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    A walk in the statutes – B’chukkotai

    May 22nd, 2022

    The Sifra is puzzled about the opening statement that says we should “walk in God’s statutes”.

    To tell us to fulfil the commandments would be obvious, but the fulfilment of the mitzvot is actually stated separately in the same sentence as the one we have quoted. The idea of walking must have a particular purpose if it is given independent mention.

    What the Sifra is telling us is that statutes (blunt rules for which the text gives no elaborate explanation) require a special kind of activity. We have to obey such laws without too much discussion or debate. They are clear and unambiguous.

    What God is telling us is, “Do this, don’t do that, don’t argue about it! Take this path, walk the way I tell you, don’t make a fuss about it: I know what I am doing, My wisdom is reliable; don’t think you can find a better way!”

    A misplaced peroration? – B’chukkotai

    May 22nd, 2022

    “These are the statutes, ordinances and laws which HaShem gave the Children of Israel” (Lev. 26:46).

    The Alshich finds it strange to have a summing up of this kind placed at the beginning of a section of the Torah. It seems more logical, he thinks, to make this the peroration of the whole Torah.

    The explanation is that it is the heading of the solemn message which Moses has brought down the mountain with him. It is the introductory announcement of the agenda that both he and the people of Israel will henceforth have to live by in the wilderness and then in the Promised Land.

    There was certainly a case for a good peroration at the end of the Torah but the list of the laws needed a heading.

    Reaping a reward – B’chukkotai

    May 22nd, 2022

    Judaism insists that reward and punishment are determined by human action. If you obey God you will be rewarded, if you disobey you will be punished.

    The general principle is beyond debate, but the details are a problem. How do we define reward (or punishment)? Are we rewarded financially, agriculturally, climatically, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically?

    Is the reward (or punishment) in this world or the next? Are there personal consequences of our deeds, or are the consequences communal? Who gets the reward or punishment, me or my society or mankind as a whole?

    What does the word “obey” (or “disobey”) connote – believing in God, fulfilling a ritual mitzvah, being ethical?

    An unexpected approach comes in Pir’kei Avot 4:2, where Ben Azzai says that the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the punishment of a sin is a sin. Maybe this means that the reward of a mitzvah is the thought and feeling that you have done a good thing. Maybe it means that the reward of a mitzvah is the opportunity of going on to do the next mitzvah.

    Mountain or wilderness – B’har

    May 15th, 2022

    The Torah reading commences (Lev. 25) with Moses and the Almighty speaking together on Mount Sinai.

    Biblical geography often features mountains. The height of Moriah inspires our father Abraham. God calls Moses to the summit of Sinai from where the Ten Commandments are proclaimed to mankind.

    Mountains are often a metaphor for aspiration – for example, “I raise my eyes to the mountains from which comes my help” (Psalm 121:1). Judaism constantly urges people to raise their sights, and not be dragged down to the depths.

    However, the commentators are not carried away by the mountain imagery. They agree with Rashi that because Mount Sinai was the locale of the giving of the Decalogue, the other mitzvot are also Sinaitic. But some laws of the Torah were given in the wilderness; it depended on what was necessary at the time.

    True, there is less poetry in the idea of laws given in the wilderness, but mountains were not the only place where people gained instruction. Human problems tended to emerge from the earthly wilderness, and that is where the solution often had to be found.

    Liberty in the Land – B’har

    May 15th, 2022

    One of the great ideas of Judaism is freedom. It derives from this week’s sidra: U’k’ratem d’ror ba’aretz (Lev. 25:10).

    Judaism believes that everyone should be free – free to be themselves, to choose their company, to hold their own opinions.

    But there is a paradox. Freedom is a blessing, but it can also be a danger. It can make us bored. Rousseau wrote sadly about people who gained freedom but then wondered what to do with themselves. He called it “the culture of the picnic”.

    Such people thought that everyone yearns to enjoy a picnic. But picnicking is only worthwhile as an occasional break in routine, but if it becomes the routine it becomes wearisome and it cloys. It can lead to mischief.

    Some leaders make their people free but then impose worse repression on them. Solomon’s son said, “My father afflicted you with whips: I will afflict you with scorpions” (I Kings 12:11). Scholem Asch said, “Freedom has slain, gassed, tormented and enslaved more men, women and children than all the tyrants…”

    It can make us lonely. After the heat of battle we can feel cast adrift. Afraid of being alienated, we welcome a new dictator. We don’t realise what a privilege it is to be alive, how special every human being is (including ourselves), how good it is to have friends and be a friend.

    Real freedom is when you see a new task ahead of you, when you have a new cause to exhilarate you. After climbing a mountain, real freedom is when you see another mountain on the horizon and choose to climb that one too, and the next, and the next.