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Jun 26

D’var Torah: Korach

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

In Shelach Lecha, last week’s Torah portion, Moses comes up against 10 out of the 12 scouts who have just returned from checking out the Promised Land. They bring a negative and discouraging report. We cannot win against against the giants in the land!

This week Moses’ leadership is challenged again, by Korach and his followers. They accuse him of being a demagogue, misusing his power and authority. It turns out that Korach and his followers are the true demagogues, hungering for power, not based on an alternative and possibly positive vision of leadership. They simply want Moses out, because they want to be in.

Rashi (1035-1104) explains that Korach, like all who crave power for its own sake, uses beguiling oratory, not truth, to seduce the people of Israel. The Hebrew text says “Mashach B’dvarim”- “He drew them to him with words.” He built himself up by tearing Moses down. How is it that the people of Israel who had witnessed Moses’ effective leadership and God’s power at the Red Sea and Sinai could succumb to Korach’s guile?

Nahmanides, like Rashi, another medieval commentator (1194-1270) says that at any other time the people would have stoned someone who questioned Moses’ authority. Korach’s attempted coup, however, came right after the frightening report of the spies. Our people, still struggling to rid themselves of their slave mentality, consequently fearful and vulnerable, were ripe for exploitation by Korach. He took advantage of their weakened state until God stepped in to rescue Moses by making Korach and his followers disappear.

Tal Becker, distinguished Israeli political thinker said that at conferences on Israel, each speaker typically describes the situation in Israel as worse than the speaker before him described it. Becker would say that we must acknowledge when things are bad and be realistic about it, but a wholly negative mindset weakens us, makes us vulnerable and plays directly into the hands of those who, like Korach, would harm us. Becker asserts that we must embrace and project a “sovereign state of mind”, which means a positive outlook of empowerment and self confidence when faced with the many Korachs of the world.

On a more personal level, the portion of Korach also reminds us that when we are in relationships of any kind, whether as spouses, parents, children, and particularly toward or as leaders, we should never exploit the vulnerabilities of others. Likewise we must be vigilant when others try to exploit our weaknesses. The good path in life is to define ourselves by what we stand for in positive terms, not by what might be lacking in others.

Jun 21

D’var Torah: Shelach Lecha

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

Before I deliver my D’var Torah today, I must ask us all to pause for a moment of reflection. The last several weeks have been very painful for all of us. Terrorism in the form of the events on Westminster Bridge, in Manchester, on London Bridge and in Borough Market, and the tragic fire in Grenfell Tower have left us all shaken to the core. We must find the time to pray for the families who have lost loved ones that they may with time find comfort. We must also pray for those who are still struggling to recover from both physical and psychological injuries. We must do whatever we can to help through charitable donations. The most recent and horrifying fire is not the same as the terrorist incidents which preceded it, but in both cases whatever can be done to prevent future occurrences whether by increased security in one case or greater attention to secure building codes in the other must be done, and we must encourage our government to do so. At the same time, we must feel and express gratitude to the first responders of fire and police, along with all those numerous people who stepped up as rescuers and opened their hearts and homes to those in need.

The Sedra of Shelach Lecha is a pivotal one in the history of the Jewish people in terms of their faith in themselves and their faith in God. Moses sent out twelve spies to reconnoiter the land of Israel before entering it. It is, of course, the sensible thing to do so the the people will know what to do and what is expected of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out well. Ten out of the twelve scouts return with a pessimistic report; the people are doomed to failure in conquering the land. Only Joshua and Caleb express optimism. The result is that the Jewish people are not permitted to enter the land until the negative and faithless generation which left Egypt has died out.

On one level, their negativism comes from a lack of faith in themselves. This is expressed in their perception that the land is occupied by giants, but even more in their perception of themselves as the size of grasshoppers. Far worse, is their lack of faith in God which is implied in the declaration in their report: “We are not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we (Numbers 13:31). The last two words in Hebrew are critical because the word “mimenu” can mean two different things. It can mean “than we,” or it can mean “than He (God).”

Rashi, the great medieval commentator (1035-1104), citing the Midrash, says that “they meant it in reference to Him that is Above;” their true denial was of God’s power, not of their own. Therefore, God would be responsible for their familiar. They could blame it all on Him. That, it seems to me, is the best reason why they were not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Not only did they show a tremendous lack of faith, but also a reluctance to accept responsibility. God is not powerful enough, and our failure will be His fault.

On another level, they were turned back at the border, because of the manner in which the faithless delivered their report. And here to, as before, one word made a difference. Look at Numbers 13:27-28: “We came into the Land whither Thou sent us, and surely it flowers with milk and honey and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless, the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great, and moreover we saw the children of Anak there….” I bonded the word “nevertheless” because that one word took and otherwise objective report and slanted it toward the negative in a subtle and sneaky way. The listener would think he was hearing the truth offered with objectivity but would end up feeling pessimistic. This is the manipulative technique of the propagandist who shades the truth just enough to accomplish his goal to mislead others.

Professor Nehama Leibowitz, the renowned modern Biblical commentator, offer a wonderful illustration of this this technique from a 15th century commentator Isaac Arama. Again note the bolder words: “It can be compared to a man who says to his agent- Go to the warehouse and have a look at the tallit the merchant has in stock. Examine it carefully for the quality of the fabric, for size, appearance and price and let me know, as I wish to purchase it. If the agent returns and says that he had a look at it and the wool is pure, it is long and wide, greenish and reddish in color and the price a hundred gold pieces, he has carried out his mission correctly. But if he said- I had a look at it, the wool is pure, it is long and wide, but it is greenish and reddish in color, and it is very dearly priced at 100 gold pieces, then he has exceeded the bounds of his mission and become instead an advisor.”

How interesting! What a difference a word or two here and there can make! Such is a reminder that we have to be careful listeners and readers of all reports which are presented to us. As you can see from this Sedra, life or death decisions depended on the honesty of the spies. The ten could clearly could not be trusted because of the style not only the content of their reporting. It was clearly not truthful and certainly slanted. What was worse than their report was that they were lacking in faith both in God and in themselves. The people would have to wait to cross the border.

 

 

Jun 14

London Jews in the First World War: We were there too

By Editor | Blogs

Written by Pauline Symons

You can listen to Pauline reading this post on the audio version of our latest Newsletter

Does your family have a First World War story to tell?

A new Heritage Lottery Fund project called ‘The Jews of London in the First World War – We Were There Too’ aims to inspire the community to help find and preserve stories of British Jewish Londoners in the First World War on a brand new interactive website.

Forty to fifty thousand British Jews served in Britain’s armed forces in the First World War, while thousands more were involved in war work and support roles near to the battlefields and on the Home Front. When the call came, the Jewish community stood up to be counted.

Although, a century on, first‐hand knowledge has disappeared, we know that personal recollections of the war years can still be captured through family stories and anecdotes, along with letters, diaries and memorabilia that have survived in attics and old photograph albums.

Judah and Lipman Przybysz, outside Judah’s tailor shop in the East End. A We ere There Too user has recently identified them as his great-uncles. ©Jewish Museum

But time is against us as lofts get cleared and the accuracy of family history fades. With the community’s help, We Were There Too will become the permanent digital archive for this precious material, preserving the surviving evidence for future generations.

Through a series of History Windows, the site will provide a unique insight into the experience of living as a minority group through the conflict while also offering user friendly access to a number of First World War archives, including the newly‐digitised British Jewry Book of Honour, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, local directories of the period, and rare private collections.

The offices of the Jewish Chronicle, London, August 1914. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum

The most important element of the project is the capture and
preservation of individual stories in Personal Records. If your ancestor fought in the war, raised a family, kept a business going, served as a nurse or factory worker, cared for a wounded son or husband, or experienced a wartime childhood, you will be able to upload their story and ensure that their contribution to Britain’s war effort is not forgotten. Photographs, letters, diaries and even 3D scans of medals and other items can be added. And if you don’t know much about your ancestor beyond a faded photograph, the site will provide guidance on how to research their story further.

The 4th Volunteer Battalion Royal Fusiliers cyclist section marching through Finsbury led by Lieutenant B.M.C Tyler, c.1912. Courtesy of the Tyler family

Volunteers are needed to help us, from research and IT to helping older people upload their stories. We hope that Jewish schools, cheders and youth organisations will encourage children to investigate and record their own family stories, or research a Jewish soldier listed in the Book of Honour.

Teenagers will also be able to take part in the project, linked to the Duke of Edinburgh Award and Open College Network accreditation activities organised through JLGB.

The project is designed to engage the community with the period and make them both aware and proud of the contribution British Jews made to British society a hundred years ago and continue to make today.

As Alan Fell, Project Director said: ‘In the aftermath of Brexit and a noticeable rise in racist incidents, there has never been a timelier moment to remind ourselves and our fellow countrymen that we were there too.’

I am delighted to be a volunteer on this amazing project and would be happy to hear from you if you have a story you wish to share about your ancestors in the First World War.

You can contact Pauline via this website or you can contact the organisation directly using at jewsfww.london.

Jun 12

Bias in the Media

By Editor | Blogs

Written by Tara Goldsmith

For many years there have been arguments as to whether or not the news media is biased, this argument has been particularly relevant when talking about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Often, as Jews it is an automatic reaction to believe that Israel is being discriminated against, however, after looking at different statistics and articles it is clear that this is not always the case.

The confusing nature of the conflict has led to the formation of many different opinions, these conflicting opinions are often highlighted in the news reporting of the events. Each side, the pro‐Israel and the anti‐Israel/pro‐Palestine, has claimed that news reporters are being biased towards the other.

The BBC has been covering this conflict from its earliest developments and there have been many reports on the institution’s bias. However, both sides believe that the bias is against them.

A report posted on the Guardian’s website showed pictures of a pro‐Palestinian group protesting outside the BBC’s London headquarters, complaining that the BBC had reported the Israeli air strikes in a biased way. They believed that the BBC’s news programmes were ‘entirely devoid of context or background’. This article states that many people believe that the BBC is not getting across the Palestinian point of view, saying that it hasn’t considered the background of the conflict enough in the report.

However, the Guardian also has a statement from someone on the other side, a columnist from the Jewish Chronicle, saying that the criticism of the BBC has been ‘made in exactly the same detail on the other side of the argument’, meaning that pro‐Israel groups would also say that the BBC hasn’t considered the history of the Jewish people and their historic right to have their own state.

The accusation of bias isn’t contained simply to mainstream media. According to research done in October 2013, Twitter has over 215 million active users, creating over 500 million tweets, which accumulates to just over 3% of the world’s population using twitter. During the summer of 2014 many trends and hashtags were started regarding the conflict. Many tweets including the hashtag ‘#freepalestine’ were shared among the site, with many celebrities getting involved. Singer Rihanna tweeted the hashtag to her 37.8 million followers, and received a total of 11,629 retweets and favourites. As well as this, former One Direction singer, Zayn Malik also tweeted the hashtag to his 13 million followers receiving over 130,000 retweets. However, many of One Direction fans are young and impressionable, many of whom will not know the full extent of the situation. Many impolite, incorrect and harmful comments have been made using these hashtags, including nods towards ethnic cleansing and other
insensitive or damaging ideas. Those that aren’t necessarily completely educated on the topic and history, may relay these opinions themselves without knowing the full consequence of what they’re saying.

The rise of social media has meant that the platforms have been increasingly used as a tool to coordinate campaigns of antisemitic harassment. Examples include the ‘runover’ campaign, with around 90 different Facebook pages dedicated to it, with thousands of followers. This campaign came about after several car attacks by Palestinian terrorists, resulting in injuries and deaths of several Israeli citizens in late November 2014. These pages have been described as glorifying and encouraging terror attacks against Israelis. Some of the posts on these pages describe the ‘run‐overs’ as part of a new revolution; a form of ‘car Intifada’. Other Facebook pages include anti‐Semitic posts depicting religious Jews with hooked noses running away from vehicles attempting to run‐over them. The campaign spread on Twitter as well; the Arabic hashtag ‘Daesh’ has attracted numerous posts celebrating terrorism. For example, one Tweet reads, ‘Nothing is more beautiful than a runover, lest stabbing’. These types of campaigns are dangerous and harmful, spreading glorification not only of attacks on Israel but terror attacks in general.

Many Twitter users have also used incorrect or out of context images to portray the abuse given to both sides during certain conflicts. During the most recent Israel‐Gaza conflict many of these images show an incorrect or bad representation of not only Israelis, but Jews as well. Twitter user ‘@InCapitol24’ tweeted an image of a Jewish man shouting at a seemingly defenceless and innocent Palestinian woman, with the caption ‘Israeli religious fanatics (Jews) stop Palestinians from praying at Al Aqsa mosque in #Jerusalem’, receiving 798 retweets and 233 favourites. However, when looking more closely at the image it is clear to see that the Palestinian woman is holding a Jewish book of Psalms. It is then easy to assume that this woman has taken it from the Jewish man as the book is upside down in her hands
and of no relevance to her. One blog found a video to prove these assumptions. Six seconds into the video you can see the women aggressively grabbing the book from the man. As well as this, it is clear to see that the Palestinians are pushing the Jews away and preventing them from praying, not the other way round as many sources would suggest.

A recent USA Today article reports on the different antisemitic attacks throughout Europe. For example in France, three consecutive weekends of pro‐Palestine protests turned into a string of antisemitic attacks. This supports the CST’s statistics; 1,309 antisemitic incidents recorded nationwide during 2016, a 36 percent increase from the 960 incidents recorded by CST in 2015. Examples of such antisemitism include: occupants in a group of cars, in Manchester, England, shouted and swore at Jewish pedestrians, yelling ‘heil Hitler’, and in Antwerp, Belgium, a doctor refused to treat a Jewish woman, telling her son to ‘send her to Gaza for a few hours, then she’ll get rid of the pain’. This sort of behaviour can be linked back to what people see or hear in the media. It has also proved that people tend to blame Jews for the wrongdoings of Israel.

CNN reported on the November 2014 attacks at a synagogue in Jerusalem, committed by a group of Palestinians. However, the headline of the news story, live on air, read; ‘Deadly attack on Jerusalem Mosque’. This shows that the news company could possibly have created the headlines before finding out the whole story. This theory becomes a little more evident when the next headline comes on screen; ‘Police: four Israelis, two Palestinians killed in attack’, this title is vague and leaves the viewers with questions. The report becomes confusing for the viewers as Jerusalem’s mayor is interviewed talking about the synagogue. Although there is no hard evidence, it can be seen that this news corporation has created the headlines prior to their own knowledge of the whole story, which highlights their bias, as they seem to have automatically decided that the mosque must have been the target of attack. This has also been criticised in UK news
outlets, with the press attaché at London’s Israeli embassy,
Yiftah Curiel, in early 2016 stating: ‘Headlines of news pieces on the Israeli‐Palestinian conflict will turn events on their head, portraying perpetrator as victim.’

Although this article cannot possibly show the whole story, nor examine every aspect of the on‐going conflict, these examples do show how media bias can affect people’s views on certain events. It’s important to remember that news outlets will often take sides before understanding a full story. This is not saying not to trust the news, but simply to be aware of the bias they may hold.

Jun 11

D’var Torah: Be-Ha’alotekha

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

The Torah portion of Be-Ha’alotekha is about spiritual leadership and its relationship with the community. Moses is “burned out” from handling our difficult people. He can no longer handle it all by himself so God gives him a “Board of Trustees”, elders who have some of Moses’s spiritual leadership. It is a trying time and Moses needs to share responsibility.

Moses has no problem sharing his spiritual quality of leadership with others. Meanwhile elsewhere in the camp two men named Eldad and Medad are engaged in acts of spiritual ecstasy and prophecy. Others object but not Moses who expresses this wish: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” To Moses God’s spirit and prophecy were available to all.

We can derive two important values of Judaism from these events. First, is the value of a caring community where every shares in the affirmation that we are all dependent on each other, or in a more familiar phrase, “All for one, and one for all.” Everyone is equally obliged to help everyone else. It is not the job of Moses alone, nor the 70 alone, nor Eldad and Medad alone.

Here I have to quote David Brooks from an op-ed piece in the New York Times on June 2. It is entitled, “The Axis of Selfishness.” “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with the clear eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. This sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.”

Moses would have railed against this outlook and said that we are not only a global caring community but that we are also an “egalitarian community.” This is the second value derived from the events in this week’s Sedra. We have equal responsibility but also equal ability to fulfill that responsibility. The idea of being egalitarian here precedes the issue of women’s full participation in Jewish life. It might be called a DIY concept of Judaism. We can all learn what is necessary to become Jewish leaders whether it is lead a service, read Torah or Haftarah, lead a Seder, even deliver a D’var Torah.

This is every rabbi’s dream, to empower his community to do all of these things and much more. The rabbi may be more learned after studying for many years, but he or she does not have an exclusive claim to that knowledge or leadership. The rabbi does not have to be the surrogate for the congregant. We all have a direct line to God. SAMS is a paradigm of empowerment where congregants are encouraged to take over and lead not only at meetings but also in worship and teaching.

The American Jewish community began to embrace this in the 60’s and 70’s with the publication of a book entitled “The Jewish Catalog” which taught everyone how to do everything Jews do from tying Tzitzit to making Challah for Shabbat to putting on Tefillin and so much more. That period also saw the beginning of the Havurah movement in America where groups of young Jews, created communal living settings where they did Judaism in all ways, without a rabbi. They knew what our tradition has stressed, the concept that we are all a “Mamlechet Kohanim v’Goi Kadosh,” a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.” The leaders like Moses of old played and the rabbis of today play an important role, but each and everyone of us in the community have the power and the responsibility- equally!

God and Moses partnered a long time ago to teach this concept to our people. Each generation must learn these values and live by them. Doing so guarantees Jewish survival.

Jun 09

North Herts Jewish Genealogical Society

By Editor | Blogs

Written by John Shaw

You can listen to John reading this post on the audio version of our latest Newsletter

The local group of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain has been meeting at SAMS about twice a year since 2014. We have also been meeting at the Welwyn Garden City Synagogue. All the meetings have included general sessions uncovering areas of difficulty experienced by researchers with resultant suggestions on how to overcome them. Specifically we have had talks from Society experts on conducting research into UK, Polish and German records.

The aim of the Society is to encourage people to take an interest in their family history and assist any who want to pursue this. The particular aim of the North Herts Group is to provide this service more or less on the doorstep and to do so in a friendly atmosphere. So if you have caught the family history research bug as a result of SAMS Roots exercises and want to go further why not come along to one of our meetings and discover how we can help. You do not have to be a member to attend and you can expect some help with your family history research without joining, but the full range of the Societyʹs resources kick in once you become a member. This can for example mean you being allocated a mentor to assist you overcome the problems being experienced.

See the synagogue diary for details of the next meeting at SAMS where the group will examine the SAMS Roots programmes with a particular emphasis on how the society might be able to  assist participants in the programme who are interested in taking their family history research further and even those starting from scratch.

In order to assist our experts who are attending to prepare, would you please let us know of any intention to attend by using the contact form.

Jun 06

SAMS Bridge Club

By Editor | Blogs

Written by Andrea Berry

You can listen to Andrea reading this post on the audio version of our latest Newsletter

‘What shall I say about the Bridge Club?’ I enquired of my fellow players. ‘Awful people!’ was the immediate response. ‘Rude!’ ‘Cruel!’ After the inevitable laughter, the serious comments:

‘The newer players can learn from the more experienced’. ‘Unlike at other bridge clubs, we can discuss the hands afterwards’. ‘Thereʹs no stressful competition between couples.’

SAMS Bridge Club welcomes all those with some previous knowledge of the game, who would enjoy playing in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere — and not mind losing! It is not necessary to bring a partner. Players are paired on a flexible basis.

Sessions run on the first Thursday of the month from 1.30pm – 4.30pm approx.

There is a £3 charge to cover refreshment and heating costs.

We usually have up to three tables but have plenty of room for more. Donʹt be shy – give it a go.

Use the contact form to request more information.

Jun 06

SAMS Book Club

By Editor | Blogs

Written by Marilyn Levi

You can listen to Marylin reading this post on the audio version of our latest Newsletter

There are some brilliant facts about SAMS: the friendly welcoming atmosphere, the high standard of our lay readers, the food! I would like to nominate the SAMS Book Group, which certainly merits a place as one of our special features.

I have been coming to the Book Group for two or three years and always find it entertaining and fun with our lively discussions. It is also a very interesting way of learning about books, which I would not have otherwise read.

Pauline Symons is the group leader, and while she gives us a brief outline of the title of the chosen book at the start of each meeting, I hear mutters of ‘I loved it’, ‘I hated it’!

Everybody at the Book Group has strong opinions, and it is fascinating to find that the same book can create such diverse reactions. What a stimulating experience it is to listen to people explain why they like a book, that I really did not enjoy, and try to understand their point of view. I am not always convinced, but nevertheless, it makes for a fascinating discussion.

In December, we had a rare occurrence: everybody loved
the book ‘A Marriage of Opposites’ by Alice Hoffman.

Image via Amazon.co.uk

I think this is the very first time that we have all agreed on how much we enjoyed a book. We were all quite stunned to be able to share our delight in the experience of reading this book. It appealed to all our tastes, and to every age group. There was also a factual element to it, as it was based on the Caribbean ancestors of Camille Pissaro.

Over the last few meetings, we have read a varied selection of contemporary literature, making it a rule to not choose too long a book. Perhaps the exception was ‘Here I am’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, which I was pleased to read.

We are also considering some non‐fiction titles, such as
Jeremy Paxman’s autobiography.

At the moment, we are quite a small group of nine or ten people who attend regularly, so it would be good to encourage more members to try it out. Come along and enjoy the coffee and biscuits, but I am sure you will get far more from it with some stimulating company and literary ideas flying.

After our discussions about the chosen book, we always enjoy the process of choosing the next book to read. This is voted for with a show of hands in a democratic way.

Sometimes, if a book has been runner up several times, it is then chosen for a future meeting, which was the case for ‘Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore, discussed in February. This was a fascinating story of 1960s Cold War and how it affected a family. This book matched our December choice of ‘A Marriage of Opposites’ in that it was enjoyed by everyone. Two hits in three months is quite a success rate.

The next book on our list is ‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain.

Do come and join our lively arts discussion group.

Jun 04

D’var Torah: Nasso

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

There are two types of ‘message’ in this Sedra. The first is mixed, positive and negative. The second is purely positive. There is a connection between them.

One of the main themes in Nasso is the Nazirite Vow which an Israelite took for a limited period of time and withdrew from worldly pleasures like meat, wine, marriage, living in a comfortable dwelling and wearing good clothes. It was supposed to be a statement of greater religiosity, but at its conclusion a sin offering was required. There seems to be a contradiction here. If it is good thing to be a Nazirite why perform an act of repentance after completing it?

It suggests some ambivalence about its value. Abstinence can be good but not absolutely good. Look what happened to Samson who was born to be a Nazirite for life. While at the end of the day he was a hero for Israel, he could not resist Delilah’s seduction. Extreme withdrawal from life’s physical pleasures rendered him unable to control himself. Implicit in this story is Judaism’s view that the middle way is the best way. While there may be a time and place for complete abstinence like Yom Kippur, Judaism is a worldly religion which encourages indulging in life’s worldly pleasures but discouraging withdrawal from them or self-flagellation. It is all about balance.

Maimonides confirms this during the Middle Ages when he wrote in the Mishneh Torah that the Nazirite vow “is an evil path and it is forbidden to walk therein. We should only deny ourselves those things denied by the Torah and we should not impose on ourselves vows of abstinence from things which are permitted.”

The second message in the same Sedra connects in its first part to the first message about the Nazirite vow . The first part of the three-fold Priestly blessing asks God to bless us and protect us. Abarbanel says that this means that we should receive life’s material blessings and pleasures and at the same time as we possess them, they should not possess us. It is implicitly against the Nazirite vow and stresses balance in our enjoyment of life’s pleasures and our abstinence from them. The priestly benediction, however, has three parts. Part two asks for intellectual blessings and part three for Shalom.

Shalom here is not world peace, but inner peace. It asks God to bless us with peace of mind, perhaps one of life’s most elusive but sought after blessings. There are many ways to attain peace of mind. The two messages of this Sedra when taken together suggest that if there is balance in our lives, between the physical and the spiritual, between self-indulgence and self-discipline, with room for God and the needs of others in our lives, then Shalom is possible.

After all, the word Shalom also suggests wholeness. When we can attain wholeness within ourselves, we are on the road to Shalom, peace of mind.

May 29

D’var Torah: Bemidbar

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Moira Hart

This week’s Torah portion is called Bemidbar and is the first parsha from the Book of Numbers.  Numbers is not a translation of Bemidbar which actually means “in the wilderness”.  It recounts a time in the life of the Children of Israel when they are having to change from being slaves and all that entails to becoming citizens of their own land.  Much of the parshah is to do with the counting and sorting of people into their tribes. It’s all about transition.

Moses was instructed by God to count, by tribe, every male from the age of 20 to 60 – men of draftable age.

Moses counts 603,550 men.

However, this didn’t include the Levites, women or children!

It’s not really clear why a census was needed but it could be that God wanted the census to show his power in redeeming such a large number of people, a whole nation wondering in the wilderness.  To give you an idea of the scale of the number involved, 603,550 is somewhere between the 2016 estimate of the population of Macau in Asia at 597,000 and Montenegro in Europe at 626,000.  (166 and 167 out of 233 nations according to the United Nations.)

The reason for the census may simply have been more pragmatic – perhaps it was to have a list or clear idea of men eligible to fight and this would explain the omission of women and children.

It happens that some years later but also related in the Book of Numbers, God again instructs Moses to take a census of males over the age of 20.  This time it is towards the end of their time of wandering in the desert and the Children of Israel have been through many traumatic and difficult times including being affected by plague and much fighting.  So despite the passing of time the final tally is 601,730.

I have read that it could be viewed that this time God is trying to allay the fears of the children of Israel and refresh their spirit by adding a sense of newness and distinction to their mission. The purpose of this count serves not as a census or military count so much as a reestablishment of their old identity.  Something akin to a shepherd looking after his sheep – keeping them safe.

To return to the census in this parsha, why weren’t the Levites included?  Chapter 1, v 47 says “But the Levites, according to their father’s tribe were not numbered among them.”  I discovered that it relates back to the incident of the golden calf.  When Moses returned from Mount Sinai and found some of the Israelites dancing around the golden calf he asked that “Whoever is with God, come to me”.  The entire tribe of Levi gathered about him and they were charged, sadly perhaps, with murdering everyone guilty of worshipping the Golden Calf.  The Levites then became the tribe charged with carrying and looking after the tabernacle in place of all the firstborn from each tribe who were originally going to be assigned this important task.

The parsha goes on to describe how the camp would be set out going forward. The Levites were to set up camp to immediately surround the tabernacle with the other tribes camped around them in a specific order. And just how many Levites were there?  22,000 males over the age of one month old.  The fact that the children were included probably indicates the importance of the tribe of Levi.

So we can see that there are many different reasons and theories as to why God wanted to count the number of Israelites.   Nick Gendler’s interesting article in Reflections says that Rashi tells us that at important moments in history God counted his people.  And perhaps it is simply a question of taking stock – something we all do at times of emotion, happy or sad.

Nick also goes on to discuss the idea that he recalled that Jews should not be counted individually.  An idea derived from the first lines in this week’s haftarah, “And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted”.  This rang a faint bell in my head and my consequent research led me to the following thoughts which are loosely based on an article from the Orthodox Union.

We will never know exactly why God chose that the Jews should never be counted with a census, but here are some thoughts.  The Talmud teaches that blessing is not found “in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted, only in something that is hidden from the eyes.”  I think this is a rather beautiful idea.

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, a Spanish rabbi and scholar born in 1255, explains that we do not count separate individuals, since we do not want to single them out and bring judgment upon them. An individual may not have enough merit to pass that judgment. However, when counting as a community, even if judgment is brought upon us, there are sure to be enough good deeds in the community to ensure that they pass the judgment and are found worthy of God’s mercy.

So what do people do to overcome this problem of wanting to know how many, but not wanting to count individuals.  As ever, there are ways around this problem.  Many censuses were carried out by collecting a coin – perhaps a half shekel, King Saul asked soldiers to bring kid goats, you can count noses or thumbs but not body parts that would are really significant for life.  And just by the way, once you have counted/or not counted it is ok to use the final number as long as it is arrived at in a correct manner.

As a footnote, and perhaps a hint to another reason why we traditionally don’t count individuals, King David counted the Jews in a more conventional way and a great plague struck and many of them died.

Another, rather lovely tradition, is that of how one should check whether there are 10 people present for a minyan.  The most usual way to do this is to use the words in a Scriptural verse (usually Psalm 28:9). This is a very beautiful way, because each word in a sentence is unique and without it the sentence would lose its meaning.  Illustrating what a mitzvah it is to be part of a minyan.  The verse translates as:

Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever.

הוֹשִׁיעָה אֶת עַמֶּךָ וּבָרֵךְ אֶת נַחֲלָתֶךָ וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם עַד הָעוֹלָם

Anyway, I got so caught up in all of this that I forgot about the links I might be looking for to make all this meaningful for this week.  However, when I stop to think about it I think the parsha is about working out a good model and a way of life and a plan for living that makes a community function effectively.  I think everyone this week has been pondering on what we need to do to make our local communities, national community and global community to function well. We need to do take a long hard look at the way our global community operates and to see if we can mend something that seems to be very badly fractured at the moment.  I don’t really feel I have the authority or the right to try and speak to you all or help you find some understanding of this week’s events so I have turned to Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and would like to share some of his recent blog.

He writes.  Our hearts go out to all the families who have been devastated by the evil killings in the Manchester Arena.  The young have every right to hope for security, love, joy, excitement and music.  Our prayers are with the wounded, the bereaved and all who care for them. Our thoughts and appreciation are also with the emergency services, the police and all who strive to keep us safe.

Next week is Shavuot and we shall read the Ten Commandments on Wednesday. Our rabbis emphasise the close correlation between the first and the second five. ‘I am the Lord your God’ is thus parallel with ‘You shall not murder’. It is, or should be, as plain as daylight that we may not hurt or harm, let alone wilfully and wickedly take away, another person’s life. This is the foundation of all morality and all religion; there is no place for relativism – the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

I [Rabbi Wittenberg] spent the last two days engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue in Berlin, at a huge gathering of the Protestant Church. The motto of this year’s conference is a verse from the story of Hagar, when she says to God ‘You see me’. The issue for us is not just whether God sees us, but whether we see one another: do we see in each other human beings, equally deserving of life? Do we see and respect each other across the differences of faith, history, nationality, gender, age? If we don’t, or won’t, those who pay the price will include, over and again, the most innocent among us.

The Manchester killer did not see others. The doctrine which filled, and killed, his heart and mind, prevented him from seeing them, – young people who merited incomparably better of life. He, and above all those who brain-washed and destroyed him, are eternally responsible for the pain following their terrible deaths.

We can’t bring the murdered back. Maybe the awareness of our solidarity will diminish by some tiny amount the loneliness of those whose lives have suddenly been flooded with inexplicable suffering.

But we can resolve to see one another, as the God of all life, and the Torah of Life, require us to do. And we can aspire to find the courage and compassion to act accordingly.  In response, I encourage us all to mark this bitter and sad time through special generosity and kindness towards children and young people.

Shabbat Shalom.

Moira Hart

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