• Home
  • Parashah Insights
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals & Fasts
  • Articles
  • Books
  • About
  •  

    A pregnant father? – B’ha’alot’cha

    June 4th, 2017

    Life was tough for Moses. He had constant difficulties with the people and it is a miracle that he didn’t turn on them more often.

    In this week’s reading he cannot help himself, and he complains to God: “Did I conceive this people? Did I bring them to birth?” (Num. 11:12).

    Note the verbs he uses, hariti, “be pregnant with”, yelad’tihu, “bear them”. Feminine verbs, and the feminine imagery continues to the end of the verse.

    No-one pretends that Moses was an exception to the normal rule that it is women who get pregnant and bear the babies, but the notion is that Moses asks God how he is expected to love, nurse and nourish the people when they make it so hard for him.

    Interestingly, the Targum Onkelos changes the text in the interests of Moses’ dignity, rendering the words in Aramaic, “Am I the father of this entire people?”

    The revised wording does not tear at the reader’s heartstrings so much, but it does indicate that fathers as well as mothers are expected to have warm, loving feelings for their children.


    Shule is good for you – B’ha’alot’cha

    June 4th, 2017

    By an extension of meaning, the title of this week’s reading can be rendered, “When you elevate yourself”.

    It fits in with a well attested notion that elevating yourself spiritually through prayer and synagogue attendance can extend your life.

    Decades ago the Israel Ischemic Heart Disease Project concluded that that among people who go to synagogue daily, only 29 in 1000 suffer heart attacks, as against double this number among those who don’t go to shule.

    Presumably recent years have further refined this research and confirmed that prayer and going to synagogue are good for you.

    They could of course be part of a broader situation in which people who pray tend to lead quieter lives and have good marital and family relationships, as well as not smoking so much or at all.

    Exercise too is a positive factor, which in this context endorses the observance of Shabbat by walking and not travelling one day a week.


    Ensuring our survival – B’ha’alot’cha

    June 4th, 2017

    The haftarah (from Zech. 2:14-4:7) has the distinction of being read twice a year, this week and on Shabbat Chanukah.

    In both cases it describes a golden lamp which links with the opening verses of the sidra, dealing with kindling the lights.

    In the Zechariah version we see a vision of a lamp which is kept going by an unquenchable supply of oil. According to Rashi, each of the seven lights had seven pipes, making a total of 49.

    The number seven is not accidental, since seven in Biblical thinking denotes completeness or perfection: seven days, seven weeks, seven years… Though it was olive oil that provided the fuel, there was a unique feature in that the olive trees stood at each side of the candlestick so that the supply of fuel was always assured.

    When Zechariah was asked what this vision indicated, he explained, as Rashi tells us, that it was a parable that promised that as the olive trees kept the lamp alight, so it would be the spirit of God, not earthly factors like might and power, that would ensure the survival of the nation of Israel and the restoration of its Temple.


    Hip Hip Hooray – Ask the Rabbi

    June 4th, 2017

    Q. I have heard that Jews shouldn’t say “Hip Hip Hooray”. Is this true and, if so, why?

    A. I must have often joined in when people greeted one another with the shout, “Hip hip hooray”, but I don’t intend to ever do it again.

    For one thing, “Hooray!” (or its variants, “Hurrah!” or “Huzzah!”) is pure nonsense. It has no accepted etymology (though people have tried to trace it in Hindi and other languages) and was probably invented by some old-time cheerleader. Possibly every language has a rallying-call and this is what English ended up with.

    Hebraic ingenuity sees a similarity between “Hooray” and the Harei which means “Behold! See!” But does this hold water? Is it sheer imagination? Who knows?

    The general view is that the introductory “Hip hip” is the initials of three antisemitic words, Hierysolima est perdita, “Jerusalem is lost!” – presumably a Roman or Crusader cry of triumph.

    If this is true, we still don’t know how an antisemitic slogan came to introduce a silly greeting which makes no sense of anything.

    There is only one historical but nasty possibility, that it links with the 1819 Hep Hep riots in Germany. Any Jew living in those pre-State of Israel days was a ready target for persecution even if (as usual) the prejudice against Jews had no rational basis.

    If the phrase really is antisemitic, what a stupid custom it is to endorse the toast to a bride and groom at a Jewish wedding celebration with these words.

    The most I can say in its defence is that it might be linked to an old Hebrew phrase, He’ach he’ach – “Aha, aha” (Psalm 35:21) or He’dad (Isaiah 16:9), again using an “h”. Both might have been shouts of victory in ancient times.


    Where was God in Manchester? Reflections on the Reality of Evil

    May 28th, 2017

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 26 May 2017.

    How hard it is to be alive today. Paris, Istanbul, Brussels, London and now Manchester – evil stalks in more places than ever before, not just in the Middle East but in Europe, the Americas, even Africa and Australia.

    Whether the attackers are organised or lone wolves, they cause immense destruction and devastation, and are ready to lose their own lives in the process.

    It’s no comfort to say that history has always been full of terrible moments, nor is it helpful to say that hateful deeds can be explained or (God forbid) justified by a person’s circumstances or upbringing. Everybody has problems and perplexities, but who says that lashing out at others is the only or best way of responding?

    Some say that today’s terrorism is the bellicose side of a world religion. This alarms me. If religion can’t find theological space for other people’s views and conscience, it’s an insult to God. He can do without such self-appointed policemen.

    The horrors of evil have two categories: natural events (so called “acts of God”), and human moral evil.

    The first group includes earthquakes and illness. Though we conveniently attach them to God they have an earthly moral dimension – not just how and why God is involved, but whether man could have done more to improve and repair the world, and eliminate or at least lessen the tragedies.

    The Book of Job blames the Adversary (“Satan”) for the “natural events” which range from earthquakes and tsunamis to disease and illness. In the view of the Biblical author, “the Adversary” is not God’s enemy but in a sense one of His own agents who eggs Him on to test His supposed adherents.

    Is God so capricious that He is willing to play these games in which real people get hurt? Does He really condone such suffering?

    Since every evil ultimately traces back to God, why didn’t He make a world without defects? Why doesn’t He control the Creation? Why doesn’t He make the world safe for its inhabitants? Why does He let His creatures behave so savagely?

    We’re aghast. How can God be a mere spectator? How can He allow Cain to kill Abel? How can He watch wickedness flourish, apparently unchecked? How can He sit by and see millions of innocent people killed, maimed, uprooted, bereaved and bereft? Why doesn’t He trip up the people who target their fellow creatures? Doesn’t He have the power? The will?

    No one has the final answer. Whether or not God should have created a perfect universe, He created man – His antidote, His means of mending the torn fabric. If man causes the moral mayhem, man can fix it.

    Not that the Christian idea of inherited sinfulness beginning with Adam is necessarily valid, but it makes it easier for people to say, “Blame God!”

    A British rabbi, Solomon Levy, tried to counter the notion of Original Sin by “a parallelism of opposites,” with a thesis of Original Virtue which says that man is born with an instinct to do good.

    Actually it’s not a question of instinct but intellect. There has to be free will, or else man is a mere robot. There has to be free will, or else man has no power of decision. But if there is free will, God cannot prevent people making the choice for evil. If there aren’t two options – good and evil – free will is impossible. If man is to be a free agent, logic requires him to be able to cast a vote for evil, however tragic the consequences.

    Yet the vote for evil is neither inevitable nor inexorable. Man is capable of heeding the Divine will and ethics, bypassing evil inclinations, and opting for righteousness and compassion. Choosing good instead of evil is the glory of being human.

    Maybe philosophers can afford to be uninvolved, making the problem a mere abstract intellectual exercise in formulating theories of evil. Waxing philosophical is highly interesting and mentally challenging, but it does not relieve the pain of real human beings.

    My Holocaust survivor colleague Cantor Isidor Gluck said, “At home we used to say, ‘If God lived in my village I’d break all his windows’.”

    We have to distinguish between explanations and responses. Until we have the explanations we have to respond and try to handle the suffering. We can’t leave it all to God. We dream of Him stretching out His hand to scoop us up. If that doesn’t always happen, He can help us to rise above the suffering and rob the evil of its power.

    There are many studies of how people act. Which is more natural, to do good or to do evil? President Trump said this week, “Heroes don’t kill innocent people. Heroes save lives.”

    Those who save lives generally deny that they are heroes. They say, “I didn’t do anything special. I was just doing the right thing. I was doing what was natural.”

    When I ask which is more natural, horror or heroism, I think of Michael Zylberberg, one of my Hampstead congregation in London in the 1960s.

    Pre-war he was the head of a school in the Warsaw Ghetto. He and his wife spent most of the war posing as Polish gentiles, constantly risking being unmasked. In a Polish house he hid the Yiddish notes of his experiences. After the war he was secretary of the Council of Jewish Communities in Poland and then moved to London. When the house in Poland was renovated, his notes came to light. He published them in English under the title of “A Warsaw Diary.”

    He knew what Biblical verse he wanted as a prelude to his book and asked me for an English translation. I suggested, “Had your law not been my delight, I would have died in my affliction” (Psalm 119:92).

    I never told Zylberberg he was a hero, but I should have. The world has cheapened human life so greatly that we no longer recognise true heroism.

    There seems to be less goodness than ghoulishness around us. But there is still such a thing as goodness and altruism, whatever its mathematical ratio in actual deeds, and those with moral courage should never minimise their moral power.

    No one dares dismiss the negative forces in history, but nor should we be fixated on a lachrymose world view which sees only tears, trauma and tragedy.

    True, in times of horror there is too much moral neutrality – called by Hannah Arendt “the banality of evil” – but that’s not the whole story. There is also counter-testimony, often unsung because negatives have more media appeal. There are acts of horror – and acts of heroism.

    Samuel Pisar says that “man is capable of the worst as he is capable of the best.” Turning his words around, man is capable of the best as he is capable of the worst.

    In Manchester people stood together in mourning and determination. Dark times produce glimmerings of courageous light. It’s a beginning. Eradicating evil will take time. Longfellow said, “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.”

    There is a legend about a person who comes to a crossroads and finds the way blocked by a massive rock. There’s no way to go ahead, not even a way to go around the obstacle. Petrified, the man can sit and weep. But that’s not what he does. He begins to chip away at the rock. Little by little, after immense effort, he creates a narrow passage to enable him to squeeze through.

    Terrorist perpetrators cynically, callously, cruelly build up the threatening rock. Those who tend to the victims bravely chip away at it. So do all those who believe what the Biblical prophets say, that everyone has the right “to sit under their vine or fig-tree with none to make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).