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    Enough already – Pinchas

    July 4th, 2015

    phinehas pinchas 2There are times to say “Enough already!”

    The Biblical example is Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen. He was a priest who saw transgression taking place before his eyes and something in him snapped.

    Until now he was Mr Nice Guy, smiling at events and hoping that things would right themselves. Then came the moment when there was flagrant immorality.

    Moses wept, Pinchas leapt.

    Without pausing to consult his leader, Pinchas stepped out, took a spear in his hand and slew the miscreants.

    The Psalmist applauded him: “Pinchas stood up, and the plague stopped” (Ps. 106:30). The self-respect of Israel was safeguarded. Judaism as an unequivocal ethic was preserved. Pinchas almost lost his priestly status but didn’t, because God too lauded his act (Num. 25:11-13).

    Zealotry – generally treated with reserve by Jewish thinking – was warranted in this case.


    A man over the congregation – Pinchas

    July 4th, 2015

    rabbi oy vey cartoonThe installation ceremony of a new rabbi almost always contains the passage from this week’s sidra, “May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who will go out before them, come in before them, lead them out and bring them in” (Num. 27:16-17).

    When I quote this verse I have to be personal and recall that it was used at my own installation in each of the three congregations I served, and also used by me on a number of occasions when it was my privilege to install other rabbis.

    I often asked myself what was really meant by the words ish al ha-edah, generally translated “a man over the congregation”. Some interpretations focus on the word ish, “a man”. Apart from the gender aspect, there is an important insight of the Chassidic teacher, Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk, who says, “ish – a human being amongst human beings, not an angel, not a seraph”.

    Congregations that think they need to hold out until they find the perfect rabbi, the angel-rabbi, have the wrong idea; the perfect rabbi has never been born, and never will be. They are right to seek the right rabbi, but what that means is the best rabbi they can find at that moment.

    What is meant by al ha-edah, over the congregation? The key is the word al, which admittedly means “above”, because a congregation must be able to look up to their rabbi, but al also means “with”; the rabbi who keeps aloof and is not part of his congregation’s joys and sorrows, agonies and anxieties, is neither a rabbi nor a human being.

    The point becomes clear when we see that the verse I have quoted calls the Almighty “the God of the spirits of all flesh”. Rashi explains that just as God sees and understands the differences between the human beings He has created, so the rabbi must understand that no-one is a carbon copy of any other. His task is to speak to them all in their own character-language.


    Mezonot rolls – Ask the Rabbi

    July 4th, 2015

    Q. Sometimes m’zonot rolls are served in order to avoid N’tillat Yadayim, Motzi and bensching. Isn’t this a confidence trick?

    breadA. The concept is Talmudic (Ber. 42a). Pat haba’ah b’kisnin is a baked item which contains ingredients other than mere flour and water. These days the custom is to knead the flour with fruit juice.

    Though the theory is that now it is more or less like cake, in most cases it looks and tastes like bread and if served in place of regular bread, should be treated as such with the Motzi blessing and bensching. This would certainly apply at an event such as a Bar-/Bat-Mitzvah or a wedding or a public banquet (such events take a long time and do not come under the category of an emergency like being in hospital or on an airplane).

    A common practical problem arises when an airline passenger is served a kosher meal with m’zonot rolls. On an airplane is it difficult to wash one’s hands in the ritual way so m’zonot rolls are regarded as an answer. However, there are other alternatives: don’t eat the rolls at all; take some crackers with you; take a small quantity of regular bread and get up at a quiet moment, wash your hands, make Motzi and eat the bread. If you do this shortly before the airline meals are served, you can regard the bread as part of the meal and afterwards bensch.


    Don’t be a donkey – Balak

    June 28th, 2015

    donkeySome animals just have no luck. Chief amongst them is the donkey. Whilst the Code of Jewish Law says we should start the day like lions, bringing strength and power to the day’s commandments, everyone says, “Don’t be a donkey!” At times we talk about being an ass, but the message is the same.

    Certain things about donkeys give the impression of stupidity, though actually the story of Bilam’s donkey in this week’s sidra (Num. 22) gives quite a different picture.

    Bilam was riding on his donkey and the animal saw an angel of the Lord standing there with a drawn sword, so she diverted from the path. Bilam didn’t see the angel so he thought the donkey was being stupid, and he hit it. A second time the same thing happened; a second time the donkey had more perception than Bilam. Bilam was supposed to be a prophet, but at this moment his prophetic sense deserted him and an animal saw more than he did. Next in the story is Bilam shouting at the donkey and the donkey answering back.

    Such a clever animal: no wonder the sages say (Avot 5:9) that this was a special donkey created by God at the beginning of history.

    What does the episode teach us? That no-one should big-note themselves as a prophet – and no-one should brush aside an animal’s capacity to size up a situation. “Don’t be a donkey,” they say, but on the other hand one shouldn’t be unkind to the donkeys.


    Every Jew is messianic – Balak

    June 28th, 2015

    starsA snatch of poetry in this week’s reading tell us, Darach kochav miYa’akov – “A star steps out of Jacob: a scepter arises from Israel” (Num. 24:17).

    Many people follow a view stated in the Yerushalmi in applying this verse to the Mashi’ach. An alternative view is that the verse refers to every Jew. In this case the implication is clear: any ordinary member of the Jewish people (“Ya’akov”) can be the star who will turn out to be the promised Messiah or at least make the world ready for the Messiah’s arrival and the world’s redemption.

    Maybe it’s human nature to belittle other people and write them off as unimportant and of no consequence. I once had a synagogue president who judged his members by their tie and their shoes. He ruled out a candidate for the post of cantor because he was wearing a red tie; he was against giving someone an Aliyah to the Torah because he was wearing brown shoes.

    You can always find a disqualification in the other person – even, or especially, in yourself. But, to borrow a rabbinic phrase, how do you know that your blood is redder than his? If God can put up with a person, why can’t you?

    The Torah can see some good and potential in the most ordinary person, regardless of their tie or shoes. How can you be certain that the Mashi’ach will not be wearing a red tie or brown shoes? Maybe the Messiah won’t be wearing a tie at all, or shoes either (surely you remember that when Moses stood at the Burning Bush, God told him to take his shoes off because that spot of earth was holy ground).