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    The mystery of the mangal – ploys and plays on Lag Ba’Omer

    May 23rd, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 23 May 2019.

    Lag Ba’Omer is hard for us Israelis who don’t eat meat. Summer in Australia has the same effect. Israelis and Australians share a love of meat burnt on barbecues, except that no-one is sure where the English “barbecue” or the Hebrew mangal originated.

    Possibly “barbecue” is from Spanish and mangal is from Turkish. There is even a crazy theory that mangal fuses English and Italian initials, “meat and gravy al fresco.”

    The Lag Ba’Omer barbecue is one of the mysteries of the day. There is a sheaf of Lag Ba’Omer mysteries.

    We’re not certain when it arose. We’re unsure of the real reason behind it. It comes in a period of semi-mourning that people reckon differently. It has few prayer customs. It centers neither on the home or synagogue, but on the outdoors. Some places have Lag Ba’Omer parades, some play at archery; Israelis burn meat.

    The archery presumably recalls the fact that even youngsters enlisted in Bar-Kochba’s army. Maybe children pretended to be going off to play sport while really making their way to school to study Torah?

    The barbecues? Maybe also a ploy, or maybe linked with the Roman interference with the Jewish practice of signal fires to mark a new month?

    That’s not the end of the mysteries. No one is certain why we have in Lag Ba’Omer a happy break in the dismal mood of the Omer, nor why the next day we go back to the semi-mourning.

    The popular theory links it with a plague (a choking disease according to the Talmud) that befell Rabbi Akiva’s students who were supporters of Bar-Kochba. Their suffering and deaths were a blow to Torah study and to national defense. The plague lifted on the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag Ba’Omer, which gave the day a good feeling.

    However, why should the plague be marked by no weddings or celebrations, with the ban resumed after Lag Ba’omer?

    As the mourning period is so widely observed, it is clear that the whole of Jewry found meaning in it, but the special status of Lag Ba’Omer – 18 Iyyar – remains a problem, as is the continuation of the mourning the following day.

    Josephus may have an answer. In his Jewish Wars (II:16-17) he states that the first rising against Rome began on 17 Iyyar, 66 CE, and the news became known the next day, the 18th of the month, which was regarded as the anniversary of the uprising. The nation was happy and proud that day, but the uprising failed and the persecution continued.

    Presumably the date was not referred to as Uprising Day or by any similar vernacular name in order to prevent reprisals, but when Jews spoke of it as Lag Ba’Omer, it made sense and remained meaningful and inspiring.

    Jewish history has so many sad anniversaries that it would be churlish (and impossible) to expect any one to give up their mangalim.


    Climbing a mountain – B’har

    May 19th, 2019

    The name of the sidra means “On the mountain”. Psalm 121 is rhapsodic about looking up to mountains.

    The question is what comes next, when you have scaled the mountain, when you have congratulated yourself and even planted a flag to show your arrival.

    Is that the moment to stop saying, “I lift up my eyes to the mountain”?

    The answer is No. You should always see another mountain ahead. Not until your last moment on earth should you say, “I have no mountains to climb!”


    I don’t want to go – B’har

    May 19th, 2019

    When it is time for a servant to be released, what happens if he refuses to go? He says, “I like being here; I don’t want to leave” (Ex. 21:5-6).

    The rule is that no servant may willingly embrace servitude for his lifetime. Freedom is his right but it is also his duty.

    He is punished by getting what he wants. He is punished by being a servant for ever.

    But Rashi says that “for ever” only means until the Jubilee Year (Lev. 25:10). When that time comes he has to go free. It is his second chance. In case he was foolish the first time round, now he has had time to live to regret his action or lack of action.

    Hard as it sometimes is to be free and to have to make your own decisions, you must not choose to avoid thinking, to repress feeling, to reject deciding as a free man.

    If you get to like being a prisoner or a serf you have abdicated the independence and glory which God has ordained.


    Freedom to dwell – B’har

    May 19th, 2019

    “Proclaim liberty in all the land” is a keynote of this week’s reading.

    The word used for “liberty” is not cherut but d’ror. In the Talmud (RH 9b) Rabbi Yehudah links it with the word for “dwell” and says the criterion of liberty is the ability to dwell where you want and to work or carry on business wherever you wish.

    It all sounds beautiful but it has its grave dilemmas.

    What if they don’t want you in the place you choose? Can you force your way in, regardless of the immigration and employment rules?

    The problem has become acute in our day, with all the population movements that many countries, especially in Europe, seem powerless to control.

    The Torah can’t be giving carte blanche to just anyone to settle just anywhere in spite of the feelings of the local inhabitants.

    But the locals have to act ethically. If they close their borders and control their structures they have to have genuine reasons for their policies.

    The land belongs to God and those who live there have to meet His standards.


    Is religion a good thing?

    May 19th, 2019

    Why shouldn’t it be?

    It teaches there is a God and people should come close to Him through prayer and do His will through ethics. It has rituals that symbolise basic values.

    If religion didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.

    A wonderful book, “1066 And All That”, tells the story of England with a smile. The book comments on events, “That was a Good Thing” (or it wasn’t…). Presumably it thought religion was A Good Thing.

    But the more I think about it the less I am inclined to call religion A Good Thing.

    I think of two cries, both heard at racist incidents. The place doesn’t matter. Both are tragic wherever they are.

    One cry is: “O my God! O my God!” The other, “This is for Allah”.

    This cry comes every time extremists mow down harmless men, women and children. Like vultures on the attack? Worse. To call them vultures is an insult to the vultures.

    “This is for God”? If God really wants this I’d rather be an atheist. If these are really God’s policemen I’d rather not be a believer.

    “This is for God”? I prefer the Jewish idea: “Let them forget Me but live by My Torah”.

    When God offered the nations His law they asked, “What does Your Torah say?”

    One answer: “My Torah says, ‘Don’t kill!’” Some nations said that wasn’t for them. Some were told, “Don’t rob, commit adultery, pervert truth”. They said, “That’s not for us”.

    Those who accepted the Torah were told, “Love your neighbour, ease his burden, show him compassion, bind up his wounds”.

    They weren’t angels. They weren’t perfect. They didn’t always meet up to the heights of ethics, but they aspired to.

    They didn’t live by the sword or make others die by it. God told them to drop their swords and cry for others’ pain. His word mattered more than the war cries.

    Those who cry from the pain wreaked by the self-appointed avengers call, “O my God, O my God”. The cry is not abstract theology but real suffering.

    They cry for the loving Parent to pick them up and kiss them better.

    The Psalmist says, “Though others forsake me, God will take me up”. If only!

    The Almighty must be thoroughly fed up with those who claim to work in His name.

    “You think you’re acting for Me?” He says; “If you really loved Me you’d love My children! If I really mattered to you, you’d talk less about Me but fix My world!”