Shabbat Pinhas

Candles July 29th 7:54pm
Havdalah 30th 8:48pm
Mevarhin Rosh Hodesh Av Friday August 5th

After dealing with Pinhas and his dramatic action to stop the moral collapse of the Israelite princes and a serious plague, the Torah switches to a census of the remaining Israelites. It seems a totally unconnected transition. The clue to the link lies in the fact that this time, the census focuses on families. Each tribe is broken down into family units.

The Bible establishes three units. The Nation, the Children of Israel, which is broken down into Tribes and Tribes are divided into Families. On the face of it this conflicts with the administrative division that Jethro recommended that the people be subdivided into “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18.25).

That division that Jethro recommended was purely administrative. It could be used for the military, for taxation and to apply justice as well as social services. It was a system that the government, in whichever form, could apply. It was a tool of leadership whoever or whatever the leadership was.

Tribes were a more religious, historical and cultural level of divisions. Each with its own territory, religious functions and histories. The leader, Moses, had to exercise control at the national level. The princes of the tribes exercised it on a personal level. But tribes were large, some 60,000 strong. It was left to families to take on the responsibility for moral values and bringing up the children.

The Crisis with Midian attacked the core of the family unit. If husbands were abandoning their homes and families for idolatry and prostitution, the whole family unit would suffer. And if they were behaving this way, clearly their parents had not succeeded in passing family values on. They had it seems left all of this to Moses. They had relinquished their roles. Which of course is what happens in all dictatorships, all authoritarian regimes. The trouble is that when this happens, the collapse is all the more dramatic. It is up to families to take responsibility for their children. Not to leave it to society in general.


Shabbat Balak

Candles Friday 22nd July 8:01pm
Havdalah 23rd 8:55pm
Fast of Shivah Assar Be Tammuz
Starts Sunday morning 4:15am
Ends at 8:55pm

According to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6) Five calamities befell the Jewish people on the Seventeenth of Tammuz:

Moses broke the two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai after they made the Golden Calf
The daily tamid sacrifice could not be brought because the Babylonian siege cut off supplies to the Temple
The walls of Jerusalem were breached (the first step towards the destruction of the Temple), and Apostomus burned a Torah scroll
An idol was erected in the Temple.

There is so much here that is both contradictory and historically uncertain. Which Temple was it? When was the tamid sacrifice discontinued? Who was Apostomus? The answer is we do not know for certain!

The Babylonian Talmud places the second and fifth tragedies in the First Temple but dates the breach of Jerusalem to the Second Temple period.
Jerusalem of the First Temple, on the other hand, was breached on the 9th of Tammuz. However, the Jerusalem Talmud states that the breach of Jerusalem in the First Temple occurred on 17th Tammuz.

Apostomus according to Josephus was a Roman soldier in 50 ACE who seized a Torah-scroll and, burned it in public. But the burning of a Torah came later at the time of the Hadrianic persecutions when Chanania ben Teradyon, one of the most distinguished men of the time, was wrapped in a Torah-scroll and burned. According to the Jerusalem Talmud Apostomus burned the Torah at the narrow pass of Lydda. Others suggest that Apostomus was no other than Antiochus Epiphanes and another opinion is that "Apostomus" is the Hebrew transcription for the Latin "Faustinus," and that the name of Julius Severus, who was sent by Hadrian to put down the Bar Cochba rebellion, in which case the setting up of an idol in the sanctuary would have to be taken to refer to the dedication of a temple of Zeus upon the consecrated ground of the Temple.

The fact is we do not know. So why do we still insist on keeping the fast? The answer simply is this. The Seventeenth of Tammuz is the start of a three-week period of sadness and mourning that culminates with Tisha B’Av when both Temples, both Jewish States were destroyed and the people exiled.

In both cases Rabbinic tradition says that we were the cause of our own downfall because we were divided, politically and socially. The rich did not care for the poor. Half the Jews were opposed to the other half. The many of the rabbis were corrupt and we made the wrong decisions because we allowed the mob, popular opinion to influence policies.

That message is so true today. Just as relevant as it ever was. Whether in Israel or the USA. That is why we fast to examine ourselves to see if we can improve, be better and avoid the mistakes and tragedies of the past.


Shabbat Chukat

Candles Friday 15th at 8:06pm
Havdalah 16th at 9pm

We are having a special Kiddush this week kindly donated by Mar & Mrs. Anonymous in memory of their parents.

There is a crisis, in this week’s Torah reading, as happens often with the children of Israel. Once again they are complaining about Moses and his leadership. We think we are divided and self-destructive. Believe me it was worse then. In response there is a plague of poisonous snakes. Moses made a bronze snake, put it up on a pole, and whenever people looked at it, they were cured. We think the symbol of medicine, the snake entwining a pole, comes from Greece, but clearly it has earlier origins.

The rabbis were disturbed at the implication of this. “Can images of snakes really cure people?” they asked in the Mishna. But “when they looked up at the image their thoughts were conducted upwards to God and that was what cured them.” The symbol itself was not important. It was the function of getting people to think of God and by doing that they themselves became better people, they felt more uplifted and spiritual and this helped them recover. A sort of faith healing process.

Sadly, as often happens, people come to think that the symbol itself is what cures. And that was why King Hezekiah destroyed the snake because people were worshipping it (2nd Kings 18 & Talmud Brachot 10a).

Today most people I meet seem to think the Mezuzah is a kind of magic talisman that protects one’s home. It is not! The point of the Mezuzah is that it reminds us of the Torah, parts of which are on the scroll inside. If our homes are run along Jewish lines, it this that gives us blessings and helps us cope with the tragedies of life and uplifts us. But the Mezuzah itself is not what protects us magically.

(The Hazzan will be away this Shabbat so those of you who don’t like my style of reading from the Torah, etc., better take a week off!)