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    Blown over by a leaf – B’chukkotai

    May 26th, 2019

    The curses of the Tochechah are quite horrendous. There are big threats and small threats. One of the apparently small ones is that even a leaf can knock you over (kol aleh niddaf; Lev. 26:36).

    You have to be very fragile for such a thing to be possible, but the Torah is uttering a grave warning: if you disobey the Divine law you will lose all your physical strength and moral stamina and will have no power of resistance.

    Rashi gives the verse an extra dimension. If you hear the rustling of the wind you will think a powerful army is after you and you will only want to run away.

    Never mind that it’s only the wind in the leaves; you’ll be so faint-hearted and jumpy that your imagination will play tricks with you.


    End of story – B’chukkotai

    May 26th, 2019

    Revelation at Sinai, painting by Zely Smekhov

    With this sidra we come to the end of Vayyikra, the third book of the Torah.

    The final words are a fitting peroration: “These are the mitzvot which the Lord commanded Moses to convey to the Children of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Lev. 27:34).

    It’s not that the Children of Israel were on Mount Sinai, but Sinai was the source of the commandments.

    In the Talmud (Shabbat 104a) this sentence is given a solemn implication. In case you thought that the panoply of commandments was unimportant and ephemeral, you should know that they are eternal, immortal and authoritative. Just as the Ten Commandments came from Sinai so did every other mitzvah.

    It’s not your task to decide what is major and what is minor. It’s not up to you to choose what part of Judaism really matters. The laws of the Torah are one integrated body of principles.


    The mystery of the mangal – ploys and plays on Lag Ba’Omer

    May 23rd, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 23 May 2019.

    Lag Ba’Omer is hard for us Israelis who don’t eat meat. Summer in Australia has the same effect. Israelis and Australians share a love of meat burnt on barbecues, except that no-one is sure where the English “barbecue” or the Hebrew mangal originated.

    Possibly “barbecue” is from Spanish and mangal is from Turkish. There is even a crazy theory that mangal fuses English and Italian initials, “meat and gravy al fresco.”

    The Lag Ba’Omer barbecue is one of the mysteries of the day. There is a sheaf of Lag Ba’Omer mysteries.

    We’re not certain when it arose. We’re unsure of the real reason behind it. It comes in a period of semi-mourning that people reckon differently. It has few prayer customs. It centers neither on the home or synagogue, but on the outdoors. Some places have Lag Ba’Omer parades, some play at archery; Israelis burn meat.

    The archery presumably recalls the fact that even youngsters enlisted in Bar-Kochba’s army. Maybe children pretended to be going off to play sport while really making their way to school to study Torah?

    The barbecues? Maybe also a ploy, or maybe linked with the Roman interference with the Jewish practice of signal fires to mark a new month?

    That’s not the end of the mysteries. No one is certain why we have in Lag Ba’Omer a happy break in the dismal mood of the Omer, nor why the next day we go back to the semi-mourning.

    The popular theory links it with a plague (a choking disease according to the Talmud) that befell Rabbi Akiva’s students who were supporters of Bar-Kochba. Their suffering and deaths were a blow to Torah study and to national defense. The plague lifted on the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag Ba’Omer, which gave the day a good feeling.

    However, why should the plague be marked by no weddings or celebrations, with the ban resumed after Lag Ba’omer?

    As the mourning period is so widely observed, it is clear that the whole of Jewry found meaning in it, but the special status of Lag Ba’Omer – 18 Iyyar – remains a problem, as is the continuation of the mourning the following day.

    Josephus may have an answer. In his Jewish Wars (II:16-17) he states that the first rising against Rome began on 17 Iyyar, 66 CE, and the news became known the next day, the 18th of the month, which was regarded as the anniversary of the uprising. The nation was happy and proud that day, but the uprising failed and the persecution continued.

    Presumably the date was not referred to as Uprising Day or by any similar vernacular name in order to prevent reprisals, but when Jews spoke of it as Lag Ba’Omer, it made sense and remained meaningful and inspiring.

    Jewish history has so many sad anniversaries that it would be churlish (and impossible) to expect any one to give up their mangalim.


    Climbing a mountain – B’har

    May 19th, 2019

    The name of the sidra means “On the mountain”. Psalm 121 is rhapsodic about looking up to mountains.

    The question is what comes next, when you have scaled the mountain, when you have congratulated yourself and even planted a flag to show your arrival.

    Is that the moment to stop saying, “I lift up my eyes to the mountain”?

    The answer is No. You should always see another mountain ahead. Not until your last moment on earth should you say, “I have no mountains to climb!”


    I don’t want to go – B’har

    May 19th, 2019

    When it is time for a servant to be released, what happens if he refuses to go? He says, “I like being here; I don’t want to leave” (Ex. 21:5-6).

    The rule is that no servant may willingly embrace servitude for his lifetime. Freedom is his right but it is also his duty.

    He is punished by getting what he wants. He is punished by being a servant for ever.

    But Rashi says that “for ever” only means until the Jubilee Year (Lev. 25:10). When that time comes he has to go free. It is his second chance. In case he was foolish the first time round, now he has had time to live to regret his action or lack of action.

    Hard as it sometimes is to be free and to have to make your own decisions, you must not choose to avoid thinking, to repress feeling, to reject deciding as a free man.

    If you get to like being a prisoner or a serf you have abdicated the independence and glory which God has ordained.