Sunday, 16 May 2021

Shavuot: Wherefore Art Thou?

 Shavuot appears as a conundrum.

Of all the three ‘foot festivals’, it is the only one whose date is not to be found anywhere in the Torah. In fact, according to the introduction to Rabbi Sacks’ Shavuot machzor/prayer book, he explains that:

‘Nowhere does the Torah say that we should celebrate it on such-and-such a day in a specific month. Instead it says: “And you shall count seven complete weeks from the day following the first day of the festival, when you brought the omer as a wave offering….And you shall proclaim on that day – it shall be a sacred assembly for you: you may not perform any laborious work” (Vayikra 23:15-21). The text in Devarim is even less specific: “Count for yourselves seven weeks; when the sickle begins to cut the standing grain” (16:9).’

He continues by informing us that, until our calendar was fixed in the fourth century CE, the chag could fall on three different days, depending on whether in any given year:

‘Nisan and Iyar were both short months of twenty-nine days, or both long, of thirty days, or one was long, the other short. If both were long, Shavuot fell on the fifth of Sivan. If one was long and one short, it was celebrated on the sixth, and if both were short, it occurred on the seventh. This makes it difficult to understand how it could be a commemoration of any historical event, since events happen on particular days of the year, while Shavuot did not.’

Secondly, we don’t know where the events that we recall on Shavuot, namely Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Israelites, actually took place.  Was the mountain in modern day Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia? There are as many theories as there are possible locations.

Thirdly, nowhere in the Torah does it connect the giving of the Ten Commandments to the festival itself! We know that it took place fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt, but as I wrote, we aren’t sure when. The obfuscation of this connection led to numerous arguments later on down the historical line with various groups arguing vociferously as to when Shavuot should be celebrated. Depending on whether you were a Pharisee or Saducee, Bethusian, Samaritan, a member of the Qumram sect of the famous Dead Sea Scroll or a Karaite, you would find yourself recounting the given of the Aseret Hadibrot (the Ten Commandments or more accurately ‘statements’) on a different day!

This didn’t occur on any other festival and the fact that we uniformly celebrate Shavuot today in Israel on sixth Sivan and in the rest of the world on the seventh as well, attests to its durability and otherworldliness quality. And notice that I haven’t even mentioned cheesecake!

Whether or not the Torah was gifted to us on the fifth, sixth or even seventh of the month doesn’t stop us appreciating an event that took place exactly 3,333 years ago today, tomorrow or even on Tuesday. That we don’t know exactly where it transpired is also not particularly relevant. Every Jew, however connected or disconnected with our heritage knows that, thousands of years ago, somewhere in a distant desert, something transformative happened to our ancestors and our nation. An event that would change the course of world history. A gift that ‘keeps on giving’ to the world’s three monotheistic religions.

The Torah was given to the Jews (or Israelites as they were known then) and then transmitted to the ‘Seventy Nations’.

On a personal basis, at least in my direct family, Shavuot has a distinctive place. My own connection with the chag takes place thousands of miles away from the deserts, to the beautiful city of Paris, where my parents first met, exactly sixty one years ago this evening (the first night of Shavuot).

Let me explain.

Last week, I received a phone call from a volunteer at Jewish Care who gleefully informed me that, to my surprise, my mother had, over the last few years, dictated her life story to another volunteer. This memoir was complete and must have been finished shortly before her passing. Not only that, it also contained family photographs.

You can imagine my surprise and joy to find out about this, although to be fair, I think my mother probably told me about the project a while ago and I’d completely forgotten. This news came as though the sun were bursting through a very dark and rainy sky, bringing with it a warmth that I have not been able to feel for quite a while.

My mother described her life before, during and after the war and included in her memoirs were a detailed retelling of how she met my father.

She had journeyed to Paris from her home in Antwerp to spend Shavuot with friends. On the first evening that she arrived, my father, who was a cousin of these people was also there and they met for the first time. The two of them spent ten days walking around the romantic city of Paris and my father (along with a chaperone who was his cousin) acted as her tour guide, visiting many famous locales including the Notre Dame Cathedral. As an architect, he was extremely knowledgeable and wanted to share his expertise with such a pretty young lady! When the holiday was finished, they returned to their respective homes and that seemed to be the end of it. However, on her birthday which was 26th June, she received the most beautiful bouquet of yellow roses (yellow was her favourite colour) and lo and behold, they were married by the Chief Rabbi of Antwerp on 29th October 1961.

They spent their honeymoon aboard the Queen Mary sailing from Southampton to New York, although they had to contend with a storm at sea, so most of the time was spent on the upper deck. I arrived on the scene quite a few years later.

Shavuot is the festival when Gd established his covenant with us, the Jewish people. It is the anniversary when He, the bridegroom chose us, as his bride. The Chupah took place at the foot of Mount Sinai and the Torah was his Ketubah. Moses was the perfect Rabbi, conducting the service and preparing the Jewish people for the eternal marriage that still exists between our creator and our nation. How could I not appreciate the significance of my parents’ meeting over this particular festival? What started at Sinai, continued in Antwerp and although my mother is no longer with us in a physical form, her legacy, like the Torah that was given to us, will be with our family forever.

Wherefore art thou Shavuot? Right here in my heart.

Chag Sameach to you and your families.

Friday, 14 May 2021

Parshat Bemidbar: 5781 And All That

 If I cite the names W.C.  Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, I could vouch that very few of my contemporaries will be aware of the tome for which they are justifiably famous.  Making its debut in Punch magazine, it was published in book form by Methuen in 1930.

You might be better versed and know that I am referring to ‘1066 And All That: A Memorable History of England, Comprising All the Parts You Can Remember, Including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates’

I must confess that I have never read the book although I was familiar with its title due to seeing it in my parents' library, amongst the numerous books that I'm going to have to sort out very shortly.  This is not a task that I am particularly anticipating.

I refer to that particular title because, looking back from the vantage point of mid-May or alternatively, eight months into the Jewish year I think I can say relatively fairly, that this year of 5781, has been nothing short of horrific.

Need I mention the nightmare that is still Covid, which has taken the lives of so many? Then, the loss of numerous Torah Giants, including Rabbis Steinsaltz, Lamm, Rabinovitch and Twersky.  And if that weren't unimaginable enough, our beloved, irreplaceable Rabbi Sacks.

Adding to the despair, I am still trying to come to terms with the loss of my own mother, just over a month ago.  As I write these words, Israel is in flames, quite literally, with rockets and riots, deaths and destruction.  '5781 And All That' is anything but a parody but it is and will no doubt be memorable for all of the wrong reasons.  So what comfort can this week's parsha provide?

Two months before he passed away last November, Rabbi Sacks ztl saw the publication of his final book: 'Judaism's Life Changing Ideas: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible'.  Though modest in size, its contents were anything but, as our leader's thoughts were collated from his weekly 2017-18 (5778) ‘Covenant and Conversation’ booklet. 

Each week's Dvar Torah imparted the kind of wisdom that only its author could impart.

We are about to embark on the fourth book of the Torah, known to some as 'Numbers' and to others as 'Bemidbar - In the Desert'.  Rabbi Sacks begins with the following:

‘The books of Exodus and Numbers have striking similarities.  They are both about journeys.  They both portray the Israelites as quarrelsome and ungrateful.  Both contain stories about the people complaining about food and water.  In both, the Israelites commit a major sin: in Exodus, the golden calf; in Numbers, the episode of the spies.  In both, God threatens to destroy them and begin again with Moses.  Both times, Moses' passionate appeal persuades God to forgive the people.  It is easy, when reading the book of Numbers, to feel a sense of déjà vu.  We have been here before.’

‘Where the books differ’, he continues, is to realise that ‘there is a difference’.  Whereas:

‘Exodus is about a journey from, Numbers is about a journey to.  Exodus is the story of an escape from slavery.  Exodus means just that: departure, withdrawal, leaving.  By contrast, in the book of Numbers the people have already left Egypt far behind.  They have spent a prolonged period in the Sinai desert.  They have received the Torah (as we will read on Monday) and built the Sanctuary.  Now they are ready to move on.  This time, they are looking forward, not back.  They are thinking, not of the danger they are fleeing from, but of the destination they are travelling towards, the Promised Land.’

Reading these words, I stop and think about what I and we have been through in the last year-and-a-half.  In the deepest darkest months when Covid was creeping up on us at every turn, we held onto the belief that things had to get better.  They would probably get worse, but they had to improve.  Didn't they?  Then the vaccine came along and we deigned to believe that spring and its promises could not be too far away.  We hoped.  We prayed.  We held onto something, however slight, however fragile.  The hope, Hatikvah, that things would get better.

 

And here we are, in the depths of yet another crisis, watching the people we care about running for their lives, not from the plague, but from their neighbours.  The destination that we were travelling towards seems to have vanished like a mirage in the desert and we are walking backwards, towards Egypt. 

The first verses of Bemidbar tell us that:

‘(1) On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: (2) Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.’

Rashi infers something beautiful from these introductory Pesukim:

‘Because they were dear to him, He counts them every now and then: when they went forth from Egypt He counted them (Exodus 12:37), when many of them fell in consequence of their having worshipped the golden calf He counted them to ascertain the number of those left (cf.  Rashi Exodus 30:16); when he was about to make His Shechinah dwell amongst them (i.e.  when He commanded them to make a Tabernacle), He again took their census; for on the first day of Nisan the Tabernacle was erected (Exodus 40:2) and shortly afterwards, on the first day of Iyar, He counted them.’

In ‘5781 And All That’, it may seem that we, like our ancestors, are walking in the wrong direction but somehow, we have all been here before and despite all of our travails and missteps, Gd still decides to count us and demonstrate how special we are to Him, because every Jew matters, full stop.  Every Jew who survived Covid and every Jew who didn’t.  Every Jew who prayed alone.  Every Jew who didn't pray.  Every Jew who looks at the situation in Israel and cries.  Every Jew who doesn't care about what is happening.  Every Jew who survives a terrorist attack and every Jew who doesn’t.  Every Jew who acts in a way that embarrasses the rest of us.  Every single one of us is counted and valued by Gd.  When Rabbi Sacks tells us that we on a journey 'to', he knows that there will be countless challenges on our way.  He knows that some of us won't make it.  He and my mother left us before they could complete their journeys.  But his words, our Torah, our heritage, our future are assured, however blinded we are by the events that envelop us.

As he concludes with his Life-Changing Idea (#34):

‘Remember your destination.  This will help you to distinguish between an opportunity to be seized and a temptation to be resisted’. 

As he writes:

‘The Israelites, in their journey.  made a series of mistakes.  They focused too much on the present (the food, the water) and too little on the future'.  When they faced difficulties, they had too much fear and too little faith.  They kept looking back to how things were instead of looking forward to how they might be...they knew how to leave but not how to arrive.  They experienced exodus but not entry.’

I believe that we need to hold onto these thoughts as we navigate the choppy waters of '5781 And All That' because every nightmare has to end.  Every storm has to cease and whatever happens and however long it takes, eventually the sun will reclaim the sky. 

Shabbat Shalom and stay safe. 

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Emor: Sanctification

 בס"ד

1st May 2021 / 19th Nissan 5781

In memory of my dear mother, Imi Morati Bryna Rouge bat Reb Yechiel a’h


Leviticus 22:

(31) You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the LORD.  (32) You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I the LORD who sanctify you, (33) I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the LORD.

 

ויקרא כ״ב:ל״א-ל״ג

(לא) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֙ מִצְוֺתַ֔י וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם אֲנִ֖י ה'׃ (לב) וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲנִ֥י ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם׃ (לג) הַמּוֹצִ֤יא אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹקִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י ה'׃

 

Gd's instruction that His name should not be profaned, otherwise known as the mitzvah to avoid a 'chillul Hashem' is anything but trivial.  However, there is an interesting discussion amongst Chazal regarding whom he is addressing with the word ‘you’.

 

The Ibn Ezra (d.1167) famously notes that:

This is directed to the sons of Aaron, for this section Verses 26-33.  is connected to what is earlier stated.  To verse 18 which is directed to Aaron, to his sons, and to all of Israel.  In other words, verses 26-33 are directed to the sons of Aaron. 

Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 22:32:1

His view is agreed upon by a number of other commentators.  However, if that were indeed the case, it would absolve the rest of the people from having to obey this law!

The Rambam (d.1204) disagrees and states:

(1) It is mandatory upon the whole house of Israel to sanctify this Great Name, for it is said: "And I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel" (Lev.  22.32).  They are also charged not to blaspheme Him, for it is said: "And ye shall not profane My holy Name" (Ibid.).

Mishneh Torah, Foundations of the Torah 5:1

So, we have a dichotomy between two giants of Torah who are trying to decipher the meaning of this verse.  Is it aimed at a select group of people or the general population?  If the former, then, we mere Israelites are 'off the hook' as it were if we accidentally cause a Chillul Hashem.  If the latter, then everybody is liable.

More to the point, what are the consequences that occur as a result of such a desecration?

It's really quite simple.  When we think of the members of our faith who publicly bring our nation into disrepute (I shall not mention any names, but you could probably guess whom I am referring to) and as a result cause people to question our ethics and behaviour as Jews, we are suffering the fallout of a Chillul Hashem.  To our critics, it is immaterial whether the person who was responsible was a Kohen or not, an Orthodox or Secular Jew, a Sephardi or Ashkenazi.  As far as they are concerned, this person was 'one of ours' and they will always be identified as such.

I would venture to add that Gd's instruction, whichever way it was meant to be interpreted, gave a clear and immutable message.  "When you (whomever 'you' happen to be') desecrate My name and in the process, do not sanctify it, you forget your position as the nation that I, your Gd elevated you to.  I took you out of Egypt to make you into a nation that would act as a reflection of My role in the world."

You, the Kohanim or you, the entire population have a duty to sanctify me through your actions and behaviour and your dealings with the world at large, both in a personal capacity as well as professionally.

When I think of someone who was an example of demonstrating how to behave, my late mother immediately comes to mind.  She lit up every room she walked into and befriended people from all nations.  In terms of demonstrating how to behave and act in a manner that promoted a Kiddush Hashem, my mother was the example.

That she has left us so suddenly is still incomprehensible to me as well as many, many other people.  Yet, through her actions, her love of people and her love of her own religion, we, the ones she left behind have been forever enriched.  It is therefore comforting to know that when we read the above verses, we can say that far from desecrating Gd's name, she did everything in her power to illuminate it far and wide. 

May her memory be a blessing to you, whoever you are. 

Shabbat Shalom.



Thursday, 11 March 2021

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Hachodesh) : To Infinity and Beyond

 

בס"ד

13th March 2021/ 29th Adar 5781

It was like a breath of fresh air, albeit of the Martian variety when we heard that Perseverance, NASA's $2.7 billion 'rover' had landed successfully inside the Jezero Crater on 18th February.  Ignoring the spectre of Covid19, we could focus our minds, albeit temporarily on another news-story.  We waited for the first photographs to arrive from across the universe and twenty-four hours later, my WhatsApp proudly showed me the very first image received from our mechanical buddy, bearing the legend: "First photo they released from Mars".

Endurance had captured the red planet's rocky surface in all its glory and there, nestled in full view was...a Chabad House! Of course, it was, because Chabad 'refreshes the parts that no other organisation can reach'.

                                            

Yes, it was a joke and a good one at that, but behind the humour, there was a salient fact, that somehow, the Jewish Nation manages, through sheer chutzpah to punch 'far above our weight' and we've been doing this for a very, very long time.

Who cannot be extraordinarily proud of Israel's successes in managing to vaccinate millions of people in record-breaking time?  She is leading the world in this respect, followed hotly on its heels by this country.  The numbers vaccinated in both countries are frankly staggering and the envy of the world.  I make no apologies for Israel's success but then again, I'm not surprised.  We have 'tenure' in showing our Gentile neighbours how to behave.  A great deal of tenure.

Through the centuries, our nation has faced many existential threats, the first of which I discussed last week, when we recounted the shocking episode of the Golden Calf.  It seemed that despite His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our newly minted nation was not going to make its way out of the desert.  Had Moses not intervened and pleaded with Gd on our behalf, our life on this planet would have been extinguished long before mankind sought to explore other worlds.  Gd relented and forgave the Israelites and then the most unexpected event occurred. 

Over the last month, we have been reading through the detailed description which began with these words:

 The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, "Tell the Israelites to take an offering for Me; take My offering from all whose heart moves them to give.  These are the offerings you shall receive from them: gold, silver and bronze...they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst." (Exodus 25)

The master craftsmen who were individually appointed by Gd to carry out the intricate work were Betzalel and his aid, Oholiov.  The Torah tells us in the first of this week's sidrot of Vayakhel that:

From Moshe they received all the offerings the Israelites had brought for the work of the sanctuary and the people kept bringing them additional gifts every morning. (Exodus 36)

The people were so generous to the extent that we are told that they:

Said to Moshe, “The people are bringing more than is necessary for the work that Gd has commanded us to do.”  So Moshe ordered an announcement to be made throughout the camp, "Let no man or woman make anything more as an offering for the sanctuary."  So the people brought no more; for what they had already had was more than enough for all the work that was to be done.

A key concept in our faith is the idea that we have a duty to sanctify Gd's name to the nations of the world and do everything we can to avoid desecrating it.  These two ideas are known as Kiddush and Chillul Hashem.

The origin of the latter can be found in a number of verses in the Torah such as Leviticus 22.32:

You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I am the Lord who sanctifies you.

Can you think of a greater Kiddush Hashem than the people making so many contributions to the building of the Tabernacle, that they are asked to cease from doing so?  It is diametrically the opposite of the Chillul Hashem perpetrated through the building of the Golden Calf. 

We have tenure when it comes to showing the world how to behave when we demonstrate the very best of what we can achieve.  This is both as a small community in the United Kingdom and a nation who 'kvells' every time Israel sends her citizens abroad to offer vital humanitarian aid during natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding.  Israel is always there.  The Jewish people are always on hand to help.

The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, is very much on our minds as it is exactly during this week that Moses prepared the structure for its inauguration which took place on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of the month which will begin as soon as Shabbat ends.

For seven days, from 23rd Adar, the Mishkan was erected and dismantled for a week of 'training' whilst Moses took on the role of the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, initiating his brother and his four sons into the ritual of the priesthood.

On Rosh Chodesh, it was assembled for use (until Gd instructed the people to decamp) and thus began the twelve days of bringing gifts by the princes of the Tribes which are described so beautifully in the Sidra of Naso.

This entire episode, bringing tribes together with brothers working in harmony is the ultimate expression of what Kiddush Hashem looks like. 

Chabad may not have made it to Mars quite yet, but the spirit that they and many other Jews exhibit is built from the same material as that which caused a people who had sunk to such a low level, reach the dizzying heights described above.  We show the world what we can achieve, whether through the contributions we make to the world through science, technology, philosophy and culture or the miracle that is our wonderful State of Israel.  In short, we remind them that we can be a dazzling 'light to the nations' through the darkest and most terrifying of times.

To infinity and beyond!

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov - a happy and healthy new month.


Thursday, 4 March 2021

Ki Tissa: Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

 It was around the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Roald Dahl, the gifted mind who gave the world 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', 'James and the Giant Peach', 'The Witches', 'The BFG' and other classic books, that the following notice appeared on his official website:

‘The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitic statements.  Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl's stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations.  We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.’

This was followed a few weeks later, on 12th February by another admission of guilt on Twitter by the world-famous pop star, Justin Timberlake.  He wrote:

‘I have seen the messages, tags, comments, and concerns and I want to respond.  I am deeply sorry for the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak up for what was right.  I specifically want to apologize to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson both individually, because I care for and respect these women and I know I failed...’

Lest we forget why these apologies were issued, let us remind ourselves of the events that led to their appearances.

Roald Dahl was no friend of the Jewish people.  In a now infamous interview in the New Statesman in 1983, he said:

“There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews...I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere.” 

As if he hadn't caused enough offence, he added,

“Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

Justin Timberlake, who had dated the teenage pop singer, Britney Spears, did not specify exactly what he had done to shame her in public (as per his admission).  He also acted improperly after the embarrassment caused by the notorious incident involving Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl performance in 2004.  Whilst she was severely excoriated by the media, he exonerated himself, leaving her to bear the brunt of the ugly aftermath.  Her career stagnated whilst his soared.

We have become used to numerous politicians and occasional sports personalities having to issue half-hearted apologies to salvage their careers.  It is, however, unusual to witness two admissions of guilt so close together that seemingly appear to be genuinely felt.  No doubt Mr Timberlake's confession will have come to the fore as a result of the widely discussed documentary on Britney Spears, but the language seems to indicate that he had been dwelling on his actions for a considerable amount of time.  I would like to believe that the same applied to the family of Roald Dahl who seemingly waited for an opportune moment to try, as it were 'to clear his name'.

How could they have reached a higher spiritual and physical peak?

Having survived hundreds of years in captivity and witnessed the greatest empire in the known world brought to its knees by the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea, the Israelites wanted for nothing.  They were fed on a daily basis, provided with their every need and had been given the extraordinary gift of the Torah by no less than the Master of the Universe Himself.

And then it all went so terribly wrong.

Bernie Taupin's lyrics to "Sorry seems to be the hardest word", sung so beautifully by the writer of the melody, Elton John sum up the difficulty we all have in apologising:

"What I got to do to make you want me?
What I got to do to be heard?
What do I say when it's all over babe?
Sorry seems to be the hardest word."

 © Hst Publishing Ltd., Rouge Booze Inc.

 

Then the Lord said to Moshe, “I have seen this people; it is a stiff-necked people so do not try to stop Me when My anger burns against them.  I will put an end to them and make of you a great nation.” ( Exodus 32:9 :)

Can we put ourselves in Gd's position and understand His rationale?

Of course, we cannot do this because we are human but we understand the anger that comes about as a result of ingratitude and betrayal.  We appreciate why Gd, Whose Ten Commandments began with the statement that they should remember that He and only He was their (and our) Gd - there could be no other.  Yet, here they were, worshipping a Golden Calf in His stead.

Gd wanted to destroy the people and reboot the Israelites through Moses, the Lawgiver, the only human that:

The Lord would speak to Moshe face to face, as one person speaks to his friend. (Exodus 33.11)

In this week’s sedra, we find ourselves at the first crossroads in our burgeoning existence.  It is literally 'touch and go' and we see that Moses' response was a masterstroke to assuage Gd.  The offshoot of his efforts are that:

                The LORD relented from the Evil He had spoken of doing to His people (Exodus 33.11)

This is not to indicate that Gd was any less angry with us than before.  The long conversations between Gd and His servant are reported throughout the rest of the sedra, to the point where Moses has to almost sacrifice himself to prove his dedication to ensuring the survival of the nation he has led out of slavery.

The long road back to both forgiveness and renewal only takes shape once Moses descends the mountain with the second set of Tablets on the 10th Tishri, which hitherto we know as Yom Kippur.  To reach that point, though, he has to say 'sorry' in a way that the Lord will accept his plea and we, the Jewish people will be able to employ to ask for our own forgiveness.  Through our Selichot.  Our prayers of supplication.

The apology apparently sincerely offered by Roald Dahl’s family and Justin Timberlake himself are the first step to proving that although 'sorry may be the hardest word', it is one that opens a channel for reconciliation and renewal.  But like Moses' first tentative steps on Mount Sinai, it is not enough to totally convince their audience that their previous misdemeanours have been completely forgiven.  We will judge the veracity of their statements by how both entities behave in the future.  Will the family of Roald Dahl do anything more to demonstrate their desire to build bridges with the Jewish Community?  Will Justin Timberlake act in an improper fashion in the future?  Only time will be able to show us.

It took much more for Moses to introduce the concept of praying for forgiveness on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.  That we still need this day 3,333 years later attests to the fragile relationship between the wrongful actions we do and the reparations we need to make to fully apologise to both our peers and the King of the Universe.

Because, after all these years, sorry still seems to be the hardest word - and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  It might be difficult to apologise, but if it is truly meant, it can also be one of the most beautiful five-letter expressions in the English language.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Yitro: How Can I NOT Covet?

Joe Cohen's alarm goes off, but as he's had a very late night, he sleeps right through it. He wakes up in a panic, throws on his suit as quickly as he can and rushes out the door to drive to work. He then hits the rush hour traffic head on and looks nervously at the clock on his dashboard. Arriving half-an-hour late, he pulls into the company car park, fearing how much trouble he will be in but cannot find a free spot to park. Having driven around the lot and checked out each potential space, he stops his car in desperation and looks up towards the heavens. He is not a religious man in the least but despite this, he cries out: “Dear God, if you please just give me a parking spot I promise I will go to synagogue every week, will only eat kosher food, and I’ll follow every single one of the Ten Commandments, just PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE give me a vacant spot so that I won’t lose my job!” Miraculously, a parking spot opens up right by the front of the building. He then looks back up to the heavens and says, “never mind I just found one!”
On the face of it, each of the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments (although literally, the translation reads as 'The Ten Sayings') seems to be achievable.
1. Remember that I'm the Lord your Gd who took you out of Egypt? No problem. That's why we have Pesach!
2. Don't serve idols? It's a no-brainer because I don't.
3. Don't take my name in vain? OK, this one maybe a little more challenging but I can certainly work on my language skills and tone them down with a little more self control.
4. Remember to observe Shabbat. Yes, that is difficult and it will impact on the way I live my life, but there are millions of Jews who are Shabbat Observant and they manage! It's probably one of the more challenging of the ten, but not impossible.
5. Honour father and mother. It goes without saying that they are the reason why I'm here, so of course, I want to recognise their crucial place in being the people who made me the way I am.
6. Don't kill? It wouldn't even cross my mind.
7. Don't commit adultery and be faithful to my partner? That goes without saying.
8. Don't steal? I wouldn't dream of it - it doesn't feature at all in my thoughts.
9. Don't lie under oath in court and act in falsehood against the defendant? Again, not something I would ever do.
10. Don't crave after your friend's £3 million house or lust after his pretty wife or bemoan the fact that he can afford a butler and a maid (noch!) and drive a brand new 2021 registration Porsche 911 (which only cost him an astronomical £73K, but he bought his previous one in 2018)....hold on, that's not so easy!
Nine out of the Ten Commandments are achievable because they rely on our being able to control our physical desires and fit within the moral compass inculcated into our beings by our parents for as long as we can remember. How though can one realistically obey a commandment that forbids such a basic desire in each of us. It's true that I may not be attracted to my neighbour's wife (or husband) but would I really be able to avoid feeling a mite envious as to the luxurious life he or she is leading? Is it such a sin to visit a friend's house and compare it to your own?
In short, how can Gd expect us to keep all Ten Commandments if the final one is nigh impossible to achieve?
In order to appreciate how Chazal, our Sages dealt with this conundrum, we need to take a step backwards and look at the Ten Commandments in a holistic manner. I would also add that the interpretation I am following here relates to the language used in this week's Sidra when referring to the Aseret Hadibrot, as opposed to the slightly different terminology employed in the Sidra of Va'etchanan where Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah is recounted by Moses shortly before his death.
The late Nechama Liebowitz zl, in her masterly 'New Studies in Shemot' book discusses this very problem and quotes the Ibn Ezra (d.1167). He views the entire spectrum of Mitzvot, in other words, all 613 commandments as having been divided into three distinct categories, which are namely:
1. Precepts of the heart
2. Precepts of the tongue and
3. Precepts of doing
He then subdivides each category into does and donts.
In the first section regarding the heart, his 'Does' include the commandment to love the Lord your Gd as well as to ‘love your neighbour as thyself'. 'Dont's' meanwhile cover such commandments as 'don't hate your brother in your heart' or 'don't bear a grudge'.
In the second category regarding actions of the tongue, he includes the commandment to say the Shema twice a day and Grace After Meal ('Benching') whilst dont's refer to our ninth commandment of not bearing a false witness or cursing using Gd's name, which as I wrote is the third of the commandments.
These first two categories (precepts of the heart and tongue) relate to our relationship with Gd. The first two commandments focus on affairs of the heart. In the Shema, we are told to love Gd with all of our heart (bechol levavecha) . If we love Him in our hearts, we will remember what He did for us in rescuing our ancestors from Egypt and we would therefore never consider rejecting Him through serving idols. When we come to the Third Commandment, that of speech, we move from precepts of the heart to precepts of the tongue. This is then followed by the last two commandments, that of remembering Shabbat by the actions that we do (the precept of doing) and then similarly demonstrating our respect for the parents who brought us into the world and reared us - through the actions that we perform.
When we look at the second section, namely the last five commandments which provide a framework for our relationships with others, the obverse comes into play. Firstly there are the 'doing' commandments, namely, 'do not kill/commit adultery/steal followed by the precept of misusing the tongue through providing a false testimony in court.
Which leaves us with the puzzling anomaly of our first question - 'do not covet' which by its very nature would seem to fit within the first precept, that of the heart, yet how can one practically avoid coveting? Unless there is a different way of understanding the commandment or rather the precept that it would be included within?
Numerous Sages struggle with this notion and suggest that, in order for the commandment to make sense, the Torah is referring to the physical actions that might manifest themselves as a result of someone coveting their neighbour. A classic case quoted is that of King Ahab who was covetous of his neighbour Nabot's vineyard and when the latter refused to sell it to him as it belonged to his family, he had him killed, upon the advice of his evil wife Jezebel (Kings 1: 21, 1-16) or indeed David's behaviour when it came to his relationship with the married Bathsheba.
As with most Rabbinic debates, numerous approaches are suggested (i.e. as to whether coveting is considered as being a precept of the heart over the concretisation of those feelings through actions) and at the end of the day, the Ibn Ezra counters these with a beautiful parable:
He says that a peasant may covet a beautiful princess and although his heart might will it, his mind will ensure that he realises the futility of such thoughts. It is as feasible that he would 'possess' this maiden as it would be that he grew wings like a bird! In the same way, a person who holds by the other nine commandments will know that Gd has forbidden him from realising his fantasies. In doing so, he will appreciate his own portion and be thankful for what he has.
The Ibn Ezra posits the notion that whether we hold that coveting is a matter of the heart or indeed a physical act, if we truly love Gd and respect the Torah He gave us, the commandment to avoid coveting lies hand-in-hand with our realisation that what we have is plenty and wanting to have someone else's belongings and treasures is as fanciful as turning into a winged creature. When Gd tells us not to covet, he is instructing us to realise how blessed we are by focusing on our own lives, cars, houses and spouses.
May we all appreciate what we have and recognise the Gd-given internal and external beauty that we have been endowed with, in all of its manifestations.
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, 29 January 2021

Beshalach: The Reed Shoes

Exodus 12:3,11
"Speak to the entire community of Israel and say: On the tenth of this month each man must take a lamb for his family; one for every household...this is how you shall eat it: your belts secured, the sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste: it is The Lord's Passover." (Rabbi Sacks' translation).
1770, 60, 3500, 800, 245 and 110,000 – what do these numbers signify?
Along the east bank of the beautiful blue Danube river, an der schönen, blauen Donau, the water laps gently against the concrete walkway. The river has wound its way through three countries from its source in the Black Forest mountains of western Germany and now it is passing through Hungary. Eventually it will cover some 1,770 miles until it flows into the Black Sea, many miles to the east.
Looking at the river from this vantage point, two Hungarian gentlemen, film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer conceived and created a monument, erected in 2005 that once seen, could never be forgotten. It consists of 60 pairs of iron cast shoes in the period style of the 1940s, commemorating the massacre of 3,500 people of which 800 were Jews. All having been shot by the fascist Iron Cross militia in Budapest by the water’s edge after having been ordered to remove their shoes. Having fallen into the river, their bodies were swept away along its path. The only remnant of their presence being the shoes they had left behind on the bank moments earlier. The blue Danube had now turned blood-red.
It takes five-and-a-half hours, the equivalent of 245 miles to drive from the "Shoes On The Danube Bank" memorial to Auschwitz, the location of another set of infamous footwear, namely the 110,000 pairs of shoes that were found at the death camp - many of which belonged to children.
If I were to relate these numbers to you in any order, they would seem quite inconsequential, but when you place them in the context that I have quoted in the previous paragraphs, they take on a chilling resonance. Because the numbers are connected by one single word - "Shoah" or "Holocaust.
The 60 pairs of shoes belonging to 3500 people, of which 800 were Jewish, were left behind as their owners were swept along a river that runs its course of 1770 miles.
This massacre took place but 245 miles away from the location where 110,000 pairs of shoes belonged to the same number of people who were butchered. A fraction of the 6,000,000 plus.
Suddenly, the numbers mean so much more, don't they?
No-one knows exactly how many Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds, known in Hebrew as the 'Yam Suf'. There seems to be some speculation that it might have been the current location of Lake Timsah or "Crocodile Lake" in the region of Egypt's Bitter Lakes. It sits in the Nile Delta and according to some people may have been the ancient northern terminus of the Red Sea (which may indicate why we refer to the event as the 'Red Sea Crossing').
If we calculate the distance between the Shoes on the Danube and Lake Timsah, we find that it is 2,388 miles which is another number to add to our chart. However, the one difference that we notice here, is, as the verse I quoted tells us, the people entered the water wearing their shoes and in that situation, their enemies, unlike the Nazis and Arrow Cross were vanquished. There was no Danube or Gas Chambers to record their last moments, but a miracle that allowed them to walk on dry land as the waters stood like a wall 'to their right and to their left' (Shemot/Exodus 14.22)
The common denominator in all the above is the presence of shoes and the very same nation who used them. In this week's Sidra, they were worn by our ancestors as they walked through the waters on dry land. Nearly eighty years ago, they were left behind as our relatives perished without a hope of salvation.
The Israelites, in their time, were blessed by Gd to be able to leave Egypt and witness the miracle of the splitting of the sea. Our relatives did not have that luxury. Even if they had worn their shoes, they would have still met their violent end.
Perhaps the significance of the shoes in both cases is the legacy of the people who did or did not have the fortune to wear them, for at the end of the day, those who lost their lives in the last century were no doubt descended from those who didn’t, due to the miracle they experienced which is described so vividly in this week’s sidra of Beshalach. In both cases, the two generations who were divided by three millennia knew that they were different to the nations that were persecuting them. They held a value system that was so diametrically opposed to those of their oppressors that, in holding steadfastly onto their beliefs, the latter generation paid the ultimate price.
As Jews, we can appreciate the unbroken link that binds both generations and if the shoes teach us anything, it is that, whether they disintegrated in the desert or sit hauntingly dormant in a concentration camp or find themselves replicated along a river, it is the people whose feet inhabited them that really matter.
We, the generations after the Shoah cannot understand why our relatives were persecuted any more than we can wear the shoes that they left behind. It is the spirit of Judaism that permeates any material at any time in every single member of the Jewish people.
Irrespective of our chosen footwear or lack of it.
Shabbat Shalom.
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