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    The B’nei Maron

    October 1st, 2019

    The dramatic High Holyday poem, Une’tanneh Tokef, written in the Middle Ages and possibly emanating from Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, describes mankind coming before God in single file on the Day of Judgment, like sheep which the shepherd checks over.

    The Hebrew phrase for “like sheep” is kiv’nei maron, which has at least six interpretations, of which “like sheep” (in Aramaic b’nei imrana) is only one interpretation.

    Other views include the following:
    • Soldiers of the House of David (kiv’nei maron is in this view a Hebraised version of the Greek noumeron, a troop): the notion is of a military unit filing before their commander.

    • Soldiers going in single file through the narrow, steep pass of Horon, i.e. Bet Choron, not Bet Maron. This is the view of Resh Lakish in the Talmud. A detailed discussion of Bet Choron is found in the Talmud in Sanhedrin 32b.

    All these and similar interpretations add up to the same thing – every creature being minutely scrutinised by the Almighty, both because He loves each one and because no-one can escape Heavenly attention.

    What calls the people of the world to appear before God is the sound of the shofar.

    A well-known interpretation of the shofar says that the notes start with t’ki’ah, the call to attention; they continue with sh’varim and t’ru’ah, symbolising the fear and trepidation that shakes every individual heart and conscience; and they conclude with another t’ki’ah, as if to say, “March on with God’s blessing!”

    Melech Elyon – The Supreme King

    October 1st, 2019

    Religious poems (piyyutim) liven all the Yom Kippur services. They generally use complicated allusions to Biblical and rabbinic material, but their message is unmistakable.

    They often compare the greatness of God the Supreme King and the littleness of man the Lowly King. The piyyut, Melech Elyon (“the Supreme King”) is a vivid example.

    The text in the Yom Kippur prayer book is abbreviated; the translated version given here is closer to the original.

    Why many prayer rites omit most of the “Lowly King” lines is that Jews were often accused of lack of loyalty and respect to the monarchical figures of the European kingdoms and principalities.

    Whether this accusation is valid is uncertain; what is beyond doubt is that many of the temporal rulers and church potentates that the medieval Jews encountered were lacking in integrity and ethical character.

    Supreme King: God On High, mighty above, lifting His strong hand –
    He reigns forever
    Lowly king: decays, descends to the grave, toils without pleasure –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: keeps His word, decrees and fulfils, reveals secrets –
    He reigns forever
    Lowly king: weak with disease, speaks nonsense, sees nothing –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: speaks truth, clothed in justice, hears cries for help –
    He reigns forever
    Lowly king: loves wickedness, does evil, inborn transgressor –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: recalls forebears, defends mankind, berates enemies –
    He reigns forever
    Lowly king: thinks and forgets, soon forgotten, sins noticed –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: lives eternally, ever good, spreads out the heavens –
    He reigns forever
    Lowly king: his days are handbreadths, his time is grief, born useless –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: robed in light, all heaven’s lights, mighty and luminous –
    He reigns forever
    Lowly king: brought down to the dark valley with clods and thick dark –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: forever rules, reveals secrets, gives speech to the dumb – He reigns forever
    Lowly king: moves briefly, troubled by disease, mind confused –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: endures all, from old bearing all, seeing all –
    He reigns forever
    Lowly king: transient, passing, eyesight dim, earth heaping up –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: glorious power, mighty in deeds, redeems and protects – He reigns forever
    Lowly king: his stench ascends, his filth and dirt cover him –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: His flaming angels move the waters, close to them who call in love – He reigns forever
    Lowly king: wrapped in worms, dank and dry, flashing water and fire –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: ever awake, His serene angels fill their mouths with praise – He reigns eternally
    Lowly king: sleep hovers and overcomes him, confusion besets him –
    how long can he reign?
    Supreme King: mighty forever, always glorious, His praise everlasting –
    He reigns eternally

    Rosh HaShanah humour: It’s no laughing matter

    September 29th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 29 September, 2019.

    Grand, solemn days like Rosh Hashanah have their funny side. Over the many decades I spent in the pulpit, I never knew whether I would walk home subdued or smiling.

    I worked hard on my sermons, presenting themes as vast and varied as God and man, Judaism and mankind, faith and fallibility, hope and hopelessness. But sometimes I could hardly repress grinning at the human comedy that played out in the congregation, sometimes involving me personally.

    I occasionally thought of Aristotle’s inability to understand the comic spirit, and decided that I had a better sense of humour than the ancient Greek thinker.

    Freud said that Jewish humour had two distinguishing features: It made us laugh, and it served our interests. Theodor Reik, his friend, student and colleague, added two more features of Jewish humour: It wasn’t merry, and it had an emotional intimacy. Freud accepted Reik’s suggestions, which I applied to my own rabbinical situation.

    Synagogue life on Rosh Hashanah had its humorous moments but they weren’t merry. They provoked grins and not guffaws. They had their emotional intimacy: One had to be Jewish and in synagogue to see that there was a funny side to the awesome High Holy Days. It served our interests. It cemented the bonds between us and made the Almighty a virtual member of our congregation.

    Think of my dilemma as Torah reader (ba’al k’riah) when a congregational elder was called to the Torah and clearly and solemnly said the blessing al achilat maror, traditionally recited before eating the bitter herbs at the Passover Seder.

    All I could do was to keep a straight face, declaim Amen, and go on with the Torah reading. I may have compromised the bounds of halachah (Jewish law). Thankfully, the Bible says that God enjoys a laugh and I hope He will forgive me on the Day of Judgment.

    Think of my dilemma as shofar blower (ba’al t’ki’ah) when I struggled to get a note out of the shofar and I (and everyone else) heard a congregant say, “Sho far sho good!”

    Think of my dilemma as the preacher. One year I preached about Jewish demography. The theme arose out of the Torah readings, which on Rosh HaShanah deal with parents and children and our longing for continuity. Applying the theme to the contemporary situation, I said every family should have at least four children. After I ended I saw Lou stand up and signal to his wife, after which both left the synagogue.

    During the week I asked him, “Lou, what was that about?” The answer came, “I was signaling, ‘You heard what the rabbi said, more children per family! Let’s go home, we’ve got work to do!’”

    Or the year when I was the prayer leader for morning services (ba’al shacharit) and I got to the end, to the Avinu Malkenu prayer, and the cantor hadn’t turned up.

    I was no singer and had trepidations about praying the service with the choir.

    The president came onto the podium and said, “Can you play for time?”

    “I’ll pray for time,” I said, and sang Avinu Malkenu!

    “Can you run the service?” asked the president.

    “I’ll have to. Send me the choirmaster!” I replied, and sang, Avinu Malkenu!

    The choirmaster came up and between lines of Avinu Malkenu we worked out an ad-hoc program with the choir doing the main singing parts. Baruch HaShem, thank God, we got things going, though with a sinking heart.

    By the time of the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets, the cantor had arrived. He had felt unwell and stopped into the local hospital on the way. He did daven, pray, beautifully but it took me years to get over the shock.

    That year I wasn’t in the mood to laugh and, thank God, the congregation forgave me so generously that I asked God for a special effort to forgive all of us for our sins.

    The Akedah – the sacrifice that never was

    September 23rd, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on The Times of Israel blogs on 23 September, 2019.

    The Akedah, the Binding of Isaac story (Genesis 22), is one of the great classics of literature: fifteen short, moving verses of unparalleled artistry.

    For Jews it shows that Abraham would go anywhere and do anything for the sake of God. For Christians it denotes that God’s “son” gave his life for the sake of humanity. For Islam, it depicts Ishmael, happy to be martyred.

    Some Jews see Isaac as the historical Jew, offered on the altar of God and His Torah. Jewish legend even says that Isaac was burnt to ashes and later resurrected. Not that the text itself says there was a sacrifice. There was a test, not a murder: a willingness for martyrdom, not martyrdom itself. Isaac, though not unscathed, survived; Abraham too survived, though subdued and changed.

    When the text says, “God tested Abraham”, the commentaries put in the mouth of God the words, “Please stand by Me in this trial so no-one will say the earlier trials had no substance”.

    There were ten trials imposed on Abraham. The first nine earlier ones are listed in Avot D’Rabbi Natan.

    Why was the patriarch tested so much? The rabbis said that as a potter tests not his worst but his best work, so God tests the righteous, not the wicked. He knows the wicked are full of holes and He needs no further evidence (Psalm 11:5; Gen. R. 54).

    From God’s point of view there is no plan to cause an actual killing. But from Abraham’s point of view, and Isaac’s? Maybe they had an inkling that God would push them hard but not require a death. They realised that the Torah forbids child sacrifice.

    The rabbis were highly exercised about the problem. According to Pir’kei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Abraham’s two “lads”, whom the Midrash names as Ishmael and the servant Eliezer, were discussing who would inherit the patriarch’s estate after Abraham’s return from sacrificing Isaac. A Heavenly voice said, “Neither of you will inherit: the heir will be the rightful owner” – a prophecy that Isaac would not lose his life but return from the mountain with his father.

    Pir’kei Avot 5:9 avers that the ram offered in Isaac’s place existed from the time of Creation, suggesting that the Almighty never intended there to be a sacrifice.

    Our generation cannot see any text or event without relating it to the Holocaust. Does the destruction of the six million counter the view that no actual sacrifice took place? Whatever the answer, the fact is that our people, bruised and battered, lost huge numbers but remnants survived, and Judaism lives! Like Isaac, we were horrifically shaken, but like Isaac we lived to tell the tale.

    Did God really need to test Abraham? By definition He knows all His creatures. Maybe it is the nations who need to know Abraham’s merits, and for their sake the patriarch must show his own determination and quality (Yalkut Shim’oni, Lech-L’cha 62). This view interprets nissah (God “tested” Abraham) as nes – God made him into a banner to unfurl before the nations.

    Others say it was Abraham who needed the test: else he might never realise his own spiritual and personal strength. There is also a view that Abraham had let God down by making a covenant with Avimelech that would have alienated some of the Promised Land, and God now threatened him, “If you give away land promised to your children, you may end up without children”.

    Some criticise Abraham for going along blindly with God’s command. But what could he have done? Could he have said “No”? We have a tradition of confrontation with God, pioneered by Abraham who said, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Gen. 18:25), couldn’t he have insisted on the Almighty explaining Himself?

    A further question: Abraham was tested, but did his son Isaac have no say? The repeated words, “The two of them went together”, hint that Isaac realized he was part of the test. He did raise any objection because he was a good and obedient son (Netziv, Ha’amek Davar 22:1). God tested Abraham, and Abraham tested Isaac.

    The Akedah often figures in our prayers. Sephardim and Chassidim read it daily. It comes in the Tachanun supplications on Monday and Thursday. In the Egyptian rite, people lie on the ground during Tachanun like lambs about to be slaughtered.

    The story has many layers. Its infinite variety is an inspiration.

    The Rosh HaShanah seder

    September 22nd, 2019

    On Rosh HaShanah evening many people put an array of simanim, symbolic foods, on the table – not just apple and honey but other foods too, which are tasted one by one as their meaning is explained.

    The apple and honey signify our prayer for a sweet year. There are also dates, leeks, carrots, beets, pomegranates, beans, apples, and a fish head. If you haven’t recently eaten one of these foods and require a Shehecheyanu, it is covered by the Shehecheyanu in the Kiddush.

    Each food has its explanatory words; the pomegranate (rimmon), for example, expresses the hope that just as the fruit is filled with seeds, so the year will be filled with mitzvot. The beet (selek) suggests the hope that any unhappiness will depart (yistalek).

    There are many customs as to the order of the foods. What we share is our yearning that the year ahead will bring us only good things.

    The question is whether we deserve everything we seek. That’s what lies behind the last line of Avinu Malkenu, “Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we have no good deeds”.

    An old custom was to say these words quietly and hesitantly, because we asked for so much and lacked good deeds to pay for it.

    These days we sing this line loudly and confidently to assure God that this year He can rely on us because we plan to accumulate good deeds.