5/31/2012

Shabbat Naso

Begins Friday 1st June at 8pm

Ends 2nd at 9pm

This week’s reading continues the theme of the first three weeks of the Book of Bamidbar. Everything is being prepared for the invasion of the Land of Israel. The tribes are counted and given their positions. The leadership is primed, the flags are raised and they are getting ready to march. But as we know, it all ends in anti-climax and they are forced back into the desert for another generation.

And in the middle of it all come two laws that seem out of place. The Nazirite is someone who chooses to be extra religious and take upon himself something more than is commanded. After the period he designates for his special sanctity, he has to atone. What for? For thinking that being extra necessarily is better. Sometimes doing the basic things well is better than trying to do too much or be super-religious.

The second case concerns someone who tries to skirt the law by doing something wrong but claiming innocence. That is the other extreme. Pretending to be good and honest when you aren’t.

The message the Torah is giving us that what undermined the morale of the Israelites was either the false assumption that being holier necessarily meant being better. And on the other hand thinking that you can get away with things, undermines the point of having a moral code.

Although the Torah describes the grand sweeps of history and the big events, often it is the small human error and mistake of judgment that are the real causes of failure.

5/24/2012

Shabbat Bamidbar

Begins Friday 25th at 7.50 pm.

Shabbat ends, we light candles and
Festival begins Saturday 26th at 8.50 pm

Shavuot

Begins Saturday 26th at 8.50 pm

Sunday Morning Services 9.30 am

Monday Morbing services at 9.30 am

Festival ends at 8.52 pm

Shavuot is, in one way, the poor relation of Festivals. Pesach and Succot both last for 8 days (in the Diaspora) and have lots of customs and interesting things to do. Shavout in the Torah seems to be an afterthought, 49 days after Pesach and it is called Atzeret just like Shmini Atzeret, the sort of closing ceremony of Succot. Its original purpose was purely agricultural. The harvest started on Pesach with the Omer of barley. Shavuot marked the gathering of the wheat harvest. All early religions had important festivals in the early summer to pray for a good harvest.

But as the people moved away from the Land of Israel and agriculture became less fundamental to their lives the festival slowly took on a different character. Two thousand years ago, the fact that Shavuot coincided with the date that the Children of Israel arrived at Sinai meant that it now became the anniversary of the Torah, the national constitution. Wherever the Jews would wander or be driven they had their common traditions to keep their identity.

And four hundred years ago the Kabbalists in Safed initiated the custom of staying up all night to study the Torah as a sign of ones devotion to it. No Kabbalist worth his or her salt would dream of genuine spiritual progress without a profound commitment to Torah. It is like saying one is committed to literature without reading books. But on the other hand simply going through the motions of a religion without feeling and experiencing its rituals and ceremonies is like trying to understand American culture without knowing a word of English.

Many of us will be away this Memorial weekend. But wherever one is it is important to study, to read, to discuss, to find some practical way of showing that we care about our tradition.

5/18/2012

Shabbat Behar Bechukotai

Begins May 18th 7:50pm. Ends May 19th at 8:50pm

Yom Yerushalayim Sunday May 20th

Rosh Chodesh Sivan Tuesday May 22nd

There is a word ‘Dror’ that is used in this week’s reading. It is now a popular Israeli name and it is usually translated as ‘Freedom.’ The context is the Jubilee year “And you shall declare it a release/freedom for everyone.”

Every seven years in agricultural Israel there was a Sabbatical. Farmers left the land fallow. Indentured workers returned home and the year was spent in study, community activity and both humans and land had a chance to recover. Feudal Europe used a system of crop rotation but it never considered vacations. All that peasants got were Holy Days and time for Church but otherwise back breaking work dominated their lives from birth to death. In Israel in addition to Holy Days everyone had a Sabbatical. There had to be more than work, fighting and accumulation. That’s what made the Torah such a revelation.

But more than this, every fifty years there was a Jubilee, and extra year’s Super Sabbatical when all land returned to its original tribe. Once in a generation everyone had to come together to reaffirm a commitment to the Land and to the Torah. It is not clear when the Jubilee was last observed but as history and industry changed our lives; all that was left was the idea and the dream. The word ‘Dror’ was only used once in the Torah for the Jubilee. So for the Sabbatical the word for ‘freedom’ was the one we use today in Hebrew, ‘Chufsha,’ ‘Chofesh,’ ‘Chofshi’ which implies absence of constraint. But the word for freedom in the Jubilee was ‘Dror,’ Super Freedom.

But there is one other use of the word ‘Dror’ and that is in Exodus 20 where the incense used in the Tabernacle is described and the Torah commands the priests to take some ‘Mor Dror,’ pure myrrh, a valuable spice and ‘Dror’ here meaning ‘pure.’

So the Jubilee’s use of ‘Dror’ for freedom means REAL or PURE Freedom. What is pure freedom, real freedom? Ordinary freedom is when you have been given the chance and opportunity to do whatever you like. Pure Freedom is when you use that freedom well, spiritually, constructively, to do good not just to indulge oneself.

5/10/2012

Shabbat Emor

Begins May 11th at 7.40 and ends May 12 at 8.40 pm

My weekly classes at the JCC (Amsterdam and West 75) start up again on Monday 14th at 1.30 pm and Wednesday mornings 10-11 am. They are both studies and discussion on Torah, making sense and relevance of the text of the Bible. No background necessary. Everyone welcome.

Every week I write a blog on a religious, political or cultural topic. If you would like to receive it please go to www.jeremyrosen.blogspot.com/ and register.

And my website www.jeremyrosen.com has essays, podcasts and other material.

There is a very sad episode at the end of this week’s Torah reading. It concerns the son of an Israelite, Jewish woman and an Egyptian man. One theory is that he was an Egyptian taskmaster who raped a Jewish woman. The other version is that it was an example of how an enslaved woman can often try to marry or seduce her way out of poverty and oppression. There were examples in the Second World War of Jewish women living with Nazis in the hope of surviving or escaping.

Here in this episode, only the mother’s name is mentioned: Shlomit Bat Divri. It literally translates “Hello, the chatterbox.” In other words her own looseness and overfamiliarity brought her fate upon herself. We are often the authors of our own misfortune.

But what of her son? He was now fatherless, brought up by a single mother who was not held in high esteem. It is not surprising that he felt alienated. And although he was Jewish through his mother, he had no tribe to belong to, because tribes were decided paternally. We are naturally inclined to feel sorry for him. But on the other hand he turned into an aggressive, rebel who attacked the fundamental values of Israelite society by rejecting God.

The lesson is that we may have excuses for why things are tough but the answer is not to blame ones parents or fate or society. The answer is to get on with building one’s own life. We can all find excuses but in the end it is up to us to make a life regardless of what difficulties we face.

5/03/2012

Shabbat Acharei Mot & Kedoshim


Begins May 4th at 7:35 PM. 
Ends May 5th at 8:35 PM.

Most of this week’s reading is concerned with ethical behavior . On the one hand the Torah gives us all the negative commandments; not harm other people, either by attacking them physically, insulting them, gossiping about them, refusing to help them, taking advantage of their weakness or helplessness, taking revenge, bearing grudges or  in business, dishonesty or simply not keeping ones word when one has committed oneself. These are all such basic moral rules, people often tell me “I’m not religious rabbi, but I do believe in being a good person.” Yet when I get to know them better I discover that most of them ignore the rules of the Torah that concern being good to others. It’s a competitive world out there and most of us are too busy accumulating, fighting for profit, to care.

Then there are the more difficult positive commands; to respect the elderly, to love ones neighbor, to support and help the weak and poor, without thought of reward or benefit.

Most people think the law that says “Love your Neighbor as yourself” says just that. Everyone agrees with it, in theory. Everyone thinks it’s a lovely idea but hardly anyone really keeps to it. In fact the command says “Love your neighbor as yourself I am God.” We shouldn’t do it because it’s a good social idea, if we want others to be nice to us then we have to be nice to them. We should do it because it is a religious obligation even when we don’t feel like it, even if people are not nice back.

The full text in the Torah ends “I am God” because we should know that someone somewhere is looking. God knows and God ultimately pays back.  If another human being were to see us behave selfishly we would be ashamed. But in truth we ought to be ashamed before God. We know how often we fail. Our egos are so strong they can blind us to the reality of who we really are.

And that is why religion with all its little rules jogs us back to reality. Every time during the day we make a blessing it reminds us that there is a greater Power and that Power wants us to be nice, helpful and honest with each other.