This past Tuesday, 2nd day of Shavuot, as we completed our first decade in Bowdon, I set out our vision for the next decade. I have been asked to share those thoughts with you, which I will do albeit in a shortened manner rather than the entire sermon.
I would like to begin by quoting Samwise Gamgee at the start of his epic journey when he stops and says to Frodo: “If I take one more step, I’ll be the furthest away from home I’ve ever been.” Completing a decade as the Rabbi and Rebbetzen of this amazing community has been a honour beyond belief, but starting the second decade is an adventure that will take us the furthest away from home we’ve ever been. However, like Sam and Frodo, there has always been a Fellowship, with everyone from the community bringing their skill set, expertise and friendship for the betterment of us all.
Jews have historically been known as “The People of the Book”, and words have been our secret weapon. Nachi and I would like to choose three of those words as our motto for the next decade of our journey together: ולאחיו יאמר חזק – ‘To his brother he says Chazak – be strong and have courage’. Taken from the Prophet Isaiah these words were initially said as a rebuke to those who were not only misbehaving but were encouraging their friends to do likewise: but in a classic case of Jewish Chutzpah, they have been repurposed as a call to support each other in the pursuit of Jewish excellence and kindness.
I stand here today on Shavuot, the 3,333rd anniversary of the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, behind me are engraved the 10 Commandments, and I can’t help but notice that six out of the ten are Mitzvot that apply between people. Judaism is built on the premise of a relationship between mankind and the Almighty, but it is predicated on the relationships we build and foster between each other. Our commitment to you, members of the Bowdon Family, is that we will always say Chazak to you. In a repeat of last year’s effort, we will call every single member before Rosh Hashana, but this time we would like you to have prepared the one thing to which we can respond Chazak. Tell us how we can support you, how we can make your personal and Jewish journey more fulfilling and rewarding, and we will strive to do our very best, for you and with you.
For whilst we may feel like Samwise Gamgee that we are stepping into the unknown, we know that it is only the location that is unknown whereas our fellow travellers are known to us.
Thank you very much for your friendship over this last decade and we look forward to an incredible second one, filled with Mazal and Brocha, health and happiness, joy and success for us all.
The cycle of life. Those four simple words soothe us with their implication that there aren’t really any endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep going on, they overlap and blur; your story is part of your sister’s story, and her story is part of many others. And there is truly no telling where any of them may lead, or indeed where they began.
Earlier this week, Elijah the Prophet was greeted by a tiny baby, who informed him that there would be no blood spilled at his Brit Milah. As he was laid to rest, a mere 72 hours after being born by an emergency C-section, his grandfather named him Amihad Yisroel – “my people Israel will live forever”. His parents couldn’t be at his funeral as they were still in a critical condition in hospital after being shot in cold blood whilst waiting for the bus home from a Chanukah party. Amihad Yisroel was to be his grandparent’s first grandchild; never could they have imagined what their first job as grandparents would be. His paternal grandfather, Rabbi Raphael Ish-Ran, addressed his grandson in his eulogy and said: “don’t be confused, we are crying but we are strong”. And today his maternal grandfather, Chaim Silberstein, relayed the promise that his daughter made as she briefly held her son: “I will bring many more babies into the world, with God’s help, and the people of Israel shall live”. He further declared: “the grandson we did not have the privilege of raising; we felt the completion of a cycle, that we could bring him to eternal rest on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem”.
Is it just a coping mechanism? Are these words anything more than a soothing balm for a crushed and torn heart? Or is it something that has been part of our Judaism, our heritage and psyche for millennia?
At the critical moment in this week’s Sedra, Yosef has revealed himself to his brothers and told them that he is their brother. He isn’t a despotic Egyptian ruler, intent on destroying their family, but is in fact their long lost brother: the brother they had thrown into an empty pit to die, their brother whom they had sold to a band of marauding Ishmaelites, the brother over whom they had watched their father mourn for the last 22 years!
Now here he is, second only to Pharaoh – the most powerful man in their known world. Their little brother now viceroy of Egypt. The left him to die and now he is to be their salvation during the famine gripping the land. They sold him to strangers and now he holds their fate in his hands.
The conflicting emotions spinning through their minds.
Then Joseph invites them to settle in Egypt. To bring back their father as well as the rest of their families and to live under his protection. Joseph says that he will provide for them, וכלכלתי, which Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out is a derivative of גלגל, to roll. Joseph was, in essence, telling his brothers that the cycle of life includes our feelings and emotions towards each other. Whereas they had previously plotted to kill him and had indeed sentenced him to death, he now was their lifeline! Understandably he had credited Hashem’s Hand in this twisting plot, but now he places himself front and centre in the next stage of their epic story.
Declaring that something is part of the cycle of life without recognizing our individual part in that story (it’s past, present and future storyline) is indeed simply an empty platitude. The Jewish view of the cycle of life is about playing our part within that cycle, be it with our actions or attitudes.
Rabbi Chiyya advised his wife, “when a poor man comes to the door, be quick to give him some food so that the same may be done to our children.” She exclaimed, “you are cursing our children with the suggestion that they may become beggars”. Her husband replied, “there is a wheel which revolves in this world…” Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 151b
We all love Chanukah; the latkes, donuts, presents and of course the simple yet profound message of the flickering lights on the Menorah, but how sure are we that if the circumstances were to be repeated today that we wouldn’t side with the Greeks?
The original Hellenists, those Jews who sided with the Greeks and fought against the Maccabees, weren’t left-wing self-hating Jews. They hadn’t given up on their identity as Jews and jumped head first into the Greek Hellenistic lifestyle, they still revered Halacha and practised their Judaism. But, in the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, ‘they had assumed a flexible scale of values, and their attitude was, “this is the path I follow and in which I am comfortable, but it has its limits.”’ They were living with the times and were being sensible and pragmatic; in essence they were not much different from the majority of middle of the road Jews in the 21stcentury.
The Maccabees on the other hand, were the right-wing zealous frummies; they refused to bend at all to society and situational sensibilities. They picked a fight with the ruling class and set themselves at odds with their fellow co-religionists. Instead of seeking a compromise they squared up to the Greeks and were forced to then fight a war that according to all metrics they should have lost. Without the direct intervention of G-d’s miracles, the Maccabees were doomed to total extinction. There would have been no need for the oil to miraculously last eight days as there would have been no Jews to light the Menorah at all.
Apply those metrics now and ask yourself which side of the divide you would be on?
Chanukah is a pleasant holiday filled with many delights and not many religious duties, but in essence it is a religious-zealous holiday. And that is why it has survived and is beloved by all. For the direct result of that war, simply put, was the survival of Judaism. Had the Maccabees not fought, had they not stood up for their essential beliefs, then it is logical to assume that we would have gone the way of the other religions of that era and local. We would have assimilated to the point where we would have lost our unique identity and we would have simply disappeared into the pages of history as a relic of the past.
At our core we are all zealots, for we all treasure the pure essence of the Jew that is found inside of us. We are not the so-called ‘sensible Jews’, who are simply retaining the habits of our ancestors, which will by nature be eradicated as time, convenience, modern inventions and reality get in the way. Our Judaism is not a fashion statement that will have its time and then be replaced. It is the essence of who we are, it is our exclusivity, and when push comes to shove it is something that we are willing to give our lives up for.
If you think I am incorrect then just open our history books to any era in our 3,000 year journey.
The question we need to ask ourselves now is, at what point do I stand up? What custom is worth fighting over? What aspect of my Judaism is the one that will awaken within me the essence of my Judaism?
To paraphrase: first they came for the Shtreimels, but I did not speak up for I didn’t wear one. Then they came for the Sheitels, but I did not speak up for I didn’t wear one. Then they came for the Jewish schools, but I didn’t speak up for my children were being given a broad education. Then they came for Shechita, but I didn’t speak up for I was ok with ‘Kosher style’. Then they came for me, the sensible and compliant Jew, but there was no one left to speak up.
Last Wednesday I went to Lambeth Palace for a conference with the Chief Rabbi, and this Wednesday he came to Bowdon for a conference with my colleagues and I. The focus on the day was on the rapidly changing face of medical science and how that relates to the Rabbinate both as Halachic decisors and as pastoral caregivers.
During a break between the sessions I was reminded of Fran Lebowitz’s one-liner: ‘you are only as good as your last haircut’. For I was learning a verse from the Sedra, and I realised that I was reading it entirely through the eyes of our last presenter. The presenter, a professor in medical oncology and consultant at the Christie, had just spoken on (amongst other things) genetics and personalised medication in cancer care and research. We had learned of inherited genetic markers and the pros and cons of pre-emptive surgeries. How much are we a product of our parents? What is indelibly written in our genes? What responsibilities do we have in trying to circumnavigate the unknown future because of our ever growing knowledge of our past?
It was these questions that were top of mind when I read the above-mentioned verse: the second one of the Sedra; ‘Yosef was seventeen years old’. At first glance, this is just a simple statement of fact regarding Yosef’s age. But Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the literal Hebrew reads as; “Yosef was the son of seventeen years’. He writes that we are all banim, children of the last years of our lives. Whether we are conscious of it or not, they are our mothers, educating and shaping us.
That comment really struck a chord at that moment. We are the children of our lives. When we come to a crossroads in our life, when we are faced with a moral dilemma and have to make a decision; the choice will be based entirely on our experiences, education, environment etc until that point.
That thought was further compounded when our next speaker, a consultant clinical geneticist, mentioned inherited embedded memories. Whilst these will not change a person’s DNA, they can cause certain lines within it to be magnified. We can inherit character traits, higher sensitivities, dependencies etc based on experiences had by our predecessors. Our decision therefore at the above-mentioned crossroads will also be based on our ancestors’ experiences and education.
Yosef’s actions, his brothers’ reactions, and the entire subsequent story was thus a product not just of the current circumstances and their sibling rivalry, it was a story generations in the making. That does not mean that it had to happen that way, Yosef and his brothers still had absolute free choice in their actions, but they were definitely predisposed to a certain path. Their challenge was to decide whether they were going to be shackled by their history or were going to free themselves.
And thus I saw the ongoing similarities with that story and the lectures we were hearing that day. The professor from the Christie discussed the scenario whereby a person knows that he or she has a certain gene, or if multiple ancestors have suffered from a certain illness, then they have a choice to resign themselves to their fate or to take pre-emptive action (always with full professional advice). The geneticist posed the question of the Ashkenazi young man who has a moral responsibility to screen for genetic markers such as Tay-Sachs before going on a Shidduch.
In short, their message was that we do not always have to play with the cards we are dealt with, we can and should take responsibility where that possibility exists.
And what is true of medicine is true of morals and ethics. We are a product of our past, but we still have a responsibility to form our responses with an eye to our own lives and that of our children. Its why Yosef, once he had dragged himself out of prison and started on his own path to greatness, called his sons Ephraim and Menashe; two names that embodied the past but with a view to the future.
How glad I am that I just so happened to read that specific verse on that day. We are the products of three thousand years of Jewish history, but we are also the writers of generations still to come.
What are we embedding into our grandchildren’s DNA?
Archbishop Justin Welby may have been impressed with Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ interpretation of his favourite piece of Scripture, but I had always learnt that verse the other way round!
Let me backtrack a bit. On Wednesday I was invited, together with a number of my colleagues to an interfaith seminar at Lambeth Palace. There was the usual comic moment when we stopped for Mincha, and I looked around at the Minyan Davenning in the Great Hall; the double height ceiling and the ancient wooden beams going back centuries, and I thought; have you ever witnessed this before? There was also the delight in handling leather bound religious texts printed back in the 1500s. There wasn’t a Rabbi there who wasn’t contemplating a heist!
The last session of this remarkable day was the Archbishop and Chief Rabbi in conversation. They both told us of their favourite verse/episode in Scriptures and invited a response from the other. Chief Rabbi chose Psalm 133: “how good and pleasant it is when brothers sit also together” and, in the words of the Archbishop, unfolded it beautifully with the full rich history of Rabbinical insight. The Archbishop responded and then presented us with his choice; chapter 4 of the book of Ruth. This deals with the ‘redemption’ of Ruth by Boaz and the blessing for them to have children, which resulted eventually in the birth of David. This of course was quite significant for the Christian aspect of history.
But it was the response from the Chief Rabbi that really caused me to sit up and contemplate how one verse can offer two diametrically opposed lessons.
The Chief began his response on how Ruth wasn’t just a stranger, but was in fact a Moabite, a people who had a very strained relationship with the Jewish Nation. This began already with the birth of the first Moabite, born to Lot and his daughter after the destruction of Sodom. He then reflected on the immodest behaviour of Moab’s mother. For although her intentions were pure, she honestly believed that together with her sister and father they were the only human beings left alive, but nevertheless she should not have waved her sin for all to see. By naming her son Moab, meaning ‘from my father’, she showed a total lack of dignity.
And here was where I differ. For I had always learnt that this was to her credit. She wasn’t proudly displaying her sin, she was in fact courageously defending her faith. She was willing to carry the shame of her licentious relationship with her father, (an act that she believed was unfortunately entirely necessary) rather than allow others to claim her son was Divinely conceived. She specifically named him Moab, so that future generations would know beyond a doubt who his father was. In fact it was as a reward for this selfless act that she merited that her descendant Ruth converted to Judaism and became the ancestor of King David and eventually the Moshiach.
How different from the Chief Rabbi’s interpretation!
As the Talmud tells us though, ‘there are 70 faces to the Torah’, and my point here is not to disagree with the Chief Rabbi. It is to illustrate how easy it is to have two entirely conflicting views of the same verse in the Torah. And to still respect the author of the other view. I spent an entire day in interfaith dialogue, the point of which was not to convince each other of the exclusive validity of our view, but to discover a shared common goal.
Coming on the back of our shared Mitzvah Day project with the Altrincham Mosque it gave me even more to think about. Ideas and thoughts which I hope to share with you over the coming months. In the meantime I can do no worse than to quote the title of a brilliant book by our former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks: ‘The dignity of difference’.
Does the Divine Presence dwell more in the House of Torah or House of Commerce? This seems like one of those trick questions, for surely it must favour the House of Torah! Yet the fact that we are asking the question implies that in fact, the opposite is true, and we can prove it from this week’s Sedrah.
A major section of Vayeitzeh details the birth of 11 of Yaackov’s sons and his daughter Dinah. Each time a child is born, its mother decides on a name that reflects their current desire and captures the mood of the moment. For example, when Leah’s first child is born, she calls him Reuven. This is a composite of Re’uh-Ben, meaning ‘see, a son’. Leah was delighted that she had now given birth and hoped that it would elevate her in Yaackov’s eyes after he was tricked into marrying her instead of Rochel. Similarly, when Rochel’s maidservant Bilhah has her first child, Rochel names his Dan, representing judgement. She felt that her previous judgement which had caused her to be barren had been lifted and she now had a new judgement; one that she could celebrate.
By the birth of the tenth child, a sixth one for Leah, she calls him Zevulun. This alludes to the word ‘zevul’, meaning abode or dwelling place. Rashi explains that Leah was now convinced that Yaackov would make her tent his main dwelling place for she had now given birth to six sons, equal to all his other three wives combined.
The problem though is that Zevulun is the polar opposite of Yaackov. Both Yaackov and Moshe bless Zevulun for his entrepreneurial attitude. He made a pact with his brother Yissachar, whereby Zevulun would work and pay Yissachar to learn and in return he would get half the reward of the Torah study. Zevulun, in essence, was the architype of the person who paid someone else to learn for him, whereas Yaackov was the epitome of one who never strayed from the Tent of Torah. How could Leah get it so wrong? How could she think that specifically the son who would work and not prioritise his learning, would be the child who would inextricably tie her to Yaackov who diligently prioritised his learning over work?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidus explains that in truth we can only make the Divine Presence a permanent and real part of this physical world when we attempt to attain this consciousness whilst being engaged in the pragmatic lifestyle of Zevulun. If we remain aloof from the mundane world, if we lock ourselves exclusively in the Tent of Torah, then the spiritual strength and resilience of our souls remain untested.
If however we take the Zevulun approach and make the effort to set aside time for the study of Torah, then the true ability inherent in our soul, the power to assert itself even outside the natural environment is revealed. And that is how we create a permanent home, a true dwelling place for the Divine in this world. For it must be pointed out that Zevulun did not excuse himself from learning, he did not buy his freedom, he put his time and effort into learning and becoming a better person. But he knew that he needed more, he knew that he had to infuse the bulk of his day, his working hours, with Torah and Judaism as well. That is why he made his pact with Yissachar.
Our challenge is to emulate Zevulun. To set aside time for learning Torah and improving our Jewish character, but we must also bring that into our workplace. When we work just to earn money then there is no sanctity in it; we are simply in a rat race. If however, we are able to infuse our workplace with sanctity by partnering with those who are able to dedicate more of their time, then not only do we elevate our work, we actually create a true dwelling place for the Divine in this world.
As a Prophet, he doesn’t seem to converse with G-d much. In fact there are only two recorded dialogues between Isaac and the Almighty, both of which are actually just reassurances that G-d will protect Isaac in the same manner that He protected his father Abraham. What then do we, his descendants, learn from Isaac the second of the three Jewish Patriarchs?
I would like to suggest that it is from a seemingly mundane and unspiritual storyline in this week’s Torah portion of Toledos. In a short episode of just ten verses (26:13-22), we read of Isaac’s troubles with his wealth. Living in the deserts of southern Israel water was a valuable commodity, so Isaac re-digs the wells originally dug by his father Abraham. This simple exercise though caused him untold headaches, for the neighbouring Philistines would constantly refill them again. Determined to find water he leaves the area and digs fresh wells, but here too he is troubled, for roving shepherds claim the first two wells as their own and it is only on the third time that he finally is able to take ownership of his own water supply.
As with everything in the Bible, these are not just historical stories, but are guiding stars for the future generations.
Abraham, the first to publicly recognise G-d, the father of the Jewish Nation, had to break virgin ground. He had the difficult task of forging new paths and facing the unknown without the safety net of experience and past protocol to rely on. But with that risk of the frontier came the exhilaration of discovery. Isaac his son, may not have had the same risk but neither did he have the adrenalin rush of innovation.
Our first lesson from this episode is the difficulties one will face if we simply retrace our predecessor’s footsteps. The philistines in our lives (and we all have them) will smother our search for living waters with dull earth. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz points out that the Biblical word used for their treachery is a derivative of stam, whose equivalent in modern Hebrew is a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. The easiest way to quench someone else’s fire is to dismiss it out of hand, and if we are already lacking the cliff-edge excitement of being the innovator then what hope do we have? Isaac tries this a few times, but with the constant disdain of the Philistines blocking his quest for water he realises he has to move on and break new ground. He is not looking for something new, the traditions of his father and the lessons taught by him are still his goal, Isaac just needs to discover his own path to appreciate the truths and discoveries of his father.
Yet here too, Isaac faces difficulties and the Bible once again teaches us a valuable lesson.
For even when we realise that we need to find our own individual path on our ancestors’ map, there is no guarantee. There will always be the roving shepherd who claims that your discovery is in fact theirs. You have done nothing new and cannot take ownership of your newfound well of fresh water. Isaac tries not once, not twice, but three times. The 13thcentury Spanish Rabbi, Nachmanides explains that Isaac’s three attempts refer to the Three Temples of Jerusalem. The first two were new and innovative breaking new ground, first by King David and then by the returnees of the Babylonian Exile, but they were ultimately destroyed (first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then the Romans in 70 CE). Our job though is to continue searching, to persevere and dig again for the life-giving waters of our Religion. To discover our generation’s frontier within the path first walked by our ancestors.
This comes with the promise of that third well dug by Isaac. The end of his long and arduous journey was rewarded by an uncontested and ever-flowing well of fresh water. For us that is the promise of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. A promise of peace for all mankind, with no dismissive shrugs of a philistine nor the quarrels of ownership.
Theodore Roosevelt probably summed this all up best: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
For some reason it was different this time. We had just finished Havdallah and were hearing the news of the murderous attack in Pittsburgh. Reports were sketchy, but the story was all too familiar: Jews were being murdered. Murdered for being Jews. Murdered whilst practicing their Judaism. The storyline was familiar, but something felt different.
I was trying to understand what it was when my phone went. On the line was the duty police officer for Trafford. He was checking in with reassurances and also to explain that there would be increased patrols around the Shul for the immediate future, and asked if there were any large events planned at the Shul. After thanking him, I mentioned that we had our Civic Shabbat in two weeks and he replied that it was in the Station diary, and Inspector Stewart would be attending.
Eighteen hours later, I was still trying to grasp what felt different, when the names of the eleven Jews murdered in the Shul were released. Ranging in age from 54 to a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor, they were there for a regular Shabbat morning service and also to celebrate a Brit Milah. At every Brit Milah we say ‘B’domayich Chayi’ – ‘by your blood you shall live’; how perverse that the opposite became the truth here? To walk into a Shul and be greeted with a friendly ‘Shabbat Shalom’ only to hear half an hour later ‘all Jews must die’!
That was when I figured it out. This felt different because it was so familiar. Not in the sense of Jews being murdered, but in the sense of the setting. This could have been our Shul. Contrary to the despicable comments made by Jenny Tonge, this wasn’t a political act of anti-Zionism. It can’t be connected, even by the most warped mind, to events in the Middle East. This was pure unadulterated anti-Semitism. It was the cold-blooded murder of Jews in a suburban Shul, not very different from our own.
Those eleven names could have been ours. Half an hour after Shul begins on the Shabbat of a Simcha; I know exactly who would have been in Shul, whose names would be on that grim list. It felt different because it so easily could have been us. This article would have been written by a colleague of mine about us!
As Jews we have always faced persecution and darkness with light and perseverance, we have survived through the ages with Tikvah – hope that is tangible and actionable. At the Brit Milah we say; ‘just as he merited to enter into the Covenant of Abraham, so may he merit to fulfil the Torah, stand under the Chuppah and perform good deeds’. Ours is a religion of continual action, that is ever looking forward.
On Sunday morning in Shul, we said extra Tehillim and Davenned for those injured and made a Hazkarah for those murdered. But I would like to ask that over the coming days and weeks, that each and every one of us take a moment to do something extra. Grasp the life that you have, treasure the religion that respects that life, and light up the world with positivity. Call someone in need. Open a book of Tehillim. Give some extra Tzedakah. Say a Brocha before eating. Light the Shabbat Candles. Be careful about not speaking Loshon Horah. The list is over 600 long; choose one.
In two weeks, on Shabbat 10 November, when we commemorate for the 100th time the end of ‘the war to end all wars’, we will also remember the Jews of Pittsburgh. When we stand for that minutes silence, when we give thanks to those who paid the ultimate price for us to be able to come to Shul, we will stand in solidarity with those 11 pure Neshamos who paid the ultimate price in their own Shul, and we will pray for the brave Police officers who ran into harm’s way.
At both the First and Second World Wars, the men and women of the South Manchester Jewish Community stood shoulder to shoulder with their fellow English men and women. They fought for the common cause of freedom for all of mankind. They stood strong in the face of utter darkness and refused to be defeated. Together they looked evil eyeball to eyeball and said, we will not be beaten: for in unity we are stronger than you. We will persevere and we will live, and we will ensure that everyone has that same freedom.
So today I ask of you all. Every man, woman and child in this community, to attend Shul on Shabbat 10 November. We will not be cowed away from our Shuls. We will not hide in the shadows. We will not apologise or be frightened. We will stand proud, side by side with our Civic Dignitaries. We will show them that what we all fought for was worth it. We will show it in the best possible way; by living as proud Jews, appreciative of the precious gift of life and religious freedom we all hold and cherish so dearly.
Oseh Shalom Bimromav – May He who creates peace in the upper realms, grant peace to us.
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.