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    These are the Ten Plagues

    March 28th, 2015

    The Ten Plagues from an illustrated Haggadah by Otto Geismar, Berlin, 1927

    The Ten Plagues from an illustrated Haggadah by Otto Geismar, Berlin, 1927

    The Haggadah lists Elleh eser makkot, “These are the Ten Plagues”, but the plagues did not stop at ten.

    Jewish and world history are full of other terrible experiences – ten times ten and more besides – and unlike the list in the Haggadah they did not merely befall the ancient Egyptians.

    Jews as Jews suffered constant violence and villainy, unceasing degradation and destruction, persistent persecution and pogroms, continual external and internal problems. Humanity – including the Jews – was regularly engulfed by disasters, demons and demagogues. Can you imagine what depressing responses I always received over the years, when I asked classes of pupils to nominate the ten plagues of the modern world?

    There are two major categories of evil occurrences: “natural” events, called in English “acts of God”, and events which are eruptions of moral evil. The two categories are intertwined. The first group includes earthquakes and illness, and though we tend to blame them on God they have a moral dimension – not just the question of how and why God is involved, but whether man could have done more to improve the world and eliminate or at least diminish the external events.

    Though the beginning of the Biblical Book of Job sees the Adversary going about causing mischief, the human mind feels affronted at the thought that God could apparently condone such undeserved suffering. Whatever the evil we are talking about, in the end it has to trace back to the Creator.

    Why did God not make a perfect world that has no defects? Why does God not step in and control the Creation before people get hurt? Why does God not frustrate the designs of the human beings who target their fellow creatures?

    It’s the oldest and hardest question of all; no-one has found the final answer.

    One approach is to say that God has no obligation to create a perfect universe, but in creating man He has provided a means of mending the torn fabric.

    A second approach is to say that history has to take the long view, and in the end things will gradually improve. Possibly some of the worst curses have already gone or reduced, though the global evils of the past century – especially the Holocaust, which did not just happen but was deliberately unleashed by man’s malignity – tend to challenge this assertion.

    Perhaps one can say that to do good is harder than to do evil. It is not that the Christian idea of inherited sinfulness is necessarily valid, but that for man to slide into evil-doing is easier than to choose the path of righteousness.

    Rav Soloveitchik is adamant that one cannot blithely intellectualise the issue by looking for a theory that explains the events: none of this relieves the hurt of real human beings torn apart by real pain. But a range of modern Jewish thinkers joins him in distinguishing between explanations and responses. We might not (yet) have found the explanation for evil, but we have a responsibility to respond and to try to handle the suffering.

    In the Haggadah we are told that the plagues arrive in every generation, but the Holy One Blessed be He, matzileinu miyyadam, “delivers us from their power”. We would like to feel that God stretches out His hand and scoops us out of the inferno; that after all is what the Torah assures us saved our forefathers from Egypt. But if that is not what always happens, there is some comfort in the thought that what God does is to allow us to rise above the suffering, robbing the evil of its power and giving us the moral victory.


    Looking for chametz

    March 28th, 2015

    The search for leaven, by Bernard Picart

    The search for leaven, by Bernard Picart

    There are two ways of looking at the subject of chametz. The literal halachic rule says that not even the slightest trace of chametz must be seen or found in a Jewish home on Pesach, so the house has to be thoroughly cleaned and the chametz disposed of. There is a safety clause in case there still is chametz which one has not seen, found and disposed of; in this case we make a declaration that any such chametz is nullified and deemed to be the dust of the earth.

    There is also a metaphorical dimension to the law of chametz. It says: don’t allow in your house or anywhere in your life anything that is questionable. If you know or even suspect it is there, don’t wait to remove it. Don’t be like the theologian who said, “God, make me good – but not yet!”

    What chametz symbolises in this spiritual process is arrogance, puffed-up conceit represented by the fact that chametz is a form of leaven that makes the substance rise. If you think too much of yourself, prick your own pomposity.


    Vale Yehuda Avner (1928-2015)

    March 24th, 2015

    Yehuda AvnerRabbi Raymond Apple, emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, said today* from Jerusalem that “Yehuda was one of the most elegant, talented and articulate Israeli diplomats who ever served in Australia. He was the epitome of passion, erudition and oratory, a superb representative of Israel.

    “He was great company, as I found to my benefit when he and Miriam invited me to the Embassy time after time when I was in the national capital as senior rabbi to the Australian Defence Force. The Avners made firm friends with many Australian Jewish leaders and greatly enjoyed their Shabbat visits to Melbourne and Sydney. My wife and I will never forget the Saturday night when the Avners were at our Potts Point home and Yehuda regaled us with stories of his lifetime as a close associate of Israel’s prime ministers.

    “He had an amazing capacity for vivid reconstruction of meetings with world figures including the Lubavitcher Rebbe. His book on the Israeli prime ministers, and the subsequent film, gave the Jewish and general public a unique insight into people and events.”

    * On the occasion of Yehuda Avner’s passing, 24 March 2015.


    Residents & tourists – Tzav

    March 22nd, 2015

    Flame-e1323621407311The sidra tells us that the fire on the altar shall be left to burn continuously and must never be allowed to go out (Lev. 6:6).

    There is a comparison between the fire and the human being. King David said in the Psalms (27:4) that he yearned to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of his life. He said a similar thing at the end of the famous Psalm 23. The fire should be in the sanctuary continuously; the believer should be blessed to be present there every moment of every day.

    But there is a problem with the verse from Psalm 27. It speaks of dwelling in the Temple but also of coming to visit – “to frequent His holy place”. Which is more important – to dwell in the sanctuary or to visit?

    There is an argument in favour of each. To dwell means to be constantly in the Divine Presence. To visit means to be there whenever possible but not all the time. The dweller can take it all for granted; the visitor can enjoy the moment but then move on to other things.

    There is a challenge for each. The dweller must learn to see the sanctuary with fresh eyes every day of his life, never letting himself become blasé. The visitor must try to increase the frequency of his visits so that the day will come when he will no longer be a tourist but a resident.


    A change of clothes – Tzav

    March 22nd, 2015

    Top hatThe priest had to change his clothes from time to time, depending on the nature of the task ahead. Sometimes they were utilitarian garments, sometimes impressive regalia (Lev. 6:4).

    The rabbis say that this is the origin of the practice of changing into one’s best apparel to mark Shabbat or festivals. In England they used to speak of “Sunday best”, which comes from the same source. How you look suggests what your priorities are: as the saying goes, “Clothes make the man”.

    I had a synagogue president once who allocated synagogal honours on the basis of whether the recipient was properly dressed: “We’ll give him an Aliyah”, my president used to say; “He looks tidy enough!’ The president himself wore the official garb that was customary for congregational honorary officers in the London United Synagogue in those days – black jacket, striped trousers, top hat. He was probably more concerned with decorum than devotion, but in the end it worked out in the way in which it should. An important occasion had to be fittingly marked.

    Of course the customs vary according to where you are. In Israel hardly anyone wears a suit and tie on Shabbat and festivals (apart from me – the customs of a lifetime are so hard to abandon), but a clean white shirt, open-necked of course, is taken for granted.

    Not only in regard to the person but the house too. Shabbat and chaggim are the time for everything to look festive.