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    We’re all involved – Shof’tim

    August 12th, 2018

    Surprising, isn’t it, that when a dead body is found in between two settlements, the elders of both places have to bring proofs to say, “It wasn’t our fault!” (Deut. 21:1-9).

    Now would anyone have suspected the elders? (That’s the question the Talmud asks in Sanhedrin 48b.)

    For that matter, whenever there is a horrific occurrence anywhere, would anyone have blamed the local lord mayor or town council?

    The teaching of Jewish ethics says “yes”.

    We rightly blame the perpetrator, we probably attach blame to their family… but is it necessary to also blame their school, their shopping centre, their local municipality?

    It seems we have to. The whole of society is implicated in the deeds of any of its members.

    True, most of us disclaim any responsibility: “We’re fair-minded, decent, law-abiding, honest, generous, aren’t we?”

    Of course we are all these things and more, but maybe we were wrong to go along with unwise immigration policies, over-tolerant educational techniques and inadequate policing.

    There are ways in which we can all make the ethical climate of our society more respectful, ways in which we can make our environment safer, ways in which we can counter the poison of fanaticism.

    Archibald MacLeish, the American poet, said, “We are neither weak nor few, as long as one man does what one man can do.”


    Trees & the ethics of war – Shof’tim

    August 12th, 2018

    An important chapter in the Jewish ethic of war comes in this week’s portion where we are warned against harming the trees in the course of laying siege to a city (Deut. 20:19-20).

    The Torah is not often as sarcastic as it is here. It basically says, “What have the trees ever done to you that you want to hurt them too?” The actual words are, “Is the tree of the field man, that you should besiege it?”

    What the Torah is saying recalls the story of the childhood of Moses.

    As a baby he was saved by the waters of the Nile. Hence when the time came for the Ten Plagues it was Aaron, not Moses, who brought the plagues that affected the river. Otherwise he would, to mix our metaphors, be biting the hand that fed him.

    In relation to the trees in our sidra, we have to remember what the trees have done for us: they gave us fruit, shade, support, wood and so much else.

    Have they done us any harm, that we should wreak vengeance on them as well as on human beings? It is bad enough that human beings need to become involved in war.

    The Jewish ethic of course insists that we do our very best not to bring harm and destruction on human beings. Our enemies mock our concern for human life. If they cannot understand why we value humanity, they will certainly not appreciate our concern for trees.

    But if we abandoned our ethics we would not be able to live with ourselves.


    Overcome with an ache

    August 12th, 2018

    Every weekday morning during the month of Ellul the shofar is sounded at the end of the service. It is one of the means of preparation for the imminent coming of Rosh HaShanah.

    Having not heard the shofar for many months the eerie cry of Teki’ah, Shevarim, Teru’ah, Teki’ah, sends shivers through us. Only weeks are left before the Days of Awe.

    All of a sudden we are overcome with an ache: the shofar says (if there is such a phrase), “Ache up!” Teki’ah says, “Wake up!” Shevarim says, “Break up (into remorse).” Teru’ah says, “Take up (your tears).” Teki’ah says, “Make up (with God).”


    Cutting others out – Re’eh

    August 5th, 2018

    The sidra says, “Do not cut yourselves for the dead” (Deut. 14:1).

    On one level this rule forbids self-mutilation. It acknowledges the deep psychological wound when a death occurs and prohibits responding with a physical gash.

    Our practice of cutting k’ri’ah takes account of the grief but limits us to cutting and tearing our garments.

    There is also a metaphorical interpretation of lo tit’god’du when we see that the sages in Sifrei say, “You shall not cut yourselves into factions but remain bound in one bond.”

    This warning reads lo tit’god’du as if it were lo te’asu agudot agudot, “you shall not cut yourself apart into rival groups”. Though originating as a Midrash this rule has become halachah.

    It does not prohibit disparate views: rabbinic literature is full of debates in which one side disputes with another. The disputes range from practical ways of living a Jewish life to theological principles such as whether it was better for man to have been created or to the contrary, whether it might have been better for God not to have created man.

    What the verse is telling us is that the Jewish people must remain one family and not seek to cut out any other Jewish group.


    Giving & receiving – Re’eh

    August 5th, 2018

    The phrase naton tittein, “you shall surely give” (Deut. 15:10) means, in Rashi’s view, that there is never a moment when you’ve done enough giving.

    You have to keep giving even up to a hundred times. However, the word “hundred” is not necessarily to be taken literally. One should never say, “I’ve done giving”.

    The Chafetz Chayyim says that every time you give something, the yetzer ha-ra questions how pure was your intention. He adds that if you constantly give, it becomes part of your nature.

    There is an interpretation of naton tittein which says something additional, that in giving you actually receive.

    What you give to others makes their lives easier; it also makes your own life more meaningful and worthwhile.