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    Hard of hearing

    September 2nd, 2018

    It’s customary to call it teki’at shofar, the blowing of the shofar, but that in fact is not the mitzvah at all.

    The mitzvah is lishmo’a kol shofar, to hear the sound of the shofar.

    There are two aspects, two obligations: the blowing must be by a competent person who follows the rules, whilst the congregation as a whole need not have the ability to blow but must hear the sounds.

    By analogy, there is a wider sense in which everyone has a duty to hear.

    When someone is in pain, others must hear their cry.

    When God says, “I shall hear, for I am compassionate” (Ex. 22:26), we human beings have a duty to emulate the Almighty.

    When we hear the call, Sh’ma Yisra’el – “Hear, O Israel”, we must be receptive and take the message seriously.

    Rabbi Elazar ben P’dat asks in the Talmud (Ket.5b), “Why do fingers look like pegs?”, and the answer is given, “So that when a person hears something unworthy, they can plug their ears”.

    Conversely, when one hears something important, they must listen intently and not pretend to be deaf.

    Writing our own record

    September 2nd, 2018

    Un’tanneh Tokef is an unending source of emotional, spiritual and intellectual fascination.

    Its depiction of the Heavenly court on Rosh HaShanah is unrivalled. The court scrutinises a stream of defendants. The prosecutor makes his accusations; the defending counsel makes a response. God Himself sits in judgment.

    As the proceedings unfold, every case is entered in the court books. But not by a court official. No: each person’s record writes itself.

    The idea derives from a Talmudic passage (RH 16b), which says, “Three books are opened on Rosh HaShanah… the wholly righteous are written and sealed at once for life and the wholly wicked for death; the intermediate category have their cases suspended”.

    The text does not say that any specific official makes the entry in the record. The words are passive, not active: “the wholly righteous are written and sealed…”

    By whom? The answer of Un’tanneh Tokef is unequivocal: our deeds write their own record.

    To which the Chafetz Chayyim adds: it all depends on how we deal with other people. If we judge them uncharitably and speak ill of them we are inviting the Chief Justice to judge us negatively.

    “Therefore a man needs to bear in mind that whenever he judges another human being, either favourably or otherwise, with his words, he is actually, literally, arranging and determining his own judgment in heaven” (Sh’mirat HaLashon, Sha’ar HaT’vunah 4).

    Stand by for the covenant – Nitzavim

    September 2nd, 2018

    The final Shabbat of the Jewish year tells us that we are all standing before God, about to enter a covenant with Him.

    The Hebrew for covenant is b’rit. Members of the covenant are b’nai b’rit.

    It sounds like the name of the brotherhood movement B’nai B’rith and of course this is where the movement got its name. Long before B’nai B’rith emerged in the United States in the 19th century, the covenant bound Jews to each other and to the Almighty.

    The human covenant had two basic principles: I have duties to you as a Jew and you have duties to me.

    Between us we form a mini-community. Neither of us can hide from the other and say, “Leave me alone!” If one is in pain the other hurts; if one has a simchah the other rejoices.

    That’s why we take it for granted that we all come when anyone is, God forbid, sitting shivah. It’s why we all feel involved if there is a happy event. Historically everyone was welcome at a wedding, not just the close friends and relatives (and the bank manager).

    What about the covenant with God? That’s where it really becomes serious. No-one needs to be reminded that we have duties to God… but about God’s duties to us?

    We cannot help thinking that there are times when He seems to let us down, when, to use a phrase from Megillat Echah, He seems to have become like an enemy.

    I had a colleague who was a Holocaust survivor. He told me, “Where I come from they used to say, ‘If God lived in my village I’d break all His windows…’.”

    I’ll tell you a secret – Nitzavim

    September 2nd, 2018

    There is no point in asking most people to keep something confidential.

    Almost always the secret gets out. Hardly anybody can keep a tight rein on their mind and tongue.

    True, a few can be trusted, but experience underlines the Biblical verse, “He that goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, but he that has a faithful spirit conceals a matter” (Prov. 11:13).

    This verse in fact plays a role in the development of the Jewish concept of privacy; in Judaism a privacy law has existed from Biblical times whereas in Western law it is not much older than about a century.

    Secrets figure in the week’s Torah portion in the verse, Hanistarot laShem Elokenu v’haniglot lanu ul’vanenu – “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; the revealed things are ours and our children’s” (Deut. 29:28).

    Maybe it is human nature to seek to know the inner secrets of the Creation but the sages discouraged this search, adamant that man has enough to do with the “revealed things” which are given into his charge.

    Apart from anything else, things that belong to God require a Divine mind, in comparison with which the human mind, however great, is too limited and ephemeral to understand the full sweep of the universe.

    This does not prevent man from investigating the scientific structure of the world and the human body, but these are “revealed things”.

    To seek to find out the really deep things, especially the nature of the Creator Himself, does not and cannot succeed.

    B.D.S. & the first fruits – Ki Tavo

    August 26th, 2018

    The sidra commences with the bringing of Bikkurim, the first fruits, to the Jerusalem sanctuary (Deut. 26).

    This was not one of those quiet spiritual moments between man and God. Fulfilling the mitzvah didn’t happen by stealth but publicly with an impressive procession culminating in a personal declaration made to the kohen.

    There must have been something special about this mitzvah that made it necessary to celebrate it with such pomp and ceremony.

    It was because the first fruits had a unique quality. They demonstrated the renewal of the process of growing and harvesting the crops of the land.

    These days it is not just the agricultural products of Israel which we celebrate even though we are proud and delighted to find Israeli fruits and vegetables all over Europe. For many years oranges were Israel’s main export but today Israel gives the global community a stream of remarkable ideas and techniques.

    Alas, we give them blessings and they throw back BDS. In the Jewish world Israel radiates Jewish identity and inspiration, and it’s only the sourpuss cynics who refuse to become excited at the amazing renewal of Judaism that Israel has spearheaded everywhere in the world.

    So what if you don’t approve of Israeli government decisions? Israelis themselves have a range of opinions. So what if you think you could run the government better?

    Maybe you could, but don’t sit on your backside in the Diaspora and give advice from afar. Come and be an Israeli!