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    Four new years – Rosh HaShanah

    September 6th, 2020

    The Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1 tells us that there are four New Years, four times in the year when we turn over a page in the calendar and start a new era:

    • 1 Nisan – new year for kings and festivals
    • 1 Ellul (some say 1 Tishri) – new year for the tithe of cattle
    • 1 Tishri – new year for the reckoning of foreign eras, for the release and jubilee years, and for the planting of trees and for vegetables
    • 1 Sh’vat (some say 15 Sh’vat) – new year for the planting of fruit trees.

    Only the third of these New Years is known simply as Rosh HaShanah. But altogether, we see that four elements are high priority in Jewish thinking – Jewish historical events, animals, world history and vegetation:

    Jewish historical events – what happens in Jewish leadership and the people’s observance of the high days and holydays determines the character of the year.

    Animals – the animal kingdom shares the universe with us and according to the Talmud (Eruvin 100b) exemplifies many ethical qualities: “Had the Torah not been given to us we could have learnt modesty from cats, hard work from ants, chastity from doves and gallantry from cocks”.

    World history – each year intertwines Jewish and world events; if the world tries to ignore or oppose the Jewish people, the world itself is diminished.

    Trees, which give fruit, shelter and shade to human beings, come to life as youngsters, they grow, tentatively at first, and as they reach maturity become productive and protective. They rejoice to be part of God’s world. Their swishing in the wind is like a voice that acclaims the Creator. There comes a time when a tree groans under the weight of years and falls apart, but even thereafter it still makes a contribution. Trees, like people, leave their traces. The world is a nicer place because they were there.


    Your children too – Nitzavim

    September 6th, 2020

    Parashat Nitzavim promises a reward for our t’shuvah: “The Lord will open up your heart and the heart of your children” (Deut. 30:6).

    The S’fat Emet asks why the verse mentions our children. Surely the opening up of our hearts automatically brings dividends of Divine favour to our children!

    The S’fat Emet points out, however, the nature of the benefit which our children receive. If we lead an upright life it will be an example to our children, and they too will be likely to live according to the Almighty’s ways.

    This is one of the basic principles laid down in the Ten Commandments: if we live uprightly, our children are likely to follow… but if we (God forbid) commit transgressions, our children too will be tempted to sin.


    Reward & punishment – Ki Tavo

    August 30th, 2020

    The tochechah, which lists blessings and curses evoked by human conduct, is scary and frightening.

    It is the second version of the list of rebukes, the first being in Parashat Bechukkotai.

    Who is the target – the individual or the nation?

    The text threatens us, “I will turn upon you disease and fever; you shall sow your seed in vain; I will punish you seven times for your sins”.

    Obviously we are being warned not to sin or else we will have to face the consequences. But who is the “we”?

    Albo says in his Ikkarim (4:39) that it is the nation as a whole, not necessarily any individual.

    A second question – why are the rewards and punishments physical, not spiritual?

    Ibn Ezra suggests that the majority of people are only moved by physical things and it would be too sophisticated for them if the rewards and punishments were spiritual.

    In a somewhat similar vein, Ramban says that spiritual rewards and punishments are axiomatic and only the physical aspects need to be specified.


    War & peace – Ki Tetzei

    August 23rd, 2020

    The Torah reading takes war for granted.

    In a perfect society no-one would ever fight, as we see from Isaiah and Micah who speak of abolishing weapons and people sitting peacefully under the shade of a tree.

    In the interim, until we reach the messianic ideal, there are three categories of war spelled out in Mishnah Sotah 8:7, optional, commanded, and obligatory war.

    Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 8:1) speaks of two categories, a mitzvah-war and a r’shut-war. The mitzvah-war is fought against the seven Canaanite nations, against Amalek, or in general in defence against the attacks of an enemy.

    Rambam rules that before waging war one must make overtures of peace; the Sifrei and those like the Vilna Gaon who follow it say that the overtures of peace are not made to all enemies but in the case of an optional, r’shut-war.

    The peace message is basically, “War is bad for everyone, so let us find a modus vivendi”. The crucial thing is that both sides must be able to trust each other.


    The last mitzvah – Ki Tetzei

    August 23rd, 2020

    Many of the Torah’s 613 commandments are found in this week’s sidra. The final law in the sidra is to remember Amalek and his threat to Israel.

    It sounds very vengeful – “Remember what Amalek did to you”. It embarrasses some people. “Can’t you forgive and forget?”, they say.

    Forgiving does not necessarily go with forgetting.

    Who got hurt by the enemy? The victims – and they are long since dead. No-one can expect us to forgive on their behalf. If they showed any interest in forgiving their persecutors, that is their business, not ours. They did not ask or authorise us to exercise forgiveness on their behalf.

    We cannot be asked to forgive, and if we are asked we cannot give an answer.

    What about forgetting? Impossible when God has given us the capacity of remembrance.

    Those who want us to forget want us to eradicate history. We cannot be asked to sever ourselves from history or to sever history from human psychology.

    Sometimes an event fades a bit over time, but the basic duty of remembering is the acknowledgment of facts.

    That is perhaps why the Torah tells us two things – “Remember” and “Don’t forget.”