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    Scapegoats – Acharei Mot

    April 22nd, 2018

    Sending out the Scapegoat, by William J Webb, 1904

    Most of Acharei Mot deals with Yom Kippur, including the scapegoat who bore the people’s sins into the wilderness.

    The original phrase was “escape goat”. The word “escape” itself is probably linked with “cape”; to escape was, says Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary, “to slip out of one’s cape”.

    Critics dislike the idea of piling sins upon an innocent goat and sending out of sight and out of mind, but the goat was symbolic of rapid transport – sinners wanted to cast their sins as far away and as quickly as they could. This could not replace penitence; only when one regretted the sin and determined not to repeat it, would a person want to send the sin off into the distance.

    Scapegoats are too common in human culture. Adam sinned; the scapegoat was his wife: “The woman gave me the fruit”. Eve blamed the serpent: “The serpent enticed me and I ate”. We don’t know the serpent’s excuse, but he too must have found someone to blame.

    The Talmud has a story about Elazar ben Durdaya (AZ 17a). After leaving the path of Torah he wanted the mountains to speak up for him, then the heavens and earth, the sun and moon, the stars and planets.

    Why had he sinned? The mountains were too hard to climb, heaven was too high, the earth was booby-trapped, the sun and moon (i.e. the weather) were against him, his stars were unfavourable.

    Finally he realised: Ein hadavar talu’i ela bi – “it was no-one’s fault but mine!”

    He sat with his head between his knees and wept aloud until his soul departed.

    We are all tempted to blame scapegoats; in the end we know that what we make of our lives depends on ourselves.

    Concealing the commandments – K’doshim

    April 22nd, 2018

    The problem of how to begin a speech is hinted at in the Midrash on the K’doshim reading, when it informs us (Lev. 19:1-2) that the entire people of Israel is being addressed, every group, every section, every tribe.

    And why? Rabbi Chiyya explained that this reading lists all the basic principles of Judaism.

    Rabbi Levi said it included the Ten Commandments.

    You might not find the Decalogue if you look for the conventional wording, but you will find, “I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:3), “Do not make molten gods for yourselves” (verse 4), “Do not swear falsely by My Name” (verse 12), “Keep My Sabbaths” (verse 3), “Everyone shall revere their mother and father” (verse 3), “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (verse 16), “An adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death” (verse 10), “Do not steal” (verse 11), “Do not go up and down as a talebearer” (verse 16), “Love your neighbour as yourself” (verse 18).

    A concealed set of the Ten Commandments!

    Honouring your mother – K’doshim

    April 22nd, 2018

    The Ten Commandments tell us, “Honour your father and mother”. Parashat K’doshim puts the parents in the reverse order, “Revere your mother and father”.

    According to the sages followed by Rashi (Kiddushin 30b/31a), revering is more usual towards a father, so the Torah wants us to know that mothers must also be revered and not expected to allow their children everything.

    These days it’s much harder to be a mother or father, since the fashion is to call parents by their first name and treat them like one’s contemporaries.

    It reminds me of my aunt, who protested against my over-familiar mode of address and said, “I’m not one of your mates in the playground, you know!”

    This is not to say that children should go to the other extreme and bow and scrape before Dad the Dictator, but children should remember that they owe so much to their parents, and listening to the parental voice of experience is actually quite helpful.

    Another memory: when my father wanted to talk about his life, we got impatient: “Dad and his stories again!” Now I’m sorry, because I’d know more about myself if I knew more about Dad.

    Doing God’s work – Tazria

    April 15th, 2018

    The Torah reading has a focus on medicine. One of its great affirmations is that the human body is God’s handiwork.

    We are not just a collection of spare parts put together haphazardly but a functioning entity in which every aspect fits into the whole.

    There is such a Brain behind the interlocking bodily system that this is what we acclaim in the Asher Yatzar blessing said on leaving the toilet. All our b’rachot are cleverly framed: maybe this is the cleverest of them all.

    The Torah calls God our Healer (Ex. 15:26), and the doctor does God’s work (the Mishnah points out that the best of doctors is cursed unless he humbly recognises his duty to the Chief Physician). The Chazon Ish said that going to the doctor reinforced his faith and trust in God.

    The Hebrew for “healing” is from the root resh-peh-alef, three letters which sum up what the doctor deals with – not just the body but the patient as a total person, not just the “spare parts” but the overall well-being of the patient, not just the physical but the metaphysical.

    Resh is rosh, “head”, summarising the mental faculty. Peh is the mouth – what it takes in, i.e. food and drink, and what it emits, i.e. speech. Alef is the first letter of the alphabet, the initial letter of ani, “I”: the person as a whole.

    Offering on the baby’s birth – Tazria

    April 15th, 2018

    Excitement at a baby’s birth is so evident that we can well understand why the Torah expects an offering to be made to mark the occasion.

    The strange thing is the difference between the offering for a boy and the offering for a girl. Not just the offering but the amount of time that must elapse in each case – 40 days for a boy, 80 for a girl.

    One theory is that the baby girl symbolises her future child-bearing faculty.

    It is the female who has the privilege of bearing a baby and bringing it to birth. It is the female who has to cope with the stresses of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth. In all the birth processes the female plays a greater role than the male.

    That’s not to say that the male lacks importance in the life of his child: of course he doesn’t. But the crucial contribution to a child’s beginnings is that of the mother. Maybe that’s why the role of the female is endowed with greater sanctity from her very first moment.

    Being a woman is never going to be easy for her, but without her there will be no continuity. Without her the family will have no future and nor will the Jewish people.