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    Shavu’ot – a calendrical ghost?

    May 17th, 2015

    EtzChayimOmerCounterEverybody knows Shavu’ot is an important festival, but it doesn’t have a tractate to describe it. The others do – Pesachim, Rosh HaShanah, Yoma, Sukkah, even Megillah. There is no tractate of Chanukah, but that’s a different problem.

    There is no date specified for Shavu’ot in the Torah: all we have is a law to count 49 days of the Omer and keep the 50th as a festival. Ancient days saw a debate between Pharisees and Sadducees as to when to begin the count, with the result that each group ended up with Shavu’ot on a different date.

    The tradition is that Shavu’ot is the anniversary of the Revelation upon Mount Sinai, but all we hear about in the Torah is the agricultural aspect, the identification of Shavu’ot as the Day of the First Fruits.

    Even the name of the festival is a problem – is it Shavu’ot, weeks, or Shevu’ot, oaths? If the second view is correct, one could argue that the festival enshrines two oaths – God’s promise that He will not abandon Israel, and Israel’s promise that it will not abandon the Torah. But Judaism prefers the first option!

    In Greek it became Pentecost, fifty; Judaism called it Atzeret, conclusion, linking it to Pesach as Sukkot is linked to Sh’mini Atzeret. The idea is that Pesach gave us physical freedom but the Torah given on Sinai completes the liberation.

    The story is that Shavu’ot indeed has a story. The Torah source clearly links Pesach and Shavu’ot by means of the Omer, so if we have a date for Pesach we know how to calculate Shavu’ot. True, the Sadducees argued about when the counting began, but they have been left behind by history.

    When we ceased being an agricultural people we moved our emphasis to the historical, ethical and spiritual side of the three pilgrim festivals. Shavu’ot needed extra work, since the text did not precisely spell out that the giving of the Torah coincided with the festival of the First Fruits, but tradition made the connection and gave us, as Lord Jakobovits put it, a festival which “denotes the first ‘ripening’ or ‘maturing’ of Israel: through the giving of the Torah the purpose of Jewish history began to come to ‘fruition’”.


    Doubled figures

    May 17th, 2015

    numberA well-known rabbinic statement says there are 600,000 letters in the Sefer Torah, analogous to the 600,000 Israelite males (to be pedantic, 603,550) who left Egypt – i.e. there is one letter for every Israelite.

    The idea is really beautiful. It derives from the Zohar, but actually the arithmetic is faulty and there are not 600,000 but just over 300,000 letters in the Torah. One of the explanations is that there are not precisely 600,000 letters but there are that number of spaces for letters, provided we understand “letters” as small consonants like yod and vav, not big ones like shin and aleph which take up more room.

    This view, while it might still contain a mathematical problem, has two lessons for us to learn. One involves the Mishnaic teaching, “Every Jew has a place in the World to Come” (used at the beginning of every chapter of Pir’kei Avot), which implies that we all have a reserved place but in the end some possibly do not live wisely enough to occupy that seat. In that sense we could say that there are 600,000 places reserved for the Jewish people, but maybe some, perhaps as many as nearly half, will jeopardise their potential place.

    Another possibility is that every Jew has two souls (2 x 300,000 souls = 600,000) – the regular soul with which we were endowed at birth, and the neshamah yeterah – the “additional soul” conferred upon us by the observance of Shabbat.


    Different but the same – B’midbar

    May 17th, 2015

    The census of the Israelites, by Henri Félix Philippoteaux

    The census of the Israelites, by Henri Félix Philippoteaux

    The Book we begin this Shabbat has two names, like other books of the Torah. It is B’midbar, “In the Wilderness”, and in English “Numbers”. The names are unconnected. B’midbar is the first significant Hebrew word in the Book; Numbers is the theme of the national census with which the Book begins. There is a great deal we could write about the Hebrew name, but let us focus on the English name.

    Imagine if you were Moses and you looked out at your people. What a massive crowd! As far as his eye could see there were the tents of Israel, and if the population were counted as a whole, including women and children as well as males, there must have been at least two million of them.

    Every rabbi becomes a Moses on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur when he looks out at his large attendance. But impressed as he is with the size of the crowd, he knows that everyone is unique, independent, separate, unique – and precious in the sight of God.

    That lesson is emphasised over and over again in Jewish tradition – for example on Pesach, when the four sons show us that every individual is different; and on Sukkot, when the four plants, though all different, are all held together. Modern terminology would say that the word for this is pluralism, and it’s certainly true that our people is a plurality – but we learn another thing from our tradition which questions whether pluralistic is the right word.

    Like the arms of the menorah which are all attached to the central shaft and all incline towards the centre, so the Jewish people are bound by one emotion and commitment. They are all different but all the same.


    Let the wilderness rejoice – B’midbar

    May 17th, 2015

    map_israelShabbat B’midbar reminds us of the prophet’s words, “Let the wilderness and its cities rejoice” (Isa. 42:11).

    A wilderness rejoicing? Surely not. By definition, a wilderness is crude and cruel, and no-one would really want to live there. But if we take the word “wilderness” metaphorically – representing the people of Israel – we come to a different conclusion.

    The prophet Isaiah is comforting Israel. Israel has suffered so much that it feels bereft, bothered and bewildered. But the people that knew darkness and despair is being told that its future is assured, that it will still find joy in life, and the darkness will vanish and be replaced by light and happiness.

    In our day, history has seen the prophecy come true, and the State of Israel is one of the happiest places on earth. Repeated studies have found that more than most nations, the people of Israel are high up on the global happiness scale. The voices that call for Israel’s dismantling ought to be jealous. If only their own people had something of the Israeli spirit!

    Two things have brought about Israel’s emotional and psychological triumph – our God, and our own spirit. The hostile winds of criticism might howl, the acid tongues of criticism might shoot their barbs, but the erstwhile wilderness has become an oasis.


    We don’t make a blessing – B’har

    May 11th, 2015

    beg charity poor homeless mendicant tzedakahB’har is where we meet the fundamental principle of charity: “If your brother has become poor, and his strength has dwindled beside you, then you shall uphold him” (Lev. 25:35).

    Note the words, “your brother” – despite his problems he is still your brother; “beside you” – do not wait until he pleads for assistance, but support him as soon as he shows signs of falling. These are some of the ways in which Rashi and the other commentators explain the verse.

    Supporting a fellow being, not just with money but in attitude and every other way, is tzedakah, and it is a mitzvah of the Torah, a requirement of Judaism, a duty commanded by God. But is it not strange that there is a b’rachah for washing the hands, for kindling the Shabbat lights, for reading the Megillah, for hearing the shofar – but no b’rachah for giving tzedakah?

    There are many possible reasons. You cannot quantify tzedakah; where the duty begins and ends cannot be precisely defined and thus your fulfilment of the mitzvah cannot be measured. There are many ways of carrying out the mitzvah – giving money, helping the person find employment, providing business contacts, simply calling him “brother”; tzedakah takes many forms.

    Avraham ben David of Posquieres, the 12th-century rabbi, says that tzedakah involves humiliating the recipient: making a b’rachah implies that we are praising God for the degradation of a fellow human being.