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    Wanting to forget – Vayyeshev

    December 15th, 2019

    The very last word in the sidra is vayishkachehu, “and he forgot him”.

    Joseph was in prison. One of the king’s servants owed him a favour and promised to speak up for him to the king.

    But he forgot.

    What pathos lies in those three English words.

    How many times do we trust in others, relying on their word, certain they will carry out what they promised, and then – after waiting and waiting – bitterly conclude that they have (perhaps conveniently) forgotten all about it.

    The Biblical rule is quite clear: “It is better not to vow than to vow and not fulfil.”

    There is always a danger that we may not carry out what we, perhaps quite sincerely, mean to do, say or arrange; that is why we need an annual Kol Nidre.

    Pious people therefore say b’li neder, “My good intention is not a vow”. But even that is not good enough.

    One should be extremely wary about promising things at all, because the let-down you cause when you fail to fulfil your word can be devastating.


    The pull back & return – Vayyeshev

    December 15th, 2019

    Joseph fleeing Potiphar’s wife, by Philipp Veit c.1816

    Many Biblical people have nicknames. Abraham is the Father; Moses is the Teacher; Elijah is the Prophet.

    Joseph, who is central to this week’s reading, is called Yosef HaTzaddik, Joseph the Righteous One.

    At first sight it seems strange. How could Joseph be a tzaddik when he was almost guilty of a grave sin with Potiphar’s wife?

    True, he refrained at the last minute from sinning with her because, according to the sages, he saw a vision of his father Jacob and knew that succumbing to temptation would be completely wrong and an insult to his father’s memory.

    The Maharal of Prague says that a tzaddik is a person who has sinned (or almost so) but has truly repented. The tzaddik is a person who has risen above his wrongdoing.

    The pull back and return from wrongdoing made Joseph a great man and maybe that’s why when the Israelites eventually left Egypt it was Joseph’s bones that they took with them (Ex. 13:19).


    Thousands of sermons

    December 11th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on The Times of Israel blogs on 11 December, 2019.

    Rabbi Apple in his younger years at the pulpit of the Great Synagogue, Sydney

    Modern rabbis live in two cultures at once and bridge them by means of sermons, in my case thousands of them.

    Yet long experience in the pulpit never cured my nervousness. I was (and am) daunted by the task.

    The sages speak about eimata d’tzibbura, fear of the congregation – not fear that they will sack you, though that does play a role, but fear that the sermon will go over their heads, insult their intelligence or make no impact.

    The preacher knows other kinds of fear too – fear of the Torah or God Himself being dissatisfied with his efforts, fear of his teachers feeling let down by their pupil, fear of his own conscience saying, “You didn’t do your best today!”

    The role of the rabbi is to say what has to be said.

    Sometimes it is a day of joy or sadness, when the rabbi is a poet who puts into words what everyone is feeling. Sometimes it is a challenging occasion, when something has shaken a community or nation, and people need guidance as to how to respond. Occasionally it advocates a change in communal policies or programs. Usually it is a regular Shabbat or festival when the rabbi can enrich the day with an exposition or explanation.

    Unfortunately some preachers use the pulpit for personal attacks – on other synagogues, even on other rabbis. One rabbi I knew had an endearing Scottish accent and often used his sermons to attack the vorreld (the world). Everybody loved him, but the vorreld took no notice of his views.

    My preaching was moulded by the Soloveitchik test, the Kahana test, the Lehrman test.

    The message I derived from Rabbi JB Soloveitchik was, “Don’t try to improve on tradition. Speak as a Jew. Use the texts.” The message I derived from Rabbi Koppel Kahana was, “How can I help you? Do something positive.” Rabbi Simon Lehrman used to quote, “If you don’t strike oil within ten minutes, stop boring. Don’t go on too long.”

    There was once a regular feature in a Sydney morning paper summarising one of that week’s sermons and when they reported my Yom Atzma’ut sermon they couldn’t believe that it covered so much ground and took no more than eight minutes!

    In Australia one of my great presidents was Sidney Sinclair, who often got on the phone straight after Yom Kippur and said, “You were stupendous!” The compliment was not always deserved but it was a great encouragement.

    Every now and then a world figure was in the congregation and said I had done well: an example was Professor Emil Fackenheim who heard a sermon I gave based on the beginning of Gemara Ta’anit. An Israeli politician heard me speak about Rav Soloveitchik’s concept of Adam I and Adam II and told me it was a good mussar shmuess.

    The comments were occasionally cruel and unfair. Generally they were helpful: after a sermon on why the alphabetical acrostic of Ashrei left out the letter Nun a visitor said, ”Instead of speaking about what isn’t there, you should talk about what is!” Actually my general rule was to be positive and to use the pulpit for educational purposes.

    There were embarrassing moments such as my first sermon ever, given in Hobart, Tasmania. People got up and sat down whilst I was speaking and it flustered me. Later I learnt that the seats were so hard that no-one could sit still for long. In my childhood I was at another rabbi’s sermon when the choirmaster leant back in the choir gallery above and his kippah fell off and landed on the rabbi’s head.

    Sermons have a long history in Judaism, beginning with Moses’ exhortations and the rhetoric of the Biblical prophets and, later, the vast range of interpretive Midrashim. The preaching tradition, analysed in the 19th century by Leopold Zunz, was a seminal segment of Judaism.

    With the Emancipation, preaching underwent a revolutionary change. Talmudic d’rashot which bore little relation to the events of the environment were challenged by the new age of Wissenschaft, bringing sermons in the vernacular which addressed contemporary issues in the idiom of the time. However, despite the efforts of Samson Raphael Hirsch, Nathan Marcus Adler and other neo-orthodox rabbis, the ultra-traditionalists bitterly opposed the innovation.

    English-language synagogal preaching was pioneered in Britain at a period when Christian pulpit oratory was strong and popular. There was widespread Jewish agitation for “lecturers”, and the Jewish sermon developed a standard form and structure.

    Today there has been something of a reversal, and the sermon is more likely to be a D’var Torah than a homiletical essay. It enhances people’s knowledge but does not always challenge them.

    John Wesley is said to have given over 40,000 sermons and his Methodist preaching tradition has had its lean times when old slogans and clichés made the pulpit dreary. It is a warning to Jewish preachers who need to remember the saying that “there is no Bet Midrash without a chiddush (something new).” Sermons are generally a poor method of communication, with preachers talking at and not with their congregations.

    For my part, I give few sermons these days and have to cope with the sermons I hear from others. I regret to say I doze through most of them.


    Keeping the commandments before they were given – Vayyishlach

    December 8th, 2019

    There is a well-known tradition that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kept the commandments even before the 613 mitzvot were given. The festival prayer books even claim that the patriarchs kept Simchat Torah.

    The Ramban thinks that the patriarchs kept the commandments only outside Israel but not in the Promised Land itself, such as when Jacob and his family were in Haran.

    This is hard to understand when we know that Rashi tells us that Jacob kept the 613 mitzvot even when he was living with Laban in Haran (Gen. 32:5): Im Lavan garti (“Ï dwelt with Laban”) v’taryag mitzvot sharmarti (“and I kept the 613 commandments”).

    The best answer seems to be that the patriarchs had the gift of prophecy and realised what God wanted from human beings. Other Israelites did not have this spiritual sense and since this all took place before Sinai there was not yet a general obligation to observe the Divine laws.

    Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not have a duty to keep the commandments but imposed strict observance on themselves as a mark of love and personal stringency.


    Struggling alone – Vayyishlach

    December 8th, 2019

    Jacob’s struggle was when he was by himself. The Torah says he was alone – Vayyivater Yaakov levado (Gen. 32:25).

    In a historical sense that has been Jacob’s fate throughout the ages.

    Very rarely have others sided with the patriarch’s descendants. In good times the nations have praised the quality of Jewish ethical teachings and home life. In difficult times there has generally been no sign of Jacob’s erstwhile friends.

    This is not news; we know it all too well.

    But how about reading the story in a personal psychological sense, that there have been many times when Jacob, alone, on its own, struggled with himself?

    It has never been easy to be a Jew, nor has it ever been easy to be an ethical person. There has always been a temptation to give up the struggle and become like everyone else, no longer being scrupulously careful to stick to principle.

    It is no wonder that Psalm 15 praises the righteous person who upholds his personal integrity “to his own hurt”.