Shabbat Shoftim

Candles - Friday, August 25th @ 7:19pm
Havdalah - August 26th @ 8:12pm

The term Toevah, that I referred to last week, is applied here to “anyone who practices divination, astrology, omens, sorcery, charms or enquires after the dead” (Devarim 18:9-12).

All of this is something disapproved of by the Torah because of its association with idolatry. From its condemnation, the Torah stresses time and again that our lives should not be governed by magic or superstition. Instead we should develop a direct relationship with God. The way to do that is by living a God like life.

Having faith in God directly contradicts having faith in magic and its various branches. By knowing from the start what God expects of us. There are no surprises or weird, unpredictable spells.

Yet throughout Jewish history, we have continuously followed astrology, mediums, sorcerers and others who claim to know the future or protect against the present and the past. Even the Talmud refers to spells, magic formulae and cures. Even if Maimonides consistently says that this only reflects the credulity and ignorance of ordinary people. We Jews have continuously turned our backs on God and preferred delusions, illusions, false gods and prophets.

Why? Because most people feel insecure, lack faith and therefore need certainties, substitutes, crutches and placebos.

What is the difference between faith and superstition? Superstition is the belief that the world is random. It is full of competing gods and energies and one can never know what or when things will go wrong. But if one can find the right spell, the right formula and the secret, then one will be protected. If a black cat crosses one’s path, or a mirror breaks or a candle blows out, then regardless of any other factor, bad things will happen to us. But with the right antidote one can change one’s luck.

Being rational means knowing that actions are caused, even if we do not always see what has caused them.

Luck, mazal, on the other hand, means that there are forces in the universe that one has no control over, the sun, the moon, the stars. Just as we do not have control over the actions of crazy, or drunk or deranged evil people. The only thing we do have control over to some degree at least are our actions, what we do and how we live. And here we have been given the rules.

We know how to behave to get the best out of ourselves and life and be good people. That is what having faith means. Not doing the illogical, the magical, the nonsensical in the vain hope that these can have any effect. We need cures sometimes. But we ought not to need placebos. Having faith means that we can cope with whatever happens whether it is through our mistakes or those of others. Or just because the world we live in, runs according to its rules, not ours.


Shabbat Re’eh

Friday, August 18 - Candles @ 7:29pm
August 19 - Havdalah @ 8:23pm
Rosh Hodesh Ellul Tuesday & Wednesday

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the word used in the Torah, toevah, which is often translated as abomination. This is a very strong word of condemnation. And it is used in regard to homosexual acts in the Torah as well as lots of other situations. Some rabbis have argued that this use, proves how exceptional and heinous the issue is. I and others have argued it is a misuse and misunderstanding of the word toevah and this and last week’s Torah reading proves it.

Last week the Torah said that any gold and silver taken from pagan tribes should not be used because it is a toevah. This week when the laws of what we can and cannot eat, the Torah also uses the word toevah. Later on, (24.4) the Torah will say that a man who has divorced his wife, if she then remarries and divorces, he may not re-marry her for it is a toevah. The Torah disapproves of trading in wives, wife swapping.

The word toevah (amongst seven terms in the Torah of disapproval) is to differentiate Judaism from pagan customs both in general and specifically, without actually implying that one is either better or worse, of that there is anything intrinsically wrong or bad about silver and gold, or non-kosher animals or sexual activity in itself. The issue is how these actions can be and are abused. The implication is that there is nothing intrinsic, food or sex is not bad or wrong. Context is what defines an act.

In Bereishit it says that Egyptians would not sit down to eat a meal with the Sons of Jacob because the Egyptians considered it a toevah (Genesis 43.32). In Proverbs the word is used to describe hypocrisy or vain prayers.

I mention this not to imply that the Torah considers homosexuality normative. It sees heterosexuality as the norm for its capacity to reproduce. But that does not mean that it is any different to any law in the Torah which God requires of us. Anything can be called a toevah if it contravenes a general law. This why the Talmud (Nedarim 51a) says that the word toevah means Toe Ata Ba, you are mistaken. Mistaken in what? In assuming this is Torah normative when in fact it is exceptional.

But there may always be exceptions, circumstances beyond our control, like genes, physical conditioning, force majeur, that call for understanding and tolerance. Humans are created differently even if the law deals in generalities. As we say in the Talmud Oness patra ley Rahmanah (Avodah Zara 54a). The Almighty excuses those who are driven by forces beyond their control.


Shabbat Eykev

Candles - Friday, August 11th @ 7:39pm
Havdalah - August 12th @ 8:33pm

Six times in the Book of Devarim, the Torah refers to how wonderful the Land of Israel is. As a land “flowing (or better oozing) with milk and honey.”

In addition, in this week’s reading in Chapter 11.10. the Torah adds “The Land you are coming into is not like Egypt where when you plant you have to irrigate like a vegetable garden. The land you are coming into has hills and valleys and is watered by the rains. It is a land that God looks out for all the time. From the beginning of the year until the end.”

But the Torah also says in what became the second paragraph of the Shema, that God could shut off the supply of rain, close the heavens. Fruitfulness depended on the people and how they behaved. The Torah re-iterates that is not that we were, are, so good that we were given the land. But that the previous custodians failed!

We are so used to rational scientific approaches to the land, to GMO crops, to climate control, de-salination and technical ways of solving our problems. Important as they are, human intervention can be destructive as well as beneficial. We need a spiritual, a Divine, dimension to act as a check and balance to humanity’s “overweening pride and arrogance.”


Shabbat Vaethanan, Shabbat Nahamu

Candles Friday Aug. 4th @ 7:45pm
Havdalah Aug. 5th @ 8:40pm

The second time the Ten Commandments are mentioned, at the end of the forty years, there are some minor differences. Such as “Keep the Shabbat” instead of “Remember the Shabbat.“ Or “In order that He will be good to you” which is added in the second version of the command to honor one’s parents. “And do not commit adultery,” whereas in the first version it is simply “Do Not.” But those relating to God remain exactly the same.

Yet there is a debate amongst the early masters after the Talmud as to whether the first statement “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt” counts as a command or not. Maimonides says yes, but Hilchot Gedolot says no.

I have always thought it strange that there is no command in the Torah that says, “You must believe in the Lord your God.” And from a philosophical point of view this makes sense. You can command someone to do something. But how can you command someone to believe anything? How can you check if they really do? Naturally this doesn’t take anything away from the fact that God underpins everything in Jewish life. Without Divine presence, Divine history, Divine Law there would be nothing to set ourselves apart from most other religions and cultures.

But the question remains, if there is no command to believe in God. What is there?

God simply says “I am.” That means there is something there that we need to relate to. But how do we? Some of us are rational, some mystical, some brilliant, others average. There are so many different ways of relating to life and reality. It is up to each one of us. We are challenged to find our way to encounter God, within the only parameter the Torah gives, that there is only one God. That remains unmovable and immutable throughout life on earth. The rest is up to us.

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, in which we are promised that despite all the terrible things that happen to us, even things we bring upon ourselves, God will still comfort us and stand by us.