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    The Purim pretence

    March 6th, 2022

    Acting out the Purim story has a great history.

    The Si’ach Yitzchak (Yitzchak Weiss) thought that it echoes the evil Haman, who pretended to be genuinely concerned for the welfare of the king.

    The Talmud (Meg. 12a) says that things often have hidden motives. Tosafot (RH 3a) says that Haman’s ancestors tried to defeat Israel by changing their voices and their clothing.

    A piyyut for the Shabbat before Purim says kesut v’lashon shinah – “he changed his voice and his clothing”. How can we let ourselves pretend to be our enemies, the Amalekites and the wicked Hamanites?

    Simply because we are so accustomed to being victims and it is good to see our enemies brought low despite all their pretensions.

    May the time soon come when all the antisemites turn into clowns without dignity or power.

    Audited accounts – P’kudei

    February 27th, 2022

    Checking the income and expenditure of the Tabernacle-building project required careful auditing, which is the major feature of the Torah passage this Shabbat.

    How interesting it is to see God as an accountant, one more area of His professional expertise to add to literary references to God as a doctor (Ani HaShem rofecha), God as a lawyer (E-l orech din), God as a shepherd (HaShem ro’i) and so on.

    None of these descriptions can be taken literally. They are metaphors which acclaim God’s wisdom and His headship in every area of life.

    We may be good with words but we are unable to find words to define the nature of God. We cannot articulate His attributes of essence. All we can do is to suggest His attributes of activity – not what He is but what He does.

    God in Himself is unique: as the prayer book says, not even if all the seas were ink and all the feathers were pens could we describe His true nature.

    Into Egypt & out of Egypt – P’kudei

    February 27th, 2022

    The Book of Exodus (Sh’mot) which we conclude this Shabbat begins with Israel coming to Egypt. The final haftarah of the Book ends (I Kings 8:21) with them coming out of Egypt. Sefer Sh’mot is in that sense the Book of Egypt. This was not just a country but a civilisation.

    Its drawback was not its education but its ethics, not its culture but its callousness. Human rights were limited to the indigenous Egyptians, and not extended to the alien residents or the mixed multitude who made up the rest of the population.

    Throughout history the Jewish people encountered several places of that kind. Pre-Nazi era Germany was one of the worst – cultured but callous, literate but ethically questionable.

    Jewish teaching always finds it hard in a place where the ethics are unreliable, where human beings are not accorded rights or dignity, where the Ten Commandments are not taken seriously. Egypt without the Almighty is hard to take.

    Ready for the day after – Vayakhel

    February 20th, 2022

    We open the sidra this week with Moshe Rabbenu assembling the Israelites and telling them 39 things which God expects them to do – to keep Shabbat, to be generous, to furnish the Tabernacle and so on.

    What date was it when this assembly took place? Rashi tells us that according to the sages, it was 11 Tishri, the day after Moshe came down from the mountain.

    11 Tishri has an additional significance in the Jewish calendar, of course: it is the day after Yom Kippur.

    We learn from this fact that any great day matters in two ways: it is important in itself, and it is important because of what follows it.

    Yom Kippur is the best example. It is a day of sanctity, a day of emotion, a day with a message. Statistically it gathers huge congregations, but the next day the numbers in shule are sparse again. Spiritually it envelops us in an exceptional mood, but then our commonplace weekday activities resume as normal.

    Ethically it softens our feelings towards each other, but the next day we argue, we criticise, we attack each other’s opinions and are disputatious as before.

    What a joy it would be if the morrow of the great day began a new, nicer era.

    No fire on Shabbat – Vayakhel

    February 20th, 2022

    Exodus 35:3, prohibits lighting fire on Shabbat.

    There are many explanations of this law. One is that fire in all its various forms makes weekday activities possible, and by not kindling fire we separate Shabbat from the rest of the week.

    It is interesting how easy it is these days to produce a spark, which shows that the criterion of Shabbat “work” is not a matter of how physically hard the work is but what it signifies.

    Turning on an electric switch is easy, but its effect and symbolism have a mighty message.

    What happens if the weather is extreme – excruciatingly hot or freezing cold? We can organise ourselves before Shabbat to provide for the weather. This is the thinking behind the use of Shabbat clocks. The clock does not have to rest on Shabbat: we do, but the clock helps us.

    This is also where the notion of the “Shabbos goy” comes in (and Jewish literature has a number of stories of what happened at different times if the Shabbos goy turned out to be Jewish).