Holy Cows – Ki Sisa & Parah 5777

It’s a double bovine week, with the perplexing sin of the Golden Calf in the regular Sedra and then the special Leighning of the Red Heifer in preparation for Pesach. There is no logical connection between these two Torah readings, and it is just how the calendar falls this year. However, as with everything in our lives, especially the fundamentals such as the Torah readings, nothing happens by chance.

 

The sin of the Golden Calf came about when the Israelites, under the instigation of the Erev Rav (the mixed multitude who joined them as they were leaving Egypt) and with the help of some trickery by the Angel of Death, were convinced that Moshe had died on Mount Sinai and that they were now leaderless. More frightening than that, there was now no-one who could speak for them to Hashem, they had lost their all-important intermediary between mankind and the Almighty.

 

The Golden Calf was their (entirely mistaken and egregious) way of creating that new intermediary. They wanted something tangible that they could associate and identify with. Having an entirely spiritual G-d was something new to them, especially after their historical association with the pagan Canaanites and their recent Egyptian overlords.

 

This was obviously the antithesis of the revelation at Mount Sinai and was a sin of enormous magnitude, but in a certain manner it was predictable. The Israelites had been thrown headfirst into a crash-course in monotheism and spirituality. It was only a 7 week journey from Egypt to Sinai, and now less than 6 weeks after Sinai, the one man who had led them out of the multi-deity and physical atmosphere of Egypt was gone. They were lead to believe that he was dead. Left bewildered they decided to throw it all away.

 

Compare that, if you will, with the mystical commandment of the Red Heifer. A person becomes contaminated through contact with a dead body, nothing has physically changed but they are now no longer allowed to go to the Temple.

* Ironically, the Tabernacle and then the Temple were only built after the sin of the Golden Calf when G-d saw that we needed a physical place where we could identify with him!

In order to rectify the situation and become pure, one needed to be sprinkled with the ashes of a Red Heifer. This is defined by the Torah as a Chok – a statue that has no understanding. King Solomon, the wisest of all men, declared that he was baffled by it; for how can the ashes of a dead animal purify someone who was only impure by being in contact with a dead body in the first place?

 

Yet that is precisely what the Torah commands. Plus it had to be performed by a Kohen, a member of the Levite Tribe; the only Tribe not to have been involved with the Sin of the Golden Calf.

 

It is read specifically this week as we are now starting in earnest our preparations for Pesach; when besides for every Jew being obligated to go to the Bet Hamikdash in Jerusalem we also have to internalise the message of Freedom. Freedom from the Mitzrayim – the constraints of the Egypt (Min Hametzar Karasi Kah – from the constraints I call to you Hashem – Tehillim 118) and enter into the wide expanse and true freedom of spirituality.

 

Thus we bring together both these Torah readings; the mistake of the Golden Calf when we erroneously thought we needed the physicality of an intermediary, and the procedure of the Red Heifer when we are reminded that true freedom means attaching ourselves to (and in a certain manner, giving ourselves over to) the spirituality of the Almighty. That doesn’t mean blind faith, for even King Solomon questioned it, but it does mean that we still need to continue even when we may not understand and not give in to the pessimistic and narcissistic machinations of the Erev Rav and those who would wish to deter us.

Frogs growing on apple trees. Beshalach 5777

Frogs growing on apple trees

What’s a Miracle?

A cornerstone of Orthodox Judaism is that the entire Torah was written by and is the absolute Divine word of the Almighty. Yet in this week’s Sedra we have an entire section that is anything but; the Shirah – Song of the Sea, is undeniably the word of humans! It was composed by Miriam and Moshe and then sung by the Israelites. Nonetheless it is still incorporated in the Torah and accorded the same honour as an integral part of ‘Torah Min Ha’Shamayim’.

 

This song though, together with a number of other such passages (such as Yaackov’s deathbed blessings for example) bring to light a beautiful idea; we are in partnership with the Almighty. This idea is in fact merely highlighting what Hashem said to Moshe after he complained that he was unable to speak to Pharaoh due to a speech impediment: “Who gives a man a mouth? Is it not I, G-d?” (Ex 4:11)

 

Our lives are in truth the script of the Torah, both then and now. Which causes us to question why the immediate aftermath of the splitting of the sea and our song in praise was the lack of water to drink in Marah and our subsequent complaints to Hashem. How do we go from co-authoring the Torah to complaining bitterly (Marah = bitter) in a matter of days?

 

Anton Chekov in his short story ‘The Bet’ writes of a man who after spending 15 years in solitary confinement expressed bewilderment at mankind: You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don’t want to understand you.” {Read the full story here}

 

Our problem was that we praised Hashem for the miraculous splitting of the sea, whilst ignoring the equally miraculous flowing of the sea both prior to and after its ‘miraculous’ split! We become so inured to ‘nature’ that we fail to see the Hand of Hashem in its daily occurrence.

 

To counter this Hashem took away a basic necessity; water to drink, forcing us to recognise that providing drinking water is as much a Divine act as was the splitting of the sea.

 

Our human lives are the very letters of the divine Torah and nothing is left out. The divine is to be found in our daily activities just as much as it is in our prayers and Torah studies. We don’t need miracles to partner with Hashem, all we need to do is live a life and remember that together we write the Divine and Eternal Scroll.

Thank you

Thank you

Parshas Bo 5777

Yes, a plain and simple thank you from me to you.

 

Twice this week I asked and you answered; the first time was on Monday when a proper crowd from the Shul attended the Trafford Council’s Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration Service in Sale Town Hall. For the first time ever we had a proper Jewish presence there, and the school children, dignitaries and various locals saw that this is something that we as a Jewish Community appreciate and value.

 

Then on Thursday an elderly gentleman, with limited Jewish family and friends was afforded a proper and respectful Levayah, with a good Minyan made up of men who had never met him in their life but still gave up of their time to perform this special Mitzvah.

 

We sometimes forget what our simple involvement and participation can mean to others. Everyone leads busy lives, but it is the measure of a person’s soul when they down tools and become active in the community – and not just at the cool in-vogue events.

 

Our best example of this is in this week’s Sedra when the Jewish nation was given the commandment to prepare a lamb for the forthcoming Pesach sacrifice.

 

The Pasuk says: “and the Children on Israel went and did what Hashem had commanded Moshe and Aharon, ­so they did”. On the seemingly superfluous ‘so they did’, Rashi comments that this refers to Moshe and Aharon, that they also prepared a lamb.

 

Big WOW.

 

Moshe and Aharon did what they were told to do!

 

Would we have expected anything else?

 

However what the Torah is telling us here is in fact something very powerful.

 

Moshe and Aharon were extremely busy at that point in time, they were legitimately excused from this specific aspect of the commandment. They were perfectly entitled to have someone else choose and prepare the lamb. Their responsibilities to redeem the Jewish People surely outweighed this little task that could so easily and justifiably have been delegated to someone else.

 

But they didn’t do that. For the first time in our history, we had been commanded as one nation to perform a good deed. This wasn’t the time to delegate, to ‘be otherwise occupied’ whilst others got involved. This was the time to be part of the Kehal.

 

So thank you to those who did turn up.

 

But let us please not wait until a funeral or memorial to remind us to play our part. A Shul survives (or not) on the power of its general participation. We have a lovely and loving community. We are blessed with many members who care and take pride in who we are and what we do.

 

If Moshe and Aharon could muck in, then so can we.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Dovid

To Choose A Nation…And to live with that choice – Va’era 5777

To Choose A Nation

And to live with that choice

Va’era 5777

What came first, the chicken or the egg?

 

According to Jewish thought it was definitely the chicken; for everything was created in a complete form. Adam wasn’t created as an embryo, or indeed a twinkle in his father’s eye, but was rather a fully formed adult. Diamonds which take billions of years to form, were already inbuilt into the lava of the earth. Stars which are light years away from our planet, were immediately visible to Adam.

 

Thus it was definitely the chicken which came first. But, what came first in our relationship with Hashem; us being His people or Him being our G-d?

 

Incidentally, the Talmud poses a similar question about who is to return first; us to Hashem in Teshuvah or Him to us in redemption?

 

However, in Hashem’s discussion with Moshe at the start of this week’s Sedra, He seems to imply, twice over, that He comes first: “I will take you for Me as a Nation, and act as a G-d for you”, only after that does the verse continue: “you will recognize that it is I your G-d who is freeing you.” (Va’era 6:7)

 

Hashem takes the obligation towards us before we accept His Kingship over us!

 

That Talmud also takes that view, and rules (in an ingenious Talmudical argument – for another time) that the Almighty is obligated to return to us even before we return to Him!

 

It isn’t though all a one-way street. The verse continues; “and you will know that I am Hashem who is taking you out of Egypt.”

 

We have an obligation to know Hashem.

 

We struggle to know what came first, the chicken or the egg, but we are commanded to know Hashem! And knowing doesn’t just mean to be aware of, it requires us to know. To inquire and ascertain the truth, to delve into the questions of life and come to a conclusion.

 

But it doesn’t even stop there, for that knowledge isn’t just of a time gone by, it’s not just to be aware that once-upon-a-time this G-d took us out of Egypt. But rather He demands of us to know that He is taking us now, in the present tense not in the distant past!

 

I don’t know about you, but at times I find that hard. It’s not always easy. But there again, no one said it was supposed to be or was going to be. However I do take courage from the fact that we have been doing this for so long, that no matter what the world (and G-d) has thrown at us, we have still continued. Maybe it’s because He chose us first, maybe it’s because we have nowhere else to turn, or maybe because it’s just the truth; but as the world prepares to stand still and commemorate the International Holocaust Memorial Day, I take courage from our tenacity and also from G-d’s promise to constantly free us and also from His commitment to adopt us as His nation.

 

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Dovid

Inaugurations and Leaders – Shemos 5777

Today the world changes. At least that is what the press are saying. With the Inauguration of President Trump the world will no longer be the same, and we begin a new era. Whilst I am sure that it will change, I am not going to speculate whether it will be for better or for worse, or whether Hilary would have been any better, rather I will quote my predecessor Rabbi Carlebach: “{Shul} Presidents come and go, but the Rabbi is here to stay!”

 

Nothing happens by chance and the fact that this specific Inauguration is happening on this Friday, Erev Parshat Shemot behoves us to look at the elevation of another leader, the man who epitomised humility and an absolute reluctance to accept the mantle of leadership.

 

The drama began when Moshe was already 80 years old, and according to the Midrash had been the King of Middian for 40 years. He had left Egypt decades earlier, fleeing for his life when his first intervention to save a Jewish slave had resulted in Pharaoh sentencing him to death; a fate he only just escaped – miraculously. He was now happily married to Tziporah and enjoying his life as a shepherd, following in the tradition of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaackov and their families (and later on by the young King David). Away from the troubles of the world and able to concentrate on their personal connection to the Almighty, removed from the politics and strife of city living, they focused on spirituality and the relationship of the Creator and His world.

 

All this was questioned when he saw the Burning Bush (no relationship to an American President!). G-d reminds him of his early years and his compassion exhibited back then, He recalls his true mission in life. But Moshe was having none of it, and he steadfastly refuses to accept this responsibility. He wasn’t indifferent to the Israelite’s suffering, but he simply couldn’t see himself as their saviour. According to Rashi, Moshe and Hashem argued for six straight days until on the seventh day things come to a head, (parallels to the 6 days of creation and the completion of the world on Shabbat are entirely accurate and the focus of a separate essay).

 

The verse says ‘Vayichar Af’ and Hashem became angry with Moshe – after six days of refusing, after throwing every single excuse in the book, Hashem finally becomes angry. Rabbi Yosi in Tractate Zevachim says that the result of this anger was that Moshe lost the Priesthood and instead it went to Aaron and his descendants.

 

What though was it that caused this anger? What specifically was it the Moshe said?

 

The previous verse details Moshe’s last ditch plea. He said: “shelach no b’yad tishlach”, please send the one you usually send. Moshe’s final reason not to accept the mantle of leadership was that he knew he would not finish the job, he knew the future of what was to be, that it would not be him who would take the Jewish People into the Land of Israel, neither for the first time nor for the final time at the coming of Moshiach. He begged of Hashem to please send the final redeemer right there and then. What was the use, Moshe argued for this ‘partial’ redemption?

 

And it was that specific argument that angered Hashem; Moshe’s complaint about his physical capability was met with a logical response, his complaint about the Jewish people’s reluctance to listen to him was similarly met with a reasoned response, but his complaint that there was no use to this redemption, that he didn’t want to be part of it unless he could personally finish the job and take us into the Land of Israel was met with anger.

 

Questioning our suitability to lead is fine. Even questioning the merit of those we will lead has its place (although Moshe was punished for that), but questioning the purpose of a redemption is beyond the pale. Refusing to begin something good and worthwhile for the people just because you know (or think that you know), that it will not be completed and will still require more work is never an option. Reluctance, humility and questions are accepted, but never despair for the future. We are all charged with doing our job, regardless of what we believe the future might have in store.

 

That this is also the Shabbat before the International Holocaust Memorial Day (on Fri 27 Jan), re-enforces the awesome and at times frightening responsibility that we all have to doing our bit and ensuring the future of the Jewish people regardless of how bleak we might feel the immediate future to be.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

Rabbi Dovid

The Beating Heart of the Jerusalem’s Heart

The Beating Heart of the Jerusalem’s Heart – Vayechi 5777

Jerusalem, and probably every other Israeli city after a terrorist attack is a very interesting place to be. Nachi and I were staying with friends, congregants from Newcastle who made Aliyah 10 years ago, less than a 5 minute walk from the deadly terrorist attack on the Armon Hanetziv promenade in which 4 soldiers were murdered.

 

It’s an interesting place to be; for half an hour later, once the roads were reopened, everything and everybody continued on with their lives. Obviously, families were torn apart, lives were snuffed out and dreams, hopes and futures were changed forever; but for the general public the everyday continued. I am unsure if it is an indication of their bravery and typical Sabra refusal to be dictated to by others, or if it is an indictment of their despair and acceptance of the situation.

 

For Nachi and I it was both a privilege to be amongst our people at that moment, but also a feeling of ‘outside’, knowing that we were essentially visitors, strangers in our own home; our children were safe and sound in England and we had tickets to return ‘home’ in a week.

 

Having walked the streets quite a bit this past week, both as a lover of Jerusalem – its architecture, its people and its absolutely unique taste and vibe, and also as a visitor here, I had a number of conversations and experiences, three of which I would like to share with you.

 

Firstly, it was the conversation that we had with a local Muslim a mere hour after the attack; the victims were yet to formally identified and nothing concrete was known other than the initial number of people murdered. Yet I had a fascinating Halachic discussion with Mustafa (details to be shared in Shul this Shabbat) and I agreed with his opinion and ruling.

 

Secondly, it was when we were sitting in the visitor’s gallery of the Knesset the very next day. This was a spur of the moment decision and a visit that I highly recommend, although to be able to fully follow the proceedings one needs a very good grasp of Ivrit. The Israeli’s version of decorum and ‘proper behaviour’ in the Knesset is in a world of its own, but their idea of democracy (not to mention their technology and speed) was a sight to behold. The first five speakers at that session included two Muslim members of the Knesset, two women and one Orthodox Zionist man. Here was true democracy and possibly the real meaning of Or Lagoyim – a Light unto the Nations.

 

Thirdly it was the discussion with a member of staff at the Temple Institute in the Old City.  The Institute educates and also recreates, they have models of the Temple and its vessels. They have full sets of the Kohanim’s clothing and every reference and scholarly work on the Temple in existence. Having completed their tour a number of times I had only popped in to browse their latest books and educational material, but still got caught up in a discussion with a member of staff. She proudly told me how they have now recreated both the Shulchan and the Mizbeach, which have been deemed by the top scholars in the land as fit for use in the future Bet Hamikdash. This of course led on to a discussion about the large gold Menorah that is proudly displayed half way down the Maalot (steps) of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi on the way to the Kotel.

 

I mentioned the well-known sketch of the Rambam who drew the Menorah with straight ‘v’ shaped branches as opposed to the curved ‘u’ shaped ones. She responded with a differing opinion, and we agreed that eventually, with the coming of Moshiach we would all know the correct design and that the actual proof of Moshiach would indeed be us all agreeing on the very shape of the Menorah!

 

Before leaving I told her my favourite Dvar Torah about Jerusalem, told to me by my father many years ago, and the whole point of recounting these three anecdotes.

 

The Mishna in Ethic of the Fathers lists the 10 miracles that took place in the Bet Hamikdash, including the fact that even during the 3 Foot Festivals when tens of thousands of visitors would make the pilgrimage, still “no man complained and said there’s no room for me to stay”. My father explains that the miracle here wasn’t the abundant accommodation, or even the ‘stretching of the Jerusalem’ as per a previous miracle, but was in fact that amongst all the Jews present “no man complained”.

 

Anyone can crowd extra people into a city, but it takes a G-d to ensure that we don’t complain.

 

What Nachi and I saw in Jerusalem, and what truly gave us hope in this dark world, were the people getting on with each other. Away from the glare of the media and world opinion, away from the soap box of celebrities and politicians and the heated arguments of world governing bodies, were the salt of the earth inhabitants of Jerusalem, Jewish and Muslim, Religious and Secular, Locals and Visitors, Natives and Newly Arrived Olim. In a world that once again is teetering on the brink of (if not already deep within) total terrorist anarchy, it was heart-warming to sit on a balcony in a mixed neighbourhood in Jerusalem and hear the Muezzin calling Muslims to prayer, see the Orthodox walking purposely to Bet Haknesset and the Secular Zionist proudly flying the flag of the State.

 

There were so many more events, and please G-d in time I will tell you about the conversation with the 3 soldiers at The Wall, and the sights we saw whilst walking through the Rovah on Friday night, we will remember the overheard conversation of the American non-Jewish visitors and the throwaway comment of the Flaffel man, but until then let’s take heart from the heart of Jerusalem.

 

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Dovid

Greetings from Jerusalem – Juxtapositioning of Fasts and Celebrations

Greetings from Jerusalem

Juxtapositioning of Fasts and Celebrations

Vayigash 5777

 

This Shabbat Nachi and I will be celebrating with our family in Jerusalem as we prepare for her nephew’s Bar Mitzvah on Sunday. We therefore have a run of Shabbat, the Fast of Tevet on Sunday and the Bar Mitzvah on Sunday evening, culminating in the call-up by the Kotel on Monday morning.

 

The Fast of Tevet of course commemorates the siege of Jerusalem by Nevuchadnetzar and the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The other two fasts of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av, commemorate the breach of Jerusalem’s walls and the destruction of the first Bet Hamikdash respectively.

 

So being here in Jerusalem for this weekend is especially poignant.

 

On the face of it, the two fasts in Tammuz and Av would seem to be more significant and be commemorating more severe events than the fast of Tevet; surely the actual breach of the walls is more severe than the mere besieging of them, not to mention the subsequent destruction of the Temple. However it is only the fast of Tevet that can override Shabbat, whereas the other fasts would be postponed to the Sunday.

 

The unique quality of this fast is that it commemorates not just the tragedy and destruction committed by the enemy, but also the failings of the Jewish people at that time. When the siege began, we were once again exhorted by the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah to repent, except this time we refused to listen. At that moment the future, the destiny of Jerusalem and the Bet Hamikdash was in our hands, yet we failed to grasp the opportunity and ultimately paid the highest of prices.

 

So for Nachi and I, to be commemorating a Bar Mitzvah at the end of this Fast day, to stand the next morning by the Kotel and witness another link being made in the chain of our Jewish tradition; to see a young man accept the responsibility to behave in the manner described by our Prophets and the Torah, takes on an added significance here in Jerusalem on this date.

 

Yet it is not just the day after the Fast, but also the day before hand. In years gone-by there used to be a fast of the 9th and we mention it in our Selichot on the 10th. Amongst other events, the significance of this date was the preparation for the siege of Jerusalem; Nevuchadnetzar needed to prepare his forces, he had to position his army and then close the trap on the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus whilst the 9th seems to be even less significant than the 10th, it is in fact a milestone within our history and an important lesson for us all. Before the events that ultimately culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple could begin, the enemy needed to gather his forces. Encircling a city doesn’t happen by itself and before the trap was sprung the inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Hezzekiah really had an opportunity to change the course of history. Yet we failed.

 

For this date to fall on a Shabbat, and especially the week when we read of the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, brought about because Judah was prepared to sacrifice his life for the safety of Benjamin, should be a lesson to us all. Rather than being forced together by a siege let us instead unite together out of a shared destiny, a proud history and a bond of family and faith.

 

There is unfortunately much that divides the Jewish Nation at the moment, both religiously and politically, and we – as ever – have the choice how we deal with it. We are masters of our own destiny, but until we take responsibility for both our own actions and for the welfare of our brothers and sisters, then we may as well sit back and watch as the enemy encircles Jerusalem and prepares for its destruction.

 

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Fast,

 

Rabbi Dovid

 

 

Shabbat v. Chanukah

Shabbat Miketz

Shabbat Chanukah 5777

It’s the 2nd longest Sedra in the entire Torah. We jump from under 6,000 letters last week, to nearly 8,000 this week, and that’s without the 2nd Sefer for Chanukah.

 

Yup, it’s a long one.

 

So let’s look instead at a comment made this week by Chief Rabbi Sacks.

 

Discussing an interesting law about Shabbat v. Chanukah, he notes a ruling that if on Friday-Chanukah one only has a single candle, then the Shabbat light overrides the Chanukah Menorah.

 

This, he says, is because the importance of the family home and peace amongst the family, represented and promoted by the Shabbat candles, trumps the light of the military victory of Chanukah. Even though Chanukah was a greater miracle, even though without it we would have no Shabbat or Jewish Home at all, nevertheless the Shalom Bayis is more important.

 

I really love that idea. One of the quirks of our calendar, is that the 5th Candle of Chanukah can never be on a Friday night. The first time that the lit candles outnumber the unlit ones can never be on a Shabbat, nevertheless we will always have the Shabbat candles. Regardless of what night Chanukah it is, regardless of where we are on the scale of Chanukah candles, we will still be kindling the Shabbat candles.

 

This year, the last three days of Chanukah really emphasise our moral and religious victory over the Syrian-Greeks, {yes, it was the Seleucid branch of the Greek Empire, based in modern day Syria, who oppressed and tried to annihilate the Jews – some things never change!).

 

The 6th Candle is on Rosh Chodesh which they tried to ban, attempting to disrupt the cycle of family life and festivals.

 

The 7th Candle is on Shabbat which they also tried to ban, attempting to remove the vital quality of Shabbat and Shalom Bayis.

 

The 8th Candle always connects to the Mitzvah of Bris Milah which was also the subject of a Seleucid ban attempting to deny the connection between the Jewish body and Hashem.

 

Yet here we are, still celebrating Rosh Chodesh and our calendar. Still lighting the Shabbat candles and bringing peace to the world. And here we are, still performing the Bris Milah and cementing our Covenant with the Almighty, understanding that our connection with Him is not just theological and for the soul, but is practical and for our physical body and self as well.

 

Chanukah is more than latkes and donuts, it’s even more that the lights themselves; it’s about our connection, our commitment and our responsibility.

 

Let’s hope and pray that these candles can truly bring some much needed light and morality in a world that is currently sadly lacking both.

 

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom, a Gut Chodesh and a Lichtiker Chanukah,

Rabbi Dovid

Innocence in Disguise – Vayieshev 5777

It’s back; for the third and final time in the Book of Breishis we encounter our longest Trop (musical note), the Shalsheles.  Here it is placed on the word “וימאן and he refused”, when Yoseph resisted the (quite vigorous) overtures from Potiphar’s wife. (39:8 – the 2nd Passuk in Shishi)

 

According to what we have said previously that the Shalsheles denotes cognitive dissonance, this would seem to imply that Yosef actually did want to give in and accept her offer. In his heart that is what he wanted, but his mind won over and he was eventually able to resist. But even that resistance didn’t stand strong, for three verses later we are told how Yoseph came home on a festive day to ‘do his work’, knowing that no-one else would be in the house. Yes, ‘to do his work’ is (according to one opinion in the Talmud) a euphemism for giving in to Potiphera’s overtures!

 

However, what I find even more fascinating is not that Yoseph, identified by the Torah itself as a Tzaddik, was actually prepared to commit adultery, it’s the fact that he didn’t! The Talmud explains that what stopped Yoseph from sinning was when he saw the reflection of his face, which resembled that of his father Yaackov, in Potiphera’s eyes. Do you know how close you need to be to someone to see your face in their eyes? Plus he was already naked!

 

Cognitive dissonance indeed.

 

The temptation must have been overwhelming, except he didn’t give in.

 

It takes two to tango, and the second player in this episode Potiphera is always castigated as an evil woman. However, it would seem from a close reading of the Biblical commentators that she wasn’t entirely bad. She is compared with Tamar who earlier on in the Sedra is credited with acting for the sake of Heaven and thus being blessed with sons who would be the ancestors of Kings and indeed Moshiach. Where though is Potiphera’s righteousness? She tried to seduce an innocent young man, and then when she fails she causes him to be cast into jail.

 

Rashi explains that Potiphera had seen prophetically that she was destined to have children from Yoseph; she knew her destiny and was prepared to pursue it even though it would have put her in a difficult position. Then when her first plan fails, she understood that it was not through her specifically but rather her daughter* Osnat who would marry Yoseph and bear his children. She then embarks on a plan to keep Yoseph in Egypt until Osnat would be old enough to marry, even though it casts her in a negative light. All in order to play her part in the Divine Plan, which she had been privileged to have been made privy to.

 

The Rebbe draws our attention to this Rashi and notes how easy it is to judge someone unfavourably when we are not in full knowledge of the facts.

 

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Lichtiger Chanukah,

 

Rabbi Dovid

*Osnat was actually the adopted daughter of the Potiphars, and was in fact the biological daughter of Dinah and it was only when Yoseph saw an amulet that she wore stating her ancestry that he agreed to marry her.

Sticks, Stones and Names

Sticks, Stones and Names

Vayishlach 5777

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me.” A school ground phrase that was first printed in the 1870’s; referred to back then as an ‘old adage’, and some have even tried to connect it to various verses in Psalms.

 

Truth be told though, the wounds inflicted by sticks and stones will often heal, whereas names can leave scars that last forever.

 

The opposite is also true; you can raise a child up to dizzying heights and set them on the course of success simply by giving them a good name. As the Mishna says “a good name rises over them all’. (Ethics of the Fathers 4:13)

 

In this week’s Torah portion we read of Yaackov’s name change to Yisroel following on from his midnight battle with the angel of Eisav. This is the beginning of stage two in our history, when we go from being known as Ivrim to Israelites. (See here for the significance of the name Ivri.) When giving Yaackov his new name the angel says: כי שרית עם אלוהים ועם אנשים ותוכל – for you struggled with angel and man and you succeeded. What is puzzling though, is that the new name Yisroel is etymologically connected with the word struggle. His new name is given for the struggle not for the victory!

 

That though is precisely why that name was give. The Jewish nation had progressed onto stage two; no longer were we just Ivrim – constantly relegated to the other side, but now we were princes of Hashem, for Yisroel is translated as Sar-el – Prince of G-d. This name was how we were known once we were given the Promised Land, when we were riding high with the Temple in Jerusalem and were the pride of the Fertile Crescent.

 

This is precisely why the angel connected it to the struggle and not the victory.

 

Anyone can win a battle, but it takes a man to struggle.

 

Quite tellingly, even after the blessing of his new elevated name, the Torah still uses the name Yaackov. One would have thought that that name, so given for he was holding on to the heel (Ekev – Yaackov), would now be relegated to history. But that is not the case, and indeed in our Amidah we call on Hashem the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaackov. What happened to this new elevated and princely name Yisroel?

 

We are back to the struggle and the impact of a name. Were we to be given the name ‘Prince of G-d’, were our past struggles to be totally erased and forgotten, were we to focus on the victory and not the struggle then it wouldn’t last long. It would be a name but not an identity. It would be a gift bestowed upon us by an angel, but not our well-deserved destiny. As they say in the hallowed halls of the SAS, “Its far harder to keep your Green Beret, than it is to get it in the first place”.  

 

Just being given the name Yisroel, even if it is fully deserved does not mean that our job is done; we need to keep struggling, we need to maintain the work necessary to carry that name.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

Rabbi Dovid

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