolition being one of the joyous events we commemorate on the 15th of Av. We thus have a radical change in existing practice that is modified and then changed again. What is going on here? I think we can perceive in this story an interesting process which has important ramifications for society today.

We have an existing situation, that only sons inherit, that most people are satisfied with. A minority, originally one family with only daughters, complain it is not fair and does not work for them and manage to effect change. But this change does not take into account the needs of the majority, the fair division of land among the tribes, and so this also needs to be addressed. By doing so, however, the original radical change is in fact strengthened and appears later to find widespread acceptance. This story is thus a good example of how to balance the needs of the minority with the rights of the majority. If when trying to address the needs of the minority we are cognisant of and sensitive to the opinions and concerns of the majority, then any change will not only be easier to effect but will find deeper support among the general populace. If, as unfortunately often happens in our society, specific minority agendas are aggressively promoted without seeking to at least understand, if not address, the concerns of the majority, then any alteration promoted serves to stir up opposition and create resentment which then rebounds on society as a whole. For example, the failure to address the concerns of the white working class in the USA and the UK lead directly to Trump and Brexit. The lesson of the story of Tzelopchad’s daughters is that while minority rights are important, so are the concerns of the majority and striking a balance between them is the healthiest course for society

Jews in the Diaspora have this week the opportunity to read together the Parshiot of Hukat and Balak. We thus join one of the most mysterious mitzvot in the Torah, that of the Red Heifer, with Balaam’s blessings of the Jewish people he wanted to curse. Can one find a connection between the two? Balaam was someone who feared and hated the Jewish people until his eyes were opened and he understood their greatness. A lot of this fear is based on the fact that Jews are different and seem not to make sense. Like the Red Heifer, which purifies the impure while defiling the pure, the Jewish people and Judaism seem to be full of paradoxes and contradictions. And like, in the case of the Red Heifer, this causes the other nations to mock us, so too, the distinctiveness of Judaism causes Jews to be misunderstood and feared. One of the greatest paradoxes of Jews that non-Jews puzzle over is whether the Jews are a people or a religion. In some ways we act as a religion, able to exist anywhere; yet we also claim to be a people, with our own need for a homeland. As with the Red Heifer, which both purifies and defiles simultaneously, people do not get it.

But as in the case of the Red Heifer, of course, both are equally true. Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, and one cannot exist without the other. Jews are both a religion and a nation simultaneously. That makes Jews different, which can lead to hostility, yet in fact it is our great advantage and a lesson to the world. Because Judaism is the religion of the Jews, it can be both a universal religion and be tolerant of others. Because, while we believe that the G-d of Israel is universal, we equally believe that the religion of Israel is for Jews alone. We therefore, unlike Christianity and Islam, have no aspirations to convert everybody or create a world where everyone is Jewish. (A prospect which most Jews would regard with abject horror). Balak and Balaam, of course, misunderstood this concept and saw it as dangerous particularism. They thought that it meant a threat for them, and sought to counter it. They failed to understand that a universal religion of a particular people is the least threatening type of religion and in fact a model for a world of religious diversity and tolerance. Only at the end did Balaam understand that ‘a nation that dwells alone’ is in fact a blessing for themselves and everyone else.

The rebellion of Korach is at least the fourth of a long line of rebellions that punctuate the wanderings in the wilderness. In virtually all the other cases G-d becomes angry and Moses prays for the people. While Moses does complain to G-d about the burden of leadership, he never before has actually attacked the people or caused them to be injured. Until now. Here Moses directly confronts the people with harsh words and even asks G-d not to accept their offering. Furthermore, while in the past it was always the Divine wrath that attacked the people and Moses defended them, here Moses is the instrument of their punishment. What has changed? A traditional explanation is that Moses is seeking to save the majority of the people by sacrificing the minority of the troublemakers. By confronting and destroying them, he seeks to stop the infection of rebellion spreading, though this does not really work, and only direct Divine intervention in the form of a plague causes the people to retreat into sullen silence. The reason for the change in Moses’ attitude may lie elsewhere. In all other cases the complaints of the people are about actual issues, lack of food or water and so on. Here for the first time the criticism is personal. They accuse Moses of being a tyrant, manufacturing Divine commands and being personally responsible for that generation’s decree of death in the wilderness.

When you are personally attacked and your honesty and integrity is called into question, it is very hard to respond with equanimity. By attacking Moses personally and seeking to undermine his leadership, the rebels made it impossible for him to defend them. How do you defend before others, people who viciously attack your very sense of personal probity in mission? How do you compromise or have a meaningful dialogue with those who think that you personally are the problem? It is virtually unachievable. Thus Moses was forced into a posture of confrontation that could only end in victory and or defeat and with G-d on his side the outcome was never in doubt. But it was a pyrrhic victory that required further Divine intervention to solve the issue and left a resentful and disheartened community in its wake. The lesson for our politics and communal life is clear. Discussion and argument is healthy and constructive when it concerns real issues and material concerns. When it however is directed at personalities it becomes dangerous and destructive and closes off the possibility of compromise. An argument based on personal attacks helps no one and achieves nothing. In such a dispute there are no winners only losers.

The Sin of the Spies is the most serious transgression in Jewish history. Even more than the incident of the Golden Calf, it set the parameters of Jewish history, leading to further catastrophes. In this sense it is the original sin of Jewish history. Both the prophets and the psalmists connect this transgression to the later destruction of Jewish sovereignty and our exile among the nations. Based on these passages in Ezekiel and Psalms, Jewish tradition places this incident on the 9th of Av, thus connecting it with the worst catastrophes of Jewish history. Even the incident of the Golden Calf, hardly a minor failing, is relegated to the 17th of Tammuz and has less direct long lasting consequences. Furthermore, while G-d forgives the sin of the Golden Calf and the people progress, the Sin of the Spies causes the death of a generation. The reason for this goes to the heart of the meaning of Jewish destiny and where it is meant to be played out. Judaism is not the religion of individuals but of a nation. Jews are meant to provide an example for humanity not only as individuals or communities but as a sovereign nation living in its own land with its own army, economy and politics. The Torah is not a set of rules for a religious community but the constitution for a Divine commonwealth. Thus the rejection by the spies and following them, the people, of entry into the Land, obviated the very purpose of the Exodus.

That generation thus had to die in the wilderness as they had turned their back on the aim of their national existence. Thus this incident became the template for further such catastrophes and occurred on the very day they would repeatedly occur. The rejection of sovereign Jewish life in the Land is thus the rejection of G-d’s purpose for the Jewish people and brings catastrophe in its wake. This serves to explain the extraordinary series of tales, spanning the Jewish world from North Africa to Europe, concerning Jewish communities who rejected Ezra’s call to return to the Land at the beginning of the Second Commonwealth. Not only was this rejection the cause of further destruction and exile, but these various communities preserved a tradition that they themselves later suffered, because of not heeding Ezra’s call. It also explains the repeated exhortations of great rabbis throughout the centuries not to become too comfortable in the Diaspora and remember their true home, and the dire consequences of thinking that, for example ‘Berlin is our Jerusalem’. The Sin of the Spies and its generations long consequences warns us to never forget the centrality of Israel to Judaism and the temporary and partial nature of Jewish life outside the Land. Thinking and acting otherwise has most serious consequences indeed.

In the middle of the Parshah there are two verses concerning the journeying of the Ark, which we say when taking out and putting away the Torah. These verses are uniquely bracketed by two inverted ‘nuns’, which serve to divide the book of Numbers in two, leading some commentators to state that there are actually seven books of the Torah. According to the Midrash, the reason for the placement of these verses here and their bracketing is to ‘separate between disaster and disaster’. The commentators have struggled to explain this statement for while there are plenty of difficulties and rebellions following these verses, there do not appear to be any before. The traditional explanation sees the previously narrated three day journey away from Mt Sinai as the Israelites running away from the place of revelation like a child running away from school, but this explanation is not so convincing. I would like to suggest another possibility. When investigating a sudden catastrophic disaster, such as a shipwreck or building collapse, investigators not only look at the events of the disaster but the elements that led up to it. Especially whether there were any structural or design faults in the vessel or building that caused it to so catastrophically fail. In a similar vein, the first literary prophets (those with a named book) seek to both predict and explain the catastrophic collapse of the Kingdom of Israel from its height during the reign of Jerobam II to its destruction by Assyria only a few years later.


In doing so, both Hosea and Amos not only warn the people of impending disaster but seek to elucidate for posterity the societal faults that caused the whole national polity to collapse so quickly. If we return to the Israelites in the wilderness, we notice that the whole books of Exodus and Leviticus and part of Numbers have led up to the beginning of the journey to the Promised land. Yet it takes just the second half of this Parshah and the first half of the next for the whole project to collapse and be postponed for a generation. In terms of the traditional reckoning, it is only 11 weeks between the first journey on the 20th of Iyar and the disastrous report of the spies on the 9th Av. All the months of preparation simply dissolve in a matter of weeks. This seems to indicate that the structure built to enable the Israelites to enter the Land was simply not strong enough to sustain the shock of reality. Thus, while the catastrophe after our bracketed verses is the sins leading to the exclusion of that generation from the Land, the disaster before was the building of an inadequate national structure that was resilient enough to survive the actual journey. A failure that necessitated the death of a generation and decades of rebuilding. This story should thus give us all pause for reflection. We may think our foundations are strong and our structures sound. But can we be sure that when it comes to the crunch they will not simply crumble at the first hurdle?

The book of Numbers narrates the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness and especially the breakdown of the relationship between G-d and Israel, leading to the death of that generation in the wilderness. It also narrates the events of the fortieth year approaching entry into the Land. Interspersed with these narratives are various seemingly random laws whose connection to each other and to the narrative in which they are embedded is not always clear. Several of these laws are found in the middle of our Parshah. We have the regulations concerning the place of impure people in the camp and the return of stolen property. There is then detailed the rite of the Sotah, – the adulterous woman and the regulations surrounding the Nazirite. What connects all these different laws is that they all deal with disruptions to the normal order of things. The impure person disturbs the purity of the camp while theft disrupts the rightful ownership of objects. The suspicion of adultery upsets the harmony of the marriage and the Nazir by separating himself from normal life, can be a disturbing influence on the rest of society. More specifically, these laws each deal with challenging individuals or those that depart from the norm and how to contain them within the normative structures of society.


What should happen to an impure person in a camp based on purity? How do we return a stolen object to its rightful owner, especially, as is traditionally regarded to be the case here, when the owner may be a stranger? What do we do about a couple where the suspicion of infidelity, either justified or unjustified, has disrupted the harmony of the marriage? And how do we deal with someone whose holier than thou behaviour or attitude makes everyone else uneasy? These are the questions dealt with in our Parshah and the fact that the Torah takes the time to consider them is significant. It teaches us that we need to learn how to deal with challenging or out of the ordinary individuals in our own societies or communities. Like the Torah, we need to find ways of containing these people within our normative structures and enable them to also contribute to the collective. The placing of these laws specifically in the book that narrates the failure of a generation, may serve to warn us of the dangers of not dealing with such individuals in a proper manner and leaving them on the outside. Rejected, they may disrupt everything, while embraced they can enrich and strengthen the society of which they are a part.

Shavuot celebrates the Revelation at Sinai, the supreme revelation of G-d in history, when he spoke to a whole people. While there were breaks in revelation, until the beginning of the Second Temple period prophecy continued, but then ceased. As a member of our community is fond of saying, G-d used to be very voluble but seems to have fallen silent. Why should this be? What happened at the beginning of the second Jewish Commonwealth that caused G-d to stop communicating directly with his people. The answer lies in a fascinating rabbinic statement and festival gathering. The Rabbis state that had the Torah not been given through Moses, it would have been suitable to be given through the medium of Ezra. Many interpretations have been given of this statement but the simplest is based around a famous festival gathering that happened not on Shavuot but on Rosh Hashanah. On that auspicious occasion Ezra read the Torah in the presence of the returned exiles in Jerusalem and they all willingly accepted it. For the first time in a thousand years of apostasy and idolatry, the Jews finally wholeheartedly accepted the Torah as the basis of their life. It is clear from the biblical record that while copies of the Torah were around beforehand, they were not common and most people standing in Jerusalem on that festive day would never have heard it read before, let alone had it explained to them.


For the first time since the original revelation on Mt Sinai, the whole people embraced the Torah and its commandments. In essence, that Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the Second Temple was a new Shavuot and thus Ezra a new Moses. What has this to do with prophecy or the lack of it? As long as the people strayed from the Torah or were ignorant of it, Divine prophecies were needed to chastise the people and try and bring them back to G-d. As the rabbis stated:’ if Israel had not sinned we would have only needed the Torah and the book of Joshua’. Because, however, they did sin and constantly rejected the Torah, other prophetic books were needed. However, in the time of Ezra, when finally the people embraced the Torah, no other Divine revelation was needed. With G-d’s word in a book available to all and accepted by all, the emphasis shifted from revelation to interpretation and we all thus became active participants in a continuous Divine revelation. G-d did not become silent but rather than communicating through a few chosen individuals, He speaks through us every time we find new depths and meaning in the Torah He gave us. It is this partnership we celebrate on Shavuot.

The beginning of the book of Numbers is a direct continuation of the end of the book of Exodus. At the end of that book we saw the establishment of the Tabernacle on the first day of the first month. Our Parshah starts exactly a month later with the census taken in preparation of the move towards the Promised Land. The Torah devotes a lot of space to the numbers of all the tribes and their position in the camp. One can wonder why this is of more than historical interest to future generations. What are we meant to learn from this? An answer lies in what has just preceded this moment, the establishment of the Tabernacle. While it is clear that the Tabernacle is to be the focus of worship and religious life, how this is to function during the wanderings in the wilderness and later on in the Land, is not clear. Is the Tabernacle to be also a political centre and what is the geographic positioning of the people with regards to it. Is it to be separate from the camp, like Moses’ tent following the incident of the Golden Calf or somewhere in the middle? These questions have bearing on the function of the Tabernacle, the area around it and its relationship to the national polity as a whole. These questions are answered by our Parshah. The Tabernacle is to be at the centre of the camp with the various tribes camped around it. Furthermore, both the political and religious leadership, Moses, Aaron and the Levites, are to be situated in the immediate proximity.


Thus the area around the Tabernacle is to function as both a religious and political/administrative centre. While this was not the case in the first period of settlement in the Land, when the Tabernacle was separate from the various political centres, this model came to fruition with the establishment of both the political and religious capital in Jerusalem and the building of the Temple there. This framework reaches its ideal apotheosis in Ezekiel’s vision of the Land in the Messianic age. There the central area round the Temple, in the exact centre of the twelve tribes, is set out as a home, not only for the Priests and Levites, but also in addition, a special section is set aside for the Prince. And so it has remained. It is therefore not surprising the young State Of Israel chose to make Jerusalem its political capital, despite it being on a border at the end of a narrow corridor through enemy territory. For a Jewish state there was really no other choice. This combination of religious and political centre serves not only to underline the central role religion has always played in Jewish national identity but the fusion of religious/cultural and political potency serves to underline the basic unity of the Jewish people. Jerusalem is therefore not just a city but the crux of Jewish identity. Thus in celebrating Jerusalem Day this week we, in essence, celebrate what it means to be Jewish.

This Shabbat lies in between two festivals: Pesach Sheni on Friday and Lag B’Omer on Tuesday. They lie at opposite ends of both the historical spectrum and halakhic foundation. Pesach Sheni is mandated in the Torah as the opportunity for those unable to bring the Paschal sacrifice in its designated time to bring it a month later. Lag b’Omer is a day arising out of the Talmudic period, supposedly celebrating the day the pupils of Rabbi Akiva ceased to die, but of unclear provenance or clear-cut textual foundation. Also, in this week’s Parshah we also read the list of the Torah festivals. We do this on what is normally the middle Shabbat of the Omer period, a season replete with festivals and special days, from fully blown Torah festivals to days observed because of custom. In modern times, during the period between Pesach and Shavuot, we say Hallel, the festive psalms, on fifteen of these days and omit Tachanun, the supplicatory prayers omitted on festive occasions, on more than half of them. This season thus demonstrates the Jewish fascination with, and sanctification of, time. Time was traditionally viewed by different cultures in two differing ways. One was cyclical. What has happened in the past will happen again and what goes around comes around. The other is linear. Time is a progression towards a goal and one day is not like the other.

Cyclical time is formalised in calendars that use the sun and the seasons of the year as their basis, while cultures that base themselves on linear time generally use a lunar system, with its constant lunar renewal and different number of days in each month and migration between the seasons. Judaism, famously, combines the two. While basically following a lunar calendar, it anchors the changing months in the cycle of the seasons. Thus while accepting the cyclical nature of time, it is not bound by it and believes that within the familiar cycle of the years history progresses. The two festivals we celebrate around this Shabbat symbolise this. Pesach must take place on a certain date and during a certain season. Someone who because of the natural cycle of life and death is unable to celebrate it at the designated time should lose out. Yet here the Torah intervenes and provides a date a month hence upon which they can bring their sacrifice. The natural cycle is not the last word and can be superseded. The same is true of Lag B’omer which references a time when the Jews had been defeated by a superior power and should, in the natural course of things, have disappeared as a nation. Yet through the efforts of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples, Judaism transcended this catastrophe and created an eternal nation that could survive without a land or political power. Thus, through the Jewish calendar, we create a system that is both routed in the natural cycle and yet eternal, both faces political reality and yet provides eternal hope.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel the questions surrounding the nature and purpose of the state have not subsided and have, if anything, intensified during the last few months. Indeed, within the religious community these differences often crystallise into divergences of ritual concerning Yom Ha’atzmaut itself. At the heart of these disputes is whether the state of Israel is an entity like any other nation state or the beginning of the Messianic redemption or possibly something in between. From a religious point of view, it appears that many of the biblical prophecies concerning the in-gathering of the exiles and the restoration of the Land have been fulfilled but most Jews still live outside Israel, the Temple has not been rebuilt and the Messiah has not yet appeared. So what is a religious Jew to make of all this three quarters of a century on? An answer may come from an interesting Halakhah found at the beginning of the Parshah. A woman who gives birth becomes unclean like a menstruating woman either for a week or two depending on the sex of the child. After immersion at the end of this period, she is permitted relations with her husband as normal but is covered by two exceptional regulations. Firstly for either thirty three or sixty six days any blood she sees is pure and does not forbid her from engaging in marital relations. On the other hand, she is forbidden from entering the Temple or eating holy food until the end of this period when she must bring a special sacrifice.

Thus the new mother finds herself in a situation where she is neither completely impure or completely pure. Rather, she is pure for some things and still impure for others and in a special period between her initial state of total separation following the birth and her restoration to a full religious life following her presentation of thanksgiving sacrifices. In a similar way, I would suggest, we are currently in a special State between the depths of exile and the full restoration of redemption. Rabbi Yehuda Amital utilised this situation to explain a strange anomaly in the blessings we say at a wedding. The last of these sheva brachot quotes from Jeremiah concerning the restoration of the voice of rejoicing the bride and groom to the streets of Jerusalem. Yet we then omit the last part of the prophetic passage dealing with bringing thanksgiving offerings to a rebuilt Temple and talk instead about youthful parties. Rabbi Amital explains that this is because we can have a situation where we are restored to Jerusalem and able to have weddings and other parties in her streets, while not yet witnessing the rebuilding of the Temple and the complete redemption. At a wedding, we pray also for this partial situation and should give thanks for it. Thus as we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut this coming week we are like a woman in the intermediate stage of recovery from childbirth, rejoicing in what we have accomplished while looking forward to bringing a thanksgiving offering to a restored Temple.

As I often have the occasion to explain to school children, the Torah is not merely read in the synagogue, it is sung. Among the musical notes used for this purpose is the shashelet, an elongated note that appears only four times in the Torah, including in this week’s Parshah. The other three times it occurs is in a narrative context where it signifies hesitation. Lot, Eliezer and Joseph are all faced with critical moments in their lives and hesitate before deciding what to do. In our Parshah however, this note occurs in the middle of the reprise of the inauguration of the priesthood at the moment of the slaughtering of the ram of induction. What is this unique musical notation doing here? The answer lies in the relationship between Moses and his older brother. Aaron was a prophet and leader in Egypt before Moses but readily deferred to his younger brother. Now Moses must inaugurate his brother into the prestigious role of the High Priesthood, a role that, unlike that that of Moses, will be passed to Aaron’s descendants. Furthermore, during the seven days preceding this moment Moses had himself performed this role.


Thus by placing this note here the traditional cantillation is signalling to us that Moses is, at least for a moment, hesitant or regretful about this loss of status and pauses to consider. In the end, of course, he carries on as he has been commanded, putting aside his personal interests and feelings for the good of everyone. Thus Moses, as Aaron did before him, breaks the pattern of sibling rivalry that marred the narratives of Genesis and shows us a different way of doing things. By putting the public good ahead of their personal interests, leaders can learn to cooperate together for the good of all and avoid the dire consequences of fratricidal conflict. This is also the message of our Haftorah. Malachi talks of Elijah’s arrival in order to turn the hearts of the generations to each other. The different interests of different generational and other groups in society will have to be reconciled. He also warns of the serious consequences of this not happening, the destruction of the society in question. As we approach Pesach, where we manage to include four very different children at our Seder table, the leaders of the Jewish people must learn to follow the example of Moses and Aaron and heed the warning of Malachi, putting aside their personal interests in order to compromise before it is too late.

As we begin the book of Leviticus, The Torah goes into great detail about the various types of sacrifices. These are not simply technical instructions but hidden in the detail are important spiritual ideas. This is also true of the order in which the various sacrifices are presented. As we go through the Parshah we see that the Torah details the various types of burnt offerings, both animal and grain and then the peace offerings. Only after this does the Torah deal with the various types of sin offerings. The fundamental difference between these offerings is their motivation. The burnt offering has no motivation assigned to it but is simply a function of the worshippers desire to approach G-d. The worshipper derives no benefit from it but the offering is either totally burnt on the altar or, in the case of the meal offering, some of it eaten by the priests. The peace offering is eaten by both the priests and the worshipper and is either brought in thanksgiving for a specific deliverance or simply by a desire to celebrate with G-d. The sin offering is, of course, brought after wrongdoing and motivated by a desire for forgiveness. The order that the Torah arranges these offerings is greatly significant. The most important reason for bringing a sacrifice is a desire to have a relationship with G-d, without necessarily any material benefit to the person.

Secondly comes the important impulse of gratitude for what G-d has done for us or the desire to connect a family celebration, for example, to spiritual values, rather than just being an excuse for excess. Only lastly, do we have the concept of us needing something from G-d, such as forgiveness, which is in itself a spiritual value. Nowhere is there an offering prescribed for asking G-d for wealth, health or other material benefits. All of this is important because people often have a mistaken concept of religion, seeing it as a transactional exchange. In this construct, if we give G-d, something as a sacrifice or even prayer or charity, G-d will give us some material benefit that we desire or need. This was the most common concept of religion in the pagan world and is still common today. The Parshah disabuses us of such notions. Religion, prayer or observing the commandments is first and foremost about wanting to have a relationship with G-d and lead a spiritual as well as just a material existence. This includes such things as showing gratitude and sometimes needing to be forgiven but is not about a cost benefit analysis or some business transaction with the Divine. Thus the Torah, in setting out the various sacrifices, teaches a vital lesson concerning what religion is, and is not, about.


There is an interesting difference of opinion between the commentators concerning the command for lighting the Menorah which is found at the beginning of the Parshah. The lamps are to be filled with oil in order to burn from evening to morning. Seems simple. However, as we know, the period of ‘evening to morning’ is different dependant on the time of year. So how much oil was put in the lamps of the Menorah? All the commentators seem to agree that the same amount of oil was put in the lamps every evening. Rashi simply says that the amount used was that needed for the longest nights of the year, around the time of Hanukah. It is not clear whether the excess oil was wasted or added to on subsequent nights. The Hizkuni also agrees that the same amount of oil was put in every night but is not comfortable with concept of wasting oil. He opinions that different thicknesses of wicks were used depending on the time of year, so that the same amount of oil would light for the different periods of time required.

If we look more closely at these two opinions we can discern an interesting discussion about the need for surpluses and the problem of wastage. One approach holds that you always plan for the most extreme eventuality, even if that means that in the end you will not need everything you have prepared. In the depths of winter a certain amount of oil is needed and therefore we will put that amount of oil in the lamp, even in the height of summer. Even though this will inevitably involve some wastage, it is better to be safe than sorry. The other approach does not accept that wastage of any sort is an acceptable price to pay for certainty. We will try as much as possible to be exact, using different types of wicks to make sure that the oil burnt at each period in of the year is as close as possible to what is exactly needed.

In our times when we are concerned about the depletion of the earth’s resources, we would naturally seem to favour the approach of the Hizkuni. Simply using the same amount of oil all year round seems the equivalent of keeping on the heating in the height of summer, an unacceptable waste of resources. Yet, as we found out at the beginning of the pandemic or recently with the issue of energy shortages, not having a certain level of surplus, just in case, can be problematic if not dangerous. The necessary level of such a surplus is of course the difficult thing to determine. Maybe the answer is to adopt Rashi’s position with the proviso that the left over oil is used for the subsequent nights. Providing for a certain level of surplus is probably wise, provided that this surplus is them not wasted by either being used instead of new supplies or given to those that may not have. That way everyone seems to win.

‘And they shall make Me a Sanctuary and I shall dwell among them’. When considering this well known verse, the emphasis is normally put on the second half of the sentence, and especially on the last phrase. It is pointed out that G-d promises to dwell not in the Tabernacle but among the people. Less attention, however, is paid to the first part of the sentence and the question that arises from it. If the idea of the Tabernacle is that G-d should dwell among the people, why is there a necessity for a Sanctuary at all? Or to refine the question: How does the building of the Tabernacle enable the dwelling of the Divine among the people? This question is especially acute when we consider the intricate detail concerning the construction of the Tabernacle that follows and the repeated instruction that it should be built exactly as Moses was shown on Mt Sinai. The answer to this question goes to the heart of the idea of Judaism and its relation to ritual and physical action. The ultimate goal of Judaism is to enable humans to have a relationship with G-d. Yet that relationship cannot be built only on thoughts or feelings but must be expressed in actions. Furthermore, those actions must be mandated by G-d. This is the basic purpose of the Torah and its commandments, to enable us to approach G-d as He wishes to be approached.

The Torah, in setting out its path for us to follow, has various objects in mind and several wrong directions it wishes to steer us away from. Thus, in the area of relations between humans it seeks to restrict the exercise of power over others, especially by the strong over the weak. In the area of human relationship with the Divine, it seeks to prevent us creating G-d in our image, rather than relating to Him as he reveals himself to us. This is especially important in the area of worship and ritual where, as G-d Himself states, humans have engaged in activities which He abhors and never wanted, such as human sacrifice. Thus when satisfying the human need to have a visible representation of G-d dwelling among them, the Torah is meticulous in prescribing the means by which this is to happen. It is interesting that most of the severe penalties ordained in the Torah are connected with the Tabernacle and its service. It is here that the most egregious errors are likely to occur leading to terrible perversions of spiritual life and the very idea of the Divine. It is thus vital that if we truly want G-d to ‘dwell among us’, we follow the rules set down by the Torah to enable that to happen. As in the case of the Tabernacle, the detailed ritual prescriptions of the Torah are not an impediment to an inner spirituality and a relationship with the Divine but their essential prerequisite.

This week’s Parshah is in many ways at the heart of what Judaism is about. In its myriad laws, it takes the sublime ideal of being a ‘holy nation’, and gives it practical application in daily life. This is what makes Judaism different from the Western/Christian cultural milieu in which we live. One passage, especially, demonstrates this. The Torah deals with the case of an argument between two men, where the pregnant wife of one of them is hit, causing her to miscarry. The Torah makes two determinations on the issue. If the only damage to the woman is her miscarriage, compensation must be paid for the loss of her child. If, however, further physical damage is inflicted, the guilty party must make restitution for this, on the basis of an ‘eye for an eye’. Judaism learnt two lessons from this passage. One was that abortion is not murder. While often reprehensible, the destruction of a foetus is not equivalent to the taking of human life. Secondly, in dealing with physical abuse, justice must be done. While regarding a literal interpretation of ‘an eye for an eye’ as both inaccurate and untenable, Jewish tradition understood that those who abuse others must be made to pay, in proportion to the damage they have inflicted.

Traditional Christianity, on which Western attitudes are based, took the opposite view. Based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew, it held this passage to equate abortion with murder. On the other hand, it condemned the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ as barbaric, replacing it with the supposedly more ‘loving’ notion of turning the other cheek. These attitudes are unfortunately still around today. While right wing groups make a fetish of ‘the right to life’ leading to women’s, especially poor black women’s, lives being endangered and the banning of important medical research, so called liberal opinion seems to be ready to forgive even the most heinous crimes, or at least to oppose justified and necessary action against those who perpetrate them. Judaism needs to stand up against this moral blindness, on both counts. We need to make our distinctive moral voice heard to a society that is increasingly turning its back on all religious morality, because it regards it as specifically Christian morality. We need to show the West another way; a religious morality of common sense, proportion and justice: that of the Torah.

Much is made of the apparent dichotomy between religion and democracy. This is especially relevant in Israel where there is ongoing debate about the Jewish and/or democratic nature of the state and whether the two concepts are fundamentally incompatible. On the face of it, those who hold this opinion seem to be correct. On the one hand religion makes absolute and unchanging demands while democracy allows dissent and adaptation to accommodate current concerns. Furthermore, even though the Bible provides evidence of democratic approval of monarchs, in the final analysis religious systems themselves seem not to be favourable to democratic governance. The source of this seemingly unbridgeable gap between religion and democracy lies in the divergence of their basic governing principle; the source of authority. In democracy, power flows from the people and it is in their name it is exercised. For religion, a higher, incontrovertible, authority dictates the rules of the game. Yet this dichotomy is not as stark as it may seem, especially in the Torah. While G-d, through the medium of the Torah, is the ultimate source of authority in Judaism, the source of His authority may in fact not be Himself.

A careful reading of this week’s Parshah, as well as parallel sections in the Torah, leads one to the conclusion that the basis of G-d’s authority over the Jewish people is in fact the Jewish people themselves. G-d does not demand that the Children of Israel accept His covenant or the Torah that is its foundation. Rather He asks them for their informed consent. ‘Now, if you will listen to My voice and keep My covenant, then…’. Not shall or must; we could have said no. Indeed it was so easy and seemingly rational to say no, that Jewish tradition regards it as our crowning glory that we so readily said yes. Having said yes, of course, we are subject to the authority of the Torah and cannot simply decide to ditch our responsibilities when it seems convenient. In the same way the American states having ratified the Constitution could not then walk away from it; this being the basis on which Lincoln fought the Civil War. Yet the fact remains that the original choice was democratic and expressed the will of the people, men and women, and it is that democratic choice that is the source of the state or religion’s authority. So, if we look carefully, Judaism and democracy are complementary not contradictory and in the end, contrary to the view of some Israeli politicians, observance of the Torah can only be willingly accepted not coerced.

The Parshah this week is clearly divided into two parts. The first half narrates the exciting event of the Crossing of the Sea and the song of triumph sung as a result. The second part of the Parshah tells the more prosaic story of the Israelites grumbling over lack of food and water and the consequent arrival of the Manna and its accompanying regulations. Is there, however, a common thread that unites these seemingly very different stories? If we look at the behaviour of the Israelites in the Parshah we again get two very different stories. While it is true that, faced with the approaching Egyptians, the Israelites rounded on Moses, complaining about being led into this situation. But once Moses ordered them forward they seemed to obey without question and afterwards ‘believed in G-d and Moses his servant’. In contrast, during the episode of the Manna, a far less dire situation, they seem unable to trust in G-d and obey simple instructions. When told not to leave Manna for the next day, they leave it and when ordered not to go out collecting on Shabbat, they go to collect it. You can almost palpably sense the frustration of both G-d and Moses at this behaviour. Why is it that when faced with a life and death situation they can overcome their fears and trust in G-d but when dealing with bread and butter issues, seem to have great problems in doing so? This behaviour is in fact very common and tells us a lot about how people approach religious faith.

We all instinctively understand that matters of war and peace and the like are mostly beyond our control. This is also true of serious health emergencies. Is such cases we are, therefore, quite prepared to put our trust in G-d, even if only from lack of a better alternative. We also seem to feel that this is the sort of thing that it is proper for G-d to deal with. On the other hand, when it comes to the matter of earning a living and our financial affairs generally, we often feel that this is totally up to our hard work and acumen. We are less likely to trust in Divine intervention or feel that it is an area where trust in G-d is necessary. It is precisely this attitude that the story of the Manna comes to combat. By receiving their sustenance anew every day the Israelites are being taught that not only their safety but their livelihood is dependant on G-d. Divine providence is not only evident in the large historical events but in everyday life. These two aspects come together in Shabbat which is both a reminder of the historical event of the Exodus and the everyday Creation. By keeping Shabbat and ceasing working for our sustenance for a day, we affirm that not only our history but our livelihood is in G-d’s hands. Thus by linking a great historical event with our daily sustenance, the Parshah teaches us the correct attitude to take in our reliance on G-d.

What time of the day did the Exodus take place? The apparent answer appears to be on the morning following the final plague. From the account in the Parshah, however, it is also possible to understand that the Israelites were actually driven out by the traumatised Egyptians in the middle of the night. Either way, it was after midnight and the slaying of the firstborn. However, the passage detailing the Pesach sacrifice in Deuteronomy seems to indicate a different time line. It states that you should sacrifice the paschal sacrifice ‘in the evening, at the going down of the sun, the time of your leaving Egypt.’ This seems to indicate that the Exodus took place a lot earlier. This discrepancy causes Rashi and others regard to the three time periods spoken of in this verse as distinct not complementary, referring to different aspects of the Pesach ritual: Sacrificing, eating, and disposing of the remains. Only the latter required the morning after and took place at the time of leaving Egypt. I would like to suggest a different explanation, both preserving the plain meaning of the verse and discerning the meaning of the paschal sacrifice. There is an interesting paradox in the story that is not often remarked on. Earlier in the narrative, when Pharaoh asks why they cannot sacrifice to G-d in Egypt, Moses answers that they could not kill the lamb, a deity of the Egyptians, without the Egyptians stoning them.

Yet a few months later, that is precisely what the Israelites are doing. Was Moses then lying to Pharaoh or had something fundamental changed? The answer is that normally the sacrifice of lamb would indeed be dangerous for the Israelites. But that was precisely the point of the Paschal sacrifice. By frontally defying the Egyptians by performing such an audacious act, the Israelites were psychologically freeing themselves from Egypt and the Egyptians even before they had been physically liberated. Indeed, G-d commands the Passover before the liberation precisely because it is a necessary component of their release. We can now understand the unusual time sequence of the verse in Deuteronomy. Reviewing the laws of Pesach, Moses explains that actually the real liberation took place at the moment of the Israelites’ defiance of the Egyptians by sacrificing their deity in front of them. Thus the mandated hour for the sacrifice of the Pesach is indeed, at least mentally if not materially, ‘the time of your leaving Egypt.’ The Torah is thus teaching us an important lesson: revolutions begin with a change of consciousness. If we wish to change things, whether ourselves, others or society, we must first alter the way they think. Only then will we be able to change the way they act. Revolutions in fact begin with revolutions in thought.

One of the phenomena that we have been witnessing recently is the spreading of false news and conspiracy theories. Millions of people seem to believe, not withstanding the evidence to the contrary, that free and fair electoral results are fraudulent, life saving vaccines are dangerous and twice convicted criminals are innocent. How is it possible that this is so? How does the power of human reason and observation become so distorted as to lead to such absurd conclusions? We learn in the Torah that this is not a new phenomenon. We can observe Pharaoh who is hit with plague after plague, designed to make him understand the error of his ways, but none seem to have a lasting effect. Pharaoh seems to be able to ignore the evidence put before his eyes. Is he maybe not intelligent enough to understand what is happening or is he simply uninterested in what is happening around him? The text seems to indicate that neither of these is the case. It does, however, highlight another aspect of Pharaoh’s behaviour. We find, at least twice, that Pharaoh, rather than being uninterested, pays close attention to the unfolding events. The Torah informs us that following the plague of blood, Pharaoh turns, returns to his palace and does not pay heed even to this occurrence. Thus he is closely observing what is happening but chooses to ignore it. This is even more evident in his reaction to the death of the cattle where only Egyptian cattle died, leaving Israelite herds unaffected.

Pharaoh actually sends investigators to find out what has happened and learns that indeed the plague has happened exactly as predicted and Israelite herds have been spared. Nevertheless, he again chooses to ignore this evidence and continues to refuse to bend. This is not ignorance or disinterest but wilful resistance to the truth. How are we to explain such behaviour? There can be several explanations but the simplest is that Pharaoh is not able to accept the truth before his eyes as to do so would undermine his whole world view. Therefore he simply explains it away despite the evidence before him. This is quite common. Faced with evidence or events that fundamentally contradict their beliefs or are just too hard to accept, people will simply explain them away. Since you believe in your candidate’s victory so strongly that it is impossible to conceive of them losing, if they do actually lose, then this simply cannot be true. The election must, therefore, have been fraudulent, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Significant numbers of people standing in the ruins of occupied Berlin or Tokyo still believed Hitler and Tojo had been right and were great men. For Pharaoh to accept G-d’s superiority would so contradict his very basis of rule that he could never do it, even if it in the end led him to his death at the Reed Sea. In the end, with such people there is no arguing, they simply have to be overcome.

Pharaoh is frustrated. He thought that by oppressing the Israelites with hard work, he would stop their population increasing but the opposite has happened. In desperation, he decides that killing all the Israelite males at birth is the best way to solve the problem. To achieve this end he enlists the services of ,למילדת העברית the who feared G-d and refused to go along with Pharaoh’s plan. The Hebrew term to describe these women is ambiguous and could either mean the Hebrew midwives or the midwives of the Hebrews. Both interpretations are found in the commentators, though if one looks at the rest of the story, it seems to indicate that they were in fact not Israelites. They explain their failure to kill the Israelite children by the racist comment that the Hebrew women are like animals and give birth before the midwife even arrives. This is not a comment likely to have been made by an Israelite or be accepted as plausible by Pharaoh if it had been. If we look deeper we can discern in this discussion of the identity of the midwives a deeper discourse, which courses through Jewish history. In fighting anti-Semitism, prejudice or oppression, are Jews essentially on their own or do we have allies that will stand with us? Those who identify the midwives as Jewish, fundamentally do not believe in the possibility of the non-Jewish world standing by the Jews.

From bitter experience going right back to the Bible, they believe that when it comes to fighting our enemies, we are basically on our own. Even those who may pretend to be our friends will, when we really need them, at best stand by and at worst reveal their true colours and join our enemies. Those who identify the midwives as Egyptians have a more optimistic view. Jews need not fight alone and there are always people prepared to stand by our side. This debate is not only about times of crisis but informs attitudes to the non-Jewish world as a whole. Should it been seen as implacable, hostile and kept at bay by erecting virtual ghetto walls of dress and behaviour or it is it possible to have a constructive and even friendly relationship with non-Jews while not compromising our own values. The answer, as is often the case, is somewhere in between. We should not necessarily rely on others to stand up for us or beside us in a crisis. We, firstly, need primarily to rely on ourselves. Yet that does not mean we should not create and develop friendships and alliances with the non-Jewish world. Doing so increases the possibility that we will have allies when we need them. Conversely, Jews taking the lead in standing up for themselves and not relying on others, makes it more likely that others will join them. What we learn from the Parshah is both the need to be self-reliant but also to seek out allies where we can find them.

At the beginning of the Parshah, Jacob calls to Joseph and asks him to make sure that he is not buried in Egypt, but rather in the family sepulchre in the Cave of Machpelah. While this desire can be seen simply as a wish to be buried with his ancestors and wife, it is also seen as a specific desire not to be buried in Egypt. Rashi brings three reasons why Jacob specifically did not want to be interred in Egypt. Firstly, he foresaw that the earth of Egypt will be filled with lice during the plagues. Secondly, the Resurrection of the Dead will take place only in Israel and, according to one tradition, the bones of those buried outside the Land will have to roll through tunnels to get there. Lastly, he was afraid that the Egyptians would make him into an idol or worship him. If we look at these three explanations we can perceive three different issues or problems connected with Jewish life outside of Israel.

Firstly, Jews are automatically involved in the fate of the countries in which they live, for both good and bad. Even though the plague of lice was a punishment for the Egyptians, if Jacob was buried in Egypt his remains would inevitably be affected. In the same way, Jews, whether or not they are involved in the politics or society of their host countries, are automatically caught up in any consequences of the negative actions of those countries, without being able to be judged on their own merits, as is the case in the Land of Israel. Furthermore, Jews outside the Land are cut off from the direct source of Divine influence and spirituality. An extra barrier lies between diaspora Jews and G-d and thus keeping the Torah outside the Land is second best in comparison. Also Jews in exile are inevitably influenced by the non-Jewish environment around them, thus further diluting their spiritual posture. Finally, Jews being outside the Land, especially when weak and powerless, negatively affects the reputation of Judaism and G-d. Just as Jacob being buried in Egypt would lead to people being strengthened in their mistaken spiritual concepts, so Jews in exile convinces the nations that the G-d of Israel is powerless and their deity or deities have overcome him. As Ezekiel sets out in his statement that: ‘this is the people of G-d and from the Land they have departed’, this is the greatest profanation of G-d’s Name. Thus we learn from Jacob’s request that large numbers of Jews outside of Israel, lead to those communities suffering because of local politics, being spiritually diminished, and undermining G-d’s reputation. Thus like Jacob and eventually Joseph, we should at least have in our cognisance, if not in our present or short term plans, the need to leave our exile and return home.

This week we narrate the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers. As he breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers Joseph must confront what is brothers did to him. The way he does so is by placing their actions in the wider context of G-d’s plans for the family of Jacob and indeed the whole area. His brothers’ actions, however wrong and painful, had the ultimate effect of enabling Joseph to rise to greatness in Egypt and save the Egyptians and his family from starvation. What Joseph doesn’t mention is that this also sets the Jewish people on the path of exile and redemption foretold to Abraham. As the Rabbis put it: Jacob could have been brought down to Egypt in chains; rather he went as an honoured guest of the Pharaoh.

This explanation, of course doesn’t really solve the issue between Joseph and his brothers, which resurfaces after Jacob’s death. Nevertheless the basic concept is correct. G-d did indeed use the despicable actions of the brothers to both save Jacob’s family and begin the promised cycle of exile and redemption. While not excusing the brother’s actions it does highlight how G-d uses negative actions to achieve a positive result. This is true, even though it can be argued that the sale of Joseph had negative reverberations not only at the time but throughout Jewish history. Yet the fulfilment of the ultimate Divine plan trumped these consequences.

This idea is worth reflecting on when we consider our attitude to Judaism’s ‘daughter’ religions of Christianity in Islam. On the one hand, as Maimonidies states, these offshoots of Judaism, have had a positive effect on the world bringing large parts of humanity to belief in G-d and the narratives of the Torah. On the other hand, these faiths, especially Christianity, have caused, and less directly continue to cause, much suffering to the Jewish people. How then should we regard the rise and success of these religions? We could say that, as in the case of the sale of Joseph, the spreading of the Divine message was ultimately worth the negative consequences of the success of these faiths.

Furthermore, as suggested by Rabbi Riskin , Jews themselves, bear responsibility for this situation. Jews in the Second Temple period were very good at disseminating Jewish ideas and large numbers of non-Jews seem to have been attracted to Jewish ideas and the Torah way of life, some even converting. Yet because of the internal sins of the Jews the Temple was destroyed, Jews became despised and could no longer fulfil this role. Therefore G-d, in order to advance His plan, arranged for the rise of these other faiths who would, even if less satisfactorily, advance the cause. This is despite the suffering that they would cause to Jews and others. Indeed, that persecution can be seen as partly our fault for failing to do our job properly. Thus, as in the case of Joseph and his brothers, sometimes negative consequences are the price needing to be paid to advance the ultimate good.

The story of Joseph and his brothers has always served as not only a fascinating read but a source of inspiration in how to behave or how not to behave in various situations. The family of Jacob faces two crises in the Parshah. One is the lack of food. Here we see two responses to the emergency. The first is a shocked inaction, doing nothing or as Jacob puts it, sitting round looking at each other. Then Jacob intervenes and proposes the plan to bring food from Egypt. This progression from apathy to action is also seen in the second crisis they face, though this time with an additional step in between. The brothers return without Simeon and with a demand to return with Benjamin if they want him back or more provisions. The first reaction is again to do nothing and act as if the problem will go away. The next reaction is to go to the other extreme and propose an extreme or unworkable solution, that in the end is, naturally, rejected. Thus Reuben proposes that Jacob kills his two sons if he does not return with Benjamin, a proposal dismissed out of hand. Finally, Judah takes responsibility and proposes a sensible plan of action, in fact of course the only solution, which Jacob accepts and improves upon. This scenario is often the reaction to such crises. First people pretend it does not exist or might go away.

They then often come up with crazy and impractical plans which go nowhere. Finally, they see reality and act in the way that is often the most difficult but has the most chance of success. We can also see this play out in the story of Hanukah. At the beginning of the Greek persecution, people might have hoped that their policy would change or Antiochus would die. When this did not happen and things got worse, they fled to the hills, an extreme measure that in the long run was not sustainable. Finally, they realised that despite the risks and uncertain chance of success, they would have to put everything on the line and fight. Like in the story of Joseph, it was when people finally took responsibility and chose to take the difficult but feasible course of action that salvation was achieved. This contains an important lesson for us today. Whether in dealing with the climate or cost of living crisis globally or the conversion crisis within Judaism, we are way past the stage where pretending there is not a problem or proposing unworkable solutions, is acceptable. We know the course of action we need to take and even if it is difficult or not palatable to some, the time for denial or excuses is way past and the need for taking responsibility and constructive action urgent.


The picture that emerges of Joseph at the beginning of the Parshah is not entirely complimentary. Among other things he is portrayed as informing on his brothers to their father. The Rabbis elaborate that he accused them of three specific misdemeanours. They looked down on the children of the handmaids, calling them slaves and treating them as such. They also ate flesh from a living animal and engaged in sexual immorality. The Rabbis go on to say that because of this tale bearing, Joseph was punished with exactly these three things. He was sold as a slave, his coat was smeared in the blood of an animal and he was enticed by his master’s wife. If we consider this idea, we can ask whether the reports that Joseph brought back to his father were true and, if so, why he was punished for it. It seems clear from the commentators that the reports Joseph told his father were in fact true, at least in part. Yet he still should not have told his father. While it may have been justified, if ultimately fruitless, to rebuke them, it was not his place to tell his father. The reason he felt he should do so was the feeling of superiority he himself had over his brothers and thus his motives were far from pure.

When we see wrongdoing in others, it may be our duty to try and remonstrate with the person but in very few cases is it our business to go and tell others. Even in cases where we feel it is justified to do so, we need to closely examine our motives in doing so. It appears that Joseph learnt his lesson too well and he does not, for example, seem to have told his father who was responsible for his sale to Egypt. Yet he seems to have leant his lesson to well. Later on in life, he seems incapable of standing up for what is right, even when it concerns the ultimate welfare of his family. We see that the family remained in Egypt even after the end of the famine, it seems because they were not really allowed to leave. Special royal dispensation was needed just to be able to bury Jacob in Canaan and Joseph had to promise that they would return. This form of comfortable ‘house arrest’ was never seemingly challenged by Joseph, leading ultimately to a century of slavery and oppression. This compares unfavourably with other royal servants like Daniel or Nehemiah, who did challenge or question their royal masters and were successful. Thus unfortunately, Joseph’s unhappy experiences of tale bearing in his youth leave him incapable of challenging misconduct later in life, with ruinous consequences for his people.

In these difficult economic times there is much discussion concerning different economic models and the best way of running the economy. Much of this revolves around the role of those who provide capital and employment in driving the economy and the extent of their obligation to the rest of society. We can see a similar debate at the end of the Parshah. Jacob has fled from Laban who has caught up with him and accused him of stealing. After Laban searches Jacob’s belongings and finds nothing of his, Jacob turns on him and accuses him of years of mistreatment. He changed his remuneration conditions on several occasions and forced him to pay for damages that, by the customary employment law of the time, he was not liable. Laban’s answer is instructive. He does not deny, nor even directly confront Jacob’s accusations. Rather he declares that everything that Jacob has is only down to his largess and without him Jacob would have nothing. In effect he is declaring that only because Laban gave him employment in the first place was Jacob able to achieve anything and therefore he should not complain about lesser matters such as working conditions and wages. This strikingly parallels some of the debates about ‘trickle down economics’ that we have today.

When workers declare they are not paid enough or the public feels that companies should pay more tax, the reply given is often essentially the response given by Laban. If it was not for these companies providing employment and the wealthier sections of society investing in the economy we would all be worse off. If we raise the tax burden on the wealthy or have too ‘restrictive’ employment regulations we will lower investment and hurt the economy. So, in this conflict what is the opinion of the Torah? It is clear in our Parshah that G-d takes the side of Jacob. The angel in Jacob’s dream even specifically says that he is assisting him because ‘I have seen everything Laban is doing to you’. Later, the Torah is full of legislation that mandates fair employment practices and demands that the wealthy support the poorer sections of society. The Torah has no truck with ‘trickle down economics’ or the argument that providing employment or being wealthier means you have less obligations. To the contrary, such people have more obligations to society. In the conflict between today’s Labans and today’s Jacobs, it is clear which side Jews should be on.

Esau has received a bad reputation in Jewish tradition. If we look at the commentary of Rashi, for example, and compare his characterisation of Ishmael and Esau, we can see this character defamation in action. While Ishmael is sometimes reported on favourably, the narratives concerning Esau are always interpreted in a negative light, even when the plain meaning of the text would seem to indicate otherwise. This is, of course, because he was identified with the Roman Empire and the Christian church and their oppression and persecution of the Jewish people. It is clear however, from the text, that Esau does have negative characteristics that cause him to be precluded from inheriting the legacy of Abraham, despite the fact that Jacob is himself not without flaw. Two stories are told about Esau that seem to justify this exclusion. One is the sale of his birthright for a bowl of lentils. While one can still condemn Jacob’s action as reprehensible, it is clear that Esau would not have died had he been forced to prepare his own food. He simply placed his immediate gratification over the future benefit of the birthright, whatever it contained. The other incident is the marrying of local girls, despite the family aversion to doing so. Again, one imagines that Isaac had in his mind to find a wife for Esau from his family as Jacob was sent to do. Yet he is once more not prepared to wait and wanted the immediate benefit of marriage.

If we compare this to Jacob, we cannot imagine Esau, for example, working seven years for a wife, as Jacob did for Rachel. Or having the patience to husband his flocks in such a way as to eventually outwit Laban. This difference, when it comes to the legacy of Abraham, is crucial. The Rabbis interpret Esau’s later move to Mount Seir ‘because of Jacob his brother’ as trying to escape the destiny inherent in possession of the Land of Israel. This inheritance will only be achieved after centuries of oppression and Esau rejects the deal, preferring to give up on the Promised Land for immediate sovereignty in another place. Inheriting the legacy of Abraham means being prepared to wait for the promises given to him to materialise. They are not instant and require patience. Esau showed that he was not prepared to wait and thus could not be the ancestor of G-d’s people. If Jews had been impatient we would have given up long ago. We are an eternal people precisely because we are prepared to wait. Esau may not have been totally bad and Jacob flawless, as sometimes portrayed by later tradition. But Jacob knew how to be patient and defer gratification for the right result and Esau did not; thus only Jacob could receive the blessing and legacy of Abraham.

The central figure in this week’s Parshah is not Abraham nor Isaac nor Rebecca, but Abraham’s servant; generally identified as Eliezer. This prominence occasioned the Rabbinical comment that G-d saw as more important the talk of the Patriarchs’ servants than many important Torah laws. In other words we can learn just as important lessons from the behaviour of our ancestors households as we can from direct Divine imperatives. In this light it is interesting to note that Rabbinical comment does not always look with favour on Eliezer. He is seen as hinting to Abraham that he should look closer to home for a daughter in law; namely to Eliezer’s own daughter. In the Rabbinic literature, this prospect is dismissed by Abraham out of hand as totally preposterous. What, however, is in fact the principal problem with Eliezer, Abraham’s faithful servant, that disqualifies him from adoption into the family? I believe the deficiency can be discovered by closely examining Eliezer’s words in the Parshah. Throughout the narrative Eliezer refers to G-d as ‘the G-d of Abraham my master’. This he does not only when relating his tale to Rebecca’s family but also even when himself asking for Divine assistance.


It would appear that his whole spiritual life is tied up with his service to Abraham, and only through him, with service to G-d. He serves the G-d of Abraham but if Abraham served another divinity he may also serve that. This is not what is needed of a mother of the Jewish people. As we see next week, a true Matriarch has her own connection to G-d and follows its inspiration even if it means opposing her husband. This understanding of Eliezer’s spirituality provides an important lesson for us all. Our connection to G-d needs to come from inside ourselves rather than being something imposed from without. Our spirituality must be our own; not what we think society expects of us. One of the main objections to the Hassidic movement was that it replaced personal spirituality through learning and observance of Torah, with a group connection to a Rebbe. Even within the non-Hassidic world, many today look to books for unquestioning guidance or slavishly adopt new strictures because others have. This is not true Judaism. We are all students of Torah and partners with G-d in the Covenant. It is our responsibility to find our own spiritual path so, unlike Eliezer, G-d is truly ‘our’ G-d.

One of the least savoury stories in the Parshah deals with the activities of Lot and his daughters after the destruction of Sodom. Having been saved by escaping to the city of Zoar, they then still do not feel safe and flee to a cave in the mountains. His daughters then suppose that there is no one left for them to marry and so get their father drunk, sleep with him and each have a child. These children later become the nations of Moab and Ammon, respectively. How are we to approach this story? The Rabbis had an ambivalent attitude, seemingly in certain passages partly justifying the daughters’ actions. Possibly because, in the end, the Davidic line came from Ruth the Moabite and thus be traced back to this incident. From a modern psychological point of view we can identify a couple of factors that may explain their behaviour. Firstly, it is hard to understand why they thought that the world had been destroyed since they just came from a living city where they had found refuge. It is possible that what they meant was that as they were now refugees, having lost everything, no one would want to marry them. More likely, they were in such a mental state to not think rationally and in their anxiety, thought that the catastrophe had been more far reaching than it actually was. This also explains Lot’s behaviour in getting drunk on two consecutive nights, when he should maybe have been trying to figure out his families’ future, including husbands for his daughters. Here again, we can maybe see the effect of him having lost everything, including his wife.

In modern terminology, we could thus describe the actions of Lot and his daughters as being conditioned by what is called post traumatic stress. Surviving a catastrophe often leaves people feeling anxious and fearful and causes them to act in ways which are not entirely rational or even extreme. If this stressful condition is not treated properly and promptly it can lead to life long mental illness. It is maybe this understanding that caused the Rabbis, from the perspective of their time, to somewhat exonerate the extremely distasteful behaviour of Lot and his daughters. We may have just seen a similar effect of trauma in Israel. In May 2021 there were serious disturbances and conflict in several Israeli cities between Arabs and Jews, including attacks on synagogues and mosques and a few lynchings. While some of the perpetrators were brought to justice, there seems to have been no real national accounting of what happened and why. Commentators have pointed out that it was precisely in these places that there was a high vote for parties at the extreme, both Jewish and Arab. They have directly linked this vote to what happened last year, even using the word post-trauma to explain it. In other words, failure to properly deal with the fear and anxiety caused by inter-communal violence in these places led to this trauma being expressed at the ballot box. Like the story of Lot and his daughters, these events teach us that trauma untreated will in the end lead to an unhealthy situation and dangerous consequences.

The story of Abraham in the Torah does not begin with the beginning of our Parshah but at the end of last week’s Parshah. This last section describes Abram’s birth and his marriage to Sarai. It also tells of how Abram’s father, Terah, took him and his wife as well as his nephew Lot on a journey towards Canaan, which halted at Haran. The Parshah this week, then begins with G-d’s command to Abraham to leave his home and family and go to the land which G-d shall show him. The connection between these two incidents has been a source of puzzlement and dispute between the commentators. How does the original journey of Terah towards Canaan relate to the later journey of Abraham, executed at Divine command? The Ibn Ezra sees these two incidents as intimately related. The command in this week’s Parshah to leave and go to the Promised Land was given to Abraham before the journey which was related last week. Thus Terah’s journey towards Canaan was in response to the Divine command given to Abraham, and was continued by Abraham after the stop at Haran. Nachminidies and other commentators reject this scenario, seeing Terah’s journey as not related to the Divine command which was given to Abraham in Haran. Terah had earlier moved to Haran or originally intended to move to Canaan for his own reasons. These two understandings pivot around the motivations of Terah and their relation to the motivation of Abraham and the divine instructions given to him. But it is possible to actually see the two incidents as related without necessarily going as far as Ibn Ezra and seeing Terah acting in obedience to a Divine command.


This communication from G-d was indeed given to Abraham only in Haran, as a plain reading of the text would indicate, and following this command, Abraham moved to Canaan. Yet the beginning of this process was indeed Terah’s original move to Haran and his seeming intention to move to Canaan. The Torah clearly states that Terah moved with Abraham and Lot, in order to go to Canaan, the ultimate destination that G-d intended. Furthermore, in several places, G-d states that He took Abraham from Ur, not from Haran, in order to give him the Land of Canaan. The conclusion is thus that Terah’s original move, following his own desires and for his own reasons, was in fact part of G-d’s scheme of moving Abraham to the Promised Land. In a similar manner, at the end of Genesis, the brothers sale of Joseph led ultimately to the fulfilment of G-d’s promise to Abraham, made in this Parshah, that his descendants would be oppressed in a foreign land. Thus we can discern in this episode an important principle of the Torah and Jewish belief. G-d’s will can be fulfilled not only by those following direct Divine commands but also by those following their own desires with no reference to any religious motive. Thus Terah and Joseph’s brothers furthered G-d’s plan, even though they were far from consciously doing so. Quite the opposite. In a similar way we have seen in our time how secular Jews who rebelled against traditional Judaism were the agents for the return of Jews to Israel. G-d can use many methods to achieve his purposes and it is not for us to dismiss some of them because they are not ‘religious’ enough.

‘Noah was a righteous man in his generation’. This qualifier of Noah’s probity spurned two different interpretations among the Rabbis, both of which Rashi brings in his commentary on this verse. One, is that Noah was righteous in spite of his generation being particularly wicked and had he lived in another generation he would have been even better. The other sees this qualifier as limiting the Torah’s approval. Noah was regarded as righteous in relation to his sinful contemporaries but if he had lived in the time of Abraham, for example, he would not have been regarded as anything special. These interpretations may seem quite simple but in fact raise other questions. For example, considering the comparison to the generation of Abraham, what is actually being stated? That Noah was not as great as Abraham, something stated elsewhere in the Rabbinic commentary, or that in a not especially wicked generation Noah would be regarded as nothing special. In which case not being particularly wicked in an evil generation would have been enough to be saved when everyone else was destroyed. If we unpack these two approaches we could say that an individual’s moral probity is judged according to two differing standards. One is their basic propensity to do good or evil. This is part of their inner character and is not necessarily related to the environment in which they live.


The other is the effect on their actions of the society in which they live, which can either reinforce or counteract their potential moral behaviour. For example, someone may have a propensity to anger or violence. In a normal peaceful society they are able to keep these traits in check and live a basically moral life. However, if they live in a time of war or in a violent society, these negative traits will become amplified and they will be more prone to act on them. Thus Noah may have been a basically decent person in himself, who in the generation of Abraham would not have stood out but in his generation, staying decent was heroic. Or conversely, the energy he had to expend in counteracting the negative influence of his environment in a more moral society could have been used to improve himself and become even more righteous. What all this teaches us is that when judging our behaviour two factors need to taken into account. What traits are intrinsic to our character and how we manage them as well as the effect of our environment on our actions. A good rule of thumb in these matters is that when judging ourselves we should examine our behaviour without reference to extenuating environmental factors while when evaluating others we should always endeavour to put their actions into context. In the end, however, only G-d can truly evaluate which is more important.

This Parshah is one of those where there is a divergence of customs concerning the division of the Parshah into the seven aliyot, or call ups. The most striking difference is whether the Week of Creation is read as one aliyah or three and conversely, whether the story of the Garden of Eden is divided in two or read as one long section. Another interesting divergence is a dispute as to where to end the fifth section. The chapter ends with humans in the time of Enosh ‘then beginning to call on the Name of G-d’. While some commentators see this as a positive development, others interpret it to mean that people began to call other beings or objects by the Name of G-d. Those following this opinion do not wish to end the aliyah on this note and thus end it a few verses earlier.

If we look at both these divergences we can possibly see a different attitude towards the idea of perfection and nuance in our approach to the world. Those who read the Creation story as one complete story and then read the story of the Garden of Eden until the beginning of the story of the Tree of Knowledge, make a distinction between a perfect Creation whole and complete and the mess made of it by humans. Those who divide the Creation story but read the whole story of the Garden of Eden, both good and bad, as a continuous narrative, have a more subtle approach to the world. Even the perfect story of Creation in six days can bear a nuanced examination while both the positive and negative features of the Garden of Eden are part of one holistic conception.

This idea comes to the fore even more strongly in the second divergence in aliyot. The dispute may be not only about how to interpret the verse but how to understand what occurred. One approach sees any deviation from strict monotheism as unredeemable and thus insists on not ending this section on that note. The other opinion may even accept that the verse refers to some sort of idolatrous practice but is still prepared to see it as a positive. The fact that humanity was asking questions about it existence and coming up with spiritual answers, even if they were incomplete or mistaken answers, was in itself the beginning of something greater. Through worship of other forces whether natural or otherwise, humans were striving for the Divine and would eventually come to serve G-d. Thus this verse, rather than describing a catastrophe, actually informs us of a stage on the road to monotheism and thus is an appropriate place to pause.

Thus these divergences in the placing of the Aliyot serve to teach us of different ways of both looking at the world and approaching the study of the Torah.