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    Loud & quiet voice – Vayyiggash

    December 21st, 2014

    Joseph reconciles with his brothers

    Joseph reconciles with his brothers

    After a lot of drama. Joseph and his brothers are finally reconciled. Years of estrangement fall away. All of Egypt soon hears that Joseph’s family have arrived in the country and will be settling down under Joseph’s benevolent auspices.

    Despite the lack of modern means of transport and communication, the news travels far and fast – vehakol nishma (Gen. 45:16). The Zohar points out that the word kol, a voice or sound, is spelt without the usual middle letter, vav. The result is that it looks like kal, easy, simple.

    The lesson we learn from the Zohar is that there are two types of sound, loud and soft, “hard” and “easy”. Anyone can make a big blustering noise and indeed be a big noise, but, perhaps strangely, the second type of sound is generally more audible.

    This point figured in the advice I once gave to an aspiring preacher, to whom I said, “You know, you don’t have to shout; the congregation will hear you even better if you enunciate properly and don’t rush your words, but speak on a quieter level and let your content sink in”. Sometimes you don’t have to be audible at all; a quiet companionable silence can be very effective.

    No wonder the sages advise us not to talk too much when we seek to comfort a person who is bereaved (Avot 4:18). A good general rule is often, “Let the occasion (even a simchah) speak for itself!”


    Squabbles on the way – Vayyiggash

    December 21st, 2014

    Joseph & his brothers, by Gustave Dore

    Joseph & his brothers, by Gustave Dore

    The brothers of Joseph were sent out to bring their old father in Canaan the news that Joseph is still alive and holds a high position in Egypt. Farewelling the brothers on their journey, Joseph tells them, “Don’t squabble on the way” (Gen. 45:24). The Targum Onkelos treats the word tir’g’zu as meaning, “Don’t start quarrelling with each other”.

    Why on earth should they quarrel?

    One view advanced by Rashi is that they might argue with each other as to who started the whole episode of the sale of Joseph as a servant. Ramban thinks the word means “Don’t tremble”, i.e. “Don’t lose your nerve out of fear of being attacked by bandits on the way”. Rashi, however, adds another suggestion based on Talmudic exegesis: “Don’t start arguing about halachic matters, about ‘The Way’, i.e. Halachah”.

    No-one wants to suggest that people shouldn’t engage in halachic discussion, but where it becomes a problem is when people lose track of time or place, which in the case of Joseph’s brothers could lead them to get lost and put themselves in peril.

    On another level, academic variation – inevitable as part of debate over points of halachah – can become personal and lead people to insult each other because they can’t disagree peacefully.


    Nittel – Ask the Rabbi

    December 21st, 2014

    Q. Is it true that some Jews call 24 December Nittel?

    "Nicht Torah Lernen" - the Lubavitcher Rebbe playing chess on "Nittel"

    “Nicht Torah Lernen” – the Lubavitcher Rebbe playing chess on “Nittel”

    A. 24/25 December do not figure in the official Jewish calendar. Christians of course regard 25 December as the birthday of Jesus (though there is a scholarly debate about the correctness of this date).

    Nittel probably derives from a Latin word for “birth” and medieval Christians who were on the way to midnight mass may have used the occasion to attack Jews, as they did at Easter time. It was safer for Jews not to venture out that evening, not even to go to the Bet Midrash. Hence the suggestion that Nittel stands for “Nicht Torah Lernen (“No Torah Study”).


    The Sydney siege – a prayer

    December 17th, 2014

    Sydney_Hostage_Crisis_flag_raisingAlmighty God, with hearts torn by the tragic events in Sydney this week we turn to You for comfort and support.

    You made this country beautiful, but ugly events disfigured its face.

    You made this city a garden of light and joy, but dark reality brought it close to a jungle.

    You meant mankind to smile without fear, but we had a week of fright and terror.

    You expected religion to spread love and harmony, but religion turned a dangerous believer into a monster.

    We mourn the death of two of his victims: we pray for those who lived but will bear the scars.

    We thank You for the courage of all who were caught up in the events.

    We thank You for the quality of those who serve in the emergency services.

    We know that Australians remain a generous, helpful, fair-go nation, even when their resilience is sorely tested.

    We pray that the spirit of the Divine will remain with us, and sustain the fundamental soundness of the Australian way of life.

    We pray that Your word will be the principle of all religions and sectors of citizens, when You say, “Choose life! Love your fellow as yourself!”

    May Your arms support us, Your hand steady us, and Your love sustain us.

    May this be Your will, and let us say Amen.

    A prayer written by Rabbi Raymond Apple in the wake of the hostage crisis at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place on 15-16 December, 2014.


    What was wrong with Joseph? – Mikketz

    December 14th, 2014

    Joseph's dream, from the Holman Bible, 1890

    Joseph’s dream, from the Holman Bible, 1890

    Things did not prove easy for Joseph. The lad who embodied so much potential, who dreamt such visions of the future, was degraded and sold as a slave by his own brothers. Whether they were justified in taking offence at what he dreamt and said is another question, as is their choice of what to do about him. But Joseph ended up lonely, misunderstood, and hardly able to see daylight at the end of the tunnel.

    He almost lost all his self-confidence and generally feared the worst. Even when he succeeded in explaining the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants, he could only ask, probably quite plaintively, that they should not forget him but try and get him freed from prison.

    A question – where was his faith in God?

    One answer is that even if he did not realise it, God really was guiding the events that came upon Joseph. One of the worst features of his youthful years was his self-pride and arrogance. He had dreams, but they all showed him as the one who came out on top. Everyone else had to bow down to him. He was the giant and they were the pygmies. An impossible show-off!

    Life (i.e. God) needed to take him down a peg or two, to teach him humility, to learn to appreciate other people. Only after he had become a nicer, more modest human being was he beginning to fit himself for the role of leadership.