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    The priestly blessing – Emor

    May 12th, 2019

    The sidra has a great deal to say about the task of the kohanim.

    These days almost the only kohanic role we see is the priestly blessing, which is carried out on festivals in the Diaspora and daily in Israel. The difference between the two arenas is explained by Rabbi Moses Isserles in his notes to the Code of Jewish law.

    He tells us that the blessing must be pronounced with a feeling of joy, which is not easily attained outside Israel. Diaspora Jews are subject to strains which affect their mood. They need the extra feeling of the festivals to summon up the appropriate emotions.

    The kohanim utter their benediction with their faces hidden from the congregation. This indicates that it is not the kohen who is invoking the blessing but God; we are wrong to think otherwise.

    This also has a message for the kohen. He shouldn’t try to escape pronouncing the blessing on the basis that he is not sufficiently pious. The words are not his: they come from God. A kohen may be guilty of transgression, but God is not.

    Cursing the deaf – K’doshim

    May 5th, 2019

    One ethical principle after another is enunciated this week: the general – “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), and the specific – e.g. “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14).

    The words “deaf” and “blind” are meant both literally and figuratively.

    The literal meaning is obvious, for the blind person cannot see the obstacle that is ahead and the deaf cannot hear the insults that are uttered.

    Figuratively, the blind and the deaf are symbolic of people whom it is easy to take advantage of because of their ignorance or innocence.

    Example: a person comes into your shop and you palm off a poor quality product on them because they simply do not know the difference. If you take advantage of their gullibility you have gravely transgressed the Torah.

    Example: you want to win votes, so you flatter people, manipulate their thinking and lead them to believe you are the solution to their problems.

    Judging others favourably – K’doshim

    May 5th, 2019

    The sidra of K’doshim is said by the Talmud (Shevu’ot 30a) to be the source of the ethical principle that we must judge other people favourably: The sidra says b’tzedek tishpot amitecha, “Judge your fellow fairly”.

    The temptation is to write someone off without realising all the facts of the case. Looking for extenuating circumstances in others puts everyone and everything in a new light.

    This is a way we can emulate God (Lev. 19:15).

    When we ask Him for forgiveness, we pull out all the stops to persuade Him to be kind and merciful even if we don’t really deserve it. The Talmud actually makes this point when it says, “He who judges others favourably is himself judged favourably by God” (Shabbat 127b).

    There is a teaching in the Sefer Mitzvot Katan that says that when we see the good points in another person we see ourselves in a new light. We see other people’s good points and we hope that other people see our own.

    Of course we realise that we are far from perfect and this stimulates us to improve our own deeds and attitudes in case other people look for our good points and can’t find them.

    Do Jews have a Holocaustmania?

    May 5th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 3 May 2019.

    Many years have now passed since the Second World War, which left such a trail of havoc and horror all over Europe, and traumatically influenced the whole of modern history ― and since the Sho’ah, the Holocaust, with its brutal smashing of millions of innocent Jewish lives and the wanton destruction of great and peaceful Jewish communities whose only wish was to live unmolested in the way that their conscience dictated.

    We regularly hear from those who would deny it all happened, or prefer to relativise its significance, as well as from decent and fair-minded people who somewhat impatiently ask, “Surely this Holocaust occurred a long time ago; why can’t you Jews forgive and forget, and free yourselves from your obsession with it all?”

    The answer is that the experience has left such a permanent mark on the Jewish psyche, such a searing pain in the Jewish soul, that to suggest that it be erased is to ask the impossible, the unthinkable.

    Never has there been such a catastrophe, such a deliberate, cold-blooded campaign to eradicate every single member of an entire people, the healthy and the sick, the old and the young, without exception, escape, exoneration, immunity, compassion, appeal, or redress.

    Countless families are still inconsolably grief-stricken and bereft. Many of the survivors still suffer the nightmares; often the pain is getting worse, not better.

    Even those fortunate enough to be less personally involved continue to be outraged at the jungle-like ferocity that brought to a sudden end over a thousand years of proud, dignified Jewish history and culture on the continent of Europe, wiping scholars, sages and saints, and great centres of piety and learning, off the face of the earth.

    As Abba Eban writes in My People: The Story of the Jews:

    Jewish history and consciousness will be dominated for many generations by the traumatic memories of the Holocaust. No people in history has undergone an experience of such violence and depth. Israel’s obsession with physical security; the sharp Jewish reaction to movements of discrimination and prejudice; an intoxicated awareness of life, not as something to be taken for granted but as a treasure to be fostered and nourished with eager vitality; a residual mistrust of what lies beyond the Jewish wall; a mystic belief in the undying forces of Jewish history, which ensure survival when all appears lost; all these together with the intimacy of more personal pains and agonies, are the legacy which the Holocaust transmits to the generation of Jews grown up under its shadow.

    I readily admit to having an obsession with the Holocaust. And that obsession ― someone inelegantly called it “Holocaustomania” ― has hold of Jews everywhere and will not let them go.

    But the Holocaust is not just a Jewish concern. Its dimensions are universal. The Very Rev. James Parks Morton, one-time Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, said, “Auschwitz was the single most important event of the twentieth century, a paradigm of the advanced, intellectual, industrial, technological society gone to hell.”

    Never was there such a confrontation between two diametrically opposed world views; as Jacob Talmon expresses it:

    between morality and paganism; between the sanctity of life and the cult of warfare; between the quality of all men and the supremacy of the selected few; between the search for truth and the discharge of instinctive impulses; between the vision of a genuine society of equals and the prospect of a society of masters lording it over slaves.

    A reviewer of Walter Laqueur’s book, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler’s “Final Solution” poses this question:

    From where, if not from the Holocaust, a premonition of the death rattle of the thermonuclear age, can come the testimony and the warning that man is capable of the worst as he is capable of the best, that through madness or blindness, he may transform the planet into a crematorium?

    The Holocaust starkly confronts our generation with the paradigm of what can happen if man does not see in his fellow the face of a brother man; if, instead of using the new means of communication as media for dialogue, man blatantly or subliminally peddles lies and distorts the truth; if man prefers to see the whole world destroyed rather than rejoice to see other people peacefully inhabit their own little corner in the sun.

    The Holocaust is not just one more chapter of Jewish suffering: it is a message to the world. In a world in which Jews can be ground down by the jackboots of inhumanity, no-one is safe anywhere. In a world in which the glass of the synagogues can be wantonly shattered, nobody’s sanctuary or identity or ideology is safe anymore.

    That is why people everywhere should develop an obsession with the Holocaust if they value their future. That is why there should be not less “Holocaustomania,” but more.

    Forgive & forget? – a thought for Holocaust Remembrance Day

    May 2nd, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 1 May 2019.

    Even though it’s decades after the Holocaust, the shivers still pierce us when people ask, “Can’t you forgive and forget?”

    How can a people with a long memory forget?

    We still feel the pain of the slaves in Egypt, the burning of the Temple, the expulsion from Spain, the persecutions and pogroms.

    If we have maror on the Seder table, if we fast on Tishah B’Av, how can we erase the memory of the Holocaust?

    We wonder how others can forget, some even denying the Holocaust happened, even though it wasn’t just Jews the fiends targeted but civilisation as a whole.

    We can’t forget. The world shouldn’t either. The memory should haunt everyone. The world should join us in saying, “Never Again!”

    We can’t forget, but can we forgive, even though Judaism believes in forgiveness?

    I know that Moses says to God, “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people” (Num. 14:19). I know that God says, “I blot out thy transgressions” (Isa. 43:25). I know that God forgives and man is (generally) expected to follow His example.

    Ben Sira says (Ecclus. 28:2), “Forgive your neighbour: and when you pray your sins will be forgiven.”

    The Rosh (Asher ben Yechi’el) said, “At night before retiring, forgive whoever offended you.” The Roke’ach (Elazar ben Yehudah) said, “The finest thing a person can do is to forgive.”

    But if it’s so easy, why is it so hard?

    There are four issues:

    1. What are we asked to forgive?

    • The deprivation, dehumanisation and destruction of others, the cold-blooded doctrine that deliberately defied the biblical “Do not murder” (Ex. 20:13), “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19:17) and “Let your brother live with you” (Lev. 25:36).

    • The indifference, apathy and acquiescence of many nations, including leaders of Christianity, transgressing the command, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev. 19:16).

    • The failure of some Jewish leaders to urge escape from Europe while it was still possible – in particular those who said, “Leave it to God.”

    This defies the command against abdication of human responsibility, “You shall be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).

    2. Who are we asked to forgive?

    • The Nazis and their henchmen?

    There can be no forgiveness of those who had no shame, scruples, compassion or compunction, murdering babies in the morning and playing classical music at night.

    Most showed no remorse or repentance, justifying themselves on the basis of superior orders or saving their own skins. Forgiving them abets their actions. It gives Hitler the last laugh.

    • Those who stood by, including Christians without moral courage who rang church bells for the Nazis?

    Some are honest and say, “Mea Culpa.” We hope they mean it. We value their repentance and their pledges of conscience, but why don’t they protest new acts of evil?

    • The Jewish leaders who left it to God to save the Jewish people from catastrophe. We can try to forgive the shortsightedness of that generation so long as we do not repeat their errors.

    3. Who is asked to do the forgiving?

    • The six million martyrs? They are in the world of the afterlife; we cannot speak for them. If they did not forgive, how can we?

    • The thinning ranks of the survivors?

    If they wish to be forgiving, they can decide for themselves – but their forgiveness is not for having been murdered, but for the pain and grief they suffered.

    • The new generation, those not there in the evil years?

    In Faith After the Holocaust, Eliezer Berkovits calls them Job’s brothers, not Job. The decision should be left to Job himself. He was the one in pain.

    • The gentiles? The gentile victims must speak for themselves. The silent bystanders must be counted among the accused who – if they were not Nazis themselves – are guilty of condoning the evil.

    • God? When humans kill each other, part of God dies with the victims made in His image. Let Him decide if He wants to call the Nazis His children. But how can He forgive their crimes against other humans?

    4. What is meant by forgiveness?

    There are three categories of Divine forgiveness, selichah, mechilah, and kapparah. S’lach lanu, mechal lanu and kaper lanu are three stages:

    Selichah is forgiveness, ceasing to blame. The forgiver says, “The act has been committed but I shall no longer blame you for it.”

    Mechilah is pardon, freeing from penalty. The forgiver says, “The act has been committed but I shall no longer penalise you for it.”

    Kapparah is expiation and redress. The forgiver says, “The act has been committed but I see your guilt as paid out.”

    Forgive and forget? We can’t do either.