Category Archives for "Dvar Torah"

May 14

D’var Torah: Emor

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Beverly Cohen

Holier than Thou?

I love clubs.  I’ve always been a club junkie.  I’m particularly thrilled to join clubs that require special equipment.  Over the years I have treasured my ice skates, my curling stone, my softball glove, my exercise ball, my riding crop, my knitting needles, my squash raquet.

And uniforms, how I love uniforms! I was inordinately proud of my brownie uniform with all its badges.  When I started pottery classes, my potting smock gave me much more nachas than my pots.  Likewise, the tennis skirt I bought to launch my squash career.

Why?  Because I love to belong.  And I love to be seen to belong.  I love the sense of kinship, the common knowledge, common language, common identity.

And the sense of separateness – I love that the clubs I belong to are different, exclusive in some way.  That in belonging to these clubs I must in some way be different, special.

I’m proud to be Jewish.  I belong to a club whose members include Einstein, Freud, Marx, Pasternak, Harry Kroto, Henry Kissinger, Philip Roth – Barry Manilow ….  Am Yisroel Chai.

In the introduction to today’s Parashah, Emor, the Etz Hayim Chumash says: “The previous parashah [Kedoshim] describes the Israelites as being set apart from other nations, called on to attain holiness through their distinctive lifestyle.  Emor sets the Kohanim apart from other Israelites by means of symbolic obligations, restrictions and abstentions in their lives.  As the Israelites are to represent the God-oriented life to the nations of the world, the kohanim are to represent a maximal level of devotion to God for their fellow Israelites.  Every society needs a core of people who live by a more demanding code, to set an example for others of what is possible.”  If this is true, why do we think, generally speaking, that it’s bad to be “Holier than thou”?

This week’s Parsha continues what is known as the ‘Holiness Code’, so-called because of “its repeated use of the word Kadosh (Holy)”.

The root meaning of ‘Kadosh is “something distinctive and set apart”, that is separate.  Last year, in one of his ‘Weekly Words’, Rabbi Rafi wrote that “we seek to imitate the divine to become holy.  In doing so, we seek to recreate the first moments of creation, where God began creation by separating:  light from dark, heavens from earth, water from sky and dry land from the sea”.

There are lots of separations enumerated in the Holiness Code: the pure from the defiled, unblemished from the blemished; the priests from the rest of the Israelites; festivals from ordinary days; praise from blasphemy; the Israelites from the other nations.

There are potential pitfalls in creating simple but unbridgeable dichotomies. I feel uneasy about this. If I’ve understood him correctly, Rabbi Joel Levy also feels uneasy.  In this week’s Masorti ‘Reflections’, he refers to the “Dark Side of the Quest for Sanctity”.  He is talking about the harsh punishment for blasphemy set out at the end of this parsha, but there are other problems that arise when I view my particular nation or tribe as Holier than yours.  Maybe there is a difference between creative acts of separation, which are holy; and the static state of separate-ness, which is not.

Jonathan Sacks wrote, in an article about Kedoshim, that “only one people was ever asked collectively to be holy.”  He goes on to say “That, to me, is what it is to be a Jew”.

I suspect few of us Jews in the modern world are conscious of this call to holiness as we go about our daily lives.  And even fewer feel the need to heed it.

But we are acutely aware of our separateness.  We nurture it.  We are the victims – and the survivors – of the Shoah.  And of countless precursor pogroms and attacks throughout our history.

I feel uncomfortable with the implication that the Jewish people have suffered more than other groups. Or that only the Jewish people have an obligation to be holy.  Does it imply that only Jews – as a whole community – can be holy?  Or that the Jewish people, the Jewish religion – in being separate, is superior to others?

To be “something distinctive and set apart”: this is simultaneously our great strength and our greatest vulnerability. The UK’s response to the threat of extremists has been to assert, and even to enshrine in law, the duty to promote ‘British values’ (e.g. civil partnerships, gay marriage, adoption of children by same-sex partners). Personally, I have no problem with these principles. But Ofsted has rated some Charedi schools inadequate, and last year one was threatened with closure because of its refusal to teach about same-sex relationships and about other faiths and cultures. One Charedi spokesman argued that this is an attack on their way of life. “There are lines we cannot cross”, he said.

I suspect that the brit mila could be next on the hit list. Jewish News reported that recently, at its annual conference, Norway’s ruling Progress Party voted to ban the religious circumscision of boys under the age of 16.  Again, from the perspective of current modern Western values, it’s hard to deny that there is a problem about injuring or disfiguring children when they are too young to give consent.

Next could come shechita, on the grounds that pre-stunning makes animal slaughter more humane. Whilst it was no doubt true that in biblical times shechita was the most compassionate way to dispatch animals, I don’t think we can be sure that’s the case today.

Nevertheless, despite my personal reservations, I feel deeply anxious about the State threatening customs that have bound our communities together; customs that we have shared and valued over so many generations.

As you all know, Rabbi Karl is a zealous advocate of “good questions”, so to end this drash I’ll pose some:

  • To what extent are we prepared to be “distinctive and set apart”?
  • Are such rituals as brit mila and schehita intrinsic and essential to our Jewish identity?
  • Are they worth practicing if they inflict pain (even if only momentary) on babies or animals? If they are proscribed by British law?
  • In the face of evolving British values, to what extent will we be permitted to maintain such practices? And if we’re not, how can we maintain a Jewish identity in the Diaspora today?

May 01

D’var Torah: Tazria-Metzora

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

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

Every year it is challenging to speak about these Sedras, either separately or together. Therefore, some context before I extrapolate from them. The Torah includes these portions about disease because the Torah is the story of the evolution of an entire civilization, which must include matters of disease and health. At the same time, however, one should not be critical of a generation for what was characteristic of it. We cannot measure their ways by 21st century standards. What can we learn from Tazria-Metzora is about the consequences of ignorance.

The rabbis who lived after the generation of the Torah nevertheless chose to attribute what they thought was leprosy as a result of moral failure, making Metzora an acronym for the Hebrew words for gossip (“Motzi Shem Ra”). The disease was probably actually a variety of ailments, all of which they thought to be contagious. Miriam, the sister of Moses (Numbers 12:10) is stricken when she speaks ill of Moses. The hand of Moses (Exodus 4:1 and 6) becomes diseased when he doubts God’s and his own ability to be believed by the people. By the way, the last hospital in America for people with Hansen’s disease in the USA was closed in the early 1980’s.

Long before we knew that the disease was not caused by moral failure, but our ignorance and the fear which it generated had already hurt many people in many generations. Here are the ways in which this kind of ignorance is so dangerous and damaging.

Making it all a result of moral failure is a “blame the victim” approach which can cause much pointless suffering and avoiding the real problems. For example, there have been in recent years those on the extreme right of the Jewish community who still say the Holocaust was, like the destruction of the Temple, caused by the failure of the Jewish people to obey God’s will.

Ignorance and fear lead to isolation. We know what it means to be locked in a Ghetto. At one time, leper colonies existed in Hawaii where lepers were forced to live away from the community. Further, even when we already knew how AIDS was a transmitted people shunned those with the disease. Remember what happened to Alan Turing because he was a homosexual. The wrong was only completely righted not that long ago.

Call it labeling or stereotyping, we Jews know about this only too well. I cannot mention some of the names we were called. Think about the ways we have been portrayed in anti-Semitic cartoons. I was painfully reminded that when I was growing up in America, “the land of the free and the brave,” African Americans were segregated in cruel ways as portrayed in two movies I have seen- “The Help” and very recently here in St. Albans “Hidden Figures.” The former is about the way African Americans were treated like the slaves of Egypt when they worked in American homes. The latter is about a number of women who were mathematical and engineering geniuses but were isolated and mistreated in the American space program during the 1960’s.

Only in 1991 with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, did the US start making accommodations for the physical and mentally disabled a requirement, did we stop calling people “retarded.” Some would call this change and many other changes in the language we use to describe people with “special needs” politically correct, meaning phony. The old saying that goes “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” is wrong. More often, the new names we call these conditions are morally correct and long overdue.

The truth is that in so many ways we have not come very far in correcting all of these wrongs caused by fear and ignorance. Had we truly progressed there would not be the kind of pandemic called “bullying” nor would America have the kind of president we have who called Mexicans rapists and publicly mimicked a disabled journalist. Unfortunately the world is also increasingly populated by national leaders like Assad, Putin and Erdogan who are far worse.

These present realities remind us that we have not learned that much from the days of Tazria-Metzora and sadly the moral failure is ours!

Apr 23

D’var Torah: Sh’mini

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

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

I know you haven’t asked this question but I want to tell you why I became a rabbi. Yes, you may have heard me talk about the influence of USY through my graduation from High School and my many summers at Camp Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism. Notwithstanding having grown up in a non-observant Jewish home, in those places I found everything about Jewish observance quite attractive, which is in part the connection to this morning’s portion, Sh’mini in which are the fundamentals of the Dietary Laws.

The other part of that connection has to do with my father, of blessed memory. He did two things in his life which influenced my decision to become a rabbi. As you have read in a previous e-mail, my father saved two people from drowning in a river in the State of Vermont. He saved lives. I realized after I had already become a rabbi, that I was emulating him in trying to save souls. He was also an outstanding salesman of living room furniture. As a child, I travelled with him and watched his salesmanship at work. Here too, I realized later that when I decided as a teenager to become a rabbi that (subconsciously) I had found a “product” I believed in that I could spend my career selling. After all, although it was not that difficult, I convinced my mother to make our house kosher after my first summer at Camp Ramah.

So today my goal is to “sell” you the idea of keeping kosher. I am not here to guilt you into it, nor do you have to purchase the entire package. Any part of the Dietary Laws which I might convince you to adopt will in my mind be a successful sale. So, here goes my sales pitch of several reasons observing any part of the Dietary Laws will add meaning to your lives.

Be aware that the Torah in Leviticus 11:45 offers only one reason to keep kosher. We should be holy because the Lord our God is Holy. All the other reasons I offer today, build on that.

  1. I have spoken before of the idea of “normal mysticism” which is Judaism’s way of lifting us above the mundane to the spiritual. It doesn’t mean becoming ascetics living on a lonely mountain top. It is about in this case making eating more than a biological act. We choose what to eat. Animals don’t. We set limits on what we are allowed to eat. We are constantly reminded to think about it. In today’s word where “mindfulness” is so popular, we are mindful that even eating is a sacred act which elevates us above the animals and reminds us that we are the pinnacles of God’s creation.
  2. Compassion speaks to both our Dietary Laws and Vegetarianism. Although being a Vegetarian involves no killing at all and is high level of keeping kosher, the Dietary Laws remind us that eating meat, etc. is a compromise with us on God’s part. Knowing that we craved meat, fowl and fish, God with the help of the Rabbis required Shechitah, a compassionate form of slaughter, removing the blood from meat before we eat it, not eating animals of prey, and separating meat and milk, the former requiring killing, the latter not.
  3. The Dietary Laws teach discipline and self-control. Today everybody is on some kind of diet whether to lose weight, control cholesterol, avoid substances we are allergic to, etc. In observing a kosher diet, we are disciplining ourselves in a way that creates “sacred spaces” in our lives, again living on a level which transcends the mundane and purely physical.
  4. While at times some have thought the dietary laws were to separate us from our fellow human beings of other faiths, that is not why we observe them, nor is health a reason. Many religions have dietary restrictions, even one of our sister Abrahamic religions, Islam has Halal Meat. Observing the Dietary Laws is a way to creat ethnic distinctiveness and identity, a consciousness of who we are which brings me to the reason that attracted me most of all and continues to do so.
  5. We become part of a community of shared values of responsibility for God’s creatures, which is why I realized that my mother always told me to feed the dog before we ourselves ate. The Dietary Laws make us part of something bigger than ourselves in a world where too many people consider themselves bigger than and more important than anything or anyone else. It feels so good to be part of this larger community who believe in good values and live their lives according to them.

And that is what “closed the sale” for me as a teenager (excuse the commercial language) and led me to becoming a rabbi. I love what I “sell” and hope that even if I have not convinced you to buy into it all, at least I have “opened the door” (pardon the mixed metaphor).

Apr 16

D’var Torah: Shabbat hol hamoed Pesach

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

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

I have decided as of this Pesach that Passover is actually Rosh HaShana. I can substantiate the fact that it is a New Year by a citation from the Talmud, Mishnah Rosh HaShana 1:1. This passage says that there are actually four New Years. The first of Nissan is a New Year for Kings and for the Festivals (Pesach is the first of the three festivals). The first of Elul is a New Year for tithing animals (determining their age for sacrifice). The first of Tishri is the New Year for years, and the first of Shevat (Hillel says the 15th and he wins) is the New Year for trees.

Now that I have properly, if not questionably, put Passover on the same level as Rosh HaShana, I will call it Rosh HaShana #1 and  the first of Tishri Rosh HaShana #2. I am not suggesting one is more important than the other. I am, however, going to rename Pesach as the New Year for Cleanliness and Orderliness. Don’t worry. I am getting to my point which is that for the first time in a long time, I have come to see the value of all of the hard work which goes into getting a home reading for this holiday. Year after year I have asked myself why we have to shlep up all of the boxes of Passover items from the basement, empty cabinets and painstakingly clean them, Kasher silverware and other items, and deal with all of our counter tops. Oy Vey or in today’s language OMG! I will probably continue to kvetch but now I see a new reason for doing all of this.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always been a clean freak and compulsive about orderliness. After all, I was brought up by a mother who taught me that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” I only learned by googling that. She would also remind me that there is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I learned by googling here as well that this may have been coined by Benjamin Franklin. Neither of these guiding principles, however, made me kvetch less about all the work to get the house ready for Pesach.

This year, I took the matter to another level and found an article about spring cleaning on Wikipedia. There I learned that on the Persian New Year, first day of Spring, they “shake the house,” obviously some form of cleaning out. I found out that in the Catholic Church the altar and related objects are cleaned just before Good Friday. The Greek Orthodox community celebrates a clean week often starting April 1. In general before there were vacuum cleaners and it was warm enough to open the windows people got all the dust out of their homes; it was Spring, of course. The last item was, somewhat to my surprise, “Bedikat Chametz.”

The point is that there is a global sense that this season is a time for washing, cleaning, dusting, decluttering, making the house look quite different than it had. The reason Pesach has a new positive meaning for me doesn’t lessen the work. The reason is for me the result. When everything is new and clean, fresh and shiny around us, it can lead to a feeling of renewal and restart within us. Just as nature renews itself around us at this season, we can feel that sense of inner renewal when we look around our newly cleaned and refreshed homes. Combined with the spiritual values associated with the Seder and the foods we eat at it, we can further that sense of inner renewal as we look around the table, a new appreciation for our blessings and for each other.

The bottom line is that beginning this year, I have a new lens through which I can look at Passover as one of two Rosh HaShanas. How fortunate I am then to have two opportunities for renewal and restart every single year!

Apr 10

D’var Torah: Tzav/HaGadol

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

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

In a small town named Whitwell, Tennessee, in the southern United States in 1988, a middle school principal named Linda Hooper had an idea. She wanted her students to learn about tolerance. To that end her students, mostly white and Christian, began a unit of study on the Holocaust. As they learned about the death of the 6,000,000 they struggled to grasp the enormity of that number. To help them she decided to have them collect 6,000,000 paper clips. She chose this seemingly insignificant item because Norwegians wore paperclips as a silent protest during WWII.

The project became a worldwide phenomenon. People sent in paperclips from all corners of the globe to the extent that in 2001 the students of Whitwell dedicated a Holocaust memorial, in the form of an actual German rail car filled with a portion of the 30,000,000 paperclips collected. In 2004 a documentary film about the project was released.

Sometime during this period, we had Linda Hooper as a guest speaker at our synagogue in Northbrook, Illinois. There was not an empty seat to be found. After her presentation, I had a moment or two to thank her privately. She came to my office and I expressed our gratitude in glowing terms to which she responded ever so modestly. “It was not about me,” she said. “It was all about the power of one.”

I have never forgotten those three simple words, especially as the global situation increasingly deteriorates into violence, famine and poverty. It is sometimes so overwhelming that as an individual I feel powerless and helpless; what I do won’t change a thing. When I am feeling this way, I think about Linda Hooper, one person in a small town in Tennessee, whose actions made a difference. Each of us can do something to repair the world. When we send a donation to feed people starving in Africa, when we write a letter to a government leader to protest an injustice,  or participate in a march to cure a disease, the power of one plus one plus….makes a difference.

One of the most significant illustrations of the power of one is related to Passover which begins next week. In the 1960’s a movement began to secure the release of our fellow Jews in the then Soviet Union where they were oppressed in ways not unlike our ancestors in Egypt. It took decades and the efforts of both numerous Jewish organizations along with a multitude of individuals who sent donations, marched, and even went secretly into the USSR to contact Soviet Jewish Refuseniks and bring them Jewish religious objects at risk to their own freedom. The Free Soviet Jewry Movement was a success because of the power of one.

One of the buzz words of our age is “empowered.” It means an awareness that willingness and commitment to a cause will empower us to act on behalf of that cause. We can each empower ourselves and thereby realize the power of one.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach,

Apr 02

D’var Torah: VaYikra

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

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

At the beginning of the Torah Reading this past Shabbat, I asked the congregation to think of one word and one word only to summarize the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, which we began reading. Here are some of the responses I received: Holiness, Ritual, Sacrifice, Cruelty (in killing animals), Guilt, etc. I said that they were all right but that I would give my one word later.

I divide the Sedra into two major themes. The first I call “Korban” because it is the word for sacrifice and that is one of the major themes of Leviticus. It is a word which means “bringing close” and the five different types of sacrifice mentioned in the portion and throughout the book are all meant to bring people closer to God. They offer something earth-bound to lift them up spiritually, something they have raised or grown and might otherwise have eaten (not that God needs to eat). Maimonides says this form of worship was education leading our people from the familiar form of worship of their early days ultimately to prayer in our day.

The other theme is embodied in three words later in the portion- “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is otherwise known at the “Golden Rule” and appears in a Talmudic story in another form. When a prospective convert comes to Shammai and asks to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai angrily sends the questioner packing. When he comes to Hillel, he is welcomed in and told “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor, the rest is commentary, come and learn.” The questioner who was actually not asking for the Torah literally on one foot but based on one principle is told that the principle which brings us closer to God is also quite earth-bound in how we relate to our fellow human beings.

In the context of these two core themes in Leviticus, what is the one word which I believe summarizes the entire Sedra? The word is “mysticism.” No, I am not talking about Kabbala as practiced by Madonna in California, or the complex and obscure mysticism taught by the traditional Kabbalists of the Talmud and the Middle Ages. I am also not describing the monk on the mountain top who retreats from the community to live a contemplative life, meditating or reciting mantras to climb a spiritual ladder to God.

I am, instead, talking about Judaism’s mainstream mysticism assigned the name “Normal Mysticism” by one of my professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Max Kadushin, z”l. His philosophy of all of Judaism and certainly the Book of Leviticus is summed by my Masorti colleague and previous SAMS Rabbi Jeremy Gordon who said, “We find meaning and salvation, not through hocus pocus, but everyday action, not through miracle but through elevation of the humdrum, not on a mountain top away from the world but by blessing bread, loving thy neighbor, giving Tzedaka.” These are the acts or mitzvot performed with our feet firmly planted on the earth while our souls soar upward. It was the all-natural rush I felt this past week when I made a donation to World Jewish Relief to help those suffering in East Africa. It was as powerful and heady a feeling as the feeling I get when I practice mindfulness meditation.

There are many ways to uplift ourselves but Judaism offers us a normal mysticism which we can practice everyday. True, it all began on the heights of a mountain called Sinai from which Moses brought those commandments down to us so that we could reach the heights, become closer to God, without ever leaving home.

Mar 21

D’var Torah: Ki Thissa

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

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

The portion of Ki Thissa which we read this morning starts with the first census taken in Jewish history which was to find out how many men of 20 years old and above there were should a war be necessary. What is unusual is that the men were not assigned numbers. Instead each gave a half shekel by means of which the numbers were tallied.

Therefore, from our earliest days, we did not number people. Each human being was sacred and could not be reduced to a number, to something inanimate and impersonal. Each of us is sacred because we were created in the image of God. That is why, for example when you count the number of people needed for a minyan, the quorum for a complete prayer service,  you use a verse with ten words. You don’t count the people from 1-10.

At the same time we know that numbers are important to maintain any civil society. Numbers matter. In Judaism, we need two witnesses to solemnized a marriage. We need a Jewish court of three to convert someone to Judaism. One becomes a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13.  In the complex world today, people are of necessity assigned a multitude of numbers. The first number I can remember that identified me in the US was my Social Security number. More than 50 years ago, I needed it  to register for university courses. And in the last half century I have accumulated a long list of numbers as pass codes, credit card numbers, so on and so forth, far too many to remember.

More than ever there is the danger of being reduced to a series of numerals which I think ultimately objectifies us and dehumanizes us. No better example exists for the Jewish people than the number tattooed on the arm of a Holocaust survivor. How then do we retain our identities as human beings created in the image of God who are to be treated with respect and sensitivity because we are sacred?

Ki Thissa offers us another example of the uniqueness and sanctity of each human soul, each life. The rabbis of old make every effort to view the fact that Aaron who helped the Israelites create the Golden Calf had a reason to do so besides saving his own skin. The context is the fact that according to the Talmud a man named Hur is mentioned as helping Moses at the Red Sea and then no longer heard about. The Talmud tells us that he was murdered by the people because he refused to help them build the calf. Well then, if Aaron did help was he not doing so to save his own skin? No. The perspective of the Talmud is that he was saving the people from committing a worse sin than the calf. He was preventing them from committing yet another murder, his own. Had they not heard the story of Cain killing his own brother Abel and the consequences of history’s first homicide?

When we connect the incident of Aaron and the Golden Calf with the reluctance to transform a person into a number during the first census, we must conclude that there is really only one number which counts. I am reminded of a scene in the movie “City Slickers.”

A group of men go to a dude ranch for a male bonding experience. There they are told by their cowboy teacher by holding up his index finger that we must all find the one thing in life which matters to us. From Judaism’s point of view, that one thing is not a thing at all. It is each one of us, uniquely created in the image of the one God.

After all the Talmud says, “He who saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world.” That’s what the first census was trying to tell us. That’s what Aaron was trying to do. That is what we must do as we navigate our way through a myriad of numbers daily. We must never allow a single person, starting with ourselves to be dehumanized, made less than sacred,  by being turned into a number!

Mar 13

D’var Torah: Shabbat Zachor

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

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

Shabbat Zachor is the second of four special Shabbatot before Passover. It is strategically placed just before Purim so that we remember what Israel’s archenemy Amalek did to us on our way from Egypt. They attacked us by surprise, “when we were famished and weary, and cut down all of the stragglers in the rear” (Maftir portion, Deuteronomy 25:18). According to tradition, Haman is descended from the tribe of Amalek.

Why single out this attack when it was only one of many on the fledgling people of Israel, fresh from slavery? The reason is the unique cruelty of the assault. It was carried out when we were most vulnerable by concentrating on the very young, the very old and the sick who could not keep up.

The other unique aspect of Amalek’s attack, besides the toll in the number of lives taken is the toll the onslaught took on Israel’s spirit. The Midrash as presented in the Etz Haim Humash by Rabbi Harold Kushner plays on the Hebrew word “Korcha” which relates to the word “cold” at the beginning of 25:18. Says Kushner, “The Israelites, leaving Egypt on the way to Sinai had been confident and enthusiastic. The real sin of Amalek was that he robbed them of their idealism and energy, teaching them that the world could be an unreliable and dangerous place (p. 1136).”

We today know that the world is both filled with danger and unpredictable. For us in the US in particular it is the continuous onslaught of anti-semitism with bomb threats to JCC’s and vandalism of cemeteries. Here in the UK it is a record 1309 anti-Semitic incidents in the last year. While the Amalekites robbed us of our self-confidence in a single event, we are experiencing a continuous battering which wears us down daily. We can fall prey to a loss of self-confidence or worse the constant exposure to bad news can actually numb us (make us “cold”) so that we don’t feel anything or do anything to combat all of the threats.

This slow burn makes the challenge to our spirits more daunting, the vigilance more critical, the resilience more necessary, and the action more urgent. On this Shabbat of Remembrance- Shabbat Zachor- we must remember that those who came before us survived the worst and so can we- so must we!

Feb 26

Dvar Torah: Mishpatim

By Russell Goldsmith | 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 12

Dvar Torah: Tu B’Shevat

By Russell Goldsmith | 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.”