Forth Light Weekly Sedra
At the beginning of the Parshah, Jacob sends messages to Esau in servile terms talking of ‘your servant Jacob’ and ‘my Lord Esau’. Famously, the Rabbis criticise Jacob for this action comparing it to someone who unnecessarily goes over and pats a strange dog and then is surprised when it bites them. Nachmanidies furthermore connects this to Jewish history, criticising the Maccabees, who after the victory over the Greeks, then decide unbidden to send a mission to Rome, and we all know how that worked out in the end. Yet are the Rabbis not being a bit harsh on Jacob? Even though it appears that Esau had already moved to Mt Seir, it was still likely that Jacob would come across him at Isaac’s houses, being how attached Esau was to his father, especially since Rebecca seems no longer to have been alive. It may have seemed sensible to pre-empt any awkward confrontation by a peaceful overture beforehand. It may be that the Sages objected to the servile manner in which Jacob addressed Esau and the somewhat extravagant nature of the gifts he sent him. They saw in this a diminution of Jacob’s status as the linchpin of the covenantal community and an unnecessary and dangerous servility before someone who was not necessarily an ally. This can serve to throw a light on how Jews should relate to others both friends and enemies.
While it is always important to seek peace and endeavour to reduce conflict, this should not be done at the cost of diminishing our own status or seeming to compromise our own values or interest. We need to stand up for ourselves and not act as if we are supplicants. This is true not only on a national level but also on a communal level. It is important to maintain a good relationship with the civic and other authorities, yet at the same time not seem sycophantic or servile, like the Court Jews of days gone by. When I speak in civic forums, I always endeavour to convey my appreciation without acting as if by having a good or helpful relationship with the Jewish community they are doing us a favour. We must be careful not to act as if such good relationships are something special or unusual that we need to be grateful for. For Civic, Government or other organisations, having a constructive relationship with us and other faith communities is part of their remit. In today’s world they are in fact far more obligated to us than we are to them. It is always important to thank people but if we do it in a way that is over effusive or gives the impression that we are somehow the almost undeserving recipient in the equation, we do ourselves no favours. It is for this type of subservient attitude that the Rabbis criticised Jacob and we should learn not to emulate it.
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.
Parshat Haye Sarah
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.
Parshat Lech Lecha
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.
Parshat Ki Tissah / Parah
This week is a story of two cows. As is usual in a non-leap year the annual reading of the incident of the Golden Calf occurs on Shabbat Parah when we also read the additional reading concerning the mitzvah of the Red Heifer. Other than both being concerned with bovine matters, what connection is there between these two parts of the Torah? According to Leon Kass in his excellent study of the book of Exodus, G-d in the Torah is trying to steer the Jews away from two wrong paths, which are often presented in the Torah as the behaviour of Egypt and Canaan, the lands which the Israelites have left and are going to, respectively. Egyptian society was marked by an obsession with death and the deification of nature, which had at its pinnacle the deified god-king, the Pharaoh. These two preoccupations were epitomised by the building of tombs to ensure the Pharaoh’s afterlife, even at the cost of thousands of human lives. At the other extreme, the Caananites sought to merge with nature by ecstatic sensual ceremonies that broke down the boundaries not only between people but between humans and the natural world. Both of these ways of life sought to connect to the Divine centre of the universe but in totally perverse and self-destructive ways, which demeaned human dignity and led to terrible atrocities. These two mistaken ways of being are referenced this week in our discussion of two cows. The first is the Golden Calf.
The Torah describes how the Jewish people lost their bearings and sought to replace Moses with the worship of a golden calf, worship that involved the throwing off of all restraint and, according to tradition, not only sexual license but the use of violence against anyone that stood in their way. The answer, after Moses’ shock treatment to bring the people back to their senses, seems to be the ordered rite of the Tabernacle. The way to approach the Divine is not through losing all restraints and merging with nature but by approaching G-d, and respecting the appropriate boundaries that must necessarily exist between humans and their Creator. The second cow is the Red Heifer. This is brought as a rite of purification for those coming into contact with death. As opposed to the death obsessed society of Egypt, the Torah regards death as the greatest impediment to spirituality. The dead body in Judaism is the most impure thing and thus needs the most complicated rite, that of the Red Heifer, to purify those contaminated by it. The message is clear. Not death and seeking to overcome it should be the centre of society’s focus but rather living a meaningful life that respects human dignity. Thus the two cows we read about this week warn us of the pitfalls of either deifying or merging with nature and show us the way of living a dignified human life in partnership with G-d.
Parshat Tetzaveh / Zachor
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.
Parshat Mishpatim / Shekalim
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.
Parshat Beshalach / Shirah
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.