August 23rd, 2014
The opening verses of the sidra (Deut. 16:18) seem almost unnecessary. They tell us to have judges and officers in all our gates.
Of course the gate in ancient times was where everything happened. That’s where people met one another, where commercial transactions took place, where community business was transacted, where the judges held their sessions. A reminder comes in the Aramaic prayer of Yekum Purkan, said on Shabbat, which prays for the “judges at the gates”. People who had a problem didn’t need to go through a bureaucratic rigmarole in order to get a day in court. They knew they would find a judicial facility at the city gate, and no-one needed to feel that legal delays would deny them justice for lengthy periods.
How can one suggest that such an important provision was almost unnecessary? Because such was the Jewish nature that no-one could imagine a community that had no judges. Did they need a law to lay down what was already instinctive? It’s not just that the administration of justice was one of the Seven Laws of the Sons of No’ach at the beginning of the Chumash. As SM Lehrman writes, “The Jew by nature is a law-abiding citizen”. Even without a verse in the Torah, our law-abiding instinct would have ensured that we had courts and a justice system. Even the antisemites know that law and justice are intrinsic to being Jewish.
August 23rd, 2014
The Torah portion tells us that God will raise up prophets from our midst (Deut. 18:18-19). The Hebrew wording is, navi akim lahem… kamocha, “I will raise up a prophet for them… like you”. “Like you” basically means, as we learn from Rashi, “a fellow-Israelite”. Rashbam understands “like you” as “like Moses” – i.e. a prophet who will teach the Torah and not mislead the people.
The Meshech Chochmah commentary adds a further element, that like Moses (called “the chief of the prophets”), any prophet appointed by God will be answerable to the Almighty. He will retain his own individuality, his own personality, his own capacity to comprehend and convey the message and recognise the needs of the people, but he will be a nobody without God. When Psalm 90 announces itself as a poem by Moses “the Man of God”, so any prophetic word or work will be valid only insofar as it clearly shows it is from God. The same must be said about a rabbi, any rabbi, in our own generation.
In early 20th century America there were controversies about whether a rabbi had what was called “freedom of the pulpit”. Actually in traditional Judaism the pulpit can never be free. A rabbi is bound by his pledge to God and the Torah. A community must recognise that a rabbi who does his own thing is no rabbi. That’s one of the reasons why Judaism could not accept the claims of Jesus when he said he had personal authority – “It has been told to you such and such, but I say unto you (something different)”.
August 23rd, 2014
Q. I have often wondered why my synagogue is so active and busy but not in a spiritual sense. I feel more spiritual in my garden. Is there something wrong with me?
A. Possibly. Maybe you miss the sense of sanctity that comes from sitting in shule and meditating or looking around you and seeing the spiritual potential in every part of the synagogue and indeed in everyone present.
But the fault can also be with your synagogue. If it makes busyness its top priority, is a mere community centre or concert hall and emphasises financial viability at the expense of piety, it has become a secular institution without religion.
The American theologian Eugene Borowitz said, “Secular Judaism, which could not dominate American Judaism under its own name, now may do so under the auspices of the synagogue… The average synagogue and the large synagogue organisations do not redeem this situation by the example of their own religiosity… The American Jew may belong, but he does not believe much… There are countless creative reasons for avoiding God.”
In your shule, does anyone secrete him- or herself in a corner and commune with their own heart, soul and mind, and God? Does anyone weep when they pray (indeed does anyone pray at all)? Does anyone cry out when they think of the pain of the world and say, “God, are Your ears closed and Your eyes averted?”
Is your congregation deathly silent when the cantor performs and the choir commences its well-rehearsed responses? Is the rabbi a mere MC who announces the page, a book or film reviewer who gives smooth ten-minute op-eds… or a passionate prophet who says, “Thus saith the Lord”?
Do they really let God into your synagogue or prefer to manage the world without the embarrassment of His presence?
Maybe you should stay in your garden after all.
August 16th, 2014
The Levites singing in the Temple
In a Torah portion packed with content there comes the sentence, “Do not abandon the Levite” (Deut. 12:19).
Look at its context and you understand the verse. Israelite worship had to avoid all forms of idolatry. Authentic Jewish worship had to be structured according to the pattern of priests, Levites and Temple.
Why were the Levites such an important group? Maimonides explains at the beginning of his Hil’chot Avodah Zarah that they were the real spiritual leaders of the community. Not that the kohanim were not essential, but it was the Levites who facilitated the work of the priests.
The name Levi probably comes from a root that means “to accompany” (Gen. 29:34; Num. 18:24), because accompanying the priests and working with them was the Levites’ God-given role. They were like the shammash charged with the task of making sure that the menorah would shed light.
They had a physical role in the sanctuary equipment and its rituals, but they were also the singers who aroused the spiritual and emotional feelings of the people.
And they were an intellectual repository of the traditions of Israel: people whose minds were struggling could come to them for guidance and direction.
The tribe of Levi merited this distinction because they were not involved in the sin of the golden calf.
Why were the people of Israel told not to abandon the Levites? Because the Levites did not abandon them.
August 16th, 2014
The verse, “Do not shut your hand from your needy brother” (Deut. 15:7) tells us that even if we possess very little we should open our hand to assist the poor person, not tightly clench our hand and decide not to support him.
Rashi says, “If you withhold your hand from him, you yourself will become needy”. It’s a doctrine of reciprocal expediency – sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander: if you refuse to help others, then others may refuse to help you.
The verse implies, in addition, a concept of family responsibility: poor or rich, the needy person is “your brother”. True brothers and sisters support one another. When one is in pain, the others feel it. When one is successful, they all rejoice.
There is a saying, “Family is family”. Rabbinical life sometimes illustrated this for me in truly vivid fashion. I remember to this day how when one member of a certain family needed assistance, the others (and their parents) all came good with immediate support.
Unfortunately I also remember disappointing families where there was coldness and disdain, and certain members of a family gloated at others’ misfortunes to the extent of not even attending the funeral of a sibling or coming to visit the shivah house. The fact that the coldness sometimes came from supposedly religious people who were regular shule-goers, only compounds the tragedy.
True religion is in the verse quoted above: “Do not shut your hand from your needy brother”.