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    One month & upward – B’midbar

    May 21st, 2017

    In the census, the members of the tribe of Levi were counted from the age of one month (Num. 3:14), though Ramban points out the other tribes were counted from the age of 20.

    The difference is because the males from the other tribes were needed for military service, from which the Levites were exempt.

    From the law of the Levites we learn the reason why the rule of pidyon ha-ben, the redemption of the first-born son, applies when the child is a month old (Ex. 13:2,13; Num. 18:15).

    Rashi tells us that a child’s viability is in doubt up till then, but from the age of one month it is assumed that his life is stable and he will survive.

    The rabbis look at the end of life too and say that a person is deemed to be alive up to his last moment. Once he has died it doesn’t matter how famous he was, even King David himself.

    What is the criterion? Whether he can observe the commandments. What gives a person status is not his possessions – “When he dies he takes nothing with him” (Psalm 49:18) – or how notable he was.


    When an Israelite got lost – B’midbar

    May 21st, 2017

    Holbein’s Tribes of Israel, 16th century

    The massive crowd that made up the Children of Israel in the wilderness must have been both impressive and daunting.

    What would have happened, though, if an individual Israelite had got lost? How would he ever have found his way back to his own family and tribe?

    We know that the camp was arrayed around the central sanctuary, and the people were divided into tribes, each with their own coloured flag, and the tribes into “fathers’ houses” with their own coloured ensigns (Num. 1:2).

    Rashi suggested that the colours tallied with the particular tribe’s stone in the high priest’s breastplate.

    According to Ibn Ezra, each flag and ensign bore a logo – Judah’s was a lion, for example; Dan’s was an eagle.

    Presumably the children of each group were taught what their particular symbol was and were drilled and rehearsed in this information so that anyone who got lost knew what to look for and ask for.


    Revelation on Shavu’ot

    May 21st, 2017

    Shavu’ot is the festival of Revelation.

    According to Franz Rosenzweig, it is one of three leading themes of Judaism – Creation, Revelation and Redemption.

    All are difficult thoughts for the human mind. All are intertwined, but traditional Judaism believes that Revelation is the most important of the three since Creation and Redemption are part of God’s self-revelation.

    There are two aspects of Revelation, the process and the content.

    Looking at the process, we ask in what way God revealed Himself.

    Looking at the content, we ask what it was that He revealed.

    The content is apprehended with the eye, the process with the ear.

    The eye looks at the verbal content of Revelation, the letters and words that constitute the narrative and the commandments.

    The ear – agent of the soul – apprehends the Presence. The Talmud says that when a king is coming, even the sightless person senses the royal presence.

    We use the term Revelation for both the process and the message which it articulates.

    By what means does God reveal His existence, His Presence, His love and concern?

    In one sense it is one of His secrets. When we say, HaShem echad – “God is unique”, we affirm that we finite humans do not need to know everything about Him and how He operates. If we understood God, say the philosophers, we would have to be God – Lu yedativ heyitiv.

    One thing is certain: there are many ways to knowledge, and they are not all types of “seeing with the eye”. God’s self-revelation is not measured in mandates or millimeters but spiritually, in moments and moods.

    From the content of the Revelation – the pattern of Torah and commandments – we learn that He is a moral God who stands for goodness, decency, justice and peace.

    Our eyes can explore the words, our five senses can taste them (like the little children who learnt the alphabet by licking off the honey with which the letters were written on their slates), our minds can search out their meanings.

    The legal and literary dimension of the commandments can occupy the best human brains, the historians can study the unfolding narrative of the ages, the challenge of the Divine will can assure us that while the Giving of the Torah only occurred once, the Receiving of the Torah is for every day of our lives.

    The content of the Revelation and its process need one another. If all we had was the content we would miss the spirit of the Living God.

    Having the Living God is already a wondrous boon (Dayyenu!), but if that was all we had we would miss the message that His will is for us to live by His law.


    Free swallows – B’har

    May 14th, 2017

    One of the great affirmations of the Torah is “Proclaim liberty in the land” (Lev. 25:10).

    The Hebrew word for “liberty” is unusual – d’ror, which sometimes means a swallow.

    What is there about a swallow that reminds us of liberty?

    A swallow can fly where it wants. The skies are open; the swallow is free.

    In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah explains that the root of d’ror is dur, which means to dwell (RH 9b). Freedom is where a person can dwell wherever he chooses and trade in any locality he wants.

    This cannot mean that anyone can ignore and override the democratically-formulated local ordinances, but it shows that no-one has the right to enslave you and compel you to go where you don’t want to or do things that contravene your wishes and conscience.

    What about the person who is scared of making choices and decisions and prefers to be told what to think, where to go and what to do?

    The Torah has no patience with people who prefers their chains, who only feel safe when Big Brother gives the orders and bosses them around.

    Even if Big Brother is kind, compassionate, ethical and upright, the slave who refuses to go free, has defied God and compromised his human dignity.


    Reward & punishment – B’chukkotai

    May 14th, 2017

    How much do you get out of Judaism?

    That’s the underlying question of B’chukkotai.

    The text says that if we obey God’s statutes we will be rewarded.

    If we think of ourselves as individuals, the promise may or may not come true.

    That’s why some commentators argue that the Torah is addressing the nation. If Jews live by the Divine laws, so this opinion goes, they will be rewarded as a community.

    Of course there is a time question – will the reward be immediate, or will God take His time?

    Events seem to prove the second view. But there is another way altogether to understand the Biblical text.

    The person who obeys God might or might not enjoy material and physical reward but what the Torah is talking about is spiritual and psychological reward, an attitude, a feeling, a belief.

    If I obey God I feel good. The problems and perplexities of life do not necessarily abate, but I echo the thought at the end of Adon Olam, “The Lord is with me: I shall not fear”.