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    Moses’ rebuke – D’varim

    August 4th, 2019

    The fifth book of the Torah begins with the words (D’varim) which Moses utters in his farewell speech to the people after his forty years of leadership.

    Rashi and other commentators say that what Moses uttered were words of rebuke.

    We wonder why, since an experienced diplomat knows the art of speaking words of praise even though he wraps up a degree of criticism inside what he says.

    There is a Chassidic explanation that says that in a sense that is precisely what Moses did.

    He reminded the people of all the blessings God had brought upon them, how He took them across the Red Sea, fed them when they were hungry and gave them water when they were thirsty, how He protected them from the elements and defended them from the enemy.

    The people got the message and realised that they had often been ungrateful and rebellious, and by the time Moses’ speech came to an end they had done t’shuvah and repented without even realising it.

    Maybe the dog will die – Mattot

    July 27th, 2019

    Parashat Mattot opens with laws concerning the making of vows.

    Whatever the occasion or the content of the vow, the Torah is adamant: Lo yachel d’varo – “A person must not break his word; he shall do according to all that comes out of his mouth” (Num. 30:3).

    The Midrash, recognising the human tendency to put things off, adds, “For he knows not when his hour of death will come”.

    We all seem to hope that we will never be called upon to carry out the obligations we assume.

    At school we look forward to being saved by the bell. In a hundred and one other contexts we dream of circumstances changing to such an extent that our promises will be swept up and swept away and never need to be fulfilled.

    The old Jewish story from somewhere in Eastern Europe is pertinent.

    The baron threatened to expel the Jews of the town. After the rabbi’s anguished plea, the baron relented to the extent of saying, “Well, teach my dog Hebrew within a year and you can all stay”.

    The congregation were aghast that the rabbi agreed to the condition. “How could you accept something impossible like this?” they demanded, but the rabbi, quite unshaken, replied, “Anything can happen in a year; maybe the baron will die, maybe the dog will die…”

    Unfortunately, the “maybe the dog will die” philosophy does not usually work. In most cases the things we undertake do have to be carried out.

    “Better not to vow than to vow and not fulfil”, says King Solomon (Kohelet 5:4).

    Gathered to one’s people – Mattot

    July 27th, 2019

    Moses is told (Num. 31:1) to avenge the Israelite grievance against the Midianites and then “be gathered to your people”.

    The reference is obviously to death but it is articulated gently. The text does not say bluntly “you shall die” but it uses a softer phrase, “you shall be gathered to your people”.

    Throughout the ages people have used euphemisms about death. A typical example is “he passed away”.

    We understand why the preference for gentle language, but why the phrase “to be gathered to one’s people”?

    It originates in Gen 25:8, in relation to Abraham. Sforno says on that passage in Genesis that “people” is not necessarily to be understood in an ethnic sense. It is not a reference to one’s tribe or nation, but to their ethics and character. The word “people” in this context means one’s righteous ancestors.

    The person who dies after a good, upright life is metaphorically enrolled in the historical record of the righteous.

    Who was Pinchas?

    July 21st, 2019

    Pinchas had pi-nechas (nechoshet), “a mouth of brass”. He was a gallant warrior who was indignant when he saw people rebelling against God and the Torah.

    As a priest, a grandson of Aharon HaKohen, he should never have taken up a weapon and killed the sinners, but God recognised that he had acted out of zeal for the Divine name.

    There looks like a contrast between the grandfather and the grandson. Aharon was a man of peace whilst Pinchas seems to be a man of war.

    When God said that Pinchas had “turned away My wrath from the Children of Israel” (Num. 25:11), He added, “I award him a covenant of peace”, which means that in some way Pinchas had promoted the ideal of peace.

    But why did God call it a covenant? What form of peace did Pinchas promote?

    Peace between the Israelites? Perhaps, since the sinners had shattered the unity of the people.

    But in a higher sense, peace between God and Israel. No covenant could survive if one party went in one direction and the other party followed a different path.

    Pinchas restored the covenant.

    After the plague – Pinchas

    July 21st, 2019

    “After the plague” God said to Moses, “Count the Children of Israel”.

    There must be a connection between the plague and the census.

    We find an answer if we look at our own generation and then go back to the Torah passage.

    Whatever word we use for the Holocaust, “plague” is the least horrific. Before the plague the world Jewish population was probably about 18 million, not a very large number but without the anti-Jewishness of the centuries there would have been at least 100 million Jews.

    But the fact was 18 million, and a census at the end of the Holocaust would have revealed that we were down to about 12 million. It’s now creeping up again.

    The figure is not just relevant in external terms but internally.

    Who were the survivors? What was their morale – depressed or determined?

    The answer is “Both at the same time”.

    Baruch HaShem our determination has prevailed and internally we are strong and committed.

    That’s what Moses was checking for his age. Were they despondent or determined?

    If they decided to stride boldly ahead and build a future, all would be well.