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    Who you choose to be – Re’eh

    August 28th, 2016

    free choiceThe sidra confronts us with the free will choice of good and bad, life and death, destiny or disaster (Deut. 11:26).

    The nature and parameters of free will are one of the hardest and most deep-seated of all human problems.

    We are endowed with free will, yet at the same time we are governed and manipulated from outside and above.

    Both things – free will and determinism – cannot be true, but they are. It’s a paradox, an enigma.

    The traditional statement of the problem is that of Rabbi Akiva, “All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given” (Avot 3:19).

    How we answer the paradox is to say that even if facts are imposed upon us, we have the capacity to decide how to handle them.

    As Maimonides says in the last section of his Eight Chapters on Ethics, whether we will be male or female, tall or short, thin or fat, is beyond our control, but the way we deal with our situation is up to us. As the Talmud says, “All is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven” (Ber. 33b).

    In the post-Holocaust era, the question is even harder.

    God says to man, “You have two choices, whether to believe in God, and whether to believe in Man. God has His own time table, but in the end He will not let you down.

    “What about Man? There is no guarantee that Man will not let you down.

    “You have to believe in God, because He made you and governs the universe; you have to believe in Man, because you are Man, and you can and must choose to be the best possible and most moral Man you can be”.


    What you eat & what you are – Re’eh

    August 28th, 2016

    Kosher signA major section of the weekly portion deals with food.

    There is a German saying, Der Mensch ist was er isst – “Man is what he eats”. In one sense that means that you learn what kind of human being a person is by looking at his culinary culture, what and how he eats.

    In another sense it means that food affects and moulds your health; if you don’t eat well you probably won’t feel well either.

    Judaism understands both these arguments but it adds another by giving the subject an ethical dimension. It lays down a complex system of kashrut laws, and your domestic dietary regime is a large part of how you show your Jewishness.

    Because the reasons for the kashrut laws are not explained in detail in the texts, we can each choose where to place our emphasis.

    One of the leading writers on the dietary laws, Dayan Dr Isidor Grunfeld, points out that you show your character and mettle by being able to say “Yes” or “No” when you choose your food.

    The gift of self-control, the mastery of your passions. makes you a responsible person, and if you control your “Yes” and “No” you show (to yourself as well as the outside world) what sort of human being you are.

    Dayan Grunfeld says, “Self-control and self-conquest must start with the most primitive and most powerful of human instincts – the craving for food” (The Jewish Dietary Laws, 1972).


    Living in Jerusalem

    August 23rd, 2016

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 23 August 2016.

    Jerusalem, by Ruth MayerIn Jerusalem every day – and any day – is both yesterday and today.

    The street names recall ages as disparate as King David and King George. The buildings are a jumble of the Bible, the Koran, the nineteenth-century European Christian missionaries, and the Champs-Elysees.

    The people are both mystics and moderns, sometimes rolled into one.

    There are believers who move sedately, lost in meditation; pietists who constantly scurry in search of a chance to study or to pray; old women who lug their heavy shopping trolleys on the buses; students with backpacks on the way to a lecture; youngsters in skimpy dress who meet their friends in an underground disco or bar.

    All believe that Jerusalem belongs to them.

    Jerusalem is an elevated site, where life is always on a high. There are high-rise apartments – and lowly caves. There are stairs too, and walls.

    Parts of the city have the feel of Wall Street – but the wall par excellence is the Kotel Ma’aravi, the Temple’s Western Wall that has survived the depredations of generations of the city’s conquerors.

    What happens at the Wall depends on who you are. To some there is sheer holiness in the air; to some it is where you excitedly encounter tour groups from all over the world; to others it is a bothersome gathering of mendicants.

    The attempts to clear the beggars away have not entirely succeeded: one hardy suppliant has been seeking donations toward his daughter’s wedding for so long that you recall Gilbert and Sullivan’s verse, “She could very well pass for forty-five in the dark with the light behind her.”

    Countless visitors bring their own private prayers and requests to the ancient stones. Not all are certain what the word “God” means to them. But everyone, whether they have gadlut or katnut emunah, greatness or littleness of faith, senses the Divine Presence in this place.

    It is customary to place a folded scrap of paper in the Wall’s crevices. Popes and presidents, politicians, priests and poets; athletes, actors and artists; people of all creeds, colours and cultures – all leave their prayers here.

    Ordinary Jerusalemites flock here on high days, holy days, week days or whenever, never leaving the Wall unattended even in the depths of the night.

    There are debates about egalitarian prayer, but those who seem to live at the Wall take no notice.

    The little scraps of paper that people leave in the Wall’s cracks are called in Yiddish k’vitlach or tzettlach, in Hebrew pitka’ot. They are not so much written with ink as with tears. God reads them all. If Superman has X-ray vision, all the more does the Almighty.

    It doesn’t matter if once in a while the notes are collected and given reverent burial. The message has already been heeded; whatever the answer, the person whose heart was poured into the petition already feels better.

    What the messages are about is health, happiness, serenity, success, good marriages, good children and family stability. World peace certainly figures.

    If we ask how the k’vitlach custom arose, nobody is certain.

    In the eighteenth century Rabbi Chayyim ibn Attar of Morocco, author of the Or HaChayyim, learnt that a disciple, Chayyim Yosef David Azulai, was planning to live in Israel, and he asked him to put a letter in the stones of the Wall. Azulai agreed, but it slipped his memory. When eventually he remembered, he went to the Wall and left the note there.

    Someone extricated the note and read it. It was a plea to God to grant success to Azulai, whom it called a great scholar. This alerted the sages of Jerusalem to the qualities of Azulai and they appointed him as their head.

    There are many other tales about the life of Azulai. Who knows which are embroidery and which are embellishments?

    Another version – recorded in Sha’ul Schaffer’s Israel’s Temple Mount – says that when Attar gave a note to a poor man who needed help, the recipient meant to place it in a crack of the wall but the wind blew it away and someone read it and was able to arrange support for him.

    So three centuries ago it was already considered efficacious to put notes in the wall.

    The notes in the wall express the outpourings of innumerable hearts and acknowledge the tradition that the Divine Presence never left the sacred site of the Holy Temple.

    The prayers in the crevices all ask for Divine support and intervention. But these prayers have a theological problem with such prayers. What do they want – a miracle? The Jewish prayer book says, “Our Father in Heaven, we know we can rely on no-one but You.”

    Yet the inspirational Rav Kook says, “A person should train himself not to rely on God other than for things which humans cannot do themselves.” Asking God to do what we can do for ourselves actually diminishes the Almighty, who gave us so many energies to use before seeking miracles.

    There was a man who was drowning and implored God to save him. A row-boat arrived but the man still drowned and complained to God that He had abandoned him. God asked, “Who do you think sent the row-boat?”

    Personally, I don’t usually place notes in the Wall. I seek a quiet corner where I can think about my life and priorities: what I could only achieve if I used the abilities God gave me!

    Someone told my wife I was famous. Whether it’s true or not, I place no store on vanity. I prefer to do ze’er sham ze’er sham – “a little here, a little there” (Isaiah 28:10).

    What you pray for is a reflection of who you are. If you want to put a note in the Wall, fine. But don’t leave everything to God. To ask Him to do all the work is to abdicate. As Rav Kook says, it also diminishes the One who created so much talent in each of His creatures.

    At the same time, don’t try to do it all yourself and leave nothing to Him. That’s just arrogance. Ask for His help.

    More importantly, imprint your dreams not so much in but on the walls of wherever you are. We can all affect our microcosms, starting at home. Let’s try civility, cleanliness, decency, ecology, generosity, helpfulness, honesty, hospitality, justice, literacy, safety, thrift, and human tolerance above all.


    Our ancestors’ merits – Ekev

    August 21st, 2016

    zechut avotThe Torah promises that if we listen to God’s will, He will carry out the covenant He made with our ancestors (Deut. 7:12).

    But the sages say in the Midrash to Psalm 146, “If a person does not do good deeds, they cannot rely on the deeds of their ancestors”.

    This accords with the second of the Ten Commandments, which tells us that if we do the right thing, God’s approval will reverberate for a thousand generations.

    Everything depends on our own deeds. If we do the wrong thing, we cannot expect God to turn away and take no notice. If we sin, we cannot expect the good deeds of our ancestors to save us.

    So what is the point of the long established concept of z’chut avot, “the merits of the ancestors”?

    Our ancestors are there to help us, to guide us along the right path, to support us when we feel too weak to make the big decisions in favour of keeping the Divine commandments.

    The lesson is reinforced by the opening paragraph of the Amidah, where we praise the Almighty as “our God and the God of our fathers”.

    If we decide that He will be our God, this makes us at one with our ancestors; and because He is the God of our ancestors, the thought of their piety leads us to make Him our God.


    The Shema & the quality of the community – Ekev

    August 21st, 2016

    communityIn this week’s reading we encounter the second paragraph of the Shema.

    Amongst its contents is a repetition of the laws of t’fillin, “You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be symbols between your eyes” (Deut . 11:18).

    The difference between the command in the first paragraph of the Shema and the one we now see in the second paragraph is the singular “you” in the first paragraph and the plural in the second.

    In modern English the same word, “you”, is used for both. In archaic English the distinction is clearer, between “thy” (singular) and “your” (plural).

    This suggests the dichotomy between the individual (“thou”) and the community (“you”). “I” (singular) am one and unique; “we” (plural”) are part of each other but the “we” has its own personality.

    When it comes to keeping the mitzvot, just as there is a personal obligation on each one of us; the community as a whole has to act together to ensure that “your camp shall be holy” (Deut. 23:15).

    There are two ways of judging the quality of a Jewish community – what the individual member does, and what the community does.

    Yehudah Halevi utilised this distinction in a famous explanation (in his Kuzari) of communal prayer. He said that each individual has an obligation to pray (not just because the law requires it but because anyone who looks at God’s world will automatically utter the praises of the Creator), but so does the community, since in a group one member reinforces the other and overcomes the other’s defects.

    To Yehudah Halevi we can add that there are things which the community needs to do, and is seen as doing, as a group, and hence the community has its overall group aspirations and attainments.