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    Angels – Vayyera

    October 21st, 2018

    Angels play a vital role in this week’s sidra, especially in the story of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac).

    Angels are frequently mentioned in the Tanach. Their name, malachim, denotes messengers. The Greek angelos has a similar meaning.

    In popular thought, angels are winged beings flying or floating in the skies, sometimes descending on earth to carry out a mission on the Almighty’s behalf. The Erev Shabbat song, Shalom Aleichem, speaks of malachei ha-sharet, “messengers of (God’s) service”.

    Some thinkers say that angels can only be seen in visions.

    The Rambam gives them a more figurative character as spiritual forces, though he admits that it is difficult for human beings to understand “the notion of anything immaterial and entirely devoid of corporeality” (Moreh Nevuchim 1:49).

    He says that even the elements are also called angels, e.g. the verse (Psalm 104:4), “He makes the winds His angels” (Moreh Nevuchim 2:5-6).

    He believes that in the afterlife we are all angel-like souls without bodies, “Intelligences without matter”.


    The heat of the day – Vayyera

    October 21st, 2018

    Abraham greets the angels at his tent door, woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

    The patriarch was sitting at the doorway of his tent in the heat of the day (Gen. 18:1).

    Which day was it? Why was he not busy with his normal activities?

    The explanation of the Talmud (Bava Metzi’a 86b), followed by Rashi, is that it was the third day after Abraham’s circumcision when the pain was at its greatest.

    Instead of standing up and going out to find wayfarers to whom to offer hospitality, Abraham was sitting at the entrance of the tent, and it was Eliezer whom he sent out to find guests.

    It appears strange that Abraham, who always exerted himself to be hospitable, even at some inconvenience to himself, was concerned at this moment with his own pain.

    There are midrashic sources, however, that say that his pain was not merely physical, the result of his operation, but emotional and psychological.

    It hurt him that there did not seem to be many passers-by near the Oaks of Mamre that day and he thought that Eliezer, being a much younger man, would be able to roam further afield than he could and would succeed in finding potential guests even at something of a distance.

    As always the Midrash is reflecting a genuine Jewish experience that has manifested itself countless times in history.

    Jews have always endeavoured to fulfil the recommendation of the Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1 (Elu D’varim, which comes in the early morning service as an ethical program for the day) in relation to hachnanasat orchim, “hospitality to wayfarers” (later in the Siddur the greatness of hospitality is also emphasised in the Shabbat blessing for the congregation).

    It was taken for granted that a person who went to synagogue would come home with visitors. Sharing one’s table brought benefit to both guests and hosts. The guests enjoyed a meal and company: the hosts made new friends, heard Div’rei Torah and often learnt melodies from other parts of the Jewish world.

    A family that had no guests felt the pain of deprivation.


    Christianity & the Pharisees

    October 21st, 2018

    Q. Why do Christians think so badly of Pharisees?

    A. After a lifetime of involvement in interfaith encounter this evil and inaccurate prejudice still disturbs me greatly. It is one of the ugliest aspects of the classical Christian attitude to Judaism.

    It begins with the savage chapter 23 of Matthew and gives Pharisees and Pharisaism a monstrous reputation.

    They really should extol the Pharisees, not excoriate them. But they allow themselves the impossible view that the Pharisees were hypocrites who put on a pretence of piety whilst really being venal and mean.

    Matthew hurls at them the vicious slogan, “Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites”. The terms “Scribes” and “Pharisees” are used pejoratively, though gentler texts show some sympathy for them both. In general, however, they are called snakes and vipers.

    The Pharisees – apparently all of them – are tarred as hypocrites, and the hypocrites – apparently all of them – are deemed Pharisees.

    Christianity hardly ever admits the truth, that Pharisaism was a progressive movement dedicated to spiritual and ethical outreach that democratised religion and applied it to changing circumstances.

    Far from being hypocrites, the Pharisees themselves warned against hypocrisy (Sotah 22b; Avot d’Rabbi Natan, ch.37, etc.; cf. G.F. Moore, “Judaism”, vol. 2, 1932, pp.192-4).

    Far from being narrow-minded, they taught love and concern for all God’s creatures.

    If Jesus’ teaching echoed that of any Jewish sect of the time, it echoed the Pharisees.

    Not all Pharisees were paragons of virtue, but neither are all the adherents of any faith absolute saints. But it distorts the facts to condemn all the Pharisees for the possible faults of a few.

    It is high time that Christians spoke the truth about the Pharisees and demanded that dictionaries deleted the negative and unhistorical way in which they use terms like “Pharisee” and “pharisaical”.


    Benefits of the commandments – Lech L’cha

    October 14th, 2018

    The title of this week’s sidra literally means “Go for yourself” (Gen. 12:1).

    The commentators say that HaShem is telling Abraham, “Go where I send you, and it will be good for you!” Rashi tells us that l’cha indicates, “for your benefit, for your good”.

    The broader question is whether this approach applies to the religious life as a whole.

    Are we saying that we should be religious for the sake of the benefit it gives us? Do we keep Shabbat, for example, because of what we will gain from it?

    There isn’t an easy answer. Strictly speaking one should say, “I keep the commandments because they are the word of God”. But throughout Jewish history there have been attempts at finding ta’amei hamitzvot, the reasons for the commandments. Sometimes God gives us a clue as to what lies behind a particular mitzvah: sometimes He doesn’t.

    Sometimes we experience a personal or group upsurge (in Hebrew, n’shamah yeterah) because of the effect of keeping the commandments, but that upsurge – reflecting the time and place where we live – may not be shared to the same extent by other people.

    Whatever your thinking may be, let it reinforce your devotion to the life of Judaism.


    Abraham’s journeys – Lech L’cha

    October 14th, 2018

    The patriarch Abraham is on the move throughout this week’s portion: Vayelech l’massa’av, “He went on his journeys” (Gen. 13:3).

    Rashi tells us a surprising thing, that he stayed in the same inns as on his previous journeys.

    People (myself included) often remember how much they enjoyed a particular hotel and when they find themselves in that town they always stay at the same place. That’s the practical side of the question.

    Ethically, some of the commentators say Abraham went back to his previous stopping places in order to pay his debts; on his earlier journeys he had been impoverished and needed assistance, but now he had become wealthy (kaved me’od: Gen. 12:2) and was able to pay back the help he had received.

    Philosophically, there is a deeper consideration. What should one do in life – go backwards or forwards, re-trace your life’s experiences or move into hitherto unknown territory?

    Nostalgia draws you back, but reality insists that the past is over and can never be re-created.

    I never know what the future will bring, what lies in wait around the next corner – but I am guided by the final sentence of Psalm 27 (L’David Ori), Kavveh el HaShem – “Hope in the Lord, be strong, steel your heart, and hope in the Lord!”