Monthly Archives: February 2017

Feb 26

Dvar Torah: Mishpatim

By Editor | Blogs

Here is the Dvah Torah that Marylou Grimberg prepared before we knew Rabbi Adam was visiting.  However, we still wanted to publish on our site.  Thank you Marylou for sharing it with us.

Veyavo Moshe ve yesaper l’am et kol divre adonai . . .
Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules, and all the people answered with one voice, saying ‘All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do’. [Exodus 24:3]

Then, at the foot of the mountain, with appropriate sacrificial ceremonial the covenant between God and the children of Israel, our ancestors, is sealed.  After this Moses goes back up the mountain and eats a meal of affirmation in the presence of God.  For this reason this sedra, Mishpatim, is also known as Sefer haBrit, The Book of the Covenant.  The 53 ordinances, although they are but a small percentage of the final 613 commandments, are the foundation of the law.  They are a vital milestone in a long journey, and therefore worth investigating with some care.

Some of the ordinances are disturbing.   For example, the calm acceptance of slavery by a people who have just escaped from slavery themselves is startling.  Then there is the case of the ox that gores and kills someone and must be stoned to death.  This is hard to accept.  I hear the poor beast’s desperate bellowing, see its terrified eyes.  Why such cruelty?

Some of these problems may be alleviated by recognising that the Written Torah is not as straightforward as it initially appears.  It exists side by side with, and must be understood in conjunction with, the Oral Torah, and it turns out that there are layers of meaning.  Ultimately, in many cases, less disturbing explanations and interpretations are arrived at. However, sifting through the layers is a task to which scholars devote a lifetime.

We don’t have a lifetime.  We have about ten minutes, so I have chosen one of the ordinances, the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth injunction, to demonstrate very briefly what one such reassuring interpretation looks like.  From this perhaps we can tentatively conclude that other troubling passages may well seem less disconcerting, less alien, when revisited in the company of the Oral Torah.

Not only is the eye for an eye ordinance one of the best known and most quoted sayings in the entire Tanakh, it is also possibly one of the most misunderstood.  It is also widely known as Lex Talionis, or The Law of Retaliation.  This is a gross misnomer, because more accurately it is a law intended, as one of its effects, to limit excessive retaliation.  It is about justice, not revenge.

Even more significantly, the Oral Torah teaches us that this ruling should be understood figuratively, not literally. Scholars reach their conclusions by, among other things, following linguistic and textual clues, by paying attention to the actual words used and to other contexts in which the same words and phrases appear.   We don’t have time to follow that route, but must skip to the final interpretation which is that if a man injures another man he must make appropriate financial – not physical – reparation.

This might be seen as a latter day attempt to make Jews and Judaism seem less vindictive, less Shylockian, nicer.   However, Maimonides said:  ‘There never was any Rabbi, from the time of Moses who ruled, based on “an eye for an eye,” that he who blinds another should himself be blinded.’   Before Maimonides Ibn Ezra took a similar position, as did the sages of Babylon (with the possible exception of Rabbi Eliezer).  So this takes us from the 21st Century through the 12th and the 10th to the 6th or even right back to the 1st Century CE.  Or, as Maimonides says, to the days of Moses himself.

So this gentler, financial interpretation is definitely not a 21st century attempt at a whitewash or a rewriting of Jewish attitudes.

Crucially, understanding the wording of this ordinance to be figurative makes good sense. How is a blinded person helped by the assailant also being blinded?  And what if one of the two people involved only had one good eye to begin with?   This way, judges can arrive at decisions case by case.  So the question now is:  Why on earth have a figurative formulation in the Written Torah in the first place?  Why not just cut to the chase and come straight out with what is really intended – financial reparation?

When Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandated Palestine, was asked this question he responded with a parable.   Briefly:  A young boy transgresses in some way.  The father, enraged, raises his hand to strike him but the mother, full of compassion, intervenes to protect her child.  The father lowers his hand, they talk it over and an alternative, non-physical punishment is imposed.

The important thing is that as a result of his father’s anger and the threat of violence the boy realises the gravity of his offence and, although due to his mother’s intervention he is spared harsh physical chastisement, the threat of such punishment teaches him a lesson which (with luck) he won’t forget.

Rabbi Kook explains that the Kabbalists compare the father to the Written Torah, whereas the mother is likened to the Oral Torah.  The value of the role of the Written Torah  – the father – is now apparent.  It highlights the gravity of certain transgressions.  In this case, if the Written Torah had taken us straight to the interpretation given by the Oral Torah it might seem that destroying a man’s eyesight is no more serious an offence than any other transgression that attracts a financial penalty – the destruction of property, say.  But it is more serious.  The written language is unequivocal on that point.

If a man deprives another of an eye, or a tooth, or a limb he deserves to lose an eye, a tooth, or a limb also.    The fact that he won’t, because it would be both unhelpful and impractical, is a separate issue.  What becomes apparent is that although the Written Torah is essentially about justice – both social and moral – there is also the issue of deterrence.

A story in the Gemara illustrates this:  Chanan the Bad appears before the Beit Din accused of hitting and injuring another man.  He is found guilty and ordered to pay half a zuz.  However, Chanan only has a battered one zuz coin which no one will change for him because it is in such bad condition although it is, presumably, legal tender.  Stalemate.  Chanan, however, as well as being bad is also resourceful and he obligingly resolves the impasse by hitting the injured man again.   The penalty is doubled, Chanan pays up, and they can all go home.

The point of this story is that Chanan is not in the least deterred by the certainty of the fine being doubled.  Indeed, it is his intention that it should be.  We can conclude from this that of itself a fine may not be much of a deterrent, especially if the offender is a wealthy man. This creates an obvious imbalance, within the law, between rich and poor.   One of the effects of the written Torah is that it redresses this imbalance (or it is hoped that it will), making the bellicose rich man think twice before using his fists, or some other blunt, or possibly sharp, instrument.

Maimonides writes that what the written Torah makes clear is that it is ‘fitting’ that the offender should suffer the same injuries as those he has inflicted. Tellingly, however, he also says that neither financial restitution nor offerings to God – ‘even all the rams of Nevayot’ – are sufficient for the offender to be exonerated.  He must also seek forgiveness from the person he has injured.

Interestingly, according to the Talmud, the injured man must not withhold such forgiveness. If he does he also sins.  However, if he nonetheless refuses to be placated, the original offender must seek forgiveness three times in the presence of witnesses.  If it is still withheld he has done all that is required of him (unless the injured man is his teacher, but that is a separate complication).

This is most satisfying – so much from one little ordinance.  There is no retaliation, no vengefulness, but no easy get-out clause for offenders either.  We can perhaps extrapolate from this that throughout the year and not just at Yom Kippur, we must all seek forgiveness, not only from God, but also from those we have injured in any  way.   What is perhaps more significant is that we ourselves are obliged to forgive.

Finally, in this story the mother and the father each has a distinct and equally valuable, and valued, role to play, which seems to me to be just as it should be.

Feb 13

SAMS singers sing

By Editor | Blogs

By Stephen Gess

I have always noticed that our community was a musical lot and I wondered whether there was a possibility for an informal singing group at SAMS.

The first step was to look for a song leader and in January 2016 we found Judith Silver who ran a pilot of singing workshops which proved to be very successful attracting 20 people. We then decided to move forward and set up further workshops as the year progressed this time with the help of Mich Sampson.

Emerging from this has been a remarkable strength of response, enthusiasm and a common will to make this project work. We have now gathered an eclectic mix of people who enjoy singing together.

Although everybody comes from different musical backgrounds, we have found common ground in the songs that we sing which cover the full width and breadth of Jewish music. I could quote chapter and verse about all the upsides of singing and singing together, but what it comes back to is that singing together is just great fun!

What we have is a tremendous sense of commitment on all sides and a brilliant song leader in Mich.

Mich is a very accomplished musician, has a great sense of humour, and is also someone who is a wonderful motivator. She is entirely on the same page and works with us to create beautiful music and enhance our sense of community.

We have honoured our Mitzvah Day pledge to sing at the Princess Alexandra Jewish Care Home in Bushey. This took place on Sunday February 12th.

We will also be holding a “Soiree” for family, friends and the community to hear and join in with our music. This will take place on Sunday 2nd April at 7pm at SAMS.

We always love to welcome people who want to give “SAMS singers” a try. Please let me or the shul office know if you would like to come along and contribute your own joy of music to our group. The charge for each session is £7

Contact : info@e-sams.org

Feb 12

Dvar Torah: Tu B’Shevat

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Michelle Knight

Tu B’Shevat is a festival  which, by celebrating trees, by extension honours the earth which God gave us.  It falls at the time in Israel when the rainy season has finished and the sap starts to rise in the trees. Tu B’Shevat originated in Biblical times as one of four New Years in the annual cycle, determining which fruit should be donated to the priests and when at what age a new tree could be harvested, the festival fell out of favour when the connection to the land of Israel was lost. It was reformed by the Kabbalists in Safed and they developed the Tu B’Shevat Sedar as a way of expressing their beliefs about how humanity acts and interacts with God. Most of the traditions were dormant until it was revived by the early settlers in Israel as it so symbolically connected the people to the land

The Kabbalistic mystics believed that we live in four worlds simultaneously:

  • Assiyah: the physical world around us.
  • Yetzirah, the world of feelings and emotions.
  • B’riyah, the world of knowing, and the mind.
  • Atzilut the world of spirituality.

And they based their Seder on these concepts, echoing the Pesach seder with four cups of wine, stories and of course, food.

You’ll have to wait till Kiddush to actually eat some fruit but I’d like to take you through an imaginary Tu B’Shevat sedar, so please use your imagination as we start by pouring out a glass of white wine to symbolise the middle of winter with frost on the ground.  We recall that nature has been dormant for many months, awaiting the warmth of spring and its annual renewal of life. To mark Assiyah, the physical world, we eat nuts and fruit with a tough outside and soft inside, to remind us that the earth protects us: we acknowledge that we need protection both physically and emotionally.   So I’m going to hand out an imaginary dish of almonds, pomegranates, oranges and walnuts and coconuts but please eat the pomegranate first because it’s best to taste the fruit grown in Israel before the others.   You can ponder how some people are like fruits that are edible inside and inedible on the outside; they are difficult to get to know, but you are rewarded when you peel away the top layer.

Our second cup is white wine with a splash of red to symbolise the beginning of spring and the reawakening of the earth. To concentrate on Yetzirah, the world of feelings, we eat fruits with a tough inner core. Through this we show that if we have a strong inner energy, we don’t need to be hard on the outside. For our seder we include: dates, olives, cherries and peaches.  Some people we meet are like fruits that are edible on the outside, but have an inedible pit; you seem to make friends with  them quickly, but you will never know them completely.

The third cup is of red wine with a little white added: it represents high summer with long days and warm nights. Fruit and vegetables are abundant and we are reminded of the richness of life. In the world of B’riyah or creation, where God’s protection is close at hand, we eat fruits that are completely edible – no shell, no pip, no skin. We can let go of all barriers and try to experience freedom, so I’m sending round figs, grapes and pears. These are like the people with whom you form quick and lasting friendships.  In the wider world, we are reminded that we have to find a balance between the opposing forces of human needs and the natural world

The fourth cup is purely red wine symbolising the glow of autumn. The crops are ready, and the leaves are full of colour. Plants are preparing seed for the next cycle of nature.  We are inhabiting the world of Atzilut which is a purely spiritual idea, representing God’s loving kindness.    We might think about the year that has passed, about living in balance and harmony and maybe thinking about purity and origins. As we feel this abstractly in our hearts we don’t have real, or imaginary, fruit to eat.

Today much of the focus of Tu B’Shevat is about conservation. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai once said: “If you have sapling in your hand, ready to plant, and the Messiah comes, plant the tree first and then go to greet him.” We can be very proud of SAMS efforts to plant the Hertswood Forest on Mitzvah Day.  And in the Torah there is a commandment to leave fruit trees standing when a city is attacked in wartime.  Personally while I’ve been reading about Tu B’Shevat, I’ve realised that I’d lost touch with the Plant a Tree in Israel programme and so I’ve donated a tree in honour of SAMS  which is probably most like a pomegranate, bearing in mind our architecture: tough on the outside but deeply rewarding once you get inside.

I’ll finish with a parable:

Two people were fighting over a piece of land, each claimed ownership and as they couldn’t resolve their differences they agreed to put the case before the Rabbi.  The Rabbi listened but couldn’t come to a decision because both seemed to be right.  Finally, he said, “Since I cannot decide who this land belongs to let us ask the land.” He put his ear to the ground and after a moment straightened up. My friends, the land says it belongs to neither of you but that you belong to it.”