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    He called it Cinderella – Shavu’ot

    May 24th, 2020

    In the synagogue in which I was brought up, Shavu’ot attracted a much smaller crowd than any other festival.

    My rabbi held office at that synagogue for many decades and his verdict was simple: “It’s just like Cinderella”.

    In the old fairy tale Cinderella was the poor girl whom nobody valued until at last she found her prince.

    That’s what Shavu’ot is like, said my rabbi: a neglected treasure which nobody appreciates properly, though one day they will.

    The problem of Shavu’ot is that it lacks the drama of Pesach: it has no Seder, matzah, Mah Nishtanah or Dayyenu. It has none of the things that bring the four sons back to the family table long after they have grown up, rebelled and left home.

    It does have its cheesecake and blintzes, but these are poor substitutes and they cannot compete with the matzah.

    Shavu’ot also lacks the colour and ceremony of Sukkot, with its lulav-waving and synagogal processions, not to speak of erecting the sukkah and eating al fresco despite the unpredictable climatic intrusions of wind, cold and rain. No wonder that when we sat in our London sukkah we wore hats, coats and scarves and still shivered, and sometimes we simply had to retreat to the house.

    If Shavu’ot lacks the excitement of Pesach and Sukkot, it certainly can’t compete with the vivid, people-centred festivities of Chanukah and Purim.

    If the truth be told, the Revelation theology of Shavu’ot is uniquely majestic and memorable, but most people can’t rise to that intellectual and ethereal level. If they could, it would be Cinderella finding her prince.

    In the meantime, however eloquent the rabbis wax about Revelation, about religion and eternal truth, it’s all too highfalutin for most people.

    My view is that the unpopularity of Shavu’ot has to do with fear – fear that the ugly duckling will become a swan and make things worse for the ordinary person.

    On a superficial level there is the fear that we might have to take the Torah seriously and become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. That’s too threatening for most people, who prefer a quiet, unchallenged life.

    They would rather be fallible and inconsistent, comfortable with their own mix of Jewish ideas and usages but daunted by the stern requirements of full observance, not only the outward signs like Shabbat and kashrut, but the spirituality that might make us really face up to God (and ourselves)… and the ethics that would hold us back from the fast buck to give respect to other people, even, especially, those of a different colour, creed or commitment.

    There is a deeper level of fear too. Let’s look back to Pesach. There are really two Pesachs – the overt, historical one we celebrate at the Seder, and the hidden or metaphorical one which is part of our prayers every day of the year, which speak of leaving Egypt and the blessings of freedom.

    The first Pesach inaugurated our history as a people. It also launched our career as the world’s teacher of morality (“a light unto the nations”), dedicated to freedom, human rights and dignity. This is central at the Seder. It represents the Pesach principle of freedom, oscillating in word, song and symbol between the bitterness of slavery and the joy of release.

    Yet Pesach is nothing without Shavu’ot. They are part of one another, tied together by the seven weeks of the Omer. They seem to stand for incompatible principles, freedom and law, the constraining of freedom. It seems that after the bondage, the Israelites hardly got a taste of freedom before being restrained and restricted.

    The sages had an explanation. “No-one,” they said, “is free unless they are subject to the Torah”. A paradox. There is no such thing as freedom, at least in the sense of being absolutely free. Only God has that kind of freedom. Only He is the unmoved mover.

    The Israelites who left Egypt had a dream: “Now we’re free, we’ll go where we want, we’ll do what we wish, we’ll live as we desire”.

    Shavu’ot put an end to the dream. That’s why they were afraid; that’s why we are all afraid when Shavu’ot approaches – afraid that God is going to catch us and curtail our freedom.

    The sages replied, though not in these words, “Freedom? What freedom?”

    Rav Soloveitchik asked, “Is man ever truly free? Is he not a prisoner of natural law, subject to the caprices of his state of health, the intrusion of accidents, and the ever hovering specter of possible death? These are physiological constraints. Man is also subject to social pressures: the mores of his society, the biases of his family, and the prejudices of his class. In reality, supposedly free man is buffeted, pressured, coerced, and restricted in his options, even if no human taskmaster hovers over him…”

    Man is constantly subject to influences. He will never be off the leash. At best he has a choice between leashes, a choice between constraints.

    He can opt for or accept man-made pressures or restrictions which turn him into a toy of other people or situations, or a life under God which enables him to become what he has the capacity to be.

    Erich Fromm says, “Positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality”. Abba Hillel Silver says, “A man is free only when he has an errand on earth”. Ahad HaAm says, “What is national freedom if not a people’s inner freedom to cultivate its abilities”.

    Rabindranath Tagore says, “I have on my desk a violin string. It is not fixed into my violin. It is free to move, to be blown anywhere. What it cannot do is make music. But when I fasten it into my violin, it is no longer free to move. But it is free for the first time to make music.”

    Our choice is not between freedom and unfreedom. It is the freedom to choose our master – to choose between humans and God. With God we are likely to get a better deal.

    When we realise that truth, Shavu’ot will no longer be a Cinderella but a princess.


    The two levels of the Ten Commandments

    May 17th, 2020

    The Ten Commandments have two levels, public and private.

    On the public level they are an ethos for states and communities (the Rosh HaShanah liturgy in fact speaks of all nations being assessed by God on the day of judgment).

    A quality society is answerable to God. If a society lives by His will there will be safety and security for everyone regardless of creed, colour or conviction.

    There will be peace since we all have the same right to the sunlight. There will be justice since we all deserve dignity and respect. There will be amity between nations since no state is inherently more valuable than any other.

    Some nations are openly atheistic, but they should note the words of God quoted in the Talmud, “Let them forget My name but live by My rules”.

    The private level insists that individuals measure themselves by the Commandments.

    Some people blithely say, “I’m not religious but I do keep the Ten Commandments”. How nice – even people who (mistakenly) think they aren’t religious still honour the Decalogue, as if it weren’t religious.

    In fact the Ten Commandments are one of the most religious documents we have. They constantly mention God, they speak of the Sabbath, they imply that a life without God is a life without standards.


    Long & short commandments

    May 17th, 2020

    Moses & Aaron with the Ten Commandments, by Aron de Chavez c.1675

    The first five of the Ten Commandments are much lengthier than the second five.

    Rabbi Solomon Goldman says, “What has made these commandments unique is… the terseness and conciseness of language. They whiz, as it were, through the air and strike the conscience of man like an arrow its target”.

    The staccato phraseology is highly effective – no ifs and buts, no qualifications or conditions.

    Yes, each commandment can be analysed and debated, for example the law against killing. Does it mean killing or murdering? Is there any exception in time of war? Does it apply to the unborn child? Are some types of killing more insidious? Does it apply to animals, even to insects?

    Take the law against stealing. Does it mean stealing a thing or stealing a person, does it include stealing from yourself, or stealing when the owner of the item knows nothing about it? Does it include stealing someone’s dignity or pride?

    Each of these five laws has problems of application, so what the Decalogue gives us is a headline. But the headline says enough.

    “God Almighty hath said in a voice that goeth thundering through the centuries, ‘Thou shalt not. Never!'”


    Shabbat was intact

    May 17th, 2020

    The Shabbat morning prayers say that Moses held the tablets of the Ten Commandments in his hand and on them was written the law of Shabbat.

    The Sadigorer Rebbe asks, surely there were nine other laws on the tablets, not just Shabbat!

    He answers that when Moses dropped the first set of tablets the shards went everywhere but the commandment about Shabbat remained intact.

    Nothing can destroy Shabbat, says the Rebbe … but actually the Jewish people can destroy it if they forget the opening words, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”.


    Why count the people? – B’midbar

    May 17th, 2020

    The census of the Israelites, by Henri Félix Philippoteaux

    The Ramban (Nachmanides) wonders why Moses took a census of the people.

    He gives two answers. The first answer is that the count showed that God knew and loved every individual.

    The second: it showed that Moses and Aaron realised that each Israelite was distinctive and needed handling in their own way.

    The first answer is clear since God sees and understands every one of the world’s population. But the second answer?

    How can Moses and Aaron be expected to know every one of the 600,000 male adults – two million people when we include the women and children?

    A rabbi sometimes despairs of relating to every one of his congregation. Even large congregations do not number anything like 600,000. Yet the Ramban says that all the people were known to the leaders.

    Moses and Aaron did not keep to an ivory tower or focus on any one group. They went out and about and visited every home and family. Hard work, but without it there was no relationship or rapport.

    The Talmud (B’rachot 28a) criticises Rabban Gamliel who had no idea of the poor conditions in which Rabbi Y’hoshua lived.