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    How to be a diplomat – Chukkat

    June 17th, 2018

    This week’s sidra is part of the history of diplomacy.

    On the way through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land, we see Israel encountering two regimes, Edom and Emor.

    Interestingly, the approach to the two rulers is quite different.

    Dealing with the king of Edom, Moses says, “This is a message from your brother Israel. You know all the troubles that have happened to us” (Num. 20:14).

    What’s this “your brother Israel”? On a superficial level it means, “You are a nation and we are a nation. We are international brothers. This is a message from one brother to another.”

    The sages tell us something extra, that Edom is descended from Esau, the brother of the patriarch Jacob known as Israel. The message is then, “We belong to the same family, but we’ve had a hard time of it. Please feel for your brother nation, for your brother’s nation”.

    To the king of the Amorites the Moses message is much bolder and braver: We’re no victim nation; we are proud and powerful, and we want respect from you, just as we give you respect.

    The point is not whether one approach is better, or the other. The point is that diplomacy depends on the assessment of the situation, on a reading of the circumstances. As Kohelet says, there is a time (and place) for everything.

    Diplomacy is the art of statesmanship. Kierkegaard said, “If you want to help a man, you must find him where he is”.


    The microcosm & the macrocosm

    June 17th, 2018

    What a strange law is spelled out when we read about the parah adumah, the red heifer (Num. 19).

    It cries out for an explanation – but we don’t get one.

    It continues to puzzle the human mind.

    For firm believers there is no question: if this is what God requires, so be it.

    For adamant non-believers there is no answer: with all the preachments and precedents of the men of religion, they say, these laws of the Torah defy logic.

    Is there, then, nothing we can say about the red heifer law?

    Actually there is a great deal that can be said, especially that there are some (or many) things in human experience which are beyond us … both in the microcosm and in the macrocosm.

    In the microcosm there are people like me who can switch on a computer and use it without having the faintest idea how a computer functions. Nonetheless in spite of all our ignorance we know that things work.

    In the macrocosm we see birth and death, illness and health, suffering and joy, and we more or less know how to handle the spectrum of human experience but we can’t work out the ultimate answers to the eternal “Why?”

    History confronts us with innumerable quandaries and we can only say, “Lord God, Thou knowest”.


    The company you keep – Korach

    June 10th, 2018

    The death of Korach & his followers

    The Chumash is populated with characters. Some are saints, some are sinners, all are full of fascination. The story of Korach is a prime example.

    Commentators and congregations have been debating Korach for centuries. A nasty piece of work, yet not without his good points. Not only Korach but his supporters and associates too.

    Everybody knows (or should) about On ben Pelet whose wife was shrewd enough to warn him to extricate himself from the Korach team because whatever happened to Korach in the end, On was bound to suffer, and it was best for him to get out while he could.

    What about Datan and Aviram?

    The Midrash thinks that they were the two Israelites who had been quarrelling in Egypt (Ex. 2). Later incidents where there was trouble in the camp also involved them.

    No wonder Moses’ task of leadership was so difficult when he had to keep the peace amongst the people and had to handle trouble-makers like Datan and Aviram.

    Korach hardly realised when he fomented his rebellion against Moses that having Datan and Aviram in his company was never going to bring him much joy. Not only would he have to undermine Moses but his own team would try to undermine him himself.

    Anyone who tries to be a leader, even a leader of the opposition, has to face problems in his own ranks.

    On ben Pelet got out while he could but Datan and Aviram should have been removed before they could do any more harm.


    Profaning the holy things – Korach

    June 10th, 2018

    The sidra ends with a call that echoes throughout our history: “Do not profane the holy things of the Children of Israel lest you die.” (Num. 18:32).

    Apart from the historical meaning of the verse, there is a message for all generations. The way to keep alive as a people is to hallow the holy. The moment the holy things cease to be holy, there is no guarantee that there will be life, hope or destiny.

    What are the holy things?

    There are four main categories:

    1. Sacred objects, mezuzah, menorah, shofar, lulav – these and the many other distinctive marks of the Jewish heritage.

    2. The sacred moments of the Jewish year – the festivals, Shabbat, the life-cycle events.

    3. The sacred ideas and ideals – knowledge, respect, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness … and so many more.

    4. Above all: the name and existence of the Holy One, Blessed be He.

    No-one can force a Jew to believe in God, but without God there is no direction, inspiration and dignity. One of the Chassidic teachers said, “You think it’s hard to believe in God? Then try for six months to live without believing in Him…”.


    A taxi to hospital on Shabbat – Ask the Rabbi

    June 10th, 2018

    Q. I can understand that a women who is about to give birth needs to travel in a taxi to the hospital on Shabbat, but how can Jewish law allow the husband to travel with her?

    A. The Talmud says in Tractate Shabbat, codified in halachah, that “We assist a woman to give birth on Shabbat: for her sake we may desecrate Shabbat” (Shab. 128b, Mishnah B’rurah 330:4).

    Rabbi Moshe Feinstein says that the woman’s peace of mind is a supreme concern and even though the taxi ride might not be life-threatening she might be in a panic and need her husband or mother to keep her calm.