• Noach


    all in the same boat

    In this era of globalization, when the climate, the economy, and the worlds of telecommunications and the media all combine to make the fates of nations ever more entwined, could there be a more striking image of the precarious and common destiny of humanity than Noah’s ark? The entire future of mankind – and of the animal world as well – faces the elements in a frail vessel in which all share a common fate.

    But the story of Noah carries a deeper message about globalization – about the universal and the particular, about the things we share as nations, and the distinctive elements that tell us apart.

    The story of Noah is not unique to the Bible. Indeed accounts of a great flood are found in the traditions of many peoples. Mesopotamian traditions, in particular, have flood legends which are strikingly similar to the story of Noah, most famously in the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’.

    In all of these stories, a great flood destroys all of humanity, but one man is warned by God (or the gods), and given instructions for the building of a boat and the collecting of animals, which leads to his survival and the continuation of mankind. Other common features include the fact that the boat comes to rest on a mountain, that the hero sends out birds to see if the waters have subsided, and that upon leaving the boat the hero gratefully offers thanksgiving sacrifices.

    The remarkable similarities between the story of Noah and these other early accounts convey a powerful message of a common cultural heritage – different peoples of the world sharing a common reservoir of traditions and legends.

    But just as important as the similarities are the differences. With all its parallels to the Mesopotamian legends, the Biblical account has a very different focus – and message.

    Perhaps most significant of all is the reason for the flood. In Mesopotamian accounts the flood is arbitrary, or else the angry response of the gods to the disturbing noise made by mankind. In the biblical story the reason for the flood is a moral one, the corruption of mankind – and the reason that Noah in particular is saved is because of his personal moral righteousness.

    The difference is profound. Indeed, the message of the Mesopotamian versions of the legend is ultimately one of helplessness, the powerlessness of man in the face of arbitrary and capricious gods. The biblical account, on the other hand, is empowering, stressing that the survival of the human race is dependent on us, and that by our actions we can become the authors of our own destiny.

    The long history of the people of Israel, and the brief history of the State of Israel, have again and again seen the courage and vision of individuals secure the survival and wellbeing of the nation. This history serves as powerful testimony to the uniquely Biblical idea that our fate is not arbitrary, and that we can and must act to ensure our survival and prosperity.

    The story of Noah, then, carries a double message: First, it emphasizes the common heritage that we share with the nations of the world, many of whom have within their traditions similar stories of a great flood which threatened to destroy the entire world. But at the same time, it reminds us of the unique message of our own tradition, and our own history, that our destiny is not arbitrary, but lies within our own hands.

    In others’ words

    “The State of Israel is like Noah’s Ark; all sections of the people must find a way to live in peace inside one boat.”

    Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau at a memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin, October 2004

    On a lighter note

    Noah’s Ark – the contemporary version

    The Lord spoke to Noah and said, “Noah, in six months I am going to make it rain until the whole world is covered with water and all the evil things are destroyed. But, I want to save a few good people and two of every living thing on the planet. I am ordering you to build an ark.” Six months passed, the sky began to cloud up, and the rain began to fall. The Lord looked down and saw Noah sitting in his yard, weeping, and there was no ark. “Noah!” shouted the Lord, “Where is My ark?” “Lord, please forgive me!” begged Noah. “I did my best, but there were some big problems. First, I had to get a building permit for the ark’s construction, but your plans did not meet the building code. Then my neighbors objected, claiming that I was violating zoning ordinances so I had to get planning permission. Next, I had a big problem getting enough wood for the ark, because there was a ban on cutting trees. And now, when I finally started gathering up the animals I’ve been sued by an animal rights group that objects to me taking along only two of each kind. Really, I don’t think I can finish the ark in less than five years.” With that, the sky cleared, the sun began to shine, and a rainbow arched across the sky. Noah looked up and smiled. “You mean you are not going to destroy the world?” he asked hopefully. “No,” said the Lord, “the government already has.”

  • Bereishit


    two sins, two exiles

    In the space of the first few chapters of the Bible, we read of two sins and two exiles. First, Adam and Eve eat from the tree that God has forbidden and as a result are banished from the Garden of Eden. Then Cain kills his brother Abel and is sentenced to spend his life homeless and wandering.

    Why two stories of exile? And why should these be the first stories that we read in the Bible?

    The two stories with which the Bible opens have many similarities: In both of them Man sins. In both, when given a chance to defend himself, Man tries to escape responsibility. And in both cases the punishment is the same: exile and wandering for the sinner, and a curse on the land to make it unfruitful or barren.

    But for all the similarities between the two stories, it is clear that they relate to two different dimensions. The story of Adam and Eve focuses on the relationship between Man and God; the story of Cain and Abel on the relationship between Man and Man.  While Adam and Eve transgress a divine command – not to eat from the forbidden tree, Cain’s sin is on the human level – he kills a fellow human being. (Indeed the rabbis comment that the fact that the first murder in the Bible is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel teaches us that every murder of another human being is really the murder of a brother.)

    The excuses given by Adam and Cain to defend themselves correspond to these two dimensions: Adam, accused of violating a divine command, tries to blame God: “The woman You gave me, she gave me the fruit”, he says, implying that it is God who is really to blame. Cain, on the other hand, is accused of a crime between man and man, and tries to deny responsibility on that level: Am I my brother’s keeper? he asks.

    And yet both sins lead to the same result: exile and wandering, and a disconnection with the land which becomes harsh and unproductive.

    In a remarkable parallel to the two stories of exile with which the Bible opens, Jewish history has witnessed two exiles of the Jewish people from their land. The Talmud teaches that each of these exiles was a result of a specific failure of the Jewish people: the first exile was a punishment for idolatry and failings between Man and God, while the second was a result of sinat chinam , causeless hatred between man and man. Strikingly, these two failings correspond to the two exiles of Bereishit, the first exile for failures of faith, and the second for failures of social responsibility.

    Today, back in Israel after these two exiles, what can the people of Israel learn from the two stories that the Bible opens with? In fact they set out the dual challenge that faces us as a society: to be true both to our tradition and to our social obligations. To be a society that is both Jewish and democratic. The opening stories of the Bible not only set this challenge; they also assure us that we will survive and flourish if we rise to meet it, and if we fulfill the commitment in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, to build a society based “freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel”.

    In others’ words

    “Zionism is our attempt to build a society, imperfect though it may be, in which the visions of the prophets of Israel will be realized.”

    Chaim Herzog, Ambassador to the United Nations, responding to General Assembly “Zionism is Racism” resolution, November 10, 1975

    On a lighter note

    Chaim the tailor was behind again with the alterations his customer had requested. “How can it be” shouted the exasperated customer, “that it takes you three weeks to make a pair of trousers. God created the whole world in six days!”

    “Ah” answered Chaim. But look at the beautiful job I did on your trousers – and look what a mess God made of the world!”

  • Vezot habracha


    a tale with two endings

    Three thousand years a go, Balaam the prophet described the Children of Israel as ‘a people that dwells alone’. This is a very strange concept, one that cannot be explained in terms of any mythology of the ancient world. And today, in the twentieth century, when you analyse it objectively and scientifically – not from the point of view of faith and feeling – there cannot be any doubt that this is how most of the world see us: a people that dwells alone. The problem is whether this concept denotes a privilege – not an escape from society as a while, but a unique role within it – or whether it is an anomaly, which must be denied and discarded. This is the question of Jewish history.  Ambassador Rabbi Yaakov Herzog, Address to Bnei Akiva Conference Jerusalem, January 1970
    The reading of Vezot Habracha brings the annual reading of the Five Books of Moses to an end. Unlike the other portions, it is read not on Shabbat, but on the festival of Simchat Torah. A number of customs that have developed around this reading suggest lessons for the way in which we relate, as individuals and as a people, to the text of the Bible as a whole.

    • The Bible – a shared legacy: It is the custom that, as this final portion is read, the entire congregation is called up to make a blessing over the Torah. In many synagogues the portion is read over and over to give everyone an opportunity to be called. In another widely-spread custom, based on a medieval German tradition, a special blessing “kol hanearim” invites all the children of the community to stand before the Torah and make the blessings.  All these customs are in stark contrast to the approach adopted in many ancient religions, in which knowledge of a sacred text was jealously guarded by a ruling priestly class. The message for the Jewish people, as we begin the annual reading of the Bible once again, is that this is not the exclusive heritage of any group or class, but a shared legacy of the entire people.

    • A never-ending cycle: As we finish reading the last section of the Torah, we immediately go back to the beginning of Bereishit and start reading again. In so doing we continue a never-ending cycle of study that has continued for thousands of years. At the same time we remind ourselves that there is no end to understanding. Even if the text remains the same, we the readers have changed and will read it each year with new insights and understanding.

    • A tale with two endings: The fact that we carry on reading from the start of Bereishit means that the Torah is in fact a story with two endings. On the one hand, the five books of Moses continue chronologically into the book of Joshua, with the story of the conquest of the land, and on to the history of the judges, kings and prophets of Israel. On the other hand, we return to the beginning and read the story of the Jewish people’s long journey to freedom, peoplehood and independence in their land. These two endings have a resonance for the Jewish people today. On the one hand, living in Israel, we are writing new chapters in the epic saga of Jewish history. But on the other, we are reminded that every generation has also to return to the beginning, to begin its own process of creating a sense of peoplehood and its own journey to the Promised Land.

    In others’ words

    “Our planet remains torn by conflict. At its heart, this is a conflict about values; a battle of ideas. It is a conflict about whether to respect or to reject the other – a conflict between tolerance and tyranny, between the promise of co-existence and the hopelessness of hate…
    “We, the people of Israel, have lived for many years on the frontlines of this conflict. Our nation has felt its fury; our soldiers have fought and died in its battles. An ancient people in the heart of the Middle East – great in history but small in number – we have been a constant target of those that oppose our very existence.”

    Address by Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni to the United Nations General Assembly, New York, September 2006

    On a lighter note

    I saw a clever greeting card perfect for the festival of Simchat Torah.  There is an open ark filled with scrolls of the Torah, a rabbi is putting the Torah away, and on the bottom is a big sign reminiscent of Blockbuster Video: “Be Kind, Please Rewind.”

    Rabbi Michael Gold

  • Haazinu


    between history and memory

    As Moses’ final speech to the children of Israel draws to a close, he becomes more and more concerned with the question of continuity.  How will the Jewish people ensure that the story of their journey and their mission will not fade away? As we saw last week, the last two of the  commandments are  both different approaches to ensuring that Moses’ teachings are handed down  to future generations: the seven-yearly public reading of the Torah, and the commandment to every individual to write a Torah for themselves.

    In this week’s reading, Moses is still troubled by the challenge of continuity, and he introduces his final song by stressing the importance of preserving the past:

    Remember the days of old,
    Consider the years of  many generations;
    Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you (Devarim XXXII:7)

    In relating to the past there is a crucial difference between memory and history. History is about the facts, about what happened. Memory is about the relationship between the past and ourselves; it is the past as it reflects itself in our identity.

    This difference is hinted at in Moses’ final words. The first half of the verse speaks of history:

    Remember the days of old,
    Consider the years of  many generations;

    “The days of old”, and the passing of “the years of many generations” are history in a distant and objective sense. The second half of the verse, though, suggests that an objective understanding of history is not sufficient:

    Ask your father, he will inform you,
    Your elders, they will tell you

    Here Moses tells us that we have to engage with the past, to ask questions and feel a personal connection to it, to realize that it is a message to us from our parents and ancestors. Here he speaks not of history, but of memory.

    The challenge of taking the past and transforming it from history to memory permeates almost every aspect of Jewish life. The major events of the calendar are attempts to give historic moments immediacy, and bring them to life, such as the recreation of the Exodus on Seder night, or the destruction of the Temple and exile on Tisha b’Av. Similarly many Jewish life cycle customs  are focused on remembrance, from the naming of babies after departed relatives, through the breaking of a glass at a wedding to recall the destruction of Jerusalem, to the Kaddish and Yizkor prayers said in memory of the dead.

    There is another crucial difference between history and memory in Jewish thinking. History is an academic discipline, one which is satisfied with simply knowing about the past. Memory in the Jewish understanding carries with it an obligation to learn lessons of the past and enact them in the future.

    The classic commentator Rashi (France C11th) suggests that this idea is also reflected in Moses’ words. “Remember the days of old”, he suggests, is a call to the Jewish people to recall the events that have taken place it he past. The continuation of the verse: “Consider the years of many generations”, relates, in Rashi’s view, not to the past but to the future. It expresses our obligation to consider the implications of the past for the future.
    This conception of Jewish memory, recalling the past so as to affect the way we relate to the future, is reflected in the use of the word  “Zachor” – “remember” , in the  Bible. Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, has pointed out that there are three occasions in the Book of Genesis in which God is spoken of as remembering:

    • “God remembered Noah” and brought him out of the ark onto dry land.

    • “God remembered Abraham” and saved his nephew Lot from the destruction of the city of Sodom.

    • “God remembered Rachel” and gave her a child.

    Every time that God remembers, Jakobovits concludes, it is not to dwell on the past, but to act as an impetus to protect the future.

    This then is the Jewish concept of memory: a process that begins with history, but never ends there. It calls on us not just to recall the past, but to internalize it, and to be ever aware of its message for the preservation and advancement of Jewish life in future generations.

    In others’ words

    “The Jewish people have a long memory, the memory which united the exiles of Israel for thousands of years: a memory which has its origin in God’s commandment to our forefather Abraham: “Go forth!” and continued with the receiving of the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai and the wanderings of the children of Israel in the desert, led by Moses on their journey to the promised land, the land of Israel.”

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Address at United Nations General Assembly, September  2005

    On a lighter note

    One night, Mollie and Izzy are sitting around the apartment and Mollie says “I think I’m going to go down to the corner and get myself an ice cream sundae.”
    Izzy says “Sit, darling. I’ll go down and get it for you.”
    “Forget it, Izzy. With your memory, you’ll never remember what I want. I’ll go myself.”
    “Don’t be ridiculous! There’s nothing wrong with my memory. Now tell me what you want.”
    “All right, all right. I want three scoops ice cream: cherry vanilla, chocolate chip and pistachio. I want colored sprinkles…not chocolate sprinkles …Izzy…maybe you’d better write this down…”
    “Don’t worry. I got a brain like a steel trap. Just tell me.”
    “All right. I want hot fudge sauce. Wet walnuts…not dry walnuts.
    Two cherries…one on the chocolate chip and the other one on the pistachio….Izzy…you sure you got all this?”
    “I got it. I got it. Is that it?”
    “No. I want a banana sliced in half, across the sides and some toasted coconut on the top. Izzy, maybe you should repeat it back to me.”
    “Don’t worry….it’s all up here,” he says, pointing to his head.
    Two hours later, Izzy comes back upstairs carrying a paper bag. He gives it to Mollie. She opens it up and takes out a bagel! “I knew it!” she says.
    “I knew it! I knew you would never get it right!” She looks at him accusatorily, and says, “So tell me…where’s the cream cheese?”


  • Nitzavim – Vayelech


    to hear and to write  

    The two shortest readings in the Torah, Nitzavim and Vayelech, are often read together, as we read them this week.  When placed next to each other, the contrast between their names is striking:  “Nitzavim” meaning “standing firm” on the one hand, and “Vayelech” meaning “he went”, on the other.

    The paradox is clear. In Nitzavim, the people of Israel who are about to move forward into the land of Israel are standing still. In Vayelech, Moses, who is not going with them, hurries about from tribe to tribe sharing his final words.

    This contrast between the community and the individual, and between the static and the dynamic, is reflected in the last two of the 613 commandments, which we learn about in this week’s reading:

    Commandment number  is known as “Hakhel” – or “Assemble”. Every seven years, at the time of Sukkot in the sabbatical year, the entire congregation of Israel – “the men and the women, and the children, and the stranger in your gates” – was to gather in Jerusalem and hear a public reading of the Torah.
    The book of Nehemiah (Chapter 8) gives a vivid description of the performance of the Hakhel ceremony by Ezra after the return of the Jews to Israel, following the Babylonian exile. As well as describing the dramatic public reading for which all the people gathered ‘as one man’, the description also includes a number of elements which have become the basis for the way in which the Torah is read in synagogues today: reading from a special bima or platform, making a special blessing over the Torah and lifting up the scroll so that all the congregation can see it.

    With the establishment of the State of Israel, there was discussion about reviving the historic Hakhel ceremony, and several years ago, on the last Sabbatical year, a large scale public Torah reading was actually held at the Western Wall.

    The 613th commandment suggests a different approach to ensuring the continuity of the tradition.  The commandment is derived from the verse:

    “Now write down this song for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel and put it into their mouths”.

    According to most of the traditional commentators, the song referred to here is the entire Torah, and the commandment to write it down applies to every individual. While clearly not every member of the Jewish people is expected to become a scribe, the commandment to write a Torah can be fulfilled by possessing and studying Jewish books, and supporting their publication and education in general. In recent years there have also been a number of campaigns in the Jewish world to encourage people to “buy” a letter in a Torah scroll and so participate in the actual writing of a Torah.

    These last two commandments in the Bible both address the question of how Jewish teaching and tradition is to be preserved and passed on from generation to generation. But the two commandments suggest two very different models of how to achieve this. In particular, they suggest three contrasting approaches:

    • The community versus the individual:  The Hakhel ceremony takes place in front of the entire community of Israel. Writing a Torah, on the other hand, is a private and individual act, as the commandment itself emphasises (“Write… for yourselves”).
    • The passive versus the active:  The public reading of the Torah is a passive occurrence; all that is required from the people is that they listen. In writing the Torah, a positive act – of writing – is required. And the emphasis is less on the ear than on the mouth: the command is to place the Torah “into the mouths” of the children of Israel, so that they can actively expound the Torah.
    • The fixed versus the dynamic: The Hakhel reading can only occur at a fixed time and a fixed place. It follows a set format, and is designed to preserve the integrity of the tradition. The command to write one’s own Torah, by contrast, can be fulfilled at any time and place.

    Taken together, these two commandments suggest that in seeking to ensure continuity for Jewish tradition, we are likely to find ourselves in a continual tension between the community seeking to maintain a fixed and  universal understanding of the tradition and the individual seeking to give it a more creative and dynamic expression.

    Perhaps these tensions can never be adequately resolved; perhaps indeed they are not meant to be.  But as we confront them, we may find some comfort in a comment by Rabbi Yechiel Epstein (Lithuania, 19th century) who, in the introduction to his halakhic code, Arukh Hashulchan, asks why, in this week’s reading, the Torah is referred to as a “song”. His answer: The Jewish tradition is full of differences of opinion and arguments. For this reason the Torah is called “a song” – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices which join together, creating a beautiful harmony.

    In others’ words

    “You exemplify one God, one Jewish spirit, one Torah. When I see how you rejoice, I know there is a great future ahead of us. Your true role is to unleash the great energy of the Jewish people and to ride that energy for tikkun olam (repairing the world).”

    Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, Address to Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University on the occasion of the ordination of 185 Rabbis, March 2006

    On a lighter note

    A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has been given a part in the school play.
    “Wonderful,” says the mother, “What part is it?”
    The boy says “I play the part of the Jewish husband!”
    The mother scowls and says: “Go back and tell your teacher you want a speaking part!!”

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