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    Talking about talk – M’ztora

    April 11th, 2021

    It’s strange to have a Torah portion that most people take metaphorically, but that’s what happens with M’tzora.

    Though the actual theme is leprosy, and the medical science of the Torah is interesting in itself, the sages said that its purpose is to warn us of the unpleasant consequences of evil talk, which harms the one who says it, the one that hears it and the one about whom they are speaking.

    It reminds me of a veteran rabbi who said that one of the best ways to prevent evil talk is to go to shule on Shabbat. Not just because people who know how to behave in shule stop themselves chatting with their neighbours, but not merely because it’s inappropriate but because when you’re busy listening to the Torah reading you have no time to get into conversations which tend to turn into exchanges of gossip.

    The Midrash says about the laws of leprosy that they are more of a blessing than a curse. The explanation might be that it does everyone good to have a warning about using the gift of speech wisely.

    M’tzora is a blessing in that it encourages us to weigh our words and find nice things to say about everyone.


    Rich & poor – M’tzora

    April 11th, 2021

    The Torah is worried about people who cannot afford to bring offerings to the altar (Lev. 14:21) and offers a more economical way for poor people to fulfil their obligation.

    The Chafetz Chayyim says that the terms rich and poor can be understood as referring to people who have or lack a record of Torah learning. No matter how much you have studied (or have not studied) you can still serve God.

    This applies to communal service in a wider sense. Whoever you are there are still many ways in which you can bring strength to the community. You can give time, you can give talents, you can encourage other people to join you in davening, studying and keeping the mitzvot.


    The tale of two cities

    April 11th, 2021

    We Jews go back a long way. Our history is intertwined with the Holy Land, with times of greater closeness and times of greater distance.

    The movement to unite us with the land has, as Zvi Werblowsky said, a name that features a city.

    Zionism is the vision of Zion. Zion is Jerusalem, two names for the one city.

    Isaiah said, “Out of Zion will come Torah, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”. Yehudah HaLevi said, “Zion, will you not ask about the well-being of your exiles?” The Siddur says: “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion”.

    This is not just nationalism. Nations who try to eliminate us face bigger odds than they imagined: not field-marshals or fire power, not armies but the Lord of Hosts, not weapons but the Divine Word.

    Tell that to the United Nations and they say they have no time for dreamers, but it was dreams that created the UN itself.

    As the poet says, breathes there a man with soul so dead that he can’t see that Zion is not just bricks and mortar but mystique and poetry?

    Cut our city in two and you cut our heart.


    Making a noise – Sh’mini

    April 5th, 2021

    A terrible thing happened to Aaron. Two of his sons were summarily struck dead as punishment for a grave sin.

    The death of Nadav & Avihu, by James Tissot

    Most parents would weep uncontrollably. But Aaron reacted differently: Vayiddom Aharon, “And Aaron kept silent”.

    And this is not the only crucial moment in Biblical history when silence proved more eloquent than speech.

    When Elijah had been through his great contest with the prophets of Baal he went into the wilderness. There he experienced a strong wind, an earthquake, then a fire.

    But none of these dramatic phenomena brought the presence of God. God was in the kol d’mamah dakkah, the sound of thin silence.

    The rabbis say that if a word is worth one coin, silence is worth two.

    Rabbi Akiva said, “Silence is a fence to wisdom”. Rabban Gamliel reflected, “All my life I have grown up amongst sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence”. Another writer observed, “Never speak unless you can improve on silence”.

    The human tongue can bring blessing, but it can also do great harm. It is always better to think before you speak, and then not utter a word, or at least say very little.

    We all know of people who – to mix some metaphors – open their mouths and put their foot into it.


    Nadav & Avihu – Sh’mini

    April 5th, 2021

    Chapter 10 of Vayikra tells us how Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu met their death.

    Since all the names in the Torah have a significance we wonder whether these two men had names that had a special connection with their fate. It could be that both names reflect a positive appreciation of what they did.

    Nadav means “willing”, “a volunteer”, since he stepped forward and brought “strange fire” to the altar, possibly out of extreme piety, though the sages have a range of other interpretations of the fire, including the idea that the two men gave rulings in the presence of their elders or that they refused to get married.

    Avihu probably means “He is my father”. The “He” may refer to God, allowing us to link the name with a Midrash that says that Avihu was the type of person referred to in Kohelet 7:15, which speaks of a righteous man who died in his righteousness.