• Bo


    the beginning of Jewish history

    The story of the exodus from Egypt reaches its climax. Nine dramatic plagues have descended on Egypt, and the tenth and final plague is about to happen. The Children of Israel are packed and ready to leave. But before any of this can take place God speaks to Moses and gives the children of Israel their first commandment as a people:

    “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months” God commands Moses. “It shall be the first month of the year to you.”

    Why, of all the hundreds of commandments given to the Jewish people, including many key principles of faith and morality, is God’s first commandment to the Children of Israel, as they are about to leave Egypt,  that they must fix a calendar starting with the exodus?
    The Italian commentator Ovadia Sforno, reading God’s commandment carefully, notes that it uses the word “lachem” “for you” (“this month shall be for you”) .  With this in mind, he suggests that at this very moment, when the children of Israel are about to taste freedom, their very attitude to time is about to change.
    “From now on” he writes, “the months will belong to you, to do with them as you wish,  in contrast to the days of slavery when your days were not your own, but were subject to the service and the will of others. For this reason this is for you first of the months of the year, for in it began your free existence.”
    For a slave, observes Sforno, time has no meaning. The significance of time is not that it passes, but what we do with its passing. Only when we have freedom of choice can time have true meaning. For the Jewish people it is only when we began to taste freedom that our history could truly begin. The day in which we experienced freedom from slavery was truly our ‘independence day’.
    Strikingly, it is at the very moment of the giving of this commandment, that the Bible records the first date in Jewish history – the tenth day of the month of Nissan.
    History, Sforno suggests, is not simply a chronology of events. It is a series of freely made choices. Freedom brings with it the ability to partake in making history, to exercise mastery over time through the choices we make.
    This insight of Sforno, writing in the 16th century, has been attested to by the experience of many immigrants to Israel in our own. For many many Jews, living in societies characterised by totalitarianism and oppression, coming home to Israel has been an expression of the freedom to choose, and to play a role in history. From having been oppressed and passively acted upon, they have become active players in the development of Israeli society, and in doing so have come to play a part in writing history, not only for themselves, but for Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.

    In others’ words

    “The world is now preparing itself to enter the st century. For us we prepare ourselves to enter the 41st century [in the Jewish calendar]. The difference of the two thousand years is not just a difference in age, but in suffering, in victims, in exiles, in Holocaust. And yet we enter the 41st anniversary, with great optimism and readiness to remain believers, to become optimists, to be engaged, to serve things which are greater than us.”

    Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister, Address to National Jewish Community Advisory Council, February 1993

    On a lighter note

    A question of timing:

    Chaim phones his rabbi with a troubled expression. He says, “Rabbi, I know tonight is Kol Nidre night, but tonight my favorite football team is in the European Cup quarter finals. Rabbi, I’ve been a life-long fan. I’ve got to watch the game on TV.” Rabbi Levy replies, “Chaim, that’s what video recorders are for.” Chaim is surprised: “You mean I can tape Kol Nidre?”

  • Va’era


    ordinary people, extraordinary achievements

    This week’s Torah reading begins with Moses in a state of depression. All his efforts to save the children of Israel from slavery have met with no success. To the contrary, he has only made the situation worse and the Israelites’ hardships have increased. Do not worry, God reassures him, things are about to change. The story of the exodus is about to begin.

    But at that very moment there is a surprising interruption in the narrative…

    Just as the real story of the exodus is about to begin, the Bible narrative breaks off and, in a lengthy interruption, lists the lineage of Moses and Aaron. This family history goes back to the time of their great grandfather Levi and includes all Moses’ and Aaron’s uncles and cousins, descended from Levi’s brothers Reuven and Levi. Only after this family history is recounted does the Bible return to our story, noting that “This is the Aaron and Moses, who the Lord told to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt.”

    Why is this family history necessary? And why, of all places, should it come here, at the climax of the exodus story?

    The great 19th century rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that this interruption is a narrative device. Just before Moses and Aaron are about to demonstrate their remarkable success in changing the course of history the Bible wants to convey two important lessons about leadership.

    The first is the humanity of our greatest leaders. From earliest times, remarks Hirsch, there has been a tendency to regard great leaders as godly, or being invested with special powers. Not so the leaders of Israel.  As their human lineage proves, Moses and Aaron were ordinary humans; like all of us they were born to parents, and had siblings and cousins.

    Unlike the great prophets in some other religions, says Hirsch, “Moses was born a man, remained a man and is to remain a man”.  This lesson, of the ordinary human nature of our greatest heroes, carries a powerful message – the potential for true leadership is not just restricted to a few, but rests in all of us.

    At the same time, notes Hirsch, when our leaders act in history, they are not acting alone. The qualities of leadership are not developed in a single generation, but develop over time as values and qualities are handed down from parent to child. Moses and Aaron were human leaders, but the qualities they brought to their leadership dated back to the generations that preceded them, and the lessons they drew from their predecessors.

    These two ideas – the humanity of our leaders and the importance of the values we inherit, are poignantly hinted at the moment of Moses’ birth. The Bible tells us:

    “And a man from the house of Levi went and took a woman from the house of Levi, and she conceived and had a son.”

    The Biblical narrative goes out of its way to preserve the anonymity of the characters: A nameless man and a nameless woman give birth to a nameless child. It could be anyone; it could indeed be us. But at the same time, the lineage of our hero is important. The Bible tells us the tribe of both Moses’ mother and father, to remind us that every one of us is heir to the talents, values and qualities of our ancestors.
    These lessons of leadership, arising from the pages of the Bible, rise too from the pages of Israeli history. In conditions of tragedy and despair, a generation of founding leaders arose who leadership had thrust upon them. These were ordinary individuals, who rose to the challenges of the moment and achieved extraordinary things. But in doing so, they were not alone. They, like Moses and Aaron before them, and like those who follow them, drew strength and inspiration from the generations that preceded them.

    In others’ words

    Colonel Ilan Ramon on leadership:
    “I believe, as I have said many times, that our country is comprised of the best people, with phenomenal abilities, and all we are missing is the correct leadership to raise Israelis to the skies! Mr. President, if it pleases you, please pass on my deep appreciation to the citizens of Israel and tell them that I am proud to be their first representative in space.”

    Email sent by Col. Ilan Ramon to President Moshe Katzav Space Shuttle Columbia, 12th day in space.

    On a lighter note

    A young Israeli student was interviewing for a place at the Hebrew University.
    “Tell me”, asked the interviewer. “Would you say you were a leader or a follower?”
    “Truthfully”, answered the student, “I’d have to say I’m a follower”. “Thank heavens for that” said the interviewer. “All I’ve had today is 200 leaders!”

  • Shemot


    Three tests, three signs

    • Moses’ mission to rescue the Jewish people from slavery begins with self doubt. “Who am I,” he asks God at the burning bush, “that I should go into Pharaoh and take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”  God’s answer is to give Moses three miraculous signs to prove that God will be with him in his mission. But the signs don’t really answer Moses’ question: Why, of all people, me?  Or do they?

      Of Moses’ life before his encounter with God at the burning bush, we know very little. But in the space of a few verses, three key incidents are sketched out. They all deal with Moses’ involvement in disputes involving others.

    • The first episode takes place when Moses leaves the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace to learn about the suffering of his Israelite brethren. He is shocked to see an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses, outraged, smites the Egyptian and he dies.
    • The second episode takes place a day later. Moses again goes out to join his brethren. This time he sees two Hebrews fighting together. Moses intervenes, asking the offender “Why are you hitting your fellow?” The man turns to him and replies: “Are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”
    • The third incident occurs after Moses realises that the killing of the Egyptian has been discovered and that his life is in danger. He flees to Midian where he sits down by a well.  Soon seven young women, daughters of Jethro, the local priest, come to water their sheep at the well, but the local shepherds drive them away.   Moses rises to their defence and drives the shepherds away so the young women can water their sheep undisturbed.

      As the Israeli Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz points out, these three incidents present a concise but extensive picture of Moses as a man passionately committed to justice in every context:

    “Each of these episodes represents an archetype. First Moses intervenes in a clash between a Jew and non-Jews, second, between two Jews and third between two non-Jews. In all three cases Moses championed the just cause.”

    Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot

    Even before he encounters God at the burning bush, Moses has demonstrated his passionate commitment to justice – for Jews, among Jews, and in the wider population.

    It seems that this is the message of the three miraculous signs that God shows him at the burning bush. In the first sign, a staff miraculously turns into a snake, in the second Moses’ hand become leprous, and in the third water turns to blood.  A staff, a hand and water. These three symbols directly correspond to the three episodes of Moses’ youth – the staff of the Egyptian smiting the Jew, the hand of the Israelite beating his fellow, and the water of the well that Jethro’s daughters were prevented from drawing.

    Who am I to fulfill this mission? asks Moses.  God’s answer: You are the one who has already shown an unswerving commitment to justice. It is this commitment that marks him out for his mission, to bring freedom from slavery to the Jews, and the morality of the Bible to the world. And it is this commitment that is hallmark of the truly great leaders of Israel, from the time of Moses until the present day.

    In others’ words

    Yitzhak Rabin on becoming a leader: “At an age when most youngsters are struggling to unravel the secrets of mathematics and the mysteries of the Bible; at an age when first love blooms; at the tender age of sixteen, I was handed a rifle so that I could defend myself – and also, unfortunately, so that I could kill in an hour of danger. “That was not my dream. I wanted to be a water engineer. I studied in an agricultural school and I thought that being a water engineer was an important profession in the parched Middle East. I still think so today. However, I was compelled to resort to the gun.”

    Speech on receiving the Nobel Prize, 1994

    On a lighter note

    The trial of the murder of a mafia boss by a rival mafia leader had just drawn to a close. The jury, all Jewish, deliberated for hours. Finally they came back into the courtroom. The foreman, Goldberg, stood up. “Have you reached a verdict on which you are all agreed?” asked the judge. “Yes, we have,” answered Goldberg. “What is your decision?” “We’ve decided, we don’t want to get involved.”

  • Vayechi


    Diaspora Jewish leaders in the Bible

    The character of Joseph has a surprisingly modern ring: by talent and hard work, an immigrant Jew rises to high office in a foreign country, helping both that country and his own people. But Joseph is not the only character in the Bible who rises to prominence in a foreign society. Two other books of the Bible tell similar stories of talent and promotion in the Diaspora – the book of Esther (the Purim story) and the Book of Daniel.

    Taken together these three stories – of Joseph, of Esther and of Daniel – suggest some interesting Biblical insights into the role and nature of Diaspora Jewish leaders.

    These three stories, and in particular the lives of their heroes, share some remarkable similarities. Here are ten of them:

    • Joseph, Esther, and Daniel were all immigrants, first or second generation, in a foreign society.
    • They were all orphans, or separated from their parents at an early age, or both.
    • They were all physically attractive. It is rare that the Bible comments on the physical appearance of any of its characters. And yet in all three cases the Bible goes out of its way to emphasize that they were good looking. (Genesis 39:4,6; Esther 2:2,7; Daniel 1:4,19)
    • They are all initiated into the foreign culture by someone of high office. As immigrants, each of them finds a sponsor or guardian who teaches them the ways of the society in which they find themselves.
    • In each case the adopted guardian is described as a eunuch (“ seris ”), that is someone who, according to Jewish tradition, was unable to have children of his own. This close relationship between a childless ‘parent’ and an orphaned child helps integrate the young Jew into broader society.
    • They all adopt non-Jewish names (Joseph becomes Tsofenatpaneach, Hadassah becomes Esther, and Daniel becomes Balthazar).
    • They all wear the clothes and finery of the surrounding society (Joseph Genesis 41:42; Esther 2:14, and Daniel 5:29).
    • They rise to power though a combination of talent and opportunity: in the case of Joseph and Daniel through interpreting a ruler’s dreams; in Esther’s case through winning a beauty pageant.
    • They are confronted with enemies who try to bring about their downfall, focusing on their Jewish identity in order to try to rally people against them.
    • Although they survive the plots against them, their position remains vulnerable, and they are at the mercy of a ruler whose authority is unstable.

    The picture of the Diaspora Jewish leader that emerges from these similarities is a complex one. Jews in foreign lands who reach positions of influence, the Bible seems to suggest, can bring great benefit to these societies, as well as help the Jewish people. But this worldly success is not without a price. In order to reach the highest levels of society these biblical models have, to some extent, to compromise. They must change their names and their clothing, and find someone to foster and guide them in the ways of the foreign society. Even after they have done this, they are still perceived as Jews, and antisemitic opponents seek to use their difference as a political tool against them.

    Perhaps most striking of all is the sense, in all three stories, that the position of the Diaspora Jew remains one of vulnerability. Joseph, Esther and Daniel are all brought to high office through rulers whose authority is shaky. When a new Pharaoh arises, Joseph is forgotten, Ahazuerus is powerless to reverse Haman’s edict to destroy the Jews, and Darius cannot prevent the plot to throw Daniel in the lions’ den.

    What then can we conclude about the Bible’s attitude to these Diaspora Jewish leaders? On the one hand, these stories seem to confirm that it is legitimate and praiseworthy for Jews to reach high office in all societies. On the other, they suggest that such success is fragile, dependent on the good looks and talents of the individual, and the good will of insecure leaders. For an environment in which the Jewish people as a whole can take control of its destiny, we have to turn to Israel.

    It seems that, for all his success in rising to positions of leadership in Egypt, this is a realization that Joseph himself appreciates. For all the glory wealth and power he has attained in Egypt, he recognizes that his destiny is ultimately with the people of Israel in their land. The Book of Genesis ends with his request to his brothers not to leave his bones in Egypt, but to carry him back with them, when they finally make the journey home to the land of Israel.

    In others’ words

    “Israel is the only place in the world where Jews have the right and the ability to defend themselves by themselves. Israel is the only place where Jews can live full Jewish lives.”

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Paris, 28 July 2005

    On a lighter note

    “The time is at hand when the wearing of a prayer shawl and a skullcap will not bar a man from the White House – unless, of course, the man is Jewish!”

    Jules Farber

  • Vayigash


    one small step for man

    The story of Joseph reaches its climax. Finally able to turn the tables on the brothers who sold him into slavery, Joseph frames Benjamin by planting a goblet in his sack, and then demands that he remain as his slave. It is Judah who makes the plea for mercy on behalf of the brothers. And as he does so we read: “Vayigash Yehuda – And Judah drew near”. It is a simple gesture, a single step. But that movement of drawing near represents a turning point not just in the story of Joseph but in the entire history of the Jewish people.

    Throughout the stories of Genesis there is a clear pattern of hatred and hostility in the relationship between brothers. Beginning with Cain and Abel, every generation is characterized by rivalry and separation between siblings. Cain quarrels with his brother Abel, and kills him. Ishmael taunts Isaac and is exiled by Abraham. Jacob tricks Esau and then flees from him.

    It seems that Jacob’s twelve sons are destined to follow the same pattern. Taunted by Joseph’s dreams, they plot to kill Joseph and then sell him into slavery into Egypt.

    But, in a single moment, the pattern of hostility changes. Judah breaks the chain of separation and moving apart, and responds by moving closer. At that very instant the entire dynamic of the book of Genesis is altered.

    This simple gesture represents something crucial that has been missing from every sibling relationship since the start of the Bible – a sense of responsibility. “For thy servant has undertaken to be a guarantor for the boy,” Judah tells Joseph. It is Judah, the very one of the brothers who initiated the sale of Joseph as a slave, who finally recognizes that brotherhood means responsibility.

    This acceptance of responsibility is a response to the very first question asked by Man in the Bible. Accused by God of killing his brother Abel, Cain denies any responsibility for him: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asks. Judah and his brothers give a powerful answer to Cain’s question: “Yes, I am indeed my brother’s keeper”.

    Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has suggested that this is the reason why the Jewish people was only founded with Jacob’s sons: it was they who became the tribes of Israel, and gave the name the “Children of Israel” to future generations – precisely because they were the first generation to recognize the bonds of responsibility to each other. It is a lesson as relevant to the people of Israel today as at any time in our history: what binds us together as a people, more even than our common ancestry, is the sense of responsibility that we feel for each other.

    In others’ words

    Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on brotherhood and responsibility:  ‘The story was recently uncovered of a New York attorney. During the Holocaust, he signed 300 affidavits for refugees, claiming each as his brother to allow them entry into the United States. He later faced the authorities who found it hard to believe he had 300 brothers. The federal agents left his home in silence, however, after he calmly but forcefully replied that “every Jew around the world is my brother”. “This brotherhood between Israel and Jewish communities around the world is the essence of our existence.”

    Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Address to AIPAC Convention, March 2003

    On a lighter note

    Chaim and Mendel were talking about the terrible international conflicts which plague the world. “Why can’t the nations of the world just live together like one big family?” asked Chaim. “But they do”, answered Mendel. “Have you seen my family!”

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