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    Counting the commands – T’tzavveh

    February 21st, 2015

    613Enshrined in the name of the sidra is the verb tz-v-h, to command. Everyone knows the noun mitzvah which derives from this verb. (Even those who claim to know no Hebrew actually are aware of a bevy of Hebrew words, beginning with shalom and covering a host of ideas, insights, attitudes and occasions.)

    Basically mitzvah means commandment, and there are 613 of them. Why do we need so many? One answer is given by the medieval philosopher Joseph Albo, author of the “Ikkarim”, who says that in theory a person could earn the life of the World to Come by doing just one mitzvah, but it would have to be a really quality mitzvah performed in a truly quality manner.

    On the other hand, when the Talmud says (Makkot 23b) that Moses received not one but 613 commandments from God, it is because every moment of every day provides an opportunity for an act of love for God. “You shall love the Lord your God”, says the core text of Judaism, the Sh’ma; the mitzvah-conscious Jew says, “Every mitzvah I do is a love-letter to God”.


    Leaving Moses out – T’tzavveh

    February 21st, 2015

    Moses_Pleading_with_IsraelThis is the only section of the whole Book of Sh’mot which leaves out the name of Moses, and we want to know why.

    Coincidence? Surely nothing in the Torah is coincidence. Everything is deliberate. Everything has a purpose.

    Punishment for Moses? It’s true that he committed a sin or two, but where do we find evidence of misdeeds in this sidra?

    Intentional? It must be. But why?

    There are quite a number of well known explanations (a possibility is Moses’ own words in Ex. 32:32). One explanation which is not often discussed links up with the fact that there are parts of Tanach where God Himself is not mentioned. The most famous example is the Book of Esther. Another book without the Divine name is Shir HaShirim, where God is not mentioned though there is an allusion to him in a passage about a flame which is so powerful that it seems cosmic or Divine in its force.

    If we ask why God is left out of the M’gillah, can we find an answer that also helps to explain why Moses is left out of Parashat T’tzavveh?

    It could be that in ancient Persia, the setting of the Esther story, and in whatever happens in life, God is present and in charge even if He is not explicitly mentioned. In T’tzavveh we could say that Moses’ omission shows that in Israelite history, in the entire Torah, and in Judaism as a whole, the influence of Moses is ever-present even if he is not named.


    How to be a donor – T’rumah

    February 15th, 2015

    800px-Coins_1-150x150When the historian Cecil Roth called the post-war period the Philanthropic Age he had in mind the massive needs of Israel and the Jewish world in constructing a new age.

    Roth was speaking in the 1960s and since then the challenges have not grown any less. Appeals for funds are still a crucial dimension of modern Jewish living. But fundraising styles have become different. In the early years, the fundraisers always found an emergency that needed a generous response. The approach then became more rational, explaining that new situations called for new levels of support.

    Interestingly, the commentaries on this week’s reading – the title of which means offering or donation – map out an ethic of giving. Rav Soloveitchik points out that T’rumah follows Mishpatim, which focusses on civil and criminal law. The lesson is that giving should always be above board. A person should not give for the sake of quietening their conscience but because their heart and mind tell them this is what to do.

    Sforno reminds us that every gift had to be properly recorded and correctly applied – no hanky-panky, no siphoning off for other purposes, no salting away of funds for some future project.

    Rabbi Chayyim Ibn Attar notes that the Torah waits till the end of the list before mentioning the really costly donations, the precious stones. This teaches us that the modest donor should not be deterred by the fear that their small gift would pale in comparison with the major donors.


    A broad sanctuary – T’rumah

    February 15th, 2015

    Model of the Second Temple

    Model of the Second Temple

    Ex. 25:18 contains the command, “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst”. We observe the mitzvah by building synagogues, preceded in ancient times by the tabernacle and temple.

    Note that the whole edifice was the sanctuary – not just the area set aside for sacrifices and liturgy. Part of the sanctuary was the ancillary rooms: teaching rooms, meeting rooms, even a hostel for overnight accommodation, even bathrooms.

    An inscription from about 10 BCE records that a synagogue in Jerusalem was erected by “Theodotus, the son of Vettenos, priest and chief of the synagogue”, who “built this synagogue for the reading of the Torah and the teaching of the commandments, and also this hostel with its chambers and water-fittings for the needs of those who, coming from the outside, lodge there…”

    Other activities associated with the sanctuary included social welfare services, charity in the broadest sense. The synagogue was a place where the community met for prayer but also where they studied, lodged and ate (the institution of a Kiddush in the synagogue indicates that people who stayed in the precincts had their meals there too). All these activities were sacred; whatever one did in the synagogue precincts was dedicated to the Almighty.

    Modern critics sometimes attack the community centre dimension of the synagogue, not realising that when people gather and build a community the Divine purposes are advanced.


    ABC Radio “Sunday Nights”: Rabbi Apple on interfaith dialogue

    February 9th, 2015

    header_sundaynightsRabbi Apple appeared on ABC Radio “Sunday Nights” with John Cleary on 8 February 2015 to discuss his lifetime interest in interfaith dialogue and the importance of getting our mutual language right when talking to people of another faith.

    He says that we are living in an age in which all the religion traditions are under attack, and unless we work together, talk together, fight together but without fighting each other… there’s going to be no way in which we can survive in a world that regards religion as not only a nuisance, but a danger.

    Audio available here.