The Middle East Cycle of Life

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

TNT Heal v. Heel Eikev 5777

TNT

Heal v. Heel

Eikev 5777

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Enter our TNT.

 

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

 

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

Red Skies and Shabbat Wonders

Red Skies and Shabbat Wonders

Va’eschanan 5777

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

 

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

 

Why two totally different reasons for the same Mitzvah?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Whovians and Women – Mattot-Massei 5777

Whovians & Women

Mattot-Masei 5777

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Dovid

Climbing Complacency

Climbing Complacency

Shelach-Lecha 5777

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt is rumoured to have said “whether you say you can or you can’t, you are right”.  So much in our world is dependent on mind-set and attitude. Capability and strength have a massive role to play, but a negative manner can cancel all of our raw talent in one fell swoop. And no one is immune.

 

The above, I believe, answers a difficult question from this week’s Sedra. Even before the spies set out on their disastrous mission Moshe changes Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua ‘in order to save him from the evil design of the spies’. Yet at this point those 12 men were all honest and upright religious leaders of the Jewish Nation. Similarly, as soon as they enter into the land, Calev the only other spy not to get caught up in their hysteria, detours to Hebron in order to pray at the Cave of Machpela that he too should not be part of their nefarious plan. Again, at this point Calev’s fellow spies were not yet speaking negatively about the Land of Israel. Nothing bad had happened yet, so why did Yehosua and Calev need the extra protection?

 

I would like to suggest that the root of their negative report about the Land, was sown at the very outset of their journey. This wasn’t a conscious decision, and at the start they were indeed all righteous men, worthy of that name, but they looked at the task ahead of the Jewish Nation and they gave up.

 

Moshe saw this defeat in their eyes and blessed his student Yehoshua that he shouldn’t be similarly affected, Calev recognized it as well and prayed for assistance. Defeatism is a most contagious disease and is not easily conquered. Once infected it runs rampant through an entire group and can destroy hopes and aspirations.

 

At this point I have to thank a group of 100 Frum bike riders from North Manchester for the inspiration for the above Torah thought and lesson. Once a year I join them as they remove their long black coats, stop eating cholent (albeit only for one Shabbat) and creak their legs over the crossbars of the most eclectic collection of bikes you have ever seen, most of which are old, heavy and fit for the scrap heap. Last year they were raising money for a special needs school and this year it is for a fertility charity, both here in Manchester. Last night we were given the route for the ride this Sunday, and a great big groan went up, for it is going to be hard. Never mind the distance of 100k, which is about 95k more than they have ridden since last year’s ride, it is the climbing involved. For this year, it starts North of Preston in the Forest of Bowland and includes over 1500 metres of climbing. To put that in perspective, on our hardest day in Israel, when we were a confident and fit group of riders all on full carbon fibre bikes with the latest in cycling technology, we only climbed 1300 metres! So this group of overweight riders, who are cycling on nothing more than enthusiasm alone started to groan.

 

I watched the rapidly and exponentially growing sense of defeat and was more than slightly alarmed, and being the only Rabbi on the group (yes, even when I ride with the Frummies of North Manc, I am still the only Rabbi!!), I stepped in and shared the above thought. I reminded them that if the couples whom we are trying to help looked at the difficult road ahead of them with the same defeatism they would never get married in the first place. If they knew that there were going to have months and years of anxiety, tears and frustration as their hopes for children were dashed month after month, then they would most definitely give up even before they began. And who could blame them.

 

The same is true of our life journey in general. If we saw all of our ups and downs, all of our difficulties and misfortunes before we set out on our life, then we could be forgiven for giving up. Yet, the Almighty tells us to just take the first step. Don’t be complacent, don’t pretend for a moment that it’s going to be a walk in the park, but don’t get caught up in the climb coming your way. At times we will need the extra help such as our Moshe blessing his student or Calev praying and seeking out the protection of our ancestors, but don’t give up before you’ve taken the first step.

 

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom

 

Rabbi Dovid

 

p.s. the tone on the rider’s WhatsApp group has taken a 180 degree turn and now they are so fired up that I am probably going to be the last one at the top of that mountain!

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