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    Uniqueness – the first word

    January 20th, 2019

    The first word of the Ten Commandments is Anochi, “I”.

    God says, “I am HaShem your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of bondage” (Ex. 20:2; there is another version in Deut. 5:6).

    It tells us several things about God:
    • He exists – His name means “the One who is”.
    • He is caring – He redeemed us from bondage.
    • He is unique – He and no-one else is the foundation of our lives.

    This verse has to be read in conjunction with the Shema (“HaShem is our God, HaShem is unique” – Deut. 6:4). There is a reciprocal relationship. In the Decalogue, God announces Himself; in the Shema we acclaim Him.

    People have always wanted more details about Him. Today is no different. When you tell someone else that you believe in God, you are likely to be met with the response, “’God’? What are you talking about? What do you mean by ‘God’?”

    Someone once told me that the hard thing was to say, “I believe in a god”, but I don’t think that is hard at all. People have and always have had many gods, things or thoughts they looked up to and served. For some people money is their god, for some it is power.

    The really hard thing is to say “I believe in the (not ‘a’) God”, because He can’t be fitted into some definitional pigeon-hole and spelt out.

    He Himself says, “I am what I am” (Ex. 3:14). It is His uniqueness that is meant when we say He is One.

    Levels of fellowship – the last word

    January 20th, 2019

    The final word in the Ten Commandments is re’echa, “your fellow”.

    Does it mean your fellow-Jew – or your fellow-human being?

    The word comes several times in the Torah. The most famous instance is Lev. 19:18, where we are told v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha, “You shall love your fellow as yourself”.

    This is part of a whole mini-code about one’s fellow: the Torah says, lo ta’amod al dam re’echa, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Lev. 19:16).

    But is re’echa a fellow Jew? It certainly includes him, but is that where it stops?

    Look at Ex. 11:2, where it says that tells the Israelites on the eve of the Exodus to ask their fellows for objects of silver and gold. There doesn’t seem much point in asking for these things from fellow Israelites, who were not likely to possess such valuable items.

    The context of “fellow” is, as the conventional translations say, “your neighbour” – i.e. the Egyptians. Rashi points to Gen. 15:14, which speaks of the Hebrews leaving Egypt “with great substance”.

    It seems that our attitudes towards our fellows (one’s re’im) are meant to apply to all human beings whatever their ethnicity.

    The difference between “Le” & “Al” in a b’rachah – Ask the Rabbi

    January 20th, 2019

    Q. Why do some blessings say le (“to”, e.g. le’hadlik ner shel Shabbat) and others say al (“concerning”, e.g. al n’tillat yadayim)?

    A. There are many theories. None works consistently.

    Rabbenu Tam says al is used when an action immediately follows the blessing, e.g. al hamilah (“about circumcision”) but le when the action is prolonged, e.g. le’hadlik ner shel Chanukah (“to kindle the Chanukah lights”).

    Maimonides says le applies when the action is personal, e.g. le’hitattef batzitzit (“to wrap oneself in a fringed garment”) but al when the action is for others, e.g. al hash’chitah (“concerning animal slaughter”).

    These rules sound plausible but they have major exceptions, e.g. le’hadlik ner shel Shabbat and al achilat maror.

    Everyone has dual loyalties

    January 15th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 15 January, 2019.

    Rashida Tlaib has started her US Congress career by using the old antisemitic stereotype of dual loyalties, except this time the accusation is not directed so much at Jews, but at non-Jewish Americans who happen to have positive views about Israel.

    According to Tlaib, American supporters of Israel have forgotten what country they represent. Actually, they are well aware that their first loyalty is to the United States, as are Americans who have an opinion about Russia, North Korea, Mexico, Britain, Iran and any other part of the world which figures in American policy considerations.

    I suspect that in her terms, Tlaib herself has a bad case of dual loyalties. She dislikes other people’s support for Israel. But what about her own support for the Palestinians?

    Maybe she doesn’t realise that she is shooting herself in the foot. Maybe she also doesn’t see that by using Congress to attack supporters of Israel and advocate for the Palestinians, she is doing precisely what she objects to: introducing prejudice onto the floor of Congress.

    Many Americans are Roman Catholics. A sizeable number are of Irish Catholic extraction. Does that mean that their loyalties are divided between the United States and the Vatican, or between the United States and the Republic of Ireland?

    There are different types of nations, different types of loyalties and different types of identities. The word “nation” is sometimes political, sometimes geographic, sometimes cultural, often even culinary.

    If an American has a taste for French potatoes, Swiss chocolate, Swedish turnips, Brussel sprouts, German beer or English tea, does that create an unacceptable dual loyalty? If they have an interest in Greek or Italian literature, Indian films or Chinese philosophy, does that indicate a forbidden cultural dichotomy?

    It always bothered me to know that Ludwig Lewisohn said, “There is no such thing as a man: only a Frenchman, an Englishman, an American, a Spaniard, a German, a Greek, a Jew.” If he was being simplistic and denying one’s right to a range of identities on a range of levels, I don’t think he was right.

    Surely one can have multiple loyalties. In my case, I am both an Australian and an Israeli, and a Jew. Since I lived in London for 15 years and was brought up in Australia in a British environment, I also claim to be a Londoner and an Englishman.

    On occasions when I have visited Britain in recent years, I felt at home (though it felt strange to see how different the streets look and how expensive life in London has become).

    I knew someone (actually a rabbinic colleague) who was even more complex than me because he was an Irishman, an Englishman, an Australian and a Jew. He was living proof that it is possible to have more than two, three or four loyalties, all expressing a dimension of one’s being.

    Everyone has a multi-faceted identity regardless of whether their heart displays it and whether or not they wear it on their sleeve.

    Apart from what one might call public loyalties, there are personal identities.

    I am simultaneously a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. I am a voter, a pedestrian, a client and a consumer. I am a synagogue member, a historian, a non-meat eater and a geriatric. Over the years I have played many roles in society, not only as a rabbi, writer and teacher, but in other areas too. (I am even a cook, though I haven’t yet worked out how to make cakes.)

    I try to combine all my identities in a constructive fashion. I can’t – or won’t – analyse myself. But that’s not the main thing. I am me.

    The crucial problem with multi-faceted loyalties of any kind is whether they create conflict, and if so how to handle it. There are many situations in which conflict is highly unlikely but others where the possibility of conflict is very real. Examples are in the medical, military and business arenas.

    In Jewish ethics there is considerable debate about the tensions between the three major values of truth, justice and peace. There is a pragmatic urgency about finding solutions, or at least approaches to a solution.

    In Jewish theology, God Himself has a similar problem on a cosmic scale. He is both strict and compassionate, both immanent and transcendent. In the words of the liturgy, He is both Father and King. In the Book of Exodus, when He is asked what He is, He simply replies, Ehyeh asher ehyeh – “I am what I am.”

    Singing with Moses at our side – B’shallach

    January 13th, 2019

    According to the classical rabbis, there are ten great songs. One of the greatest is Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, which we sing this Shabbat.

    Singing has been intrinsic to Judaism from time immemorial.

    Sometimes it was impossible not to sing, as the human heart pulsated with the ecstasy of being alive and the feeling of what a wonderful world God has given us.

    Sometimes we sang through our tears: no tragedy or tyrant could shatter our faith that life was still good and there would yet be things to celebrate.

    No wonder the sages remarked that there were halls in heaven that opened only to the sound of song.

    No wonder too that Jewish song-making has always been part of Jewish worship, which was never satisfied to read, recite or even declaim the prayer service but built up a tradition of nussach, standard melodies for every season of the year.

    No wonder Israel Zangwill says that the Jewish year was like a musical box.

    No wonder that the commentators – amongst all their range of interpretations of the future tense in the opening words of Shirat HaYam – said that Az Yashir Moshe, Moses will always be at our side to sing the praise of the Creator.