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    Gold, silver & brass – T’rumah

    February 14th, 2021

    The sidra sets out the offerings required for the building of the tabernacle. They include gold, silver and copper.

    But the Israelites were in the midst of the wilderness! How did they get these metals?

    One answer is that families may have owned metals for generations, from the earlier, more pleasant period in Egypt. In addition, the Torah states that on leaving Egypt they were endowed with assets by the Egyptians. They could also have acquired spoils of war from the Amalekites.

    When the time came, therefore, to create the sanctuary, they had not only the will but also the means to adorn the edifice with appropriate dignity.

    Their generosity established the precedent which has been part of Jewish life ever since – the instinctive support for a worthy cause. The full flowering of this impulse for generosity has come in our generation, which the historian Cecil Roth called the Philanthropic Age of Jewish history.

    Reconstructing the Jewish world after the Holocaust, creating the State of Israel, establishing the infrastructure for the Jewish future, all called forth all the reserves of gold, silver and bronze which we were able to give, and we gave and continue to give with a willing heart because we knew from Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness that to give is a mitzvah.

    Mishpat & halachah: the differences – Mishpatim

    February 7th, 2021

    Hebrew has several words for law. From this week’s Torah reading we derive the term mishpat; from many other places in the Torah we get the word halachah.

    Halachah, based on the verb halach (“to go”), is the path which the believing Jew makes into a way of life.

    Occasions (e.g. Shabbat and the festivals), activities (e.g. eating kosher food), spiritual patterns (e.g. prayer), intellectual duties (e.g. Torah study) and moral attitudes (e.g. generosity) are all part of halachah. We live by and with them because that is the will of God.

    In a sense we could translate halachah as progress. Life according to halachah is true progressive Judaism because it brings us closer to the Almighty.

    Mishpat (civil and criminal law) is part but not all of halachah. Religious believers regard it as a duty to God to live by the Jewish legal code but some people regard mishpat in secular terms. They say “Do not steal” is a national Jewish ethic, but religious believers say it is law because it comes from God.

    I am not a liar – Mishpatim

    February 7th, 2021

    The Torah says, “Keep away from anything false” (Ex. 23:7).

    In the Ten Commandments we are warned against distorting the truth; in the sidra we are not only told not to tell lies but not to be anywhere near an untruth.

    The rabbi of Lublin once gave advice to the Chasidic personality, the Seer of Lublin. He told him to minimise his greatness and not let people acclaim him. He should just say to people, “I am just a simple person like anyone else!”

    The Seer did precisely that and when people heard him saying he was an ordinary person they praised him because of his modesty.

    Sometime later the Seer said to the rabbi, “I did what you advised but it didn’t work. People praised me all the more!”

    The rabbi now said, “Tell your followers you are a great man, a Talmudic giant, a tzaddik!”

    The Seer said, “I can’t do that. I am prepared to say I am an ordinary Jew because that’s the truth. But if I show off that means I am really great and that’s just not true. It would make me a liar!”

    God in Kaddish – Ask the Rabbi

    February 7th, 2021

    Q. Why does Kaddish praise the name of God, and not praise God Himself?

    A. This is one of the leading features of Jewish prayer. God is too great for us to adequately praise Him, so we praise His name.

    Kaddish begins Yitgaddal veyitkaddash sh’mei rabba, “His great name be magnified and praised”; He is so infinitely great that we cannot magnify Him any further, and we pray that the world will magnify its belief in Him.

    The first paragraph leads to the response, Yehei sh’mei rabba mevarach, “May His great name be blessed”. This is the oldest sentence in Kaddish and is based on a prayer of David (Psalm 113:2) and Daniel (Dan. 2:20).

    The Talmud says (Shab. 119b) that if one utters this response with all his might, any adverse decree about him is torn up. Here too the emphasis is on God’s name.

    Our task is to spread His name and power everywhere in the world.

    Seeing voices

    January 31st, 2021

    A strange thing is said of the Israelites as they stood at Sinai.

    V’chol ha’am ro’im et hakolot – “and all the people saw the thunder (literally, voices)” that announced the Revelation.

    But surely you hear thunder, you do not see it!

    The word ro’im is interesting. As in English, “to see” can be understood on two levels.

    You see something physical with your eyes; but you also perceive with your mind’s eye (that’s what we mean when we say, “I see your point”).

    Using “to see” in relation to the thunder indicates that the people had a perception of the overwhelming experience of the moment. The Midrash Tanchuma remarks that each Israelite perceived the occasion according to his or her own capacity.

    We can find an analogy in another Midrash, this time on the story of the binding of Isaac. Approaching Mount Moriah, Abraham asked his servants, “What do you see?” They answered, “A nondescript hill!”

    What Abraham himself saw, however, was “a magnificent mountain with a cloud entwined about its summit”.

    He perceived the spiritual possibilities of what lay ahead; the servants did not have a poetic soul and could see only the banal. Which is why they were left behind with the animals, whilst Abraham and Isaac ventured forward to follow the word of God.

    At Sinai there were those who were rather unmoved by the whole experience. They had limited ability to perceive.

    There are people like them in modern Judaism too, who cannot see the majesty, the magnificence, the inspiration and fascination of the Torah.

    Our task as people whose spiritual perception is greater is to share our insights with them and hope that they too, in the Psalmist’s words, will “taste and see that the Lord is good”.