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    Climbing the mountain – Chukkat

    June 25th, 2017

    Some Divine commandments are easy to understand.

    For example, because of history we can work out why to eat matzah or dwell in a sukkah. Because of human ethics and experience we can work out why to practise justice and compassion.

    Other mitzvot baffle our thinking. We call them chukkim, “statutes”. Despite our attempts at theorising about them, they ultimately remain tests of our obedience to God’s will.

    There are people who slightingly speak of having “blind faith” in such laws, but the truth is that our faith is quite the opposite. It’s not blind at all but spiritually sighted and insightful.

    We see quite clearly where we are trying to go – towards the all-consuming passionate love of God that is the theme of the beautiful Shabbat song, Yedid Nefesh – “Beloved of the Soul”.

    On Pesach when we read Shir HaShirim the love that fills the human heart is the metaphor for the love between man and God that issues in our observance of His chukkim.

    Observing the statutes is like climbing a spiritual mountain but finding the peak enshrined in cloud.


    God’s policeman – Chukkat

    June 25th, 2017

    The sidra talks of Sefer Milchamot HaShem, “The Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Num. 21:14).

    This does not necessarily justify history’s religious wars in which a religion was adamant that it was fighting for the sake of God.

    The real meaning of the phrase is that there are some human events and philosophies which are so opposed to what God stands for that He has an on-going battle with them.

    An example is the cruel, callous, cowardly Amalek, about whom the Torah says that God is at war with him forever.

    What God insists upon is “Love your neighbour” (don’t undermine or demonise him), “Relieve your neighbour’s laden animal” (don’t make it suffer because of its owner), “Do not bear false witness” (don’t twist words or the truth).

    Fighting for God is fighting against His enemies.


    Compulsory education – Ask the Rabbi

    June 25th, 2017

    Q. When did compulsory education commence among Jews?

    A. There is a difference between knowledge and education.

    According to the Torah, everyone must have knowledge, but the Shema ordains that this is to be imparted by the father. If, however, a child had a father who was unable to teach him, or if he was an orphan, there had to be community provision for education.

    Possibly the people of Israel were the first to institute compulsory education for all. The system is attributed to Yehoshua ben Gamla, kohen gadol just before the revolt against the Romans. He is said to have prevented the Torah from being forgotten.

    The Jerusalem Talmud on the other hand argues that Yehoshua was preceded by Shimon ben Shetach, who is said to have restored the Torah to its glory.

    How can both men be credited with the same idea? The answer could be that it began with Shimon ben Shetach and was consolidated by Yehoshua ben Gamla, who formulated a series of regulations governing teachers and pupils.

    The subjects of study were both religious and secular – or rather, the overall theme was religious, which was a broad umbrella that covered all the things we today call secular like mathematics, anatomy, literature and language.

    Religion was the overarching concern, since all wisdom and knowledge emanated from God and led a person to a feeling of awe at the grandeur of God’s Creation.


    Korach took himself

    June 18th, 2017

    The death of Korach & his followers

    The sidra opens with a strange word, Vayyikkach Korach, “And Korach took”.

    What he took is not stated.

    Some versions say, “Korach took men”.

    The Targum Onkelos says, “Korach separated himself” – he betook himself to the other side of the situation and mounted a mutiny against Moses.

    The Talmud (Sanh. 109b) says he took upon himself a bad deal, getting saddled with a rebellion which he had no chance of winning.

    The d’rash, the homiletical view, also deserves to be mentioned, that what was wrong with Korach was his character. He was a taker and not a giver.

    He wanted everything for himself, without a thought to what he could contribute to the wellbeing of the community.


    The dawn of humanity – Korach

    June 18th, 2017

    Korach is the proverbial nasty man.

    Yet even nasty men sometimes say something that is valid, even though they use and twist it for their own purposes.

    In Korach’s case, there is the statement, “For all the congregation are holy, every one of them” (Num. 16:1-3).

    Stripping the words of their Korach-context, they say something that is actually a great thought: that everyone has a spark of holiness.

    It doesn’t matter what a person’s material situation is, nor whether they are great and famous, but everyone is precious in the eyes of God and everyone warrants respect from other people.

    One of the things the sages said was that one can tell it is dawn when there is enough light to recognise the face of a fellow human being.

    In an extended sense this means that the dawn of real humanity is shown by our ability to see the other person as a brother or sister made in the image of God the Creator.