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    Reward & punishment – Ekev

    August 2nd, 2020

    Our portion this Shabbat confirms (Deut. 11:13-15) that there will be a reward for a good deed and punishment for a transgression.

    The problem is that it does not always work out that way. A good person does not make the receipt of a reward his or her motivation but expects that a reward will happen. Sometimes all they get is the opposite.

    One of the explanations is that what happens with me is not the entire picture. There is a lingering effect of what my ancestors did previous to my time.

    The Talmud (B’rachot 7a) quotes Rabbi Yochanan who says that Moses asked God why some righteous people suffer whilst others prosper, and some wicked people prosper whilst others suffer.

    God answered that a righteous man who prospers is clearly the son of another righteous man – but if he suffers it must be that he is the son of a wicked man. A wicked man who prospers is the son of a righteous man but the wicked person who suffers is the son of a wicked man.

    The Talmud is not entirely satisfied with this line of reasoning because we know from other sources (e.g. the commentaries on the Ten Commandments) that God visits the sins of the ancestors on their descendants only if the latter persist in their forebears’ sins.

    In the end Rabbi Meir says, quoting Ex. 33:19, God says, “I am gracious to whomever I choose and I have mercy on whomever I choose.”

    The outcome is that there are two aspects to reward and punishment – our deeds, and God’s will.

    Because we do not always know how God’s will works, we have to do our best to choose the way of righteousness. And if a reward comes, it comes.


    Not bread alone – Ekev

    August 2nd, 2020

    Marie Antoinette said, “If they have no bread, let them eat cake”.

    The problem is that if you have no bread, you are not likely to have cake either. But if you do have bread, do you have enough?

    “No,” says the Torah: “Man does not live by bread alone; a man lives by the utterance of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3).

    Here too there is a paradox. If you have the Divine word but no bread, you cannot really live either, for if you are starving your mind, heart and spirit are focussed on one thing, and that is not likely to be metaphysical.

    This is why the sages say in Pir’kei Avot (3:21), “When there is no flour there is no Torah”.

    But yet another paradox: the statement in Avot continues, “When there is no Torah there is no flour”.

    True, the hungry person is obsessed with food, but the way to food needs the Torah of honesty (don’t steal and take food from others) and the Torah of purpose (why do I need food? in order to live and to have a cause to direct my life).


    A one-line summary – Ask the Rabbi

    August 2nd, 2020

    Q. If you were asked for a one-line summary of Judaism what would you say?

    A. Most people would quote the Golden Rule, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

    The philosopher Simon Rawidowicz used to say that for him the leading sentence was from the Passover Haggadah, Ani v’lo malach – “I and not an angel”.

    He probably meant something similar to Hillel’s saying, “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” In other words, don’t expect others to do what you have to do; don’t expect anyone else – an angel perhaps – to deputise for you.

    Rawidowicz’s saying can be turned round to read, “An angel and not me”.


    Sport in the Bible – Ask the Rabbi

    August 2nd, 2020

    Q. What does the Bible say about playing sport?

    A. The Bible abounds with references to sporting pursuits.

    In Bernard Postal’s book, “Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports” (1965), he shows that athletics were a widespread Biblical activity.

    Saul and Jonathan were said to be swifter than eagles. The people of Naphtali were like a hind let loose.

    Psalm 19 speaks of a person who enjoys running a course. Jeremiah asks how someone can run as fast as the horses if they get tired when running with footmen. The Book of Proverbs warns runners to be careful not to stumble.

    Other well-known sports were hand-to-hand combat, weight-lifting, archery, riding and fencing, and a great deal is said about swimming.

    This does not mean to say that sport was a national passion, but there were many young men (women were generally not on the sporting agenda) who were into athletics.

    In post-Biblical Jewish society the circumstances were often difficult (see Israel Abrahams’ “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages”) but sport resumed its importance at the beginning of the 20th century.


    Tishah B’Av – the fast that will become a feast

    July 29th, 2020

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on The Times of Israel blogs on 28 July, 2020.

    One day the Tishah B’Av fast will become a yom-tov.

    The prophet says (Zech. 8:19): “The fast of the fourth month (Tammuz), of the fifth (Av), of the seventh (Tishri), and of the tenth (Tevet), shall be to the House of Judah joy and gladness”.

    All these fast days are connected with Churban HaBayit, the destruction of the Holy Temple. The message is reinforced by the Psalmist (Psalm 147:2) with the promise, “God will rebuild Jerusalem”.

    In the meantime Tishah B’Av is a day of sadness and gloom, observed by practices of mourning and the reading of the graphic scenes of destruction in the Book of Echah (Lamentations) and the poetic dirges or Kinnot.

    The fast marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples; Amos Oz says, “The Holocaust was the destruction of the Third Temple”.

    All raise the same problem – not only “What happened?” but “How could it have happened?” If HaShem was the cause of the destruction, how can we call Him a good God? If it was an external enemy, why were we the victims? If our own sins caused the pain, can’t our merits save us?

    Rav Soloveitchik warns that this is more than an academic question. The pain went to the heart, not just the mind; it was cardiac, not conceptual.

    Yet nothing can stop us asking questions and seeking answers – a hard ask for a people which historically was little concerned with analytical theology. The Bible and Talmud do not spell out the basic tenets of faith. Nor does the Midrash which, despite Jacob Neusner’s claim that it has a sense of history, never seems to reach a final position but merely endorses the rabbinic maxim, “Whatever God does, He does for good” (B’rachot 60b).

    Alright, but why are the details such a mystery? Our reason cries out to be used!

    We are angry, with God, with the enemy, with ourselves. We are angry at the loss of the Temple, at two millennia of tragedy, at the Holocaust. But is anger our only option? A medieval book says, “Anger begins with madness and ends with regret”. OK, we are mad, but why the regret? Are we blaming ourselves too much?

    Can we posit the Problem of Good against the Problem of Evil, see the goodness in our universe, and accentuate the positive?

    Samuel Alexander says in “Space, Time and Deity”, that there is no clear-cut contrast between good and evil, and “elements emerge from the chaos of evil and are built up into good”.

    It would be easier if there were simple answers for everything. But that’s not how Judaism works. It oscillates. Sometimes we are believers, sometimes rebellious doubters. We always know God is there, but sometimes we find it harder to find Him.

    We have days when we suspect He is playing hide-and-seek. We yearn for Him to come out of hiding and laugh – at us, with us – and assure us that He will soon wipe out the evil blotches in Creation.