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    An ethic of self – T’tzavveh

    March 5th, 2017

    In this week’s sidra Moses leaves himself out.

    True, he was a modest man and did not like to blow his own trumpet. But whatever the reason for not mentioning his own name, it does not mean that he was (or regarded himself as) a nobody.

    Judaism is interested in God, the other person… and oneself. All are intertwined in the Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord”.

    There are three duties of love, towards God (as in the Shema), one’s neighbour (as in Lev. 19:18), and in some way oneself – because we are each special and unique.

    Loving myself requires me to appreciate my own personality, talents and achievements, without self-adulation or self-abnegation. Without saying “I am everybody” or “I am nobody”, I must say, “I am somebody”.

    Martin Buber says, “Without being and remaining oneself, there is no love”. Hillel says, “If I am here, everyone is here” (Sukkah 53a). This doesn’t mean that no-one else matters, but I have to be myself and rely on myself.

    Not that I can manage without others or that they can manage without me, but I dare not abdicate responsibility and throw the whole burden on the world.

    On the verse, “That your brother may live with you” (Lev. 25:36), Rabbi Akiva says, “Your own life comes first” – i.e. save yourself even before saving the other (Bava Metzi’a 62a). It’s not only that your brother must be able to live with you, but you must be able to live with yourself.

    Hillel also says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But (paradoxically) being only for myself, what am I?” (Avot 2:4); I have to be self-reliant but not only think of myself.

    Rava said, “A person is his own relation” (Sanh. 9b): no-one can or must diminish or incriminate himself without good reason. When the Mishnah says, “A person can see all defects except his own” (Nega’im 2:5), it denotes that I must see my own faults, not just other people’s. I must also see the good points of others, not only my own.

    The Chassidim say that a person has two eyes: one to see his own failings, the other to see other people’s qualities.


    Building a sanctuary – T’rumah

    February 26th, 2017

    The Altneuschul in Prague

    The sidra tells the Children of Israel to erect a sanctuary to the name of God. Jews have been erecting sanctuaries ever since.

    At first there was a Tabernacle which moved with the people wherever they went. Then came the Temple in the Holy City (though today’s antisemites who constantly rewrite history blithely claim that there never was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem).

    Tabernacle and Temple were centres of sacrifice, gradually accompanied by psalms and prayers.

    Next came the synagogue, with psalms, prayers and study but no animal sacrifice. Our oppressors constantly tried to undermine us by attacking our synagogues. What a disappointment we were to them when we kept on building synagogues and centering our community life around them.

    Today’s generation is no different, except that there are places where people boast of their beautiful synagogues but don’t utilise them.

    Go to Prague for example. Apart from a cluster of former synagogues which jointly comprise a museum, there is the famous Altneuschul, built in the Middle Ages and a major tourist attraction. Countless visitors walk through that synagogue every day… Entry requires that they pay, but how many also stop to pray?

    That’s what’s wrong with our generation. We have so many reasons to pray, but so many people find reasons not to pray. Maybe it would be a better world if more people sought God’s guidance, pardon and support…


    Show day – T’rumah

    February 26th, 2017

    Depiction of the kohanim replacing the “lechem hapanim” in the Temple

    Many cities have a major event called the… Show. The motivation is to show or display the products and culture of the particular place.

    I’m not about to argue that the whole idea derives from the Jewish Bible, though I guess that argument is possible. But what I do want to do is to ask a question about a feature of this week’s Torah reading which is the installation in the sanctuary of what in English has come to be called showbread.

    The Hebrew is lechem hapanim. Lechem of course means “bread”; panim means a face or presence. The translators are not quite certain why panim has some connection with bread. Rashi has an explanation which suggests that panim means “surfaces”; the loaves of bread had several surfaces so that one couldn’t say, “This is the top of the loaf” or “this is the base”.

    Ibn Ezra links the word to God, since the verse (Ex. 25:30) ends by commanding that the bread be “before Me constantly”. Presumably this means that the gift of bread is one of the greatest signs of God’s activity in the world. As the blessing for bread reminds us, “God brings forth bread from the earth”.

    How do we know there is a God? We see it from His creative, generous activity.


    How were Mordechai & Esther related? – Ask the Rabbi

    February 26th, 2017

    Q. My child came home from school and said her teacher told her that Esther was Mordechai’s cousin, but I always thought that she was his niece. Which is correct?

    Esther & Mordechai, by Aert de Gelder, 1675

    A. In spite of popular arguments to the contrary, Mordechai and Esther were not uncle and niece but cousins. Esther 2:7 calls Esther bat dodo – “the daughter of his uncle”. The uncle’s name was Avichayil and according to the Targum Sheni, Mordechai’s and Esther’s fathers were brothers.

    The uncle-niece theory probably derives from Christian and not Jewish sources: the Latin Vulgate says she was the daughter of Mordechai’s brother. However, the Catholic Encyclopedia is ambivalent, calling Mordechai her “uncle (or cousin)”.

    The Jewish story tells that Mordechai, who was older than Esther, brought her up (and later married her).


    Two types of law – Mishpatim

    February 19th, 2017

    The beginning of Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1) says, “And these are the laws which you shall place before them (the people of Israel)”.

    The rabbinic sages, echoed by Rashi, say that the word “and” contains a wealth of meaning. It implies that not just the Ten Commandments which figure in last week’s reading come from Sinai, but so do the civil laws of Mishpatim.

    A person might have thought that Sinai proclaimed only the theological principles of the Torah – “I am the Lord your God… Have no other gods before Me… Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”, but the laws of human relationships were worked out on earth by human society as the result of trial and error.

    The Ten Commandments themselves decisively negate that line of interpretation since they have two sections, laws between man and God and equally, laws between man and man. The man-and-man laws (no murder, no theft, no adultery, no false witness, no coveting) are not just the result of human experience but ordained by God.

    Their motive is not merely, “This is the way for humans to live in harmony”, but “This is how God’s creatures must emulate His wisdom and will”.

    People should not kill, both because human society needs that kind of rule in order to survive, but because every person is made in God’s image, and murder injures God as well as man.