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    The eighth day – Sh’mini

    March 24th, 2019

    After the Tabernacle was erected it was not until the eighth day that the Divine Presence was officially there (Rashi on Lev. 9:23).

    What about the previous seven days? Surely there were daily offerings, implying that God was present?

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that there was something lacking, i.e. the element of chesed, Divine pleasure.

    God gave the people of Israel seven days to get used to worshipping Him. After the initial week the people were ready for a higher level of Shechinah (God’s indwelling). It was not simply the people’s sacrifices that brought about this reward. Moses said, “May it be God’s will that the Shechinah reside in the actions performed by your hands” (Rashi).

    What expressed Israel’s love of God was more than ritual but ethics. The way they lived their lives was shown not only in their offerings but in the quality of their relationships with one another. Being good to each other was the first step in showing love for God.

    Some prayer books convey this message on page one, when they say “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the preface to “Love the Lord your God”.

    Leaving out the letters – Sh’mini

    March 24th, 2019

    This sidra spells out the details of many of the Jewish dietary laws.

    It is clear from the relevant verses that every aspect of kashrut requires close attention. Naturally, if one is going to eat meat, the shochet has to be very carefully trained and must be scrupulous and conscientious in the way he carries out his task.

    A similar rule applies to every Jewish profession. An example is given in the Talmud (Eruvin 13a) where Rabbi Me’ir is asked by Rabbi Yishma’el what his occupation is. When Rabbi Me’ir replies that he is a scribe (a sofer), Rabbi Yishma’el says, “Be exceedingly careful with your work because it is the work of Heaven. You might add a letter or delete a letter and bring destruction to the world.”

    Rashi gives an example. He says that if the scribe leaves out the aleph of emet in the phrase HaShem E-lohechem Emet (“The Lord your God is true”) he might end up by writing met (“dead”) which would be shockingly blasphemous, sinful and highly reprehensible.

    Look at other Jewish professions and you see the how broadly the duty of care operates.

    An important example is the shadchan, the matchmaker. Though shadchanim are sometimes – in the hands of writers and caricaturists – mere figures of fun, they have a very great and sacred responsibility. Deciding that two people are right for each other requires scrupulous care. Without it a marriage can be doomed before it starts or destroyed at any point in its history.

    Taking out the garbage – Tzav

    March 17th, 2019

    What a strange command!

    “The burnt offering shall remain on the altar all night until morning… The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering… He shall then take off his vestments, put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp.”

    That Aaron, the kohen gadol, who always had to keep away from defilement, should put on priestly vestments and then carry out the garbage – can anything be more incongruous?

    The commentators are exercised by this passage. They point out that other priests could have done this menial task. Or at least it could have been done in old clothes. Why must the garbage be removed by the high priest himself, clad in his robes of office?

    The Jerusalem Talmud says, “This is to teach you that rank does not count in the palace of the King.”

    Bachya ibn Pakuda says, “The Creator required him to take out the refuse regularly every day In order to humble him and remove conceit from his heart”.

    The lesson? Power tends to breed conceit; the powerful need to see that their position does not go to their heads.

    The Talmud points out that lay people bow four times during the Amidah; the high priest, at the end of each blessing; and the king, at both the beginning and end of every blessing. Rashi comments, “The greater you are, the more you need to humble yourself.”

    Bachya offers Ten Commandments of Humility:

    • Know how great God is and what a privilege He gave by raising man above the beast.
    • Study the Torah and other books of wisdom to learn how to gain humility.
    • Be generous, patient and forgiving (bear insults if necessary, but do not insult others).
    • Be tolerant and charitable; speak well of others and forgive criticism.
    • Be consistent (be the same inside and outside).
    • Do not be boastful and proud; praise God and not your own self.
    • Train yourself to master your desires; do not let them master you.
    • Do not condone evil or injustice; stand up for that which is right.
    • Do not talk too much; bow your head and avoid frivolity and the pastimes of the ignorant.

    If Aaron needed to be reminded not to become too high and mighty, how much more do the lesser people who in our day often occupy positions of power and eminence. (“Stand up, everybody, when I come into the room!” “Look, world, I’m the greatest!” “What a VIP I am; I am the first to acknowledge it!” “Don’t try to tell me I’m mortal; I’m too important for that!”)

    There may be something to be learnt from what Cecil B de Mille, who produced “The Ten Commandments”, did when he was angry with God; he said, “Look, God, I made you – and I can break you too!”

    In a democracy, we all have the right to say to leaders of any kind, “Look, leader (whatever your title is), we made you – and we can break you too!”

    Psalm 22 – the Purim story in poetry

    March 17th, 2019

    Painting depicting Esther & Mordechai, 1685

    There is a rabbinic tradition that links Psalm 22 with Purim.

    The psalm is headed, “For the Leader, upon Ayelet HaShachar”.

    This phrase literally means “the hind of the morning”, which some views regard as a musical instrument or a melody.

    The Talmud, however, understands it as a reference to Esther (Yoma 29a/b, Meg. 15b), indicating that this is a poem about the Purim events. Some scholars regard “Esther” as a name for the morning star.

    It seems like a paradox when we link a happy festival with a cry for help.

    The psalm calls to God, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? You are far from my help at the words of my cry. My God, I call by day but you do not answer – by night, but I have no respite”.

    The Midrash thinks that it is a dawn song, and Ayelet HaShachar is a way of saying, “When the day dawns”.

    We still, however, wonder how this can have any connection with Purim.

    The Midrash suggests an answer: when things were bleak for the Jews of Persia, “Esther shone like the light of the morning for Israel”.

    An alternative view is that it was God Himself who was the hind of the morning, “leaping up like a hind to in the midst of darkness to give light to the Children of Israel”.

    What is happening seems to answer a question which hardly anyone asks. The question is, “What was life really like for the Jews of Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther?”

    Hardly anyone ever raises that question but the answer seems to be that it was an embattled community, subject to persecution and oppression. They had a struggle to live and survive as Jews. They cried to God by day and by night.

    A Persian Jew said with the Psalmist, “I am a worm, not a man – a reproach of men, despised by people”. What the antisemites said was, “He cast himself on the Lord – let Him deliver him!”

    Haman didn’t suddenly turn antisemitic: he oppressed the Jews long before hatching his plot to kill them all, and the antisemitism was even endemic during the time of his predecessors.

    The Midrash sees that the psalm assures itself that “the light of Israel” would burn up Israel’s enemies. It says that “as a man measures, so is he measured”. The Midrash says that the ten sons who were hanged with Haman were only part of his progeny and all his hundred sons were overtaken by punishment.

    The Jews cried to God as they did in the midst of the darkness they suffered in so many parts of the Diaspora. God came to their assistance, and the Psalmist said, “I will declare Your name to my brethren, I will praise You amidst the assembly”.

    Choosing this psalm for Purim was a beacon of hope for embattled communities in all ages.

    Purim was saved by the antisemites

    March 17th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 17 March, 2019.

    Painting by Boris Shapiro

    The popularity of Purim is wildfire. Purim spiels, Purim deals, Purim meals… all are part of the celebration.

    No one can imagine the Jewish year without it. But it had its ups and downs. It was nearly squeezed out of the calendar more than once and there were times when it was in danger of being abolished, sanitised and (probably worst of all) completely ignored.

    What saved Purim and strengthened its hold is, perhaps paradoxically, antisemitism. The more that Jews were persecuted, the more they needed a lighthearted response, and Purim provided the answer.

    The Purim story is not the same as the story of Purim. The Purim story is the narrative of the weak-kneed king, the villainous Haman and Zeresh, and the heroic Mordechai and Esther.

    The story of Purim is something different – the rise and fall of the festival, its rejection and rehabilitation.

    It took considerable effort before the Book of Esther was admitted to the scriptural canon. A biblical book that doesn’t mention God? Events that seem to have nothing to do with Eretz Yisra’el? Preposterous, some said! Every now and then the scholars even questioned its historicity – maybe the events never happened, maybe Mordechai and Esther never were, maybe it’s just fiction, maybe it’s a folk tale that was Judaized to save it from being jettisoned!

    The historian Graetz thought it was invented in Maccabean times to raise the morale of the Jewish people. Julius Lewy thought it chronicled the struggle for status of a foreign colony in the Persian realm.

    Others noted that ancient peoples celebrated the end of winter with fables about their gods, and maybe that’s how Purim came to be. Unfriendly gentiles accused Purim of breathing a spirit of Jewish clannishness, dual loyalty and vengefulness.

    The Jews themselves turned “The Day of Mordechai” (as it is called in Second Maccabees) into Purim. They endowed the Purim events with such importance that by the time of the Mishnah the festival was a decisive part of Halacha and the exegetes endorsed its veracity. Haman was seen as the embodiment of Amalek, a sign that humanity must always be vigilant against the Amalek-spirit (Ex. 17:14-16).

    Late in the Second Temple period, Purim was so firmly established that even the Temple priesthood had to hear the megillah. Significantly, the Dead Sea sect did not ascribe much value to the festival. Historians linked the conflict between Haman and Mordechai with earlier tussles between them in Judea in relation to rebuilding the Jewish temple and state.

    Folk frolics crept in, with a tug-of-war between dignity and indecorum. Christians thought that Jews who noisily blotted out the name of Haman and hanged Purim effigies were symbolically attacking Jesus. Cecil Roth thought that this was the beginning of the medieval blood libels.

    The suffering Jews of that period derived comfort from the thought that Purim was evidence that God would never let them down. Wandering minstrels and play-acting brought light to the ghetto gloom, as Israel Abrahams shows in his Jewish Life in the Middle Ages.

    In the 19th century, the Reform movement accused Purim of fostering a spirit of revenge, though later Reformers became more sympathetic. Contemporary Jewry (even Reform!) is unanimous that Purim is a symbol of Am Yisrael Chai (“The Jewish people are alive.”)

    All ages relish the Purimspiels, the gift-giving, the hamantaschen, the hilarity. Megillah readings attract large crowds: celebrations range from Rechavia in Jerusalem where restaurants sponsor megillah readings, to central Sydney in Australia where one year the Great Synagogue collected people from all over the metropolis in a London double-decker bus and brought them together to hear the megillah.

    There are serious adult themes that inspire modern Jews when they think of Purim – God’s protecting hand, the heroism of dedicated individuals, the complexity of the “dual loyalty” theory, the psychology of the persecutee who says gam zeh ya’avor (“This too will pass”), and women’s contribution to Jewish survival. Immanuel Lewy said, “Haman denounces Mordechai as morally inferior, because in reality he fears his moral superiority” (“Congress Weekly”, 19.3.1951).

    Historians constantly find new fascination in the political machinations and palace intrigues of the story. One of the best books is Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther.

    Jews who were depressed about antisemitism could always find hope in the Talmudic view that descendants of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak (Gittin 57b, Sanh. 69b), evidence that repentance is always possible.

    Jews who were uncertain about the history of Purim were certain of its future; the rabbis said that even in messianic times there would always be a Purim. The messianic age will know no sorrow, but it will always be possible to laugh.