• Emor


    The life of holiness and the holiness of life

    The Kohen’s prohibition of being in the presence of a dead body that is still applicable today.  A discussion on the Jewish priority of the sanctity of life which has implications for society on every level.

  • Vayikira


    Putting the self back in sacrifice

    Traditionally, the first book of the Bible to be taught to Jewish children is the book of Vayikra, which we begin this week. A strange choice: rather than the colourful personalities of Bereishit, or the dramatic events of Shemot, we start with the detailed accounts of the sacrifices offered by the children of Israel. Why start our Jewish education in such an unusual way?

    A clue to the answer to this question may lie in a single letter – the last letter of the first word of Vayikra. According to a masoretic tradition, the aleph at the end of the word “Vayikra” “and He called” is written especially small. Indeed, to this day, in Torah scrolls around the world, the aleph of “Vayikra” is small in size.

    The Baal Haturim (Germany, 13-14thcentury) cites a Midrash explaining that the small Aleph came about as a result of Moses’ modesty.  Moses was embarrassed to write the word Vayikra, “And He called to him”, since this implied that God had specially singled him out. Instead Moses preferred to leave out the letter Aleph and write Vayikar, meaning God “happened to come across him”, the same language used in the Bible in relation to other prophets. When God insisted that Moses write the whole word, Moses wrote it with a small Aleph. God wanted to express His honour for Moses, but Moses in turn wished to forgo this honour.

    It is fitting that this reminder of Moses’ humility, and his willingness to sacrifice his own personal honour should open the book of Vayikra. Any sacrifice, it seems to tell us, must begin with self-sacrifice.

    Indeed, this is a message reiterated later in the portion. Of all the sacrifices described in this week’s portion, only the Korban Mincha – the simplest and lowest offering of plain flour – is described as being brought by a nefesh – “a soul”. Why should this individual be regarded so highly, when other far more lavish sacrifices are not? Explains the Talmud:

    Why is the korban mincha distinguished in that its bearer is termed a ‘nefesh’ (soul)? God declares: ‘Who generally brings a korban mincha? The poor man. I will consider his act as if he sacrificed his entire soul.

    Both Moses’ self-effacing shrinking of the letter aleph, and the poor man’s simple offering of flour, convey an important message at the outset of the book of Vayikra:  the heart of any offering is the offering of the heart.

    The idea that every sacrifice is at root, an offering of the self, is beautifully conveyed in the song Bilvavi (“In my heart”), from Sefer Charedim (R. Eliezer Azkari, c. 1550):

     In my heart I will build a tabernacle, for the glory of GodAnd there I will build an altar for His glory to shine, And for the eternal light I will take for myself the fire  of the binding  of Isaac, And for a sacrifice I will offer up my soul, my only soul.

    A poignant echo of the same idea, that we ourselves can become a sacrifice to a higher purpose, was beautifully expressed by Hannah Senesh, the young poetess and paratrooper who died trying to rescue the Jews of Hungary and bring them to Israel:

    Blessed is the match that is burned up as it kindles the flame.
    Blessed is the flame that flares in the heart’s hidden chambers.
    Blessed are the hearts that know when to leave off with honor.
    Blessed is the match that is burned up as it kindles the flame.


    In others’  words

    Prime Minister Sharon on the sacrifice of Israel’s fallen soldiers:

    “Your loved ones who fell are the beloved of the entire nation. Devotion, valor and supreme sacrifice are not slogans or figures of speech… We will lower our flags in their honor today, and you, our sisters and brothers from the bereaved families, we embrace with love, and we will strengthen your hands to help you bear your burden of sorrow. We will work and do all we can to be worthy of the pure virtue of the sacrifice made by the fallen, in order to establish our society on the foundation of equality and justice, and so that we can imbue our homes and borders with security and peace.”

    Memorial service for fallen soldiers, April 2004


    On a lighter note

    The tourist was invited to visit the tomb of Israel’s Unknown Soldier and was shocked when taken there. He could not believe his eyes. There in big letters was inscribed: “Here lies Hyman Goldfarb, Tailor.”

    The tourist inquired of his guide, “How can this be the tomb of the Unknown Soldier with the name upon it?”

    “As a tailor“, he was assured, “he was known. As a soldier? Eh!”

    Told in Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish

  • Acharei Mot-Kedoshim


    Holiness of time, place, people

    And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying, speak unto all the
    congregation of the children of Israel and say to them: “You shall
    be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Vayikra XIX:1,2)

    Why, with all the myriad of commandments, is there a need for yet another commandment to be holy? What does it add?

    Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th century), in a famous comment on this commandment, notes that no system of law can govern every aspect of our behaviour. Even were someone to keep all the commandments, he observes, they might still find a way to behave with excess and to become a naval birshut hatorah – a despicable person within the bounds of the Torah. This law comes to ensure that, even in the realm of the permitted, we should strive to achieve holiness.

    But what does striving for holiness actually mean?

    Within the book of Vayikra, we find the term Kedusha – holiness – used in relation to three different realms: the realms of time, space and people. Within each of these realms there are two specific subjects to which the term Kedusha is applied:

    • Holiness of Time: Shabbat and Festivals
    • Holiness of Place: the Temple Mount and the Land of Israel
    • Holiness of People: the Kohanim (the Priests) and the the People of Israel.

    Rabbi Saul Berman, a contemporary Jewish thinker, has pointed out that there is a significant difference in the nature of the holiness of the two examples in each category. In each case the first example is, in Jewish thought, intrinsically holy, that is, designated as holy by God. The second example in each category, however, only attains holiness when some additional act is done by the Jewish people.

    Thus, in the category of time, the Sabbath day is intrinsically holy, since it has been divinely decreed. The dates of the festivals however, are not determined by God but in partnership with man since they are fixed in accordance with the humanly determined calendar. Similarly, in the category of place, the Temple Mount has a divinely ordained and intrinsic holiness, which can never be cancelled. The land of Israel, however, only attains the status of holiness under Jewish law when a majority of the Jewish people is living there. And again, in the category of people: the Priests are regarded by Jewish law as having an intrinsic holiness irrespective of their behaviour, but the Jewish people as a whole are only regarded holy when they act with holiness.

    Berman goes on to suggest that holiness can be seen as a series of concentric circles. In the centre is a core of examples of divinely-given holiness: the Sabbath, the Temple Mount and the Priests. Around them are a wider set of examples, which only achieve holiness through a partnership between God and Man: the festivals, the land of Israel and the People of Israel.

    And if so, suggests Berman, then there is another, broader circle; one which includes every time, every place and every people. Kedusha in this inspiring approach is actually a form of modelship. It is as if God is teaching the world: Here is an example of time that I, Myself have made holy – the Sabbath. Come let us make the festivals holy together. Now go and make every moment holy. Similarly with space: Says God: I have made the Temple Mount holy. Together let us make the land of Israel holy. Now go and bring holiness to every place. And again with people: Says God: I have made the priests holy. Together let us make a people holy. Now go and make every people holy.

    In others’ words

    “The Torah portion of this week, Kedoshim, describes the biblical
    laws of Kedusha – holiness. The climax of these laws, the peak of
    holiness, is remarkable; it is the simple commandment ve’ahavta
    le’reacha kamocha, “love your neighbour – because he is as
    yourself”. This is the true holiness.”
    (Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, Washington Rally for Israel 2002)

    On a lighter note

    A woman went to Israel on an EL AL flight. When she got off the
    plane, she said, “Where’s my dog? Where’s the case?” The EL AL
    people finally found the case in the baggage room. They opened it
    up… and the dog was dead.
    Frightened that the woman would be distraught – and maybe sue
    them, the EL AL staff asked their manager what to do.
    The manager said, “Look, it’s a cocker spaniel. Next door there’s a
    pet shop. Go buy a cocker spaniel the same color and size. She’ll
    never know the difference.”
    They ran and bought a cocker spaniel and put it in the case. Then
    they brought it to the lady, shouting, “We found your dog.”
    The lady looked in the carrier and said, “That’s not my dog!”
    The manager asked, “How do you know that’s not your dog?”
    The lady replied, “My dog is dead. I was taking it to Israel to bury

  • Vayakhel-Pekudei


    confronting creativity

    The two Torah portions that we read this week describe the act of building the Mishkan, the holy tabernacle that accompanied the Children of Israel in the wilderness. The commentators draw parallels between the building of the Mishkan and the making of the golden calf, which we read about a few weeks ago.

    Indeed the Mishkan and the golden calf have much in common: both were made out of gold and precious jewels contributed by all the people and both were designed to provide a national focus. Yet the Mishkan was regarded as the highest form of creativity, and the golden calf as the greatest sin.

    Why are the two viewed so differently, and what does this teach us about Jewish attitudes to creativity?

    The parallel between the building of the Mishkan and the making of the golden calf is highlighted, so the commentators teach us, by the first word of each of the two portions we read this week:

    • The word which starts our first portion Vayakhel (“and he gathered”) describes the way in which Moses assembled the people before commanding them to build the Mishkan. It is almost identical to the phrase “ Vayikahel ha’am ” used to describe the gathering of the people to construct the golden calf. (Exodus 35:1)
    • The word Eleh (‘these’) which opens our second portion, in the phrase Eleh pekudei hamishkan (“ These are the instructions for building the Mishkan”)  parallels the identical word used when the rebellious Israelites worshipped the golden calf– “ These are your gods O Israel” ( Midrash Shemot Rabba ).

    The lesson drawn from these two parallels is that the building of the Mishkan was reparation for the sin of the golden calf. In other words, the calf is the model of sinful creativity, and the Mishkan the model of the correct way in which creativity should truly be challenged.

    The lesson that the Mishkan is the correct model of creative expression has had a striking – and limiting – effect on Jewish art throughout the generations.

    While, to our modern sensibilities, it is the golden calf which most represents the modern concept of art and of free creative expression, traditional Jewish art has been far closer in nature to the Mishkan. In particular, like the Mishkan which was not an end in itself but was rather a container for the holy tablets and implements, the traditional Jewish art forms have been vehicles and containers designed to adorn a higher purpose: music to accompany the holy prayers, illuminated manuscripts to adorn a religious text, and ritual objects to beautify the Torah.

    The message for Jewish artists over the centuries has been that, while it is appropriate to beautify ritual aspects of Jewish life, allowing free creative expression is likely to lead us astray. As the American Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: “Judaism’s aim is that we should make our lives a work of art”.  It is surely no coincidence that the artist who built the Mishkan is called Bezalel, his name literally meaning “in the shadow of God”, a reminder that any human creativity is pale imitation of divine.

    Is this cautious and limited approach then Judaism’s final word on the subject of artistic expression?

    The haftarot – the additional biblical readings – that accompany our Torah readings this week suggest that it isn’t.  They are taken from the book of Kings and describe another paradigm of creativity – the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The building of the Temple is strikingly different from the construction of the Mishkan in many ways. Unlike the Mishkan, in which every item is described as being made by Bezalel exactly “as God had commanded”, the artist in charge of the building of the Temple, Hiram of  Tyre, was allowed to exercise his individuality. Indeed he is described embellishing his work with ornate carvings of leaves, palm trees, flowers and angels – none of which would have been allowed in the Mishkan.

    The stark contrast between the sparse bareness of the Mishkan and the ornate beauty of the Temple suggests that there is a significant difference in the Jewish attitude to artistic expression when Jews are wandering in exile, and when they are building a home in Israel.

    As long as Jews were wandering, in the wilderness or in exile, Judaism’s concern was that artistic expression might create an illusion of permanence, and lead the people to forget that their ultimate homeland was Israel. The message was brought home clearly in the building of the Mishkan, every item of which was made with carrying poles to highlight its temporary nature. But this concern need no longer trouble us when we are back home in Israel, so we can allow our creativity greater individualism. Outside the land all we had to adorn was holy ritual objects; in Israel we have the land itself. Beautifying it with artistic expression is also a mitzvah.

    In others’ words

    “Not the absorption capacity of the land, but the creative ability of a people, is the true yardstick with which we can measure the immigration potentialities of the land.”

    David Ben Gurion

    On a lighter note

    The difficult situation of the Jews of the former Soviet Union gave rise to an entire genre of Jewish humour – “refusenik jokes”. One classic example, tells of a Jewish artist and his masterwork: ‘Lenin in Poland’: Some years ago, Leonid Brezhnev wished to commission a portrait to be entitled, “Lenin in Poland,” in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. However, Russian painters, being schooled strictly in the realist school, were unable to paint an event which never actually occurred. “Comrade Brezhnev, we would like to do it, but we cannot. It goes against our training,” replied each of the many artists approached by Chairman Brezhnev. Finally, in desperation, Brezhnev was forced to ask the old Jewish painter, Levy. “Of course, I prefer to portray actual events, but I’ll do the painting for you, Comrade. It would be my great honour.” Levy commenced work on the painting. However, every time Brezhnev visited his studio in an attempt to see the work in progress, Levy rebuffed his efforts, telling him that he never allowed his unfinished works to be viewed. Finally, the day of the unveiling arrived. Levy stood proudly by the cloth draped over his work. Brezhnev introduced Levy and gestured to his gift to the Russian people on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a picture commemorating Lenin’s historic visit to Poland. Everyone gasped as the cloth was removed to reveal a picture of a man and a woman together in bed. Brezhnev was stunned. “Who is that man?” he stammered. “Why, that’s Trotsky.” “And who,” Brezhnev inquired, “is that woman?” “That is Lenin’s wife, Comrade Brezhnev.” “But where is Lenin?” “He’s in Poland,” Levy explained.

    Heard from Rabbi Leonid Feldman

  • Ki Tisa


    tradition and tolerance

    Jewish tradition ascribes a number of miraculous qualities to the two tablets of stone that Moses brought down from Sinai bearing the Ten Commandments. According to one tradition, the letters were carved right through the stone and the words could be read from both sides. According to another, the letters made the stones lighter and not heavier. These traditions give the Ten Commandments a mysterious, other-worldly quality. But they also convey some striking ideas about the role of tradition and values in our society…

    The two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written are described in the Bible as being written “on both of their sides”. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat) suggests that this unusual wording means that the letters of the text were carved right though the stone from one side to the other. (The Talmud adds that one aspect of this remarkable phenomenon, was the fact that the central pieces of the letters samech and final mem – both closed circles – remained suspended miraculously in place.) But most miraculous of all, observes the Talmud, the words and sentences carved right through the stones could be read equally well from both sides.

    The image of the letters of the commandments being readable from both sides carries with it a powerful message of tolerance. Even the holiest and most central principles of our tradition can, it suggests, be looked at from different perspectives. For Israel, a society comprising groups with a wide array of priorities and agendas, the image suggests that even when considering our most closely held values, we should always consider that there may still be another way of looking at things, as equally legible and valid as our own.

    The second mystical quality ascribed by tradition to the tablets, suggests another approach to our heritage which goes hand in hand with the first.

    The second tradition about the tablets is brought in the Medrash Tanchuma , which teaches that the letters on the tablets made them lighter. Indeed, when Moses, coming down the mountain, saw the Children of Israel worshipping a golden calf, the Medrash states that the letters ‘flew off’ and the tablets became too heavy for Moses to carry, so they fell to the floor and smashed.

    The notion that the letters themselves made the tablets lighter to carry finds a parallel in a description of the aron kodesh , the ark in which the tablets were carried by the Israelites though the  wilderness, Describing the ark, the Talmud ( Tractate Sotah ) notes that “it carried those who carried it”.

    It seems that these traditions are suggesting that, far from being a burden which pulls us down, our heritage actually helps us in carrying other burdens. This idea was very beautifully expressed by Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, commenting on the phrase ‘ol hamitzvot’  – ‘the yoke of the commandments’. We tend to think of a yoke as a heavy burden on our shoulders, says Hirsch. But in fact a yoke is actually a light length of wood which helps us carry heavy burdens, much heavier in fact than we could carry without it.

    Taken together these two traditions about the Ten Commandments, suggest an important message for Israeli society at large. On the one hand, they teach us that maintaining our heritage is not a burden, but in fact a tool that helps us in confronting greater burdens and challenges. But at the same time, they remind us that in looking at this heritage, no-one can claim to have a single authoritative interpretation; like the other side of the tablets, another viewpoint may be reading the tradition just as clearly as we do.

    In others’ words

    “Amongst ourselves, also, conciliation and unity do not yet exist. The internal controversies in Israel are increasing. The split between religious and secular has increased dangerously. Difficult developments may take place, and have already done so on this background. Not everyone in Israel understands the need for tolerance and bridging the gap. And for this purpose there is a need for thought and deliberation, which are not always available. “On both sides there are people of Torah and work, intellectuals and good fighters, but there are others also. I wish to remind the secular people, that religion is not only extremism, coalition considerations and religion coercion. I wish to remind the religions people that secularism does not necessarily mean vacuity and crime. Above all, I should like to say that the various groups in our people are entitled to live in their own way and according to their beliefs, and each must honor the other and allow others to live their own lives. These problems must be solved at all levels of society. The term tolerance must be restored to its proper place in our scale of values.”

    Speech by President Ezer Weizman on being sworn in for a second term as President of the State of Israel, May 18, 1998

    On a lighter note

    “I don’t care what denomination in Judaism you belong to, as long as you are ashamed of it.”

    Rabbi Irving Greenberg, President of Jewish Center for Learning

  • Tetzaveh


    a continual flame

    This week’s Torah portion opens with a description of the Ner Tamid, the perpetual light that burned in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. As a memorial of this continual light, at the front of synagogues around the world there is continuously burning lamp, a Ner Tamid, until this day.  

    Why, of all the implements of the Temple, should this be the only one that we find in synagogues around the world today? And why is this Torah portion the only one in the entire Bible, since Moses was first mentioned, in which his name does not appear?

    It is fitting that the Ner Tamid should survive in our synagogues today, because, more than any other item in the ancient Temple, the Ner Tamid is associated with the idea of Jewish continuity and the passing of the flame of tradition from generation to generation.

    Different commentators see this theme of continuity reflected in different aspects of the holy lamp.

    Some traditions focus on the oil to be used in the lamp: the Bible commands that it is only to be lit with pure olive oil. The Talmud sees the olive tree as a symbol of a divine promise of the survival of Jewish people:

    R. Joshua ben Levi taught: Why is Israel said to be like the olive tree? To tell you that just as the leaves of an olive tree fall neither during the summer season nor during the rainy season, so Israel will never cease to be, neither in this world nor in the world-tocome. ( Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 53b )

    Others focus on the light itself. The Pardes Yosef (Rabbi Joseph Patznovsky, writing in Poland in the early 20 th century) sees the Ner Tamid as an external expression of an internal spiritual light, to be handed down to future generations. He writes:

    Every Jew must light within his own heart a ‘Ner Tamid ’, a lamp to the Lord. But this light does not need to stand only in the Tent of Meeting – in the synagogue and the house of study – but also “Outside the curtain of the Tent,” that is, in the home, in the streets and throughout all of our endeavors in the real world.

    Still others see the theme of continuity reflected in the way the lamp is to be lit. The phrase used to describe the method of lighting is ‘ le’haalot ’ – ‘to raise up the light’. The classic commentator Rashi (France, C11th) interprets this to mean that the priest must hold the flame to the wick “until the new flame is capable of standing up by itself”. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, C 19th) sees this as a powerful symbol of continuity through education. We have a responsibility to hold the flame of tradition up to the next generation, until they are able to carry the flame by themselves. Only then can we take the lighting flame away when, as he says, “the teacher has made himself superfluous!”

    This last explanation may indeed explain why Moses’ name is absent from this week’s portion – the only portion of the Bible since his birth not to mention him. For the promise of continuity is also the promise that the Jewish people and Jewish teaching will survive, even when Moses, the greatest teacher, is no longer present.

    The challenge of providing for continuity that faced Moses faces Jewish and Israeli leaders today. As the Ner Tamid reminds us, it is not sufficient for leaders to burn brightly themselves. They must also ensure that they raise up a new generation of flames, capable of burning independently, and carrying the light of tradition and responsibility into the future.

    In others’ words

    Prime Minister David  Ben Gurion on continuity:
    “At this moment let us remember with love and appreciation the three generations of pioneers and defenders who paved their way for later achievements, the men who created Mikve Israel, Petach Tikva, Rishon Lezion, Zichron Yaakov and Rosh Pina, as well as those who recently established settlements in the Negev desert and the Galilee hills; the founders of Hashomer and the Jewish Legion, as well as the men who are now locked in fierce battle from Dan to Beer Sheva. Many of these about whom I have spoken are no longer among the living, but their memory remains forever in our hearts and in the heart of the Jewish people.”

    Broadcast to the Nation, May 15, 1948

    On a lighter note

    Jews and lights: three Jewish change-the-light-bulb jokes:
    How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? – None, I’ll just sit here in the dark and suffer!
    How many synagogue members does it take to change a bulb?  – Change! You vant we should change the light bulb? My grandfather donated that light bulb!
    How many Diaspora Zionists does it take to replace a light bulb?  – Four: one to stay home and convince someone else to do it, a second to donate the bulb, a third to screw it in, and a fourth to proclaim that the entire Jewish people stands behind their actions!


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