12/26/2013

Shabbat Va’eyra

Candles 4:15pm
Havdalah 5:11pm

What does the Torah mean when it talks about “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”? Does it mean that Pharaoh had no choice, that he was a forced by Divine Will to act the way he did? In which case why was he punished?

Remember that the Torah uses language both poetically and in a context that people at the time would have understood. As the rabbis say “The Torah speaks in the language human beings use.” We know how people are conditioned by genes, society and subliminal advertising to act in predictable ways. Humans are indeed predictable and even so they act irrationally all the time. Does that mean they have no choices? If I describe someone is stubborn that might just mean he or she is very fixed in an opinion and refuse to listen to reason. Does that mean they have no choice? I don’t think so.

Pharaoh was so convinced his civilization was the most advanced and best of his age he could not conceive that another might be better or might have something else to offer. Ironically nowadays there are so many fads, fake religions and placebos that we are conditioned to accept anything that brings us passing relief. And others amongst us are so sure religion has nothing to offer they harden their hearts against living a religious life.

We are conditioned like Pharaoh to ignore all the wonderful things our own tradition has , proved and tested over thousands of years, in favor of any passing fad. And conversely many religious leaders refuse to face the reality of the good things that modernity has to offer. Our hearts are indeed hardened just like Pharaoh’s.

12/19/2013

Shabbat Shemot

Candles Friday 20th at 4:11pm.
Havdalah 21st at 5:07pm.

We know a great deal about Yosef’s youth and his history from an early age. We know a great deal about Avraham after he arrived in Canaan. But the Torah tells us nothing about his early development. To be sure the Midrash offers us a range of stories but Midrash is not Torah. With Moshe too there are huge gaps in his life. Like Yosef we know a lot about his early life and after the Exodus we know a lot about his final forty years. But between the time when he ran away to Midian as a young man and the age of over seventy when he experienced the Divine presence at the burning bush, we know nothing, nothing of a half century’s worth of his life.

We might speculate that this time was spent in meditation, in preparing himself spiritually for his great task. But when he encounters the burning bush the Torah says, “He was frightened to look.” One commentator suggests that he had not at all been prepared for this moment and that was why he was surprised and frightened and tried his best to get out of the task he was given. In which case the question of the missing years is even more puzzling.

But there is a message. No matter what corrupt a society Avrahm came from, no matter what time Moshe had to spend in isolation amongst pagans, it was what they became that mattered. We all go through different periods in our lives, some more productive than others. But we must always be looking to grow. It is what we become that counts.

12/12/2013

Shabbat Vayehi

Candles Friday 4:10pm
Havdalah Saturday 5:04pm

Friday is also the fast of Asara BeTevet from dawn till 4:49 pm

When Yaakov dies, in this week’s Sedra, he is embalmed by the Egyptians who were experts in mummification. We are naturally surprised. According to the Jewish tradition one does not mummify a body or put it on display after death. Rather we bury it as soon as possible. This looks like a massive concession to Egyptian culture or perhaps a sign of how assimilated the children of Jacob had become. Yosef had risen to the very top of Egyptian society. We know he looked and lived like an Egyptian and that was why the brothers could not recognize him. And so perhaps there was pressure for him to do what all good Egyptians did.

Yet he did not put Yaakov in a pyramid. He did follow his dying wish to be taken to the family tomb in the cave of Machpela. And there he was buried. But to get there his body had to travel for weeks through very hot barren territory. Perhaps the mummification was not after all a concession to Egyptian culture, just a very practical way of preserving the body for its long journey in this world. And Yosef himself did not allow his body to put in a mausoleum but in a box ready to move when his people did.

The lesson is clear. We all make some concessions to the dominant non-Jewish society we live in, in our clothes, customs even attitudes. At different times in our lives we are less religious and at other times more. But it is the final impression we leave behind, the impact we have on the next generation that matters. And Yaakov finally buried in the Cave of Machpela is the ultimate symbol of his belonging to us, his descendants and the land that we as a people originated from.

The fast we have on Friday reminds us of how we ourselves were responsible for losing what we were given by HaShem. We must not make that mistake again.

12/05/2013

Shabbat Vayigash

Candles Dec 6th 4:08pm
Havdalah Dec 7th 5:03pm

One of the amazing features of Yosef’s economic response to the famine was to nationalize the land of Egypt and set its people to work the land that now belonged to Pharaoh. This way the Government had the responsibility to ensure its people did not starve and had a vested interest in their productivity.

Even more surprising was that he did not take away the lands of the priests. This is amazing since under the Law of Moses the priests had no tribal land allocation. The role of the priests was to serve the community, not become a wealthy aristocracy. But sadly during the first thousand years of Jewish history, despite this, the priesthood did indeed turn into a wealthy and corrupt aristocracy (as the story of Hanukah illustrates).

So why did Yosef allow the Egyptian priesthood to retain its lands? There are two possibilities. One is that he needed to have then on his side. They were such an important power group in Egyptian society they could have blocked him, the way that Ayatollahs were able to undermine the Shah.

Secondly it might be that if he wanted his religion to be respected, he had to show respect himself to the Egyptian religion. Showing respect to another religion, regardless of how different or opposed to one’s own, is diplomatically a wise policy. It does not mean one is validating the other or accepting it, just that if one wants one’s own religion to be respected one must accord respect to others. That after all is what distinguishes American society from so many other regimes in the world today.