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    Building an edifice – T’rumah

    February 7th, 2016

    Depiction of the Mishkan, Foster Bible Pictures, 1897

    Depiction of the Mishkan, Foster Bible Pictures, 1897

    It is in this sidra that the creation of the sanctuary is instituted. “They shall make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them”, is the crucial verse (Ex. 25:8). The commentators all seize on the word b’tocham, “among them”. It is not so much the building in which God dwells but amongst the people who create it.

    From this interpretation arises a question. Couldn’t God have dwelt amidst the people without an edifice? If it is amongst the people that He dwelt, why should anyone bother to gather the building materials and have an edifice at all?

    The beginning of an answer is suggested by something Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz said in 1917 at the time of the Balfour Declaration: “A land focusses a people”.

    Like the Land of Israel, the tabernacle focusses its people. It tells you what sort of people they are and where their priorities lie. It gives them a physical center. It brings them together in a united effort of creation.

    Which leads us to a second question: Why couldn’t God have sent down the sanctuary ready-made and complete, without needing the human contribution towards the project?

    Again an analogy: the rabbis say that when He made the world, the Almighty left tasks uncompleted for the human race to finish off, making Man the partner of the Holy One, Blessed be He, in the work of creation (Talmud Shabbat 10a). Only if and when human beings have a role to play do they fully value the achievement.


    I’d like to be a saint – T’rumah

    February 7th, 2016

    cherub k'ruv keruvimIn world culture, though not necessarily in Judaism, the cherubim (Ex. 25:20) have become a symbol of little saints. In Christianity, saints are venerated for their exceptional faith and deeds, and their relics have special status.

    (Brian Moynahan points out in his book, “The Faith” that there was a time in Christian history when there were so many saints that the critics said that there was no evidence that some names on the list had even existed.)

    But that’s not what the Jewish concept of k’doshim means. It means “holy people”. The Torah says, k’doshim tih’yu, “you shall be holy people” (Lev. 19:2).

    When my cheder teacher trained us to say b’rachot with the words asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, “You made us holy with Your commandments”, my mind went blank. Years passed and I learnt some Torah. I discovered that the best ambition one can have is to lead a decent, honest, upright life, whatever one’s profession – a train driver, a teacher, a butcher, a baker or candlestick maker (even a rabbi!). I even read that Leo Baeck taught that the highest Jewish hero type is to be a reliable ba’al habayit.

    When we are very young we fully expect to grow up normally and live forever. By now of course I know that I won’t live forever, but I can still grow in the categories of day-by-day holiness without being a saint.


    Shielding the stranger – Mishpatim

    January 31st, 2016

    huggingEx. 22:20 is one of over thirty passages in the Torah which command us to look after the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt (this happens to be one of the places where the Torah spells out the reason behind its laws).

    The word for a stranger is ger, which characteristically means a convert to Judaism. This is the view followed by Onkelos, who makes a distinction between giora, a convert, and dayyar, a dweller. What were we in Egypt? Dayyarim, people who lived there without accepting the local culture.

    There is an ethical duty to shield the dayyarim in our midst, though they do not fully accept every aspect of Judaism, which would make them gerim in the sense of converts. Ibn Ezra adds that they have to have respect for our ethos and not worship heathen idols.

    The question is why we should look after such people. Says Rashi, when you were strangers in Egypt you were weak and vulnerable, from which you should learn never to put other people in a weak or vulnerable position. Ramban adds a further idea, that when we were in Egypt no-one stuck up for us apart from God.

    Similarly, if there are strangers in our midst at any point in history they can depend on support from God – and if God is kind to strangers, how can we Jews do anything other than emulate the Almighty?

    In relation to converts, there still are Jews who have reservations about honouring and loving a ger. If only they realised how much moral (and sometimes physical) courage it takes to move from the dominant culture and find oneself a place in Judaism.

    What a paradox it is that some of the critics are weak in their own Jewish commitment, whilst we see converts become true towers of strength to their new faith and people.


    If you lend money – Mishpatim

    January 31st, 2016

    helping hand“If you lend money to your fellow, do not act like a creditor; do not exact interest from him” (Ex. 22:25).

    Most people focus on the final part of the verse, deducing correctly that you should not exploit the misfortune of your fellow who cannot survive unless he takes a loan. When a person is in difficulty, you should not turn away from him.

    We see this too in the first word of the sentence – the Hebrew im (if). Normally “if” denotes a choice – you can decide if you are going to take a certain action or if you aren’t. In our case you don’t really have an option. When someone needs help you have a duty to assist.

    How then are we to understand the word “if”? Surely it implies an option!

    The answer may be that though you know you are obliged to help another person, you must never regard it as a chore. It must be something you would voluntarily choose, even if it weren’t a duty.

    It reminds me of what Albert Einstein is said to have remarked, “I am sorry I was born a Jew… because it deprived me of the ability to choose to be a Jew!”


    A blessing on your bread, Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov! – Mishpatim

    January 31st, 2016

    breadThe Yiddish saying is, “A blessing on your head, Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov!” You find this saying in “Fiddler on the Roof” as well as in Jewish folk tradition. But after reading this week’s portion, “bread” should be substituted for “head”.

    There is a verse that says, “You shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread” (Ex. 23:25). Serving God is understood as prayer (“What is the service of the heart? Prayer!”). If you serve God He will reciprocate by blessing you and the bread you eat.

    What happens if you are a poor person and can’t really afford bread? The verse doesn’t say which bread or how much bread: it simply says “your bread”. Whatever a person gets to eat it is a blessing from God.