Forth Light Weekly Sedra

Sedra 5784:

The section of the Torah dealing with the laws of the Red Heifer is situated precisely at the centre of the book of Numbers. It bisects the narrative of the events that took place in the second year after leading Egypt and those that took place in the fortieth year on the cusp of entering the Land. In the space of reading about this mitzvah a whole generation has died and a whole new generation has arisen, though we are not specifically informed of this for several more chapters. We would therefore expect that this ceremony was in some way connected with the tragedy of the loss of the Generation of the Wilderness and how to recover from it. Indeed, the mitzvah of the Red Heifer is concerned with purification from coming into contact with death and thus is suitable subject matter to transition from one generation to another.

Yet, interestingly enough, the sages connected this rite to another episode of the wilderness years: the Golden Calf. They see each part of the ceremony as corresponding to a need for atonement for that serious misdemeanour. The Heifer comes to atone for her child, the calf. Elazar not Aaron, performs the ceremony as Aaron is implicated in the making of the Calf and so on in this vein. We might understand this idea as arising out of the bovine connection between the two narratives, leading to the idea that one comes to fix the other. Yet is there a deeper connection between these two passages in the Torah that led our Sages to connect them.

It is interesting that several midrashim connect the punishment for the Sin of the Spies with that of the Golden Calf. G-d, as it were, was looking for a pretext to bar the people from the Land because of His anger at them concerning the incident of the Calf. Furthermore, the midrash states, the Levites, who didn’t sin at the time of the Golden Calf, were numbered from a month upwards in order to exempt them from the decree to die in the wilderness, which applied only to those numbered from the age of twenty. Taking all this into account we may now understand how the rite of the Red Heifer serves to remedy not only the death of that generation in the wilderness as a result of the spies’ evil report but the original moment when everything started to go awry, the sin of the Golden Calf.

From this we can learn an important lesson. In seeking to correct mistakes, whether individual or communal, it is often not enough to examine the specific action that led to the current situation. We also need to delve deeper into our deeds to find the original error or wrong turning that led us to our present predicament.


The Book of Numbers follows a clear chronological pattern. The first quarter deals with the structure of the camp and preparations for the journey. The second quarter deals with the events that led that generation to be excluded from the Land. The second half of the book narrates events that occurred forty years later to the new generation. This pattern, however, is disrupted by various halakhic interludes whose relevance to the narrative is not always entirely clear.

This is especially true of the story of Korach which is bracketed by various legal texts. The section following the story deals with the support of the Priesthood which connects it to the narrative of the rebellion against the Priesthood. It also serves to bisect the book between the events occurring in the 2nd year and those related to the fortieth year, which make up the second half of the book. Harder to understand, however, is the rationale for separating the story of the Spies from the Korach rebellion, which clearly chronologically followed it and was indeed the context of the dissatisfaction which led to the revolt. This especially true as the laws related at the end of last week’s Parshah, seem to have no clear relevance to either narrative.

It appears that there is an importance in de-contextualising the story of the rebellion from what preceded it and bracketing it as a distinct event in its own right. This is despite the fact that, as we noted, the narrative itself refers to the exclusion from the Land as a major complaint of the rebels. Yet the Torah wants us to see the story not only in its historic context but also as an unrelated narrative in its own right. The issues involve were certainly connected to that place and time but also had a wider relevance.


If we reflect on this idea we can draw wider lessons about the importance or otherwise of context in evaluating situations and the actions we need to take in light of them. In looking at any problem or question it is of course crucial to understand the context in which it exists. The factors surrounding the issue we are considering will often determine the alternatives we are faced with and thus inform our choice of action. Yet at the same time it is also important not to lose sight of the principles at stake and the essential issues involved, separate from the actual situation in which we find ourselves.


Returning to Korach, the issues surrounding the extent and nature of religious authority that form the ostensible rationale for the rebellion are important in their own right, apart from the context of the disgruntled, demoralised nation which provide the underlying cause of the incident. Without appreciating the context we cannot understand the story but without abstracting the narrative from its specific historical grounding we can miss the lesson the Torah is trying to teach us. Context is important but it is not everything.

The yearly cycle of Torah readings is attuned not only with the cycle of the Festivals with certain Parshiot occurring close to certain festivals. It is also closely connected to the cycle of the seasons and the agricultural year. Thus during the autumn and early winter, a time when we retreat more to our private spaces and nature is germinating deep in the earth, we read the family story of the Patriarchs and the germination of the Jewish people. During the late winter and early spring we read  the story of the Exodus, preparing for both the rebirth of nature and the birth of the Jewish people. During the weeks of the Counting of the Omer, which mark the transition between the barley and wheat harvest, we study the laws that form the basis of the transition from slavery to responsible freedom. The summer months, which are the heart of the productive season of the year, where we see the culmination of the fruit of our labours, should have both festivals and Torah readings to match. We should be studying and celebrating activity and achievement.

Instead the opposite is the case. The period from Shavuot until the month of Elul is marked by no major festivals and are centred on the saddest period of the Jewish year, culminating in Tisha B’av. The Torah readings for this period likewise tell the story of the catastrophic failure of the generation which left Egypt and their death in the wilderness. The Sages highlighted this dichotomy when they suggested that G-d wanted to give the Jewish people for each of the summer months but because they sinned this period remained barren of holidays. Thus the summer period, as reflected in the Torah readings for this period, is a time of year which symbolises lost possibilities and wasted opportunities. Instead of following the setting up of the structure of the nation with the triumphant entrance into and settlement of the Land of Israel, a sort of book of Joshua, we read of the failure of that generation and the postponement of the project for forty years.

As we contemplate our current situation and look back over the past decade or so, we may be seized with a similar emotion. A period of unprecedented security and development both for Israel and the Diaspora has ended in disaster and dissension. From the vantage point of the future we may well look back and rue the lost opportunities and wasted chances of the last ten years or so. As we struggle through the current crisis and contemplate the necessary lessons we must learn in order to successfully rebuild for the future, maybe the message of wasted opportunities that form the heart of the Torah readings of this time of the year, might teach us the most important lesson we need to learn.

In the middle of the Parshah we read about a short but fascinating conversation between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro. Just before the Israelites leave Mt Sinai in order to journey to the Land, Moses tries to persuade Jethro to go with them. Jethro quite emphatically refuses, saying that he wishes to return to his own land. Moses then again attempts to persuade him, promising that the good G-d has promised for the Israelites will also apply to him and his family. The outcome of this conversation is not recorded and not entirely clear. In Exodus it states that Jethro returns to his own land but his descendants are later found amongst those who enter the Land.

Other the chronological and other difficulties with this passage that have interested the commentators, its importance lies in the enunciation of a basic principle of Judaism and of conversion to Judaism. If we understand, in line with Jewish tradition, that Jethro effectively converted to the religion of Israel, then what we have in this conversation is a discussion of what it means to convert and indeed, what is Judaism. For Moses it is axiomatic that following the G-d of Israel means not only accepting the Torah of Israel but also being part of the people of Israel living in the Land of Israel. This, of course, is the basic component of the covenant with the Patriarchs and the promise to Moses himself at the beginning of his mission.

Jethro thinks otherwise. He thinks that Judaism is a religion that is only centred around the Torah and can be disembodied from the connection to Land and People. He thinks that he can accept the G-d of Israel but live in Midian without connection to the Land or People of Israel. Moses is explaining to him that this maybe is his idea of a G-d centred religion but it is not the religion of Israel. This has been the attitude of the tradition from then to now. Many of our greatest Rabbis decried those who felt ‘at home’ in the Diaspora and thought that is where they ought to be. Many communities have traditions that they were severely punished for rejecting the land of Israel and regarding their country of exile as their new Jerusalem.

In the 19th century the Reform movement rejected Jewish people-hood and the connection to the Land, removing all references of the Return to Zion from the prayer book. This experiment was a total failure. The Reform movement itself understood that you can’t have Judaism without the connection to the People and the Land. Indeed, today Reform leaders regard the alienation of some of their youth from Israel as a mortal threat to the future of their movement and Judaism itself.

For this reason someone converting to Judaism has to accept not only ‘the yoke of the commandments’ but becoming part of the Jewish people with its connection to the Land. Moses’ answer to Jethro and the answer of tradition is the same today as ever. Judaism without the connection to Israel is simply not Judaism.

Parshat Naso, with 176 verses, is the longest Parshah in the Torah. It is always read immediately after or occasionally before, Shavuot, symbolising our dedication to the Torah given on that festival. Other than the length of the Parshah is there any other connection to the Giving of the Torah?

In one way they contain opposite concepts of our relation to G-d. At the end of the Parshah, we read about the Dedication of the Altar by the Princes. Here we bring gifts to G-d. On Shavuot G-d gave us the gift of the Torah.

Yet that very same section of the Torah teaches us a profound lesson about the nature of Torah and our relationship to it. Famously, each Prince brings an identical offering which is faithfully repeated by the text twelve times. Yet each Prince’s name is stated not only at the beginning of his section but at its end. Each offering, while identical, is thus also specific to the Prince who gave it, bearing his personal input.

The same is true of the Torah. Each person that received the Torah on Sinai seemingly heard the same thing. But at the same time G-d spoke to each person individually. Everyone connected to Revelation in a distinct way suited to their personality. So it is with the study of Torah. While we all may study the same text what we learn from it and how it affects us is different for each individual. The Torah of every Jew is thus unique.

The challenge of our time is how is how to manage this diversity in a way that preserves the essential unity of the Jewish people. How do we disagree, even strongly or passionately, about the meaning of Torah or what it means to be Jewish and still remain united as one people. That is a test which we failed abysmally in the last year and have subsequently paid a heavy price.

This is foreshadowed in the Torah where the period before the arrival at Sinai say grumblings and dissension followed by the attack of Amalek. Only after this conflict do the Jews learn to unite as one people in front of Mt Sinai in order to receive the Torah. The urgent need today, following a year of dissension and conflict, is to come together on Shavuot, united in our acceptance of a Torah which contains within it all our diverse perspectives.


When we examine the numerous names and numbers that make up the beginning of the book of Numbers our eyes may glaze over and we may wonder what relevance all this has for us. Why was it necessary for the Torah to include all these lists and how does it assist us to have to listen to it every year? In fact this section of the Torah has an important lesson to teach us, especially at this time. If we pay close attention to what is happening here we can learn a lot about how to manage our current situation.


The Torah divides the Israelites according to their tribes and several times lists the differing numbers of each tribe as well their place in the camp. It then has a separate section for the Levites and their numbers and their place in the camp. It is not enough to simply state the total number of Israelites but every individual tribe must be acknowledged. This teaches us an important lesson about being Jewish. By going to the lengths it does to describe the Jewish people in all its different tribes and groups, the Torah is telling us that this difference is important. The encampment is not made up of one amorphous mass but of a variety of differing groups whose diversity is crucial to the strength of the nation as a whole.


But the Torah also pays careful attention to another detail. In listing the tribes and delineating their place in the camp it creates a whole structure into which each tribe is slotted. The whole camp is built around the central fixture of the Tabernacle and each tribe or group is defined by its place in relation to this overall schema. Thus the diversity of the Jewish people is focused on a centre or ideal as well as being circumscribed by a tight structure.


This also imparts to us an important lesson. Diversity, in order to work and not lead to anarchy or conflict needs to be circumscribed by common rules which everyone subscribes to. Whether in a state a community or a club, people need to be free to have differing views, come from different backgrounds and all be respected and welcomed. But this can only happen when everyone  subscribes to basic rules of conduct and mutual respect which enable everyone to live more or less in harmony. Everyone believing they can behave however they wish without reference to how this affects others or the group as a whole will lead to dissension and even the break up of the collective. Thus the long lists in Numbers teach us both the importance of diversity but also the necessity of common rules which enable that diversity to function and flourish.

The Torah introduces the topic of the Sabbatical year by stating that this was commanded to Moses on Mt Sinai. The commentators differed as to the meaning of this unusual introduction. Rashi, quotes the traditional explanation that just as the laws of Shemitah in all their particulars were communicated at Sinai, so all the other mitzvot with all their particulars were communicated at Sinai, even those only mentioned in Deuteronomy. Other commentators proffer differing opinions as to the reason that specifically this mitzvah in connected with Sinai. An answer may lie in contemplating what is meant by the time at Mt Sinai, as this period covers several different events. If, however, we take it to mean the original revelation on Shavuot, then can discern something very interesting. The Ten Commandments can be seen as encompassing the most basic or important principles on which the society the Torah is seeking to create is based. Of course, included in the Ten Commandments is the mitzvah of Shabbat. Shabbat observance is considered so basic to a Jewish way of life that traditionally someone who publicly profaned Shabbat was often regarded as virtually not Jewish. By connecting the Shemitah year to the revelation at Mt Sinai the Torah is thus telling us the that Sabbatical year is a direct continuation of Shabbat and linked to it in importance. This concept is strengthened by the fact that in the covenant found at the end of the law code in Exodus, Shabbat and Shemitah are mentioned together.


This dual importance is also emphasised by the serious penalties threatened for their profanation. The penalty for the individual desecrating Shabbat is death and the consequence of the nation not observing the Shemitah year, as laid out in the reproof section we read next week, is exile or national death. In examining the reasons given for Shabbat and Shemitah we also see a similarity between the two. The Torah gives two explanations for keeping Shabbat in the two versions of the Ten Commandments. We are to remember both the fact that G-d created the world and that he rescued us from Egypt. These two themes are also found in our Parshah with regards to Shemitah and Yovel-the Jubilee year. We are to remember that the land belongs to G-d and also when dealing with slaves recall that we were slaves in Egypt. Thus the basic themes of both Shabbat and Shemitah are respect for the Earth and the Land in particular as belonging to G-d, and thus not open to our unbridled utilisation and respect for other humans as creations of G-d and not subject to our exploitation. The refusal to heed these injunctions loses us the right to dwell in the Land or even to exist in the world at all. At a time when as Jews we are fighting for our existence in the Land and as humans we are threatened with ceasing to be able to live on Earth, these are important lessons indeed.    

A phrase that has been used a lot in Israel when talking of those who have lost their lives in the current conflict is ‘that we should be worthy of them’. Thinking of this on Yom Hazikaron, I realised that the essence of this idea is actual found in this weeks Parshah. The Torah commands ‘You shall not profane My holy name and I will be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel’. From this verse is derived the concept of Kiddush Hashem or sanctifying G-d’s name. This is often taken to be a command to, if necessary, give one’s life for the sanctification of G-d’s name, and this is how Rashi understands it. Yet the verse can be given a far wider application. While, in extremity we are called on to give up our lives for Kiddush Hashem, we are in general called upon to live our lives in a way that sanctifies G-d’s name. It is striking when listening to the life stories of those tragically lost in the last eighth moths that it is not merely their deaths that gave their life meaning, but they lived lives of meaning. Each in their own area and according to their own ability lived their lives in a way that sanctified G-d’s name. They died for others because they lived for others.


This is an extremely important message for us today. As we contemplate the waves of hate which are assaulting the Jewish people, we can do one of three things. We can stick our head in the sand and pretend it is not happening or it’s not so serious. Or blame ourselves and our own actions, pretending that if we only did things differently people would like us better. Or we can understand that the true root of this enmity is about our very existence as Jews and what we stand for. If that is the case then there is only one real answer. Not hiding or seeking to be the ‘good’ Jews that act how others desire us to be. It is to strengthen our Jewish identity, values and practice. It is to be more authentically Jewish and to lead more authentically Jewish lives. In the words of last week’s Parshah it is to be holy or as we read this week, to sanctify G-d’s name. It is to follow in the path of those we have tragically lost and to live Jewish lives full of meaning and service. Thus the double meaning of the phrase Kiddush Hashem can serve to inform our response to the challenges we face today. On the one hand, if necessary, being ready to make the ultimate sacrifice as so many have heroically done in the last few months. But, for all of us, to respond by living proudly Jewish lives of meaning. That we should be worthy.

Among the numerous mitzvot the make up the Parshah this week there is one which seems a bit unusual and difficult to comprehend. It deals with an extremely specific case and it is not clear whether it has any relevance for other cases or whether we can learn anything from it for ourselves. The Torah describes a case where a man has intimate relations with a female slave who is betrothed to someone else, but she has not been redeemed from slavery or freed by her master. In such a case, even though betrothal is normally equivalent to marriage and having relations with a betrothed woman is punishable as adultery, the man in question only has to bring a sacrifice as atonement. It is not clear whether the slave is a Jewish or Canaanite slave and how, if she is a slave, she can be betrothed to another Jewish man. While the commentators differ as to her origins they all agree that this woman is half-free and half-slave, and as such while betrothed to be married, presumably when she will be fully freed, she is at present not free and so relations with her, while a sin, are not on par with adultery. After all that you have probably given up, which is understandable. Why is the Torah  bothering to tell us of such an unlikely case containing three rare scenarios of a half-free female save, betrothed to someone, who then sleeps with someone else. Especially amongst the many clear cut moral and religious exhortations and prohibitions which fill the Parshah?


Maybe, however, that is the point. Amidst all these clear distinctions and proscriptions, the Torah is maybe indicating to us that not all cases are so black and white. While it is important to have moral clarity on issues as varied as family relations to worker’s rights it is also important to understand that the world cannot be simply divided into light and darkness. We can see this by examining one of the distinctions we make every week in Havdalah, that between Israel and the Nations. Looking at the very case we are studying, we can see things are not so clear cut. A non-Jewish slave, for example, is both Jewish and not Jewish. They are obligated in certain mitzvot but not others and, as we have been discussing,  cannot contract a marriage. All of this is meant to teach us that the world is not as simple or clear cut as we would like, and this is definitely relevant for our time. At a time when our streets and airwaves are full of hatred propagated by people who believe they can simplistically divide the world into goodies and baddies, the totally right and the totally wrong (and not only concerning the Middle East), we need to rediscover nuance. Our politics and societal debate has become toxic and rediscovering nuance is vital if we are not to continue to tear ourselves apart.         

One of the strangest mitzvot in the Torah is that of the scapegoat sent to its death as a central feature of the Yom Kippur rite. The famous hint of both the Ibn Ezra and Nachmanidies connects this rite to the prohibition, 33 verses later, of sacrificing to the demons in the wilderness. Many have wondered at this connection which raises more questions than it answers. Yet the context of this prohibition may give us a clue. The verses before speak of the necessity of slaughtering animals only at the entrance to the sanctuary. Those that do not will be counted as those that shed blood, and receive the appropriate Divine punishment. The Rabbi’s disagreed whether this prohibition refers only to sacrifices or to all slaughtering of meat; this being permitted outside the sanctuary only after settlement in the Land. Nachmanidies, who accepts the more general interpretation, makes a fascinating comment on the connection to shedding blood. G-d permitted us to eat meat, thus allowing the shedding of blood of animals. One, however, who breaks the rules regarding the proper slaughter of animals has violated the basis of their permission to kill animals and thus is regarded as a murderer.


This comment throws an interesting light on the attitude of the Torah to the eating of meat. The eating of meat is permitted, and in some cases even mandatory. Since the terrible confusion between man and beast that characterised the generation of the flood, leading to the cheapening of human life, humans are meant to eat meat. We must never forget the difference between human and animal life. Yet this is on condition that we do so in the way commanded by G-d. The eating of meat is not a prize but a necessary concession to human weakness. Animal life must suffer in order that human life should remain sacred. In this way animals are the ‘scapegoats’ for human failure. Maybe this is why on Yom Kippur we symbolically confess our sins on a goat and send it to die in the wilderness. On this day of human atonement we also remember that animals also suffer because of our human weakness. In the Haftorah from Isaiah we read on the last day of Pesach, peace and justice between humans is linked to peace with and among the animal kingdom. Just as human violence and injustice led to the eating of animals so the redemption on animals is an integral part of the final redemption of humanity. 

As part of the purification of the leper, the priest takes two identical birds, one of which is killed and its blood sprinkled on the leper and the other set free. Part of the ritual of Yom Kippur also consists of two goats, one of which is killed and the other set free. On the other great festival of the year, Pesach, we also have a similar scenario. We have two foods, hametz and matzah, which are made from exactly the same ingredients but one is forbidden and the other allowed. There is, however, a difference between the cases. On Yom Kippur it is G-d, by means of lots, who decides which goat will live and which one dies. In the Parshah, it is the priest that decides. On Pesach, however, it is dependent on us. The difference between Hametz and Matzah lies in one thing, whether we act to prevent the dough leavening or not. Action creates matzah, inaction leads to hametz.

This is an important lesson for this Pesach especially. There are situations where the outcome is decided by G-d and those where others succeed in forcing their will upon us. But there are also times when it is our decision, our action or inaction, that makes the difference between life or death, freedom or slavery. This is one of those times. Whether we as Jews are prepared to stand up for ourselves or let others decide our fate, will determine our future. But it is also a question for wider society, especially in Europe. Do we wish to return to the world of ninety years ago with all that implies, and not only for Jews, or whether the decent people in our societies are willing to act to face down the haters and create a different type of future. That is the question this Pesach, hametz or matzah, passivity or action. Freedom and safety are not won by passivity or lethargy but by acting before matzah becomes hametz.         

In laying out the various rules concerning leprosy that are the subject matter of the Parshah, the Torah specifies several symptoms which indicate whether a person is impure or not. An interesting feature of these different symptoms is that if a person has symptoms of the disease all over their body, this is an indication that they are pure. One would have thought that the opposite would be the case and the total spread of the symptoms would be an indication of absolute infection. The fact that the Torah thinks otherwise, is an indication of something more profound. An intimation of the important lesson being taught here may come from the Haftorah for this week. Due to the vagaries of the calendar, we have not read this portion for twenty one years, though we will read it more often in the coming years. This is the pity because it is a fascinating story concerning a Syrian general who requests to be healed from his leprosy by Elisha the prophet. The equivalent of an Iranian general seeking medical treatment in Israel. His initial reaction to the prophet’s instructions to bathe in the Jordan is of scorn, saying that the rivers of Damascus are far larger than the derisory Jordan. Yet he is persuaded to follow the advice and is healed and later converts to the religion of Israel. The mistake Naaman made was to think that the largest or loudest is the best, rather than understanding that you have to look beyond the simple impression made of dominance.

The rivers of Damascus may seem to overwhelm the Jordan in their size and fury but they do not represent the true story; the opposite is true. Their sound and fury obscures their impotency while the smaller Jordan, while seemingly overwhelmed, actually is the true source of healing. In a similar vein, the fact that someone who has the symptoms of leprosy all over their body is actually pronounced pure, comes to teach us that simply because an idea or movement seems to have massive support and makes lots of noise, does not mean it is correct. In fact it may indicate the opposite. Like the body totally covered with disease symptoms, the total adherence to a certain concept may in fact indicate that it is actually not true and the great noise made by its adherents is actually a sign of the underlying vacuousness of their ideas. This is the lesson the Torah may be trying to teach us by this rule and it is an important  one for Jews to remember, especially today. Just as Jews resisted the overwhelming power of Christianity and Islam that threatened to swallow us up and silence our voice, so we must resist similar forces today. Just as ninety years ago those who demonstrated in their masses, shouted loud slogans and hung flags from their windows did not represent the truth, rather the biggest lie, so it is today. Something we should remember.    

One of the most tragic episodes in the Torah is the death of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron. Many different reasons have been given for their deaths, all seeking to identify their precise sin. Yet it is instructive to examine what the Torah itself says, and does not say. The story, as narrated in the text, is that on the day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, Aaron’s sons took a ‘strange fire’, not commanded by G-d, and offered it upon the inner altar. As a consequence, a fire comes out from G-d and consumes them. G-d’s comment on this is that he will be sanctified by those closest to Him. The simple meaning appears to be that the two young men were carried away by the occasion and approached G-d in a spontaneous way, which resulted in their deaths. G-d’s comment is enigmatic but seems to in some way elevate them to a special status, one which, however, has its price. Aaron’s reaction to all this is described in two Hebrew words: ‘Aaron was silent’. What is the meaning of this silence? Is it acceptance of his sons’ guilt, angry acquiescence or something in between. We do not know. We are merely told that he did not respond. Maybe we can glean an inkling from another tragic figure, Job. At the end of the book named after him, he finally gets an answer from G-d, which does not provide an explanation for his sufferings but challenges him to accept he cannot understand G-d’s ways. Job does accept this answer but, significantly, does not retreat from his trenchant assertion that he is innocent and in no way responsible for the suffering that has been inflicted upon him.

One could possibly understand Aaron’s silence in the same vein. Aaron does not speak, because faced with G-d’s enigmatic answer to his tragedy, he has nothing to say. Like Job, confronted with G-d’s ‘I am G-d and you cannot understand My ways’, answer to his questioning, Aaron maybe accepts that he is not going to get a clear answer he can understand, and has nothing to say in reply. His silence, however, any more than the reaction of Job, should not be necessarily taken as acquiescence. Not understanding and even acceptance of the impossibility of not understanding, does not lessen the pain or the anger or the basic feeling that what has happened is unjust and simply unfair. The acceptance of Job and the silence of Aaron do not signify the lack of such feelings, rather the opposite. Contained within them is a silent scream that accepts but does not acquiesce in the unfairness of the world. If this is so, then these two figures serve as important models of how people of faith should react to tragedy. The acceptance of G-d’s will or the realisation that we simply do not have the answer to the question of why, does not mean not feeling aggrieved and angry. Faith does not insulate us from the unfairness of life, though it may go some way to help us accept it. But the bewilderment, anger and sadness remain. The examples of Aaron and Job show us that faced with unfairness of tragedy, we may need to accept but not necessarily acquiesce.   

In the middle of the inauguration of the Priests that forms the second half of this week’s Parshah, we have an unusual note. The shalshelet occurs only four times in the Torah, mostly in Genesis. It normally occurs in the middle of a story, and is generally held to signify hesitation on the part of the protagonist, as in Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife, for example. What, then, is this note doing in the middle of Moses’ inauguration of his brother and nephews into the priesthood, precisely at the slaughtering of the ‘ram of inauguration’? The Rabbis learnt from this that indeed there were various hesitations and uncertainties at this moment. Firstly, Moses, who had served in the priestly function until then, was giving up this role to his brother. As someone with a direct connection to G-d, could he have deep down regretted relinquishing the priesthood to someone on a lesser level? Aaron, also, according to tradition, was uncertain of his role. After all, he had been responsible not so long ago for the sin of the Golden Calf, and felt unworthy of taking on the position of G-d’s High Priest. Maybe, indeed, G-d would not accept his service? These types of hesitations are very common in life. We often either feel we are deserving of better from G-d or feel unworthy of stepping into the role that G-d has assigned us.

We are hesitant about our path in life and uncertain of our relationship with G-d. We are confused by events in the world which seem to contradict our sense of justice or fairness, and can cause us to question our beliefs and our future as Jews. This is especially true at times of bereavement or tragedy. This is where the mysterious rite of the Red Heifer comes in. It is specifically tailored to deal with those who have been touched by death, its ashes purifying those who have come in contact with a corpse. In its paradoxical regulations, where a rite whose purpose is to purify the impure makes all those who are involved in it themselves impure, provide an answer to the state of mind described above. On the one hand, it legitimises our doubts. Things are topsy turvy and we do not necessarily understand what is going on. Like the rite of the Red Heifer itself, things do not make sense. Yet despite this lack of understanding, the rite works, the impure are purified. In the same way, despite not understanding the way the world is run, we believe that there is a purpose to what is happening and a meaning behind it.  Thus the Torah readings both highlight the uncertainty we face at difficult moments and a way of coping with them.

After completing the construction of the Tabernacle, the Torah then begins to detail the various ceremonies that were to take place there, especially the animal and other sacrifices. These rituals are in many ways remote from our ritual experience today but were basic to people’s understanding of religion till a relatively late period. Being that, in general, people did not conceive of G-d actually needing these sacrifices how were they understood? The answer can be maybe seen in the particular type of sacrifices we read about in these sections of the Torah. They are generally brought for two main reasons: as atonement for sin or thanksgiving for some deliverance. If we examine the first two, we can see that in both cases the worshipper may feel powerless as either a consequence of their own misbehaviour or the undeserved good that has been bestowed on them. Sacrificing something of monetary value enables them to, as it were, ‘give back’ something to G-d. In the face of feelings of unworthiness and impotence, the bringing of a sacrifice enables them to feel a sense of agency and thus restore their sense of confidence and self-worth. This weekend, we also celebrate the festival of Purim. The Jews of that time, faced by Haman’s decree, would have also felt impotent and lacking agency. Indeed the totalitarian nature of that decree encompassing the utter destruction of not only their lives but also their possessions, was designed precisely for that effect.

If we, however, examine the actions of Mordechai, we can see how he step by step restores that sense of agency to the Jews. He first engages in a very public campaign against the decree, showing the Jews that they do not have to suffer in passive silence. He then engages them in three days of prayer and fasting, also serving to mobilise them for what may follow. Finally, following the initial defeat of Haman, he rallies them to forcefully fight and defeat their enemies. By these actions he restores to the Jews their sense of self-worth and potency and, by changing them, totally revolutionises their position in society. Indeed, it seems that as a consequence of these events, the dispirited returnees to Jerusalem are given a new impetus and finally complete the building of the 2nd Temple. Thus both the sacrifices and the story of Purim teach us how to deal with feelings of inadequacy or powerlessness, individually or communally. We must take our fate into our own hands by engaging in actions, however small or insignificant they feel, which restore to us a sense of agency. One by one, these actions will slowly enable us to overcome the crisis we are faced with and to prevail. This is as true in our current predicament as it was then.   

The structure of the second half of the book of Exodus is clear: The instructions for building the Tabernacle, the incident of the Golden Calf and the building of the Tabernacle. This schema is often seen as indicating that the Tabernacle was the answer to the problem demonstrated by the incident of the Golden Calf. But there is another similar structure that indicates a different theme. The instructions on building the Tabernacle end with the injunction to keep Shabbat and the building work begins with another reminder to observe Shabbat. We thus have a five part schema of Tabernacle- Shabbat-Golden Calf-Shabbat-Tabernacle. What is the meaning of this structure? It is generally understood that the injunction to keep Shabbat that brackets the building of the Tabernacle is meant to indicate that this project does not override the observance of Shabbat. Indeed we learn what is prohibited on Shabbat precisely from the actions undertaken in the building of the Tabernacle. The Torah thus delineates two types of holiness: holiness in space, The Tabernacle and holiness in time, Shabbat. It then clearly indicates that holiness in time takes precedence. Or to put it another way, how you use your time is more important than how you use your wealth.

 While how someone utilises their material possessions will tell us something about how they view life, it is the use of someone’s time that will truly inform us of their real values. Someone may be by nature generous but on what do they bestow their largess? This issue is precisely demonstrated by the conjunction of the Tabernacle and the Golden Calf incident. As the Rabbis point out, the Jews gave willingly and generously to both: one moment to build a Golden Calf and not long after to build a Tabernacle for G-d. So this does not really inform us of where they really stand. For this reason the Torah emphasises the importance of Shabbat and its precedence over any material pursuit, including building a house for G-d’s Presence. By using our time correctly, we inculcate values that will enable us to build a Tabernacle that will serve as a place of G-d rather than another Golden Calf.  By sanctifying our time, at the price of pursuing material pursuits, even inspirational material pursuits, we show that we have the right values to utilise the physical world in a constructive and proper manner. Only by observing Shabbat can we truly lead a spiritual life which uplifts rather than degrades the material world. Judaism believes in the sanctity of objects, from the Mezuzah to the Temple, but the holiness of time is far more important.   

When reading the narrative of the Golden Calf it is interesting to note how little space is given to the sin itself. Of the whole section dealing with this incident, only a relatively short section at the beginning describes what happened, a description even more briefly retold by Aaron to Moses as he seeks to explain his role in the affair. The majority of this section of the Torah, and the Parshah, deals with the consequences of the sin and especially Moses’ attempts to achieve a reconciliation between G-d and the people. When we read this narrative we often emphasise the heroic actions of Moses such as placing his future on the line for the sake of the people or breaking the two tablets. Something else he does, however, is often overlooked or seen as a separate incident, but is in fact an important factor in achieving the desired rapprochement. The Torah tells us that, after initially convincing G-d not to destroy the people, Moses takes his tent and removes it outside the camp and it is to there that people must go if they want to ‘seek G-d’. Furthermore it is here that G-d communicates with Moses and the Torah informs us that the people take a keen interest in this arrangement. When Moses goes to this tent to speak to G-d all the people rise and watch and when G-d’s presence descends to the tent, they all bow. What is in fact going on here and why does the Torah bother to tell us it in such detail?



What is in fact happening is an important part of the process of reconciliation. G-d has already informed the people he wishes to withdraw His presence from them and replace it with an angel, something that occasions distress on the part of the people. Moses now takes this one step further and actualises this by his owns actions. By taking his tent to outside the camp and communicating with G-d there, Moses is physically demonstrating the distance that now exists between G-d and the people. He is showing them by his own separation from them just how damaging their actions have been and the how much their sin has estranged them from himself and G-d. This realisation is the first step in the process of repentance and reconciliation that will end with the giving of the second set of tablets. By describing this process to us the Torah is also teaching us how we should behave in such situations. Later on the Torah will instruct us not to conceal our hatred in our hearts but to tell someone who has wronged us exactly how we feel. That is precisely what is being modelled in this story. Sometimes we need to, by cold shouldering those who have harmed us, show them exactly how we feel. This is also true of the current situation when as individuals and a community we have unfortunately been let down by various people and organisations. We should show them by not continuing ‘business as normal’ exactly how we feel. It may make no difference or it may begin a process that causes them to understand better the situation and how they should have reacted. Either way, it is an important and worthwhile action to take, even if only for our own peace of mind. 

The various items of clothing of the High Priest, the main subject of this week’s Parshah, have always provided interesting spiritual insights. One such item is the golden Plate; engraved with the name of G-d and worn on the High Priest’s forehead. This artefact is generally regarded as atoning for the inadvertent profanation of the sacrifices offered in the Temple. The Rabbis disputed whether this atonement was effective only when the High Priest was actually wearing the Plate, or even when he had removed his priestly garments. The first position is easier to understand. When the Plate is fulfilling its function in the Sanctuary, it can atone; when it is lying in a box, it cannot seem to be of much use. Yet the contrary opinion is in many ways more interesting. Even when the Plate is not in use, the very fact of its existence is enough to atone. This opinion bids us search beyond the evidence of our eyes, and look at what is hidden. The High Priest’s clothes are merely the outer garments which cover the person charged with G-d’s service. One might think they are the essence. Indeed he is forbidden to serve in the sanctuary without them. Yet this external outlook can be deceptive. An unworthy priest is still unworthy despite his costume.

A High Priest who is unfit will still perish if he enters the Holy of Holies, despite wearing the correct garments. Indeed, this often happened at the end of the Second Temple period. We are bidden to look beyond the external to what is hidden, not to trust the evidence of our eyes, but to perceive what is deeper. This, of course, is also the message of Purim and especially Purim Katan, the Purim that is not really Purim in the Adar that is not the real Adar. At the time of Purim, the Jewish people thought they were safe but underneath trouble was brewing. Mordechai and Esther were seemingly assimilated Jews but through them the Jewish people were saved. Haman thought he was on top of the world but behind his back his downfall was already taking shape. And, of course, behind all these hidden conspiracies lay the most hidden actor of all: G-d. As we look at the world around us, that seems to lurch from one crisis to another, we should remember we only see what is revealed. The hidden currents of history, and especially the concealed hand of G-d, are often only visible in retrospect. Something to contemplate on this most obscure of days.

We begin this week to read the account of the building of the Tabernacle, which takes up most of the rest of Exodus. The Tabernacle, and later the Temple, was the heart of Jewish spiritual life. The Torah famously comments at the beginning of the Parshah, that the building of the Tabernacle will enable G-d to dwell, not in the structure but within the people. Individual spirituality is to be inextricably bound up with the communal. It is noteworthy in this regard that at the centre of the service of the Tabernacle lies the daily offering. This, unlike the individual offerings that are recorded in the beginning of Leviticus, is mentioned in next week’s Parshah; at the end of the instructions concerning the setting up of the Sanctuary. This communal offering, therefore, is not merely incidental to the purpose of the Tabernacle but the very essence of its function; the channeling of individual spirituality into communal service. This idea, of course, continues on in later Jewish practice. While it is a mitzvah to pray three times a day; that is not enough. The real mitzvah is to pray three times a day with a community; in a minyan. Judaism believes that, while G-d can and should be found in the life and practice of the individual, His true dwelling place is within the community. Judaism has always been wary of individuals and movements that seek to go their own way, apart from the community.

Individual spirituality can lead to selfishness and self-righteous certainty. We need our ideas challenged by others and our hearts touched by their closeness. While the Torah certainly believes that G-d can be found in books, our true experience of Him is found in the face of our fellow human beings. It is through service of others and with others that our faith is tested; not in high sounding ideals or abstract mystical concepts. This also often requires moderating or relinquishing some of our own opinions or desires in order be able to create the unity necessary to successfully work together to overcome the challenges facing us. This is especially important at a time like this when the Jewish people are under threat. It is thus especially disappointing when a group of people within the wider Jewish community choose to act in a way that can only undermine communal cohesion, create dissension and embolden those who wish us harm. Like those the Rabbis condemn for not joining with the community in prayer, preferring to pursue their own selfish spirituality, so these people pursue their own narrow agenda without regard for the wellbeing of the Jewish community as a whole. In doing so they separate themselves from the Jewish people, pour salt into the wounds of those suffering and endanger further those already being victimised. G-d may possibly forgive them; others of us may have a harder time.

One of the best known and controversial of the many laws in the Parshah is the rubric of an ‘eye for an eye’. This has unfortunately been wrongly taken as being meant literally and used as a weapon by those attacking Jews, Judaism and the Bible in general. It is also, again completely out of context and erroneously, been used in modern political contexts. The true meaning of this phrase is of course quite different. In Jewish tradition and law, it is understood as referring to monetary compensation as is true in other Near Eastern law systems that have a similar rubric. But most importantly, this concept marks an important and radical shift in the concepts of law and compensation, which have subsequently served as the foundation of all humane legal systems. Indeed in the short phrases of this verse, we can discern the basis of the whole attitude of the Torah to jurisprudence. The concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ is not referring to the need for exact equivalence, which would be a ludicrous concept and impossible to implement; rather it is insisting on the principle of equity, one eye for one eye no matter whose eye it is and whatever the circumstances. This concept is coming to combat two basic perversions of justice common in ancient, and not so ancient, legal systems.

One is differential punishment or restitution depending on the status of the perpetrator and victim. A high status victim would receive more compensation than a lower class individual and a lowly perpetrator could expect a far harsher punishment than someone of a higher status. The Torah insists that each case is treated equally, demanding for example ‘life for life’ in the case of murder, even if the victim is a slave. The other common perversion of justice is the ability of a deal between the victim and the perpetrator to waive or lessen the punishment. This may seem reasonable, but again leaves the whole system wide open to abuse depending on the status of the individuals and their ability to pay or to bring pressure on the other party. The Torah again insists on an ‘eye for an eye’ as an absolute requirement of law applied equally to all. This concept of equity is the foundation of all the laws in the Parshah and indeed in the Torah, and serves as the basis of the Torah’s view of a properly functioning moral society. The rubric of ‘an eye for an eye’ is thus fundamental to the Jewish view of life and society and its perverse misinterpretation is something which damages not only Jews but also the rest of society and we should seek to combat it.

The Ten Commandments are not only a central part of the Torah and thus Judaism but also have had an influence far beyond the Jewish people. On the one hand this can be seen as a positive development and part of the Jewish mission to be G-d’s witnesses and a light to the nations. On the other hand, the ideals contained in these ten precepts have often been transmitted or understood in ways that serve to pervert their meaning as understood by Jewish tradition and lead to concepts and practices that are divorced from the morality of the Torah. One clear example of this is the status given to these commandments by Christianity which, abandoning most of the other commandments of the Torah, elevated the Ten Commandments to the central principles of scripture. Partly in order to combat this idea, this passage was downgraded in Judaism, being removed from the daily liturgy and objections raised to the custom of standing when they are read in the Torah. Two commandments in particular have been grievously misinterpreted with results that sometimes negate their original purpose. One, is that of Shabbat. Jewish tradition understands the word melakhah to mean a certain type of creative activity connected to both the building of the Tabernacle and the Creation, where this particular phrase is also used.

This word has however been wrongly translated as ‘work’, leading to, on the one hand, the concept of a day that is solely for human benefit, divorced from restraining from activities that demonstrate human mastery over creation, thus negating one of the main purposes of the commandment. On the other hand, among other groups it has lead to complete cessation of any activity of benefit or enjoyment to people, thus turning a day of joy into a day of gloominess. Even more damaging is the perversion of the commandment not to murder, which is the correct translation of this injunction. Unfortunately it is often wrongly translated as an injunction not to kill, which leads to the ridiculous questions we often hear such as: ‘how can you support war when the Bible says not to kill’. This perversion of the meaning of the commandment is used as an excuse to oppose everything from violence in self-defence to the killing of animals for food. Anyone studying the Torah can see how this approach is the opposite of Torah morality which even mandates violence in self-defence or in defence of others precisely in order to fulfil the commandment not to murder or to allow others to be murdered. We thus see how the unfortunate perversion of the Decalogue by people who have no understanding of the Torah, its ideals or even the language it is written in, has had extremely deleterious results and it is our job as Jews to teach the world the true meaning of these precepts and genuine morality.

At the end of the Parshah we have two incidents that are seemingly unrelated but which are intimately connected in Jewish tradition. Firstly, the Jewish people complain to Moses about lack of water and G-d provides water by Moses striking a rock. This incident is described as the people quarrelling with G-d and saying ‘is G-d amongst us or not’. The next incident related is the attack of the Amalekites which is defeated by Joshua and ends with G-d declaring eternal war against Amalek. Both these incidents are described as happening at the same place and are thus regarded as not only spatially but spiritually connected. In fact, say the Rabbis, one leads to the other. The doubting of the Israelites led directly to the attack by Amalek and they illustrate the point by a parable concerning a son on a journey with his father. Throughout the journey, the father has taken care of all the needs of his child, carrying him on his shoulders. Yet, when he meets a stranger on the way, the child asks him ‘do you know where is my father’? The father, understandably annoyed, removes the child from his shoulders to the ground, where a dog comes and bites him. Likewise with the Israelites. After G-d rescuing them from Egypt and providing for their needs in the desert, the people ask ‘is G-d amongst us’?  The consequence is the attack of Amalek.

This story may seem to us a bit harsh, especially as neither the child nor the people actually did anything, only for a moment doubted G-d. Yet if we examine the parable more closely, it makes more sense. The father did not set the dog on the child or even wish it to bite the child. The child, on his father’s shoulders, does not recognise that it is his father who is feeding and protecting him. Removing him from his shoulders is the only way to re-establish the relationship. Unfortunately, the dog, who was anyway there and primed to bite, now has the opportunity to bite the child. In a similar way G-d does not cause the Amalekite attack. It is just that when the people doubt G-d’s presence amongst them, like the father in the story, G-d distances Himself so they can see Him more clearly and that gives Amalek the window of opportunity to attack. This story is an important lesson for all of us, especially at this time. By telling Moses that there will be an eternal war against Amalek, He is informing us that we will always be faced with those who hate us and want to do us harm. In general they are prevented from or afraid to do so. But when the Jewish people forget their identity or mission or fight among themselves, our enemies see their chance and strike. We will always have enemies who wish to harm us. The sad thing is, that when they succeed, it is often because our own deficiencies and disunity have provided them with the opportunity.

If we examine the progress of the plagues leading to the Exodus and the reaction of Pharaoh to them, a strange pattern seems to emerge. At the beginning of the process, Pharaoh is totally dismissive of Moses’ claims and both denies knowledge of G-d and any possibility of the Israelites going free. As the plagues and the damage inflicted upon Egypt increase, Pharaoh seems to soften his stance and wants to negotiate. He successively offers the Israelites the possibility of offering sacrifices in Egypt, sacrificing close to Egypt, only the men going or leaving their f locks behind. All of this is of course not meant seriously and he breaks his word as soon as the current plague ends, but it still seems to be progress. During the plague of hail he even admits he is in the wrong, even though he again later reneges. Yet following the eighth and ninth plagues, he seems to toughen his negotiating position and begins to make threats. After the plague of locusts, he orders Moses and Aaron to be thrown out of the palace and following the plague of darkness, he breaks off negotiations and threatens Moses with death if he ever confronts him again. Why? precisely as things reach their most desperate, does Pharaoh start making threats and why is Moses so unperturbed that after being threatened with death that he himself threatens Pharaoh and storms out of the palace in high dudgeon.

The answer is very interesting and most instructive in dealing with situations of conflict. As long as Pharaoh thinks he can win the battle or escape defeat by diplomatic means, he is prepared to negotiate, using different offers to try and undermine Moses’ determination to defeat him. Yet as things grow really desperate and Moses exposes his hollow promises and refuses to back down, Pharaoh resorts to threats as the only thing he has left. As the inevitable denouement approaches, Pharaoh tries to strengthen his own morale and desperately deflect Moses, by raising the tone of the rhetoric and making outrageous demands and hollow threats. Moses is not fazed. He knows that these bellicose statements are not a sign of strength but weakness and responds accordingly. This is a lesson for us today. The more we hear that our enemies are sharpening their rhetoric, raising their demands and making more extreme threats, the more we can be sure that they are feeling the pressure. The louder they shout, the more we can be certain that the net is tightening around them. As with Pharaoh, increasingly extreme rhetoric signifies increasingly desperate straits.

One of the most striking things about the story of the Exodus is the stubbornness of Pharaoh. Throughout the whole process and despite the plagues raining down on Egypt, he refuses to let the people go. Only once, shocked into acquiescence by the overwhelming catastrophe of the death of the first born, does he relent and then immediately reverts to form and chases after the Israelites. We have in previous years examined this phenomenon and the ability of people to completely ignore the evidence before them and live in an alternate universe where black is white and falsehood is truth. But there is another basic factor at work in understanding Pharaoh’s approach and especially his ability to return to opposing G-d after acquiescing to the Israelites’ departure. That is the idea of the ‘concept’.  We all use various concepts in our lives with basic working assumptions on how the world works. These ideas are fundamental to our understanding and we could not function without them. This makes it even more difficult to change these concepts when the evidence seems to suggest they are mistaken. To challenge these assumptions is to undermine the way we understand the world and altering them has serious ramifications for how we live. So we prefer to ignore the evidence that our conceptual framework may be wrong for as long as possible, often until we literally have no choice.

This explains the behaviour of Pharaoh. To accept the claims of Moses and the Israelites would be to undermine his whole world view and way of life, so even after the worst has happened, he still prefers to go back to his old assumptions. We have unfortunately seen the same thing happen in Israel over the last decade. Because the consequences of accepting that their strategic assumptions were wrong were so challenging, (as amply evidenced by the extreme difficulty of the current conflict), they chose to ignore the evidence and carry on regardless. Israel has, however, tragically learnt its lesson. It is less sure that the rest of the world has. Despite the ample evidence that without fundamental change in Palestinian attitudes and governance all talk of a peaceful long term solution is futile, the talk emanating from Western capitals is the same as it has been for the last fifty years. Despite the evident failure of all peace efforts over the thirty years, no one seems willing to challenge the assumptions on which they were based. Rather than admitting that their fundamental approach must obviously be flawed, they prefer to carry on in the futile hope that this time it will work. Because the ramifications of admitting their mistake are too difficult and possibly unpopular, they prefer to continue on the same failed trajectory. Like Pharaoh, they prefer failure and continued tragedy to the hard work of changing their faulty assumptions and doing the challenging work of actually making a real difference for the future. And as in the case of Pharaoh, it is others that have to suffer for their blindness.        

We begin this week to again recount the story of the Exodus. This first experience of the Jews as a nation and the first redemption from oppression and exile serves as a model for all other such events throughout Jewish history. By examining the story of the Exodus, then, we can learn about the course of other such events in Jewish history, including events in our own time. In the Exodus, the return to Zion after the Babylonian exile, the events surrounding Hanukah and Purim and the modern return to Israel, we can discern the same external opposition and internal scepticism, often unwilling or downhearted leadership and initial failure. It is this last that often was the hardest to bear. When it seemed that the redemptive project was going forward satisfactorily, everything seems suddenly to stop and even go backward. In the Parshah we see how, after G-d finally persuades/forces Moses to undertake the mission and, contrary to his anxieties, the people believe him he marches into Pharaoh to demand the release of the people. But rather than doing so Pharaoh, on the contrary, increases the burdens on the people, who then turn on Moses. The Parshah ends with Moses complaining to G-d that he has only made things worse.

This scenario repeated itself with the Return to Zion, when the original Jewish returnees faced opposition from the people who had meanwhile settled in the land and also the withdrawal of support from the Persian authorities. This pattern has repeated itself in our own time. The original Zionist settlement, for example, was almost destroyed by the First World War. But, just as in the Exodus story, this initial setback was followed by a massive leap forward. Moses’ initially failure was followed by the Ten Plagues, the initial halting of the work on the Second Temple occasioned an investigation by the Persian authorities that resulted in the silencing of the Jews enemies and the completion of the Temple. And of course, the First World War produced the Balfour Declaration and all that followed from it.  This is the model of Jewish history and so we should not be surprised when it occurs also in our own situation. It appears that just as to fire an arrow or throw an object a long distance, it is indispensable to bend backwards, to progress Jewish history it is often necessary to first go backwards.  Thus, when facing similar difficult situations it is incumbent upon us not to despair even though like Moses, it may be hard to see the way forward. The Sages tell us that the process which occurred in the beginning, the Exodus, will happen at the end,  during final Redemption, and so it will happen in our days

Our Parshah begins on a tense note. We left off last week with Joseph declaring that Benjamin must remain with him as a slave while the rest of the brothers were free to go home. Being that this was the worst outcome from the point of view of Judah and his brothers, Judah now gives one of the longest speeches in the Torah, at the end of which he offers to remain as Joseph’s slave in place of Benjamin. Examining this speech we see it contains no plea of exonerating circumstances or casting doubt on Benjamin’s guilt, but rather a recapitulation of the relationship between the Egyptian Viceroy and the brothers from the beginning. What is the purpose of this lengthy recitation and what does Judah hope to achieve by it? It may seem superficially that what Judah is doing is trying to appeal to Joseph’s sympathy, talking of Jacob’s attachment to his youngest son and the tragedy it would be if he lost him. But if he is trying to elicit the Viceroy’s sympathy, why is he risking annoying him by talking of his own actions towards the brothers. According to some Rabbinical interpretations, however, it is precisely the Viceroy’s behaviour that Judah wants to highlight. In front of Joseph’s own court, he wishes to spotlight the unfairness and deviousness of Joseph’s actions. Why was it necessary to interrogate them as to their family situation when they were merely there to buy grain? Does one normally ask personal questions to someone you are selling something to and how is such information relevant to the situation? Even more so, how was the request to see Benjamin germane or acceptable in the circumstances?

Rather than eliciting Joseph’s sympathy, Judah appears to be trying to embarrass or shame him. But why would Judah think that such a method would be effective rather than backfire? The answer lies in the discourse preceding this confrontation. Upon being accused of theft, the brothers offer to all be punished and it is Joseph’s official and then Joseph himself who refuses this offer as unjust. It is the Viceroy who insists that justice must be done and must be fair and it is therefore on this basis that Judah bases his attack. On the basis of his own criteria of justice, the Viceroy in his interactions with the brothers has been grossly unfair. Using Joseph’s own standards of justice, Judah unmasks the unjust game that Joseph has been playing, forcing him into a position where, he hopes, he will be forced to accede to Judah’s request. This method is very relevant to our present situation where we face double standards and hypocrisy from individuals and institutions that pretend to uphold the highest standards of equality and human rights. They must therefore be confronted on their own turf. Using the very standards they profess to uphold, their hypocritical masquerade must be unmasked and them shamed into acting in a proper manner. We saw a perfect example of this in the US congress a week or so ago and we need more of these Judahs to step forward.

After Jacob wrestles with the angel, his name is changed to Israel. Unlike the previous name changes of Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, where the old name is never used, Jacob remains Jacob. Indeed most of the time, even after the new name of Israel is bestowed upon him, the Torah calls him Jacob. The places where he is called Israel are few and therefore significant. If we examine the story of Joseph, which we are presently in the midst of reading, we can see an interesting pattern emerge. The name Israel is used when Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers, leading to his sale to Egypt. It is used again when he finally agrees to let Benjamin go with the brothers to Egypt. When, after hearing that Joseph is alive, Jacob decides to move to Egypt, the name Israel is also used, as well as when he blesses Joseph’s children before he dies. What all these situations have in common is that they are critical turning points in Jewish history, connected with future trajectory of Jewish life. Joseph’s journey to check on his brothers begins the process that will eventually lead to the family moving to Egypt. Likewise Jacob agreeing to let Benjamin go with his brothers; and that relocation leads inexorably to the slavery and Exodus.

Jacob’s adoption of Joseph’s sons also has great significance for future Jewish history. Joshua, who will lead the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan, comes from Ephraim, and the future northern kingdom of Israel is based on these tribes. What we can discern from all this is that Jacob is designated Israel when he is acting not in a private capacity but as the forefather of the people of Israel. When his actions have cardinal historical significance he acts not as the individual Jacob but as the collective future nation of Israel. Of course, Jacob does not realise this at the time. When he sends Joseph on a seemingly mundane mission to check on the brothers and the herds, he does not realise he is setting in motion the fulfilment of G-d’s promise to Abraham that ‘your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs’, with all that follows. The Torah does, however, understand this and by using the name Israel, is signalling to us that behind Jacob’s actions is the hand of Providence. The same is true of the other cases when this name is used. The Jewish people are also called both Jacob and Israel and our history consists of both these aspects of our character and destiny. There are times when we lead normal mundane lives and there are periods when we are thrust into a historical maelstrom, when the hidden hand of G-d, is directing events to an end which we may not presently fathom. We are presently living in such a period where we are truly called on to be Israel, to rise above the mundane and be worthy of the period we live in and the destiny we are called to.

The story of the life of Jacob contains various different phases that begin in Israel, move to Aram, return to Israel and end in Egypt. At various junctures in this narrative there is a change of direction. This is sometimes forced on Jacob, such as having to marry both Rachel and Leah and work another seven years because of Laban’s deception. But more often this is caused by a conscious decision of Jacob to do something different. Our Parshah begins with Jacob’s flight to Aram, occasioned by his mother’s realisation that staying around a vengeful Esau was no longer a viable option. After twenty years of service to Laban, Jacob realises that remaining in Laban’s house is not going to turn out well and decides, with his wives’ acquiescence, that it is time to change direction and return home. After his daughter is raped and his sons destroy Shechem, he again decides that it is time to move, and when Joseph is revealed to be ruling Egypt, Jacob decides that the future of the family lies there. The one time that, according to the Rabbis, Jacob seems to think that everything is settled and they can carry on the way they are, he is immediately confronted with the disappearance of Joseph, which upends everything. In two of the above cases Jacob sees the warning signs of trouble and decides to take preventive action, while in others he is forced by misfortune to reappraise his situation, but in every case the existing way of doing things becomes untenable.

The paradigm by which he had been working is shown to have been mistaken or, at the least, no longer relevant to the current situation. He is forced to create a different model to work from and think of a new way of doing things. In this respect, as in others, the actions of the Patriarchs serve as a pointer and model for their descendants. Jews throughout their history have often needed to abruptly change the way they saw the world or how they were existing and f ind new models of survival in the world. Some of these followed catastrophes such as the destruction of the Temples but some were occasioned by the simple realisation that the world had changed and the old ways of doing things would no longer suffice. The Emancipation and the Enlightenment produced various paradigms of Jewish life from Bundism to Ultra-Orthodoxy, all of which were a break with what had come before. The Zionist movement understood that Jewish life in a nationalist Europe was no longer viable and only a Jewish state would ensure the future of the Jewish people. The same can be said for our current situation. While we cannot know what even the next few weeks will bring, it is clear that the paradigm that we were working with beforehand is no longer relevant and the assumptions it was based on have been proved fundamentally mistaken. What will take its place is not yet clear but as we see from the example of Jacob, understanding that the old model no longer works is the first essential step in building something better.

The story of Joseph, which fills the next four Parshiot and the rest of Genesis, teaches us many important lessons. One of the most important is the importance of admitting mistakes and learning from them. We find this in the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah blames his daughter-in-law Tamar for the deaths of his sons, while at the same time unwittingly sleeping with her. When he is confronted with the evidence from a pregnant Tamar, he does not try and cover up or prevaricate but immediately admits that ‘she is more righteous than me’. By making this admission, he is not only confessing to impregnating her but also acknowledging that his previous perspective of holding her responsible for his sons’ deaths was mistaken and unfair. This ability to admit his mistakes and correct them enabled him to then take over the leadership of the family during the crisis over sending Benjamin to Egypt, and it is specifically Judah that Jacob entrusts with arranging his new home in Egypt. The brothers as a whole are able to admit their crime in relation to Joseph, enabling the rapprochement of the family. These stories teach us the importance of being able to acknowledge when we have done wrong or have been mistaken and also to acknowledge our own culpability for the situation in which we find ourselves.

If we look at the story of Hanukah, we can see that this phenomenon was present also at that time. The Jews had become enamoured of Greek culture with many of the aristocracy and intelligentsia embracing Greek ways and ideas. Yet when it came to the crunch and Jews had to choose between Judaism or total assimilation, they chose to fight rather than lose their Jewish identity. They were able to see that their flirtation with Hellenism had been dangerous and mistaken. Interestingly enough, this ability to admit error and change course even extended to the Halakhic realm. After refusing to fight on Shabbat and suffering grievous losses as a result, the Halakhah was established that saving a human life – ‘pikuach nefesh’- supersedes Shabbat and most other mitzvot. The interesting thing is that these admissions of error and changes of course took place in the midst of the crisis that engendered them, not just afterwards. This teaches that when faced with a crisis, especially one caused in part by our own mistakes, it is possible and indeed necessary to begin learning lessons even in the midst of the battle. Indeed, it is notable that the lighting of the Menorah by the Hasmoneans which we celebrate on Hanukah, took place in the middle of the ongoing struggle to expel the Greek armies from the Land. Even in the middle of the battle against the darkness, we can begin to correct our past errors and light the menorah of a better future.

At the heart of the Parshah we have the tragic story of Dinah who is raped by the son of the ruler of Shechem and held captive there. He then decides that he wants to marry her and with his father goes to speak to Jacob and his sons. Furious at what has happened to their daughter, the family pretend to go along with the offer of marriage on the condition that all the males of the city are circumcised. The people of Shechem agree to this proposal and are all duly circumcised. At the peak of their indisposition following the operation two of Jacob’s sons enter the city and kill all the males, while taking the rest of the city as spoils. Jacob is upset at this action, complaining that his sons’ action has endangered the family, as the surrounding cities will now pursue and destroy them. The sons reply that their sister should not be treated as simply a harlot. When we examine this story more closely several questions arise. If the proposal of marriage in return for circumcision was simply a ruse, then Jacob was in on it. But what was his plan? Was it simply to take Dinah and leave? Surely the men of Shechem, when recovered would have followed them? Was there another alternative to the actions of Jacob’s sons and had the family accepted Dinah’s marriage would conflict have been avoided? What was the culpability of the inhabitants of Shechem in what happened to Dinah? If we look closely at the text we can obtain a clearer picture of the situation.

While the commentators are divided as to the culpability of the city in the abduction of Dinah, their intentions towards Jacob’s family were clear. In order to persuade them to accept the deal and be circumcised, they are promised that all Jacob’s possessions will become theirs. They were not really interested in peaceful co-existence with Jacob but in taking him over. In this light, both the ruse of circumcision and the actions of Jacob’s sons seem more justified. Furthermore, Jacob himself, initially at least, does not criticise his sons for their actions per se but for their consequences. Even if they were justified, he seems to be saying, they were reckless and endangered the family. Yet again if we look more closely we see that the opposite appears to be the case. The Torah specifically tell us that the surrounding peoples were filled with the fear of G-d and did not dare to attack the family. Thus rather than threatening the family, Jacob’s sons’ violent actions seem to have had a deterrent effect which increased, rather than decreased, the safety of the family. Furthermore, this deterrence was so effective and long lasting that Jacob’s sons years later were able to pasture in the area seemingly without any security concerns. Thus despite the qualms of Jacob and some later Jewish thinkers, the decisive actions of Jacob’s two sons both solved the immediate crisis in a conclusive manner and ensured the safety of the family for the future. While, as mentioned, there are strands of Jewish thought that would disagree morally and practically with the above analysis, it certainly should serve to throw a different light on this incident, one that should at least give us food for thought.

The Torah informs us that Isaac loved Esau ‘because hunting or game was in his mouth’. One rabbinical interpretation of this statement is that Esau ‘hunted’ his father with words, pretending to be righteous to his face while actually acting otherwise elsewhere. According to this opinion, Isaac’s favouring of Esau was based on a lie, and deceiving his father was merely another one of Esau’s wicked deeds. Yet the situation may be more nuanced. We see on a couple of occasions how Esau does really care about his father and what he thinks. He is willing to wait for his father’s death before taking revenge on Jacob and is genuinely distressed at being denied his father’s blessing. Furthermore, he notices his father’s distress over his Canaanite wives, and attempts to make amends by marrying Ishmael’s daughter. Yet this is the same Esau that married these alien wives in the first place and sold his birthright for food. What we can discern here is a conflicted character, one that can be seen again in Esau’s meeting with Jacob years later. He shows himself to be magnanimous and genuinely moved in reuniting with his brother but comes to the meeting with four hundred warriors. Maybe it is possible to say that Esau, in contrast to the generally totally negative portrait drawn of him in the Midrashic tradition, is actually the son of the righteous Isaac and wants to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, his brother Jacob is not himself totally without fault and makes several serious errors in his life.

Maybe the difference between the two brothers is one of degree rather than of kind. Jacob merely succeeds, in general, in following in the path of his parents while Esau usually fails. Maybe, this is also the root of the hatred Esau often displays towards Jacob, especially on occasions when Jacob’s own behaviour is open to question? This understanding can serve to elucidate the attitude of the Western world towards Jews and Israel. Like the Jewish people they have high ideals, mostly learnt from us, but unlike Jews they have mostly failed in implementing them. Despite believing in the preciousness of human life and rules of war, history has shown that these ideals were rarely adhered to in practice. We can imagine what America or any European country would do when faced with the situation Israel now finds itself, and it would not be what they expect Israel to do. These countries, like Esau, do have high ideals but like him, are unable to live by them. But like Esau they expect Jacob/Israel to do exactly that and are critical of the least deviation from these rules. The fact that Jews hold ideals they are unable to uphold, both reminds them of their own aspirations but also their own failure to meet those aspirations, leading them to be supercritical of Jews and Israel every time they are forced to defend themselves. On the one hand, of course, this is simple hypocrisy. On the other, understanding the source of this double standard enables us to better combat it.

In the midst of conflict people often also consider the possibilities for peace. But in order to do so, you first need to understand what the struggle is about. If we look in our Parshah and the ones preceding, we can get an inkling of the nature of the overall conflict between Jews and Arabs or between Israel and Ishmael. At the beginning of this week’s Parshah we have the purchase by Abraham of the Cave of Machpela in Hebron. It is interesting to note that despite this purchase, this site has been one of the most contested between Jews and Muslims and for centuries before 1967, Jews were forbidden to enter the compound. They same is true of the other two places the Bible specifically states were purchased by Jews: the Temple Mount and the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem. All these cases are the most contested sites in the country and the most difficult for Jews to visit even today. If we examine, however, what is said about Ishmael and his relationship to Isaac, we should not be surprised. In last week’s Parshah, Ishmael was thrown out of Abraham’s household precisely for denying Isaac’s role in the family and his right to inherit Abraham and even, according to the Midrash, Isaac’s parentage. What we see then, is a complete denial by Ishmael of the right of Isaac and his descendants to any portion of the inheritance of Abraham, which first and foremost means the Land. In exactly the same way the descendants of Ishmael today deny the Jewish people any rights in any part of the Land of Israel.

That is the crux of the conflict, not borders or settlements or any other issue, and until that paradigm is changed there is no hope of a peaceful solution. For this reason all the well – intentioned people who try and solve the situation by other means completely misunderstand the issue and therefore have and are doomed to fail. Does that mean, therefore, that such a basic existential struggle can never be solved and that we are condemned to eternal conflict? Not necessarily. At the end of the Parshah we find Isaac and Ishmael jointly burying Abraham, with Ishmael seemingly giving precedence to Isaac as the heir. The Rabbis indeed tell us that Ishmael accepted Isaac’s right to the Land and indeed Ishmael generally has a far better press in Rabbinical literature than Jacob’s brother Esau. Once it had been made clear to Ishmael that he was not going to be able to displace Isaac, he was able to cease trying and pursue his own path, to the benefit of both, with Ishmael’s daughter eventually marrying Esau. Only we by our strength and determination to convince our Arab cousins that we are in the Land to stay and they are unable to remove us, is there a hope for a peaceful solution that will benefit both peoples.  But if we keep proposing other superficial solutions, nothing will ever change. If you want to solve the conflict, first understand it.

One of the most famous passages in the Torah is the narrative of Abraham’s plea on behalf of the city of Sodom and its neighbours. Abraham demands that G-d act justly and spare the cities if they have even only fifty righteous people in their midst, which he then bargains down to ten. Yet this story presents us with a tremendous moral difficulty. As understood by a simple understanding of the story and Jewish tradition from the prophets to the rabbis, the primary transgression of the Sodomites was their cruel and callous behaviour towards others, especially strangers and the less fortunate. The Midrash brings a particularly horrific story of the gruesome fate meted out by the people of Sodom to a young lady who dared to take pity on a poor stranger and gave them something to eat. This being the case, how was it acceptable for Abraham to pray for the continuation of such a society, even if it had fifty righteous people within it? They could have been saved, as in fact was Lot, and the cities destroyed. Surely the removal of such an evil society from the world was a supreme moral imperative? One answer could be that the existence of a righteous minority amongst the depraved society of the cities meant that there was a hope, however slim, that this society could be reformed.

But I believe there is a more fundamental answer which has a direct bearing on international relations and law in our own time. The cities of the Plain, despite the depraved behaviour to their own inhabitants and visitors, did not pose a threat to their neighbours or, it seems, seek or threaten to export their perverted ideology beyond their borders. They therefore could be contained. Thus, even though G-d’s patience was at an end and He had decided to destroy them, if indeed there had been fifty or even ten righteous people within the cities, they could have been allowed to continue in existence. A completely different situation exists when such barbarous regime threatens those around them. This was the situation between Israel and the Canaanite peoples when the Israelites entered the Land. Time and again the Torah warns the Jews of the danger of Canaanite society to both their physical and spiritual existence. They should not delude themselves that a society that sacrifices its own children to Moloch and opposes the existence of the Israelites in the land, can or should be tolerated. The Torah is crystal clear that this type of regime must not be allowed to continue and there is indeed a moral imperative of ridding it from the world. One of the central issues in international relations today is when and where to intervene in the face of oppression or humanitarian crises. Examining the story of Sodom and the Torah injunctions concerning the Canaanites we can see the outline of a resolution. Even an atrocious regime, whose crimes are limited to their own people, may not merit intervention. But the moment they threaten or attack others is the point in time when their existence becomes intolerable and it becomes a moral imperative to remove them. The morality of the Torah is clear-cut; it’s a shame others in our society are unable to be.

In the seminal promise given to Abraham at the beginning of this week’s Parshah he is told that; ‘the one who blesses you will be blessed and the one who curses you will be cursed and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed’. Many different interpretations have been given to this verse but the simplest explanation is also the most historically true. Individuals and nations will be blessed or cursed depending on how they relate to the People of Israel. Furthermore this very distinction will be a blessing to the whole of humanity. The Jewish people are thus not only meant to be a witness to G-d in the world and an example to humanity but also a litmus test of morality. Not only a light to the nation but also a lightning rod. By the attitude of movements or nations to the Jews you can discern whether these ideas or people are moral and good for humanity or the opposite. The Jews are the canary in the mine. Jews are as imperfect as anyone else and as open to criticism. But history teaches us that if you see people attacking Jews or Judaism in a systematic manner everyone need to be worried.  Something is seriously wrong and what begins with Jews doesn’t end with Jews. Those that stand up for the Jews will in the end also protect themselves while those that turn a blind eye will in the end find themselves the victims of the same evil.


And those who ally themselves to the enemies of Israel will in the end share in their fate. This idea reaches its logical conclusion in the Messianic age when the final historical reckoning with take place. According to the simplest understanding of the Prophets, those nations that have supported and protected the Jews will enjoy the fruits of this golden era along with the People of Israel while those that have persecuted us will be destroyed. This is put most succinctly in the Haggadah, were we recite the famous passage calling on G-d to pour out His wrath on the nations that have persecuted the Jews. But many today also recite a parallel passage (also of medieval origin) which calls on G-d to bless the nations that protect and support the Jewish people. The first group will be ‘destroyed from under G-d’s heaven’, while the second merit to ‘enjoy G-d’s peace of the nations’. As G-d promised Abraham, how they relate to his descendants will be the litmus test for the peoples of the world, throughout history and today.     

Contained within the story of the Flood and its aftermath, are three approaches to coping with and rebuilding from, catastrophe. These are seen in the actions of Noach, the builders of the Tower of Babel and in the story of Abraham. Noach survives the flood but faces a devastated world with the knowledge that he could have maybe prevented the catastrophe had he, like Abraham and Moses, pleaded with G-d to spare humanity. He reacts to the silence and the ghostly voices of the millions no longer alive by planting a vineyard and getting drunk. He thus demonstrates one reaction to tragedy, a turn to escapism and hedonism. This of course does not solve anything; only possibly temporarily dulls the pain. The second method of dealing with disaster is demonstrated by the builders of the Tower of Babel. It is in some ways the opposite of the first. Recovering from the total loss of control experienced during the catastrophe, they seek to prevent a repetition by seeking to assert total control over everything and everyone. The problem with this approach is that it is just as cruel and inhuman as the original tragedy and seeks to create a sense of total security that is both unattainable and self-destructive.

The Tower builders who valued a brick more than a human life are the epitome of the immorality of this approach. Finally, at the end of the Parshah, we begin the story of Abraham. Abraham is someone who faced several challenges in his life but responded with neither escapist, hedonism or the immoral use of power. Rather he acted with optimism, discipline and moral purpose. When he had to fight, he fought with determination to achieve the objective but without losing his moral compass. He was able to show empathy even for those like the Sodomites who had forfeited all right for pity and generosity to his neighbours even when they did not always totally deserve it. Most of all, he refused to allow the various setbacks in his life to divert him from his purpose or to lose either his determination or his humanity. As the Jewish people again face tragedy and the need to respond, let us remember the lessons of our Parshah and act neither like Noach or the builders of Babel. Rather let us look to the example of Abraham and go forward with deep moral purpose, steely determination and ultimate hope.

As we start again the weekly cycle of Torah readings we face a worrying and traumatic situation of uncertain duration. As Jews have done for centuries in such situation we turn to the Torah for answers. As we read this week the stories of the Creation and the Garden of Eden, what message can they have for us in this When we look at the Midrashic commentary on the Creation story we find an interesting phenomena. From the very beginning there were problems and discord. The trees, which were meant to have the same taste in their bark as of their fruit, ‘rebelled’ and did not fulfil this command. In like manner, the sun and moon were originally meant to be the same size but the moon complained that you cannot have two equal rulers of the firmament, so G-d diminished the moon. How are we to understand these rather strange stories? Rather than let their imaginations get the better of them, our Sages are by these comments telling us something profound. The world could have been created perfect, there was an ideal of perfection but in the end it was not. Things were created imperfect purposely and from the beginning. The question is why.

The answer can be found in the next chapter with the creation of humans. G-d decides that Adam should not be alone and so creates animals who are then brought to Adam to name. Why should Adam have to name the animals and why is it important we are told about it? Because by this act, G-d is making humans partners with him in creation. G-d could, as we have seen, created an ideal world. Instead He purposely created a deficient world that needed humans to make up the deficiency. According to the Jewish world view, evil in its various guises is the consequence of this deficiency  Like the other things lacking in the world this is so we, as humans, can be partners with G-d in making up this deficiency. It is our job to face evil and to fight it and in doing so we are helping G-d complete creation. The world is thus not ideal and terrible things happen. It is easy to blame G-d for not preventing this, but in the end it is humans that create evil and humans that must combat it. As the Jewish people, always the particular target of evil forces, again face up to monstrous evil, let us take strength from the thought that this is part of our role in the world and as G-d’s partners, and with his assistance, we will ultimately prevail and so complete the work of creation.