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    Evils & inclinations – No’ach

    October 18th, 2014

    The first lessons that Man learned were how far he could go, both physically and metaphorically.

    Physically he felt safe as long as the Garden of Eden lasted – but then came the expulsion which propelled him into an often unfriendly world. Thereafter his physical adventures and experiences sometimes brought discovery and delight, sometimes doom and destruction.

    Metaphorically he started with the moral bounds set by his Creator, but soon (if one may mix the metaphors) he tested the waters and attempted to break loose into areas that God had forbidden.

    Why did he step out of line? The Torah says (Gen. 8:21): because “the inclination of his heart was ra min’urav”, which some translate, “evil from his youth”. If that were correct it would suggest that man’s sins were inevitable, bound to happen, part of his make-up – and one wonders why he was punished simply for being himself.

    But the translators had another option: to say that min’urav meant “because of his (moral) youth”. He was not yet morally mature enough to handle his competing inclinations, the passions and energies which could lead him in opposing directions. Only time and experience would teach him how to cope.


    Folding a wing & flying – No’ach

    October 18th, 2014

    dove birdThe cast of characters in this week’s portion is both human and animal. The Midrash looks at both categories and suggests elaborate data about each. One of its favourite subjects is the dove which No’ach sent out of the Ark. The Torah says, “The dove found no rest for the sole of its foot” (Gen. 8:9).

    A Midrash in the Jerusalem Talmud asks, “Why are the people of Israel likened to the dove?” This is how it answers: “As all other birds fly around, they get weary and need to rest on top of a tree or a rock, but the dove simply folds one of its wings and flies with the other”.

    The lesson seems to be that Israel can never be still. Is this what the rabbis mean when they say that there is no rest for the righteous, either in this world or the next?

    One explanation of the Midrash about the dove is that Israel – the people and the State – can never afford to relax its guard but must be constantly alert and look after itself.

    In a wider ethical sense it says that there is never a moment in world history when the forces of mischief die down, when the flood waters abate, when mankind is safe. Social and ethical problems never vanish from the stage of history. The Jewish people as the source and agent of moral regeneration cannot relax. The struggle for peace, truth and justice must be fought at every hour of every day, whatever the enemy’s guise of the moment. After every deluge comes chaos and the need to rebuild and rehabilitate.

    Israel’s values, visions and ethical energies will never be able to retreat into “rest for the sole of its foot”.


    Retirement – Ask the Rabbi

    October 18th, 2014

    Q. Is it a sin to give up work since the Torah says, “Six days shall you work”?

    A. What is the status of the words, “Six days shall you work”? Is this a positive mitzvah in the sense that if you don’t work you deserve to be punished? If this were the case, then not only would a retiree have a problem, but so would anyone who is out of work. How just would it be for the Torah to penalise a person who is looking for a job but can’t find one?

    Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler says in his “Michtav Me’Eliyahu” (using the approach of Moshe Chayyim Luzzatto’s “M’sillat Yesharim”), “Look at the lists of the commandments. Nowhere will you find an actual mitzvah of ‘Six days shall you work’”.

    It is not that the Torah has no appreciation of the value of work. But work is not one of the 248 positive mitzvot. The Torah authorises work but with a limitation, as if it said, “When you work, limit it to six days and leave room for Shabbat”.

    One might add that whilst work is important, it is not an end in itself. Work is a means – not an end. It enables people to support themselves and their family and to enhance the quality of civilisation and society… and is the way of enabling yourself to learn Torah.


    Folk greetings – Ask the Rabbi

    October 18th, 2014

    Q. You recently said that phrases such as “Well over the fast” are somewhat strange. Do they really have no historical origins?

    yom kippur well over fastA. Though I attributed these and other phrases, including “Please God by you”, to Anglo-Jewry, they seem to derive from the Yiddish-speaking environment in old Eastern Europe.

    On the eve of the Yom Kippur fast, for example, there was a common phrase, Ihr zolt hob’n a gring’n tonis – “You should have an easy fast”. I still argue, however, that this ignores the real purpose of the day, which is not to think so much of the stomach but of the soul.

    The “Please God by you” greeting, which is the despair of unmarried people at a wedding, is also from eastern European origins and is part Hebrew, part Yiddish – Im yir’tzeh HaShem bei dir – “If God wills it, (there should be joy) by you”. (Those who don’t know what Im yir’tzeh HaShem means have been known to abbreviate the phrase to Mitcham bei dir).

    “By” has come into English as the result of Yiddish influence, producing phrases like “It’s all right by me” and “By Judaism that’s acceptable”. In what some people call “Yeshivish” the word is now very common, e.g. “You’ll eat by me this week!”


    A Jew who escaped from the gangsters

    October 15th, 2014

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post, on 14 October, 2014.

    australian-flagHistorians tend to concentrate on the larger Jewish communities and ignore newer and smaller kehillot like Australia, probably because before 1939 it was a mere colonial outpost of Anglo-Jewry, subservient to the British chief rabbi, wedded to minhag Anglia, and in love with the Royal family.

    In those days, the Antipodes hardly mattered in global terms. None of the world Jewish leadership was Australian. Very rarely did an international Jewish figure visit, an exception being Chief Rabbi Hertz in his 1921 tour of the Dominions. Occasionally an Australian macher took a trip “home” (to London) and was received with appropriate courtesies, but it was play-acting and no-one pretended that Australia made any difference to Judaism.

    In those days Australian Judaism was largely threadbare: many mixed marriages, little religious knowledge, and few who believed in tradition.

    They had a series of good rabbis, teachers, lay leaders and organizations, but most Australian Jews preferred to be neither seen nor heard, though some had the courage to stand up for Jewish rights and to protest and offer help when Jews were in danger anywhere in the world.

    Jews were respected citizens, involved in parliament, in local government and Freemasonry. A surprising number lived in rural districts; a few closed their shops on Shabbat (even prepared to lose the Saturday evening trade) and sent their children to the big cities to study for their Bar-Mitzvah.

    Some even learned poultry shechitah to enable their families to more or less keep kosher. Others – even members of synagogue committees – said, “Where in the Ten Commandments does it say anything about kosher meat?” A number began as itinerant salesmen, like Jews in many countries, acquiring a small supply of clothing and kitchen items for sale and setting off with broken English and gritty determination to build up a trade in country districts.

    An example is my own great-grandfather, Mendel Cohen, who arrived in Melbourne about 1860 bearing a Polish name (a version of Glegowsky) which no-one could spell.

    Being a kohen, he assumed Cohen as his surname. Probably borrowing seed-money from someone in the Melbourne Jewish community, he started off as a commercial traveler (a rather too dignified title for that time and place) in the northern part of the Colony – as the Australian States were then called – of Victoria. He must have had a modicum of success, since he was later able to open a pawnshop/money lending business in Melbourne.

    One night he jumped out of a country hotel window and ran for his life to escape Ned Kelly and his bushranger gang. The story goes that he was still awake when he heard voices saying, “There’s a rich Jew in there – let’s wait till he’s asleep and go in and rob him”. He ran for his life.

    Mendel survived, but the police finally caught up with Ned Kelly and made an example of him. In time, Mendel became a pillar of local Jewry and for many years was president of East Melbourne Synagogue.

    It was a highly quarrelsome congregation and whenever the meetings became too raucous and the congregants too rowdy, the word went round, “Let’s get Cohen back!”

    Australian Jewish folklore has many other stories, ranging from Jewish ghosts to the ex-convict who wrote his own headstone, bearing two lines from Adon Olam… plus Alfred Goldberg, whose book, “A Jew Went Roaming”, tells how he was caught by the Kellys and only released after they threatened to track him down like a dog if he went to the police.

    Australian Judaism is still colorful, but no longer irrelevant. Immigration, including Holocaust survivors, has transformed the scene. Australian Jewry is the ninth largest Jewish community in the world, about 130,000 people. It has a remarkable Jewish education system, with over 50 percent of its children at Jewish day schools.

    Its leaders are among the best in the world.

    Jewish commitment and identification are increasing. The aliyah rate is impressive.

    Despite antisemitic incidents, most Australians are a tolerant, “fair go” nation.

    Australia’s Jewish community is drawn from everywhere. There are enclaves that are Tel Aviv, Bialystok, Odessa, Johannesburg – and Lubavitch. Not everyone plays a part in Jewish life, and the alarmists moan that everything is falling apart… but most of Australian Jewry are serious Jews, involved in Jewish life and concerned for Israel.

    There are intellectuals, scholars and institutions. There are kollelim for the learned and shiurim for everybody. There are women’s tefillah groups. Mandelbaum Publishing produces specialist Judaica.

    There are fine libraries, archive collections, and university courses on Jewish subjects. Some rabbis are world class. Jews play a seminal role in business, scientific, sporting and cultural life. Some have struck it rich; some struggle below the poverty line, but most live on a reasonable level. Most Australian Jews live in the state capital cities, but there are growing numbers in rural districts.

    Is there anything Australian about their Judaism? They live in the sun – and they bask in their Jewishness. They squabble and solemnly denounce one another – but on the whole they are highly pleased with themselves and their community.

    My great-grandfather would not recognize his kehilah.