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    The land I will show you – Lech L’cha

    October 22nd, 2017

    The Torah reading opens (Gen. 12:1) with God’s call to Avraham to leave his home behind and “take yourself to the land I shall show you”.

    There is a metaphorical sense in which this call comes to every Jew. It says, “Give yourself a purpose; make your life into a task, and live in God’s way”.

    What this means is to feel permeated and pulsated by God and Jewish identity.

    It also says, “Make your life into a mission: spread the love and knowledge of God wherever you go”.

    What this means is to raise the quality of society and make the world more messianic.

    It’s not that everything in the less Godly parts of existence are evil and must be totally discarded, but they must be refined and enlisted in the service of God.

    One of the great Jewish thinkers said a person much utilise their legs to carry them to the doing of good deeds, use their hands to fashion a nicer world, train their heart to love and care for other people, and school their mind to think noble thoughts and keep away from crass vulgarity.


    Lot – Lech L’cha

    October 22nd, 2017

    Lot flees from Sodom, by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1908

    Avraham’s nephew Lot plays a central role in this sidra.

    The word Lot probably means a covering or veil (Isa. 25:7).

    After reading the narrative of Lot’s poor judgment one actually wishes a veil could be drawn over the episode.

    The Midrash recognises that Lot had affectionate feelings for his uncle but when the two separated, Lot gave way to greed and lust and abandoned religion.

    He was hospitable but rather stupid and his careless invitation to visitors to have their way with his daughters does not redound to his credit.

    His wife (Idit or Irit according to the Midrash) turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back and dawdled when she should have fled from the salty winds.

    The sages say that she became salt as a punishment for feeding her guests salt, thus compromising the family’s tradition of hospitality.

    Rabbinic tradition found very little to praise in the character of Lot and his wife.


    Free agents for sin? – No’ach

    October 15th, 2017

    No’ach found favour with God but his contemporaries didn’t.

    Their sinfulness placed the whole future of humanity in jeopardy. That’s why God wanted to wipe them out with a flood.

    What this implies is that the Flood generation chose to be sinful, exercising the free will implanted in them from the inception of history.

    According to Maimonides, free will is the pillar of the Torah and its mitzvot.

    Yet thinkers have always been uneasy about the doctrine. It clearly conflicts with the principle of God’s foreknowledge, which the same Maimonides inserts in his 13 Principles as a fundamental of Jewish belief.

    Both ideas, free will and Divine foreknowledge, are essential to Judaism – free will because otherwise there would be no point in the religious life, and foreknowledge because otherwise God would be too limited – but how can they both be true?

    The rabbis tried to solve the problem by saying there were limits to free will.

    Modern thinking pursues this line by positing a range of determinants of human behaviour which vary from person to person. In other words, the limits to one’s free will are not fixed and universal. The great determinant, in Jewish thinking, is of course God.

    A frequently found view is that of Rabbi Chanina, who said, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven”.

    In one view, it is God who is responsible for our physical characteristics such as height and facial appearance but we who choose whether to be evil or righteous. As others put it, the “external event” is controlled by God, but the “internal event” (how we respond to what happens to us) is up to us.

    This sounds fine but it still does not explain what is meant by God’s foreknowledge and determinism and indeed whether the two are identical.


    A common language No’ach

    October 15th, 2017

    In the story of the Tower of Babel, the Torah explains why human beings, despite their common ancestor, speak so many languages.

    The story of language has been widely researched. There are commonalities and differences between languages.

    One of the major features of language today is how one language, English, has so many variants.

    There are words, idioms and intonations which prove the truth of what Churchill said about the English and Americans, that they are one people divided by a common language.

    From the Jewish point of view a major phenomenon is the way in which Jews have adopted and adapted so many languages to produce Jewish versions. The most obvious are, amongst Sephardim, Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, and amongst Ashkenazim, Yiddish or Judeo-German.

    The big question, however, is not linguistic history but whether human beings can find a common ethical language.

    It doesn’t matter so much which language they use but whether they can agree to build a common climate of truth, peace and justice, the three pillars on which, according to Judaism, the universe stands.


    Adam as male & female – Ask the Rabbi

    October 15th, 2017

    Q. B’reshit 5:2 says that “Male and female He created them… and called their name Adam”. What does this mean?

    A. One rabbi said this meant that He made Adam bi-sexual (a hermaphrodite).

    Another rabbi read the verse as saying that He made Adam double-faced, male on one side and female on the other, and split him into two separate beings (B’reshit Rabbah 8:1).

    The first view reflects the idea that man being made “in the image of God” had no distinct sexual identity. God was the source of love, both fatherly and motherly love intertwined.

    The second view suggests that there are two separate male and female identities; man symbolising power and conquest whilst woman is associated with growth and development.

    In the first view, man and woman are essentially one. The human being, like God, is a fusion of din (justice) and rachamim (compassion).

    In the second view the two genders are essentially different. But each one needs the other.

    United in marriage, man and woman combine to become a balanced partnership.