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    On holy ground

    September 15th, 2019

    God said to Moses, “Remove your shoes, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:50).

    The place where we stand on Rosh HaShanah is also holy ground. We do not have to remove our shoes (though we do on Yom Kippur), but what we have to put aside are the concerns that fill our minds throughout the rest of the year.

    These concerns which have no place on Rosh HaShanah are jealousy, rivalry, egotism and selfishness, attitudes which put down other people and leave no room for them, especially if their race, religion, politics and possessions are different from mine.

    I had a friend who used to say that in God’s eyes we were all the same because “your grandmother and mine dried their washing under the same sun”.

    On holy ground there is tolerance. But somehow there is also intolerance; Professor Alexander Altmann said, “There are both tolerance and intolerance in the Jewish tradition”.

    The tolerance is not that of a polytheistic society when one man’s god is as good as another’s. It is the kind of tolerance which is “a radical innovation in the history of religion”, a tolerance which gives everyone a right, a dignity, an identity, all living their lives under the same sun.

    The intolerance is of ideas of superiority that say, “I have every right to be myself… but if you want the same right for yourself, I have the right to kill you so that you do not pollute the earth”.

    On the holy ground of Rosh HaShanah the Jew says, “Surely we can smile at each other and enjoy the same sun.”

    Stunned silence

    September 15th, 2019

    When God made the world He decided that Man would have the power of speech. The Targum says that He made Man nefesh m’mal’la, a speaking being. Human beings can speak, and they do, especially Jews.

    Jews maybe speak too much, but Elie Wiesel noted that Jews not only have times when they speak but also their great silences.

    One such silence followed the Holocaust. Europe was a place of devastation where words were inadequate and impossible.

    Whose words? God’s maybe, for Jews felt disappointed that God apparently had failed to shout and scream at the perpetrators of the horror.

    God’s words… and the world’s. A supposed civilisation which had spoken over-confidently about Enlightenment and progress and now had nothing to say.

    God’s words, the world’s… the churches, who had preached smooth sermons about love but were unable to protest at hatred.

    The Jews, for their part, were stunned and unable to speak. We still are.

    A happy new year

    September 15th, 2019

    The two greetings don’t agree: “Happy New Year!” isn’t the same as Shanah Tovah!

    Between “happy” and tovah (“good”) there’s quite a difference. “Happy” is more momentary and frivolous, “good” is more lasting and ethical.

    The adjectives are different, but the noun is identical – “year” and shanah both denote a span of time. Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, sees a difference.

    “Year” indicates a number of days, weeks and months. Every year has the same length, though there is a minor difference between years if one of them happens to be a leap year.

    Shanah in Hebrew presumably comes from the root that means to repeat: this year from the mathematical point of view is a repeat of last year and next year will be a repeat of this one.

    But Hirsch points out that there is another Hebrew root that means to change, to make a shinnui. The art of living is to cope both with sameness and with change.

    Look down from heaven – Ki Tavo

    September 15th, 2019

    “Where is God?” asks every small child. Most parents say, “Up there”, pointing to the sky.

    The abstract idea of a God who is a ubiquitous force without bodily form is too difficult for a child, as it is for many adults too.

    How then should we take the prayer in the sidra, Hashkifah mim’on kod’sh’cha min hashamayim, “Look down from Your holy habitation, from Heaven” (Deut. 26:15)?

    There is a discussion about the word ma’on (“habitation”) in the Talmud (Chagigah 12b). One view is, Ma’on nikra shamayim – “‘Habitation’ is called ‘Heaven'”.

    This statement might be taken as a metaphor; indicating that wherever God is, namely everywhere His presence is perceived, that can be understood as Heaven.

    The question was asked, “Where are the Talmudic sages?”

    The answer was given, “The sages are in Heaven!” Another view, however, was, “It is not that the sages are in Heaven, but Heaven is in the sages”. The piety and learning of the sages are evidence of the Presence of God.

    Where is God? It is not so much that God is in a place called Heaven, but Heaven is wherever the Presence of God is manifest and perceived.

    The second Tochechah – Ki tavo

    September 15th, 2019

    We have already had an extensive Tochechah, a catalogue of woes and warnings, at the end of the Book of Vayyikra. Why do we need another one this Shabbat in Parashat Ki Tavo?

    One approach is to say that it is part of Moses’ farewell summing-up of his life’s teaching. If he can remind the people of the Ten Commandments, why can he not also remind them not to disobey the Divine word?

    An Anglo-Jewish preacher said that one Tochechah usually comes when people are on vacation, so most shule-goers actually only have one Tochechah per year, and no-one can object to that.

    The Midrash, however, has a less cynical approach. It quotes the verse, Rabbot ra’ot tzaddik, u’mikkullam yatzilennu HaShem – “Many are the ills of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him from them all” (Psalm 34:20).

    The Torah does not promise anyone, even the tzaddik, immunity from suffering, but it assures us that the good person will be saved from his suffering – not always directly and literally but in time and often in the spiritual sense that is summed up by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev in the words, “Lord, I do not ask why I am suffering; I only want to know that I am suffering for Your sake”.

    Those who like g’matria point out that ra’ot (“ills”) has the numerical value of 676; in the Tochechah the Divine name, the letters of which add up to 26, comes 26 times – and 26 multiplied by 26 is 676.