• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    The universal remedy – M’tzora

    April 16th, 2023

    The sidra gives us some really good advice. It assures us that there is a remedy when something goes wrong. The Chumash says (Lev. 14:54), “This is the Torah for any type of infection”.

    The Talmud says that the universal remedy is the Torah: in Eruvin 54a it tells us, “If you have a headache, study Torah. If you have a sore throat, study Torah. If your whole body hurts, study Torah!”

    Someone who heard this dictum had an amusing comment. He said, “The Talmud tells us, If you have a headache, study Torah. But if you look at the Torah you find that you don’t have a head for study. If you don’t have a head, how can you possibly have a headache?”

    The day after – Sh’mini

    April 13th, 2023

    Sh’mini tells us that the eighth day of a week tells us something important.

    The eighth day, you ask? Weeks have only seven days! But the day after the end of a week has its own character.

    The eighth day opens the imminent week, with all its challenges and opportunities. It also says a great deal about the week that has now ended. With the eighth day a message remains from last week, and you know whether that week has been spent well.

    Since the Shabbat of Sh’mini this year comes just after Pesach the effect of the festival still lingers. If we have spent Pesach as a family the following week reveals what sort of family life we are likely to have.

    If we spent Pesach committed to the ethic of freedom we will know whether the coming week is likely to show progress towards freedom.

    Body & soul – Sh’mini

    April 13th, 2023

    This sidra is one of the major sources of the Jewish food laws, kashrut, setting out what we should eat and what we should not eat.

    The Torah text constantly uses the word “holy”, which indicates that the food laws are part of the overall requirement of living a holy life.

    There are claims by the critics that the original reason for these laws has to do with health – i.e. “Keep kosher and be healthy”. The Torah itself speaks of spiritual and not bodily health, though bodily health is not unimportant. It says, “Sanctify yourselves and be holy” (Lev. 11:44).

    Maimonides makes a distinction between the impetus of kashrut (why we choose to keep kosher) and its effect (what keeping kosher does for us). He says that abstaining from prohibited foods helps us to be holy. In this way the body and soul are intertwined (Guide for the Perplexed 3:33).

    Why does God let us suffer? – Ask the Rabbi

    April 13th, 2023

    Q. How can God justify our suffering? We blame the enemy, but why don’t we complain about God Himself?

    A. There is no easy answer.

    We yearn for assurance (in the words of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev) that the suffering was for God’s sake, that He mourns as we do. But if He too mourns, why didn’t He step in and rescue us?

    It is strange that (in the words of Eichah) He seems to have acted like an enemy. We ask with Abraham, “Does the Judge of all the world not act justly?”

    The Talmud says that Elijah the Prophet heard God weeping, “Woe is Me that I have destroyed My house and exiled My children.”

    Nonetheless, the fact that Jews, Judaism and Israel have survived and flourished in recent decades helps us to believe that He has not forsaken us but loves us.

    “Then came a dog & bit the cat, that ate the goat …”: Passover & the philosophy of ‘Chad Gadya’

    April 5th, 2023

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 5 April, 2023.

    Chad Gadya from the Szyk Haggadah

    The Jewish seder ceremonial on Passover evening is impossible to contemplate without the concluding madrigal, Chad Gadya (“Just One Goat”).

    It is neither solemn nor hymnal. It is a lively and popular folksong and its tempo accelerates so much that hardly anyone can get their tongue around the words. Everyone loves it and many families vie for the choice of tune. Indeed, some families sing two or three melodies at the same time.

    Yet don’t imagine that this exciting song is easy to understand or to justify as part of the Haggadah, the Book of Narration. It poses a whole series of paradoxes:

    – It concludes an ancient ritual, yet it is quite a recent innovation.
    – It is the crescendo of a spiritual experience, yet it is a silly song about a goat.
    – It is a nursery rhyme, yet adults love it even more than the children.
    – Its philosophy (if it has one) is fatalistic, yet God turns it upside down.

    The essentials of the seder go back to the annual celebration held in the wilderness by the Israelites to recall their redemption from Egypt. Verses from the Five Books of Moses are the foundation of the text. Details are spelled out in the rabbinic code, the Mishnah, and must be two thousand years old or more. However, the songs at the end of the seder are relatively recent, and Chad Gadya itself only entered the Haggadah in 1590, just over four hundred years ago.

    It culminates a sublime spiritual occasion, yet it is a ridiculous poem about a goat which father bought for a song. The price of the goat was two zuzim. The zuz is a small silver coin corresponding to the Attic drachm and the Roman denarius, a mere few coins in today’s money. What has a song about cats, dogs, and goats to do with Passover?

    One possibility is that it points to the Passover sacrifice, but that was a lamb and certainly not a cat or dog — both are decidedly non-kosher.

    It may be that in the sixteenth century an Ashkenazi cantor or householder applied a ballad to the sequence of events in Jewish history. He speaks of a kid, but he means Israel; he refers to two coins, symbolic of Moses and Aaron, through whom the Hebrew bondsmen were redeemed from Egypt — events which clearly link up with Passover — and so on until God steps in with the final redemption which restores Israel to the Promised Land. This not only explains Chad Gadya but links it with other seder night songs.

    There are limericks, madrigals, and chain songs in many cultures, including one about the dog which stole the sausage and was nabbed by the cook; the cook was killed and put in a grave that had a stone that told the tale. What the songs have in common is dogs and the fact that one thing always leads to another. But Chad Gadya is different.

    One explanation I read goes like this:

    Lest one feel, God forbid, that the events of the Exodus are overshadowed by the centuries-long night of the present exile, and seek respite in some life-style inconsistent with that prescribed by the Torah, the Haggadah closes with the soliloquy of a lost soul seeking to identify with a higher truth.

    Why people like Chad Gadya is partly because it is fun, and surely even the adults are allowed to enjoy seder night and end the Haggadah with a smile. Didn’t our fathers like playing with their children’s train sets? Mine did, and Chad Gadya always reminds me of my Melbourne childhood. Beyond this, shrewd parents can see the adult themes in the song.

    What are these adult themes? One is the tug-of-war between fatalism and free will. From one point of view, Chad Gadya is fatalistic: “what will be will be”. One thing follows another and always has. The animal kingdom is full of dog-eats-dog. In the end nobody emerges unscathed. The kid is harmless and innocent, but the cat consumes him. The dog takes revenge on the cat but he himself gets a beating. The stick beats the dog but gets burnt by the fire. The water quenches the fire. And so it proceeds. Nobody wins except the butcher who sells the meat and makes a living (if you pardon a double entendre, he makes a killing). As the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám says, “The moving finger writes — and moves on.”

    The process is real and true to life. It challenges us daily, when, as the Jewish leader Nahum Goldmann used to say, we stumble from crisis to crisis. If it were just the wheel of fate turning, we would find that cold fate is heartless, and the attempt to buck the reality of things is hopeless. Events are inexorable. Fate has us in thrall. The only option is pessimism.

    But that’s not the philosophy of Chad Gadya. After the goats, the cats and dogs, the sticks and slaughtermen, along comes “the Holy One, Blessed Be He”. Regardless of whatever has happened until now, God steps in and asserts control. Little events like buying a little kid for two zuzim suddenly assume importance. They set off a process which is answerable in the end to God. Those who thought they had prevailed are put in their place. They thought they were atop the pedestal of history, but they themselves will get toppled. Those that think they have won, find in the end that they have lost. They think they are kings, but there is a King of Kings.

    That’s the philosophy of Chad Gadya. It’s not a little boys’ game of trains or daisy chains. There is a God, and with Him in charge everything is different. The individual who has suffered is no longer forgotten or forlorn. Longfellow said, “Though the mills of God grind slowly, they grind exceeding small.”