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    “Good choice” haftarot – Rosh HaShanah

    September 20th, 2014

    haftarah haftoraIf they followed the general rule, the Haftarot for the two days of Rosh HaShanah would link up with the established themes of the festival. They would deal with Creation, God’s record books, the sounding of the shofar.

    Actually a quite different principle has been brought to bear. There is a horizontal link with the Torah readings for the two days, and a vertical link with each other. Both Haftarot focus on the prayers of Bibical women. Both address the same subject – children. Taken together, they show how mothers think – their hope for their children, and their disappointment when their children’s lives do not seem a success.

    If we take the two Yom Kippur Haftarot into consideration, we find an additional theme – redemption, assuring us that all will turn out well in the end. So together we have three themes – hope, disappointment, and redemption.

    These themes are important enough in themselves, but additionally they link up with the major drama of the season, the blowing of the shofar. The first shofar note is t’ki’ah – hope. The second is sh’varim/t’ru’ah, sometimes joined, sometimes separated – disappointment. The third note is a further t’ki’ah – it all turns out all-right in the end.

    The first day’s Haftarah is the prayer of Hannah (I Sam. 2). Hannah is childless. She is taunted and humiliated because she has no children. She prays that God may hear her petition. She has a child and harbours great hopes for him, proud that he will serve God in the Temple.

    The second day we read the story of Rachel (Jer. 31). Longing for children, she becomes a mother at last. But her hopes do not endure. Her children are taken into exile. Rachel weeps, powerless to rescue them. All she can do is pray that the time when come when they will return home, with “hope for their latter end”. Psalm 30, part of the daily morning service, promises that instead of nights filled with tears, there will be joy in the morning, and it is Divine pledges such as this which save Rachel from complete disintegration.

    The two Haftarot are a good choice as metaphors for the Jewish experience. Our history is an amalgam of laughter and tears, of hope and horror, of dreams and desolation. We measure time by our Rosh HaShanahs, the days when we rejoiced and the days when we mourned. We dread the disappointments, but we know that without them the hopes would have no meaning.

    And in case anyone has not noticed, the two Haftarot demonstrate that the old canard is simply not true, the accusation that Judaism has no place for women. On the great mountain-top of the Jewish calendar, it is women who are gathered, women whose emotions are supreme, women who pray with a fervour that very few men can emulate. Note too that when it comes to the festive days of the year, one yom-tov after another is endowed with effect because of women – Esther on Purim, a shepherd girl on Pesach, Ruth on Shavu’ot. Leave the men to their synagogal practices and remember where the real power lies in Judaism – with the women.


    Four stories for Rosh HaShanah

    September 20th, 2014

    1. ELIE WIESEL

    Rosh HaShanah is the anniversary of the world’s creation, when God examines His world by the standards He established at the beginning of time. We, his creatures, are said by the sages to be His partners in working on the world, so it’s only logical that we have a share in rendering judgment. When He looks at us and wonders how well we have handled our role, we are likely to reciprocate and assess the quality of His work. Maybe, we dare to think, we humans could do a better job.

    Elie Wiesel picks up the theme and says that one day man and God agreed to exchange roles. God assumed man’s position; man assumed God’s. Man said he wasn’t afraid; God said that He was. God’s fears were not unfounded because man now refused to go back to the original situation. The result was that neither man nor God were no longer what they appeared.

    Eventually – maybe after generations, even centuries – neither side could carry their burden. But neither could move without the other. They had no choice but to resume the old dialogue…

    Read into Wiesel’s story the interpretation that fits. As far as I am concerned, neither I nor any other human being can speak for God. But I see – as you must – a mighty danger in man thinking he can be God. Isn’t it more than enough for man to decide to be truly human?

    2. LEVI YITZCHAK OF BERDITCHEV

    The phrase Tikkun Olam, mending the world, has a long history going back to at least the 3rd century if not earlier. It symbolises a task which applies to all of us at all times, though there are moments when it has a special urgency. A story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev bears this out.

    It is said that before the High Holydays, early in the month of Ellul, Levi Yitzchak was standing at his window late one afternoon, looking out on the world. Down there in the street, the people of the town were going about their business, some moving briskly on the way to a task that awaited their attention, some moving slowly so as not to miss an opportunity of plying their trade.

    Along came a cobbler who looked up at the window, saw the rabbi and called out, “Have you anything that needs mending?” “Anything that needs mending?” echoed the rabbi, “but the evening will soon be here, and how will you finish the job before dark?” “Rabbi,” said the cobbler, “There is still enough light. While I have light I can still do some mending.”

    “And thus it is with us,” said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to himself; “the year is coming to an end, but while there is still time we can do some mending!”

    We all have so much to do to make the world a better place. While we still have time we can get a lot of mending done.

    3. THE CHAFETZ CHAYYIM

    The Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah begins, K’chu immachem d’varim v’shuvu ad HaShem – “Take with you words, and return to the Lord” (Hos. 14:3). Which words? About God, about humanity, about the world, about being Jewish… and about yourself.

    It’s part of Yom Kippur to say things about yourself, mostly negative things: Chatati, aviti, pashati, “I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed”. The negative admissions are probably quite justified. None of us is perfect. We all have things to regret and repent.

    But Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel warns in Pir’kei Avot (2:13), Al t’hi rasha bif’nei atzm’cha – “Don’t be wicked in your own estimation”. No-one is so bad that there is nothing good to say about them. The Haftarah makes this point when it asks God to accept “the good” – i.e. not just to see our failings but to value our virtues.

    According to the Chafetz Chayyim, one of the worst sins is undervaluing your own self. Not only should you speak well of others, but of yourself. Erich Fromm says that when the Torah tells us, V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), the assumption is that we love ourselves, at least to a reasonable extent.

    The Chafetz Chayyim says that a lesson about not under-appreciating oneself came to him because of an incident in a carriage. He was a fellow passenger with a stranger who did not know him. The stranger excitedly explained that he was on the way to visit the famous scholar called the Chafetz Chayyim. The latter muttered to himself, audibly enough to be heard, “I’m not sure the Chafetz Chayyim really deserves your praise!” The stranger was so shocked that he turned on his travelling companion and slapped him.

    Reaching home the Chafetz Chayyim said, “I always knew not to denigrate one’s fellow man. Now I know that one should also not denigrate oneself!”

    4. SHMUEL YOSEF AGNON

    We all put our trust in things that we hope will save us from disaster, but they turn out to be a broken reed.

    There once was a rooster that was very depressed at the approach of Rosh HaShanah because he dreaded the day when some people take a rooster and twirl it about their heads with the idea of transferring sins onto it, and then the rooster is given to the shochet to be slaughtered.

    A mouse told the rooster not to be so afraid: “I’ll help you! “ he said; “I’ll be clever like my father, for when a lion was captured and tied up with strong ropes my father gnawed through the ropes and set the lion free!” “Good idea,” said the rooster, “but how will you show your cleverness?” The mouse said, “Don’t worry. I will work it – but will you remember me and save me?” “Of course,” said the rooster.

    The mouse said, “This is my plan. On the Holydays when all the human beings are in the synagogue I shall eat up their book of customs and no-one will be reminded to send you, O rooster, to the slaughter!”

    Lo and behold, the people duly went to the synagogue, the mouse came out to eat up the holy book – and the cat jumped on him and gobbled him up…


    It’s not in heaven – Nitzavim

    September 13th, 2014

    sky belief clouds horizonThe Torah portion says of God’s Word, “It’s not in heaven or across the sea” (Deut. 30:12). Even if it were in heaven or over the sea we would still be duty-bound to strive for it, but it’s not as distant as all that. It is accessible wherever we happen to be.

    There must be a symbolism in the use of the words “in heaven” and “across the sea”. Possibly it is this: The Torah is neither spiritually and intellectually beyond us, nor is it geographically inaccessible.

    Take each category on its own. The first says that the Torah is not too high for us – “in heaven”, as it were. God bless you if you’re a saint or a genius, but most people aren’t. Saints and geniuses can find their way to the Torah; so can the rest of us. On one level or another, we can all comprehend and adopt Torah ideas and insights.

    The second category says that the Torah is not “across the sea”. If you live in the Diaspora, forget about saying, “Things are different in Israel. There it is easier to follow the commandments”. Israel is certainly different and superior, but don’t make it an excuse for not raising your religious levels in whichever place you happen to be.

    And if you do have the blessing of being in Israel, don’t make an excuse out of that either, saying, “If I were in Jerusalem things would be different”. In Jerusalem things would be different, but that shouldn’t stop you elevating yourself anywhere else.


    God’s good books

    September 13th, 2014

    booksWhy do we use “book” metaphors at this time of the year, for example the wish that we may be written down for a good future?

    The idea derives from the Torah, where Moses speaks of being inscribed in (or erased from) the book God has written (Ex. 32:32-33).

    In the Talmud (RH 16b), Rabbi Kruspedai says in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that God has three books, one for the perfectly righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one for the in-between category. The fate of the first two types of person is recorded without delay. The book of the intermediate category is left open during the Ten Days of Penitence before God makes His decision about them.

    Since Rabbi Yochanan is no fool, he must be telling us something significant in this passage. The message is that the majority of people come in the intermediate category. Someone said, “God must love ordinary people, since He made so many of them”. Very interesting, but why does God leave us in limbo while He makes up His mind about us?

    Because, as the prayer book declares, “God waits to the very last moment for a person to repent”. Until the eleventh hour and even later we are still able to move from the “wicked” category towards the “righteous” one. The decisions we make in the week leading to Yom Kippur can be life-changing. In the atmosphere of these days a sudden thought can enter our minds, even a lone word, which sets us off in a new direction.

    A husband told me that when his wife remarked, “Our marriage is about us, not just the children”, he suddenly knew what he had to do.


    For God’s sake – Ask the Rabbi

    September 13th, 2014

    Q. In Zochrenu LaChayyim, why do we ask God, “Remember us for life… for Your sake”?

    Zochreinu lechayim rosh hashanahA. One might have thought the prayer should ask God to answer us for our sake more than for His. What does He have to gain after all from the prayers which human beings offer?

    The Chafetz Chayyim gives two answers. One compares us to a customer who tells his supplier, “I am buying for your sake as well as mine, because without customers you cannot continue in business”. In this sense God is like a king who cannot be called a ruler unless he has subjects.

    The second answer given by the Chafetz Chayyim is, “‘For Your sake’: so that we may be enabled to serve You properly.”