• Teruma


    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


    — 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


    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


    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


    the beginning of Jewish history

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

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

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

    In others’ words

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

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

    On a lighter note

    A question of timing:

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

  • Va’era


    ordinary people, extraordinary achievements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In others’ words

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

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

    On a lighter note

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

  • Shemot


    Three tests, three signs

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

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

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

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

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

    Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot

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

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

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

    In others’ words

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

    Speech on receiving the Nobel Prize, 1994

    On a lighter note

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

  • Vayechi


    Diaspora Jewish leaders in the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In others’ words

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

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Paris, 28 July 2005

    On a lighter note

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

    Jules Farber

  • Vayigash


    one small step for man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In others’ words

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

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

    On a lighter note

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

  • Miketz


    coping with crisis

    While Joseph is rising to great heights in Egypt, the family he left behind in Canaan is sinking into famine and despair. Joseph’s brothers, who were raised in comfort, have no idea how to cope in hard times. So it is Jacob, who spent much of his life as a poor and hungry shepherd, who is left to stir them into action. He does so with an unusual phrase, which occurs only once in the bible: “Lama titra-u”.

    This phrase, which girds the sons into acting, is clearly crucial to the story. But what does it mean?

    The question that Jacob directs at his sons is a mysterious one. The word “titra-u” seems to be the reflexive form of the verb to see, suggesting that it may mean to look at yourself, or to make yourself appear a certain way. The ambiguity in the phrase leaves the commentators wide room for interpretation as to Jacob’s message to his sons at this time of crisis. Here are the views of four classic commentators.

    • Rashi, the great French commentator, writing in the th century, reads the word titra-u as “make yourself appear”, giving the sentence the sense of: ‘why are you pretending to others that you have plenty of food?’ In other words, he suggests, Jacob is telling his sons not to worry about keeping up appearances and to face up to the reality of the crisis that confronts them.
    • Radak (R. David Kimche, France, th century) takes a similar line, but reads the word as “delude yourself” or “fantasize”. For the Radak, the problem Jacob is addressing is not that the sons are trying to fool others, but rather that they are fooling themselves.
    • Ibn Ezra, writing in Spain in the th century, finds a similar phrase in the Book of Chronicles where it means “quarrel”, and so concludes that Jacob’s admonition is “Don’t argue with each other.”
    • Ovadia Sforno, writing in 15th century Italy, gives the simplest and most poignant explanation. Taking the verb titra-u as the reflexive form of the verb “to see”, he translates the phrase “lama titra-u?”, quite literally, as ‘Why are you looking at each other?’ In other words, why is none of you taking the initiative, why are you all expecting someone else to solve the problem?

    Four commentators, writing in different places and different ages, suggest very different explanations as to Jacob’s intention in chiding his sons. But each of the four reflects a common psychological reaction to times of crisis: denial, blame and abnegation of responsibility. For Rashi and Radak, the question relates to the tendency to deny the crisis – either to others or to ourselves: “Why are you not facing the reality of the situation?”; for Ibn Ezra, it relates to the tendency to place the blame on others: “Why are you quarreling?”; and for Sforno, it addresses the tendency to look outside of ourselves for the solutions to our problems: “Why are you looking at each other?”

    Israel, in its short history as a modern state, has had to confront more than its fair share of emergency situations. And at these difficult times, the question that Jacob posed to his sons, later to become heads of the tribes of Israel, has served as a helpful guide for dealing with crisis. As interpreted by four classic commentators, the message from Jacob for dealing with such situations is clear: Face up to the reality of the situation; don’t destroy your unity by blaming and quarreling with each other; and take personal responsibility yourself for finding a solution to the problem.

    In others’ words

    “Zionism and pessimism are not compatible.”

    Golda Meir, quoted in Marie Syrkin, Golda Meir

    On a lighter note

    A local yeshiva challenged Oxford University to a rowing contest but were beaten hands-down by the Oxford team. Before the return race, the head of the Yeshiva told his rowing captain to go 
    and spy on the Oxford team’s training session to try and find out why they were so much faster. The rowing captain came back to the Yeshiva head, beaming. “I think I’ve figured out their secret” he said, excitedly. “What is it?” asked the Yeshiva head. “Well,” said the captain, “they do everything the other way round to us.” “What do you mean?” “It’s simple,” says the captain, “they’ve got eight men rowing and only one man shouting!”

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