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    Benefits of the commandments – Lech L’cha

    October 14th, 2018

    The title of this week’s sidra literally means “Go for yourself” (Gen. 12:1).

    The commentators say that HaShem is telling Abraham, “Go where I send you, and it will be good for you!” Rashi tells us that l’cha indicates, “for your benefit, for your good”.

    The broader question is whether this approach applies to the religious life as a whole.

    Are we saying that we should be religious for the sake of the benefit it gives us? Do we keep Shabbat, for example, because of what we will gain from it?

    There isn’t an easy answer. Strictly speaking one should say, “I keep the commandments because they are the word of God”. But throughout Jewish history there have been attempts at finding ta’amei hamitzvot, the reasons for the commandments. Sometimes God gives us a clue as to what lies behind a particular mitzvah: sometimes He doesn’t.

    Sometimes we experience a personal or group upsurge (in Hebrew, n’shamah yeterah) because of the effect of keeping the commandments, but that upsurge – reflecting the time and place where we live – may not be shared to the same extent by other people.

    Whatever your thinking may be, let it reinforce your devotion to the life of Judaism.

    Abraham’s journeys – Lech L’cha

    October 14th, 2018

    The patriarch Abraham is on the move throughout this week’s portion: Vayelech l’massa’av, “He went on his journeys” (Gen. 13:3).

    Rashi tells us a surprising thing, that he stayed in the same inns as on his previous journeys.

    People (myself included) often remember how much they enjoyed a particular hotel and when they find themselves in that town they always stay at the same place. That’s the practical side of the question.

    Ethically, some of the commentators say Abraham went back to his previous stopping places in order to pay his debts; on his earlier journeys he had been impoverished and needed assistance, but now he had become wealthy (kaved me’od: Gen. 12:2) and was able to pay back the help he had received.

    Philosophically, there is a deeper consideration. What should one do in life – go backwards or forwards, re-trace your life’s experiences or move into hitherto unknown territory?

    Nostalgia draws you back, but reality insists that the past is over and can never be re-created.

    I never know what the future will bring, what lies in wait around the next corner – but I am guided by the final sentence of Psalm 27 (L’David Ori), Kavveh el HaShem – “Hope in the Lord, be strong, steel your heart, and hope in the Lord!”

    Money lending – Ask the Rabbi

    October 14th, 2018

    Q. Is lending money with interest permissible in Jewish law?

    A. The Torah prohibits a Jew from any borrowing or lending that involves another Jew in the payment of ribbit (interest).

    A Jew may pay interest to a gentile or charge them interest so long as the rates are fair.

    Why does the payment of interest not apply to a fellow Jew? Because they are family, and family should support each other out of love and concern.

    The Maharal of Prague said that treating each other in this way like loving siblings was rewarded by God redeeming the Israelites from Egypt.

    Restful Noah – No’ach

    October 7th, 2018

    God Appears to Noah, by James Tissot, c. 1896

    No’ach means “rest”, because he lightened the load of human beings by inventing the plough – the first machine that humanity ever had.

    In a second way he also eased the lot of his contemporaries by rebuilding civilisation after the great flood.

    However, the critics say that he did not try hard enough to save his generation from destruction. He saw their sinfulness but did not exert himself enough to bring them to repentance.

    In Yiddish he is sometimes referred to as a tzaddik im pelz – a righteous man wearing a fur coat who impliedly sends out a message, “I am warm in my coat – why are you complaining about being cold?”

    Another Biblical figure whose name means “rest” is Samson’s father Mano’ach, except that in his case he probably bore this name because he was a rather quiescent individual who left the action to his wife and son.

    The contrast with his strong, lusty son leads some scholars to say that Mano’ach could not have sired a son like Samson.

    Noah’s sons – No’ach

    October 7th, 2018

    The sons of Noah, by James Tissot, 1904

    Like No’ach, his three sons are each regarded as the founder of a human type.

    Shem (“name”) is an intellectual who can define and identify things, Cham (“warmth”) is emotional and passionate, and Yefet (“beauty”) represents artistic creativity.

    Though we customarily list them in that order, Shem, Cham and Yefet, the wording of Gen. 10:21 suggests that the oldest son is Yefet, so why do we normally put Shem first?

    The Talmud (Sanh. 108b) calls Shem “the great one”. It was he who took the initiative of covering his father who was inebriated and naked, making him the most morally sensitive of the brothers. The sages say that Shem thus typifies the Jewish people whose tradition is that every moral and ethical problem should be responded to with speed, energy and conscience.

    The rabbis had a poor opinion of Cham whom they regarded as symbolic of the callousness and unconcern which were the hallmarks of his son Canaan and his later descendants.