Shabbat Beha'aloteha

Candles - June 1st @ 8:01 pm
Havdalah - June 2nd @ 8:57 pm

One of the challenges of reading the Torah in our modern world is that the Torah was not given or written under the same sort of rules as we are used to now. For example, the Torah does not always follow a logical sequence. The Talmud says “Ein Me’oochar Umukdam BaTorah.” The Torah does not necessarily follow chronological order. Every text can be interpreted differently. Prophecy in the Torah, for example, works on lots of different levels with different people. It does not always mean the same thing. The Torah often wants a message to be more important than the facts.

This week we will read about Moses asking his father-in-law to come with them into the Promised Land. And Jethro politely declines. Moses repeats the offer. And we don't know what happened. Did he go or did he stay? Except that later Jethro’s family did join the Israelites.

But earlier in Exodus 18:27 Jethro came to visit Moses and brought his wife and children in the first year of the Exodus. He says how much he identifies and accepts God. And he gave Moses advice to appoint seventy elders to help him. He then went home. Now a year later he seems to be back. And this time, it is God who tells Moses to appoint the seventy elders.

Is it a coincidence that the two issues, Jethro joining or going and the seventy elders are brought together, once in Exodus and now, here? Were these two separate incidents or the same? We don’t know for certain.

In reality the facts matter less than the idea. Even in our day different people see the same events differently. But it is still possible to agree on a message. When things happen, they are the result of a combination of several different factors, perspectives and situations. In psychology it is called Gestalt. You take the wider picture instead of focusing on details.

Perhaps it was God’s inspiration that led to Jethro’s advice. Perhaps he wanted to go but changed his mind. There are lots of possibilities. What matters are the ideas. There are options and we have ability to choose. And we pray for God to help us make the right decisions.


Shabbat Naso

Candles - Friday, May 25th @ 7:58pm
Havdalah - May 26th @ 8.51pm

The third book of the Torah, the Book of Vayikra, is often called the Priestly Book, Torat Cohanim. Because it focuses mainly on the priests and their role in the Tabernacle. The Book of Bamidbar also mentions the role of the priests, including the well-known blessing that they still give to us all.

The difference in the two books is that in Bamidbar the emphasis is more on the individual. It is primarily concerned historically with the events that led to the Children of Israel being unprepared to enter the Promised Land in their second year of freedom and being sent back into the desert for forty years. And apart from the rebellions of those forty years, it adds few new laws. These focus on personal behavior. On knowing the spirit of the law and what happens when one tries to ignore it.

Naso contains two important laws. The first concerning a Nazirite is about when people choose to live a stricter life than the Torah commands. It raises the idea that being more religious is something we should all strive for. But that it is not always a good or healthy idea. Each person decides how far he or she wishes to go beyond the requirement of the law. It's a fine line and open to abuse. Because can think that being stricter automatically means they are better. And it does not.

The Second law, of the Sotah, is also about how far you go in trusting people. It concerns the breakdown of a marriage where the partners no longer trust each other even where there has been no actual betrayal. What both these laws teach us is that although there is a clear constitution and laws, very often the spirit is just as important as the actual law itself.

Without the spirit, a law can be a dead letter. If the previous book was concerned with the details of how to be a good priest and a pure person, this book underlines the idea of how important the spirit is. Everything may look good on the surface. But underneath it may not be.

This was what was lacking when the Israelites first emerged from slavery. It took a long time to learn how to live according to the spirit. In fact, the whole book has this theme of betrayal. Betrayal of God and each other.

Relationships with human beings and with God require goodwill and good intent, not just going through the motions.


Shabbat BaMidbar

Shabbat Candles - Friday, May 18th @ 7:49pm
Shavuot Candles - Saturday, May 19th @ 8:45pm
Shavuot - Sunday, May 20th and Monday, May 21st
Services Sunday and Monday @ 9:30am

We start the fourth book of the Torah Bamidbar (The Desert) optimistically with preparations to invade Canaan. But sadly, the Children of Israel are turned back to spend forty years wandering in the desert. Those forty years are passed over very quickly with little comment. There are several lessons. In life one often faces setbacks. Things do not always work out the way we expect. But if we maintain our vision and long term goals, spending time rebuilding our confidence may be painful, but the process can be curative. We should not despair. Even setbacks, or periods of retrenchment, that seem negative, can be beneficial in the end. Whether the challenges come from our own failings or from irrational hatred and prejudice, even if the whole world seems to be against us, a period in the desert, BaMidbar, may do us a lot of good.

Shavuot, like all Biblical festivals, has three levels of meaning. The first is the agricultural, the harvest festival and first fruits which played such an important part of ancient life. But are just as important nowadays in providing us with food. Even if we ‘rich world’ city dwellers take it all for granted and have little idea of what farm life is really like. One is at the mercy of nature. Good harvests may be followed by terrible ones. That is why the need for spiritual support becomes crucial. Both in the hopes of avoiding disaster and in praying for nature to function normally. We take all this for granted most of the time.

Secondly, there is the national dimension. Shavuot is the anniversary of receiving the Torah on Sinai. Regardless of when or how it happened, it is our constitution. Our contribution to the world. Our lifeline as the core of our Jewish identity.

And finally, the personal, the need to value every moment of our lives. To be aware, alert and proactive. We have counted 49 days since Pesah, seven weeks. Self-awareness, by making every day count, every day of our lives important, to grow as people, to strive to be better. This is why counting the days to Shavuot is a discipline that helps train us to think more. This is Shavuot’s message as well.


Shabbat Behar & Behukotai

Candles - May 11th @ 7:42 pm
Havdalah - May 12th @ 8.38pm
Mevarhin Rosh Hodesh Iyar

This week adds a new ethical imperative, a law against hurting other human beings. The prohibition of Ona’ah. Making someone else suffer either through actions, unfair business activities or abusive language. Both in this regard and in last weeks “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” the sentence concludes with the declaration “I Am God.” In other words, we should do something that is right because God said so, not because we think so.

Why and how do we decide that something is right?

Two English thinkers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed the idea of Utilitarianism, that seeking good for a society requires that something, some action will benefit the greatest number within a society. But in his book “Utilitarianism” Mill goes further and says that those actions are right in the degree to which they promote happiness. And wrong if they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. Happiness is intended to give pleasure, and the absence of pain; and unhappiness is pain, and the denial of pleasure. This was how the American Declaration of Independence came to include the words"Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But what is happiness? Many people interpret it differently. And sometimes doing the right thing does not make one happy. Like visiting a sick person in a hospital. And if we take avoiding pain literally we will never have an inoculation or an operation. As for pleasure, some take pleasure in harming others. Should we go by what the majority wants? That too can be dangerous. Most Germans were in favor of killing Jews barely 80 years ago. What about those who think it is good to destroy Israel? This why many thinkers tried to modify utilitarianism to talk about benefit rather than pleasure. But then who decides on benefit? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot?

This why the Torah says that loving one’s neighbor and not oppressing another human should not be done because they make sense, or benefit us in return. But because there is an objective code, from a force greater than human beings and what humans think is right. We need God. We need a standard that cannot be fiddled with.


Shabbat Emor

Candles - May 5th @ 7:35pm
Havdalah - May 5th @ 8:31pm

Morning Service @ 9:30am
Mothers Day parents and children Shabbat
lunch (11:45am) and play

The part of the Torah we read this week is also the one we most commonly have on festivals. It contains is the most comprehensive of all the lists of festivals in the Torah.

The list of festivals starts off with Shabbat. But the Torah also calls all festivals a Shabbat. Yom Kipur is Shabbat Shabbaton, the Shabbat of all Shabbatot. The Jewish calendar is marked by months and years. But also, by weeks and days. The list includes the command to count the days and weeks of the Omer from Pesah to Shavuot which we are in the middle of now. Seven weeks, forty-nine days.

Each festival brings a new experience. Just as Shabbat is a break in our weekly lives, so festivals introduce some new seasonal or historical experience. Concerned with recognizing nature and our historical tradition. The Omer is clearly agricultural, seasonal. The time from the barley harvest till the wheat. But why is it so important today?

I think it is because the Omer introduces us to another layer of spirituality. There are the big events, the major festivals. In between, we mark the months. All of this s to make us more aware, of nature, our lives and the need to break routines. But how do we measure our days? Shabbat is important to ensure that we have one spiritual day in our weeks. What about every other day? Isn’t every day important in its own way? The whole business of counting, every evening for forty-nine evenings, forty-nine, days reminds us to remember and to value our days, every day.

As with most things, we know it all in theory. The Torah pushes us to do something to show we know, we care and we value. Every little day. Not just the big ones.

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