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    The tale of two cities

    April 11th, 2021

    We Jews go back a long way. Our history is intertwined with the Holy Land, with times of greater closeness and times of greater distance.

    The movement to unite us with the land has, as Zvi Werblowsky said, a name that features a city.

    Zionism is the vision of Zion. Zion is Jerusalem, two names for the one city.

    Isaiah said, “Out of Zion will come Torah, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”. Yehudah HaLevi said, “Zion, will you not ask about the well-being of your exiles?” The Siddur says: “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion”.

    This is not just nationalism. Nations who try to eliminate us face bigger odds than they imagined: not field-marshals or fire power, not armies but the Lord of Hosts, not weapons but the Divine Word.

    Tell that to the United Nations and they say they have no time for dreamers, but it was dreams that created the UN itself.

    As the poet says, breathes there a man with soul so dead that he can’t see that Zion is not just bricks and mortar but mystique and poetry?

    Cut our city in two and you cut our heart.

    Making a noise – Sh’mini

    April 5th, 2021

    A terrible thing happened to Aaron. Two of his sons were summarily struck dead as punishment for a grave sin.

    The death of Nadav & Avihu, by James Tissot

    Most parents would weep uncontrollably. But Aaron reacted differently: Vayiddom Aharon, “And Aaron kept silent”.

    And this is not the only crucial moment in Biblical history when silence proved more eloquent than speech.

    When Elijah had been through his great contest with the prophets of Baal he went into the wilderness. There he experienced a strong wind, an earthquake, then a fire.

    But none of these dramatic phenomena brought the presence of God. God was in the kol d’mamah dakkah, the sound of thin silence.

    The rabbis say that if a word is worth one coin, silence is worth two.

    Rabbi Akiva said, “Silence is a fence to wisdom”. Rabban Gamliel reflected, “All my life I have grown up amongst sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence”. Another writer observed, “Never speak unless you can improve on silence”.

    The human tongue can bring blessing, but it can also do great harm. It is always better to think before you speak, and then not utter a word, or at least say very little.

    We all know of people who – to mix some metaphors – open their mouths and put their foot into it.

    Nadav & Avihu – Sh’mini

    April 5th, 2021

    Chapter 10 of Vayikra tells us how Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu met their death.

    Since all the names in the Torah have a significance we wonder whether these two men had names that had a special connection with their fate. It could be that both names reflect a positive appreciation of what they did.

    Nadav means “willing”, “a volunteer”, since he stepped forward and brought “strange fire” to the altar, possibly out of extreme piety, though the sages have a range of other interpretations of the fire, including the idea that the two men gave rulings in the presence of their elders or that they refused to get married.

    Avihu probably means “He is my father”. The “He” may refer to God, allowing us to link the name with a Midrash that says that Avihu was the type of person referred to in Kohelet 7:15, which speaks of a righteous man who died in his righteousness.

    Passover: The history of Haggadah art, and how the illustrators worked

    April 2nd, 2021

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 2 April, 2021.

    A page from the Darmstadt Haggadah

    One year, the trustees of the Blake Prize in Australia included me among the competition’s judges. A journalist strongly objected because he thought rabbis knew nothing about art. He got his ideas from a line of thinking that says that Jewish art is largely non-existent because the Second Commandment bans the depiction of the Divine or anything in God’s Creation.

    There was a fear of graven images, but artistic creativity was not completely prohibited or circumvented. It is true that Judaism has problems with the visual arts, and there are very few artistic works in the synagogues, though the mosaics in ancient synagogues in Israel are often strong and powerful. They do not portray God or human beings, though animals and birds and geometrical designs abound.

    A major category of Jewish art is that of manuscript illumination, though its early history is not greatly known. Among Jewish literary works, the Torah strictly abides by the prohibition of images, but there is a spirit of leniency in other directions. The Passover Haggadah almost always has pictorial illustrations without which it would be a quite different and less exciting book. Haggadot produced in the medieval period are especially embellished with all sorts of illuminations as well as dramatic illustrations.

    Not that the artists always agreed with each other. In the Middle Ages, when manuscript illumination was at its peak, there were two main schools of illustration. As Rabbi Harry Rabinowicz points out in one of his articles about Jewish books, the German school tended to limit itself to depicting the Seder service: the family at Seder, the four sons, the 10 plagues, the rabbis at Bnei Brak, and the hiding of the afikoman.

    The Spanish School concentrated on the creation, depicting what took place on each of the first seven days of history. Apart from the flora and fauna, we see Adam and Eve establishing human history. We see the animals coming to Adam to receive their names. We see Eve emerging from the rib of Adam. Later figures such as the patriarchs Moses, Aaron and David were also depicted.

    Among the works of artists who believed that the Second Commandment prohibited depictions of the human shape, we see the so-called Bird’s Head Haggadah, where human heads are replaced by birds. Most illustrators, whatever their provenance, depict biblical themes, though sometimes they give a contemporary appearance to figures from the Bible.

    In Dutch Haggadot of pre-modern vintage, Moses looks like an Amsterdam burgher of the time of Rembrandt. Rembrandt himself produced quite a number of Jewish-themed paintings. In more recent Haggadot, the wise son looks charedi, ultra-Orthodox. The wicked son looks like a Cossack. The simple son has nothing special about him. The son that knows not how to ask looks quite puzzled. One of the strangest Haggadot shows the head of the family pointing to his wife when referring to the bitter herbs!

    Illustrations became commonplace on Seder plates. They depict the family seated around the festival table and often go back into history with the finding of baby Moses, the Hebrew serfs laboring for Pharaoh, the people in flight from Egypt, and even the first Passover celebrated the year after the Exodus. These Seder plates became popular amongst the well-to-do, more among Ashkenazim than Sephardim.

    One of the wedding presents my wife and I received was an Arthur Szyk Seder plate, which we use to this day. It was given to us by the Association for Jewish Youth in Britain, whose religious director I was at the time.

    What happened with the Blake Prize of which I was one of the judges? There was public support for my nomination, and the other judges recorded their appreciation of my contribution to the discussions. The religion writer for The Australian, a national daily, said I was an urbane man and widely respected.

    I think gratefully that my parents chose well when they gave me the Hebrew name of Bezalel. I was named after my grandfather but have had a lifetime yearning to deserve the name, since the original Bezalel was “filled with the spirit of God in wisdom, understanding and knowledge” and had the instinct to know what turned a building into a sanctuary.

    Freedom – the day after

    March 29th, 2021

    The great achievement of Judaism was that it decided not to leave its ideals to theory.

    It believed in freedom but didn’t just talk or write about it. It turned it into an event, a public demonstration. It told the tale of freedom and reconstructed it.

    Jews re-lived it all, the enslavement in Egypt, the dream of liberation, the emergence into a new free world.

    Not that it left it at that. It did not limit itself to a crowd of ex-serfs standing outside the prison gates wondering what came next. It said, “Now you are free you have to have somewhere to go and something to do!”

    The test was not just leaving the prison and hearing the gates clang behind the Israelites. The test was what came next.

    And that is why the next stage was the journey to Sinai. Sinai gave the free people an agenda: now they were free and now they had a task which would prove what they could do with their freedom. They could regard every other human being as a person with dignity and rights.

    Sinai taught them to mean what they said on Pesach, “Whoever is hungry, come and eat with us; whoever is needy, come and share the world” – to say it, and make it into a way of life.

    This is freedom in practice, not just in theory. It joins Emma Lazarus in saying the words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, to me.”