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    The courage to be small – Bo

    January 17th, 2021

    The story of our ancestors in Egypt is the age-old confrontation of the hero and villain.

    The villain is Pharaoh, the hero is God.

    The two are locked in bitter conflict: Pharaoh says scornfully, “Who is the Lord?” God retorts, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?”

    Now what does God have against Pharaoh? It is not only that the Israelites are slaves, but that Pharaoh claims divine honours.

    He is like the tyrants who think they are more than mortal. God says, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself?”, but they airily pretend God does not exist. Eventually they topple, but not until untold suffering has come upon their own and other peoples.

    Yet not only to Pharaoh does God say, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself?” He has the same question, less angrily, for each one of us.

    A contemporary writer has said: “The sin of which modern man is most frequently guilty is that of ‘self-sufficiency’ – the certainty that man is capable of fathoming all secrets, of controlling all events, of mastering all situations…

    “To fly like a bird through the air and swim through the sea like a fish; to harness the energy of the sun and uncover the bowels of the earth; to build cities of steel and glass, erect bridges which span the waters and towers that pierce the skies; to unravel the age-old mysteries of nature – all this has led to the conviction that through his mind and insights, man alone can solve all problems…”

    Twenty-first century humankind has much to celebrate. But we have also witnessed fiendish demonic persecution and destruction, frightening pollution, and pervading fear, uncertainty and anxiety. It is an age of glorious highs and shameful lows.

    The Book of Proverbs reminds us: “Pride goeth before destruction”.

    A little humility is a wonderful thing.

    The Celestial tug of war – Va’era

    January 10th, 2021

    In the Book of Exodus the Torah changes. It no longer concentrates on individual life stories. Now there is a new dimension, a new backdrop – national and international politics.

    Yes, there are personal elements, biographical details, stories within a story.

    We encounter Moses the individual, Aaron the individual, Pharaoh the individual, Pharaoh’s daughter the individual… but there is a context. One people and its leader are in a tug of war against another people and its leader.

    Each people has its deity. Moses and the Israelites are not their own masters. Their higher Master is God. Pharaoh and the Egyptians also have a religious dimension, made even more complicated because Pharaoh himself is regarded as at least partly divine.

    A pattern emerges which develops and plays out throughout the subsequent centuries. The battle is not limited to earthly considerations. When the Jews struggle for their freedom and rights it is part of a higher struggle between the God of Israel and the religions of the environment.

    That isn’t all. It is not so much the Jewish God against the gods of others but the Jewish Elokim against the gentile Elilim, the no-gods.

    Mixed multitude – Va’era

    January 10th, 2021

    When eventually the Hebrew slaves left Egypt, a “mixed multitude” (erev rav) went with them (Ex. 12:38).

    There is a connection between this erev and the one that means “evening”.

    The underlying meaning is “to mix”. Evening is a mixture of day and night; that’s why the Evening Service is Arvit or Ma’ariv, because at the end of the daylight hours God mixes (ma’ariv) the light and the darkness: then the day recedes and night takes over.

    In the story of the Exodus the Hebrews might have fled with a motley group of outsiders, which the Targum calls nuchra’in, strangers. These people took the opportunity to escape, though the Midrash has views that the mixture was of insects (Sh’mot Rabbah 11).

    Rashbam says the mixture was of fierce animals, particularly wolves, because animals such as wolves hunt in packs.

    The Divine name – Va’era

    January 10th, 2021

    The sidra begins by saying that despite the Divine names which figure in the Torah hitherto, we now find the people perceiving the Almighty by the four-letter name which we render HaShem (Ex. 6:3).

    Yet surely that name was already known from the previous chapters of Sh’mot and all the more so from the Book of B’reshit!

    Maybe until now the names of God were just names, but now the people have existed long enough to realise the significance of each name – in particular that Elokim denotes Divine power and HaShem denotes Divine love.

    Remembering Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, Jewish philosopher and thinker

    January 5th, 2021

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 5 January 2021.

    Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein

    Sixty years ago last week, on December 27, 1960, Marian and I stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) at the Bayswater Synagogue, London, to be married by her father, Rabbi Joseph Unterman. Her unterfuhrers (escorts to the chuppah) were her parents; mine were Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, principal of Jews’ College, and his wife.

    The first time I met Dr. Epstein was the day I arrived in England, but I had admired him from afar as an author and thinker.

    Ours was the first marriage between two Jews’ College students. I was in the ministerial department and Marian in the teachers’ institute. My father was in Australia and had no money for the fare to London; my mother was deceased. Dr. and Mrs. Epstein stood in for them.

    I had been living in the College dorm for nearly three years and could not afford to phone home. When it came to furnishing our synagogue residence in Bayswater, we bought mostly cheap and nasty secondhand items. After studying arts and law at Melbourne University, I had come to London as a student, though these days it would have been Israel where I would go.

    Dr. Epstein was a diminutive man with a giant mind. Born in Hungary, he had come to England in his youth, and the rabbinic ordinations he earned included one from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, who had been stranded in London because of World War I. Epstein (the students sometimes called him Eppie) was said to know the whole Talmud by heart. Only a man like that could have edited the 36-volume Soncino Talmud, the first full translation of the Babylonian Talmud into English.

    He was advised by then-chief rabbi Joseph Hertz to get an academic education and he ended up with two doctorates from London University. After some years as the rabbi in Middlesbrough he joined the teaching faculty at Jews’ College, where he remained for the rest of his life, becoming director of studies and, finally, principal.

    He taught whatever was necessary, ranging from Semitic languages to Bible and halachic concepts. When the College started a teachers’ department offering a range of general studies, he could walk into any classroom (psychology, classics, mathematics or whatever) and be at home. Walking in the physical sense was second nature to him; his students – we were nearly fifty years younger than he – had to run to keep up with him.

    He wrote voluminously. When he retired and we wanted to honor him by means of a bibliography of his writings, he couldn’t remember all that he had written.

    The historian Cecil Roth once divided Epstein’s writings into three stages. The first was rabbinic responsa, to which he devoted his first books; he was the pioneer of treating the responsa literature as a facet of Jewish history. He moved onto the Soncino Talmud, where his annotations were added to more or less every page. His third stage was books on Jewish thinking – not just Maimonides and Judah Halevi but the ideas and ideals of Judaism.

    His magnum opus in Jewish philosophy was “The Faith of Judaism: An interpretation for our times,” in which he addressed the critics who objected to religion as a whole, not to speak of those who objected to Judaism and orthodoxy. He insisted that Torah was not the same as Pentateuch. He insisted that everything had to make sense. He objected to anti-intellectual trends in which facing up to problems was avoided by people who thought fake homiletics could provide the answers.

    When Penguin Books wanted him to write a general book about Judaism he produced a history of Judaism and Jewish thought which went through many editions and was translated into a sheaf of languages.

    Scholars can be dry remote figures; Eppie was a warm human being who enjoyed dealing with young people. He would consult students when they didn’t really deserve it. He knew I had a law degree and would discuss with me how to phrase something in his translation of the Talmudic Encyclopedia. It turned out that he knew more law than I did. He would second us to give talks and lectures on his behalf all over the country. I still use his notes. I also stand by his principle that whatever one studies in Judaica the first and best book is the Tanach. His lament and rebuke was, “You don’t know your Bible!”

    See also:
    Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein – a tribute
    Isidore Epstein & the strengthening of faith
    Judaism: A historical presentation