Shabbat Yitro

Candles Friday 29th Jan 4:49pm
Havdalah 30th 5:45pm

Kiddush this week sponsored by Morad Khosh
in memory of Avraham ben Yehezkel ע״ה

Everyone knows this week’s Torah reading because of the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Principles (erroneously translated as “commandments”). But I want to suggest a more topical lesson. Moshe’s father in law, Yitro, comes to visit and notices that Moshe is sitting throughout the day dealing with issues and problems that the people are bringing to him. And they in turn are having to stand and wait for hours. He tells Moshe that this is a disaster waiting to happen to him personally and to the people. Moshe needs to delegate and he needs to delegate to honest, trustworthy individuals who cannot be bribed. You might say this is the first example in the Bible of a business consultant.

Here we are thousands of years later and one of the most universally stressful features of our lives is bureaucracy. Very little attention is paid to the stress of people waiting in lines for hours, and bureaucrats grinding away in grim conditions, themselves under pressure and often reacting unfeelingly and impersonally. What is more, in most parts of the world bribery and corruption is endemic. The quality of the experience on both sides of the glass partition is rarely dealt with.

Yet Yitro revealed the dangers of not taking stress into consideration. Still, most governments do not seem able or willing to deal with the issue. I used to think Israeli bureaucracy was a depressing experience but in all honesty it is no better wherever I have travelled.

And whereas we rightly focus in the plight of refugees, we rarely consider the bureaucratic nightmares they and their children usually have to endure in the process of migration. And the same goes for the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of our populations. Little has changed in four thousand years.


Shabbat BeShalah

Friday January 22nd Candles 4:41pm
Havdalah January 23rd 5:57pm
Tu BishVat, The New Year for Trees, Monday January 25th

Kiddush this week sponsored by Morad Ghadamian.

The Children of Israel leave Egypt. To avoid the Amalekite tribes along the nearer and quicker coastal plain, Moshe leads them south so that to get into Sinai and head towards Canaan they will have to cross the Red Sea (or the tidal lakes leading to it).

Anyone who has seen Hollywood’s version of the miracle when they crossed the water, whether Cecil B Demille’s or Ridley Scott’s will know that there are all kinds of theories as to what might have happened, from tsunamis, to tidal waves, to hurricanes.

What matters in the narrative was that miraculously, the Children of Israel survived by crossing when the water went out. Whereas Pharaoh’s pursuing army was swamped and destroyed when it came rushing back.

As with everything in the Torah one really needs to focus less on the mechanics and more on the message, which is that there are forces in our universe beyond our control. Sometimes they work out to our benefit, and at other times to our cost. How to harness this Divine energy has been the aim of all religions throughout history.

What strikes me about the Torah narrative is really how fragile miracles are. After all, despite having experienced this amazing salvation, within days the very same Children of Israel are complaining and asking to return to Egypt! That is why Maimonides says that miracles are lowest level of religious faith. You see, those who rely on miracles lose faith immediately when they don't see them. But those who know that one‘s future lies very much in their own hands, know that the role of the Divine is to help people cope, not to solve all their problems in a flash like superman. True love, true commitment is not dependent on immediate rewards.


Shabbat Bo

Candles Friday 4:33pm
Havdalah 5:29pm

In the course of negotiations between Moshe and Pharaoh, the plague of locusts, the least uncommon of the plagues, seems to have been the one that began to turn the tide. Pharaoh offers a concession. If the Children of Israel really want to go and worship their God they can indeed go for three days. But he asks who exactly they want to take with. Moshe replies “We will go with our young and our old, our sons and our daughters and our flocks.” Pharaoh replies “no men only.” And the negotiations break down. This has been typical of the negotiations. Pharaoh seems to give in but then once the crisis is over he reneges.

But there is an interesting point here about the nature of religion. Pharaoh clearly understood religion, religious worship to be something related to a hierarchy, to a priesthood performing on behalf of the King and Country. The ordinary people and the peasants were excluded. For him religion was not a matter of a person’s interaction with God, but just part of the fabric of the hierarchy of State, a power play. You might even say the equivalent of the way State religions function today.

Moshe’s response shows how he is refashioning religion into something that involves everyone from the youngest to the oldest, men and women. Without the involvement of everyone no movement or religion of can survive. It may be true that one needs structures and authorities. But when they ignore or ride roughshod over the needs of the individuals, they lose their spiritual meaning.


Shabbat Vaeyra

Candles Friday 8th 4:25pm
Havdalah 9th 5:21pm
Shabbat Mevarchin Rosh Chodesh Shevat (Monday)

The challenging question that these early chapters of Exodus raise is whether Pharaoh had any freedom to act or was it all determined when God says, “I will harden his heart”? Perhaps he had no choice at all.

On the other hand you might say that everything about Pharaoh’s background and education made his response predictable. After all he was the absolute monarch of the worlds greatest and most advanced power at the time with its magnificent engineering and cultural achievements. Why should he listen to some outsider speaking on behalf of an unimportant semi-nomadic group of tribes? Besides so called miracles can often be explained as physical phenomena.

Imagine a Harvard graduate having a theological debate with a primitive tribesman from the Amazon jungle. This does not mean of course that the Harvard graduate would be automatically right. Our background and training so convince us we are right its often almost impossible to see another point of view. The NRA will never ever accept any kind of limitation on gun ownership, no matter what the arguments. But that doesn’t mean they don't have a choice.

When God says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart,” it is a way of speaking, a metaphor, to indicate that one can predict he won’t change his mind. Even when he says he will reconsider or make concessions, he is, like so many people who pretend to negotiate in good faith today, only playing for time, leading them on with no intention of fulfilling his pledges. Sound familiar?