12/31/2015

Shabbat Shemot

Candles Friday 1st Jan 4:19pm
Havdalah 2nd Jan 5:15pm

The Children of Israel are enslaved in Egypt. Moshe encounters God at the Burning Bush and he is told that he will become the agent of their freedom, their leader. He resists the mission. Finally he gives in. But he asks God to give him some more information as to what or who God is. “Who shall I tell (the people) has sent me?” after all they feel they have been abandoned. On what basis would they possibly understand the Divine appearance after some 300 years?

God replies with the puzzling epigram “I am what I am.” Which really sounds like a brush off. But the Hebrew “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” is better translated “I will be what I will be.” Even so, what does it mean?

The past has gone and cannot be retrieved. If one is to survive and succeed one MUST think of the future. The present might even be disastrous and painful. All one has to hope for is a better future. The role of God/religion is to help us cope, a framework to assist us drive onwards. It helps if we can project to a better time ahead. And that was what the enslaved Israelites needed, all refugees, need to hear.

The idea of God being the future has a philosophical explanation. All material objects in the universe change. The only thing that cannot change is something non-material. God as philosophers understand the idea is indeed some thing unchangeable, non material. For the idea of God to have any value it must be of something beyond the physical. That was what the Torah meant by saying “I will be.” Unlike any other thing you have ever encountered. But of course you need to make the effort to make sense of it too.

Now I am sure that is far too philosophical and abstract a concept for an enslaved people living thousands of years ago to grasp or indeed for most human beings now to understand. But we can translate it into a very common expression we all use, “Trust me.”

It is like the parent who moves away from a child while teaching him or her to walk or ride a bike. It is a tactic to help them learn to take their first independent steps. No matter how distant we may feel from the idea of God, we need to constantly remind ourselves that it is all around us, waiting for us to take the next step.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New secular year!

12/24/2015

Shabbat Vayehi

Friday December 25th Candles 4:14pm
Havdalah 26th 5:09pm

The Book of Bereishit ends with Yaakov and Yosef’s deaths. Just before he dies Yaakov blesses his sons but in so doing makes important comments on past events and significant predictions about the future.

Most of the sons are given two or three lines like Reuven, the first born, who is dismissed as unstable. An obvious justification for the first born being passed over. He plays little part in the future of the Jewish people because his interest was purely material ( the tribe preferred to stay on the East bank where the grazing was better).

But Yehudah and Yosef are given five lines. As we know, some five hundred years later the monarchy would begin with Saul of Benjamin but then pass to David of Yehudah and remained with his dynasty until the Babylonian exile in 586. But after David’s son Shlomo the tribes split into to separate countries. Yehudah in the south and the ten tribes who were identified with Yosef in the North. So Yaakov’s predictions came true. Yehudah and Yosef were the dominant tribes of our people.

But Yaakov also says that Yehudah would rule from “when they come to Shiloh” or “until the coming of Shiloh.” Shiloh was where the Tabernacle was for most of the time before it ultimately became absorbed into the Temple. What did Yaakov mean? That Temple in Yehudah would would then take over from Shilo? Or as some commentators suggest until the Messiah comes ( Shiloh became a code word for that). But it’s strange that nowhere else in the Torah is there any mention of a Messiah in the sense that we use it today.

Academics, or cynics might say that these predictions were in fact later insertions to justify the historical outcome and to give messianic hope in exile.. There are always two ways of looking at things, the scientific and the spiritual. I believe both are valuable. We can use our brains and our souls to experience the world we inhabit and to derive spiritual guidance to cope with the challenges.

12/17/2015

Shabbat Vayigash

Candles Friday 18th 4:10pm
Havdalah 19th 5:05pm
Fast of the Tenth of Tevet on Tuesday starts 6:04am, ends 5:06pm

Yosef is appointed by Pharaoh to administer the whole of his empire. He gathers in, buys up, the surplus crops during the good years so that when famine strikes the country is well taken care of. He sells food to the needy. When their money runs out he buys up their land and finally turns them all into serfs to Pharaoh. Only the priests are allowed to retain their estates. He does his job magnificently being loyal exclusively to Pharaoh and recognizing the importance of preserving the status of the State religion even if it is not his.

One might understand the resentment towards him coming from the masses. Even if he was able to keep then alive, every day they worked on Pharaoh’s estates they must have cursed him. This happened in Medieval Europe when “Court” Jews were often advisors to the monarchs, sometimes managed their affairs and farmed their taxes. They too were loyal to their masters but hated by the peasants.

But its interesting that the hatred of Yosef and his people comes not from the masses so much as from ta new Pharaoh who you might have expected to be grateful to Yosef for enriching him and saving his realm. Instead he enslaved the Israelites. Clearly he resented Yosef and his people. And do it was with Jews in Europe and the Middle East. Often the rulers who benefitted most from Jewish advice and expertise turned in those same people who had helped him. Just look up the stories of the Oppenheimers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the way the Rothschilds were treated in Britain in the early nineteenth century and Jews under Islam.

Too often those who owe most, show the least gratitude. Sadly, it’s human nature to resent those we owe a lot to. But a good person does good regardless of whether he or she is appreciated or not.