Shabbat Matot and Masei

Candles Friday 17th July 8:05pm
Havdalah Saturday 9:00pm

The Nine Days of mourning leading up to the Ninth of Av start on Friday

The last chapters of the book of Bamidbar culminate in the final preparations to invade Canaan. They deal with demarcating the territory the Israelites will claim and allocating the land between the tribes. But the reading begins with blood and ends with blood. It starts with the destruction of the Midianites and makes very uncomfortable reading. It ends with the rules about cities of refuge where accidental murderers can flee for protection from the blood letting of vendetta revenge slaying.

The sequence goes like this. To cleanse the land of corrupt, dangerous people whose culture is one of cruelty, immorality and paganism Israel had to resort to violence or perish itself. That was how things were done three and a half thousand years ago. Even now as we live, this principle of conquest is actually happening around the globe despite all the conventions and treaties and noble sentiments at the UN.

But once the state has been established one has to turn to its inner health and sanctity. Even if killing is sanctioned by the state to protect the state, we have to guard against thinking that that is the norm, the natural state of things. So to heighten sensitivity the law has not only to deal with murder but also with manslaughter and accidental death. That is why the Torah reiterates the notion that in ones territory one must have in place a system to deal with violence and places of refuge and sanctuary. Whatever else they are a constant reminder of the dangers of violence.

King Solomon said there is a time for everything, for war and for peace. But one has to be constantly on guard against letting violence get out of hand or become ‘normal’.


Shabbat Pinhas

Candles Friday 8:09pm
Havdalah Saturday 9:03pm

When Moses is told that it is time for him to die, his only response is that someone has to be appointed to lead the people. It is remarkable in that he chose not to recommend anyone to God but accepted the Divine choice.

It is true that Moses had two sons. We don’t know what happened to them. Perhaps they pre-deceased him. It is also true that Joshua had been Moses’s assistant since the first year of the Exodus and he and Calev were the only two men who would go from Egypt to the Land of Canaan. But that did not mean that either would necessarily have the character to become the leader.

But Joshua is twice referred to as a man of “Ruah” Spirit, as well as wisdom. He showed he had rational, administrative qualities as well as religious, spiritual ones. This combination is what him uniquely able to carry on Moshe’s work even though no one suggests he reached the same heights that Moses did.

Moses and Joshua, like Aaron and Elazar the priests, were chosen by God rather than man. This way of appointing leaders only lasted for only a brief period. Samuel was the last of the great leaders who had a Divine Mandate. From then onwards, with occasional notable exceptions, the leadership of the Jewish people was neither impressive nor spiritual. Consistently, our leadership has failed us.

But we have survived because we are a different, egalitarian, contentious, and stiff-necked people. The fact is that these are the very qualities needed to cope and survive, even if leadership often lets us down.


Shabbat Balak

Friday 3rd July Candles 8:11pm
Havdalah 9:06pm

Fast of Shiva Asar (17th) B’Tammuz is postponed from Shabbat to Sunday

Happy 4th of July

In the poetry that Bilaam the Magician declaims about the Children of Israel, he makes the remarkable statement:

“A people that dwells alone and is not numbered amongst the nations.”

What does he mean? The Hebrew words “U’Bagoyim Lo Yitchashav” Yitchashav, numbered, counted, regarded, can mean:

a) we are so small we hardly count
b) we are unique because of our Torah and our religious culture
c) we are special because we have survived longer than any other
d) we are not valued by other nations.

The fact is that all these possibilities are true.

We are not taken seriously because we are so small. In fact this should be grounds for admiration. Instead it is the cause of disdain and envy.

We are disliked because we reject other religions which only infuriates them.

We have survived despite all attempts to destroy us. And people hate us for this.

The United Nations simply picks on Israel above and beyond any other nation and anti Semitism remains a disease in the minds of so many human beings.

Was Bilaam cursing us or blessing us? In one way you might call it a curse and that's why so many Jews try to escape from their Judaism. But at the same time it is a blessing that we have survived and will.

The Fast of Tammuz and the three weeks leading up to the 9th of Av remind us of our failures. But we need to remember our successes too. Bilaam reminds us of that in his famous words “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov“ "Your tents, Jacob, are very good" Our tents, our families our traditions are good, they have enabled us to survive.