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    Only the living can remember – Tishah B’Av

    July 27th, 2014

    Yahrzeit lightOn Tishah B’Av, remembering is the rule. Tragedies happened, and we have to remember them. Not just the destruction of the Temple, indeed both Temples, but the long procession of calamities that accompanied all the ages.

    Every time of year has its historical memories; every day could well have been appointed as a national Yahrzeit; but Tishah B’Av brings all the catastrophes together. Maimonides says in his Hil’chot Evel (13:11-12) that one who does not remember and mourn for the calamities is a cruel character. And yet one can overdo the mourning. After a bereavement there are stages in mourning, and by the end of the first year the mourner must pick him- or herself up and get back into life.

    The real tragedy is when there is no-one to remember. I often wandered through the Jewish part of Rookwood Cemetery when I was a rabbi in Sydney, and I would sadly note how many people had no living relative to say Kaddish and keep the Yahrzeit.

    This emphasises the value of Tishah B’Av, as the occasion for the whole Jewish people to remember and mourn for the martyrs of the generations. The martyrs can never be forgotten so long as our people remembers.


    Bring us back

    July 27th, 2014

    Returning Torahs to the arkWhen the Torah is returned to the Ark we sing the words, Hashivenu HaShem elecha v’nashuvah: chaddesh yamenu k’kedem – “Bring us back to You, O Lord, and we shall return – renew our days as they were”.

    The words come from the end of M’gillat Echah (Lam. 5:21), which of course is read on Tishah B’Av. In Echah we have the prophet Jeremiah speaking on behalf of the people. They have lost their Temple and their land and they yearn to come back to God’s city and House and to live a life without the enemy and the exile. A sentiment that completely fits in to the theme and mood of Echah – but what is it doing in the Siddur?

    It is an assertion of our belief that Israel, the land, the people and the faith are all interwoven: if God brings us back to the land, then the faith and the Torah will flourish again.

    We well know that the reality as we see it before our eyes is not yet complete, but there is already so much Torah in Israel that no-one can deny that we are on the road to the fulfilment of the hope of the ages. We bring the Torah back to the Ark and imply, “God, help us to bring the Torah to every corner of the Land of Israel”.

    We can also read into the words of Hashivenu the prayer that we may be enabled to bring the Torah to every corner of the Jewish people. There will be some who will always resist being mitzvah-observant, but let their non-observance at least be based on knowledge of what it is that they do not observe. If they choose not to believe, let them at least know what it is that they do not want to believe in.


    Kamtza & Bar Kamtza

    July 27th, 2014

    The Talmudic story (Gittin 55b/56a) is well known. Because of a mix-up between two men of similar name was the Temple laid waste, according to the sages. A host wanted Kamtza at his party but Bar Kamtza mistakenly received the invitation and was pushed out in the sight of the whole assemblage.

    The Talmud says that God himself supported Bar Kamtza because He was shocked that one person could publicly embarrass another.

    The rabbis say that a society in which people failed to respect one another did not deserve to survive (Yoma 9b).


    A big deal – D’varim

    July 27th, 2014

    starsMoses never had an easy time as the leader. In the very first chapter of D’varim he tells the people that there are so many of them that he can’t handle the burden. How does he describe their vast numbers? “Like the stars of the heaven for multitude” (Deut. 1:10).

    The simile is an obvious exaggeration, since the Book of B’midbar has given us precise statistics and we know the “stars of heaven” phrase is not to be taken literally. But the Midrash does not leave it as a mere question of numbers. It sees the phrase as a prophecy of the future. In time to come the Israelite people will light up the skies as spiritual and intellectual stars.

    All these centuries later we see the evidence of the dream come true. Even the antisemites who constantly criticize who we are and what we do, and find so little to praise about us, have to admit that the Jews have made a contribution to civilisation that is far out of proportion to their numbers.


    Not just a repetition – D’varim

    July 27th, 2014

    chumash sefer devarimThere is a view that the Book of D’varim is merely a recapitulation of the material in the previous four Books, and therefore Moses is summing up all that he did and said in the years of his leadership.

    This opinion cannot be correct, because D’varim actually contains a fair amount of new material. Most of it deals with personal status, especially marriage and divorce. According to tradition, this material was already known to Moses from his sojourn on Sinai when God gave him the teaching that was not all slated for promulgation until a later stage.

    We wonder why there was a delay in providing the people with their marital code; the explanation might be the human passions which drove relationships with the opposite sex. At that point little notice would have been taken of preachments that tried to restrain people’s emotions and drives, and it needed time to acknowledge that rushing into unsuitable unions needed to be restrained and there needed to be laws and procedures to govern the beginning of marriages.

    Likewise, the possibly hurtful abandonment of unsuitable partners needed to be modified and a code of divorce law and procedure accepted.