As part of the rebuke contained in Moses’ song, G-d states that as they have vexed Him with non-divinities, He will punish them with a non-nation. One can see this warning simply as a case of measure for measure, G-d punishing the people with the means whereby they transgressed. Yet it is possible to understand it in an even more profound sense with reference to a difficult passage at the end of the vidiu or confession we say on Yom Kippur. After listing our many transgressions, we state that G-d is justified in everything that has happened to us for He has acted truthfully and we have been transgressed. Being that some of what happens to us and the context in which we live may cause us to struggle to do the right thing or keep the mitzvot, what are we saying here? I think that we are being asked to be brutally honest and admit that while it is true that our circumstances may be responsible for some of our straying from the path, if we reflect on it we will realise that it is our decisions and mistakes that have led us to this situation. In the same way, G-d is warning the people that the punishment of destruction and exile at the hands of a foreign nation, will be a direct consequence of their following after false ideals and making misguided decisions. For example, It was a hankering after Roman power and culturet that caused the Maccabees to send the initial delegations to the Romans and Jewish disunity that caused Pompey to conquer Judea in the first place. In the same way, often we have made decisions in the past that have led us to the difficult situation we now find ourselves. This is of course, extremely relevant for us today. If we are facing rising infection rates and tightening restrictions we only have ourselves to blame. It is our irresponsibility and mistaken decisions that have led us to this point. We cannot blame G-d or even the government, for a situation which has been led to by our own misguided actions. Truly this year more than ever we need to admit that if we are in the difficult situation we are in it is our fault. ‘You are righteous concerning everything that has happened for we are responsible’.
The first section in the Parshah ends with the statement that the secret thing are for G-d but the revealed things are for us, in order to observe the Torah. The commentators have given various interpretations to this enigmatic sentence but the most common is to connect it to the passage immediately preceding. The Torah warns the individual not to ignore the words of the covenant and think that they are in some way exempt. If they do so thinking ‘I’ll be alright’ not only will they be punished but the Torah then goes on to describe the destruction of the whole land and the exile of the nation. The action of one individual, the Torah warns us, can have dire consequences for all of us. This is the concept of mutual responsibility known in Hebrew as arvut, which is a basic component of Jewish morality. The actions of one Jew can affect the reputation and welfare of all Jews. One may therefore think that you need to spy on people or set up a Jewish vice squad. The Torah thus tells us that what is done in private G-d will deal with but for public violations of the covenant the community are responsible. This lesson is of course of especial importance for us today. Of course in general at the moment, the actions of every individual have a serious effect on the well being of society. We have, unfortunately, seen ample evidence of that recently in Aberdeen and Glasgow. Yet this is especially true of the Jewish community. When Jews as individuals or groups see fit to ignore the regulations, believing that they don’t apply to them or devising their own creative interpretation as to their meaning, they bring the whole Jewish community into disrepute. We have, unfortunately, also seen evidence of this in recent times. How then should we respond. Are we responsible for how other groups or individuals behave? The answer is yes. They may not listen to us if we seek to dissuade them from their actions, but we have the duty to express our disapproval. Furthermore we must in no way support or condone such activities. We must not as individuals or a community, take part in or advertise any activity by other Jews that breaches government regulations and by doing so damages the reputation of the whole Jewish community creating a hillul hashem or profanation of G-d’s name. We cannot force people to listen to us, that the Torah does not require. What it does demand is that we distance ourselves from those that behave incorrectly, thus preventing the individual from infecting the group. Something that should now be basic for all of us.
The first aliyah in the Parshah deals with the mitzvah of Bikurim or First Fruits. As part of the ceremony of bringing the first fruits, the farmer makes a declaration of thanksgiving that includes a synopsis of Jewish history. Four lines of this statement are familiar to us from the Pesach Haggadah where they they form the centrepiece of the narration of the Exodus. The first three words of this section are famously unclear and the subject of differing interpretations. The Torah states’ arami oved avi’, which depending on whether you understand oved as a verb or an adjective, means either ‘an Aramean sought to destroy my father’ or ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’. The first explanation, familiar to us from the Haggadah, posits that Laban the Aramean sought to destroy Jacob and therefore he went down to Egypt. The other sees Jacob as the wandering Aramean who descended to Egypt. Both are difficult from a historical perspective as Laban was not the cause of Jacob’s descent to Egypt and it is not clear why Jacob should be called a wandering Aramean. I would like to suggest that if we look at the actual descent to Egypt in light of this verse we can see that the two understandings are in fact opposite sides of the same coin. Jacob went down to Egypt because of the story of Joseph, occasioned by the brothers hatred of and crime against him. The root cause of this discord can indeed be traced to Jacob, whose obvious preference for Joseph was the source of the discord in the family. Yet, if you wish, you can also blame Laban for this situation. Had he not deceived Jacob and forced him to marry both sisters, the basic rivalry that was the source of this strife would have been avoided. Indeed some commentators explain our verse in just such a way. Thus, both understandings of this phrase can be correct. Both Jacob and Laban are responsible in some way for the descent to Egypt and what followed. This teaches us an important lesson. In contemplating both historical events and our own personal history, it is easy to blame others, as the Haggadah does Laban. But often, we also bear responsibility and sometimes it is hard to discern where one ends and the other begins. For example, the revolt against Rome was a mistake that led to the destruction of the Temple and centuries of exile. But the proximate cause of the revolt was Roman misrule. Yet, history teaches us, it was intra-Jewish strife that occasioned the original Roman takeover to begin with. So who is really responsible? It is not so easy to decide. This famous passage thus teaches us not to be to hasty to assign blame because often we may be more responsible for our misfortunes than we would like to admit.
The first of the numerous mitzvot that make up our Parshah is the law of the female captive. The Torah mandates that a woman captured in war cannot be treated as a slave or concubine but must be dealt with in a humane many. She is given a month to mourn her family and then must be married and becomes a normal wife with the same rights. If the man no longer wants her he must let her go free. Concerning the rationale behind steps needed to be taken before the man can marry her, which are basically practices associated with mourning, there are two different approaches taken by the commentators. One sees these stipulations in a purely humanitarian light. This woman has been torn from her family and her country and taken into the house of a strange man whom she is expected to marry. The Torah gives her the space and time to properly mourn her loss and reconcile herself to her new life and family. The other, however, sees these mourning practices as a ploy to make her unattractive to her intended spouse. They regard the Torah’s legitimisation of this shotgun marriage as a concession to human weakness and such liaisons are to be discouraged. These rules are therefore designed to dissuade the man from eventually marrying her and thus preventing a relationship the Torah regards as injurious to both parties as well as to the integrity of the Jewish people. These two rationales can be seen as contradictory but are not necessarily so. Firstly, the Torah can have more than one reason for promulgating such a rule. But looking deeper we can discern that the Torah is concerned for the welfare of the woman as well as for that of the community. As traditionally understood, the juxtaposition of this mitzvah to those of the loved and hated wives and the delinquent child, indicate the likely negative outcome of such a marriage. Such a scenario is not only bad for both parties but undermines the health of society. Thus in promulgating rules designed to safeguard the captive women’s human rights and well being the Torah is also protecting the well being and future of the Jewish people. Rather than being contradictory, the two rationales for this mitzvah are actually complementary and in fact stem from the same essential ideal. This contains an important lesson for our generation. It is often thought that upholding human rights and preserving Jewish values are in conflict in many sensitive areas, especially with regard to human relationships. What this mitzvah teaches us is that this is not actually correct. If we are prepared to examine these issues in a deeper manner we will see that the ideals that underpin both of these concepts are similar. Protecting Jewish values must be done with sensitivity to human dignity, for that in itself is a prime Jewish value and being mindful of the need for such sensitivity will ultimately lead to the strengthening of the other values we seek to protect.
As part of the discussing of the structure of government once the Israelites enter into the Land, the Torah talks of the establishment of a High Court. In a case of doubt as to the interpretation of the Torah one should go to ‘the place G-d will choose’ and listen to the judge that will be at that time. The Torah commands that we should follow their decision and not deviate right or left. This mitzvah of ‘lo tasur’ is the basis of rabbinic authority. On this verse the Midrash comments ‘even if they say that your right is your left’. This seems to indicate that we should follow the Rabbis even when they seem to be clearly talking nonsense. Nahmanidies and others however, explain this in a slightly different way. The Torah creates a system for interpreting the itself that depends on the exercise of human rationality. While there are rules restricting the latitude of interpretation, its basically up to us. Yet we cannot have everyone coming up with there own interpretation and acting on it. For this reason, the general principle is that we follow the majority opinion of the Sages. Yet what happens if it as clear to you as the difference between right and left that your are right and they are wrong? Even so you must bow to their opinion. Nahmanidies brings as an illustration the famous case when the head of the Sanhedrin or High Court forced Rabbi Joshua to break Yom Kippur according to his calculation of the correct day, in order to uphold the determination of the majority. Furthermore, this decision of the Sages is the true meaning of the Torah, even if it is as mistaken as mixing up right and left. Because the Torah has given to the sages of each generation the ability and duty to interpret the Torah for their generation, their decisions are the way the Torah was meant to be understood. To use another example. This year Rosh Hashanah and Succot fall on Shabbat, meaning we do not blow the Shofar or take the Lulav on these days, even though to do so is a Torah commandment. Yet because the same Torah gave the Sages the power to instruct us not perform these mitzvot on Shabbat, it is as if we are no longer commanded. Indeed someone who blows the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that falls on Shabbat is not fulfilling the Torah but breaking it. In this manner the Torah ensured the flexibility of the Torah and its eternal relevance while maintaining its intergrity and the unity of the Jewish people.
One of the more interesting mitzvot found in this week’s Parshah, is that of lo titkoddadu. The Torah commands us not to make a scar on ourselves for a dead person. Self-mutilation in grief at a bereavement was quite a common practice in many cultures. The Torah forbids this practice; either because it regards the body as holy and forbids self-mutilation in general, or because it shows a lack of acceptance of G-d’s judgement. This phrase, however, is more generally known for the extra meaning the Rabbis gave it. Using a play on words from the word gedud or group, the Rabbis interpreted this verse as also forbidding us separating into different groups, rather than a united community. Issues that come under this rubric include not having two different customs or liturgies in one synagogue or different Halakhic standards in one community. It is instructive to compare the philosophical basis of the rabbinic interpretation with the literal meaning found in the Torah. A person who self-mutilates themselves, attacks their own body. In seeking to achieve an emotional or spiritual end, in this case appropriate grief, they actually attack that which sustains them. The same can be said about dividing the Jewish people up according to competing ideological viewpoints. When Shimshon Raphael Hirsch set up an ausgemeinde, or separate community in Frankfort, seeking to totally separate from the Reform, one of the greatest Rabbis of the time harshly condemned him. The Netziv called what he did, putting a sword in a living body. Just as we do not harm our bodies for ideological reasons, neither should we harm the organic body of the Jewish people. Many of the commentators also see the Torah prohibition as condemning a lack of faith. Extreme actions upon the death of a loved one, demonstrate a lack of belief in both the ultimate justice of G-d and immortality. In a like vein we can look at the rabbinical interpretation. Those who engage in dividing up the Jewish people into various sects, based on their own ideological convictions, show a certainty and arrogance that is incompatible with true faith. We may all have our own ideas about what is right, but in the end, only G-d can decide. We should learn from our Sages who put Jewish unity above any group or idea.
The centre of our Parshah consists of the retelling of the story of the Golden Calf. This is part of a wider list of rebellions in the desert that Moses mentions. Indeed he states that ‘you have been rebellious against G-d ever since I have known you’. One can ask what the purpose is served by this recollection? Most, if not all, of the incidents mentioned occurred during the time of the previous generation, so what educational benefit is there in recalling to the children the sins of their fathers? Surely, by emphasising to children the deficiencies of their parents you are undermining their confidence in the possibility to behave differently? Moses himself, however, gives the rationale for relating this compendium of errors. The Israelites are on the cusp of the successful conquest of the Land from people more numerous and more powerful than them. They may be tempted to think that this success has come about because of their righteousness and moral superiority. Therefore, Moses reminds them that they are not so wonderful. They should remember their past behaviour as a people. This, however, also requires explanation. Following this section we read the second paragraph of the Shema that links success with obedience to the Torah as well as catastrophe with disobedience. So why is it wrong if things go well to think that is because you are behaving correctly? Other than the danger of complacency I believe there is another more insidious consequence of such a mindset. When we succeed in our endeavours, we can begin to believe that not only are we possibly doing the right thing but that we are right and everyone else is wrong. For religious people success can breed the dangerous illusion of believing that G-d is definitely on our side and we are empowered to speak and act in his name. This can underpin to a religious arrogance that is can easily lead to intolerance and worse. It is this type of thinking, for example, that has already seen various religious groups declare that they know why we currently are facing a pandemic, something we have unfortunately seen in other situations. Therefore Moses reminds the people that they are not perfect and the fact of their success doesn’t mean that they can self-righteously assume they know G-d’s will. Their prosperity should instil in them a sense of gratitude not arrogance. This is a lesson that unfortunately some people still need to learn.
The book of Deuteronomy contains various warnings that disobedience to G-d will lead to destruction and exile. In several places, including in the warning in our Parshah, the Torah also predicts that in exile the Jews will be forced to serve idols. This seems a strange thing to threaten, being that they are being punished for precisely this behaviour. We can maybe understand this by analysing the beginning of the Parshah where Moses asks for and is refused, entry into the Land. Aviva Zornberg questions why Moses is relating this private encounter with G-d to the people. She brings various midrashim that postulate that Moses expected the people to pray to G-d for him about this matter as he had so often prayed for them. Unfortunately they didn’t get the hint and this is the source of Moses’ statement, repeated several times, that he was barred from the Land because of the people. What the Midrash and later commentators point out is that the Jews did not merit to have Moses lead them into the land, with all the messianic possibilities that entailed, because they did not appreciate him. Only in the book of Joshua, after Moses’ death, is there any appreciation of his pivotal role. I would suggest that the same rationale applies to the threat of serving idols in exile. While living in the Land the people didn’t appreciate the uniqueness of their connection to G-d and disregarded it by hankering after the divinities of their neighbours. Only when in exile and forced to serve those same gods did they appreciate what they had lost. We find, indeed, that after the Babylonian exile idolatry is never again a problem. The salutary lesson of losing what they had never really appreciated, caused a complete transformation in their attitude. In this vein, we may reflect our situation over the past few months. We have, unfortunately, been unable to hold services in the synagogue. While we have created virtual replacements which have been successful, we have not been able to physically join together for prayer. In reflecting on this we can ask ourselves how much we appreciated being able to come to shule or did we not really value it until we had it taken away from us. As we slowly begin to return to physical proximity, the time is perhaps apposite to appreciate anew what we can so easily loose.
The book of Deuteronomy is unique in recording the speech of Moses rather than of G-d. In it Moses recounts the history of the Exodus and the desert wanderings, restates many of the laws promulgated earlier and adds new legislation suited to life in the Land. Yet he doesn’t merely repeat what has been said before or recount history but engages in something more profound. He in fact gives his interpretation of the history of the people up to this point. He does not merely recount to them dry facts as a disinterested observer but intimately reveals to the people his understanding of these events and even how they emotionally affected him. The modern biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg brilliantly analyses how in Deuteronomy Moses reveals to the people the effect their behaviour has had on him. For example, in our Parshah, while reviewing the sin of the spies, he states that because of the people’s actions he was barred from entering the Land. We thus, in this book, are privileged to see the events of the Torah through the subjective and human vision of Moses, not only through the Divine narration of the rest of the Torah. I would like to suggest that this is not only true of the narrative portions of the book but also the legal content. In reviewing the legislation found in the other books of the Torah, Moses gives us his vision of their meaning. We see that various laws, including the Ten Commandments, stated elsewhere are formulated in a slightly different way in Deuteronomy,. These variations, often only of emphasis or context, could represent Moses’ own understanding of the mitzvot, his personal and subjective response to G-d’s commands. This is no way diminishes their validity, as Moses through his unique prophecy, is the conduit of Torah as a whole. What Moses is doing, however, is beginning the process of understanding and actualising the mitzvot found in the Torah. In some ways, therefore, the book of Deuteronomy, while irreducibly part of the Written Torah, is also the beginning of the Oral Torah and of the process of elucidation and interpretation of the text that continues to today. In engaging personally with the Divine commands and interpreting them for a new generation, Moses is teaching us that we to must engage personally with Torah, bringing our own unique perspective on its meaning and relevance for our lives and our generation.
The two last Parshiot in the book of Numbers, are quite distinct and more akin to the book of Deuteronomy than the rest of the book and indeed the rest of the Torah. They mark the pivot from the wanderings in the wilderness to the entry in the Land and are, like Deuteronomy, mostly focused on the later. In this context, the Torah, at the beginning of Parshat Masei, gives a list of all the resting places of the Israelites on the journey from Egypt to the borders of the Land. The Rabbis compared this to a father who went on a journey with his child. On their return they reminisce about the various events that occurred to them on the journey. Similarly, G-d recounts to the Israelites the vicissitudes of their journey through the wilderness. In a like manner, Moses begins the book of Deuteronomy with a list of place names, each symbolising an incident on the journey. Based on Jeremiah’s comparison of the Israelites following G-d into the wilderness to a betrothed following her beloved, we can achieve another perspective on this record. Rather than merely being the record of a journey it is the mapping of a changing relationship. Each place name represents another nuance in the evolving relationship between G-d and his people. Like a couple’s relationship is different approaching the end of their courtship than at its beginning, so Israel’s relationship with G-d was significantly transformed by the end of forty years of wandering. Indeed, returning to the parable of the journey, the relationship between the father and his child would not have been the same after their trip. The journey itself would have changed them. We too are on a journey, one none of us wanted and that none of us could have conceived of only a few months ago. This journey has forced us to adapt in ways we may not have thought possible. When, at an indeterminate time in the future, this journey finally ends, we will not be the same people we were when it began. As we begin to see a possible light at the end of the tunnel, we can begin to take stock as individuals, as a community and a nation, of where we have been and how we have changed.. This week, when we read of the journey of our ancestors through the wilderness and how it affected them, let us also reflect on our current journey and how it has and is transforming us.
This week we read about two very different sets of characters who have more in common than we might think. We begin with Pinchas who takes the law into his own hands but by doing so saves the Jewish people. He engages in a violent act which is only retroactively sanctioned by the law. Had he gone and asked Moses, for example, he would have had to be told that he shouldn’t behave in such a way. Yet once he carried out his unsanctioned act, he was praised and rewarded by G-d Himself. Later on in the Parshah we are told the story of the daughters of Zelophchad. According to the law as it stood, they could not inherit their father’s estate. Yet they chose to challenge this understanding and demanded of Moses an answer why they should also not inherit. Moses consults with G-d and comes back with the answer that indeed these five women are correct and they should be able to inherit. Furthermore, this ruling is then established as the normative law of inheritance. What connects these cases, other than the courage of the characters, is the interplay between established law and individual action and between what is and what could be. In both these cases the law changes or is clarified through the actions of individuals who go beyond or even outside of the law. Without there illegal intervention the law would have not changed. By breaking or challenging the law they actually reinforce and strengthen it for a new circumstance. This idea of ‘creating facts on the ground’ is known to us from Zionist history and social action movements but is not normally seen as part of the legal system itself. Yet in Judaism, maybe surprisingly, it can be. For example, concerning a dispute between the Sages over blowing the shofar on Shabbat in the main rabbinical court in Yavneh, one side simply went ahead and blew and when their opponents wanted to continue discuss the matter answered ‘the shofar has already been blown’. In other words the law has been established in practice so there is nothing more to discuss. While deciding between different interpretations rather than changing the law, the same holds true. For example, if Ruth had not come along no one would have clarified the law that the prohibition on Moabites converting only applies to men. Just as in the Parshah the law is clarified or established by Pinchas’ and Zelophchad’s daughter’s actions. To use a modern example, if no woman ever wanted to say kaddish, no rabbi would have ever considered the issue. If Sarah Schenirer hadn’t challenged the rabbis over her day, Jewish women’s education would have looked very different. As we contemplate the social and religious challenges of Judaism today, we need to ask who will our Pinchas or Tzelochad’s daughters be?
This year we read on the same Shabbat the incident of Moses and the well and the story of Balaam. This enables us to compare the two incidents and the two characters. Surprisingly, the sages stated that Balaam was a prophet who was, at least in potential, on par with Moses. One of course is the pre-eminent teacher of Torah, while the other an astrologer that wanted to destroy the Jewish people. Yet as the narrative we read this week informs us, neither were one dimensional characters. Moses fails an important test and is severely punished while the heathen astrologer pronounces words inscribed in the Torah and used in our liturgy. These stories teach us that even the greatest of our prophets failed and the worst of our enemies, at least temporarily, sang our praises. This should teach us that we should neither idolise our heroes not totally dismiss our opponents. On the other hand, as the Rabbis also point out, there is, in the end, no real equivalence between Moses and Balaam or their disciples. The path of one leads to a morality and life while the other leads to degeneracy and perdition. One could think, reading only the book of Numbers with its rebellions and failures that Moses didn’t really succeed. On the other hand looking at the beautiful prose of Balaam’s prophecies you could draw the conclusion that here was a truly inspired prophet and thinker. Yet one took a bunch of slaves and made them into a holy nation, while the other couldn’t even cope with his donkey. Again, superficial judgements would lead you to a totally erroneous conclusion. The juxtaposition of these two stories enables us, therefore, to learn an important lesson. In evaluating people we should always strive to look below the surface. On the one hand, no one is totally good or totally bad. On the other outward appearances can often deceive. Some people are good at putting on a show, others not forward at displaying their true qualities. In the end, you can’t really judge a book by its cover.
At the end of the Parshah the Levites are commanded to be given a tenth of all produce. They are in turn commanded to take a tenth of what they are given and give it to the priests. Given that the priests are already supported by the tithe from the Israelites and the Levites are themselves supported by a tithe, why are they required to give some of it to the priests? An answer to this question may lie elsewhere in the Parshah. When the Moses confronts the rebels from the tribe of Reuben they accuse him of misleading them. He has brought them up from a land of milk and honey in order to perish in the wilderness. Other than the absurd inversion of the land of slavery into a paradise, their basic accusation is that Moses is responsible for the catastrophe that has overcome them. Of course, as we saw last week, the peoples own lack of belief and refusal to forward, lead to them having to die in the wilderness. Instead, however, of taking responsibility for their own actions, they choose to blame someone else. If it is Moses’ fault they don’t have to face up to the consequences of their own folly and can wallow in their feeling of victimhood and ultimate dependency. This dependency, indeed, is at the heart of their problem. If your future and well being is always someone else responsibility you will never take control of your own destiny and responsibility for your own actions. This is the danger that the Levites face. Depending on the public purse for their sustenance they are apt to become a dependant class, not taking responsibility for their own destiny, with all the moral dangers this poses. One way of avoiding this is to require them to also be involved with supporting others. That way, they don’t feel only recipients but also benefactors, with all they moral benefits that bestows. Therefore, the Torah requires that they also give a tithe not only receive one. This Parshah thus teaches us that we should never, if we can help it, be totally dependent on others or blame others for our problems. Rather we should be active on our own behalf, taking responsibility for our actions and contributing to society.
The book of Numbers tells of the failure of a generation, a tragedy that centres on the sin of the Spies we read about this week. Often we look disparagingly at this generation, regarding them as a group of slaves who couldn’t shake off the mental shackles of slavery and were thus condemned to die in the wilderness. Only, their children, born in freedom, would go on to inherit the Land. Yet is this a correct appraisal? The Hassidic commentator Me Ha’shiloach, comments that the book of Numbers tells of the failure of great people. This is closer to the attitude taken by our Sages, who termed this generation ‘the generation of knowledge’. This is a generation who witnessed the Exodus, the Crossing of the Sea and the Revelation at Sinai, as well as subsisting on bread from heaven and water from rocks. These are extraordinary events and no one who experienced them could be unaffected. Moreover they are traumatic events. The Exodus, seeing G-d’s punishment of the Egyptians, while being thrust out of the country in haste by a terrified mob, were not easy experiences to assimilate. Above, all the direct encounter of G-d at Sinai was an unprecedented experience that caused that traumatised the people to the extent they asked it never be repeated. How would we react if we experienced such events? This generation failed because they dealt with an unprecedented situation they were in the end unable to manage, but that does not make them any less great. As we also face an unprecedented situation this is a lesson worth remembering. Laissez faire attitudes and criminal negligence need to be exposed and held to account but in judging peoples actions we need to also remember that even the most competent and well intentioned people facing an exceptional crisis will make mistakes. Returning to the Parshah, as we read the book of Numbers we should learn the lessons of the failure of that generation but never disparage them. It is sometimes more honourable to be to fail with greatness than to succeed with mediocrity.
The second half of the Parshah begins the narration of the various rebellions and murmurings that in the end lead to the exclusion of that generation from the Promised Land. After the people complain that all they have to eat is the Manna and they would love a bit of meat, G-d agrees to accede to their request. They will have so much meat they could eat for a month and they will become sick of it. Moses expresses scepticism concerning this promise, wondering if all the meat and fish in the world would be enough for them. The commentators have puzzled over Moses’ seeming disbelief, especially as he is described by G-d at the end of the Parshah as ‘ the most faithful in My house’. One explanation is that Moses is not questioning whether G-d can supply the goods but whether the people will ever be satisfied by them. Moses understands that the people’s complaints are not about lack of food but concerning G-d Himself. It is not G-d’s ability to supply food that is the issue but the people’s dependence on Him and doubts concerning His intentions that they really have a problem with. Indeed at the end of forty years Moses plays back to them their innermost thoughts that ‘G-d hated us’. If this is the case, then no amount of fulfilment of their needs will help. Nothing G-d can do will help, as there attitude not his actions are the problem. This insight is important for understanding other such situations like anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel. As Jonathan Sachs has often pointed out, anti-Semitism is not about Jews but about the anti-Semite. Jewish existence rather than actions is the problem. The same is true for hostility to Israel. The people who oppose Israel object to its existence not its actions. What Israel does or does not do, therefore, is irrelevant. The issue of Israel hatred, like that of anti-Semitism, is in essence their problem not ours. Nothing we can do will have any effect. That is the message Moses is seeking to convey to G-d and it is as relevant today as then. Well meaning efforts to appease our enemies are simply doomed to failure because, in the end, it is not about us at all.
In the middle of the Parshah are two sections dealing with two seemingly different and indeed, seemingly diametrically different characters, who nevertheless may have more in common than appears. The first section deals with the Sotah or woman suspected by her husband of adultery. If her husband had warned her not to associate with a certain man and she subsequently does so in suspicious circumstances, he may force her to undergo trial by ordeal. She is taken to the Temple and, made to drink curses dissolved in water. If she is guilty of adultery she dies and if innocent is blessed with a child. The second case is that of the Nazir, someone who takes a specific vow of abstinence. The Nazirite is forbidden to cut his hair, drink wine, or come into contact with a dead body, for the duration of his vow. At first glance these two cases seem to have nothing in common and it is hard to see why they are placed together in the Torah. The Rabbis connect them by stating that the person who sees the disgrace of the Sotah will decide to take a Nazirite vow. Yet there is also a deeper connection between the two hinted at by the fact that the Nazir who touches a dead body must bring a sin offering as part of his reconsecration. One opinion regards this offering as an atonement for his original vow, which went beyond what the Torah described. Looked at from this perspective we can see that both the Sotah and the Nazir depart from the middle road prescribed by the Torah and go the extremes. One goes to an extreme of hedonism, the other to one of abstinence. The Nazir, witnessing the actions of the adulteress, doesn't resolve to strengthen the Torah’s system of rules, but rushes to an extreme way beyond them. Both, therefore, in their different ways, are rejecting the path set out in the Torah, which requires us to live lives of holiness within the material world and enjoying its pleasures in a permitted manner. The Sotah permits the forbidden while the Nazir forbids the permitted, but both essentially reject the path G-d wants us to follow. The Torah is thus setting out for us to extremes which we should avoid both of which are harmful to a moral existence and a rejection of the very possibility of finding holiness in the world.
As part of the preparation for the journey to the promised land, the Levites are numbered and prepared for their duties. As a first step of their inauguration they are exchanged for the Firstborn, who until that time had fulfilled their functions. However, as the stated number of Levites was less than the number of the Firstborn, the Torah requires the additional Firstborn to pay five shekels a piece. However, the fact is, that the actual number of the Firstborn if you look at the individual family figures is slightly more than that of the Firstborn. The commentators explain that the extra Levites were themselves Firstborn and thus had to redeem themselves and couldn’t redeem other Firstborn. Yet, this is also strange. If these Firstborn were themselves Levites and going to serve G-d, why do they need to be redeemed in the first place? The answer goes to the heart of the change in religious ideology that was now taking place. The Firstborn were previously regarded as the religious leadership because of their place within society and in the family. As the head or prospective head of their households they were the ones that held religious power just as they held financial and sexual power within the family and in society. The Levites, on the other hand, were chosen by G-d because of their loyalty (during the sin of the Golden Calf and in Egypt), and had no power. They were not able to own land and were dependent on tithes from the rest of society. While these were obligatory, the farmer could decide by himself to which Levite to give his tithe. While it is true that some Priests became rich, most Levites and Priests were relatively poor. In Israel, a religious leadership that were rulers of the people was replaced with one that were servants of the people. In Israel there would be no great abbeys and monasteries lording over the peasants but forty eight levitical cities, serving as centres of Torah and mercy. This fundamental change is reflected in the ceremonial exchange of the Firstborn for the Levites and thus also had to include the Levites who were themselves Firstborn. They had to themselves transform from being one type of religious leader to another, from being a ruler to a servant. They therefore had to redeem themselves and could not be counted to redeem others. These idea of religious leadership is basic to Judaism. The story is told of a Rabbi that wanted to appoint two of his students to a rabbinical position. Seeing their hesitation he said to them; ‘you think I’m giving you authority, servitude I’m giving you’. That is the Jewish attitude.
The central part of Parshat Behukotai is taken up with the detail of the rewards and punishment cognisant on the keeping of the Torah or its violation. This comes at the end of the laws of the book of Leviticus which, as the first verse of Parshat Behar states, is connected to the covenant at Sinai. A similar section also comes at the end of Deuteronomy after the legal code in that book and forms part of the covenant of the Plains of Moab. The two sections are very different in style and some have seen one referring to the First Temple period and the subsequent Babylonian exile while the other relates to the Second Temple and the long exile following its destruction. What distinguishes the section in our Parshah is the symmetry of sin and punishment. If you will rebel against me then I will do such and such to you. When describing the disobedience of the Israelites the Torah uses an unusual phrase if you walk with me in/with keri’. The meaning of this word is unclear and has been give different interpretations by the commentators. A famous explanation, utilised by Maimonidies in his legal texts, is that the world comes from the Hebrew root meaning chance or happen-stance. The Torah is thus saying that if you see the unfortunate events that occur to you as the product of chance, not the hand of G-d, then these negative things will continue to happen to you. If you see the disasters predicted in this section as merely accidental and therefore take no notice, then further calamities will befall you. This is an extremely important principle of Judaism which is precisely why Maimonidies places it his legal discussion of the purpose and necessity for fast days. When bad things happen we are meant to sit up and take notice not merely shrug them off as casual occurrences. While it is unhelpful for people to set themselves up as prophets and tell everyone the reason for this or that calamity, normally someone else's fault, it is behoven upon ourselves to examine our own behaviour and ask what lesson we can learn from what is happening to us. Difficult times for Jews are opportunities for self-reflection and growth and failure to take this idea seriously is not only a lost opportunity but may prevent us avoiding further calamities. Trying to understand what is happening in the context of trying to improve, on the other hand, not only extracts something positive from a negative situation but strengthens us for the future, maybe helping us avoid further trouble. This is the extremely relevant message this Parshah has for us today. If we are casual about painful events they will casually descend on us but if we pay attention we can improve to avoid the worse future.
The centre of this week’s Parshah is the most familiar part of the Torah. Containing the festive cycle, it is read four times a year. Yet those readings begin with the prohibition of sacrificing a mother and her kid together and in centre of the section we read of the command to leave part of our field for gleaning by the poor. The fact that we connect these two issues to the festival cycle teaches us an important lesson. The festivals are times of rejoicing for us and our families and friends. At such a time we can forget the needs of those creatures less fortunate or weaker than us. Indeed, for this reason, the Torah demands of us that we invite the poor to our festival celebration. Yet we can sometimes not only forget those weaker than us but show contempt for their needs in fulfilling our own. In seeking to fill our bellies at a time of rejoicing we can show cruelty or disregard both to animals and those humans under our control. In order to have meat for our celebration we may disregard the pain of animal who sees its child slaughtered or a kid left without its mother. In our desire to fill our tables with all manner of delicacies we may ignore the homeless or hungry person that needs some of our wealth in order merely to survive. The Torah warns us that this is not an acceptable way to rejoice. The festivals were given for us to increase our compassion and spiritual sensitivity, not the opposite. Indeed the Rabbis decreed that specifically at the most important seasons of the year, butchers and farmers have to be especially careful to notify their customers of the status of their animals with regards to this prohibition. The festivals are to be seen as an opportunity to specifically care for those less fortunate than ourselves and show consideration to animals. In placing these issues at the heart of the Jewish year, the Torah is warning us to be especially careful of overlooking those parts of society that we may disregard much of time. Everyone, including even animals, need to be looked after and treated with compassion and consideration. At a time when it appears that a whole section of our society have been overlooked because of their age or frailty, this a timely lesson indeed. The Torah teaches us that the way we attend to the needs of the most vulnerable people in society defines who we are. We need to ask ourselves today how our actions or lack of action towards these vulnerable people in the past weeks and indeed for years define us.
The section concerning the High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur begins with mention of the death of Aaron’s sons, which we read about a couple of weeks ago. Other than the narration of the incident itself, this event is mentioned normally in the context of Aaron’s family genealogy. The commentators have therefore noted the fact that it is mentioned again here, with no specific connection to what follows. Most have explained that as Aaron’s sons apparently went into the holiest place, even though that is not narrated specifically, and so Aaron is warned against doing so, except for on Yom Kippur. I would like to propose another explanation. The death of his sons was a traumatic event, made even more so by the fact that he was forbidden at the time to follow normal practices of mourning. This psychological distress would naturally install in him an anxiety about performing his duties, especially as regards approaching the holiest place. The Torah thus specifically charges him, in connection with the death of his sons, to go in the Holy of Holies. He is to overcome his fear by bringing incense into the holiest place, just as his sons did, but in the proper manner. By then emerging unharmed and indeed achieving atonement for the whole people, he will overcome his diffidence and begin to heal the trauma caused by his sons’ demise. This teaches us an important lesson. The best way to overcome a trauma is sometimes to return to the site of the incident or to undertake the very activity that caused the issue in the first place. This is not however easy. We therefore need to acknowledge the courage of those who return to work with infected patients day after day, seeing their friends and colleagues being infected and even dying. In the week of Yom Ha’atzmaut we also should appreciate the courage of the Jewish people in 1948, who despite the trauma of the Holocaust, were willing to risk war and potential massacre of more hundreds of thousands of Jews, in order to declare an independent state. Because of their vision and courage we have Israel today. Let their example encourage us to overcome our own issues and obstacles.
We read in the Parshah of various diseases that have differing symptoms and require different types of actions on behalf of the afflicted. One might ask what these types of regulations are doing in the Torah? The Torah in general does not give medical advice. The traditional answer given to this question is that the diseases enumerated here have in fact spiritual causes. Rather than simply being natural afflictions they are rooted in a spiritual deficiency of the afflicted which is meant to be corrected by the measures taken. Thus these diseases, traditionally associated with slander, are meant to remove the person affected from society and teach them a very personal lesson on how it feels to be isolated, the very thing they sought to do to others by their actions. This is an important lesson but should not be widened to other diseases and events not mentioned in the Torah. While as individuals and communities it is correct to examine our behaviour when we are put in difficult situations this does not extend to making general conclusions. Not every disease is the leprosy mentioned in the Torah, where we can point to a specific reason for its outbreak. We should therefore refrain from doing so. Another lesson we can learn from the inclusion of these diseases in the Torah is, however, extremely relevant to our current situation. In ancient times people did not necessarily conceive of the clear distinction between physical and emotional and spiritual afflictions. They had a far more holistic view of the world, one which we could learn from. While obviously physical diseases need to be treated by medical science and public health measures, we need to be aware of also of the psychological effects of measures we take and also regard alleviating them as part of the cure. Some people are more vulnerable to the physical effects of this disease, others to the emotional toll of the situation. Both need a remedy. While these two things may require differing measures and different personal they need to be including in an overall holistic approach. The physical and psychological aspects of our current situation are not separate worlds and both need to be taken into account in bringing our whole society back to health.
As we come to the end of Pesach we may look forward to again eating bread. Yet there is one place where it was Pesach the whole year round and that was in the Temple. The Torah commands that no offering is allowed to be offered using Hametz. All the meal offerings were made of Matzah, with two notable exceptions. One is the thanksgiving offering. That includes both Matzah and a loaf of bread. For this reason it could not be offered on Pesach and why the Ashkenazim don’t say the ‘Psalm of Thanksgiving’ in Shacharit during the whole of Pesach. The other exception is the two loaves offered on Shavuot, which are Hametz. This seems at first sight strange. A thanksgiving offering is offered for four things detailed in Psalm 107: rescue from prison, sickness and dangerous journeys. For this reason we say the Gomel blessing on these same occurrences. Yet the paradigm for redemption and thanksgiving is the Exodus. Here we were rescued from the prison of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea safely. We should therefore eat Hametz. Yet this time of year is when that is totally forbidden. Only on Shavuot do we celebrate with Hametz. Why then do we bring Hametz davkah with a thanksgiving offering? An answer may lie in what the commentators said about Hametz. It is a symbol of human pride. For this reason it is forbidden in the Temple. It can only be brought with a thanksgiving offering. In that case, the experience of danger has led the worshipper to appreciate their own vulnerability and thus punctuate their pride. They can then truly bring a Hametz offering. Why then is this totally forbidden on Pesach? Surely we also underwent such an experience at the time of the Exodus. Here the answer lies in when you can bring a thanksgiving offering. A person that was near death and is now out of immediate danger, but still seriously ill can’t bring an offering until he is properly recovered. This is the analogy to the Jews in Egypt. Pesach doesn’t celebrate our complete redemption but only our partial rescue. We are no longer under the Egyptian thumb but still under their cultural influence. Only with the giving of the Torah on Shavuot did we become truly free and can bring a thanksgiving offering. Let us hope that we in our days shall witness both our rescue from the imminent danger and a full recovery of our world and society, if not by Shavuot, then soon after.
Contained within the sacrifices mentioned in the Parshah, is that of the Todah or Thanksgiving offering. This is brought in gratitude to G-d for being rescued from danger or healed from illness. It is quite elaborate consisting of not only animal sacrifices, four different types of bread, including unusually loaves of hametz. One can ask however a philosophical question concerning this offering. If we believe that G-d has control over events in the world, then He is ultimately responsible for the danger we found ourself. Why then should we bring an elaborate sacrifice to thank Him for a danger he placed us in in the first place? There are several answers to this question. One is that these dangers are actually things we brought upon ourself by our own actions. This indeed seems to be the attitude taken by the author of Psalm 107, from which the Rabbis derived the types of dangers necessitating thanksgiving. This is also the approach taken by Maimonidies who explains at length in his Guide that most evil in the world is caused by human action. This is also true, Maimonidies the doctor informs us, of bodily illness, most of which is caused by us not taking proper care of our health. Yet elsewhere Maimonidies also gives us another, maybe more palatable explanation. That is the concept of the natural order of the world. G-d created a world with natural processes, a natural order set in motion by G-d at creation. According to this view, if we are faced by danger or fall sick, it is not necessarily because G-d has specifically willed it but because this is the natural order of the world. This does not mean that G-d cannot, if we turn to him, intervene to rescue us or that we should not use the occasion of our predicament to examine our lives. It, however, teaches us to have the correct perspective concerning how G-d runs the world. As the Creator of nature he doesn’t constantly interfere to change the order He created for our sakes. This is also true when it comes to thanksgiving. We give thanks, not necessarily because G-d miraculously intervened to rescue us, but because the natural order of events that G-d created enabled us to be saved. If we recover from illness, we are giving thanks not necessarily for some wonder cure but because G-d has enabled us to have the ability to create advanced medical treatments. Disease has effected every human generation but today we have more ability than ever to fight it. For this, at least, we should give thanks.
We read this week of the various sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. While these have today been replaced with prayer, we still pray for their restoration in a Third Temple. Many of us have serious reservations concerning the whole idea of sacrifices, especially animal sacrifices. The idea of slaughtering an animal in order to worship g-d seems to many bizarre if not barbaric. Reading of these sacrifices at this time, when we are all feeling somewhat apprehensive if not anxious, may seem irrelevant. Yet I believe that the idea of the sacrifices can teach us an important lesson that is indeed extremely relevant to our current predicament and its aftermath. The commentators consider what emotion should grip the worshipper as he places his hand on the sacrificial animal prior to its slaughter. One primary feeling expected, especially but not exclusively, in the case of sin offerings, is that I should be in place of the animal. I actually deserve to be punished for what I have done but G-d has allowed me to sacrifice this animal instead. I would like to widen this idea and suggest that what all animal sacrifices are meant to convey to the worshipper is the precariousness of life and our lack of true control over our fate. Just as this animal has no control over its life neither to we. The fate of the animal is meant to bring home to the person that their fate is not in their hands. By placing their hands on the soon to be slaughtered animal they are meant to in some way identify with the fate of the animal and loose the illusion that they are in control of their own fate. They are thus brought to greater dependence and trust in G-d, who truly controls their life. This idea is extremely relevant to us at this time. We are all, both as individuals, communities and nations, being taught in a very stark way that we are not in control. Our lives can be overturned in a very short period of time indeed. This lesson however is one we should take the opportunity to learn. Humanity’s illusion of control over its fate is precisely what has led us to the various ills of our time, especially climate change and environmental degradation. We are unfortunately being taught in a most unpleasant way that we can and must act differently. We need to take with us out of this crisis the positive lessons of how to live, work and travel in a more sustainable and healthy way. Humanity needs to discard its illusion of control.
In the middle of the narrative of the building of the Tabernacle it is related that the laver was made of the mirrors of the women that hung around the Tent of Meeting. This rather obscure reference is elucidated in the Midrash. The women of Israel brought their mirrors to donate to the Tabernacle, as others brought other materials. The reason that this is specifically mentioned is that Moses didn’t want to accept them. Mirrors used for increasing physical beauty and vanity have no place in the Tabernacle. G-d disagreed. He pointed out to Moses that these are the very mirrors that were used by the Jewish women in the Egyptian servitude to make themselves desirable to their exhausted husbands, thus causing them to procreate and ensure the future of the Jewish people. As such they have an honoured place as part of the furniture of the Tabernacle, the laver being used to reconcile husband and wife in the ritual of the Sotah. This text thus teaches us several important lessons. One is that everything can be used for good and to serve G-d, despite apparent appearances to the contrary. The other that is even something or someone of doubtful extraction should be judged on their present use or actions not on where they come from. But there is an even more important lesson to be learned from this incident that is relevant to our predicament. At the heart of the Tabernacle their stood a reminder of a dark period when the very future of the Jewish people was in doubt. There was no Tabernacle to inspire them and no leadership to lead them. Yet courageous women used a simple mirror to create families and communities that ensured the ultimate redemption. Everyone entering the Tabernacle could be reminded that it is not the Tabernacle or its service that makes the Jewish people but the bonds between its members that exist whether or not there is a physical structure to unite them. We live in uncertain times where our normal world is fast being turned upside down. We have had to postpone many of our normal activities. There may come a time that we will be unable to hold services. This, however, does not mean we will cease to be a community. What holds us together are the bonds of mutual concern and friendship. These will remain and we should strives by to strengthen them by what ever means available. If we act like our mothers of old and utilise even the simplest methods to create community we too will see the redemption.
According to a strong Rabbinic tradition Moses’ reluctance to accept G-d’s appointment as leader of the Jewish people had at its root his respect for his elder brother. Moses felt that Aaron, both as his elder and the more fluent orator, was eminently more suitable as to lead the Jewish people than he was. G-d, as is often the case, knew better. The events of this week’s Parshah show just how more suited for leadership was Moses, and how Aaron, for all his great merits, was unable in the end to lead. Moses had left Aaron in charge while he went up the mountain to talk to G-d. The people, growing impatient, demand that Aaron make an image to take Moses’ place. This indeed was a test of leadership; one that Aaron conclusively failed. Instead of standing up to the people and even using forceful methods to dissuade them; Aaron plays for time until time runs out. He effectively abdicates his leadership responsibilities and follows, rather than leads, the people; until he loses control of the situation. Compare this to Moses. Moses assesses the situation and takes dramatic, even violent, steps to rectify it. He thus saves the people from their own folly and shows true leadership ability. Aaron for all his great abilities had a fatal flaw. His great love of the Jewish people caused him to want to please them. He shied away from confrontation preferring to compromise. Moses, whose love and self-sacrifice for the Jews was no less, understood, however, that there are times when compromise is not possible and indeed the greatest folly. He understood that a leader must lead not be led. Aaron, whose love of peace caused him to lead the Jewish people to disaster, has his name associated with the calf that they made. Moses, according to tradition, is praised for the very act of breaking the tablets that shocked the people into recovering their senses. The Torah is very clear what sort of leader it wants. The tale of two brothers, as it is played out in our Parshah, is an object lesson for all those that aspire to lead. If you are controlled by focus groups and polls rather than by correct policy and want to be led by the public rather than leading them, you are in the wrong job.
The various items of clothing of the High Priest, the main subject of this week’s Parshah, have always provided interesting spiritual insights. One such item is the golden Plate; engraved with the name of G-d and worn on the High Priest’s forehead. This artefact is generally regarded as atoning for the inadvertent profanation of the sacrifices offered in the Temple. The Rabbis disputed whether this atonement was effective only when the High Priest was actually wearing the Plate, or even when he had removed his priestly garments. The first position is easier to understand. When the Plate is fulfilling its function in the Sanctuary, it can atone; when it is lying in a box, it cannot seem to be of much use. Yet the contrary opinion is in many ways more interesting. Even when the Plate is not in use, the very fact of its existence is enough to atone. This opinion bids us search beyond the evidence of our eyes, and look at what is hidden. The High Priest’s clothes are merely the outer garments which cover the person charged with G-d’s service. One might think they are the essence. Indeed he is forbidden to serve in the sanctuary without them. Yet this external outlook can be deceptive. An unworthy priest is still unworthy despite his costume. A High Priest who is unfit will still perish is he enters the Holy of Holies; despite wearing the correct garments. Indeed this often happened at the end of the Second Temple period. We are bidden to look beyond the external to what is hidden.; not to trust the evidence of our eyes but to perceive what is deeper. This, of course, is also the message of Purim. The Jewish people thought they were safe but underneath trouble was brewing. Mordechai and Esther were seemingly assimilated Jews but through them the Jewish people were saved. Haman thought he was on top of the world but behind his back his downfall was already taking shape. And, of course, behind all these hidden conspiracies lay the most hidden actor of all: G-d. As we look at the world around us, that seems to lurch from one crisis to another, we should remember we only see what is revealed. We are presently faced with a disease that can infect others while still being hidden from the carrier themselves. Similarly, the hidden currents of history, and especially the concealed hand of G-d, are often only visible in retrospect. Maybe a comforting thought; or conversely an excuse to get drunk!
The various parts of both the structure and furniture of the Tabernacle are described in great detail in the Parshah. If we examine the process of construction we find that there were two different methods used. The Menorah was made from a single block of gold and hammered out to form its structure, including its smallest decorations. On the other hand the physical building of the Tabernacle was formed by putting together various individual boards and coverings to create a unified structure. In both cases the underlying purpose was unity but it was achieved in different and indeed diametric ways. One method started with a singularity and made from that the details, while the other begins with the individual components and creates from them a unity. The fact that both methods were used in the construction of the Tabernacle signifies that both of them were necessary and have something to teach us. In any project or undertaking one or both of these formulas will need to be used. The question is always which is most appropriate. The Torah gives us the answer. The creation of an intricate form from a single block of material was used in the construction of the Menorah, symbolising the realm of knowledge. In conceiving a project one must start with an underlying idea that then informs everything else that follows. If you have several, differing, concepts of what you want to achieve it will lead to confusion, diffusion of effort and failure. On the other hand, when building the actual structure of the enterprise, how it is going to work, details are important. Only by getting the small components of the construction or administration right will the whole thing hang to together. Failure to pay attention to these details will again lead to incoherent procedures and faulty decision and eventual failure. Unfortunately, some organisations do the exact opposite. They have several different concepts of what they are trying to achieve while only vague ideas of how to get there. They are rich on concept and short on details, while they need to have one purpose and many details about how to achieve that purpose. That is the formula for success taught to us by the Tabernacle.
‘If he enters by himself, he shall leave by himself’. This verse refers to a ‘Hebrew slave’ a legal category in the Torah that refers to a situation analogous to an indentured servant. A Hebrew slave is either someone who was sold by the court to pay for theft or a fine, or someone who sold himself because of dire poverty. If he had a wife or children, his master is responsible for their upkeep, though they are not slaves. His master can also give him a non-Jewish maidservant, in order to produce children who belong to the master. It is to this practice that this verse traditionally refers. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, states that this verse means that if he didn’t have a wife when he became a slave, his master is not allowed to give him a non-Jewish maidservant. Only if he is already married is the slave permitted to engage in such a sexual liaison. This may seem to us quite an extraordinary statement, and the complete opposite of what we would expect. Surely a single man does less harm in engaging in such activities than one who is married! Yet the Torah has a different perspective. While a Hebrew slave must be freed after six years, he has the option of saying that he loves his ‘master, his wife and children’, and signing on for more. The Torah, while allowing such a situation, strongly discourages it. Such a slave is pierced in his ear as: ‘the ear that heard on Mt Sinai “the Children of Israel are My slaves” went and acquired himself another master’. The Torah is thus aware of the seductiveness of slavery. Witness the Jewish people’s constant hankering to return to Egypt, almost as soon as they had left. For an unattached male, the charms of a non-Jewish maidservant and his attachment to their children provide a powerful incentive to remain a slave. Only, someone that has the emotional attachment of a wife beyond the cocoon of slavery will have the incentive to return to the risky world of freedom. This deep psychological understanding of the Torah, has much to teach us today. Most people believe our criminal justice system is failing, partly because our prisons are failing. Re-offending rates are appallingly high. Largely this is because, like the single Hebrew slave, prisoners have nothing waiting for them on the outside, except a life of crime. They have no incentive, and often little encouragement, to take the difficult road of going straight. We need to listen to the Torah and give our modern day slaves a reason to be free and thus an incentive to reform their lives.
The Haftorah of Yitro is an interesting one. Generally the Haftorah is connected to the story of the Parshah or a theme within it. The main focus of this week’s Parshah is of course the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. This of course was where G-d revealed Himself and spoke directly to the people. The first section of the Haftorah is also connected to the theme of Divine revelation. Taken from the book of Isaiah, it tells how Isaiah is vouchsafed a revelation of G-d with the angels proclaiming ‘holy holy holy..’. This forms the basis of one of the most important of our prayers: the Kedushah. The Haftorah then, however, goes on to talk of political matters. This is especially true in the Ashkenazic tradition which adds sections from later chapters of the book which deal with G-d’s promise to frustrate the alliance of Israel and Aram against Judah and the prophecy of the birth of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s greatest kings. Why are these sections added, and what connection to they have to the Parshah? One explanation is that Isaiah’s original vision is historically connected to the events portrayed in the rest of the Haftorah. But I think there is also a thematic connection to our Parshah. Isaiah is vouchsafed a revelation of G-d. But this revelation is not for his personal spiritual edification. He is meant to take his vision of G-d and implement it in the social and political conditions of his time. This is also true of the revelation of the Torah. The Torah is not meant to be an abstract intellectual pursuit. Rather it is meant to transform society. That is why, following the experience of revelation this week, next week’s Parshah is a compendium of social law. There is also another connection between the political message of the Haftorah and the Parshah. The beginning of the Parshah tells of the arrival of Yitro and his advice to Moses to set up a judicial system. In the Haftorah, the rule of Hezekiah is seen as the antidote to the religious and political malaise of the time. The Torah is, in the end, interpreted and implemented by human beings. It is the nature and quality of Jewish leadership that determines how the message of revelation will be implemented. Politics is not a secular pursuit divorced from Torah but essential to its fulfilment. The nature of Jewish politics both in Israel and the Diaspora must thus be a vital concern to all those who care about the future of the message of Sinai.
The Israelites stand on the shore of the sea. The Egyptian army approaches from behind. They are seemingly trapped in an impossible situation. The people turn to Moses. According to the Midrash there are three different proposals, flight, surrender or to go into the sea. Moses dismisses all three and tells the people to be silent and stand still while G-d fights for them. However, when Moses turns to G-d in prayer, G-d tells him not to pray but to act. He should tell the Israelites to go forward into the sea. The sea parts, the Israelites are saved and the Egyptians drowned. This dialogue between Moses and the people and Moses and G-d warrants further examination. When the people are engaged in disputes and recriminations Moses tells them that they should be passive and let G-d fight for them. Yet G-d tells Moses that au contraire they should move forward into the sea. How are we to reconcile the two instructions? Do they contradict each other or complement each other? On the one hand Moses clearly misunderstands G-d’s intention. Prayer is not enough, action is also needed. G-d tells Moses to stop praying and get moving. Yet Moses’ instruction to stop arguing and realise that G-d will save them gave them the mental fortitude to move into the sea. One was the prerequisite of the other. This teaches us an important lesson in how to approach moments of crisis. We need both faith and action, spiritual fortitude and practical ability. Simply praying and not doing anything to help ourselves will not bring the desired result. Like the joke about the person that prays to win the lottery but never bothers to buy a lottery ticket. Yet practical action by itself is also not enough. Especially when we are facing a serious crisis with an unclear resolution we also require spiritual courage. We need to realise that not everything is in our hands and we are not required to do everything. If our goal is the right one then we will be helped to get there. If we begin to travel down the right path then we can be assured that we do not travel alone. Just as Moses’ words gave the Israelites courage to enter into the sea, so our belief in Divine assistance gives us the conviction to begin something, even when its consummation may seem impossible.
The negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh that punctuate the Exodus story provide a fascinating contrast in different world views and important insights for us today. Possible the most famous of these confrontations is the one that begins our Parshah. Pharaoh suspiciously asks Moses who exactly is to participate in the religious festival that is the ostensible reason for the Israelites request to leave. Moses famously replies that everyone, men, women and children are to go as ‘it is our festival of G-d.’ Pharaoh triumphantly replies that he has unmasked Moses’ evil intentions. If the Israelites wish to celebrate a religious festival then only the men should go; asking for more is proof of an ulterior motive. Here we have a fascinating insight into two approaches to religion. Pharaoh, the chief priest of Egypt, believes that active religious experience is the preserve of an elite with the rest of society playing a passive role. Religion is not something that everyone should participate in; certainly not women and children. Moses holds a different view. Religious experience is for all; not just a small elite of priests or even rabbis. A ‘festival of G-d’ is necessarily for everyone; men, women and even children. Thus the covenant he makes at the end of the Torah includes the whole people; young and old, slave and free. While Judaism does make specific distinctions between the obligations of men, women and children; in general the whole nation is equally obligated to keep the mitzvot. Judaism is above all a participatory religion which doesn’t work without the active support of its adherents. In order to engage in public prayer and recite important prayers like Kaddish and Kedushah or read the Torah, we need a community. The same is true for life cycle events such as marriage or bereavement. We are unable to recite the special wedding blessings without the presence of a community and new people every meal. Someone sitting shiva without a community to support them is feels even more isolated and bereft, rather than comforted. A Jew who lives in a place with no community or chooses not to associate with the community in their city while able to keep many of the mitzvot in isolation, is in some ways only half a Jew. They are missing a vital component of Jewish life. It thus the religious responsibility of every Jew to support and participate in the Jewish community where they live. We cannot survive as a Jewish religion and people without sharing Moses’ view of religion as a communal endeavour. We must decide whether we Jews or Egyptians.
The Parshah begins with the statement by G-d that he appeared to the Patriarchs using the name of G-d Almighty but the four letter Name was not known or revealed to them. This statement has puzzled commentators ancient and modern has the four letter Name is certainly used in Genesis and was known to the Patriarchs. A common approach to resolve this conundrum is to focus on the context and meanings of the names. Rashi therefore explains that G-d promised the Land of Israel to the Patriarchs using the name G-d Almighty but but they did not experience the four letter Name, signifying G-d’s consummation of that promise. This Name signifies G-d’s active involvement in history, something that is only now to be revealed with the redemption from Egypt and the beginning of the fulfilment of the promises to the Patriarchs. It is understandable, therefore, why this verse appears here, after the disappointment of Moses’ first approach to Pharaoh and before the beginning of plagues. This idea of the Patriarchs living with unfulfilled promises is elaborated on by the Midrash which has G-d bemoaning their death as they never complained despite various challenges, unlike Moses who kvetches at the first disappointment. This divergence can maybe be understood as the difference between heroic individuals and a nation. One can accept the delayed deferment of G-d’s promises while the other needs to see to believe. This need for immediate consummation is a constant feature of the relationship between G-d and Israel throughout the wanderings in the wilderness and beyond. It is therefore even more extraordinary that the Jewish people could effectively exist in a state of suspended animation. Not merely for the two hundred years of the Egyptian exile but for two thousand years Jews waited and believed in G-d’s promises of redemption. How was this possible? The secret of Jewish survival in the Diaspora was the genius of the Rabbis in actualising not only past glories but also the future redemption. Whether in the Musaf service, the Pesach Haggadah or in numerous other laws and customs, the Rabbis entrenched the experience of the Temple and the Land in the daily life of Jews no matter where they lived. Whether, eating fruits of Israel on Tu B’shvat, playing Jewish warriors on Lag B’Omer, or taking the Lulav every day of Succot, as in the Temple, Jews expressed the conviction that what was, will be again. Living with the unfilled promises of G-d Almighty, the nevertheless lived their lives in expectation of the fulfilment of G-d’s great Name.
Pharaoh’s nefarious plan to destroy the Jewish people are frustrated by a group of courageous women, the midwives, Jocheved and Miriam and his own daughter. Yet not only are his designs undermined, they actually contribute to his ultimate downfall. According to a midrashic tradition, one of Pharaoh’s intentions in killing Jewish boys by drowning was to prevent the emergence of a leader who could redeem them. Yet his own actions created the very conditions from which such a leader emerged. It would be very hard for a Hebrew slave to have the qualities need to lead Israel from Egypt and even more unlikely that an Egyptian leader would take up this role. Yet by his genocidal policy Pharaoh effected the necessary but improbable combination of both. By threatening the lives of Jewish boys he caused Moses’ mother to put him in a basket in the Nile where he was picked up by an Egyptian princess and raised as a prince. Thus combining the leadership abilities of Egyptian royalty with the political sympathies of a Hebrew slave to create the perfect revolutionary leader, and all ultimately Pharaoh’s own doing. This phenomenon of our enemies’ designs against us being the ultimate engine of our redemption is one that repeats itself throughout Jewish history. Pharaoh’s own obstinate hatred of the Israelites led him into a trap of his own making at the Reed Sea and Haman’s murderous designs on the Jews led directly not only to his own downfall but to the unmasking and elimination of tens of thousands of anti-Semites throughout the Persian empire. In our own generation we have witnessed a similar development. Both in 1948 and 1967 the nefarious plans of our enemies caused greater success for Israel they we had thought possible before. This is an important idea to bear in mind as we look at the often frightening world around us. From Iran to Corbyn, from left and right all sorts of people seem to again have it in for the Jews. We could indeed succumb to anxiety or despair. But if we recall the lessons of the Parshah and of Jewish history we will realise that G-d is merely leading them into a trap. As before we can be hopeful that our enemies own designs against us will be the very thing that leads to their downfall and our redemption.
If we examine the blessings that Jacob gives to his children before his death, we can discover some interesting features. Firstly, he generally blesses his children in the order of their birth but not entirely. Secondly, unlike Moses, his blessings do not only contain words of praise but also rebuke. It is also noteworthy, that while Joseph receives ample praise it is Judah that effectively receives the leadership of the brothers for the future, something that is reflected in the order of the tribes in the wilderness. All of this teaches an important lesson. There are two main ways in which parents or society arrange the pecking order of within the family. One is by birth. The firstborn is the most important. This indeed is the legal prescription of the Torah when it comes to inheritance of property. According to this Reuben should have been the leading son. The other method is that of favouritism, the favourite son is the one put in charge of the family. We can see that this was a possibility by the very fact the Torah specifically rules it out when promulgating the above law of inheritance. In this case, Joseph, Jacob’s favourite son, should have become the head of the family. Yet Judah is given that distinction. What Jacob uses instead to determine his blessings and the hierarchy in the family is moral suitability. Reuben, by his both impetuous and indecisive nature loses the rights of the firstborn. Shimon and Levi, by their brutal and dangerous reaction to Dinah’s violation also showed that they were not suitable for leadership. Even though Joseph had many qualities and was Jacob’s favourite, he did not approach the moral calibre of Judah, who had not only publicly confessed his association with Tamar but put his own life on the line in order to save Benjamin. Thus it was neither biological inheritance or parental favouritism but moral standing that determined Jacob’s choice. This should also inform us when choosing suitable political leaders. What is important is not someone’s family background or what school or university they went to. Neither are their charisma or celebrity to be taken into account. Their competence is obviously important but what is most vital is their moral probity. A leader can be charismatic and competent but if they are also morally deficient they will lead the society they govern to ruin. Looking around at our world today, Jacob’s criteria for leadership are something we urgently need to adopt.
After narrating the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers and the descent of Jacob and his family to Egypt, the Torah seems to branch off into a digression. It proceeds to tell us about the actions of Joseph in his official position during the period of the famine. It narrates how he used the desperation of the Egyptian populace to restructure the economy of Egypt, turning free farmers into serfs. By the time he was finished the state controlled all the land in Egypt except that of the priesthood, and they also received a stipend from Pharaoh. A truly massive change in the whole socio-economic structure of the country. We may wonder, however, why the Torah bothers to tell us this. How is it related to the saga of the Jewish people? Other than showing Joseph’s political acumen or even loyalty to Pharaoh, this information doesn't seem particularly relevant. Yet I think that this episode has much to teach us that is relevant for every generation. Egypt is faced with an unprecedented crisis that threatens the stability if not the very existence of the state. Joseph, working on Pharaoh’s behalf doesn’t merely act to mitigate the danger and thus preserve the state. Rather he understands that an unprecedented crisis also presents and unprecedented opportunity, which he grabs with both hands. Because of Joseph’s foresight, Pharaoh and the state he leads don’t merely survive the crisis but emerge immeasurably stronger. Joseph takes a problem and turns it into an opportunity, faces and obstacle and uses it as a vehicle for transformation. Whether you agree with what he did would depend if you were a state official or a farmer whose land is now owned by the state. However, the principle is still important. When facing problems, obstacles or a crises we can merely seek to overcome these issues and survive. Sometimes this is all we can do. But if we are courageous and sagacious we can seek to use these problems to propel ourselves forward to a better place and emerge stronger than before. The Jewish people have generally followed this path. When faced with the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai created a new direction for Judaism, when expelled from Spain, Jews created a Jewish renaissance in Safed. In our time, facing the destruction of the Holocaust the Jewish people recreated a Jewish sovereignty in their ancient homeland. Thus we can learn from Joseph that facing a crisis we should not merely ask how can I survive this but how can I use this to grow stronger.
One of the questions asked about the story of Joseph is why, when he had the possibility, he didn’t inform his father of his whereabouts. The answer can be found in the revealing names he gives to his children. Manasseh, symbolises forgetting his father’s house; Ephraim his success in his new land. Following the trauma of his sale he wished to put his past behind him and concentrate on the future. If his brothers hadn’t suddenly appeared in front of him, he would have never resumed contact. This idea, that in order to embrace the future we need to forget the past, forms a common theme in Jewish history. Jews have often let go of their traditions in order to grasp the opportunities of a new society. Most noticeably, in the 19th and early twentieth centuries, leading to the great secularisation of Jewish life. This is also, of course, part of the story of Hanukah. Those that wished to embrace Hellenistic culture found it necessary to reject traditional Judaism and even join with the Greek authorities in causing other Jews to do so. Yet Joseph was, in the end, forced by events to return to his family and roots. This is also a common theme in Jewish history. Whether, by a chance encounter with their Jewish roots, as with Joseph, or by outside external pressure, as on Hanukah, the assimilationist trends are halted and reversed. Furthermore, as both Joseph and the Hellenistic Jews discovered, it is not necessary to forget your father’s house in order to prosper in the new land. You can do both. Joseph managed to be both a successful Egyptian leader and bring his family to Egypt. Jews managed to preserve traditional Judaism and adopt appropriate Hellinistic concepts and practices. We don’t need to choose between Judaism and the wider cultural milieu. We can, if we remain both true to ourselves and open minded, embrace both. That is also a lesson of Hanukah and the story of Joseph.
‘Jacob settled in the land of the wanderings of his fathers, in the land of Canaan’. On this verse the Sages comment that Jacob sought to ‘settle down’ but G-d stated that ‘it is sufficient the repose of the righteous in the next world, they don’t also attain it in this world’, and He brought upon him the trouble with Joseph. How are we to understand this statement? Does it simply mean that if we want peace or joy after death we can’t enjoy them here, something not really in accordance with the normative Jewish attitude to life, or does it have a more subtle meaning? Various commentators connect this verse with the statement in last week’s Parshah the Esau settled in Mt Seir. The two brothers not only chose two different locations to live but two separate destinies. Esau, abandoning the promise of the Land of Israel, is allowed to settle down and create a stable nation, even producing a monarchy. Jacob’s destiny is different. He, indeed, may seek to settle down but in doing so he has forgotten that the promise of a life in the Land comes with a condition. The inheritance of the Land is predicated on the prior experience of exile and oppression. That is the prophecy given to Abraham that Jacob must now begin to fulfil. He may think that he has already experienced dislocation and subjugation at hands of Laban in Haran and can now fulfil the second part of the promise of settle life in the Land, but G-d has other ideas. He has mistaken the times. This is not a time of redemption but the beginning of exile. The trouble of Joseph came upon him, the agency by which his family will descend into the Egyptian exile beginning the process of exile and redemption told to Abraham. This scenario has a wider application, one that is relevant to us today Jews may look around at other people and long to be normal like them, without the burden of Jewish destiny and history. This was the motivation behind the various reform movements in Europe in the 19th century. Jews would become citizens of the ‘Mosaic persuasion’ as much as possible like everyone else. We know, however, the tragic outcome of that effort. Maybe more surprisingly, this was also the idea of secular Zionism. Jews would have a state and become a ‘normal’ nation. Of course that didn’t exactly succeed either. Israel is not a normal nation as has not prevented ant-Semitism by normalising the Jews. History has taught us that we cannot escape our destiny, we cannot settle down and become normal because that is not who we are. Like Jacob, we discover that our attempts to be normal like Esau are doomed to failure and sooner or later we will be forced to confront our particular Jewish destiny.
Jacob, preparing to meet for a fateful encounter with his estranged brother, is left alone at night on a riverbank. There he is attacked by and struggles with someone. Upon overpowering this being Jacob refuses to let him go unless he blesses him. This he does by changing Jacob’s name to Israel because he has struggled with man and G-d and prevailed. What are we to make of this story and what it tells us about being part of the people of Israel? It is clear that this incident is of pivotal importance in the development of the Jewish people and even has its own mitzvah connected to it but what exactly is its message? If we look at the central element of the story we find that it concerns struggle or confrontation. Jacob is attacked and thus forced to fight and prevail. This earns him a new name that reflects this quality. Jacob, until now, has not been known for his fighting ability. Indeed, he has shied away from confrontation. He flees from Esau, runs away from Laban and is presently engaged in trying to spirit away from Esau as much of his possessions as possible. Yet here he is forced to fight and something changes in him and his descendants. It is noticeable that every time the name Israel is used instead of Jacob it signifies a decisive action or decision taken by him. It means that following indecision or procrastination he has moved further down the road he needs to follow. This is most conspicuous in the story of Joseph. All through the narrative he is called Jacob until the point of Judah’s intervention, marking the moment Jacob comes to terms with having to send Benjamin to Egypt. The procrastination is over, the problem is confronted not avoided and Jewish history can move forward. This trait of Jacob has also been conspicuous in his descendants. Jews have generally sought to flee from conflict rather than face it head on. It is generally not in our nature to start a fight. Yet when we are forced to or the issues are essential enough, we can and will fight and prevail. Hanukah is a perfect example. Jews lived happily under foreign rule for centuries until the Greeks confronted with an existential threat. They then fought, won and created an independent state. A similar process happened in the last century in Europe. Both changed Jewish destiny Jacob would often times prepare to remain Jacob but when forced to fight he rises to the challenge and transforms into Israel.
Our Parshah famously opens with the dream of Jacob. Jacob sees a ladder stretching to heaven with angels ascending and descending. G-d stands at the top and promises Jacob He will take care of him. Many explanations, literal, metaphorical, psychological and mystical, have been advanced to understand this passage. Nachmanidies explains that the angels are G-d’s lackeys in controlling human affairs, while G-d promises Jacob that G-d will personally deal with his destiny. In a similar vein, Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud sees the angels as the arbiters of the destiny of nations, each nation having its own angel, while Jacob is promised that, unlike other nations, Israel will be under the direct providence of G-d. How are we to understand these ideas? One can comprehend that G-d may rule the world through indirect means, while Israel is directly accountable. In the same way that one may be shielded from the sun or radiation by clouds or have light refracted through water, G-d can limit His control of the world. Indeed that is not only the basis of our having free will but, according to the kabbalistic idea of ‘contraction’, the basis for the very possibility of the existence of the world. The Jewish people, however, have more direct exposure to G-d and their destiny, therefore, is more affected by their relationship with Him. In this context, however, it is enlightening to examine the ideas of Maimonidies with regards to Divine providence. Unlike many other religious philosophers, Maimonidies does not regard G-d as having intimate control over every aspect of existence. Animals, for example, are subject to only general species control, G-d not being directly involved in what lion eats what gazelle. With regards to humans, Maimonidies proposes that Divine providence is determined by the individual themselves. If they wish to place themselves in G-d’s hands, they will have direct Divine interference in their lives. If not, they will be subject to the vagaries of chance. Using this idea we can understand more deeply Jacob’s dream. The nations of the world who do not have an intimate relationship with G-d are, for good or evil, subject to the ‘angels’ of natural forces. Israel, G-d’s people, are for good or evil bound to the Divine. We choose to be connected to G-d, who thus controls our destiny.
Both Abraham and Isaac dig wells and both of them have disputes concerning those wells with Philistines. The way they appear to deal with these conflicts however is different. We find Abraham rebuking Avimelech concerning the well that his servants stole. Isaac, on the other hand, uses a different technique. Every time the Philistines dispute his ownership of a well he merely moves on to another well, until he finds one that, for whatever reason, is not a source of dispute. We find a similar attitude in relation to other matters. When Avimelech confronts Abraham over his deception concerning Sarah, Abraham vigorously replies to him. In a similar incident concerning Rebecca in this weeks Parshah, Isaac merely accepts Avimelech’s reprimand. The same is true in family matters. When there is a dispute with Lot, Abraham takes the initiative in solving it while when the relationship between his sons turns fratricidal, Isaac does nothing and the initiative to send Jacob away is taken by Rebecca. These two different approaches in many ways reflect the different characters of the two Patriarchs. Abraham is expansive and outgoing, Isaac is retiring and more inhibited. Abraham is active while Isaac is more passive. One may prefer one approach over another but the fact is that both Abraham and Isaac are patriarchs and thus both are examples or genetic pointers on how Jews should or will behave. The correct approach to these two attitudes is to understand that actually we need both and one or the other are appropriate in different circumstances. Indeed, we find Jacob, the third patriarch, combing both approaches and using contrasting methods at different points in his life. Similarly, at different points in Jewish history one or other of these approaches has been dominant. Most strikingly, after the failure of the Bar Kochvah revolt and that followed in its wake, the Sages developed a policy of political passivity according which Jews would no longer militarily organise themselves. The Jewish approach to attacks on them was political not violent and in general for the following centuries Jews didn’t fight back. Starting in the 19th century, partly due to increased anti-Semitism but mostly to the weakening of religious authority due to the Haskala, Jews started to seek to defend themselves and especially to arrange a political return to the Land of Israel. Thus, the attitude of passivity that epitomised Jews for centuries is today totally transformed into one of active defence. We have gone from being Isaac back to following the model of Abraham. Where we will go in the future will depend on circumstances, maybe to a combination of both like Jacob.
This week we read of the death of Sarah. Unusually, rather than saying that Sarah lived to 127 years the Torah states that she lived 7 years, 20 years, and 100 years. The Midrash explains this repetition by saying that she was as beautiful at 20 as at 7 and as sinless at 100 as at 20. There are other variants of the Midrash that use different calculations but all basically convey the same message. Yet this understanding is problematic. Some one that is the same at 100 as they are at 20 is someone that has not grown during their life. As Judaism believes that a major goal of our life is to grow, especially spiritually, one can, based on this Midrash, reasonably ask what Sarah achieved in her life? As belittling Sarah is obviously not the intention of the Midrash, we need to understand it in a different way. Sarah, however, also appears in at the end of the Parshah. After Rebecca and Isaac marry it is written that he brought her into Sarah’s tent and was comforted for his mother. The Midrash comments on this that all the customs followed by Sarah and ceased on her death where renewed by Rebecca and it was as if Sarah had not passed away. What both Midrashim are talking about here is not a lack of growth or an absence of change. It is clear that Rebecca was a very different personality from Sarah as was Isaac when compared to Abraham. Their households were also quite distinctive. Rather the message that is being conveyed is a continuity of values. Isaac was comforted for Sarah when he saw that Rebecca shared the same basic values that his mother held. Similarly, in its retrospective on Sarah’s life the Midrash is telling us that Sarah held the same basic values at the age of 100 that she began with at 7 or twenty. The same modesty, kindness and faith that were apparent in her early years remained with her until her death. The same fortitude and resolve she displayed at 20 she still displayed at 100. furthermore, these values didn’t die with her but were carried on to the next generation. Looking around his home as built by Rebecca it was if Sarah was still alive. That is the message, according to the Midrash, the Torah wishes to convey. We indeed need to to grow and change throughout our lives. But fortunates is the person who is acquires Jewish values early on and not only follows these values throughout their life but is able to transmit them to the next generation. Such a person not only can be proud of a life well lived but, like Sarah, achieves eternity not only in the next world but even in this one.
A fundamental foundation of Judaism is the concept of covenant or brit. Based on a common Near-Eastern political construct it signifies a reciprocal agreement between two parties, normally a sovereign and a vassal. In terms of Jewish thought it means a contract between G-d and his people, starting with their forefather Abraham. In last week’s Parshah we read of the first of several such covenants, the most significant of which was the covenant enacted at Sinai, with the Torah at its heart. What in effect, however, are the implications of such a covenant, other than the basic stipulations found in the text? We can delve deeper by examining the events of this week’s Parshah, where the consequences of G-d’s covenant with Abraham are worked out. The relationship between Abraham and G-d until this point has been one sided. Abraham’s faith in G-d is rewarded by G-d’s protection but he takes little role in influencing Divine activity in the world. Following, the covenant we find a different story. Abraham becomes a more active partner with G-d in the affairs of humanity. This is most famously reflected in the story of Sodom where G-d actively solicits Abraham’s involvement in the fate of the city. The Torah states in clear terms that because of G-d’s relationship with Abraham it is not satisfactory that G-d acts without informing Abraham of his plans. This is also, however, seen elsewhere as in the story of Sarah and Avimelech. After Avimelech has been appraised of Sarah’s true identity G-d informs him that if he returns Sarah then Abraham will pray for him and he will live. The Torah then informs us that Abraham did indeed pray for Avimelech and his family and they were duly healed. Unlike a similar incident with Pharaoh were Abraham was a passive of events, here he takes an active role in mediating Divine action. What separates these two incidents is the establishment of the covenant. By making a covenant with Abraham G-d does not merely extend his patronage to him but makes him a partner in the running of the world. Similarly, the covenant at Sinai turns the Jews into partners of G-d in perfecting the world. By accepting the Torah, Jews took upon themselves the responsibility l’tekan olam b’malchut shadai, to perfect the world in the sovereignty of G-d. The achievement of the messianic age is not merely in G-d’s custody but in the hands of every Jew. Furthermore, the farther the world seems from perfection and the more distant Divine intervention, the more it is incumbent on us to fulfil our role in this partnership. The more we act to improve the world the more we can expect a reciprocal response from our Divine Partner and the more truly we become children of Abraham.
Abraham is both the biological and spiritual father of the Jewish people. In his and Sarah’s story we see many of the themes that will be prominent in Judaism and Jewish history. Indeed, commentators like Nachmanidies see the patriarchal narrative as prefiguring events in that history, from the Exodus to our relationship with the Muslims. These stories also present some of the basic concepts of Judaism. The three basic components of Judaiism are introduced this week, as we follow the progress of the founding couple. Firstly, G-d makes two promises to Abraham, one of progeny and one of land. Later he gives him the commandment of circumcision, introducing the concept of mitzvah and of Torah more generally. In our Parshah, therefore, we are introduced to the three pillars of People, Torah and Land that consist of the foundation of Judaism. I behoves us to to investigate these three concepts more closely and understand the relationship between them. Firstly, even though Abraham is to be a blessing for all humanity he is also to establish a specific people. Furthermore, while upholding a universal moral code in his dealings with his neighbours the mitzvah of circumcision is specific for his family. Lastly, while born in Iraq and travelling to Egypt, his future and that of his descendants is bound up with one particular land. Thus Jews are both particular and universal and avoid the pitfalls of both extremes. By upholding a universal morality based on a universal G-d while confining the mitzvot of the Torah to the people of Israel, Judaism avoids the twin pitfalls of both conversionary intolerance and racial superiority. Jews have a special relationship with G-d but others can also approach G-d in their own way. Leading by example is in crusades and inquisitions are out. Furthermore, by confining Jewish territorial ambitions to a single piece of territory, Judaism was prevented from coming an imperialistic religion, that regarded expansion as a religious duty and religious conversion as an imperial necessity. We thus avoided the intolerance of the Christian and Muslim empires and their state universal religion. We thus see that at the very beginning of the Jewish story Abraham and Sarah exemplify the values and concepts that would enable their descendants to become truly a blessing to all the families of the earth.
One of the most striking differences between the ante and post diluvian worlds is the permission given to humans to consume other animals. While Adam and Eve were only given permission to eat plant life Noah and his descendants were permitted to eat meat. Various reasons have been given for this, including the lack of other food in the destroyed post flood world. Yet to understand this change properly we need to examine the overall difference between the world before and after the flood. The basic distinction between these two situations can be seen in G-d’s promise not to again destroy the whole world because of the evil of humans. In making this commitment He uses a parallel description of the human propensity for evil as was used to justify the original decision to bring the flood. So what has now changed? Various commentators explain the G-d adjusted his method of dealing with humans. Whereas before the world was judged as a single entity, now people will be judged as individuals or nations, as later demonstrated in the cases of Sodom and Ninveh. An important symbol of the previous universal corporate responsibility was the care humans had for other sentient life, including the prohibition of eating it. Once this responsibility was lifted, however, eating animals became permissible. G-d, however, did not give up entirely on the concept of corporate responsibility. In the people of Israel he found a possibility to restore the previous situation. In accepting the Torah the Jewish people took upon themselves the mutual responsibility to ensure its observance. This, indeed, is the focus the last section of Deuteronomy which we have just completed. It is interesting, therefore, that the Torah also imposed the restrictions of kashrut which deal almost exclusively with the eating of meat. In addition the Torah stipulates that, in the Land of Israel at least, we are not free to use the land as we like, but need to observe the Sabbatical year and other mitzvot that protect the land. Thus the Jewish people reflect in part the corporate responsibility lost after the flood. With the climate emergency upon us it maybe is time to go further. Jews have a responsibility to take these notions of responsibility for the environment and other creatures and teach them to the world. The time may be fast approaching when we need to return to the antediluvian concept of universal corporate responsibility lest we bring upon ourselves another flood. W can thus also advance the world to the Messianic age.
The story of the sin of Adam and Eve is one of the most difficult in the Torah. It raises many questions and is not easily interpreted or understood. What was the nature of the knowledge being withheld, why would such knowledge be withheld and how does the punishment eventually meted out fit the crime, are but a few. If we look at the narrative carefully we can see that one word seems to reoccur frequently, the word ערום. Adam and Eve are described as being ערומים, the snake is more ערום than anyone else and after the sin the human couple realised they were ערום. This same word is normally translated in different ways with Adam and Eve being described as naked and the snake as knowledgable or cunning, but the Torah uses the same word each time and it seems to be at the heart of the issue. The Hebrew root ערם is normally found in the Torah in the context of deceit, whether in the story of Jacob deceiving Esau, Laban deceiving Jacob or the laws of premeditated murder. If we transfer this normative use to our story we can construct a meaning that both links the various uses of the word ערום and provide an insight into its possible meaning. Using this explanation we can see that Adam and Eve were deceitful but unaware of it, the snake was certainly deceitful and the couple after eating of the fruit then understood that they were deceitful. This understanding can be deepened if we note that the snake by his proposition to Eve caused her to deceive herself and later he same process occurred with Adam. They are persuaded that what they think is correct is really not and what they thought was wrong is really acceptable. The snake never actually tells eve or Adam to eat the fruit but persuades them to deceive themselves that it is the right thing to do. If we follow this line of thought we can see that the knowledge that G-d withheld from humans was not that of the difference between good and evil but that humans could use their intelligence to deceive themselves into distorting the difference. Adam and Eve had this power all along, were ערום, but were not aware and so not ashamed of it. After allowing the snake, the master of deception, to trick them into deceiving themselves and eating the fruit, they then were aware of this terrible power thus were ashamed and sort to hide from G-d. This explanation still leaves many questions unanswered but begins to provide an understanding based on a key word in the text. If this even partially correct it teaches an important lesson. Humans greatest sin, the one that is the source of all others, is to deceive ourselves. When we persuade ourselves that black is white and good is evil we are capable of justifying any act, however terrible or immoral. Self deception is the ultimate beginning of the path out of paradise.