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    What really matters – Ekev

    August 2nd, 2015

    Hands aloft by APalko“Now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 10:12).

    What does the verse imply? That what God requires of us matters.

    Many people are impatient with such statements. “It’s what I want for my own life that is important,” they tell us: “Don’t talk to me about God!” This discussion is predictable. “What I want for myself is money, status, happiness, love” – fill in the rest of the sentence yourself.

    They are all worthwhile goals, but where they become a problem is when they lead to a problem. “I have money,” you might hear, “but I am still not a happy person”.

    I remember a conversation with a congregant in London after Yom Kippur one year. I had spoken on Kol Nidre in support of a charity appeal. There were people who had nothing, I said, and it was our duty to support them.

    All fine and good, but then came the phone call after the fast. Would I come and see Mr …? I duly complied. Where did he live? In a luxury flat surrounded by art and beauty.

    “I heard your sermon,” he told me, “but you got it all wrong. You overdid it about people who have nothing. How about support for people who have everything?” He had obviously worked hard and accumulated assets that others only dream of, but it didn’t stop him being deprived – deprived of friendship and a sense of worthwhileness.

    I learnt a lesson. You can have everything and still have nothing. The Torah’s answer is to have spiritual and communal goals to which to dedicate our lives. This way, when you have everything material, you can also have everything for your heart, mind and spirit.

    The second paragraph – Ekev

    August 2nd, 2015

    shema-e1322485239744This sidra is the source of the passage which we know as the second paragraph of the Shema.

    The three paragraphs combine to teach us three elements of Jewish theology – God’s existence (first paragraph), His reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience (second paragraph) and His gift of the Torah (third paragraph).

    In regard to reward and punishment, let’s ask, “Why depend on incentives for obedience, when really we ought to keep the commandments purely out of love for God?”

    One answer is that if this is the only way to get humans to obey God is to reward or punish them, i.e. to act for an ulterior motive, this is surely better than not obeying at all. Another approach is to say that we are not acting virtuously because of the promise of reward or fear of punishment; but out of love for God (“for the sake of Heaven”) – but as a matter of experience the obedience generally brings its own reward anyhow.

    We hope that deeds of righteousness will make the world a better place and believe that in the long run this will be the outcome, making each one of us a mini-Messiah with the power to bring about positive results, but we still do the right thing, irrespective of the result.

    I cannot get out my mind, and indeed I probably often quote in OzTorah, what a bridegroom told me when I urged him to come to shule on the Shabbat before his wedding, “My best day in the market is Saturday. If the Chief Rabbi will promise me a big enough hand-out I will close my stall and come to shule that day”.

    I couldn’t speak on behalf of the Chief Rabbi or even of God, and I could not agree with trying to make a bargain instead of doing the right thing for its own sake.

    Remember & bless God – Ekev

    August 2nd, 2015

    family eating food lunch grubFrom this week’s portion we know that after eating we should bless God (Deut. 8:10). The rabbis apply logic to this command when they say that if we bless God after eating when we have already appeased our hunger pains, all the more so should we bless Him when we are hungry and have the food in front of us and are about to eat.

    Rabbi Baruch of Medzhiboz noted that many of the occasions to bless God have to do with eating and drinking. We bless God when we eat and drink; we also bless him by not eating and drinking on a fast day. Food and drink are basic actions that sustain a human being. For this we must obviously give thanks. When we obey the Divine command and refrain from food and drink, it reminds us how much we rely on His blessings.

    The ethic of eating and drinking doesn’t only apply when we ourselves eat but when we feed our animals. In fact we should feed our animals first before our own meals, because just as we rely on God so do the animals rely on us.

    This duty to our animals also arises from this week’s reading when the Torah tells us (Deut. 11:15), “I will provide grass in your field for your cattle and you shall eat” – i.e. first give the cattle their grass, then go on and eat your own meal.

    Conversions in Israel – Ask the Rabbi

    August 2nd, 2015

    Q. Why is the Israeli rabbinate so strict in what it expects from converts?

    529px-JudaicaA. The halachic answer ought, theoretically, to function regardless of political considerations. However, the pure ideal cannot be achieved while there is such controversy about the relationship between State and religion when the religious parties demand a price as part of their membership of the coalition and the public objects to spiritual matters becoming part of party horse-trading. Converts feel that they have been sold down the river.

    The halachic rules are neither too strict nor too lenient. They require a candidate for conversion to really want to be Jewish and to undertake to study and observe the laws of the Torah.

    The number of people who seek to become Jewish depend on the circumstances. Decades ago the group involved in conversion controversies were the Ethiopians. Now it is the Russians. It is in the interest of Israel and the Jewish people that their halachic situation be regularised and that they move out of limbo to full membership of Judaism and the Jewish people.

    This means having rabbis deal with them who are warm and welcoming and do not bring the rabbinic profession into disrepute. It also means, when the applicant is a woman, having warm and welcoming women to accompany them to the rabbinate and to ensure they are not frightened away by the official face of Israeli religion.

    Must the potential convert must be free of all ulterior motives and want Judaism for its own sake, not, for example, in order to marry a Jew? Many rabbis allow flexibility, arguing that if one begins with an ulterior motive they will come to love being Jewish for its own sake. It all depends on the judgment of the rabbinic court.

    Rabbi David Hoffmann, the author of M’lammed L’ho’il, accepts certain people who are involved in intermarriage, arguing that this would retain the Jewish partner and their children for Judaism. Rabbi Zvi Kalischer comments, “It may even be that great religious leaders will descend from them”.

    Time for a successor – Va’et’channan

    July 27th, 2015

    death of mosesWhen God told Moses his days were numbered, the decree was not accepted without protest. The rabbis say that the numerical value of Va’et’channan is 515, indicating that Moses uttered this number of pleas to God to allow him to enter the Promised Land.

    We are reminded of Abraham, who tried so hard to make a deal with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; eventually, Abraham gave up arguing. In our case, it is obvious that Moses’ pleas were rebuffed, or else he would not have needed to voice so many.

    God might have been tempted to give in to Moses – after all, He owed Moses something – but, according to the Midrash, He decided that the welfare of the whole people of Israel required a new age, a new leader, a new type of leadership, and a new policy. That’s why he told Moses to appoint Joshua and to accept his fate.

    There comes a time for a leader to leave his post and let someone else take over. Hopefully, the people will remember the old leader and realise what he did for them. Hopefully, the old leader will be proud of his successor, and the successor will honour the predecessor.