• Vayakhel-Pekudei

    Shemot

    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

    Shemot

    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

    Shemot

    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!

     

  • Teruma

    Shemot

    the first fundraiser

    Any endeavour, however spiritual or lofty, needs practical nuts and bolts to hold it together. This week’s portion describes the building of the Mishkan, the holy tabernacle, but it also deals with the down-to-earth issue of how contributions to the Mishkan were collected. This description of the first fundraising event in Jewish history gives us an insight into how we give and what we get in return…

    God’s instructions to Moses to make a collection to enable the holy Mishkan to be built are worded in a strange manner:

    “Let them take a contribution for me”, commands God, “from every willing person…” (Exodus XXV:)

    Surely the command should say ‘let them give’  and not ‘let them take’, especially since the contributions are not being forced but are coming ‘from every willing person”.

    The continuation of the command is also couched in unusual language:

    “And let them make for me a tabernacle”, says God, “and I will dwell within them.” (Exodus XXV:)

    Surely the sentence should say that God will live within ‘it’ , that is in the tabernacle, rather than within “them”,  that is in the people themselves.

    The unusual wording of these two commandments, the rabbis suggest, is designed to convey two insights about charitable giving.

    The first is that in communal matters, giving is really a kind of taking. That which you give is your only true possession. For this reason the people of Israel are commanded not to give, but to take. The act of giving creates something of value that will remain with them for ever.
    As if to confirm this, the second verse clarifies the aim is not to create a home for godliness in the world, but to create a possibility of godliness within the heart of man. By contributing to the building of a place for God, the people of Israel create a place of holiness within their own hearts.  As the 15th century Portuguese commentator Isaac Abarbanel explained:

    The words “I will dwell within them” are to teach that The Holy One intended that by making the Tabernacle and its furnishings the sanctity of the Divine presence would adhere to the people.”

    Contributions and donations from Jewish communities around the world have played a major role in the development of the Jewish state.  The experience of many donors shows that the lessons of this week’s portion regarding the building of the tabernacle, apply equally well to those who support the building of the Jewish homeland.  First, as many donors can testify, when they have the knowledge and satisfaction of seeing a new school, community center or hospital take root, the feeling of involvement and pride makes it hard indeed to distinguish the feelings of  giving and receiving. And secondly, like the Mishkan, donors give to Israel, but often find that the very act of giving makes Israel live within them and makes the Jewish state a part of their identity.

    One recent initiative which shows how the circle of giving and taking runs though so much of Jewish philanthropy is the remarkable “Birthright” project, in which young men and women from around world rediscover their Jewish identity by visiting Israel. After decades of supporting Israel and helping Israeli society flourish, Diaspora Jewry has discovered the two lessons of building the Mishkan:  that there is little difference between giving and taking, as the society that they helped to build is now playing a role in ensuring its own continuity; and that giving to the distant land of Israel has really been creating a place for Israel in their own hearts.

    In others’ words

    Golda Meir on being sent on a critical fundraising mission in 1948:
    The first appearance I made in 1948 before American Jewry was unscheduled, unrehearsed, and, of course, unannounced… I didn’t speak for long, but I said everything that was in my heart. I described the situation as it had been the day I left Palestine, and then I said: “The Jewish community in Palestine is going to fight to the very end… You cannot decide whether we should fight or not. We will… You can only decide one thing: whether we shall be victorious in this fight or whether the mufti will be victorious. That decision American Jews can make. It has to be made quickly, within hours, within days. And I beg of you – don’t be too late. Don’t be bitterly sorry three months from now for what you failed to do today. The time is now.” They listened, and they wept, and they pledged money in amounts that no community had ever given before…. Ben Gurion said to me: “Someday, when history will be written, it will be said that there was a Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible.” But I always knew that these dollars were given not to me, but to Israel.

    Golda Meir, My Life

    On a lighter note

    A delegation of fundraisers for Israel go to visit a wealthy Jew who has never made a donation to Israel.
    “We’ve been checking up on you, Goldstein” says the leader of the group. “We know everything. Not only do you own this house outright, but we also know about your mansion in Palm Springs and the chalet in Switzerland. You drive a Rolls Royce, your wife has a Mercedes, and we know you opened up twelve new stores this year.”
    Goldstein sits through the speech unperturbed; he doesn’t flinch.
    “You think you’ve checked so thoroughly into my background”, he says, “Well, do you know about my mother who has been in hospital for three months with a heart condition? And do you know what round-the-clock nurses cost? Did you find out about my uncle who is in a sanatorium, and with no insurance? And did you check into my sister, who’s married to a bum who can’t keep a job and has five children to support?… And if I don’t give a penny to any of them, you think I’m going to give to you?”

  • Mishpatim

    Shemot

    — fostering leadership

    Of all the 613 commandments in the Bible, which is the least obeyed? There are a number of likely contenders, but a strong bet for first place, perhaps especially in Israel, must be the commandment in this week’s Torah portion not to put down and disparage one’s leaders. (“Do not ridicule your judges and do not curse the leaders of your people” Exodus XXII:27 )

    Complaining about our leaders is almost a national hobby. Why does the Bible view it so seriously?

    As the commentators make clear, this commandment does not require that we accept our leaders without question. Indeed the Bible is full of role models – especially the prophets – who challenge and criticise the rulers of Israel. But at the same time it recognizes that there is a crucial difference between constructive criticism and simply trying to bring our leaders down.

    In particular the commentators focus on three different ways in which cursing our leaders can have negative effects:

    • Maimonides focuses on the personal dimension and sees “cursing” leaders as a form of anger. Anger, in Maimonides’ thought, is the one of the only two emotions (the other is pride) which is wholly negative and cannot be channeled to positive directions. Venting our anger against our leaders and putting them down without any constructive action, is damaging to our own personal development.
    • The 14th century Italian rabbi Menachem Recanati (quoted in The
      Mitzvot by Abraham Chill) focuses on the effect that such criticism can have on the quality of leadership itself.  Hostile criticism, he
      notes, may convince people that leadership is a thankless task and discourage talented people from taking positions of public service.
    • Finally, the 19th century commentator Emek Hadavar (Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), writing in Belarus, suggests that disparaging leaders can have damaging effects on an even wider level. “People have the tendency to try to bring down any leader who fails to satisfy their own interests” he writes, “hence this law. While one is prohibited from deriding any Jew, the leader was singled out because people are more prone to this practice and because this kind of criticism breaks down the essence of society at large”.Leadership – in Israel or among the Jewish People – is no easy task. A famous anecdote recalls a conversation between US President Dwight Eisenhower and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.  “It is very hard”, said the American President, “to be the President of 170 million people”. Ben Gurion’s response: “Yes, but it’s harder to be the Prime Minister of 170 million prime ministers!”

      This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we too have a role to play in contributing to the success of our leaders. And as our commentators suggest, keeping our criticism constructive and supporting those in positions of responsibility will only bring benefits: to ourselves, to our leaders, and to society as a whole.

      In others’ words

      “I remember that once I took the most distinguished Israeli author that got the Nobel Prize, Agnon, to visit Ben-Gurion on his 75th birthday. And on the way, Agnon was philosophizing and says, you know, I think that while the Jews are afraid of the gentiles, apparently Ben-Gurion is not afraid. That was quite a banal remark. But then he continued and says, you know, maybe Ben-Gurion is even not afraid of the Jews. And that’s a great Jewish leader.”

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

    On a lighter note

    A man decided to visit his brother, who was the President of the Jewish community in a distant town. When he arrived in the town he asked the first person he met if he knew where he might find Goldberg, President of the Jewish community.
    “Goldberg, that scoundrel!”, shouted the man. “I wouldn’t have anything to do with him”
    The man tried asking someone else if he knew were Goldberg was. “That fraud”, burst out the second. “He’s been a disaster for the Jewish community”.
    “Goldberg, he should rot in hell”, added the third person. Finally, late at night, the man tracked down his brother who was working hard in the offices of the Jewish community.
    “Tell me”, he asked his brother. “Why do you put so much effort in to such a thankless leadership task?”
    “Why”, responded the brother beaming. “For the honour, of course!”

  • Yitro

    Shemot

    in the eyes of the beholder

    At the end of last week’s Torah reading, the Children of Israel were given the commandment to wipe out the memory of Amalek, the archetype of the vicious and immoral persecutor of the Jews. As if to balance this negative image of the non-Jewish world surrounding us, this week’s portion opens with the arrival of Yitro, Moses’ father in law, and the archetype of the sympathetic supporter of the Jewish people.

    But Yitro is more than simply a supporter. Watching the development of the Jewish people from afar, he is able to see clearly things that the Children of Israel cannot see.
    In particular Yitro has two insights that even Moses does not realize:

    When Yitro arrives at the Israelite camp, he is astonished to discover Moses exhausting himself judging the disputes of the entire people. He gives Moses some basic management consultancy, advising him to create an organizational structure and delegate his responsibilities.  The fact that  Yitro is responsible for the first conscious decision made as how to govern Jewish society prompted the 18th century Moroccan commentator Ohr HaChayim  to observe:

    It seems to me that the reason [that the advice on how to organise a society came from Yitro] is that God wanted to show the Israelites of that generation – and of all generations – that there are among the nations of the world great masters of understanding and intellect.

    It might perhaps be expected that Yitro, with his leadership experience as High Priest of Midian, would have managerial expertise to share with Moses. But the other insight that only he realises is more surprising. When Moses recounts to his father-in-law all the events of the exodus, and the deliverance from Pharaoh, the Bible describes Yitro’s response: “And he rejoiced over all the good that the Lord had done for Israel, saving them from the hand of Egypt. And Yitro said: ‘Blessed is the Lord who has saved you from Egypt and from Pharaoh’.”
    Since the exodus took place, the Children of Israel, who actually witnessed the miraculous rescue themselves and benefited from it directly, have done little but complain about their living conditions in the wilderness. It is Yitro, the outsider, who is the first to recognize the remarkable nature of the events that have befallen the Israelites, and to acknowledge the goodness that God has shown in saving the children of Israel, and to bless Him.  Sometimes, it seems, it takes the perspective of an outsider to appreciate the unique events surrounding the history of the Jewish nation.
    Indeed, while today the phrase “baruch hashem” – (‘blessed is the Lord’) – is regarded as uniquely Jewish, it is striking that the three times the term is used in the Bible, it is always by non-Jews (Noah (Genesis 9:26), Abraham’s servant Eliezer (Genesis 24:27) and, in our portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:10)).
    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his remarkable book “A Letter in the Scroll” tells how a group of Jewish students sent questionnaires to prominent Jews, asking them what being a Jew meant to them. The students were dismayed that out of hundred of questionnaires they received only a few replies and that almost all of these were ambivalent or even hostile. “I am neither proud of it nor embarrassed by it” wrote one. “I have no doubt that I would have felt the same had I been brought up as a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist or Hottentot”, wrote another. While a third, an Israeli, described being Jewish as a “hereditary illness” on the grounds that “you get it from your parents, you pass it along to your children… and not a small number of people have died from it”.
    To find any appreciative description of the history and destiny of the people of Israel, the students had to turn to non-Jewish observers of Jewish history. Like United States President John Adams, who insisted that “the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation”, and the eminent historian Paul Johnson who determined that:  “To the Jews we owe the idea of equality before the law, of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, of peace as an abstract ideal and  love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind…”
    From the time of  Yitro, it seems that we Jewish people have had a strange psychological quirk; we are only prepared to believe positive things about ourselves when we hear them from others. This unusual characteristic is given poetic expression in Psalm  (the Shir Hama’alot song that opens the Shabbat Grace after Meals), which describes how the nations of world comment on the remarkable destiny of the Jews – and how, only then, do the Jews themselves come to appreciate it:

    “Then have the nations declared: ‘the Lord has done greatly with these people’; Indeed the Lord has done greatly with us and we rejoiced!”

    In others’ words

    In the early years of the State, Lova Eliav was responsible for the resettlement of immigrants in the land of Israel. When the noted anthropologist, Dr. Margaret Mead visited Israel, Eliav showed her around the resettlement project.  After showing her around for three days, he asked if he had any suggestions or comments on Israel’s approach. Eliav recounted her response:
    “Well,” she said, “I think you’re proceeding in this matter in a bad, wrong and disorganised fashion.”
    “So,” I said, “perhaps you’ll explain what you mean.”
    “Well Mr. Eliav,” Dr. Mead said, “I’d have had gone about it in the following way: first I’d have appealed to the appropriate U.N. bodies and requested them to investigate all aspects of the subject…
    They’d answer you a few months later that they were acceding to your request, and would be sending a commission for an on-the-spot preliminary study of this weighty subject. At the end of three years of ramified research, the commission would request a year’s extension for writing its report. At the end of the extra year, you’d receive a report – a thick volume containing hundreds of pages. At the end of the book, under ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’, only one line would appear: ‘It cannot be done’”.
    I had gradually caught on to the fact that Dr. Mead was pulling my leg, and now, at the end of her speech, I noticed the mischievous glint in her wise eyes.
    “And so, Mr. Eliav”, Margaret Mead concluded, “you went your own way. You didn’t call on the U.N. and its bodies, nor did you wait for the advice of sociologists and anthropologists such as myself. And a good thing, too. This is a great human adventure, and may God bless you.”

    Lova Eliav, No time for History , quoted in Aryeh Ben David, Around the Shabbat Table

    On a lighter note

    During the war, a Jew travelling on a train reading the Yiddish newspaper was shocked to see a friend of his sitting opposite him reading the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer. “How can you possibly read that terrible paper?” he shouted at his friend in anger. The friend looked up at him calmly. “So what are you reading? In your paper we Jews are in danger, there is widespread persecution, and all our rights have been taken away. Personally I prefer to read the Nazi paper: We own all the banks, we control all the governments…”

  • Beshalach

    Shemot

    taking the first step

    The miraculous exodus from Egypt behind them, almost immediately the Children of Israel run into trouble. Pursued by Pharaoh, they find themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and the impassable Red Sea.  The Israelites are in a state of panic. With wry irony they shout at Moses “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt, that you had to bring us out here to die?”. Moses promises the Israelites that God will still save them, and prays to God for salvation.

    In response, God gives a surprising, even shocking, reply: “Why are you crying to me!? Tell the children of Israel to get moving!” Only then does God add: “Now raise your staff over the sea and divide it”.  

    Why, if God was going to help split the sea, did he need to shout at Moses to ‘get a move on’ first?

    The strange discrepancy between God’s first and second statement, telling the Children of Israel to move forward, and only then revealing that He will split the sea, has given rise to a famous midrash:

    “When Israel stood at the sea, one tribe said, ‘I will not be first to go down into the sea;’ and another tribe said ‘I will not be first to go down into the sea.’ In the midst of this argument, one individual, Nachshon ben Aminadav, Prince of the tribe of Judah, seized the initiative, and went down first into the sea, inspiring the rest of his tribe to follow…. Therefore, Judah merited to become King of Israel, as it says, ‘Judah sanctified His Name; by this he merited to rule in Israel.’ (Psalms 114:2)” ( Mechilta Beshalach )

    According to the midrash, it was only when Nachshon ben Aminadav showed the courage to walk forward that God determined to split the sea. But it seems strange indeed that the behaviour of Nachshon ben Aminadav should have brought him such praise and glory. Walking into the sea was by no means a rational action, nor was it a plan which could in any logical sense have brought about the delivery of the Israelites. To the contrary, it might be considered a foolhardy and desperate measure.
    But Jewish tradition judges Nachshon otherwise, praising him for having the courage to act when everyone else was stultified into inaction. In praising Nachshon for his action, Jewish tradition is reflecting a profound conviction that, even in apparently impossible situations, miraculous solutions may be found – but only if we make the first move. This indeed is Rashi’s understanding of God’s response to Moses: “Tell the Children of Israel to move onwards”. Rashi’s interpretation is: “If only the Israelites will start to move forward, then the sea will not stand in their way”.
    The short history of Israel, like the long history of the Jewish people is full of remarkable – apparently miraculous – events which salvaged apparently impossible situations. But like the splitting of the Red Sea, the message seems to be that only if we make the first move will the impossible begin to become possible.
    A Chassidic parable conveys the same idea:
    A man is lost in a long dark tunnel and can’t see his way out. Suddenly another man appears: “Can I help?” “I can’t see my way out of this tunnel,” says the first man. “Here,” says the newcomer. “Take my torch. It will help you find your way.” The man takes the torch, but he’s still unhappy. “Look,” he says, “it’s no good. The torch only lights up a few yards. This tunnel must be hundreds of yards long.” “You’re right,” says the man. “The torch only lights up a few yards. But start moving forwards and then it will light up the next few yards. They may seem dark now, but move forward and it will look different. And before you know it, you may not just be further along in the tunnel, you may even be outside in the bright daylight.”

    In others’ words

    To Step Forward…

    Once in a while
    As I progress towards the course’s end,
    I feel a pang of fear.
    Today I felt such fear.
    If the war comes
    When the war comes
    I will have to lead men to die
    But those men were not men a short time ago
    Some don’t even shave yet
    And I will have to have the calm power
    to yell to them
    or to whisper Kadima.
    And, I will have to have the calm power
    to step forward myself.

    From the Diary of Alex Singer. Alex, an American oleh, was a Givati brigade platoon commander. He was killed on his 25th birthday in the security zone in Lebanon, while trying to save his commanding officer.

    On a lighter note

    Like many tragic aspects of Jewish life, the history of the disputations – the cruel public debates conducted against the Jews – has given rise to its fair share of jokes. Here is one of them: In the Middle Ages a cruel priest decided to stage a public disputation against the Jews of his village. The Priest would debate against a member of the Jewish community. If the Jew won the debate, the Jews would remain unharmed; but if he lost, the Jew would be killed, and the entire Jewish community would be expelled from the village. As if this were not cruel enough, the Priest added another rule: the debate would be conducted entirely in silence.
    The Jewish community summoned an urgent meeting to select a representative for the debate, but no-one was prepared to undertake the task. Finally, Moishe, the village fool, took a nervous step forward. “Better me than no-one” he said.
    The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Priest sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Priest raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The Priest waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Priest pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. Suddenly the Priest stood up and said, “I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.”
    An hour later, the Priest’s followers gathered around him to ask what had happened. The Priest said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins.
    He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?” Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. “What happened?” they asked. “Well,” said Moishe, “First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here.”
    “Yes, yes,.. and then???” asked the crowd.
    “I don’t know,” said Moishe, “He took out his lunch, and I took out mine.”

  • Bo

    Shemot

    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

    Shemot

    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

    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.”

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