The Song of Moses contains within it mention of Israel’s relations with other nation. The ‘number of the children of Israel’ is determined by, or even determines, the number of the nations of the world. The nations are the instruments of G-d’s punishment of Israel but their misunderstanding of G-d’s purpose leads to G-d relenting and redeeming Israel while taking retribution upon them. Finally, the nations themselves are called to rejoice in G-d’s vengeance on Israel’s enemies and Israel’s redemption. The festival of Succot is likewise the Jewish holiday most connected with the rest of the world. Traditionally, the seventy bullocks offered during Succot are seen as being offered on behalf of the seventy nations of the world. In the prophetic readings for the festival we read about the final war with the nations at the end of days, after which all the nations will come to worship G-d in Jerusalem on Succot. We can discern in all this a pattern. The Jewish people, while separate from others, are connected to them and seek their welfare. This concern, however, is not always understood or appreciated. This, together with Israel’s own misbehaviour, leads to these nations persecuting and oppressing Israel. In the end, however, G-d will rescue us from their hands, punish the persecutors and cause all to understand Israel’s vital role in the world. Then those very same nations shall recognize our true role and value and join with us in creation the Kingdom of G-d on earth. This year this message is even more pertinent than ever. We seem to be assailed by those from left and right that believe Jews are a barrier to progress and peace rather than their inspiration. Both Moses’ song and Succot teach us that this state of affairs will pass and the whole world will recognise the important role Jews play in the construction of a better world and join with us in achieving paradise on earth.
The shortest Parshah of the Torah, which we read this week, also contains the two final mitzvot in the Torah. The last mitzvah is the duty of everyone to write, or be involved with writing, a Torah scroll. The penultimate mitzvah is that of Hakhel. This stipulates that on the Succot following a Sabbatical year everyone should gather together in one place and hear the Torah read. In Temple times this was fulfilled by crowds gathering in the Temple in Jerusalem and hearing the Torah read by the King. It is interesting that the command to read the Torah precedes the command to write it. The Torah is not to be merely a physical book kept in storage or displayed at home but a living guide to life. Another interesting feature of this mitzvah is the requirement to bring children. It is not enough that merely the adults come and hear the Torah but the youth must also be involved in the event. Even if they have a different perception than their elders or because of their youth, are unable to comprehend everything being said, they still need to be there. For even the smallest children, taking part in such an event and soaking up the atmosphere will impress upon them the importance of Torah and make an indelible impression on their consciousness which will influence the rest of their life. Thus the Torah mandates than when it comes to Torah study, neither individual parents or the community have fulfilled their obligation by merely engaging in it themselves. Only if they make provision for youth education are they fulfilling this mitzvah. Furthermore, this is not merely or even primarily an issue of simply imparting knowledge but instilling in the next generation the appreciation and love of Torah. This mitzvah thus contains an important lesson for our community. One of our primary purposes must be educating the youth. Not merely imparting to them dry facts but having programs and events that enable them to connect to Judaism in a positive way. The same is also true of our relationship with students. While it is not our job to formally educate them, we have seen that this mitzvah is about far more. By providing them a warm and welcoming home within our community at a crucial phase of their adult development, we can provide a connection to Judaism, that whatever their future spiritual direction, will influence them for the rest of their lives. The Rabbis say that parents bring their small children to Hakhel in order ‘to receive the reward for bringing them’. If we provide a welcoming, open and warm Jewish atmosphere for our youth in Edinburgh we will certainly reap the reward in the years ahead.
‘You are all standing here today before the L-rd your G-d’. The word which gives its name to the Parshah, Nitzavim, has the meaning of not merely standing but being established or firmly fixed in place. This caused our Sages to see in this verse more than merely a geographical description. As Rashi comments: when the Jewish people heard the ninety eight curses we read last week plus the forty nine in Leviticus, they turned pale and wondered how it was possible to exist under the terms of such a covenant. Moses therefore reassured them saying: ‘you are standing here’, despite all the misdemeanours of the last forty years you still exist and G-d hasn’t destroyed you. Furthermore, it is the curses and sufferings that ensure your existence and establish you before G-d. What in fact are the Sages telling us and what relevance does it have to this period of the year? Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement, a time when, as we proclaim in our prayers, G-d evaluates each of us as individuals and societies and decrees our fate. This notion is based on the concept of responsibility, the responsibility we each have for our actions. But it is also predicated on another essential notion found later in the Parshah, the idea of Teshuvah or repentance/return. We are not only held responsible for our actions but have the ability to change them. The fact that we failed last year does not mean that we cannot succeed this year. The warnings and exhortations in the Torah would have no meaning if we couldn’t change. Punishment and suffering would have no purpose if it couldn’t serve as a catalyst for improving our behaviour. Rosh Hashanah itself, as a time of judgement would be meaningless, if it wasn’t followed by a period of repentance and a day of forgiveness and renewal on Yom Kippur. Thus, as Rashi points out, the warnings of the Torah indeed enable us to stand before G-d. The annual Divine evaluation of Rosh Hashanah certainly helps us leave moral lives and constantly improve ourselves. While standing before G-d in judgement is certainly not to be taken lightly, we can also see it as a blessing and an opportunity and use these days of ‘standing before G-d’ to become even better Jews and human beings.
The reproof section in Deuteronomy is different in several ways both in form and content from that in Leviticus. One is in the singular, the other in the plural; one was the direct word of G-d, the other Moses own words. One of the most striking differences is the lack in this week’s rebuke section of any word of comfort. In Leviticus there are words of reassurance and hope both in the middle of the rebuke and its conclusion. In Deuteronomy we merely end with the climax of exile and the death. There is a great section of repentance and comfort but only after a break in next week’s Parshah. What is the reason for this difference? There are various understandings of the differences between the two rebuke sections and their relation to Jewish history. The most well known and clearest cut is that of the Nachmanidies who associates the rebuke in Leviticus with the destruction of the First Temple, while that in Deuteronomy refers to the Second Temple’s destruction. Using this paradigm, we can try and understand the variation in the two versions discussed above. The First Temple was destroyed because of specific sins, idolatry, murder, and immorality, as well as the non-observance of the Sabbatical year. The exile that followed was therefore also specific and of limited duration. Indeed, the seventy years of the Babylonian exile are specifically connected with the making up for the Sabbatical years not observed. Therefore the promise of return is placed directly after the rebuke itself, signifying the close thematic and chronological relation between them. On the other hand, the Second Temple was not destroyed because of specific sins but because of ‘causeless hatred’, a term that refers more to a basic flaw in the nature of society than particular transgressions. There is thus no easy or specific correction for these problems and no particular time limit for rectifying them. Thus there is also no limit, to the length of the exile following such a destruction. We can now understand while the rebuke section in our Parshah, dealing with the second exile, cannot immediately be followed by comfort but we have to wait until next week’s Parshah, until the time the Torah calls ‘the end of days’, for tidings of the redemption. This divergence has an important lesson to teach us as we approach the season of repentance and self-reflection. For both the individual and the community/society fixing specific problems or mistakes is relatively simply if not always easy. Far harder is dealing with negative character traits that have a pernicious influence on everything that we do. Correcting these flaws is far more complicated and time consuming. Fixing three terrible types of sin took only seventy years, correcting our basic flaws as a nation has taken two thousand. As we approach the days of repentance we need to therefore concentrate less on specific sins and more on improving our basic character. That will then have a positive effect on everything we do in the next year.
A well known rabbinical interpretation of the Ten Commandments, postulates that the two versions of the fourth commandment, ‘Remember’ and ‘Observe’, were said as one statement. Rashi, in his commentary on Exodus, brings several other examples of this phenomenon, two of which come from our Parshah. Two consecutive verses: the prohibition to wear sha’atnez (wool and linen together), and the command to wear tzitzit are said to be have said in one breath. The command not to have sexual relations with your brother’s wife and the mitzvah of yebum, (marrying your dead brother’s wife), are also regarded as forming one statement. What are the Rabbi’s saying in these comments? If we look at the two examples from our Parshah, we can see that they encompass contradictions. We are not allowed to wear wool and linen together, except when we need to put tzitzit on to a linen garment. We are prohibited from marrying our brother’s wife, except when the brother has died without children. In both these cases not only are we permitted to do these otherwise prohibited actions, but we are commanded to do them. Not putting tzitzit on a four corned linen garment is a transgression. The widow without children is considered already engaged to her brother-in-law, and needs a type of divorce, halitzah, in order to marry someone else. By postulating that these mitzvot were commanded together, the Rabbis are in fact saying that these apparent contradictions are in essence reconciled, by coming from the same Divine source. One argument often heard against the Divine origin of the Torah, is that it is full of paradoxes and contradiction. Here the Rabbis turn this argument on its head. It is precisely in the paradoxes that we can see the Divine hand at work. It is G-d alone who can command two contradictory actions in one statement, and both can be true. It is because sha’atnez is wrong according to Divine will, that the same Divine will can make it a mitzvah when used for tzitzit. It is this notion that can be seen in the stupendous yet vital idea, that differing rabbinical opinions are both the words of the living G-d. Furthermore, it expresses an even deeper idea. G-d is the ultimate source of everything both good and evil. Judaism rejects any form of dualism. The unity of G-d mandates that even what seems wrong to us in the world is ultimately part of the overarching will of G-d. We are enjoined to choose good and reject evil, but both are from G-d. Even Amalek, the ultimate evil, must be destroyed only ‘under the heaven’, above heaven even he has a place. Ultimately, therefore, religion is not about simplicity or a black and white view of the world. It is rather about the G-d who both created and reconciles paradox and difference.
Judaism is a religion based on a written text, the Torah. Religions have two basic ways of relating to their sacred text and what they contain. One is to regard them as holy and even infallible but open to emendation but further revelation. The other is to regard scripture as the last word not open to any further addition or emendation. Both approaches have serious deficiencies. The idea that the original Divine revelation can be changed by further revelations leaves any religion open to the whims of constant change. What was forbidden in one generation is suddenly permitted in the next and the opposite. Religious tradition or authority ceases to have any meaning and believers are constantly buffeted by the winds of change without a secure anchor. The approach that regards the religious text as totally fixed and immutable, also has its own serious issues. While assuring the sway of tradition it ensures that religion becomes stultified and unable to adapt to changing circumstances. Indeed it can calcify religious life to such an extend that it eventually withers and dies. Judaism avoids both extremes but adopting an approach the combines both approaches. It contains both an immutable text and an ever evolving tradition simultaneously, benefiting from the best in both approaches while avoiding their pitfalls. Last week the Torah warned us of listening to a false prophet, the definition of which is one who seeks to undermine the Torah. The original revelation is immutable and not given to abrogation or emendation by another prophet. The text is sacred. This week, however, the Torah teaches us how to approach that text. Rather than taken it as simple or literal, the Torah assumes its text is open to interpretation. And it instructs us to go for that interpretation to the scholars in our days, in another words in every generation. In short, the Torah leaves open the possibility or even anticipates that each generation will have its own interpretation of its words. This combination of an immutable written scripture and a living oral tradition is what has kept Judaism both true to itself and constantly relevant. The written text may, for example, set out an order of sacrificial service for Yom Kippur that is at variance with the received interpretation of how to behave. Yet we neither amend the text, which is immutable, nor change the practice, which is authoritative. We keep both and regard both as true and the word of G-d. Thus Judaism retains both its integrity and its vigour, being both traditional and innovative, eternal and eternally relevant.
The book of Deuteronomy contains both admonition, historical retrospective and future prophecy. The central part of the book, however, consists of a restatement and expansion of the laws found in the other books. In that sense it fulfils its rabbinical designation of Mishneh Torah, the second Torah. It is interesting to note the order in which the laws are set out. In this weeks Parshah we begin with laws against idolatry and the establishment of a central pace of worship. We then go on to the workings of the legal system, government and warfare, before dealing with general human relationships such as marriage and business. If we think about it this order is the wrong way round and the opposite to that found in other parts of the Torah. In Parshat Mishpatim we start with human relations and only at the end go on to deal with more general issues. The same is broadly true of the laws in Leviticus. This divergence is made even more striking when we consider that most of the first set of laws, contained in our Parshah, is focused on the establishment of a central place of worship, something only accomplished chronologically later. The Torah itself mandates that the centralisation of worship is predicated on the Jews being securely settled in the land. In fact the building of the Temple took place over four hundred years after the entry into the land. Why then, does a book dedicated to preparing the people for life in Israel arrange its legislation in the precisely opposite order that it will be implemented? I think the answer is very simple and extremely relevant to our generation and to any major undertaking. Moses is setting before the people about to enter the Land, not only a practical legislation but a moral compass. In this respect the laws contained in Deuteronomy are not merely a repetition of the rest of the Torah but an educational exposition. Like the other parts of the book they are meant to instruct the people in the way to conduct themselves in the generations to come. As such, Moses is setting before them, not merely things needed for the immediate future but showing them the ultimate goal that they should strive for. The Jewish people settled in the land of Israel with the Temple with the Divine Presence at its heart, is the ultimate goal and purpose of Judaism. Everything else is second best. Even though it might take four hundred years to achieve, Moses wants the people to know where they are going and have that ultimate goal before them in the coming generations. Therefore he begins with the central place of worship, the final destination, before the other laws. In a similar manner whatever undertaking we may embark on and however long it may take us we always need to begin with ultimate destination and always keep that at the forefront of our minds. This is true also of the very issue we are discussing. The rebuilding of the Temple may seem to us to be a distant dream. It may even seem to many to be undesirable. Yet through our prayers and scriptural readings the sages ensured it is always before us. In doing so they remind us that Judaism today is but a pale reflection of what it could and should be and direct us to our ultimate destiny.
‘And it shall be in consequence of listening to these laws...that G-d will keep for you the covenant’. This promise of Divine blessing in return for keeping the mitzvot, contains with in it an interesting feature. The word for ‘in consequence’ is ekev, which also gives its name to our Parshah. Ekev more usually means heel, and the idea is probably that just as the rest of the foot and person follows after the heel, so consequences follow an action. The Sages, however, picked up on this unusual formulation and commented that this refers to the mitzvot that a person normally tramples with their heel, in other words pays scant attention to. The Torah is thus telling us that if we pay attention to even the small aspects of the mitzvot that we often trample underfoot and don’t take so seriously, then G-d’s blessing will surely follow. This idea merits further investigation. What does it tell us about the way we should view the Torah and the fulfilment of the mitzvot? Is it really true that we will be blessed only if we strictly follow every aspect of Torah without the least deviation? This paints a picture of G-d examining our deeds ready to pounce on our least mistake. This is not an attitude conducive to a healthy Jewish lifestyle. As humans, we are by nature forgetful and prioritise some things over others. The idea that we are punished for the smallest mistake is one more likely to lead to religious neurosis rather than serving G-d with joy. Rather, this comment can be seen in another light. It is teaching us that small things matter. We make think that Judaism is only about the ‘big’ mitzvot, such as kashrut and Shabbbat. We might regard as less important ‘small’ things such as the way we speak to others or how we treat our employees. We might give lots of money to a major charity but ignore the homeless person we pass on the street. We may have time to attend the shiur of an important rabbi but no time to answer the question of a child. The Torah is telling us that it is precisely these things that matter. The little acts of kindness, the going to a funeral of someone you don’t know, the giving of directions to strangers are just as important as other aspects of Judaism. Furthermore, it is precisely these actions that reveal are true attitude to the Torah and its values. It is through these actions that we show that Torah values are something that is not merely for public show but have been integrated into our lives. By paying attention to the small things we show our true attitude and commitment to Judaism.
Their are famously two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in Exodus and one in our Parshah in Deuteronomy. One of the main differences between them is the reason given for Shabbat. While in Exodus Shabbat recalls Creation, in Deuteronomy it remembers the Exodus from Egypt. The difference, however, goes further. If we look at the context we will see that there are in fact two different versions of the whole process of revelation. They are firstly distinguished by the name used for the site of revelation. In Exodus this is Mt Sinai, while in Deuteronomy it is Horev. But the emphasis is also different. While both narrate both the content and experience of the revelation they have different emphasises. The account in Exodus focuses more on the content of the revelation and the terms of the covenant, while in our Parshah the emphasis is on the experience of revelation and the reaction of the people. This different focus meshes well with the different reasons given for keeping Shabbat as well as the famous distinction between ‘Remember’ and ‘Observe’. There are two aspects to keeping Shabbat. One is intellectual and one is experiential. When we ‘remember’ Shabbat we do so by doing specific actions, like saying kiddush that remind us of the meaning of the day. We perceive the world around us in a different way, seeing it as the work of one Creator and internalising the consequential respect for nature as G-d’s handiwork. We intellectually change our attitude to the world around us. This is Shabbat as a ‘Remembrance of Creation’. When we ‘observe’ Shabbat, however, we do something different. The cessation from creative activity creates a framework whereby we experience the world differently. The freedom from work and materialistic striving enables us to both connect with our own humanity and spirituality and relate in a different way to those around us. Released from the burdens of our profession and our slavery to technology we relate to others as equals, not part of a hierarchical economic structure. This is Shabbat as a ‘Remembrance of the Exodus’. Both of these aspects of Shabbat are of vital importance to our generation. In an age when our degradation of the planet threatens our very existence we need to deeply reflect on the world as the creation of G-d and our place and responsibility within it. In a time of increasing social and economic disparity we need to reconnect to our common humanity and its premise of fundamental equality. This is the message of Shabbat for our time.
The Sin of the Spies is a major component of the historical retrospective that makes up the first chapters of Deuteronomy. This is invariably read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, the date when according to tradition, the spies returned with their evil report, the people despaired and that generation were condemned to die in the wilderness. The same incident also was the focus of Moses’ rebuke to the tribes of Reuben and Gad which was related last week. Thus the Sin of the Spies provides a thematic background to the days leading up to Tisha B’Av. This is not merely because of the historical coincidence. Rather this incident underlies the future disasters of destruction and exile which we commemorate on this date. Both the Psalmist and the prophet Ezekiel connect this sin to the future destruction of the Jewish state, G-d swearing to kill their children by the sword and scatter them among the nations. This is because the spies sin, the rejection of the land of Israel, was essentially unforgivable, as it in essence rejected G-d’s plan for the Jewish people. All future disasters stem from that tragic mistake. Thus it is necessary during this period to emphasises the essential importance of the Land of Israel as a basic component of Judaism. It is one of the pillars on which Jewish belief and practice rests and its removal causes the whole edifice to collapse. It is thus especially necessary during this time of the year to negate the false premise of a recent phenomenon that seeks to do exactly this. This extreme form of Diasporism, in its rejection of Zionism, seeks to remove the connection to the Land from Judaism altogether, going even further than the failed attempts of the Reform movement in the 19th century. This effort is epitomised by a self-defined anti-Zionist synagogue in Chicago. Not only do they reject the modern State of Israel but they spurn any connection to the Land whatsoever, seeing their homeland only where they live. Their radicalism in this regard is so extreme that they substitute the Four Species taken on Succot, intimately connected to Israel, with local plants found in the Chicago area. This approach, furthermore, sees the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of Jews among the nations as a good thing that saved Judaism, despite in always being presented in both the Bible and later Jewish sources as a punishment and a tragedy. According to this view we should be having a party on Sunday, not fasting and mourning. These people essentially eviscerate from Judaism an essential foundation, one that has preserved Jews throughout the centuries. This form of belief may be a form of ethical monotheism, loosely based on the Hebrew Bible. It is however certainly not any recognisable or conceivably legitimate form of Judaism. What it is, however, is a modern form of the Sin of the Spies. We should as such utterly reject the legitimacy of this approach and those who espouse it as having no place within Judaism. Lest, as in the wilderness, they cause us a weeping for generations.
The war with the Midianites throws up various questions and difficulties but also can be a source of profound insight. If we follow the text closely we can discern at least two anomalies in the story which call for further examination. The first is that G-d commands Moses to attack Midian and avenge the vengeance of Israel on the Midianites, yet when Moses relays the command he refers to the vengeance of G-d. The second discrepancy is that G-d commands Moses concerning this expedition but he appoints Pinchas to take charge. Concerning the first question Rashi simply comments that the vengeance of G-d is the vengeance of Israel and visa versa. The Hizkuni elucidates this point. Moses is represented as saying to G-d that while the Midianites have attacked Israel they really wish to attack G-d. Their hatred for Israel is based on the fact that Israel is G-d’s people. This is a profound insight into the deep roots of anti-Semitism. Whether consciously or not, people who oppose Jews are really opposing G-d. Deep down they hate Jews because of what they stand for. In the case of the religious anti-Judaism of Christianity and Islam this is made specific. But even if the case of the pagan Nazi ideology their hatred of Jews was based on the moral code promulgated by Judaism which they regarded as having emasculated western civilisation through the medium of Christianity. Left wing anti-Semitism also sees the Jews as propagating a false ideology of religion or nationalism and refusing to assimilate itself into the universalist creed of socialist redemption. In every case hatred of Jews is based on what they believe. While religious anti-Semitism in theory believes Jews can be redeemed by changing their beliefs, racial anti-Semitism believes that these ideas are a genetic characteristic that can only be expunged by physically eliminating the Jews. Yet the basic objection is the same. The second anomaly in this passage concerns Moses’ delegation of the war to Pinchas. The Hizkuni explains that even though G-d gave the task to Moses, he delegated it to Pinchas as he felt gratitude to the Midiaites who gave him refuge when he fled from Pharaoh. Even though the Midianites had subsequently become enemies of Israel, Moses still remembered their original kindness. These two incidents teach us important lessons. If we understand that people hate Jews because of what we stand for then the answer to anti-Semitism is not merely to combat its overt manifestations. It is also to understand the root of the darkness and combat it by increasing the light. If people hate Jews because of who we are we will oppose them by being more, rather than less, Jewish. Secondly, we should not allow other’s hatred of us to turn us into haters ourselves. It is possible to fight against our enemies without necessarily hating them. Despite the hostile and destructive actions of the Midianites, Moses never forgot their original kindness to him, even while having to combat them. Thus while being strong and facing down our enemies we should remember to both preserve our own humanity and strengthen our own Jewish identity. Thus we will prevail.
The trait of jealousy is not one that we are encouraged to develop. We are meant to work on acquiring traits like tolerance, forgiveness and understanding. Yet Pinchas is praised for his jealousy for G-d, jealousy that led to the killing of royals. Furthermore, this action by Pinchas is said to have deflected G-d’s jealousy, thus saving the Jewish people from destruction. How then should we understand this characteristic and what place should it have in our lives? Firstly, the best translation the Hebrew verb kana is probably righteous indignation. It implies the refusal to accept something that is clearly unacceptable and that makes our blood boil. In the context of the story of Pinchas it means that G-d is not able to accept the behaviour of the Israelites in cavorting with the Moabite women and serving their idol. These actions are incompatible with G-d’s purpose for Israel and thus intolerable. Pinchas is not able to accept the behaviour of a prince in Israel openly defying Moses and G-d and thus acts to remedy the situation. His action comes from a deep sense of what is right and moral and gut feeling that what is happening in front of him is simply wrong. This type of jealousy is seen as positive. It is this type of attitude that can cause people to interfere and protect the vulnerable under attack, even when this means endangering themselves. Lack of such an attitude can lead to people being assaulted on the street with one intervening, a sign of the breakdown of society. Yet there is another side to this attitude that is not so positive. While this type of indignation can be valuable in leading to the defence of important values and standing up for others, it can also lead to narrow mindedness and intolerance. The later career of Pinchas and his great emulator Elijah bear this out. According to tradition, this same sense of righteousness leads Pinchas to be unable to deal effectively the Yiftach’s mistaken vow to sacrifice his daughter. Elijah’s righteous indignation enables him to stand up to Ahab and Jezebel and thus stop the total loss of Judaism in his generation. Yet in the end it proves unable to provide the leadership needed to bring the people back to G-d and causes G-d to replace him with Elisha who had a more gentle, and ultimately more successful, approach. Thus, while being jealous for G-d or for your ideals has its place, it also has its limitations. It needs to be part of our spiritual armoury but is a dangerous weapon that needs to be used sparingly. It is telling that in rewarding Pinchas for his action, G-d blesses him with the covenant of peace. Pinchas will need an inner peace to control his feelings of justified anger, in order that they don’t control him. In the last lines of the Prophets, Elijah is spoken of coming to reconcile children with parents. The way of reconciliation rather than that of indignation is probably the better path for us to follow.
The story of Bilaam can be seen as a separate and distinct part of the Torah. In the Torah text it consists of a single section with no paragraphs. Indeed, in some rabbinical commentaries it is referred to as the ‘Book of Bilaam’. An interesting feature of this story is that it doesn’t contain the name of Moses or have any other participation of the People of Israel. Throughout the narrative the Israelites are regarded as the objects of other’s focus but in fact play no part in the story, nor is there any interaction with them. Balak wants the Israelites cursed, Bilaam wants to curse them and in the end is forced to bless them, but all of this is from afar. Nothing the Israelites actually do or say seems to have any relevance to the actions of the characters in the story. Balak is reacting to the fact the Israelites are on his borders and Bilaam seems not to have known very much about them before being asked to perform his present mission. The whole story of the deprecation or praise of the Jewish people is thus seen totally from a non-Jewish perspective. This teaches us an important lesson about attitudes to Jews and especially concerning the nature of anti-Semitism. As Jonathan Sachs and others point out anti-Semitism is in the end not about Jews. As in the case of Bilaam and Balak the actions or otherwise of Jews have no bearing on the matter. Anti Jewish prejudice exists in the minds of those holding it and is not a function of Jewish behaviour. In short anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem but a non-Jewish problem. The prevalence or lack of ant-Semitic attitudes in a society or organisation tells us nothing about the Jews in that society or organisation. Indeed, as in the case of some deeply anti-Semitic countries, there may not even be any Jews around. Rather, it tells us everything about the nature of that society or organisation. This leads to two important conclusions also pointed out by Sachs and others. Firstly, anti-Jewish prejudice is not only a problem for Jews but a serious issue for the society in which it exists. Secondly, only that society or organisation can solve the problem. The Israelites had no influence whether Bilaam cursed or blessed them. Only Bilaam, influenced by G-d, could make that decision. Likewise, only non-Jews can effectively combat anti-Semitism. Jews can warn and complain about it but can’t resolve it. We can raise awareness of anti-Semitism in the Labour party but only the Labour party can solve it. If they choose not to, the fate of Bilaam himself predicts the self-destruction to which they are heading.
The Exodus and the journey to the Promised Land had three leaders, the siblings Moses, Aaron and Miriam. All three of them were fated to die before reaching the ultimate goal. Moses and Aaron were excluded from the Land because of the incident related at the Waters of Merivah related this week. In this instance as well as in the earlier case of Miriam’s slander of Moses, the Sages make the point that G-d punished them so harshly because of their exalted stature. How do we understand this concept? Traditionally, it has been seen as a warning. If G-d treats the righteous so strictly, how much more so should normal mortals take note and behave. But the opposite could also be true. If even the righteous are punished harshly, what hope is there for anyone else. This concept can also be seen as strengthening the principle of equal responsibility under the law. The punishment of such prominent persons shows that G-d treats everyone equally and that Jewish leadership is not about absolute power but has to conform to the rules of the Torah. However, it is possible in the specific case of these three leaders to divine another lesson. All three played leading roles in the Exodus generation but died before the entry into the Land. While the reason for Miriam’s demise is not given that of Moses and Aaron is clearly stated. While many interpretations have been given of what they did wrong, in essence they amount to a failure of leadership. Specifically a failure to properly understand the new generation, the children who had grown up in the wilderness. In both the case of lack of water and the later incident of the two tribes wanting to settle in Transjordan, a close reading of text shows a common error. Moses treats the new generation as if they were their parents. He fails to understand that he is dealing with a different scenario that previous incidents. In our Parshah he treats the children asking for water as if they were their parents we read about a few weeks ago demanding meat. G-d, however, doesn’t punish them but accedes to their request while chastising Moses for not perceiving the difference. In the case of the two tribes Moses specifically of accuses them of repeating the mistake of their parents in the Sin of the Spies, while their reply to him and their subsequent actions, demonstrate that he had completely misunderstood their motives. This is the real reason these leaders had to die. They were simply not suited to leading the new generation and so exit the stage and make way for leaders of that generation like Joshua and Caleb. This teaches us an important lesson. No one, even the greatest leader, is indispensable. There comes a time when it is necessary to remit office and let others who are more attuned to new circumstances to take over. That is not an admission of failure or a lack of courage but a function of good leadership. Sometimes the most important contribution a leader can make is knowing when to go.
When the Korach rebellion reaches its height G-d appears to Moses and Aaron and tells them to stand aside so he can consume the people. Moses very reasonably argues that the people are not to blame for the actions of one demagogue. G-d then instructs the people to separate from Korach and his follows who are then consumed by earthquake and fire. This episode is puzzling. Surely G-d was aware of the role of Korach in the rebellion so why did he originally propose destroying the whole people? The answer may lie in the fact that after Korach and his followers are destroyed the people accuse Moses and Aaron of causing their death and G-d then really does consume many of the people in a plague. It would appear that G-d’s original proposal, that thee rebellion went wider than just Korach and his party was correct. The underlying problem that caused the rebellion went so deep that it survived the destruction of the ringleaders. What was this issue and what can we learn from this incident? A hint lies in the words of Datan and Aviram when they refuse to negotiate with Moses. They accuse him of bringing them up from a land of milk and honey to die in the wilderness. It is clear that this ironic inversion of G-d’s promise to Israel is a reference to the aftermath of the Sin of the Spies, whereby that generation were condemned to die in the wilderness. That underlying complaint did not disappear with the destruction of Korach, rather it intensified. Just as they held Moses responsible for having to perish in the desert, so they blamed him for the death of the rebels. The common factor underlying their behaviour is a complete refusal to take any responsibility for their own actions. If they are not going to enter the Land that is not because they sinned but is Moses’ fault. If Korach and his followers are consumed it is again not their fault but Moses is to blame. Ironically, this total lack of ability to accept responsibility for their actions merely confirms G-d’s assessment that this generation are simply not ready for the responsibility of independent nationhood in the Land. If you can’t deal with the consequences of your decisions you can’t be sovereign. This incident is highly relevant to our present situation. We face not only a breakdown of political systems but of political accountability, that reaches far beyond the political class. For too many people if they are warned about the negative consequences of their decisions it is fake news. When those consequences subsequently become reality it is the responsibility of those who warned them, never their own fault. As with the Israelites this type of attitude can only lead to disaster. Let us hope that we learn the lesson before we too lose the Promised Land.
Moses sends twelve spies to reconnoitre the Land. Ten bring back a negative report slandering the Land and only two, Joshua and Caleb support going forward to conquer the Land as commanded by G-d. The consequence is that the nation is condemned to wander in the wilderness and only their children enter the Land. If we examine the list of the men sent as spies found at the beginning of the Parshah we notice something strange. Normally, the two tribes coming from Joseph are attributed to his name. So in the census it states ‘for the tribe of Joseph’ and then directly afterwards list each tribe Ephraim and Manasseh. Here however, when mentioning Joshua who comes from Ephraim it omits any reference to Joseph and only several names later mentions ‘from Joseph’ in connection with the spy from the tribe of Manasseh. The Hizkuni explains this in an interesting way. The spies and Joseph had something in common: they both spoke slander, Joseph about his brothers and the spies about the Land. Thus the scout from Manasseh who with nine others slandered the Land is designated as from Joseph. Joshua, however, even though he is also genetically connected to Joseph, being from Ephraim, famously did not slander the Land and so Joseph is not mentioned in connection with his name. The other spy to speak the truth, Caleb, comes from Judah who famously admitted the truth even in extremely embarrassing circumstances. We would therefore expect him to be truthful. Joshua, on the other hand, coming from a family with a history of slander, is going against the grain in refusing to join in the slander of the Land of the other spies. This comment of the Hizkuni teaches us an important lesson. We all have different family histories and genetic propensities. It is normal for most people to generally conform to type in this regard. It takes a special type of strength to go against the grain and become something different. This is the meaning of the rabbinic dictum the ‘where the penitent stand even the perfectly righteous cannot stand’. It is easy for someone brought up religious or observant to continue on that path. It is far harder for someone brought up secular to choose an observant lifestyle. It is easy to be observant in Jerusalem or New York were everything is provided for you, it is a lot harder in a place like Edinburgh. The Sages thus point out that the stature of those who come from outside either by upbringing or geography and nevertheless follow Torah, is higher than those who were always inside. Joshua had not only to stand up to a negative majority but overcome his own family history in order to do the right thing. He merited by doing so not only to enter the Land but also to become the successor of Moses. Recalling him we should thus respect all those that may come from a difficult or different background. They may be in fact greater than us.
The first half of the book of Numbers is itself divided into clear sections. This division is even signified in the text itself by two inverted letters surrounding the invocation used when the camp broke up and encamped. The same verses we use when taking out and returning the Torah. The first section deals with the preparations to the promised land, including the make up of the camp, the role of the Levites and the order of the march. This section ends with the first journey. The second section describes how once they got going everything went wrong and they end up wandering in the wilderness for forty years, ending with the rebellion of Korah and its aftermath. If we think about this division a serious question arises. We read in great detail of the meticulous preparations the Israelites made for the journey to the Land. Everything was seemingly in place for a successful march forward to their goal, which was only eleven days away. Yet all this preparatory work seems to have been to no avail, the whole thing falls apart and they don’t reach their destination until thirty eight years later. How do we explain this paradox? One answer is that they didn’t factor in problems. Everything was perfectly set up to work but it wasn’t always clear what would happen if things went wrong. Thus at crucial moments Moses’ leadership was thrown into crisis and he himself despaired. Maybe, for example, if the seventy elders had been around from the beginning some of the problems could have been avoided. But there was a more basic problem. The structures needed for the journey were set up. Everyone knew their place and what they were meant to do. But that didn’t mean that they were enthusiastically behind the project or ready for the difficulties that would ensure. They may have had a general idea as to the ultimate goal but were not prepared for the difficulties they would face. Thus, every time they faced an obstacle or privation it turned into a major crisis. In the end the various crises proved to much and that generation failed to achieve the goal. This story should teach us important lessons about any project or undertaking we embark on. We may prepare meticulously and think we are ready to go forward. But unless we also factor in things going wrong the smallest problem may derail us. Even more importantly, unless we take people along with us and have them share our vision, we won’t succeed. They may give initial consent but won’t last the distance. Inspiring others is the first perquisite for success.
The central portion of the Parshah is taken up with two mitzvot. One is that of the Sotah, the woman suspected of adultery by her husband and the second the mitzvah of the Nazirite, who takes upon himself extra restrictions. The Sages explain the juxtaposition of the two sections regarding one as leading to the other. Whoever sees the Sotah in her disgrace will tale a vow of a Nazirite to abstain from wine. Wine being considered a prelude to engaging in illicit relations the Nazirite seeing the consequences of inebriation decides to abstain altogether. Also, perceiving the temptations of physical beauty the Nazirite resolves to let his her grow long, thus lessening his handsome appearance. It is possibly to dispute these perceptions and indeed even to understand how the opposite might be true but I think these comments of our Sages teach us an extremely important lesson. Someone is observing the ceremony whereby a woman suspected by her husband of adultery is tested. What reaction does this witness of her humiliation produce in the observer? One might think that this scene would invoke judgement, disgust and even self-righteousness. Negative thoughts and speech concerning the woman and her behaviour are the most likely outcome of watching the ceremony of a Sotah. But that is not what the Sages say happens or should happen. Rather, the person witnessing the scene becomes a Nazirite. Rather than judging the woman they judge themselves, rather than disparaging the behaviour of the Sotah they change their own behaviour. The response to inappropriate behaviour by others is not to self-righteously condemn them but to draw the appropriate lessons for are own behaviour. Thus the Sages in connecting the these two mitzvot in the way they do are imparting to us important moral guidance. We can all find things to criticise in the behaviour of other people. It can be tempting to increase our self esteem by disparaging the actions of others. This is especially true if we regard there indeed being grounds for such criticism. The Torah teaches us a different way. Our reaction to the misdeeds of others is not to indulge in judgemental comparisons with ourselves, rather it is to examine our own behaviour. Instead of concentrating on the faults of others we should seek to correct our own. In order to build a better world it is indeed necessary to correct mistakes and reform behaviour. What the juxtaposition of these two mitzvot teaches us is that we mistakes and behaviour we need to change are first and foremost our own.
The Jewish calendar is structured in such a way that the various festivals and Torah readings relate to each other in a way that provides us with various historical and spiritual lessons. The Jewish summer is bracketed with two festivals that commemorate historically the receiving of the Torah. One is of course Shavuot and the other, at the end of the summer, is Yom Kippur, the day of the giving of the second tablets. Shavuot commemorates the enthusiastic embrace of Torah by the Jewish people, while Yom Kippur remembers a chastened people being forgiven by G-d after the sin of the Golden Calf. Shavuot symbolises the exciting possibilities of a new relationship, while Yom Kippur teaches us about rebuilding that relationship after a serious breakdown. During the period in between we read the book of Numbers. If Genesis is the book of beginnings, Exodus redemption and Leviticus law, Numbers is the book of crisis and failure. Murmurings, rebellions, unfaithfulness and a whole generation condemned to wander is the narrative we confront here. Yet Numbers is also the book of repair and return. Despite all the crises and the recurrent breakdown of the relationship between G-d and Israel, at the end the covenant is still intact and the Israelites, forty years late, still on the way to their destiny in the Promised land. Numbers thus not only teaches us about failure and breakdown but how to recover and rebuild. Numbers teaches us that the Torah is not only given to those that are perfect and never make mistakes but also and even primarily, to those that fail. It is thus highly appropriate that we almost always begin reading the book of Numbers the week before Shavuot. As we prepare to receive the Torah anew on the anniversary of its first being given, we should be strengthened by the knowledge that the Torah is not for the perfect but those that fail and rebuild, fall and rise again.
As part of the series of blessings promised as a consequence of obedience to the mitzvot, the Torah promises that we shall defeat our enemies, even if they are more numerous than us. We are promised that: ‘five of you shall chase a hundred and a hundred shall chase ten thousand’. If we pay close attention to these numbers we discover that they are not parallel. Five into a hundred is a factor of twenty, while a hundred into ten thousand is a factor of a hundred. The commentators noticed this discrepancy and on this verse Rashi makes the comment that a few keeping the mitzvot is not the same as many who do so. This statement needs some elucidation. It seems to be saying that there is not merely a quantitative difference in different numbers of observant Jews but a qualitative difference. Indeed, using the proportions in the verse above twenty Jews following the Torah are five times more valuable than one person following the Torah. A lone Jew in Skye putting on Tefillin would thus be less valuable than a minyan of Jews doing the same in Edinburgh. How are we to understand this? Surely there is a value in following the mitzvot in a small Jewish community were it is more difficult than in a large Jewish community were it is so much easier. Are no points given for effort? I think the answer lies in an area were indeed numbers do make a difference. Men at least, have a mitzvah to pray with a minyan. Ten or men praying the Amidah together creates not just a quantitative difference but a qualitative one. Prayer with the community is of a different and higher order than praying without a minyan. This is because Judaism is a communal religion, not just concerned with individual salvation but with communal redemption. Praying with the community, we stand before G-d as a corporate body, not just as an individual but as the people of Israel. What the Torah is trying to tell us by these numbers is that as Jews we are strongest when we stand together whether in prayer, Torah observance, or defending ourselves. That was the lesson we learnt fifty two years ago. When Israel was threatened with destruction Jews all over the world and of all ages and persuasions united as one in action and payer and the gates of Heaven were opened and miracles occurred. Unity led to redemption. So today whether facing down our enemies or supporting a minyan let us join together as one to again open the gates of redemption.
What is the Torah’s view of modern economic systems? Does the Torah support a socialist or capitalist world view; is it in favour of public ownership or private property? From this week’s Parshah we do not seem to get a clear answer. On the one hand our Parshah can be seen as very socialist. The Sabbatical year mandates that the lands and its crops belong to everyone, with equal access to rich and poor. All have rights to the produce, and no one can stop someone entering their land to take it. This legislation is concluded by the declaration that the Land is G-d’s and we are but tenants. All very Labour. But when we examine the laws of redemption of property, a different picture emerges. Here the Torah places a great emphasis on the right of private property and especially the rights of inherited land. Rather than land being in common it is important that land remain in the family, and even a purchase of a plot can only be temporary. Here the Torah seems to restrict social mobility and take the side of what we would call the landed gentry. All very Tory. How are we then to understand this dichotomy at the heart of our Parshah? Can the two seemingly different world views be reconciled? A clue may lie in the fact that the above statement about the land belonging to G-d is actually said in conjunction not only with the Sabbatical year but with the selling of land. ‘The land should not be sold in perpetuity, because the land is mine’. In another words the source of the property rights of the landowner is the fact that in effect G-d owns all the land. It is He who has parcelled out the land to each family, and we are thus all tenants with Him. To let land fall forever into the hands of those that could buy it would be to upset the Divine order. G-d believes neither in socialism, nor capitalism but a property owning society, where it is ensured that all own property. At the same time property owners are to regard themselves as tenants of G-d, releasing the land to public ownership once every seven years. In this way, the Torah seeks to create a society that avoids the dependence culture of socialism while preventing the extremes of wealth of unfettered capitalism. This is the Divine system, and one worth contemplating today.
‘You shall be holy, for I your G-d am holy’. Thus begins the Parshah containing many of the mitzvot of the Torah. Indeed Kedoshim is the central Parshah in a series that contains most of the mitzvot, and thus defines what it is to be Jewish. Therefore understanding this statement is crucial to Jewish identity, but what does it mean? The plain meaning of the word kadosh, normally translated as holy, is to be separated or different. A pagan prostitute, for example is called a kadesh, because he or she are separated out for that function in society. So we are to be separate or different because G-d is different. But G-d is so totally different from us that it is hard to know what precise aspect of Divine distinction we are meant to emulate. I think that the answer lies in a major motif of Jewish mysticism, the concept that we are living in G-d’s space. ‘G-d is the place of the world’ said the Rabbis, ‘but the world is not His place’. Or in terms of later Kabbalah, G-d contracted His presence in order to make room for creation. G-d hides Himself in order to create a space for us to exist and act independently. In that sense G-d is apart or different from us, this makes G-d kadosh. I would suggest that this is the aspect of G-d’s holiness or difference that we are called upon to emulate. Just as G-d is kadosh, in restricting his power in order to allow room for us, we are called upon to be kedoshim, by restricting our power, in order to allow room for other aspects of creation. Many of the mitzvot in the Parshah can be seen in that light. Shabbat is of course the most obvious. Indeed observing Shabbat is specifically linked to reverence for the Temple, as if to say, that just as we respect G-d’s boundaries by not encroaching on his space in the Temple, we need to respect the rights of the rest of creation by giving them space, at least one day a week. The laws of forbidden mixtures, teach us not to interfere to graphically in the order of creation, while we give even trees or animals space to grow, before we are allowed to use them for our own benefit. All this teaches us that as G-d makes room for us, we must give space to others. This is a vital lesson for our world today, suffering from an overabundance of human interference. We must heed the lesson of Kedoshim, that restraint is Divine.
The section in the Torah dealing with the service of Yom Kippur begins with a reminder of the death of Aaron’s sons. This is often seen as simply not to enter the Holy of Holies except on Yom Kippur lest he suffer the same fate. Yet I think we can find a depeer connection that goes to the heart of our relationship with G-d. While the lesson of the death of Aaron’s sons is certainly that one was not disrespect G-d by going into the inner snctumn when one wishes, why is it that only on Yom Kippur is Aaron allowed to do so and not on other occaisions? Why does G-d restrict our most intimate access to Him davka to a day focussed on sin and forgiveness and not on the more joyous occasions of the Jewish year. The answer lies precisely in the sin of Aaron;s sons. According to many commentators they disregarded the set service and acted on a whim because they were arrogant. Raised to the exalted status of the priesthood they thought they could get intimate with G-d without permission. Yet arrogance is precisely the thing that comes between us and G-d and by trying to force their intimacy on G-d in that state they brought upon themselves severe retribution. Aaron is warned against repeated their mistake. In his normal splendid robs and exalted position, he might also become arrogant, something that is fatal to intimacy with the Divine. On Yom Kippur however we focus on our failures. On Yom Kippur, relecting on our shortcomings, we learn to be humble. Just as the High Priest sheds his splendid robs and dons a simple while garment, so do we shed are arrogant veneer and mistaken assumptions about ourselves and learn to live with who we really are. On Yom Kippur above all other days therefore we can get intimate with G-d. Aaro,n reflecting on his failurees and broken by the death of his sons in the same place, can now approach G-d in the His inner sanctum. Likewise, with broken hearts and humble mien we can approach G-d in an intimate manner not possible at any other time. While all this refers to Yom Kippur it has implications for the rest of the year. If we want to have an intimate relationship with G-d we first need to shed our egoism and arrogance and approach him in full cognisiance of our failings.
If we look at the ritual for the purification of the leper, we can notice an interesting parallel. This ritual requires the taking of two birds, one of which is killed and the blood used to sprinkle on the leper. The other bird is then dipped in the blood and freed in the open field. This sounds similar to another famous ritual, that of Yom Kippur. There we have two goats, one of which is killed and the blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. The other, is set free in the wilderness, or in Temple times thrown from a cliff in the wilderness. The parallel is made more exact by the comment of the Hizkuni that the freed bird, which was stained red from the blood, was killed by its fellow birds because of its weird appearance. Indeed Nachmanidies specifically connects the ritual of the birds with that of the goats on Yom Kippur. What, then, is the common theme behind these two rituals? The two identical goats on Yom Kippur can be said to symbolise essential unity of people. Yet one goes into the Holy of Holies, why the other is cast into the wilderness. This teaches us that all of us are capable of both good and evil and it is often circumstance rather than total free choice that determines our fate. Thus we should neither regard ourselves as particularly righteous or wicked, but all with human frailties that need to be both worked on and forgiven. The leper, by engaging in slander, has drawn attention to his neighbour’s failings. He has set himself above his fellow, regarding himself as better. The ritual of the two birds teaches him the same lesson we are taught on Yom Kippur. His good fortune or supposed moral superiority may be more due to circumstances than choice. He, indeed, may have exactly the same shortcomings as the person he criticised. The fact that we take the live bird and dip it in the blood of the other bird, may symbolise precisely this point. Both rituals teach us not to regard ourselves as better than others and to realises that, given the right circumstances, we could be in the other’s predicament. The process of getting rid of Hametz we are currently engaged in, gives us an opportunity to apply this in our own lives. The puffed up leaven of Hametz is a symbol of pride. In the weeks before Pesach we work to rid ourselves not only of physical Hametz, but of spiritual arrogance. In order to properly celebrate Pesach we must humble ourselves before the One who humbled the pride of the Egyptians, and thus taught us that all men are equal.
This week is one of the rare occasions when we read from three Torah scrolls. In the weekly Parshah we read of the laws concerning leprosy, while in the two additional scrolls we read about the Rosh Hodesh offering and the laws of Pesach. These readings seem toi deal with completly different topics. Can we discover there a common theme that unites them? The leprosy talked about in the Parshah is not what we call leprosy, which is incurable, but a different type of skin disease, a form of which can also appear in clothes and houses. Tradition sees the appearence of this disease as a punishment for lashon hara or evil speech. A person who engaged in such harmful talk would be punished by this disease that led to there temporary banishment from society. They sort to isolate others, so they are themselves isolated to reflect on the evil consequences of their actions. Among the sacrifices brought on Rosh Hodesh is a sin offering. The Sages said that G-d asked us to bring this offering to atone for His dimunation of the moon. The Midrash tells that the moon had complained that it and the sun should not be equal, so G-d reduced the size of the moon. Here too we have a lesson in the importantance of not speaking evil of others and showing humility not arragance. In the third scroll we read about the laws of Pesach. In the synopsis of the Exodus story from Deuteronomy which we read at the Seder, it states: vayareu otanu hamitzrim, which is understood to mean ‘the Egyptians made us seem evil’. Indeed pharaoh begins his campaign of oppression by slandering the Jews. We thus have in our three readings today three lessons about the importance of watching what we say and not attacking others. Whether on an individual, national or even cosmic basis, the Torah points out to us the dire consequences of evil speech. This is especially true in the political realm were posionous and hateful speech has reached epidemic proportions and is threatening the survival of democracy. From friends to politicials to bloggers we need to think twice before we speak and consider carefully the consequences of what we say. The consequences of not doing so are serious indeed.
The criteria for kosher which animals are kosher seems to be clearly set out in the Torah. You need to have an animal with cloven hoofs and that chwes its cud. The Torah, then however, continues to detail various types of animals that can’t be eaten such as the rabbit, camel and pig. The rule prohibiting insects seems also to be clear, except we then are informed that certain types of locusts, despite being clearly insects, are kosher. Earlier on we are given in detail the rites to be followed for the inaguaration of the Priesthood. Nevertheless, after the tragic incident of Aaron’s sons, Moses reemphasises the proper disposal of several of the offerings. What all of these rules have in common is that things are possibly not as clear as they might have seemed. The animals specified as not kosher are those which have one kosher criterion. Rabbits and camels chew their cud while pigs have cloven hoofs, yet they are not kosher. Locusts, of course, despite fulfilling the criteria of insects are nevertheless kosher. It similiarily turns out that the rules for disposing of the inaugaration offerings are not as clear as it appeared. In fact, Moses is forced to admit that in the changed circumstances of Aaron’s tragedy, he should after all, not have eaten the sin offering. This is of course reinforced by the special reading for this Shabbat, that deals with the mitzvah of the Red Heifer. Famously, the essence of this passage is in its inscrutability, with the very rituals and people which enable the purification of others causing impurity and becoming themselves impure. All of this may seem somewhat technical and not very interesting or relevant burt it in fact teaches us an important lesson. It is that often things that seem clear on the surface are not so if you dig deeper.. A course of action or idea might seem to be superficially positive and worthwhile. On further investigation however, there could be serious negative implications that are not readily apparent. Politicians and sales people are masters at presenting the positives of a policy or purchase while neglecting to mention the complications or deficincies that lurk below the surface. This is especially true of leaders who propose simply solutions to complicated problems. If only we elect them or follow their advice or policy everything will be wonderful. Reality, unfortunately, is never that simple. We can see with our own eyes today where such simplistic ideas lead us. The Torah, by bothering to detail possibly exceptions to simple rules, teaches us to question simplistic assumptions. Beneath the placid lakes of simple solutions can lurk monsters.
Parshat Tzav in a normal year occurs on the week before Pesach and has a direct relevance to Pesach as it is from this Parshah that we learn of the necessity and method of kashering dishes used with forbidden food (like Hametz on Pesach). In a leap year, however, our Parshah occurs in proximity to Purim, to which it is harder to find a link. Yet there is in fact an interesting hint of Purim in that very section. When describing the method of kashering metal dishes the Torah uses talks of scouring, morak. In explaining this word Rashi says that it is similar to the phrase tamrukai nashim or women's cosmetics in the Megillah. The connection between them seems to be that just as we scour a vessel to remove its impurities and restore it to its original state, so cosmetics 'scour' the skin of women to restore it to what is seen as its perfect smooth condition. This idea of removing the dross and getting to what is beneath is at the heart of Purim. The Megillah itself does not mention the name of G-d and it is necessary to scour it for the underlying Divine hand controlling events. Some explain the custom of drinking to excess as a way of revealing our true uninhibited selves. It is interesting that Purim is seen as the first rabbinic festival, symbolising the interpretative tradition that looks beneath the literal meaning of the Torah to discover its different meanings. This also links into the Parshah which, perhaps, has the most glaring examples of complete disregard of the literal meaning of the text. The Torah seems to clearly state that the various priests who offer a sacrifice are the ones that get to consume it and acquire its skin. Yet the Rabbis declare that in fact any suitable priest is able to partake of these offerings. It is clear that there was an ancient tradition in the Temple that this was the case and the Rabbis therefore interpreted the Torah accordingly. All this teaches us that things are not always what they seem and everything should not be necessarily taken at face value. We often need to 'scour' things in order to reveal their true meaning.
The purpose of the Tabernacle, whose completion we read about this week, was the indwelling of the Divine Presence amongst the people of Israel. This Presence is symbolised by two different physical phenomena: a sort of cloud and fire. We are told at the end of this week's reading that the glory of G-d filled the Tabernacle. At the end of the actual dedication of the Tabernacle, which we read about in a few weeks, a fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings on the altar. There is a significant difference between these two manifestations. It is related at the end of the Parshah that when the Tabernacle was finished G-d's glory filled it and because of this Moses was unable to enter. This however was only a temporary phenomenon. Afterwards this total immersion of the Tabernacle ceased and Moses was able to speak to G-d in the Tent of Meeting. On the other hand, the fire that came down from heaven at the end of the dedication of the Tabernacle didn't disappear, rather was to endure continually. Indeed, there is a mitzvah to ensure that the fire on the altar is constantly fed with fuel in order that it should not be extinguished. Why is there a difference in these two Divine manifestations? The erection of the Tabernacle was a one time event. One can only build a structure once, them it exists by itself. The tremendous satisfaction and sense of accomplishment felt by the people was also thus a fleeting sensation. Thus the Divine manifestation on that occasion was likewise a spectacular one off event that didn't continue in the same manner. In contrast, the dedication we read about later was the inauguration of the actual service of the Tabernacle. This was something that would continue every day, month and year. The ignition of fire on the altar, therefore, was something that was to continue long after the excitement of the dedication had passed. These two examples of the Divine Presence can teach us something about our own spiritual life. We may have spiritual experiences that like the glory of G-d are intense and all consuming. Like Moses at the original erection of the Tabernacle we may be left overwhelmed and temporarily transformed. Yet these sort of events, while important, are short lived and not a basis for a sustained religious life. On the other hand, the daily experience of studying Torah and fulfilling the mitzvot provide us with spiritual sustenance which, like the fire on the altar, sustains are spiritual life every day and every month. Some Jews, unfortunately, only have the first sort of experience, coming to synagogue only on rarely and having important but fleeting spiritual experiences on certain festivals or at life cycle events. Yet a sustained Jewish life necessitates something more. It requires the continual fire on the altar of regular observance that alone can created a fulfilled Jewish life.
The actual building of the Tabernacle begins with Moses reminding the people of the importance of Shabbat. Included in this is the command not to light fire on Shabbat. The Sages gave various reasons why this aspect of the many prohibit types of work on Shabbat was singled out. It is possible that the use of fire was chosen as example of an activity forbidden on Shabbat because it encapsulates the underlying problem with all or most of them, thus explaining to us the purpose of Shabbat itself. We use fire to change something from its natural state into something made by humans. So for example we take a raw natural potato and by use of fire transform it into something expressly human created, cooked food. Indeed it is possibly to say that fire or its derivatives is the main means of transforming natural substances into human creations. In this we are imitating the creative activity of G-d and it is precisely this that we are forbidden to do on Shabbat. G-d, as it were, rested on Shabbat in order to teach us that while changing the natural environment is good we also need to set ourselves limits. We need to respect nature as it is without necessarily always seeking to transform it for our purposes. This is the basic lesson that Shabbat comes to teach us and it is a lesson vitally needed in today's world. Without setting limits to our exploitation we are in danger of undermining the very ecosystem that enables us to survive. Today is also Shabbat Shekalim, commemorating the giving of the Half-Shekel. One of the lessons we learn from this mitzvah is the intrinsic worth of each individual. We don't simply count people because each person is important and unparalleled and not simply a number. We instead value the unique contribution they can make to the world. Yet, our desire to physically transform our world, to make money or acquire possessions, we are in danger of treating the individual as object. Shabbat, in forbidding this activity for one day a week, thus also rescues human dignity. That is why in addition to commemorating Creation it also recollects our liberation from slavery in Egypt. These two concepts are connected. If we remorselessly ravage nature in pursuit of our goals we are also likely to ruthlessly exploit other human beings. Conversely, if we respect the natural world we are more likely to treat other people with dignity. In bidding us stop our exploitation of our environment, Shabbat rescues both nature and humanity.
The Parshah begins with the command for every male Israelite over twenty to give half a shekel towards the service of the Tabernacle. This was the only mandated sum given for this project, the rest of the materials and money came from donations. This outpouring of generosity is detailed in next week's Parshah. Yet we have another instance of bounteous giving found in in our Parshah, the donations made for the construction of the Golden Calf. The Sages commented on this dichotomy stating: 'what a fickle people: one day they give to make a calf; the next to build the Tabernacle'. This comment, incredulous and sarcastic at the same time, seeks to describe two things, one praiseworthy, the other less so. On the one hand we are to understand that the Jews are a generous people. They are asked to give and they give, one day for the Golden Calf ,one day for the Tabernacle. The criticism contained in the statement is about precisely this lack of distinction. Yes they are generous to a fault but completely indiscriminate in their choice of recipient. It seems not to matter to them the completely contradictory nature of their generosity. The consequences of this lack of discrimination are, of course, serious and nearly lead to the destruction of the nation. Building a Tabernacle and making a Golden Calf are not neutral projects were the main thing is participation but idealogical opposites that lead in two completely different directions. Such lack of discernment leads precisely to the complete bewilderment of the people of Israel in the Haftorah, who when asked Elijah whether they were for G-d or Baal, couldn't answer. They were simply so confused they were unable to answer. It took drastic action on behalf of both Moses and Elijah to bring them to their senses. These stories teach us several important lessons. Firstly it is important not only to give or how much you give but to whom or what you give. Simply giving money to a homeless person, for example, may to more harm than good. Giving to a charity that deals with the issue maybe far more useful. Certain Jewish organisations are very proficient in attracting donations which they then use to undermine small established communities in places throughout the world. People think that by giving to these groups they are helping Jews in small communities while they are in reality undermining them. This principle, however, can be applied more widely. Before you support a public figure or group you need to check them out and discern whether they are worthy of your assistance. Time and again people have to apologise for links on their sites or web pages to dodgy organisations. Some of it is in fact purposeful but in many cases people simply didn't do their homework on whom they were supporting. The lesson is clear. By all means give, but give with discernment.
The greater part of the second half of the book of Exodus is taken up with the instructions concerning the Tabernacle, covering almost four and a half Parshiot. We are told first how to make the Tabernacle and the record of the actual construction. It is therefore seems to be extremely important but what exactly is its importance. Why was it necessary to have such a structure and what was its basic function. One traditional answer is that it comes in response to the sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelites sinned because they desired a concrete representation of G-d and the Tabernacle provided this. This is given credence by the fact that the sin of the Golden Calf is recounted between the instructions for the Tabernacle and its actual construction. Yet the same chronology in the Torah places the command concerning the Tabernacle before the sin, not as a response to it. Another explanation sees the Tabernacle as a permanent replica of the Divine revelation on Mt Sinai. G-d revealed Himself then and the record of that revelation is placed in a structure that itself contains in a more concentrated form G-d's Presence. Yet, while the Tabernacle itself does symbolise G-d's Presence in the midst of Israel it doesn't really continue the experience of revelation,not being connected necessarily with experience of prophecy. If we look at what actually happens in the Tabernacle we can see that is really functions as a place of communal worship. It thus functions as an important component of the three basic ideas that are fundamental to Jewish life. Judaism consists firstly of the recognition and commemoration of G-d's role in Jewish history and destiny, epitomised by the Exodus. It also consists of practice of the mitzvot of the Torah and the intrinsic connection between Jews and the Land of Israel. An integral part of the practice of the mitzvot of the Torah is communal worship. The book of Exodus begins with the Exodus and continues with basic social and other legislation that forms the backbone of the mitzvot. Yet it then carries on with detailed instructions concerning the Tabernacle, institution regular communal worship. This is of vital importance Without such activity following the Torah can be simply good practice devoid of connection to G-d. While of course performance of the mitzvot themselves brings us closer to G-d on an intellectual and emotional level only regular contact with G-d through worship reminds us of the reason for it all. Communal worship strengthens the bonds between the community and between the collective and G-d. Thus when the Temple was destroyed the Jews didn't simply do without and keep the mitzvot without worship. Rather they established synagogues and the concept of communal prayer. It was this, maybe more than anything that kept Jews together and stopped Judaism simply becoming a form of ethical monotheism. The synagogue and communal worship have thus been vital throughout Jewish history and they are no less vital today.
In retelling the story of Jewish people we seem to have reached the climax of the narrative last week with the revelation at Sinai and the proclamation of the Ten Commandments. Yet the legislation contained in this week's reading is an integral part of that Revelation as indicated by the use of the conjunctive 'and these are the laws' which introduce it. Furthermore the end of the Parshah contains further details of the ratification of the covenant between G-d and Israel, thus bracketing the legislation between accounts of the Revelation. The thematic connection, however, runs even deeper. The Revelation itself is a direct consequence of the Exodus and in fact begins with the words 'I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt'. The legislation we read this week is this a direct consequence of the Exodus and the application of the lessons taught by that seminal event. This is seen most strikingly in the fact the very first laws in the legislative list concern slavery and clearly limit and humanise its function. A Hebrew slave can only work for six years and a female slave cannot be misused. A master that kills his slave is a murderer and a slave that is physically deformed as a result of mistreatment must go free. The connection to the Exodus is also made explicit in the legislation demanding the equal treatment of strangers 'because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. But maybe the most striking lesson learnt from the Exodus is a stark warning of the consequences of bad behaviour. We are enjoined not to oppress the orphan or the widow. If we do so, warns the Torah, G-d will kill us and our wives will be widows and our children orphans. In this blunt admonition we see the object lesson to be learnt from what G-d did to the Egyptians. They oppressed you and G-d intervened on your behalf to punish them. If you oppress others G-d will intervene on their behalf to oppress you. You might think because you are strong you can crush those weaker but remember G-d is stronger than you. We thus see that the Exodus story serves as a basic underlying theme of all the Torah's legislation. It was not merely a historic event but a revolutionary upheaval whose consequences were to lead to the radical restructuring of society based on the ideas of freedom, equality and human dignity revealed by G-d in His redemption of the Jewish people. Those lessons are as valid in today's world as they were then. It is thus the duty of all of us as Jews to see how we can individually and collectively apply them to reshape our world.
Parshat Yitro contains two topics, the establishment of a judicial system and the Revelation at Sinai. It is possible to connect the two subjects in various ways and many have done so. One way of connecting the two is to look at the underlying idea behind these two events. Jethro sees that Moses is judging the people all by himself and regards this as a serious mistake. It is firstly not sustainable but also not the correct way of doing things. He suggests instead the democratisation of the judicial system. There will be various levels of judiciary involving many more people and this will bring the judges and the Law closer to the people. Instead of feeling that the process is something that is distant and not connected to them, they can feel involved. The same idea underlies the Revelation at Sinai. While most of the Torah was revealed through the medium of Moses, at the very beginning of this relationship it was important for G-d to speak to the whole people. It is a cardinal principle of Judaism that our belief in the Torah is not based on the word of an individual who claimed G-d spoke to them but a whole nation heard G-d reveal the Torah. This represents a democratisation of religion. The Torah is not the preserve of a selected group or only one part of the Jewish people but belongs to all of us. It is not owned only by Rabbis or men but is the possession of every individual Jew. Every Jew should be involved in the learning and interpreting of Torah and every Jewish voice should be heard. This is the message that both Jethro and G-d himself tell us in the Parshah and it is a vital message for our generation. In the past it was not always easy for everyone to learn or take part in the discussion. Societal constraints also meant the women and other marginalised groups were often not heard. This created the precise opposite of what Jethro, for example intended. A judicial system close to the people has legitimacy precisely because the people affected by it believe that they are part of the conversation. Excluding people from the Halakhic discourse de-legitimises the conclusions reached by the process and the system itself, which is precisely what has happened in our generation. It is therefore important and vital that women are now taken part in the Halakhic discussion. But we must go further. Just as it is becoming unacceptable to make decisions concerning women without the input of women, so the difficult Halakhic discussions around LGBT issues urgently need Halahicaly informed LGBT voices, and so on. Each individual Jew at Sinai heard G-d's voice as He gave the Torah and established the Halakhic system. Halakha today also needs to be informed by the voice of all Jews.
It is unclear whether the Israelites were aware of the concept of Shabbat before the Exodus. It is possible that the idea, if not the practice, was handed down to them from the Patriarchs. What is clear is the way Shabbat is introduced to them after the Exodus. They are not simply presented with Shabbat through G-d's pronouncement in the Ten Commandments. Rather they learn about Shabbat through experiencing it in connection with the Manna. They have a week of going out every day to collect Manna and not being able to leave any for the next day. Suddenly, on Friday, they are told the opposite. They will gather twice as much as usual and it won't rot if they leave some for the next day. Rather, the next day there will be no Manna. Thus they learn of the concept of Shabbat. Through experiencing Shabbat through the medium of the Manna they learn directly that keeping Shabbat will not negatively affect their livelihood, but they will instead receive the same amount plus the benefit of a days rest. This idea of learning Judaism through experience is not unique to Shabbat. The Sages stated that a maidservant at the Reed Sea had a greater revelation of G-d the Ezekiel the prophet, who saw the Divine Chariot. Unlike, Ezekiel's experience the people's response to the Crossing of the Sea, is recited daily in our prayers. But perhaps no other aspect of Judaism is learnt as well be personal experience as Shabbat. Simply, learning about Shabbat can present it as a long list of things not to do. Shabbat can seem from the outside as a day of obligations and restrictions. Only by experiencing a proper Shabbat can you understand the fantastic feeling that the framework of those very restrictions make possible. It is for this reason that virtually all Jewish outreach programmes have experiencing Shabbat at their heart. Keeping a proper Shabbat with its special atmosphere can simply turn you on to Judaism. On Shabbat Vayakhel/1-2nd March, we are giving you this opportunity. With a special guest presenter, discounted hotels and a full program, you can experience Shabbat the way it is meant to be. Look out for the details and join us in experiencing the greatest gift G-d gave to the Jewish people.
This week's Torah reading marks a change in the nature of the content. Until now the Torah has consisted almost exclusively of narrative, the story of the Patriarchs and the Jews in Egypt. In the middle of the Parshah this changes and the text concentrates on Halakhah, what Jews should do rather than what happened to them. This is a significant moment in the Torah narrative, so much so that Rashi, at the very beginning of the Torah, even postulates that the Torah should have stated at this point, with the first mitzvah. It is not a coincidence that this takes place at the very moment the Jews are about to be liberated from Egypt. The story of the Exodus until now has been one of G-d's actions with the Israelites being passive. This culminates in the sweeping statement at the beginning of the Parshah that future generations of Jews will narrate how G-d played or toyed with the Egyptians, an expression of His unparalleled power. Yet, suddenly on the eve of the Exodus G-d commands the Jews to act. They are to take the Paschal lamb and slaughter and eat it. They are to protect themselves from the last plague by placing blood on their door posts. During the other plagues it was G-d who distinguished between Israel and Egypt, now it is Israel that must make the differentiation themselves. The Sages captured the essence of this moment, when commenting on the first mitzvah, that 'this month shall be for you the first of the months', they emphasised the phrase for you, saying that it is the Jewish people that by observing the moon decide the beginning of the month and the date of the festivals. At this moment, the are telling us, we ceased to become passive recipients of G-d's actions but instead become partners with him in our own redemption and ultimately the redemption of the world. This Parshah thus contains within it the essence of Judaism. It recognises the unparalleled power of G-d and his power to do what He wants in His world. Yet it also emphasises that G-d wants us to be partners with Him in this enterprise. By performing the mitzvot of the Torah, which begin in earnest this week, we become active participants in the process of perfecting the world. We cease to become passive recipients of G-d's power but instead use the abilities that He has given us to work with him. That is the message that the Jews were given on the eve of their liberation from Egypt and it this idea that lies at the heart of all we do as Jews until today.
As we follow the progress of the Ten Plagues we can see that a change happens in Egyptian society. At first there is no indication that the population, or at least the influential among them, oppose Pharaoh's refusal to accede to Moses' demands. As the plagues continue, however, this begins to change. After the plague of lice the magicians, who until now have been scornful of Moses, are forced to admit that this is the work of G-d and not something they have control over. Later, the Torah informs us that some Egyptians 'feared G-d's word' and protected themselves from the plague of hail, while others didn't. When Moses warns of the impending plague of locusts even Pharaoh's own advisers beg him to accede to Moses' demands. Before the final denouement Moses is described as being very important in the eyes of both the populace and Pharaoh's servants. Pharaoh is left alone in his stubborn opposition. It is easy to understand the changing opinion of the populace as plague after plague brings increasing ruin to the country. It is harder to comprehend Pharaoh's refusal to change. After all he experienced the same events as everyone else. One can give various explanations for his attitude by one reason maybe is pre-eminent. In order to give in to Moses, Pharaoh would have had to admit that his previous policy had been wrong or at least mistaken. This he was not capable of doing. He preferred to persist until total disaster overtook him rather than admit he policies had been misguided. This is a phenomenon that is attested to many times in the historical record and always leads to disaster. It also applies to people who are not necessarily in positions of leadership. We have problem doing things differently because to do so seems to us to imply that what we have done until now is wrong. Judaism teaches precisely the opposite. If we are on the wrong path we need to admit what we are doing is not correct and change direction. This does not, however, condemn the past but redeem it. Precisely what we did wrong brought us to the realisation of what we had to do right. Our past actions, rather than being a failure, were a step on the path to our present success. If we adopt this approach, we will be able to admit where we are failing today in order to change for a better tomorrow.
‘And this is the sign that I have sent you: when you will have brought the people out of Egypt, they will serve G-d on this mountain’. All the commentators have struggled with the meaning of this sentence. How is an event that will take place after the Exodus, a sign that G-d will perform the Exodus, which was, after all, Moses’ original request? I would suggest that a solution can be found in G-d’s answer to Moses’ second question: who are You? There, G-d famously replies: ‘I am who I am’, but in fact His real answer comes later. Moses should tell the Jewish people that the G-d of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has spoken to him; and ‘this is My name for ever and My title for all generations’. In other words, the Jews should understand that not an amorphous Deity ensconced in Heaven promises to redeem them, but the G-d of history, and specifically, their history. G-d takes an interest in a bunch of slaves because they are His people and He has connected His name to their destiny. Furthermore, this G-d of their fathers has a purpose for their future. This is the meaning of the enigmatic promise of the Revelation at Sinai, quoted above. G-d will redeem them from Egypt in order to bring them to receive the Torah at Mt Sinai and it is this destiny that will justify their redemption. These answers will convince the people of Moses’ authenticity because they resonate with what they know about themselves. They are aware that they are descendants of men who had a personal relationship with G-d. They are also aware that G-d promised the Patriarchs that their children would have a great destiny that would be of significance for the whole world. Thus, when Moses appears to them, not only speaking in the name of the G-d of their fathers, but also hinting at the great purpose that lies in store for them; they intuitively sense he is speaking the truth and believe him. These two aspects of Jewish belief and history are important to remember; especially in times of crisis, when it may seem G-d has forgotten us. Firstly, G-d is our G-d. He is the G-d who has linked His name to us. Whether for good or bad, what happens to the Jewish people, reflects on G-d. Furthermore, we are essential to his purpose for the world; even if we do not exactly understand how or why. For these reasons we should never despair of Divine help; even when it seems lacking. G-d will never abandon Israel for He is, in this world at least, the G-d of Israel.
Parshat Vayehi is different to all the other Parshiot in the Torah. In every other case a new Parshah begins on a separate line of the text with a clear space between one Parshah and the next Parshah, what is called an open section. Vayehi begins after only the space of a word from the last Parshah, such that in the Torah text itself the beginning of a new Parshah is hardly discernible. Two main reasons are given by the commentators for this phenomenon of a closed section.. Both revolve around the idea of something closed or hidden. One says that upon the death of Jacob the eyes of the Israelites were closed by the beginning of the Egyptian oppression. The other, links up with the fact that Jacob later begins to talk of the 'end of days' and then mentions other things. According to the Sages, Jacob sought to reveal the time of the Redemption but was prevented from doing so. Thus the time of their redemption was closed to his children, hence the closed section. The first explanation has an obvious difficulty as there is no clear evidence that the oppression began with the death of Jacob, indeed according to tradition, it began only with the last of the brothers. Also, with regards to the second explanation, it is not clear why this should be of such significance as to change the text of Torah. What, however, links these two explanations is the concept of a lack of vision. With Jacob's death the central pillar of the family and the link to tradition was gone. The Jews began to assimilate more into Egyptian society until by the time of the Exodus many would have preferred to stay in Egypt. Eventually, for example, only the tribe of Levi bothered to circumcise their children or to generally keep up the traditions of Jacob's household. This also connects to the inability of Jacob to 'reveal the end'. Already by his death, and certainly after it, many of his children had given up on the idea of return to Canaan and were quite comfortable with their life in Egypt. Our Parshah therefore signals the loss of Jewish vision and even identity from the Children of Israel, something that only the harsh experience of Egyptian oppression caused them to rediscover. The loss of this vision, furthermore, and increasing assimilation was also a cause of that very oppression. Thus in a very real way we can understand that the death of Jacob did mark the beginning of the process that led to both physical persecution and spiritual debasement. The lesson for us is clear. If we cease to have a clear Jewish vision, we put both a spiritual and physical existence in jeopardy.
One of the great dramatic scenes in the Torah is the revelation of Joseph to his brothers. It is possible to examine every word Joseph uses and see how he manages this most delicate situation in endeavouring to restore the unity of his family. Just as interesting is to observe, as far as we are able, the body language he employs while doing this. Two actions, in particular, stand out. Firstly, he removes all the Egyptians from the room leaving him alone with his family. This can, of course, be seen as a device of protecting both of them from any embarrassing revelations. But it also removes from him all the trappings of power that surround, leaving him facing his family alone. Secondly, when he sees that his brothers are so shocked they are actually physically recoiling from him, he does something else. He specifically asks them to come close to him. Rashi interprets this as showing them that he was circumcised. One may be question how much a still unknown personage revealing such a thing would have served to calm the brothers. Nevertheless, it can be surmised that some sort more intimate approach is meant. What is Joseph actually doing with these actions and what does it achieve? Joseph is fundamentally making himself vulnerable and in doing so enables his brothers to relate to him in a different way. By removing all the trappings of his status and security and putting himself into intimate physical contact with his brothers he is able to transform himself from an Egyptian ruler into Joseph their brother. By opening up to them he is able to get them to open up to him; by unmasking himself he gets them to accept him as he really is. This can teach us an important lesson. Often in human relationships we are always on our guard. We put up barriers between ourselves an others, not enabling them to see our true character and thus preventing a true relationship. This is especially true when there maybe tension between people. One way of breaking down these barriers is making ourselves vulnerable. By open up our true selves to others we run the risk of rejection or being hurt but by refusing to we close of the possibility of true relationship. That is the choice Joseph faced and by choosing to make himself vulnerable he opened up a new future for himself and his family.
Who sold Joseph? That seems to be a strange question. If you would ask most people who have heard of the story or seen the musical they would say that, of course, the brothers sold Joseph. However, if you look carefully at the verses in our Parshah the situation becomes less clear. The brothers first plan to kill Joseph, then at Reuben's suggestion leave him in a pit to die while they have lunch. Judah then suggests that instead of this they sell him. The Torah then tells us that Midianites passed, they took Joseph from the pit and sold to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt. It is not clear from the text who exactly took Joseph from the pit the they being conceivably the brothers but more simply understood as the Midianites. It is true that Joseph later talks of the brothers having sold him into Egypt but he make not have understood exactly the sequence of events. I would suggest, however, that it is in the end irrelevant because the brother's real crime was not in selling him but the callous way in which they treated him. We can see that this is the crux of the matter from their own words when facing an uncertain future at the hands of the viceroy of Egypt. They explain their present predicament in terms of their inhumane treatment of their brother. 'We saw his distress when he beseeched us but we paid no attention'. It is not what they did to Joseph that troubles their conscience but the fact that they turned a deaf ear to his cries. When their brother was in distress they did nothing and callously sat down to eat lunch. It is this sin that is unforgivable and for which, they believe, that retribution is now being visited upon them. This should serve to teach us an important lesson. We might think that is not so bad to be a bystander. If we don't do anything wrong merely not helping someone else is surely not so bad. The story of Joseph tells us otherwise. The founders of the Jewish people were severely punished precisely for disregarding the plight of their brother, irrespective of whether they actually sold him. When the police tell us that increasingly, when they are trying to deal with incidents, people stop to take pictures rather than offering to help, this is a lesson our society needs to learn. Merely, being a bystander can also be a crime.
One of the more difficult stories in the Torah is that of the rape of Dinah and the massacre of the people of Shechem by Shimon and Levi. While the rape of Jacob's daughter was indeed 'an act that simple should not be done' and deserving of severe punishment, many have questioned her brother's actions. There are various ways of approaching the problem from a legal or moral perspective but I want to start with the words of the brothers themselves. When Jacob challenges their actions, albeit seemingly on practical rather than moral grounds, they reply 'should we treat our sister as a harlot'. In other words if we had done nothing we would be implicitly condoning the rape of Dinah, therefore what we did was justified. They don't actually answer there father's criticism but defect it by saying that they did what they had to and therefore, however unsavoury it was, they could do nothing else. There is of course a fatal flaw in this argument. It is simply a false choice. Not massacring all the people of the city would not have necessarily meant condoning their sister's rape or letting the perpetrators go free. They could have, for example, used the same ruse to rescue their sister while killing Hamor and Shechem, sparing the rest of the city. If they wanted to punish the city for seeming complicity, they could have merely despoiled them or disabled them in another way, ensuring they could not pursue them. Instead they chose the most extreme course of action and justified it by saying it was the only course of action. This is unfortunately a not uncommon phenomenon. If you want to do something risky or immoderate, one of the ways to persuade other people to go along with you is to pretend that this course of action is the only feasible one. We have seen this in the Brexit debate, where those who want to pursue the most extreme form of leaving the European Union insist that only their plans fulfil the wishes of the people as expressed in the referendum. This is of course patently nonsense. Similarly, certain politicians pursue extreme ant-immigration policies contending that this is the only way to deal with the problem. Of course, this is not accurate and, indeed, many of these policies are immoral and impractical and often make matters worse. The fact is that if you hear someone advocating a certain course of action on the basis that it is the only possible solution, you should probably reject it out of hand. Not only are there other solutions to the problem but the 'only possible solution' is probably the worst and most damaging of them all.
'If G-d will be with me and guard me on my way and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and bring me back to my father's house in peace, then G-d will be my G-d'. These words of Jacob after G-d revealed himself to him in Bet El are surprising. Firstly, G-d has just promised him that He would be with him and bring him home safely, so why is he seemingly doubting it. Also, what are the implications of Jacob's words. If G-d will not do this then he will not be for him his G-d? I don't think it is tenable to think that Jacob is doubting g-d's promises or threatening to abandon Him if they are not fulfilled. Rather I think that Jacob is asking for something else. What he really wants can be gleaned by an interesting interpretation of a verse is Psalm 92, the Psalm of Shabbat. There we give say that 'it is good to give thanks to G-d; to tell of His mercies in the morning and his faithfulness/belief (emunatcha) at night'. This last phrase can be seen as saying that we praise G-d for showering us with good when things are going well and keeping faith with us when things are going not so well. But it also can mean that G-d believes in us in times of trouble. G-d has faith in our ability to overcome the challenges we are faced with, even if we are not so sure. The Psalmist is saying that he gains confidence in adversity from the fact that G-d believes in him. If we return to Jacob, we can postulate that this is what he is actually asking for. Jacob is described as a 'quiet person dwelling in tents'. Growing up with the alpha male character of Esau he may have lacked confidence. Especially since he is now being forced to flee from home and his mother's protection to face an unknown future. He may not have really believed in his ability to provide for himself, even though G-d has just promised him that he won't starve. What Jacob really wants G-d to reassure him of, is that he has the strength within him to cope with his new life. He is really saying: if you G-d truly believe that I have the ability to do what you expect of me and enable these promises to be fulfilled, then I will be able to serve you. This concept is an important component of our spiritual life. Our biggest obstacle in doing what we should do is often not the will to do it but the belief that we are unable to achieve our goal. We need to have the belief in ourselves what we really can do it. Like the Psalmist, we need to pray that G-d has confidence in us in order to be able to go forward. Sometimes in order to believe in G-d we need to accept that G-d believes in us.
When Jacob demands from a hungry Esau his birthright in return for feeding him Esau replies that 'I am going to die, what use is a birthright'? Simplistically this can be seen as a sign of Esau's complete disregard of his birthright and total emphasis on physical gratification. Not wanting to wait even a short time to satisfy his hunger, he is prepared to sell even his birthright for immediate gratification of his desires. The Sages, however, looked a bit deeper and understood a more complex motive for Esau's action. They connect Esau's statement of impending mortality with the birthright itself. Esau states that he is going to die because of the birthright. The inheritance of Abraham, which for the Sages has at its heart fidelity to the Torah, contains a sting. The Torah is full of dire consequences for disobeying its tenets, especially with regard to the sacrificial service, which Esau as the first-born would be expected to perform. Looking at this birthright Esau decides that its risks outweigh its promised rewards and he would rather leave both to Jacob. We see this phenomenon later on in the relationship between the two brothers. When the Torah gives the list of Esau's descendants it mentions that he moved himself from Canaan to Seir, 'because of Jacob his brother'. Again eschewing a simple explanation the Sages connect this to Jacob's historical destiny. Esau deliberately surrenders possession of the Land of Israel to Jacob, because of the price tag that is attached to it. It is true that G-d promises Abraham possession of the Land, but only after centuries of exile and oppression. Looking at this scenario Esau decides that it is not for him and is quite happy to leave both the Land and its cost to his brother. In the rabbinic interpretations of these events, we have therefore the essence of the choice that Jews by following G-d have made. We are promised a glorious future, whether possession of the Land or the other blessings that the Torah sets out. But there is a sting in the tail. These good things come only after a significant delay and after suffering. For Jews nothing comes easy. We can see this in the interposition of the descendants of Abraham's brother Nachor after the Akedah. Isaac, Abraham's legacy, has escaped death by a whisker. Yet Nachor who chose not to follow G-d's voice has already had twelve children, something delayed in Abraham's family for another two generations. In another words, not following G-d, not being Jewish, is a lot easier. That indeed has been the choice of many Jews throughout the generations. It is easier simply to assimilate or if necessary convert rather than bear the present burden for future pay-off. That was the path of Esau. Those that remain, therefore, are even more worthy of praise and blessing. Being Jewish may not be easy but it is also extraordinary.
In our prayers we talk of the G-d of Abraham', and Isaac and Jacob. We also talk of 'my G-d'. How are we do understand these designations. Surely G-d is the G-d of everyone and everything and beyond any private definition? Abraham provides us with an answer. At the end of the Parshah Abraham has to decide the distribution of his possessions in advance of his impending demise. Choosing to make Isaac his primary inheritor, the Torah tells us that he gave his other children presents and sent them away to the east. The nature of these gifts was the subject of various opinions of the commentators, many of whom saw them as indicating spiritual gifts. Some saw in these gifts the source of the wisdom found in eastern religions. What these comments tell us is very profound. Abraham had his own special spirituality and relationship with G-d, the core of which he bequeathed to Isaac and thus the Jewish people. Yet he was also able to impart spiritual gifts and their own relationship with G-d to his other children. Each of them had their own ability to connect to the Divine that was distinct from that of their brothers and distinct from that of Isaac. Each of them had in a real sense his own unique relationship to G-d and could talk of 'my G-d'. G-d is of course all encompassing and beyond any human definition. But precisely because of that G-d is able to be the unique G-d of each individual and group/nation. Because G-d created each person and made each individual unique, so He is able to relate in a unique way to that individual. In forging a relationship with the Divine each of us has to found our own individual 'G-d'. The way someone else relates to G-d is not appropriate for us and they way we connect to Him a mistake for them. Of course, Jews, especially, also relate to G-d as a group and indeed, that is a basic component of Jewish spirituality. Yet in the same way that model is not suitable for a non-Jew. This explains why the Sages objected to non-Jews following various Jewish practices, like keeping Shabbat. It is simply not their appropriate means of connecting to G-d. What Abraham's legacy teaches us is that all of us have to find our own unique personal way of relating to G-d which is distinct from others path. That way, when we pray, we can truly acknowledge 'my G-d'.
The Parshah opens with the visit of three travellers to Abraham as he is recovering from his circumcision. During the course of this visit it becomes apparent that these are no ordinary visitors but messengers of G-d who are later called angels. One fascinating aspect of this story is the use l of the word for 'lords' in Hebrew when addressing this group of visitors. The plural of lord, as we know, is the commonly pronounced name for G-d, especially when we want to enunciate the unpronounceable four letter name. Interestingly, also, G-d Himself makes an appearance at the end of this section, rebuking Sarah for her disbelief and later on, Lot asks the angel to save the city of Zoar, something only G-d can do. Indeed, the whole section opens with the statement that G-d appeared to Abraham, yet G-d Himself hardly appears. This mixing of the divine and human is brought out in the rabbinic discussions about the precise meaning of the repeated to references to 'lords' mentioned above. Who is being addressed, G-d or the angels/visitors? In rabbinic parlance, is this term holy or profane? It is never quite clear and there are different opinions, sometimes with more than one option being brought by the same commentator. This confusion actually can teach us an important lesson. There are many ways to receive a message from G-d, not all of them direct. When Abraham sees three men standing by the road, he doesn't know that they are messengers of G-d who will bring him tidings of the future birth of Isaac. What he perceives is that he has before him three weary travellers who need to be looked after, and he acts accordingly. Only afterwards does he realise the import of their visit. The same is true for us in our lives. G-d may not speak directly to us but we can find the Divine in other people. It could be in someone who gives us good advice or the elderly neighbour that we visit. G-d is not only encountered in the synagogue but can be perceived on the street or in the supermarket. Many Hassidic stories bring out this theme, speaking of poor people that later turn out to be holy men or Elijah the prophet. When helping someone in need or simply smiling at a passer-by on the street, we can actually be encountering G-d. Abraham, received a message G-d by offering hospitality to strangers, even though he could have simply ignored them. We should consider that next time we encounter someone in need and help them or buy some food for a homeless person on the street, we may really, like Abraham, be encountering an angel or even G-d Himself.
With Abraham on his journey to Canaan was his nephew Lot. Their relationship, however, was not a simple one and at a certain stage Abraham decides it is better for both of them if they part company. Lot then goes to Sodom and taken captive in a regional war and has to rescued by Abraham. The final break seems to come after the destruction of Sodom, where Lot again has to be rescued, after which Abraham moves to Beersheva and seems to lose contact with his nephew. This fractured relationship raises questions especially considering Abraham's cordial relations with his idolatrous neighbours. He manages to get along quite well with his fellow townsmen in Hebron, the Philistines and even reaches an accommodation with the king of Sodom. Yet with his nephew he doesn't manage to live in harmony. The Sages understand Abraham's suggestion of separation, as indicating a profound ideological division, especially as Lot chooses to live in the wicked city of Sodom. Lot is seen as choosing the materialism of Sodom, despite its evil reputation, over the spiritual inheritance of Abraham. This gives us an indication as to the motive for Abraham's behaviour. With Abraham's neighbours the boundaries were distinct. They were clearly idolaters, not sharing Abraham's faith or ideology. It was thus easy to carry on respectful relations within the boundaries understood to be imposed by this difference. With Lot things were less clear. Lot was family and to a certain extent shared Abraham's faith. Yet he took it in a direction that Abraham could not concur with. In such a situation, precisely because of their close relationship, Abraham decided that it was necessary to separate. At the same time he retained basic family ties and was on hand to assist when Lot got into trouble. This distinction is instructive when we contemplate the difference between inter-faith and intra-faith relations. When we deal with people of other faiths the boundaries are clear and it is thus quite easy to have cordial relations and joint activities, sometimes even inter-faith ceremonies for special events. When we are dealing with people of the same faith as ourselves things become more complicated. It is precisely because we share a faith that we need to clearly delineate our different approaches to the practice of that faith. While co-operation in many spheres and mutually respectful relations are important in the religious sphere we need to be cautious. Precisely because we are so close we need to enunciate clearly were we cannot agree. This is not disrespectful, precisely the opposite. By separating our religious activities, we show respect to the integrity of the others difference. Like with Abraham and Lot, it is precisely that separation that makes it possible for us to be united.
'Noah was a righteous man in his generation'. The Sages noted the qualifying clause of this description and gave two possible explanations of its meaning. On the one hand, it could mean that in even Noah's wicked generation he was righteous, how much more so would he have been so in a righteous generation. The alternate explanation is that Noah compared to his generation was considered righteous but in a the generation of Abraham, for example, he would have not been considered anything special. We may ask the point behind these comments, other than to explain a seemingly superfluous word in the Torah. In both cases Noah is righteous and his generation is wicked, In both cases he withstands the temptation to fit in with society and follows his own path. I believe we can tease out meaning from these explanations by noting the comparison to Abraham. A major difference between Abraham and Noah of course is their reaction when informed of the impending destruction of their neighbours. Abraham, famously, seeks to avert the catastrophe while Noah does nothing and saves himself. This can throw a light on what sort of righteous person Noah was and what his relationship was with his society and also help us understand the two possibilities set out by the midrash. According to the first explanation, Noah was a true tzaddik and it wouldn't matter what generation he was in. His righteousness was not connected to his relationship with his society but to his own internal morality. According to this, he could very well have tried in vain to warn his generation, indeed building the Ark can be seen in this light. The less complimentary scenario is that Noah's righteousness was a function of his society. He was righteous not necessarily because of himself but because he simply was estranged from his society and thus did the opposite to them. His righteousness would thus be a function of what we would call today an anti-social attitude, which would also explain why he seemed to be indifferent to the impending destruction of his society. This type of person is called in Hassidic though a 'tzaddik in peltz', a person that warms themselves by wearing furs but doesn't bother to help the others around them by lighting a fire. By offering us these two possibilities of understanding Noah's character, the Sages are enabling us to examine ourselves and our own relationship with the society around us. Does our religion cause us to interact positively and to care for others or do we retreat into ourselves and become indifferent to those around us? What kind of tzaddik are you?
When we start the Torah again at the beginning it is not long before we encounter problems. While the first two sections seem to show a perfect creation, things soon go wrong, with the first humans going astray in the Garden of Eden. This is followed by murder and more mayhem until at the end of Parshah G-d basically decides to abandon the whole project. Yet, according to the Sages, it begins even earlier. In the first days of creation, which seem so perfect and order, there is already rebellion and disharmony. From the wording of the text the Rabbis deduce that the trees rebelled and instead of their bark and fruit having the same taste as commanded, they had different tastes. Next, the moon complains about having two luminaries the same size and is diminished. Thus problems seem to exist in the very fabric of creation from the beginning. Indeed, it can be understood, that the Torah itself reflects this. Rashi's very first comment on the Torah, explains a dissonance in the books very structure. The Torah ideally should of started with the first mitzvah in Exodus, but because people might dispute the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, we have to begin with creation, in order to establish G-d's sovereignty and His right to give the Land to the Jews. Thus the Torah itself is structured to take in imperfection. One could say that the book of Genesis or the whole Torah, is a book of mistakes and failings. However, this teaches us a different lesson about ourselves and the world around us. By it's very nature the universe is imperfect and so are we. Only G-d, in the end can embody true perfection and everything else must be by definition not perfect. Thus it is not surprising that we discover all these problems right from the beginning of the story. The purpose of the Torah, however, is not to depress us with our mistakes but to teach us how to overcome and surpass them. The Torah is not a book of failure but a book of growth, and nowhere more so than in its first book. From Genesis we learn the power of repentance and forgiveness, standing up for others and moving forward from failure. From Adam and Eve to Joseph and his brothers we learn what it is to be human, with human failings and strengths and how to live a meaningful life in an imperfect world. So as we begin again to read the complex yet simply profound narratives of Genesis, let us take lessons from them for our own imperfect lives and most of all learn to grow.