The Absolute Truth – Nitzavim Vayelech 5777

In today’s politically correct world, absolute inclusion is often a barometer of an organisation’s credibility. In Jewish history, we began with total inclusion when we stood at Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah. We are told that we gathered there, k’ish echad, b’lev echad –  as one body with one soul, unconditional equality. No Jew can say that they have a greater portion in the Torah or Judaism, no one has a better heritage or pedigree.

 

Forty years later, when the next generation was preparing to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe gathered them all together and gave a month-long valedictory speech. On the final day of his life he recalls the Covenant at Sinai and once again includes the entire Nation. This time though there seems to be a difference, as Moshe spells out the different classes; leaders and elders, men, women and children, woodcutters and water-drawers. Why the necessity to spell out all the varying classes of people? Surely we were still ‘one body with one soul’?

 

I believe that the answer is to be found in the first word of the Sedra, אתם – you. Those three letters also spell the Hebrew word for truth, אמת. Our Rabbis teach us that אמת is specifically spelt with the first, middle and last letters of the Aleph Beis. This is to teach us that something that is true, must be consistent throughout; there is no such thing as being 99% true. Moshe therefore uses those same three letters and addresses the nation אתם – you. You are ALL standing here today before Hashem. From the top to the bottom, across all strata of society; businessmen and labourers, leaders and followers, young and old, everyone is here. And in Hashem’s eyes that is the truth.

 

When we were standing at Mount Sinai we were all actually equal, but now forty years later as society had progressed divisions had naturally developed. Nothing sinister just the reality of life. Yet Moshe had to tell them, specifically at this juncture before they entered into the Holy Land and began a new chapter in our history; a chapter of Tribes in different areas of the country, a chapter of working the land and home ownership. It would have been all too easy for those who considered themselves at the top of the pile to forget that everyone was there equally at the start. It might have erroneously, albeit innocently, occurred to those who maybe hadn’t progressed as far, or who hadn’t risen politically, to belittle themselves and forget their true worth. So Moshe specifically spells out all the classes and says, ‘you are all standing here before Hashem, just as we all were forty years when we left Egypt. You are still ‘one body with one soul’ and THAT is the Emes.

 

That truth that Moshe was telling them must permeate throughout all circles of our community. It is not by chance that we always read this Sedra right before Rosh Hashono. Some people come to Shul and feel that they aren’t as worthy as others, but they could not be further from the essential Truth that is Judaism. On Rosh Hasono and on Yom Kippur we will read in the emotional Unesaneh Tokef prayer how everyone comes to pass under the Almighty’s staff as He counts us individually, but you don’t need to wait for that evocative moment to realise your true worth. Know it today. Know it with a Truth.

The Year Rosh Hashanah Was Cancelled

The Year Rosh Hashanah Was Cancelled

Rosh Hashanah 1752 never happened! That year the British Empire changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar; created to keep the Christian festivals in sync with their original, ironically mostly Jewish, dates. To do this they had to leap frog 11 days; people went to sleep on Saturday 2nd September and woke up on Sunday 14th September. That is some Shabbos Shloff!!
The problem was that Rosh Hashanah was scheduled for Shabbos 9th September! So when they awoke on Sunday 14th, presumably after an inspiring Midnight Selichot that Motzoei Shabbat and checked their calendars, they would have seen Rosh Hashanah was the previous week!
Obviously, this wasn’t an actual problem as Rosh Hashanah is on the 1st and 2nd of Tishrei regardless of what the Julian or Gregorian calendar says, and they would have still celebrated it on its correct date in the Jewish calendar. But it did give me a chuckle and start me thinking.
Our lives are dictated to by the passage of time, and a successful person is one who knows how to utilise their time best. But no matter how powerful, influential, wealthy or important a person may be, they cannot create time. We can carve out minutes here and there, we can block out days in our diaries for personal time or to catch up on work, family or a bit of R & R, but ultimately we can’t ‘create’ that time, we can merely use it for something else. King Solomon tells us that there is a time for everything under the sun, a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to build and a time to tear down, a time to mourn and a time to rejoice. And whilst we might borrow from here and tack on there, at the end of the day, (pun intended) the day is done. In the modern age we can technically fly faster than time and land in London before we took off in Singapore, but those time zones are arbitrary and unlike superman we can’t fly around the world anti-clockwise and make the world spin back on its axis reversing the passage of time.
Time marches on regardless of what the calendar says, but we do still have some control. We are about to head into a month full of Chagim and every time we make Kiddush we say “these are the appointed times of Hashem, which you should call in their appointed times”. Before the Jewish calendar was set (in itself a lengthy process that evolved over a number of centuries) into what we recognise today, each Rosh Chodesh was declared by human witnesses seeing the new moon. The Chagim were celebrated as a result of what we did. We saw the new moon and counted the requisite number of days to Yom Kippur etc. If the moon wasn’t seen then they had to wait another day. Yom Kippur could technically have been celebrated on the wrong day simply because it was too cloudy to see the new moon!
Even Shabbat which happens every 7 days regardless of what happens (and aren’t we lucky that the early Christians were Jews and thus when they declared a new Sabbath, they weren’t going to move it too far from Shabbat. Imagine if it had been on a Tuesday and Saturday would have been a regular working day!) can be interfered with by a human being; for if one is lost in the desert and loses count of the days, they simply start counting 7 days from then and celebrate Shabbat on the 7th day irrespective of what the reality might be. Obviously when they get back to civilisation they would need to revert to the reality.
In essence, whilst time might march on we are not masters of it; but we are masters of how we utilise that time. As King Solomon also tells us “how good is a matter in its correct time”.
Make sure that you don’t wake up one morning next month and realise that Rosh Hashanah has already happened. Now is the time to prepare, as Moshe says time and again in his valedictory speech in the Book of Devarim – Haayom La’asoysom, today is the day to act.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dovid

TNT Heal v. Heel Eikev 5777

TNT

Heal v. Heel

Eikev 5777

Say TNT and most people will think of explosives; discovered back in 1863, it has been the main component of artillery since the word wars. Now however, TNT stands for something totally different; tissue nano-transfection. This is a process whereby scientists can transmogrify skin cells; change them and adapt them to grow into other cells. It sounds like science fiction and the stuff of Marvel comics, but the scientists write new instructions which are encoded in DNA and loaded on to a chip applied to a patient’s skin. This chip uses a small electric current to open channels in the cell’s surface, so that the code can tap into the DNA of the patient and reprogram it into a pluripotent state so that it can then heal any area of the body. It is currently only in use in animals, but its possibilities to save people’s lives is beyond imagine – and beyond the scope of this essay!

 

However it did help me answer a question on the name and opening verse of this week’s Sedra. The first time we encounter the word Eikev is in the Garden of Eden after the Sin; one aspect of the punishment is that mankind would crush the snake’s head and the snake would bite our eikev – heel.  The second time is after the Binding of Isaac when Avraham is praised, eikev – because he listened to Hashem.

 

Eikev can thus be translated either as “because” or as a “heel”. Most famously Yaackov was named so because he was holding the heel of his twin brother at birth. Eisav also uses a derivative of his name, ya’akveini implying deception to accuse Yaackov of stealing the birth-right and blessings. However after his famous night-time battle with the angel, Yaackov’s name is changed to Yisrael meaning Prince of Hashem. He shrugs off the Yaackov – heel image and re-emerges as Yisrael – the Prince.

 

Why then when the word eikev is used at the start of this week’s Sedra does Rashi translate it as heel? The Torah says; all this (blessing) will happen to you, eikev- because you will listen to My Mitzvot. But Rashi translates it with the lowly heel connotation; the blessing will happen to you, even though you only keep the Mitzvot with your eikev – heel. Why the negative aspect? And especially at this critical point in our history when we are just about to enter into Eretz Yisrael!

 

Enter our TNT.

 

I believe that the Torah wasn’t discouraging us, but just the opposite, it was empowering us. At this critical moment in our history we were being injected with TNT, and what an explosive power it was! Hashem was saying to us that even when we keep Mitzvot with ‘just our heel’, we are still transforming the world. We sometimes belittle ourselves, or listen to others knock us down with the accusation that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t committed enough, that we aren’t fulfilling Hashem’s charge to make this world a dwelling place for Him. Well I believe that we are, for that is the unique quality of the Jew; even when we are ‘just’ keeping the Mitzvot with our ‘heel’, we are still changing the world. For our Spiritual DNA, our Neshama is pluripotent; it has the properties of TNT and we can transmogrify this world with our every action.

 

Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto may have received the Nobel prize for physiology with their research and hopeful breakthrough, but you and I receive a far greater prize every single day. And no electronic chip needs to be inserted into our skin, we have all the tools already at our disposal: Jewish TNT!

From a Nazi killing camp to a Terrorist attack in Jerusalem – the journey of a gold necklace

This Shabbat, 20th Av marks 16 years since the Sbaro bombing in Jerusalem. Here is a heart-warming story to emerge from that horror.

 

When a train filled with a large transport of Jewish prisoners arrived at one of the Nazi killing centres, many Polish gentiles came out to watch the latest group as they were taken away. As the disoriented Jews were gathering their possessions to take with them into the camp, a Nazi officer in charge called out to the villagers standing nearby, “Anything these Jews leave behind you may take for yourselves, because for sure they will not be coming back to collect them!”

 

Two Polish women who were standing nearby saw a woman towards the back of the group, wearing a large, heavy, expensive coat. Not waiting for someone else to take the coat before them, they ran to the Jewish woman and knocked her to the ground, grabbed her coat and scurried away. Moving out of sight of the others, they quickly laid the coat down on the ground to divide the spoils of what was hiding inside.

 

Rummaging through the pockets, they giddily discovered gold jewellery, silver candlesticks and other heirlooms. They were thrilled with their find, but as they lifted the coat again, it still seemed heavier than it should. Upon further inspection, they found a secret pocket, and hidden inside the coat was …. a tiny baby girl!

 

Shocked at their discovery, one woman took pity and insisted to the other, “I don’t have any children, and I’m too old to give birth now. You take the gold and silver and let me have the baby.” The Polish woman took her new “daughter” home to her delighted husband. They raised the Jewish girl as their own, treating her very well, but never telling her anything about her history. The girl excelled in her studies and even became a doctor, working as a paediatrician in a hospital in Poland.

 

When her “mother” passed away many years later, a visitor came to pay her respects. An old woman invited herself in and said to the daughter, “I want you to know that the woman that passed away last week was not your real mother …” and she proceeded to tell her the whole story. She did not believe her at first, but the old woman insisted.

 

“When we found you, you were wearing a beautiful gold pendant with strange writing on it, which must be Hebrew. I am sure that your mother kept the necklace. Go and see for yourself.” Indeed, the woman went into her deceased mother’s jewellery box and found the necklace just as the elderly lady had described. She was shocked. It was hard to fathom that she had been of Jewish descent, but the proof was right there in her hand.

 

As this was her only link to a previous life, she cherished the necklace. She had it enlarged to fit her neck and wore it every day, although she thought nothing more of her Jewish roots.

 

Sometime later, she went on holiday abroad and came across two Jewish boys standing on a main street, trying to interest Jewish passers-by to wrap Tefillin on their arms (for males) or accept Shabbos candles to light on Friday afternoon (for females). Seizing the opportunity, she told them her entire story and showed them the necklace. The boys confirmed that a Jewish name was inscribed on the necklace but did not know about her status. They recommended that she write a letter to their mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe ZT”L, explaining everything. If anyone would know what to do, it would be him.

 

She took their advice and sent off a letter that very same day. She received a speedy reply saying that it is clear from the facts that she is a Jewish girl and perhaps she would consider using her medical skills in Israel where talented paediatricians were needed. Her curiosity was piqued and she travelled to Israel where she consulted a Beis Din who declared her Jewish. Soon she was accepted into a hospital to work, and eventually met her husband and raised a family.

 

In August 2001, a terrorist blew up the Sbarro cafe in the centre of Jerusalem. The injured were rushed to the hospital where this woman worked. One patient was brought in, an elderly man in a state of shock. He was searching everywhere for his granddaughter who had become separated from him.

 

Asking how she could recognize her, the frantic grandfather gave a description of a gold necklace that she was wearing. Eventually, they finally found her among the injured patients.

 

At the sight of this necklace, the paediatrician froze. She turned to the old man and said, “Where did you buy this necklace?”

 

“You can’t buy such a necklace,” he responded, “I am a goldsmith and I made this necklace. Actually, I made two identical pieces for each of my daughters. This is my granddaughter from one of them, and my other daughter did not survive the war.”

 

And this is the story of how a Jewish girl, brutally torn away from her mother on a Nazi camp platform almost sixty years ago, was reunited with her father.

 

[Adapted from the book “Heroes of Faith”, via Cindy Greenstein Vaughn]

Red Skies and Shabbat Wonders

Red Skies and Shabbat Wonders

Va’eschanan 5777

Walking to Shul last week for Shabbat Mincha, we were greeted by the most phenomenal sunset. The entire western sky was a deep and vibrant red, whilst to the east was a perfect double rainbow. Of course, we then debated what that meant, and what indeed was the meaning of red sky at night – shepherd’s delight; although one of the Minyan men said red sky at night – shepherd’s cottage alight!

 

But I was thinking about that when reading the repetition of the 10 Commandments in this week’s Sedra. There are a few grammatical changes from the first account of the 10 Commandments in the Sedra of Yisro, but those are due to the fact that this time Moshe is saying them as opposed to Hashem. However, when detailing the fourth commandment, the Mitzvah of Shabbat, we are presented with an entirely different reason for keeping the Mitzvah. In Yisro it is to remember the creation of the world, whereas in our Sedra of Va’eschanan it is to remember the Exodus from Egypt.

 

Why two totally different reasons for the same Mitzvah?

 

The answer is that neither of those are the reason for the Mitzvah of Shabbat, but rather a guide as to how to appreciate Shabbat. For Shabbat is unique in that it is actually about creating a partnership with Hashem and His involvement in the world. We stop working to remind ourselves that we aren’t the ones in charge of our livelihood, but are part of the greater story as written by the Master Author. The reason for the Mitzvah of Shabbat it to enforce that partnership.

 

The two aspects of Creation and the Exodus are guides as to how we understand that partnership and the reason for Shabbat.

 

When speaking to the Jewish Nation at Mount Sinai, Hashem was speaking to an inspired Nation, a Nation that could literally look at the world around them and see the Hand of Hashem. For them to understand Shabbat and our partnership with the Almighty it was enough to connect Shabbat with the 6 Days of Creation. 40 years later however, Moshe was speaking to a generation later on, to a Nation that was about to enter into the Holy Land and would have to be more intimately involved in nature. We would see the rising of the sun as the norm not as proof of Hashem. We would have to toil the earth ourselves instead of receiving the Manna from Heaven, and would understandably get lost in the nature and lose sight of the Divine Hand. Moshe therefore connected our partnership with Hashem that is spelt out by Shabbat with the Exodus as opposed to the Creation. We needed the ‘aha moment’, the miraculous nature of the Exodus as a visual reminder of Hashem constantly creating the world.

 

Moshe was telling that Generation, and indeed every Jew right until the 21st century and beyond, that whilst it might be nice to recognise Hashem’s constant connection with the world through the everyday nature of life, it is probably easier to do so when confronted by the different, unnatural and miraculous moments. Watching the daily sunrise might not do it, but seeing a spectacular bright red sunset probably does. A regular day in the office undoubtedly doesn’t, but bumping into the right contact at exactly the right moment, just when you are about to close the deal and desperately need their expertise, does – or at least it should!

 

Moshe was letting them and us know, that when we have those ‘aha moments’, such as the Exodus or the birth of a child, such as the miraculous rescue from the devastating car crash or the right-place/right-time event, that we need to grab hold of them as our personal gift. The gift that we are presented with every Shabbat, but unfortunately also take for granted. Shabbat is not just about letting Hashem into our lives, it is about letting ourselves recognize that Hashem is already part of lives.

Atoms and Intergalactic Winds

Atoms and Intergalactic Winds

Devarim 5777

 

An article in Thursday’s Guardian newspaper, must be in contention for the most dramatic opening paragraph since Genesis 1:1; “Nearly half of the atoms that make up our bodies may have formed beyond the Milky Way and travelled to the solar system on intergalactic winds driven by giant exploding stars, astronomers claim.”

 

The article continues in much the same vein, with descriptions of the intergalactic winds, and how we are “in some sense extragalactic visitors or immigrants in what we think of as our galaxy.” Even when reading those sentences as an Orthodox Jew with an unwavering believe in Genesis and the story of our Creation, I still see them as inspiring and dramatic. How though to view them, when they are read in light of this week’s traumatic twist in the Charlie Gard story?

 

Let me begin by stating the obvious, which has unfortunately been totally ignored by a lot of the Press, in particular the Right-Wing Press in the States: I am not privy to the full medical details of the case!! Like most people with an interest in the story, I have googled encephalomyopathic mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome (MDDS or RRM2B) and am now an ‘expert’ in the field! I also know about the NBT treatment offered by a ‘specialist’ in the States. However, even though I might like to think of myself as having an A.A.D. (almost a doctor) qualification, I don’t and neither do any of the journalists! So, I am not here to criticise the staff and caring doctors and professionals at GOSH or to question at all their incredibly difficult journey in what has become a very public and political campaign. My heart goes out to them as much as it does to Charlie and his parents, Connie and Chris.

 

What I do want to do is to look at it as a father, as a Rabbi and as a patient/parent within the medical system.

 

Not many people are blessed with a smooth sailing through this world, and like many others Nachi and I have had our fair share of medical ups and downs. We have been blessed with good friends, and more importantly we have been privileged to count amongst our friends, doctors whom we not only trusted but who also recognised and understood our religious values and the guidelines by which we live our lives. One time in particular we were being pressurised by an outside consultant who wanted to go down a certain path, one that was categorically against Halacha. He meant well within his world and was simply following his professional expertise. But Nachi and I were being guided by principles that went higher and beyond those, it also helped that we had the support of our doctor friends. The specific details are not for me to share, but the principle was; Belief versus Medicine. Yes, the Torah tells us to live, and we are commanded to break pretty much every law to preserve life, but even that rule comes with Halachic boundaries, and the doctor wanted to break them.

 

I didn’t and couldn’t just view our journey as a medical process, I had to view it as one that came from far far away. In the words of the Guardian quoted above, we were extragalactic visitors. Although rather than being particles blown here from intergalactic winds driven by giant exploding stars, we were in fact part of the Infinite Being, driven here by His breath. We were vindicated in the end, but I would like to believe that even if we hadn’t been that our belief would have survived.

 

I cannot and will not attempt to answer why Charlie, his parents and indeed the doctors and staff at GOSH have had to endure this terrible episode. I am not a prophet or even a medical scientist, I am but a father of two lovely daughters who wouldn’t be here without the love, care and expertise of the professional medical world, and I cannot begin to imagine what everyone involved in this story has been going through.

 

But I do look at that opening paragraph, the one in Genesis as opposed to the one in the Guardian and I take faith from the fact there is a Divine Creator and whilst I might at times be baffled, exasperated and even furious with how His plan plays out in this world, I do respect the fact that our origin is from beyond the here and now. Our future however, is created from the here and now. By our behaviour. By the way we treat our children and vulnerable ones. By the way we work within the Law and not beyond it. If we can squeeze one benefit, if we can seek out even the minutest silver lining from this very grey cloud, I would humbly suggest that we consider the epic journey that is our lives. We are not just atoms flung together from a far-away galaxy beyond our time, we are part of a story. A story that has a definite and thought out beginning, a middle that we write ourselves with our actions and behaviour, and an end that goes beyond the stars to a future that shines a light on what can at times be a difficult journey.

 

My heart cries for Charlie, and whilst I do not understand His plan I do respect it. May the Almighty watch over him, treasure him and protect him. More importantly, may he grant his parents the strength to continue and to bless them with the love that they will need to continue in life.

Whovians and Women – Mattot-Massei 5777

Whovians & Women

Mattot-Masei 5777

As a ‘Whovian’ I was disappointed with this week’s news that the 14th Doctor would be a woman! And no, not because I’m sexist, but because I am disappointed that it was such news. If the Doctor can regenerate, can travel through space and time, if he can defeat an entire army of Daleks with nothing more than a screwdriver, sonic or not, then what is the big deal if he is a she? I know that this might identify me as a traitor, I will most probably be accused of not being a real Whovian, but those that have an issue with it have totally missed the whole concept of being a Time Lord.

 

And what greater example of a Time Lord than to pick up on something that began in last week’s Sedra, and then crosses over to the end of the 2nd of this week’s! Last week’s Sedra Pinchas, presents us with the issue of women inheriting. The original Halacha was that a daughter does not inherit her father’s portion in the Land of Israel. Along came the five daughters of Tzelafchad; Machla, Noah, Choglah, Milkah and Tirzah who complained that they were losing out. Their father had passed away a number of years earlier, although not due to being part of the Sin of the Spies, and his rightful inheritance in the Land of Israel was being lost simply because he had no sons. Their complaint is heard and the Halacha was changed to allow a daughter to inherit as well. There remained a caveat that she had to marry within her father’s Tribe so as to ensure that the property remained within that Tribe and not get swallowed up by another. But the Halacha was now changed.

 

Why though wasn’t it ‘correct and just’ to begin with? Surely Hashem knew what was right! Why was it necessary to manufacture the situation? We can’t just say that Hashem was offering us ‘free choice’, for if so why specifically this case and not any other?

 

I would like to suggest that this was the litmus test of the Jewish Nation, a young People who were about to enter into their Ancestral and Holy Land. How would they treat those people within society who by nature might be at a disadvantage? Helping out the stranger and the disabled, that is a profoundly Jewish trait, but it is also what is expected. How though were we going to deal with those whose disadvantage was not as blatant and obvious? And how do we deal with those who refuse to go quietly into the night, with those who don’t simply sulk away and nurse their grievances but without actually doing anything about it?

 

This was our test and we passed it. The daughters of Tzelafchad passed their test when they refused to simply accept the status quo. They taught a valuable lesson to Jewish women throughout our history; stand up and fight for what you believe in. And secondly, we as a Nation learnt our lesson, listen to our women and ensure that they too receive their fair share. It would have been all too easy for Hashem to write that law in the first place, but then we would never have gone on the journey of discovery and learnt that lesson. How fitting it is then, that the next Sedra (the start of this week’s double) records all of our journeys through the desert to get to the Land of Israel. The literal journey was not complete until we had gone along the spiritual and intellectual journey that culminated in equality for all. The final Halacha at the end of the double Mattot-Massei then records the actuality, that the five sisters did indeed inherit the land. This was no theoretical exercise, but also came to a real conclusion.

 

So yes, as a Whovian I was disappointed, but not because the Doctor was now a woman, but because the BBC made such a deal out of it. Or maybe it was just a cost cutting exercise by the BBC, since as we now all know, their female stars get paid substantially less than their male counterparts!

 

These Sedras are always read during the Three Weeks, where 1) we increase in our desire for a full return to the Land of Israel and 2) where we are reminded to treat everyone with respect.

 

May we merit to pass our ultimate litmus test and be rewarded with an end to our exile and a return to our ancestral home in peace and holiness.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Dovid

Fake News – Pinchas 5777

Fake News or just a different perspective

Pinchas 5777

 

Whilst at a Rabbi’s conference this week in Bosworth, Warwickshire (yes, we do get to all the most exotic places) I was reconnected with an old Chassidic story. A Chossid from Kharkov, Ukraine was visiting Rabbi Shalom DovBer in Lubavitch, White Russia. The Rebbe asked him how things are in Kharkov. The Chossid answered that everything was good, people were friendly to each other, the learning was stimulating, the Davenning was inspirational and the Brotherhood of Chassidim was just as it should be. The Rebbe gave him a gold rouble and thanked him for his good news.

 

Later that day, another Chossid from Kharkov visited the Rebbe and was asked the same question. He however answered exactly the opposite and told the Rebbe how in truth everybody was fighting with each other, the learning was non-existent and the Davenning was flat and perfunctory; in short, the Brotherhood was at an all-time low. The Rebbe thanked him and sent him on his way, albeit without a gold rouble.

 

As luck would have it, that Shabbat the second Chossid became aware of what had transpired when his friend had gone to the Rebbe and given him his report. He was upset and complained to the Rebbe; why was I penalised for telling the truth? The other Chossid just told you a bubba meiseh and he got a gold rouble for it, surely I who told the truth should be likewise compensated.

 

The Rebbe replied and said “do you really think that I don’t know what is happening in Kharkov? I just wanted to know in which Kharkov you were living!”

 

What a powerful statement indeed. Kharkov is Kharkov, it’s down to us to decide which Kharkov we choose to live in.

 

In this week’s Sedra we are once again told about all of the Chagim, about Rosh Chodesh and the Appointed times. The one thing in common with all of these festivals, different to Shabbat, is that they occur due to our actions. We as a community, under the direction of the Sanhedrin, would declare the day Rosh Chodesh and thus the subsequent Chagim would fall on their appointed times.  Shabbat happens automatically, but Rosh Chodesh and the Chagim need our involvement. At times we might even miss seeing the new moon, Rosh Chodesh could be delayed because of the cloud or for any other reason and with that Yom Kippur would be celebrated a day late; we would in fact be eating on the day which officially would be Yom Kippur and fasting on what is officially a regular week day!

 

The Almighty created this paradox, whereby we can celebrate a festival on its wrong date, precisely because of the sentiments expressed in the story above. He knows the truth about Kharkov, about our world, He just wants to know which Kharkov are we living in. Can we see this world and elevate it? Can we look at our surroundings, be they our personal lives, our Shuls, our friends or our business, can we look at them and declare them good or do we complain?

 

This isn’t about burying our heads in the sand. It is about having the right positive attitude, for with that a normal day of the week can be transformed into an Appointed Time of the Almighty. That is our Power. That is His gift to us. Now what are we going to do with it?

 

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dovid

Jewish Flintstones – Balak 5777

Jewish Flintstones

Balak 5777

Yes, even the Flintstones were Jewish! And I’ll prove it to you.

 

This week’s Sedra records the attempt by Balak to hire the sorcerer Billam to curse the Jewish Nation. Unfortunately for him, it was money poured down the drain, as instead of curses, what flowed from Billam’s mouth were some of the most powerful and rich blessings written in the Torah. He tried multiple times, he tried to change his vantage point, he tried offering up sacrifices, but nothing worked and all he was able to say were blessings.

 

All of Billam’s blessings were said as parables, and one of those looked at the ancestry of our Nation. He describes our forebears Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaackov together with Sarah, Rivka, Rochel and Leah as the sturdy rock mountains upon which our Nation rests. The powerful foundations which keep the Jewish People standing tall and strong regardless of the buffeting winds of change that have accompanied us throughout the millennia.

 

And here come the Flintstones, for instead of using the usual word for rocks and mountains, even and har, Billam uses the word tzur, which actually means a flint-stone! And as Billam told Balak at the very beginning of his quest; “only the words which Hashem puts in my mouth, can I say”, there is obviously a reason why he used tzur instead of har.

 

The unique quality of a flint stone is that although one can extract a spark from it, there is no evidence from the outside that this spark is there. In fact, if you break the flint stone into many small pieces, if you take it apart, you still can’t see the spark, although you can still produce one. Soak the stone in water and it makes no difference, the spark is still inherently there.

 

The reason is that the power of that spark is not just invisible, it is in fact not there within the flint, it is the flint. The potential is so much a part of the fabric of the flint that trying to extract it is a futile task. It is not a divisible part of the whole, it is the entity itself. That is why that word was chosen by Hashem to describe our ancestors, to portray the image of the foundations of the Jewish Nation. Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka together with Yaackov and Rochel and Leah are the DNA of each and every Jew. We don’t just wear our heart on our sleeve, we are our heart. And the beating heart of the 21st century Jew is the same as that of our father’s and mother’s heart 3000 years ago; one that is inherently made up of a spark. A spark that does not go out. A spark that cannot be divided from the flint. A spark that cannot be drowned, destroyed or ever be dulled. Strike a Jew, any Jew anywhere in time or place and what you will discover is the spark of G-dliness. And that spark can, and does, ignite a fire that will continue to burn.

 

Yes, the blessings of Billam were beautiful back then and they should inspire us today to go out and ignite the fire of another Jew. For remember, that no matter how many candles you light up, nothing gets detracted from your own flame.

 

 

Mature Learning – Chukas 5777

Mature Learning

Chukas 5777

I was asked a very straight forward question this week: If the Israelites were guided through the desert with the Clouds of Glory, why did Moshe ask the Edomites if they could pass through their land on the way to Israel? (See this week’s Sedra 20:14) Surely they should have just followed where the Clouds went, which in this instance was down South in order to circumnavigate Edom and enter Israel from the East of the River Jordan. So who was leading the Israelites, Moshe or the Clouds of Glory?

 

The strange thing is, that in over 30 years of learning that Sedra, and repeating it every single year, I had never been struck by that thought. I read it and just took it for granted that Moshe asked the Edomites, who then refused to grant permission. I may have been blinded by this very early example of anti-Semitism, or possibly just not curious enough.

 

My questioner was much like Albert Einstein, who is rumoured to have credited his amazing plethora of scientific discoveries on the fact that he was a slow developer as a young child. Thus when he was introduced to complicated topics later on in life, he couldn’t fall back on the conventional wisdom that everyone else had absorbed as children, but instead had to analyse them from a fresh point and with a more mature brain. If one learns Chumash properly for the first time as an adult, then you look at it with a mature brain and ask those questions.

 

I now had to think; why indeed did Moshe ask for permission? I was forced to relearn the Sedra, to look at it with a critical eye and not just read the Hebrew as a story. Either we were led by the Clouds of Glory and were blindly following the directions set for us by Hashem, or we were being led by Moshe and relying on his navigational, and in this instance ambassadorial, skills.

 

I have not yet come across an answer in any of the Biblical commentators, (possibly because there is a simple explanation that I have just not considered!) but I would like to suggest my own answer, and one that struck me from the very fact that I had never been bothered by the question in the first place.

 

At this point the Israelites were literally on the border of the Promised Land, their 40 years of wandering were up and they were about to make the transition from the generation of the desert to the generation of Israel. It was time for them to grow up. For the last 40 years they had been led with the Clouds of Glory, much like little children (we were called the Children of Israel!) but now it was time to look at the situation as adults and use our own skills, in this case as showcased by Moshe. It was now our own responsibility to discover our path through life. How indeed do we enter into the Land of Israel? How do we deal when confronted by an intransigent adversary? Does every problem need to be cracked or are we sometimes better off detouring in order to avoid them?

 

Learning Chumash in Cheder and even in Yeshiva, I was being led by my teachers but now I am being led by my students – and lucky am I. For that forces me to look at the text once again and ask the questions, analyse it and come to a deeper understanding and appreciation. Much like everything else in life.

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