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

Greetings from Jerusalem – 10 Tevet – Vayigash 5777

Greetings from Jerusalem

Juxtapositioning of Fasts and Celebrations


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