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    Israel & rain – Sh’mini Atzeret

    September 29th, 2015

    Rain_on_grassSh’mini Atzeret is the day when we pray for rain. The chazan wears the white garments that characterize the Yom Kippur supplications. The poems written by El’azar Kalir acknowledge that life depends on whether we get enough rain.

    The rain prayers go back to the time of the Mishnah. Rabbi Abbahu actually says in the Talmud, “Rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, since that is only for the righteous whilst rain is for everybody” (Ta’anit 7a). Another rabbi says in the Midrash, “Rain is greater than the Revelation, since that day brought joy to Israel, whilst rain brings joy to all humanity” (Midrash Tehillim 117:1).

    Old-time siddurim recognized that sometimes there is too much rain and sometimes too little, and they have a special prayer for each possibility. The lesson we learn is that the best blessings are those when we have just enough, not too much or too little.

    Why the emphasis on Israel in the prayer for rain? Because when Israel is blessed, so is the whole world.

    The verbissener nations that traduce Israel should stop and think once in a while about how much benefit the entire human race has received from the land and people of Israel – and from Israel’s God too.

    Memorial prayers on the 8th Day

    September 29th, 2015

    Yahrzeit lightThe Sh’mini Atzeret liturgy includes Yizkor, the memorial prayers. Many Holocaust survivors used to appear in the synagogue in time for Yizkor and then just as suddenly vanish until next time. The influx was noticeable and predictable, and I could never bring myself to denigrate it.

    A large number of those who came and went, had their faith in God knocked out of them. They didn’t want to know about prayers and synagogues any more. What they came to the synagogue to do at Yizkor time was to ritualise the pain by giving it a day and a moment.

    It was also a tribute to the religious Jews who had been martyred – and to the religious communities, institutions, books and practices which the Nazis, cursed be their memory, had targeted for destruction.

    How to approach the Yizkor moment was taught to me by a dear colleague in Sydney, who served the same synagogue as I and lived in the flat upstairs from ours. On Shabbat we would walk home together through Kings Cross, where a corner shop was doing a brisk trade in cooked (t’refah) chickens.

    My colleague told me, “You see the owner of that shop? Before the Sho’ah he was a talmid chacham and even now when he goes home on a Saturday afternoon he smokes a cigar and studies Gemara.”

    “So what happened to him? The shop open on Shabbat? The non-kosher food?” I asked.

    “You forget,” said my colleague, “he went through the Holocaust”…

    The evanescent crowds don’t come to the synagogues for Yizkor any more: is it the passing of time (and of the survivors)? The passing of the rebellion? Who knows?

    Z’vulun & Yissachar

    September 29th, 2015

    HandshakeDiv’rei Torah on the weekly reading usually skip the final section of the Torah, V’Zot HaB’rachah, presumably because it is read on Simchat Torah and doesn’t have a Shabbat to itself. A pity, since there is so much to think and speak about in this section.

    As an example, there is the verse in Moses’s blessing (Deut.33:18), “Rejoice, Z’vulun, in your going out, and Yissachar in your tents”. Mentioning these two tribes together echoes their long-established association that has its beginning in the patriarch Jacob’s blessing of his sons (Gen. 49:13-14).

    The sages explain that the two brothers, Z’vulun and Yissachar, and the tribes named after them, had a mutually beneficial partnership: Z’vulun were seafarers who went out to make a living, supporting Yissachar who were scholars who stayed home to study. Yissachar in turn brought spiritual benefit to Z’vulun. In that sense Z’vulun were known for their “going out” for business, and Yissachar for their life in the tents of Torah.

    (It is said that there was a similar partnership between Moses Maimonides and his brother, which worked well until the trading brother lost his life at an early age.)

    This is how many of the commentators take the verse from V’Zot HaB’rachah. However, the Targum Onkelos follows a line of rabbinic commentary that considers that Z’vulun’s going out is for the purpose of war against an enemy: the notion of “going out” at the beginning of Parashat Ki Tetzei is “going out to war”.

    Onkelos also says that Yissachar’s expertise is “to set the time of the festivals in Jerusalem”. The responsibility for making calendrical decisions in those days, long before the scientific calculation of the calendar, required Torah knowledge acquired whilst sitting in the tents of study, and the tribe of Yissachar are already acclaimed in the Bible as experts in this field (I Chron. 12:32).

    In a broader sense, Yissachar’s studies equipped them with the wisdom and vision to assess the events of the times: the verse in I Chronicles calls them “people who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”. In that sense Yissachar’s strength was in policy and Z’vulun’s in tactics.

    Invited to the mountain

    September 29th, 2015

    Mountain-150x150Speaking of Z’vulun and Yissachar, Moses says, “They invite the nations to the mountain, where they offer sacrifices…” (Deut. 33:19).

    “The nations” could denote the other Israelite tribes; it could also denote the surrounding peoples. In either case it seems likely that this is a prophecy of the end of days when, as the great Isaiah put it, “Many peoples shall go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the House of the Lord” (Isa. 2:3-4).

    Why is it precisely the two tribes of Z’vulun and Yissachar who have the privilege of calling the nations to worship on God’s holy mountain?

    Perhaps to show that thanksgiving offerings in the sanctuary are especially appropriate for people who have earned success – either in a material or a spiritual/intellectual sense.

    Space, time & deity – JPost article

    September 27th, 2015

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 27 September, 2015.

    space time deitySamuel Alexander, who was born in Australia in 1859, was taught Judaism in Sydney in the days when Rev. Alexander Barnard Davis was minister of the Great Synagogue there. As a young man, he moved to England, where he developed his thinking and became one of the great British philosophers of the early 20th century.

    A professor of philosophy at Manchester University from 1894-1924, his metaphysical system is set out in a two-volume work, “Space, Time and Deity”, published in 1920. He might have been amused to find the title of his book in a rabbinical article many years later (even though the rabbinic writer was one of Davis’s successors in Sydney), but his three themes – if freely reinterpreted in conventional Orthodox terms – form the trilogy on which the festival of Sukkot is based.

    Space: There is a well-known thesis that for Judaism, holiness inheres in time rather than space, that Jews were more interested in history than geography. (Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Greece discovered the idea of cosmos, the world of space; Israel experienced history, the world of time.”)

    Like all generalisations, the Jewish preference for time over space is not entirely true. The sukkah is evidence that places, not merely moments, are important in Judaism. Not only the sukkah – what about the synagogue and the beit midrash? A telling example is the Land of Israel, called by Edmond Fleg the “land in which God dwells,” and the city of Jerusalem, which, in the words of Elie Wiesel, “miraculously transforms each man into a pilgrim.”

    Time: In ancient Israel on Sukkot, the year’s final harvest was stored in makeshift shelters in which the workers found relief from the elements.

    Originally, the harvest was celebrated with revelry and frivolity. When this apparently went too far and people overdid the merriment, it evoked stern rebukes from the prophets, who proclaimed: “Take away from Me the noise of your songs; let Me not hear the melody of your psalteries” (Amos 5:23). Consequently, the festival was elevated to a spiritual experience, in which the joy was transmuted into thankfulness to the Giver of the harvest.

    The agricultural festivals all underwent a similar spiritualisation and transformation. With all the appreciation of space expressed above, one cannot deny that Judaism prefers the fluidity of time over the fixedness of space.

    Deity: The sukkah came to symbolise human appreciation of the bounties of the Almighty, and this became the overriding theme of the festival, even in ages and places where Jews did not or could not engage in agricultural pursuits, and where they hardly ever saw greenery or the sun. It was manifest even in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons were upside down. Imagine the effort required in the Antipodes to acquire the arba’ah minim, the four species of plants required for the festival’s observance.

    Wherever Jews were, harvest symbols – palm, citron, myrtle and willow – were carried in procession and waved in the four directions of the compass, as well as up and down, to symbolize the encompassing bounty of the Creator.

    Maimonides and the rationalists tried to present and justify God in abstract philosophical terms, but the Jewish people preferred to position the Almighty in a context of earthly and Jewish history.

    Not so much the cosmological, teleological and ontological Deity, but the God who inspired the patriarchs, the God who redeemed Israel from bondage, the God who was with them in the wilderness, the God whom the chassidim called the Sweet Father, the God in whose presence they had their being. Most were unconcerned about the anthropomorphic implications of speaking of God in human terms, and were quite convinced that God rejoiced with them in times of celebration, and suffered with them when times were bad.

    Over and above space, time and deity, the festival has a fourth and fifth element.

    Ethics: The rabbinic moralists derived ethical teachings from the four species. As all four plants are taken together, so a community needs the contribution of all its members; as some plants have fragrance while others have taste and some have both, so there are people who give society their gifts of mind, some who give gifts of heart, and some who give both.

    Psychology: The festival – especially the sukkah – has lessons for human psychology. As there is a maximum limit to the height of the sukkah, man should not to be too high and mighty. As there is a minimum limit, man should not abase himself and let the fates tread on him. As the walls must be able to withstand ordinary gusts of wind, so man should not let himself be broken by the events of life.

    As the stars must be visible through the dark foliage of the roof covering, so man should be uplifted in spirit and not weighed down by negative forces or fears.