• Tazria-Metzora


    Fixing ourselves, fixing the world

    “And on the eighth day, a boy child should be circumcised” (Vayikra 12:3)

     This week’s portion includes the command that every Jewish boy should be circumcised. The Hebrew term from circumcision is brit milah, literally “the covenant of circumcision”. The connection between the mitzvah of circumcision and the notion of a covenant goes back to God’s command to Abraham: “You shall be circumcised; this will be the sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11).

     To this day, of all the commandments given to the people of Israel, only this one, the command of circumcision, is described as being a brit or covenant. Why, if the Covenant with the people of Israel comprises 613 commandments, should this particular command be singled out as the symbol of the covenant?

    A clue to the answer to this question can be found, of all places, in the attack of an anti-Semitic leader on the practice of circumcision.

    As recounted in the Midrash Tanchuma, the wicked roman General Tarnus Rufus tried to catch Rabbi Akiva out. As the Midrash recounts:

    Tarnus Rufus asked Akiva: “Whose works are better, those of God or those of creatures of flesh and blood?” Akiva answered: “The works of flesh and blood are better.” To which Tarnus Rufus retorted: “Is that why you Jews circumcise, to prove that you’re better than God?” To which Akiva replied: “I anticipated your second question in your first. God has given us commandments for the sole purpose of enabling us to perfect the divine work of creation, as God’s partners.”

    For Rabbi Akiva, circumcision reflects a radical departure from ancient attitudes to religion. In contrast to a world view in which man is powerless, and subject to the whims of the deities, Akiva sees in Judaism a powerful message that Man is not a helpless creature subject to divine forces, but actually plays a role in the work of creation. And what symbol could be more powerful than requiring man to complete the work of creating himself, as an eternal symbol of a covenant which requires mankind to go on and undertake the task of tikkun olam, working to perfect the world.

    The act of circumcision is a uniquely appropriate symbol of the covenant because of this twofold message: first that the covenant of Israel is an obligation to engage in fixing the world. And second, that this act of working to improve society must begin with improving ourselves.

    In others’ words

    “Israel will arrive at peace because it is the nature of our people to build a better world for our future generations. Whether through our personal conduct, or the policy of our nation, we practice one of Judaism’s most noble values, tikkun olam – repairing the world.”

    Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, Akiva Academy Commencement Address, 2003

    On a lighter note

    Even such a sensitive issue as circumcision has given rise to its fair share of Jewish jokes. Here’s one classic:

    A man was once walking and noticed a little store with a bunch of watches and clocks hanging in the window. The man walked in and said “Can you please fix my watch?”

    The man behind the counter quickly responded “Sorry but I don’t repair watches.”

    The confused customer said back, “You don’t repair watches? What do you do?”

    “I’m a Mohel.”

    Now even more confused, the man asked, “If you are a Mohel, then why do you have watches hanging in the store front?”

    “What do you want me to put in the window?”


  • Shmini


    Turning the past into the future

    This week’s Torah portion is best known for the tragedy that strikes Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Apparently overcome by the ecstasy of serving in the tabernacle, they bring a strange offering and they themselves are consumed by fire. The tragedy takes place in the middle of this week’s reading.  But in the eyes of the Rabbis the impending tragedy is foretold right at the outside, by the very first word “Vayehi” – “And it came to pass”.

    The Talmud (Tractate Megillah 10b, Or Hachayim 9:1) notes that the word “Vayehi” (‘And it came to pass’), almost always appears in the Bible as a prelude to trouble and disaster. By contrast, the word “Vehaya” (‘And it will be’), invariably introduces of period of hope and prosperity.

    Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook suggests this strange phenomenon can be explained by an unusual grammatical rule.  Both the words “Vayehi” and “Vehaya” use an unusual Hebrew conjunction called the vav hahipuch – a prefix which changes verbs from the past tense into the future, and verbs from the future into the past. Thus the word “yehi” – means ‘it will come to pass’, but “Vayehi” means ‘and it came to pass’ – in the past. Conversely, the word ‘haya’ means ‘it was’, but “Vehaya” means ‘it will be’, in the future.

    Suggests Kook, in this obscure grammatical rule lies a clue as to the Jewish attitude to time and tradition. Our aim must be to take the past, our heritage and tradition, and to turn them into a living future. When we do that, it is a sure indication that the future is promising. But when we do the reverse, and bury our hopes for the future under the rubble of the past, then surely tragedy will follow.

    One striking example of the approach of “Vehaya” is the Seder night ceremony. This dramatic reenactment of an event in ancient history seems, on the face of it, to be an example of turning the present into the past. But in fact the Seder night is forward looking. We reach back into our history to remind ourselves that we are actually still on a journey forwards – and the climax of the recreation is not the past, but the future: Next year in Jerusalem!

    Another model of “vehaya” is the State of Israel itself, which seeks to take 3000 years of tradition, of hope and longing for a homeland, and to use this as a foundation for building a living future. As reflected in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:

    Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. …They made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.

    In others’ words

    “The Past: our cradle, not our prison; there is danger as well as appeal in its glamour. The past is for inspiration, not imitation, for continuation, not repetition.”

    Israel Zangwill

    On a lighter note

    Moshe is surprised to find his friend Chaim sitting at the gate of the Shtetl. “What are you doing here?”

    “I’ve been hired to sit here and be the first person to greet the Messiah when he arrives” answers Chaim.

    “And how much are they paying you?” asks Moshe.

    “One ruble a week”

    “So little! Why would you take such a low-paying job?”

    “Yes, the pay is low”, answers Chaim. ‘But it’s a steady job!”

  • Tzav


    The pitfalls of passion

    This week’s Torah reading opens with a description of the first duty of the priests, to clear the ashes after sacrifices had been made on the altar. In theory, this was a holy and spiritual task to be performed by the priests, but as described by the Talmud, it was very different – and far less spiritual – in practice.

    The Talmud (Tractate Yoma, 23a-b) describes how the commandment to clean the altar was actually performed in practice, and the impression it gives is far from the solemn and holy ceremony we might imagine:

    It happened once that two priests were running together up the ramp [of the altar in the Temple, in order to be first and so be the one to perform the sacrificial service of the day.]  One of them stepped within the four cubits of the other.  The other drew out a knife and plunged it into his heart.

    In the passion of the moment, the priest who was so eager to be first to perform the commandment forgot his basic moral instincts and the result was simple murder.

    The Talmud goes on to describe the response of Rabbi Zadok to this shocking incident. Standing on the steps of the Temple he reminded the people of the law of the egla arufa “the broken heifer”. This law states that where a dead body is found, and the killer is not known, the elders of the town are obliged to make a declaration over a broken heifer: “Our hands did not shed this blood”

    The Talmud finds Zadok’s reaction puzzling. What, it asks, is the relevance of the law he quoted, the egla arufa, to the case at hand? This law does not apply in Jerusalem, and certainly not to a case, as here, where the identity of the murderer is known. The Talmud gives a strange answer, that Zadok cited this law “in order to increase the weeping”.  But why should quoting an irrelevant law make people cry?

    Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein has suggested that Zadok was trying to make a point about the nature of his society.  The principle behind the egla arufa is one of collective guilt. Zadok’s message is that when one priest kills another, this cannot simply be regarded as the act of an individual wrongdoer. On a broader level, society at large must also carry the responsibility for creating an environment in which such an event could happen. In Lichtenstein’s words:

    [The society in Zadok’s day] were undoubtedly responsible for emphasizing one side – the importance of competitiveness, of devotion, of striving and commitment, of zeal and ardor, without sufficiently emphasizing the corresponding importance of brotherhood, love, and respect.

    Israel’s is a society of vibrant and passionate beliefs on many crucial issues. The strength of the dedication to these values and beliefs is a large part of what has enabled the State to be built and to survive. But this week’s reading is a reminder of the other side of the equation: passion and fervour carry with them the potential for violence and discord, unless they are tempered by tolerance and brotherly love.

    In others’ words  

    “I loved Yitzhak, even in times of discord.  We went a long way together, in the IDF, in the struggle for revival and defense of the State, and as its delegates. Our friendship and mutual respect was maintained even when we turned to different and opposing political paths.  When I felt he was wrong, I did not spare him my criticism, and visa versa.  However, I never doubted Yitzhak’s integrity, honesty and his genuine intentions to faithfully serve the People of Israel according to his own beliefs, and bravely strive for security and peace.”

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Memorial service for Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin, November 2005


    On a lighter note

    In the middle of the Yom Kippur service, when the intensity of the prayers was at its height, the Cantor was overcome by emotion. He ran to the front of the synagogue, fell to his knees in front of the Ark, and shouted: “Oh Lord, I am nothing!”

    The Rabbi, seeing this powerful display of humility, was also overcome. He ran to the front of the synagogue, prostrated himself next to the cantor, and bewailed: “Lord, I too am nothing”.

    Watching the Cantor and the Rabbi, the Shammes of the synagogue, a simple man, was powerfully affected. He rushed to the front of the synagogue, fell to the floor, and cried out: “Lord, I also am nothing”.

    Whereupon the Rabbi took one look at the Shammes, then turned and sneered to the Cantor: “Look who’s calling himself nothing!”

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