Shabbat Bamidbar

Friday Rosh Hodesh, May 26th
Candles @ 7:57pm
Havdalah May 27th @ 9pm

Tuesday Evening, May 30th
Candles @ 8pm

First Day Shavuot, May 31
Morning service @ 9:30am
Candles and Kiddush @ 8:55pm

Second Day Shavuot, June 1
Morning service @ 9:30am
Festival ends @ 8:56pm

Bamidbar, the book and the Parasha we read this week are named after the wilderness. It is strange to give so much significance to a barren, silent seemingly abandoned part of nature where almost nothing grows or thrives and where all you hear is silence. Yet that was the painful crucible of the Israelites for a whole generation. Heat, sand and not enough water or shade. Yet it was out of those adverse conditions that a nation was formed ready to claim its homeland. The process was incomplete. There was more to do. But it was a start. And this story that has repeated itself throughout our history. It is adversity, exile, murder that seems to push us towards rebuilding and surviving.

Nature symbolizes the raw material of life. We never know where we may find ourselves. It can be nurtured and improved or destroyed. We start with very little but we can make a lot out of who we are.

Shavuot (which we celebrate next week) recognizes another geographical state, the mountain. Sinai. It is also barren, fiery, volcanic. It was where Moshe met God and then the place where Torah emerged. But whereas desert is usually flatter, the mountain has peaks and valleys. It also symbolizes the challenge of life. The ups and the downs. Sinai, Torah helps us cope with the challenges of life. It gives a framework, stability and roots in a cosmopolitan, unpredictable world.We are challenged by both desert and mountain to rise and thrive and live a good life.

We live in different places. We deal with different challenges and have different raw material. Some good, some not so. We face the challenge of making the most of what we are given or where find ourselves. It's the challenge we have. And the Torah gives us the tools to face the moral challenge in addition to the physical ones we are born with.


Shabbat Behar and Behkotai

Candles Friday May 19th @ 7:50pm
Havdalah March 20th @ 8:46pm
Wednesday is Yom Yerushalayim

There are four words used in this week’s Torah reading that signify, in one way or another, freedom.

We start with Shmittah. This is the Seven Year release of bonded Israelites who have debits to pay off, either by working for their creditor or because they cannot afford to feed themselves and their children. It was also a year to leave the land fallow to help with fertility and to offer a break from hard labor. Hence our modern use of the word “sabbatical.” Some of us still keep the Shmittah by not eating produce of the Land of Israel during the Shmittah year. In addition, debts incurred were released. In ancient times lending was only an act of charity or to help someone set up in business. The Torah did not want people to be burdened indefinitely by debt.

Then came the Yovel. In addition to the Shmittah, every 50th year, all tribal lands returned to their original owners. This was to prevent anyone monopolizing the real estate and ensuring a fair division. We don’t know if this ever happened. It required lots of conditions such as a Sanhedrin of rabbis to convene and declare it’s start. But the idea of a Jubilee, also remains part of our language.

And then the word Dror. Which is a beautiful name in Hebrew and literally means freedom but it is used this way only once in the Torah. Its only other mention is one other place in the Torah where it is applied to sweet-smelling spice. Perhaps this is the origin of the phrase “freedom is sweet”.

There is another word for freedom, Chofshi. That simply means being “let out".

There are two different dimensions to freedom. One is the act of release, the removal of an obligation. That’s, if you like, negative. It’s good in that it removes a burden. But it doesn't substitute anything positive. Dror, means a positive sense of freedom. It is the appreciation of one’s free state. And that involves an obligation to use one’s freedom well and constructively. To be able to develop our inner beings and our spirituality.

Next Wednesday is Yom Yerushalayim when we celebrate the Old City being freed in 1967. Which puts an obligation on us to appreciate having a State of our own, having reclaimed our heritage and the freedom and use it well.


Shabbat Emor

Candles - May 12th @ 7:44pm
Havdalah - May 13th @ 8:40pm

You might have heard the expression “Hillul HaShem.” Literally it means treating God’s name in a derogatory or a mundane manner. In ancient Israel, this was a very important concept. Society was predicated on Law and Order and Law and Order was based on the authority of the ruler and the ruler on earth depended on the authority of the Divine Ruler. Hence the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings.” Nowadays we no longer treat kings or Presidents that way. We are happy to criticize, insult and demean our leaders without a second thought. Similarly, many of us use the word “god” as if it was a swear word. We are careless with our actions and words.

Hillul HaShem has now come to mean something else. Desecrating God’s name means doing something that brings God or one’s religion into disrepute. As in: “See, another Jew who breaks the law. All Jews are like that. You can’t trust them.” Or internally, when non-religious Jews see an apparently Orthodox Jew behaving disreputably they will say, “See, Orthodox Jews are all hypocrites,” and use this to justify not following the Torah.

Maimonides quotes the Talmud when he says this is such a serious matter in Judaism that even Yom Kipur cannot atone for someone who causes God or Torah to be demeaned and disrespected.

The source for this is in Torah portion we read Leviticus 22:31 & 32: “You should keep My commandments (says God) and not desecrate My holy name, because I expect the people of Israel to sanctify My Name.”

When we are good human beings, we elevate God. When we misbehave, we diminish God’s influence in the world.


Shabbat Aharei Mot & Kedoshim

Candles May 5th @ 7:37pm
Havdalah May 6th @ 8:33pm

We talk about good, moral human beings and about bad, immoral ones. But how does one become a good, moral person? Is it what society expects or private decision making? Either way why do we need Torah?

Nowadays many people argue that our genes decide for us whether we are “good” or “bad.” The trouble is that if you are brought up as a Muslim, the chances are that you will probably feel and genuinely believe that Jews are bad and ought to be subjugated or removed. Did this come, does anti-Semitism come from society or from genes?

In believe the answer is both. Genes are made up of lots of different matter, good and bad. That's why we can inherit diseases as well as looks, longevity, and brains. But there is a lot we do not know about what goes into genes. Things called episomes can be affected by lots of internal and external factors. This might explain why certain character traits, characteristics of being Jewish might be passed on through our genes and why pathologies like prejudice continue. Is being good or bad passed on through our genes? Are some people automatically good and others bad? Can people change? Why don’t we all “Love our neighbors” as the Torah tells us to this week?

Judaism always claimed that we are born neutral, with a good inclination and a bad one. And we decide which one we give preference to. We are influenced by our own actions. Good ones reinforce the good in our nature and bad ones reinforce the bad. But How do we learn to become moral beings? Clearly some people want to be better others don’t.

Preaching--whether by parents, teachers, or rabbis--rarely makes a difference. We have to want to change--usually only when faced with a crisis. Most people don’t make moral decisions. The role of the Torah is to present us with alternative patterns of morality and behavior other than society and selfish genes. We choose if they matter enough to us. Any good decision involves weighing up alternatives. This is why the Torah presents us with a range of ethical and practical laws and says if we really want to be good people, here is a menu of what it takes and how we should act.