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    Why blame ourselves?

    July 15th, 2018

    Destruction of the Temple, Francesco Hayez, 1867

    What strange people the sages were.

    Two Temples were laid waste, Jewish sovereignty was terminated, millennia of exile and persecution set in, and all that the sages could do was to blame the Jewish people for their own misfortunes.

    What did they say?

    “Umip’nei chatan’einu…” Jews fell out with each other, people didn’t respect one another, the commandments were broken, the Sabbath was desecrated, the prayers weren’t said – all the reasons for the destruction were internal.

    The medieval poets built up the cruelty of the enemy; even Jeremiah who watched the sanctuary burn suspected that God had become an enemy; but the rabbis said the Jews themselves were at fault.

    Was it that they were simply facing the facts, realising that no-one in those days, no nation, no group, no culture, would have possessed the power to stand against the might of Rome with a hope of prevailing?

    There were many enemies over the centuries. The worst and most brutal was in the 20th century.

    Plain honesty would have dictated that Jews should have said, “We are a tiny people, never strong enough to beat a determined enemy… but give us credit for at least having enough self-respect to fight until we dropped!”

    Maybe the explanation is that the rabbis were hinting at something far more important in cosmic terms than casting blame.

    If historic blame were necessary, it should be laid at the feet of the adversary. But in the end that might have been counter-productive.

    It might have led us to say, “We’re never going to be able to defeat the enemy – Egypt, Babylon, Rome, whoever. They’re always going to be bigger and mightier than us. Why should we exert ourselves, only to get killed? We’re going to die anyway. Let’s do it and get it over with!”

    That’s not what the rabbis had in mind – a sort of acceptance of weakness, a decision for suicide, an abandonment of Jewish bride, an abdication of identity, a hammer to history, an axe to aspiration.

    What the rabbis were more concerned with was how to do something for the future.

    Living as good Jews might not save us from destruction, but it was a restatement of what Judaism believed in, a determination to say, “Jews might die, but with beliefs like ours Judaism will live.

    “It may have to go underground at times, but it will always be reborn as the seed which will eventually make the world a paradise again.”


    Name of the game – D’varim

    July 15th, 2018

    The rabbinic name for Sefer D’varim is “Mishneh Torah”, “Repetition of the Torah” (the phrase echoes Deut. 17:18).

    It is explained in part by the fact that some sections of the book are a repetition of earlier sections of the Chumash.

    For example, the Ten Commandments that come in next week’s portion are found originally (though with some differences) in Sefer Sh’mot in Parashat Yitro, and the Tochechah (the blessings and curses) come both at the end of D’varim and at the end of Vayikra, though again with differences.

    There are other specific verses too which reflect earlier passages of the Chumash. But the overarching reason for the title is that this Book is Moses’ farewell summing up of his life’s teaching.

    After all the strenuous years of struggle he asks himself what it was that he tried to convey to the people and puts the headlines into words, “d’varim”.

    He knows he will be unable to go on for ever. He is still energetic, but perhaps he is losing his capacity to bear the human frailties of the people. Someone else will have to take over and build on his foundations.

    Hopefully the people will remember what he tried to give them – if not the discourses and directions that he offered year by year, then at least the main principles summed up in his final speeches.


    The Sabbath of vision

    July 15th, 2018

    Jewish grumblers in the United States have recently moved on from criticising Israel to attacking Judaism itself.

    In their view Israel can’t do anything right… and Judaism does everything wrong.

    Rabbinic sermons are not a sufficient counterbalance: the grumblers are unlikely to attend synagogue services, and some of the worst grumblers are rabbis themselves.

    In the midst of the turmoil comes the Shabbat we celebrate this week, Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision.

    The name comes from the opening words of the haftarah, “the vision of Isaiah the son of Amotz” (Isa. 1:1).

    It’s not the only Biblical passage about visions, though the grumblers wouldn’t know this.

    Think of the founding father of the Jewish people, Abraham our Patriarch. Commanded by God to offer up his son Isaac (Gen. 22), he is told (according to the Midrash) to raise his eyes from earthly events and lift his sights to the mountain top.

    That’s what Judaism has been saying throughout its long history, not that the grumblers would know since many probably have no Biblical education, though rabbis should know better.

    Moses, the founding father of Judaism, says there are two witnesses to what Judaism has to say – heaven and earth (Deut. 32:1).

    Heaven is the vision of a spiritual, ethical, moral society: earth is where the vision is implemented.

    The vocabulary of Judaism is heart and mind, dreams and deeds, passion and practicality. It’s hard to be a Jew, but it’s good.


    Jewish & Christian concerns – Ask the Rabbi

    July 8th, 2018

    Q. Can you give me an example of where Judaism and Christianity part company?

    A. Where Christianity focusses on sin, Judaism is concerned with mitzvah.

    In classical Christianity, man is inherently sinful and needs Jesus to bring him salvation. In Judaism, man has the privilege of knowing God’s will and living by His mitzvot.

    It is not that Judaism has no concept of sin, but man sins by mistake, not because he is automatically programmed to do so. If a person sins, Judaism tells him he can pick himself up and resolve to be more careful in future.

    That is why on the High Holydays Judaism posits a hopeful concept of man, who, even if he has sinned, can get over it by penitence, prayer and righteous living.


    Our personal Egypt – Mass’ei

    July 8th, 2018

    How long a journey was it between Egypt and the Promised Land?

    Some historians say that 11 days was all that was necessary. After all, the distance was not really so great.

    The actual fact is that the trek took 40 years. Forty is of course a good round figure, but in choosing such a lengthy itinerary the Almighty Author of the Torah must have had a special purpose in mind. That’s the underlying issue that confronts us when we embark upon the final portion of the Book of Numbers, Mass’ei, which means “Journeys”.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe sums up a well-known interpretation when he says that the Israelites needed a lengthy journey in order to “cast off the ever-fainter traces of the original Egypt”.

    It was a major moment to get the Israelites out of Egypt: it took much longer to get Egypt out of the Israelites.

    Not only historically, in the sense that the grossness and grobkeit of Egypt had to be rejected by the people who had lived in Egypt so long that Egyptian values became their norm, but, as the Rebbe puts it, every Israelite needed “a liberation from some personal Egypt”.

    In today’s world we all seem to be enslaved to a personal Egypt, whatever that personal Egypt happens to be.

    We all need to take hold of ourselves and shake ourselves free from the habits and attitudes that prevent our free will from leading us to personal redemption.