For The Sake Of Our Children – Shavuot 5777

For the sake of our children

I have already spilt too much ink this week, and although my words may have left one or two people ‘feeling’ better, I doubt that it made anyone ‘be’ safer. That 2nd option though, is the remit of the Government and Local Authority and on Shabbat I will be looking at the lessons I have had to learn from my last two weeks; coming straight from an amazing charity bike ride along the length of Israel into the madness (and inspiration) that has been Manchester this week. Today though I want to look at the juxtapositioning of the brutal and targeted murder of a children’s concert with the upcoming Chag of Shavuot.

 

There is a famous Midrash that describes Hashem first offering the Torah to every Nation on Earth, only for them to reject it as they were unwilling to accept certain restrictions such as murder, Kashrut, family purity etc. When the Jewish Nation was asked, we famously responded, ‘Na’aseh vNishmah’ – we will do and we will listen.

 

However that wasn’t the end of the story, for Hashem then asked us for our guarantors; who could we put forward that would guarantee that we would indeed keep the Torah? Automatically our eyes turned towards our ancestors; Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaackov together with Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. But Hashem wouldn’t accept them as they were already beyond this physical world. We offered our Rabbis and Teachers, but they too were rejected as being unable to ensure that the common man and woman would actually behave. We suggested our Prophets Moshe and Aaron, we tried our hand with the Celestial Beings, we even called on Heaven and Earth, but Hashem wouldn’t accept any of them.

 

In desperation, we suggested our own children, minors and infants; and with them standing as our eternal guarantors the Almighty was prepared to hand over to us His most precious possession the Torah.

 

The act of creating a child may be the most selfish and animalistic instinct that we have, but the lifelong job of raising and educating them, protecting and nurturing them is the most selfless and divine purpose of our entire existence. We pour our heart and soul into ensuring that they are properly educated, fed and clothed, we spend the vast proportion of our income and pretty much our entire existence on ensuring their safety and health and continued growth into adulthood. At times we may tear our hair out at their antics (regardless of their age and supposed maturity – sorry daddy), but nothing can move our hearts as much as seeing them achieve their potential. We will stand in the way of any danger that confronts our baby and we will enwrap them in our arms to protect them from all harm, real or imagined. They will disturb our sleep for years, but I for one cannot go to sleep without softly kissing their foreheads as they lie peacefully in their little beds.

 

We invest everything we have for the sake of our children, but at the end of the day they are our guarantors.

 

Hashem did not want Rabbis or Prophets, He was unsatisfied with our Forefathers and Mothers, He would not accept Angels or even Reality itself, all He wanted was the promise of our Children. And for over 3,300 years that is what we have given to Him.

 

This Shavuot, Wednesday 31 May, bring them along to Shul. Let them once again stand on the Bimah as we receive the Torah, our guiding light and moral compass, with our little ones acting as our eternal guarantors. I cannot physically (or politically) make anyone safer, but maybe we can feel safer and in some small way actually be safer, as we once again look to our children and their education as our promise for an eternal future.

 

Shabbat Shalom

A Buddhist’s Holy One Liner – Kedoshim 5777

A Buddhist’s Holy One Liner

Acharei- Kedoshim 5777

A chance encounter with a Buddhist earlier on today caused me to quickly analyse a verse from this week’s Sedra. He asked me for one sentence that could encapsulate Judaism, what is my one-liner as a Rabbi? This was at the end of a meeting, and I had not known up to that point what his religious or spiritual affiliation was, and I only had 60 seconds; I had been catapulted into ‘Just a Minute’!

The first verse that came to mind was the start of the Sedra: קדשים תהיו – you should be holy. He said I like it, it fits in with my philosophy. But I stopped him and said that actually it was the continuation of the verse that really spoke to me – ‘for I Hashem am holy”! Now that throws me; how is our holiness a reflection of Hashem’s? Why indeed is G-d’s holiness a valid reason for us to do likewise?

Now he was intrigued.

I explained that the word קדש – holy, also means to sanctify, to consecrate something, to set it aside. And that is my one-liner, for when G-d is set aside, when He/She/Whatever is sanctified and holy, it is not by virtue of being better than those around; G-d’s holiness is absolutely self-dependant. We don’t play Top-Trumps with G-d for there is nothing to compare Him to.

And that is the instruction at the start of the Sedra – be Holy by your own standards. You are not going to be judged in comparison with anyone else.

That of course works both ways; we can’t pat ourselves on the back when we (more often that not, erroneously) think that we are holier/frummer than someone else, but neither should we knock ourselves down when we think that we aren’t as good as them.

In the words of Rabbi Meir of Premishlan: “I’m not worried that when I get to heaven that they are going to ask me why I wasn’t as good as Moses was, but rather I’m petrified that they are going to ask me why I wasn’t as good a Meir could have been.”

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dovid

p.s. now you know why I never enter ‘Just a Minute’; too much repetition, far too much deviation, and G-d in heaven ‘just’ one minute!!

Freg a Sha’aloh

“Freg a Sha’aloh”

Lessons in prejudging from one little letter.

Tazria Metzora 5777

“freg a sha’aloh – is ez treif” – ask a question, and its treif. Thus have Anglo Jewry always believed, but what is the basis for that?

 

We could in fact argue that actually the opposite is true, and indeed the Talmud tells us that “koach d’hitayroh odif” – the power to permit something is greater. In other words, anyone can say that something is treif or forbidden, but it takes a knowledgeable authority to permit it and declare it Kosher etc. So freg a sha’aloh, you never know, it may yet turn out to be Kosher!

 

I mention this because of one little letter in this week’s Sedra. “When you will come to the Land……and the owner of the house will say to the Kohen, ‘there appears to me to be something like a Tzara’as lesion in my house.’ – כנגע נראה לי בבית” (Vayikra 14:34-35.) It is the ‘something like’, in Hebrew it’s the prefix ‘kaf’, that interests me.

 

The owner of the house, even if he were to be the most learned Rabbi or Prophet was not entitled to declare his house impure. Instead he had to call in the expert and get an official diagnosis; he had to freg a sha’aloh!

 

The reason for this is two-fold: 1) no one should ever be that quick to condemn themselves – or indeed anyone, leave it to the unconnected, third party, expert. 2) even if you were sure of the matter, and indeed you turned out to be correct, if you told the Kohen that you had a Tzara’as lesion in your house, rather than ‘something like a lesion’, you were in effect asking him to merely ‘rubber stamp’ your opinion!

 

I see here a powerful lesson for each and every one of us. Too often we follow the adage; if it quacks like a duck, if it waddles like a duck, if it looks like a duck – it’s a duck. It looks like someone has Tzara’as, it smells like they have been struck by Heaven – they must therefore be guilty.

 

We are therefore taught that even when we see it on ourselves (how much more so on someone else, when we definitely do not know all the facts), we are not allowed to pre-judge. Call in the expert and wait – you never know, it might not be Treif.

 

Oh, and don’t just go through the motions to get the expert/Kohen/Rabbi to confirm your ‘suspicions’ about the other person – wait for them to declare. This isn’t an exercise in proving you right, it’s a journey to discover the truth and to avoid declaring something, or even worse, someone Treif.

 

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Dovid

History Avoidance – Shemini, Post Pesach 5777

History Avoidance

Listening to the radio on Thursday I heard Nigel Farage declare that he would not be standing as an MP in the forthcoming general elections. What was interesting, were the phone calls that followed, with a number of his ‘Chassidim’ (although, he might use a different term!!) exhorting him to reconsider. Their contention was: this is what you are needed for, this is your calling.

 

Not to draw parallels, but it did remind me of a conversation, recounted by Rashi, between Moshe and Aaron at the dedication of the Tabernacle in the opening verses of this week’s Sedra.

 

Having served as the Kohen Gadol for seven days of installation, Moshe now called Aaron forward to begin the actual Service in the Dedication ceremony and take his dutiful role as the permanent Kohen Gadol. But Aaron held back, he felt that he was not worthy of the position, primarily due to his involvement with the Golden Calf. Moshe responds and says: ‘Why are you embarrassed? You were chosen for this role’ – לכך נבחרת.

 

We have just celebrated Pesach, when in essence we became the ‘Chosen Nation’.  It is important to stress at this point, that this term does not denote a negative aspect about other nations, but rather an acceptance of a responsibility for our nation. It’s not about them, it’s about us.

 

The order of the Hagaddah follows the same route; first we mention that we were slaves, then it describes our origins as idol worshippers. On a night when we are celebrating our freedom, our birth as a nation, why do we make any mention at all of our ‘shady past’?! Sweep it under the carpet and move on. Celebrate the power of freedom and the heights of spirituality, not the lows of slavery and paganism.

 

But the message of last week’s Hagaddah and this week’s Sedra is that there is no avoiding our destiny and stepping off our chosen path of responsibility. We cannot claim unworthiness because of any past history. We can pretend, we can try to hide in the shadows, but if this is our route in life then the only person we are in fact hiding from is ourselves. In the words of my father: ‘you are only fooling yourself – and anybody can fool a fool’!!

 

It was true of Aaron, it was true of our Nation and it is true for each and every one of us.

PhotoBombs, Yellow Cars and Streaks of Red

PhotoBombs, Yellow Cars and Streaks of Red

Shabbat Hagadol 5777

It started back in 2015 when a tourist complained. It escalated this January with vandalism. Then this week 100 protectors took to the streets in support.

 

All over a yellow car.

 

The offender, a car painted an alluring yellow, was accused of ruining the photo-shoots of tourists who had travelled for miles to see the picturesque village of Bidbury, home to the 14th century Cotswold cottages on Arlington Row.

 

The problem was that the owner, Mr Maddox, lived in the cottage and had simply parked his car outside his own home.

 

The tourists complained, vandals keyed the car and smashed the windows writing it off!

 

In support and solidarity, 100 owners of yellow cars (in all shapes, sizes and shades, from a Mini to a Lamborghini) processed through the village and Vauxhall have renamed that shade of paint to ‘Maddox Yellow’!

 

(Unfortunately, the 84 year old widower, has since given in to the vandals and replaced his car with a non-descript grey one!)

 

Pesach gets its name because Hashem passed-over our houses during the plague of the first-born. To ensure our protection we were commanded to paint the doorposts of our houses in red! We ruined the picturesque beauty of ancient Egypt with our splash of incongruous colour. But that was something that we had been doing for quite some time; standing out from the crowd. The Talmud tells us that we refused to change our dress, names or language throughout the entire two centuries we were in Egypt – including during the century of servitude and oppression.

 

Chief Rabbi Sacks summed it up brilliantly when he said (I believe it was just after the terrorist attack on 7-7) “Jews have always learnt to integrate but not assimilate”.

 

If Pesach teaches us one thing it is that our freedom cannot be bought by fading into the background and ignoring our heritage and customs. It is the Chag that raises Minhagim (ancient and new, authentic and bizarre) to a whole new level, and teaches us that what has given us the strength to survive is by respecting our surroundings, but not being drowned and suffocated by them.

 

Wishing you all a Chag Kasher v’Sameach,

 

Rabbi Dovid

Sacrifices – NOT!! – Vayikra 5777

Sacrifices – NOT!!

 

At some point a wordsmith better than I, will coin a more appropriate word to translate the Hebrew term Korban. The main focus of the entire book of Vayikra is purity and our personal relationship with the Divine, expressed in the minutiae of the Temple Service which of course revolved around the Korbanot.

 

The English word used is ‘sacrifice’.

 

This connotes giving something up and in the context of the Temple service, seems to imply that we are giving up the animal’s life!

 

I’ve sinned – time to slit an animals throat and move on with my life with clean hands!

I’ve been cured from a life-threatening illness – time to sprinkle some blood on the altar as thanks!

I brought a new life into this world – time to take an animal’s life in appreciation!

It’s Shabbat, it’s Rosh Chodesh, it’s Yom Tov – let’s bring an extra sacrifice.

 

Not exactly a moral or ethical act.

 

Can the Nation that gave us the very first moral code, the revolutionary Mitzvah of ‘Tzaar Ba’alei Chaim (not hurting our animals), that forbade hunting for pleasure, that insists on feeding our pets before our children etc etc etc, can that Nation and Divine Code really insist on sacrificing an animal’s life on the Altar of repentance, remembrance and thanks?

 

But is it truly about sacrificing?

 

For that matter, is anything within Judaism about sacrificing?

 

Do we sacrifice our taste-buds and appetite by adhering to Kashrut?

Do we sacrifice our sartorial desires and fashion sense by adhering to a dress-code?

Do we sacrifice our sexuality by adhering to family purity?

Do we sacrifice our free time by going to Shul?

 

The list goes one. In fact it is essentially 613 lines long!

 

A Korban is not a sacrifice. The Hebrew word Korban has its roots in k-r-v, to come close.

 

The whole point of Judaism, every positive Mitzvah and each negative Aveirah are about bridging the gap between the infinite Divine and the finite human being.

 

It’s not for nothing that the instruction to build the Tabernacle was prefaced by the Mitzvah of Shabbat, which more than any other Mitzvah reminds us that there is a Divine Creator to this world and that our every action must be in sync with His and aim to bring us both closer to each other.

 

The mechanics of how it works is the study of a lifetime, but the main point is that we were not put on this world to sacrifice ourselves, our happiness or our animals for G-d. We are put here to get closer and to be involved with the Cosmic plan of creation. If you think that you can just slit an animal’s throat and be atoned, sprinkle its blood and be done with expressing your thanks, then you have done nothing more than take an animal’s life – which is basically murder! You’ve not sacrificed an animal – you’ve sacrificed your moral code, your sacrificed your very essence of what it means to be a human being!

 

 

 

 

Vayakhel-Pekudei, #HASHTAGS and the Westminster Attack

#HASHTAGS!!

POST WESTMINSTER ATTACK

 

We had just finished saying a Psalm and a special Refuah Shleima for those injured in the Westminster attack when my phone pinged telling me that the death toll had risen to three. With that message came the now ubiquitous sign of the times: #PrayForLondon was trending on social media!

 

There are as ever those who criticise such hashtags and question their value, but I wonder whether they are in fact missing the point. We live in such a cosmopolitan society and with the ever-increasing march of technology the world has simultaneously become much smaller and paradoxically ever larger. We are instantly connected to events transpiring half-way across the globe whilst having less and less real face time with those living within our own group. The mobile phone, the ultimate symbol of connectivity and communication, is now the biggest cause of disconnect. It’s a sign of the times, but the least commonly used feature on the mobile is now the actual call button!

 

A main strap-line for ShabbatUK was ‘disconnect to reconnect’, as we were all told to put away our mobile phones (and all other electronical devices!), to disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with the real world. But whilst the Mitzvah of Shabbat is the first paragraph of the week’s Sedra, it is not where I draw inspiration from this week, but rather from the names of the double Sedra themselves: Vayakhel and Pekudei.

 

Vayakhel means to gather together. This was the day after the original Yom Kippur when Moshe gathered the entire Jewish Nation together as one group in order to give us the commandment to build the Mishkan (which was prefaced by the Mitzvah of Shabbat to remind us that even the building of the ‘Home for Hashem’ did not override Shabbat).

 

Pekudei means to count, and this was the obligation to count each individual donation given to the building fund.

 

These two words, thrown together as a double Sedra are seemingly contradictory; to gather everyone together as one large mass and to count them individually! But that is precisely the message and entire ethos of the Torah and Judaism. We are our strongest when we are united as one, and that combined strength comes specifically from our own individual strength. It’s not just the ‘sum of its parts is greater than the whole’, it’s that there is no whole without the individual parts. When the farmer took his Ma’aser – the annual tithe, he couldn’t just take one tenth of his flock from the herd, but was obligated to count each animal individually and to set aside every tenth one that went by. It’s a central line in the Unesaneh Tokef prayer from Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur; that although we are gathered in Shul as one large Minyan, nevertheless we are all passing under the Almighty’s staff individually to get judged.

 

We ride on the flow of the communal current, but we must all swim ourselves.

 

In an age when we can with minimum effort be part of a global crowd, when with one click of a button we can join an international movement, it’s all too easy for us to think that we have now fulfilled our duty. “I’ve signed up. I’m on the inside.” I see the hashtag as a reminder that we can’t just ‘click to like’, but we must do our individual bit as well. Be part of the crowd, but play your part within that crowd.

As I write this message, pictures are coming in of the vigil held in Central London and the masses gathered there. A show of unity and defiance. A mark of respect and courage. Everyone there was and is part of the ‘community of strength’ but they also had to each individually turn up and play their individual part.

 

May the Almighty heal all those injured in the attack and grant comfort to those bereft of loved ones and shelter the souls of those so cruelly murdered.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Dovid

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