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    Counting or discounting – Ki Tissa

    February 17th, 2019

    The census of the Israelites, by Henri Félix Philippoteaux

    The statistics of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness were calculated by a census which is described at the beginning of the Book of B’midbar.

    What we find in this week’s portion is the law that counting people has to be done indirectly, not by counting heads but by counting contributions.

    That doesn’t mean that anyone who wants to drop out and not give a contribution is allowed to be ignored, but that the arrangement was l’havdil like the electoral law in modern Australia and some other countries where there is compulsory voting.

    In ancient Israel there was a law of compulsory contribution. Every adult male had to give half a shekel (Rashi on Ex. 30:12).

    The idea that the bureaucracy counted contributions is explained by most commentators (e.g. Rashi) on the basis that counting heads directly had to be avoided except in the case of a plague.

    From the qualitative point of view it changes a person from a static to a dynamic member of society, not just a passive number but an active “doer” who not only can be counted but be counted on.


    Practical wisdom – Ki Tissa

    February 17th, 2019

    Chapter 31 of Sh’mot tells us what a clever man the architect/craftsman B’tzalel was. He is described in verse 3 as filled with the spirit of the Lord, with wisdom, understanding, knowledge and craftsmanship.

    In the later Biblical period, the art of Wisdom (usually spelled in English with a capital W) had a more philosophical connotation. Here it is probably not theoretical or esoteric but practical – how to grasp the nature of the task and how to carry it out. In our sidra the task at hand is the building of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness which required a range of abilities.

    Rashi thinks that wisdom in this context is the kind of skill that one derives from others, and in that way this passage is the beginning of the notion of trade apprenticeship. However, the person had to have an inborn instinct too, coming forward as it were with the kind of native ability which an expert could recognise, shape and develop.

    Philosophical Wisdom on the other hand is probably what is implied in the haftarah of T’rumah (I Kings 5:26), which we read two weeks ago. There Solomon becomes a chacham, a wise man, thanks to the Almighty answering his request.

    At the end of the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) it is emphasised that Kohelet is a (philosophically) wise man and indeed the whole of Kohelet is the application of Wisdom to the governance of the kingdom, the universe and the individual.


    I want my rights!

    February 17th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on The Times of Israel blogs on 17 February, 2019.

    Individuals, societal groups and nations all recite, “I want my rights”. The claim sounds good but the question is what it means. What are “my rights”? Where do they come from?

    Religion says that rights come from God, spelled out in Scripture and endorsed by a social compact. This means that no-one has rights unless others agree. Reciprocal recognition of rights is good for survival and self-defence, otherwise no-one is safe. But acknowledging the other’s rights often causes conflict.

    People expect the United Nations to enforce human rights and condone human wrongs, but it’s a dream. There is no real human rights culture. The worst violators of human rights are in the UN itself where no-one is honest enough to be ashamed of their selfishness. The UN was supposed to uphold the Four Freedoms by issuing a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A nechtige tog!

    In Britain in the 1960s I led a group of young people in a study of the Biblical origins of human rights. We started with the Ten Commandments which declare, “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt bear no false witness”.

    We also looked at the Cyrus Cylinder, the Greek and Roman ideas of natural law, the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the US constitution, the French declaration, the American Bill of Rights… and the Renaissance thinkers who said there was a “Christian consensus”. All impressive, but left in the realm of theory.

    Today we have the Internet, which speaks of “basic rights and freedoms to which humans are considered to be entitled, often held to include the rights to life, liberty, equality, and a fair trial, freedom from slavery and torture, and freedom of thought and expression” – again, nice and altruistic but without bite or enforceability.

    Hardly anybody has the Biblical “clean hands and a pure heart”. All we get are declarations and conventions. A world based on human rights remains elusive.

    “Life, liberty, equality, fair trial, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of thought and expression” – all disregarded and sinned against… especially by the very nations and world bodies that claim to defend them. Deep down these groups know they’re guilty, but their game gets nowhere. They violate the right to life every day. They merely enrage decent people and make fools out of international leaders. The old stereotypes are too comfortable.

    Is there an answer? Strangely (or not strangely) there is, but we have to go back to the Bible to find it. The key word needs to be changed, becoming not “rights” but “duties”.

    In an address to the Institute of Directors in London in 1967, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits noted that the Bible has no word for rights. The Decalogue is not a Bill of Rights but a code of commandments. There are no intrinsic rights in the Bible, but there are obligations. The rich man must open his hand to give; the poor man has no entitlement to open his hand to demand his share.

    Rabbi Jakobovits said, “Everyone thinks of what society owes to him, not of what he owes to society. Instead of asserting rights at the expense of others, let us assert duties at our (own) expense”.

    The monotheistic faiths share this doctrine. Can’t they work together to bring it about? It would be good in itself: it would give religion new credibility.


    Rabbi Druckman & changing his mind

    February 10th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on The Times of Israel blogs on 10 February, 2019.

    Rabbi Chaim Druckman has been widely criticised – including by leaders of the Rabbinical Council of America – for taking too long to change his mind about Rabbi Moti Elon, seeming reluctant to admit that Rabbi Elon had mended his ways, preferring to hope the problem would go away, and finally only deciding to speak out as the result of pressure.

    Rav Druckman is presumably embarrassed about having to change his mind. But great people have to have the courage to say they were wrong. Not just great people, but all of us. That’s why we have a Yom Kippur, but we can’t always wait for Yom Kippur.

    Malachi says (3:6), “I the Lord do not change”. Only if you’re God can you say you don’t and won’t change.

    But human beings aren’t God. We humans are not immune to errors of judgment, and sometimes we have to be man enough to admit we misjudged a person or a situation.

    It’s admirable to believe in other people’s goodness and to give them the benefit of the doubt – but it’s seems like cowardice if the other person lets you down and you can’t come out with the words to say so.

    Yes, the Mishnah in Pir’kei Avot 1:1 warns us not to be impetuous or intemperate in judgment, but though it tells us to be cautious in judgment and careful in decision-making it doesn’t advocate over-much caution when the times call for the courage to come out boldly, speak up clearly and act without delay or prevarication.

    No-one can prevent the advent of new things – new devices, new drugs, new developments. Or new circumstances, new social threats, new harmful deeds. We can’t abdicate. We can’t hide our heads in the sand or say, “Stop the world: I want to get off”. When things get out of hand we have to take a stand.

    It’s embarrassing if rabbis do the wrong thing, but other rabbis can’t fall back on chaverschaft and fear to fall out with them.

    Courage means abandoning or amending the positions of the past. There is never a time when we aren’t forced into rethinking, growing, and facing new times, new ways and new notions.

    We’re not always happy about it. Of course it is unsettling when things constantly get challenged and shaken up. But conscience allows nothing less.

    Rabbis like Rav Druckman have long enhanced the glory of the Torah. They deserve credit for their preparedness to finally re-think their position.

    But people have the perception that Rav Druckman has taken too long and needed to be pressured to speak out. Kohelet would have said, “There is a time for caution, but there is also a time for courage”.


    No name of Moses – T’tzavveh

    February 10th, 2019

    This week’s portion is the only one which takes place in Moses’ lifetime and does not mention Moses even once.

    Many commentators have suggested reasons. It is obviously not a mere coincidence that the great leader’s name is omitted, since he is obliquely referred to at the beginning of the sidra in the word attah – “you” (Ex. 27:20).

    One theory is that Moses, who wrote the Torah at God’s command, was too modest to keep introducing his own name in what he wrote, but that is no answer when we consider how often his name is present, often in the form, “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying…” If he had a problem with introducing his own name he would have dropped it on a regular basis.

    The real explanation must have a connection with the content of the sidra of this week.

    A possibility is that it has to do with the word t’tzavveh – “command (the Children of Israel…)”. We know that Moses has no problem when he is told, “Speak to the Children of Israel”. No-one can object to their leader speaking to the people. But “command” suggests giving orders, and Moses shrank from the implication that he could tell the people what to do.

    He saw himself as God’s instrument, chosen to convey the Divine message, but not to give commands. The One who gave the orders was the Almighty.

    Moses was apprehensive that the people might think he, the earthly being, was high and mighty enough to order them around.