Thursday, December 14, 2006

Small Jars And Chanukah (VaYeshev 5767)

Last week, I spoke about the events just before Yaakov encountered the ‘man’ with whom he wrestled all night before he met his brother Esav:

He arose that night and took his two wives his two maid-servants, his eleven children and he crossed the Yabok ford. He took them and led them across the river. He took across that which was his. Yaakov remained alone and a man wrestled with him until dawn. He saw that he could not beat him, so he touched the top of his thigh. He dislocated the top of Yaakov’s thigh when he wrestled with him. (BeReishit 32:24-26)

I mentioned the perplexing Talmudic tradition that the reason Yaakov was left alone was because he remained to retrieve some small jars that he had left behind:

Yaakov remained alone - Said Rebbi Elazar: he remained for small jars. From here we learn that the property of the righteous is dearer to them than their bodies. Why to this extent? Because they do not stretch out their hands to steal. (Chullin 91a)

The confluence of ideas with Chanukah is irresistible. We know that when the Hasmoneans entered the Temple to rededicate it after their victory over the Greek-Syrians, they found only one small jar of oil with its seal of purity intact; from this the Temple Menorah miraculously burned for eight days until new oil was available. Is there any connection between the two events (Yaakov’s jars and the jars of Chanukah)?

In the more esoteric teachings we find a link. It is well-known that one of the points of contention between the Jews and their antagonists at the time of the Chanukah miracle was the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds. The Greeks, at best, acknowledged the existence of a higher realm, but did not accept that man was capable, through his actions, of ‘unlocking’ the spirituality from everything in the physical world. In their view, the Torah was not a manual for Man’s meaningful use of the all the resources in the world (thereby associating them with their supernal roots), but a classic of literature. The Torah could sit in the great libraries of the world among the ‘greats’ but could never be considered the tool with which Man could connect his world with the Divine. The Jewish view, antithetical to this is exemplified by a Chassidic approach to the verse (from the Hallel) psalms:

The heavens – the heavens are for God, but the earth He gave to the children of Man. (Tehillim 115:16)

The reason the two phrases are juxtaposed is to teach that while the heavens are for God, Man is given the earth to make it into heaven (i.e. imbue it with spirituality through his actions, as regulated by the Torah). (Attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe and others)

This programme, so antithetical to the ideology of the Hellenists and their Greek masters, was as radical in ancient times as it seems to people today. It involves appreciating that everything, without exception, has a purpose, as well as developing a concomitant realisation that if one has been given something by God, one must need it to fulfil one’s ultimate purpose.

The ability of Yaakov to remain across the river from his family, facing significant danger to rescue something small and seemingly insignificant was a crucial moment in Jewish history. By so doing he invested his descendents with the capacity to find potential in everything, a key feature of the Jewish enterprise. The sources indicate that the oil of Chanukah symbolises the same dedication – the victory of our ancestors over their Greek oppressors was a triumph for this concept over the enemy’s Weltanschauung, which rejected the possibility of spirituality in the physical world. Simple oil can be turned so easily into light and heat, unlocking vast and previously unrecognised potential. Perhaps this is why it is the symbol of Chanukah and our inspiration in the night of exile.

I would like to thank an anonymous reader for correcting a typo in an earlier edition of this essay.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Dwelling With Lavan (VaYishlach 5767)

Yaakov sent messengers to Esav his brother towards the Land of Se’ir, the field of Edom. He instructed them saying: thus says your servant Yaakov: I dwelt with Lavan and I have delayed until now. (BeReishit 32:4-5)

Why did Yaakov need to inform his brother that in the many years of his absence, he had lived with uncle Lavan? After all, he had been sent there by his parents. The range of views expressed in answer to this question is testimony to the ingenuity of the classic commentators, each of whom work with a different nuance in the text:

I dwelt with Lavan - as you knew, by the instruction of my father and my mother, so that he should not think that he ran away because of him. (Rashbam ad. loc.)

The Rashbam assumes that Yaakov wishes to convey the reason, not the fact, of his sojourn with Lavan. The use of the verb ‘lagur’ – to dwell temporarily, is also the focus of Rashi comment:

I didn’t become a leader or an important person, rather a stranger - thus it is not appropriate to hate me for your father’s blessings, with which he blessed me: you will be a supporter of your brother, for it has not been fulfilled in me. (Rashi ad. loc.)

Rashi differs from the Rashbam in that he emphasises the fact that he only stayed with Lavan as a visitor and never amounted to very much there. Chizkuni has a rather different view, one of three that he offers (one is the same as the Rashbam).

(1) I dwelt with Lavan - do not be surprised how everything that I have came to me, for I was with Lavan our uncle. If I had dwelt with another unrelated man, I would have had nothing. (2) Alternatively, I dwelt with Lavan - as you knew, by the instruction of my father and my mother, so that he should not think that he ran away because of him. (3) Alternatively, so that he should have nothing against him for not having greeted him for these 20 years, for he was a hired worker.

The first offering of the Chizkuni is the opposite to that of Rashi – Yaakov was explaining not the fact that he was poor, but that he was successful!

Finally, the Midrashic explanation of Rashi, which has become the most well-known comment on the verse, reads the word ‘garti’ (I dwelled) as an anagram:

Alternatively, ‘garti’ is 613 in numerical value, to say that I lived with Lavan the wicked one, and I observed the 613 Mitzvot, for I did not learn from his evil ways. (Rashi ad. loc.)

In other words, Yaakov challenged Esav by reminding him that he was not a ‘push over’; after all, he has survived many years with Uncle Lavan.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Essay In New Chanukah Book

Readers may be interested to hear that I have an essay in a new ArtScroll book, which is to be published tomorrow.

Please see Inspiring Lights.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Voice And The Hands (Toldot 5767)

The central theme of this week’s parashah is the transfer of the blessings from Yitzhak. Yaakov, dressed in skins to impersonate the hirsute Esav, approached his father, with the view to receiving the blessing intended for his brother. When Yitzhak encountered him (remember that he was blind), we are told:

Yitzhak said to his son - what is this that you have arrived speedily my son? He replied: the Lord your God has made it happen before me. Yitzhak said to Yaakov: please approach so that I may feel you my son. Are you my son Esav or not? Yaakov approached Yitzhak his father and he felt him. He said: the voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav. He did not recognise him as his hands were hairy like Esav’s hands, and he blessed him. (BeReishit 27:20-23)

The nature of the ‘voice’ and the ‘hands’ mentioned in this familiar verse has interested commentators throughout the ages. Rashi understands the ‘voice’ not as the tone of voice distinguishing Yaakov from Esav, but the manner of speaking:

Yitzhak thought: it is not Esav’s way to have God’s name flowing from his mouth, but this one said: the Lord your God has made it happen…. He spoke in a beseeching tone – ‘please get up’, but Esov spoke in a confrontational manner – ‘get up dad.’ (Rashi ad. loc.)

Yaakov may have successfully impersonated the timbre of Esav’s voice, but failed to capture his manner of speaking. This explanation is continued by HaKetav VeHaKabballah (19th c. Germany):

It seems to me that these brothers had similar voices, so Yitzhak was not afraid of recognising the voice. The explanation is that the main meaning of the word ‘kol’ is revelation, for the hidden thought is revealed through the utensils of speech. (HaKetav VeHaKabballah ad. loc.)

Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson and a great advocate of simple explanation) offers a simple rendition:

The voice is the voice of Yaakov - as they were twins, their voices were somewhat similar, thus Yitzhak was confused by his voice since he found him to be a man with a hairy neck. (Rashbam ad. loc.)

There are many Midrashic reading, which ascribe cosmic significance to the ‘hands’ and ‘voice’. In these readings, the voice of Yaakov is a spiritual entity, whereas the hands of Esav indicate a predilection to violence and conquest. Here are a few examples:

The voice is the voice of Yaakov. The voice is a voice of wisdom, yet the hands send death. Another reading - the voice is the voice of Yaakov - Yaakov only has control with his voice…. The hands are the hands of Esav, for Esav only controls with his hands…. Rebbi Yehudah bar Ilay expounded: the voice is the voice of Yaakov, which cries out from what the hands of Esav have done to him. Said Rebbi Yochanan: the voice of Emperor Hadrian, who killed 80,000 myriads of people at Betar. (BeReishit Rabbah 65:20-21)

There is no successful prayer that does not involve a descendent of Yaakov. The hands are the hands of Esav - there is no victorious war that does not involve a descendent of Esav. (Gittin 57b)

We conclude with an interesting reading by the Maharal:

The voice is the voice of Yaakov but the hands are the hands of Esav. This is to say that Yaakov has the power of the voice, which emerges from the inner part of Man, but Esav has the hands and there is nothing more external than the hands, which extend outwards. The inner voice prevails over the external hands. (Ohr Chadash 103)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Of Bracelets And Tablets (Chayey Sarah 5767)

Most of this week’s reading deals with the mission of Eliezer to find a wife for his master’s son Yitzhak. When he felt that he had found the right woman, he gave her some gifts, ostensibly to making her more amenable to accompanying him home:

And it was when the camels finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring, a beka in weight and two bracelets on her hands - their weight was ten shekalim. (BeReishit 24:22)

The rabbinical sources put great emphasis on these gifts and their deeper significance. Rashi, quoting a Midrash, notes:

Beka - a hint to the shekalim of Yisrael, a beka per head. Two bracelets - a hint to the two tablets which were connected. Their weight was ten shekalim - a hint to the Ten Commandments which were upon them. (Rashi loc. cit.)

This Rashi needs a little explanation. Every male was required to make an annual donation to the Temple of one half-shekel, which equated to a beka. The Hebrew word for bracelets is ‘tzimidim’, which also connotes things that are stuck tightly together. This, together with their weight, is understood to hint to the two joined tablets, which contained the Ten Commandments.

The later sources view this source as part of a body of literature based on the idea of maaseh avot siman levanim – the events of the lives of the ancestors are a microcosmic harbinger of the events destined to happen to the Jewish people in the future. Rabbenu Bachya (mediaeval thinker from the school of the Ramban) adopts this line of thinking.

All of the things which happened to Rivkah were a sign to her children. The events which occurred to the servant in his success on route indicate the events which would happen to her children on route in the desert. Just as the angel was with him on route through the power of Avraham’s prayer so we find with her children on route in the desert.... Just as the waters rose to meet her, so it would be for her descendent in the desert. The servant who gave her these gifts hinted thereby to her, that just as she received these gifts through a servant, so would her children in the future receive the Torah through Moshe, the servant of God - who was the faithful servant with all of the good of his master in his hand. Just as he gave her many gifts, some on route and some in the house (those on route were the gold nose-ring a beka in weight and two bracelets on her hands - their weight was ten shekalim so her children brought shekalim in the desert and received the two tablets of the covenant in which are the ten commandments. Just as he gave her gifts in the house, apart from those which he gave her on route (the servant brought out silver vessels and gold vessels) so her children in the land of Moav, close to coming to the land, were given many Mitzvot (Rabbenu Bachya)

The Maharal takes a different line:

If you ask - why did he hint to these Mitzvot (the half-shekel, etc) more than to any other? It seems that he saw that she acted kindly and he hinted to her further about the Divine service and the Torah with the two bracelets on her hands… making three things - upon which the world stands - Torah, Divine service and kindness. He hinted to her than she was one person in whom lay all three. Further - these three things are found in Yisrael…. Yisrael came from the forefathers. Eliezer hinted to her that since she had performed acts of kindness, it was fitting that the blessed seed, in which these three things would be manifest, should come from her; they are the support of the world. (Maharal, Gur Aryeh)

However one reads the story, the meaning of the Midrash is clear – Eliezer saw in Rivkah all the desirable attributes of the mother of the Jewish people; he gave her gifts to indicate what kind of nation would eventually emerge from her family.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Wash Your Feet (VaYera 5767)

When begging his unexpected guests to accept his hospitality, Avraham asked them to wash their feet before resting in the shade of a nearby tree. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, notes the reason for this odd request; he was concerned that his three visitors were idolatrous nomads, committed to worshipping the dust on their feet. Repulsed by the notion of admitting even the faintest association with idolatry to his house, Avraham asked them to rinse the dust from their feet before entering. We chuckle as we read this Rashi, confident that early idolaters must have been complete fools for believing that the dust on their feet had some kind of divine power. How could anyone be so stupid? This raises a broader question – we read much in the Torah about idol-worshippers and their encounters with the embryonic Jewish people. Is it true that they were nothing more than coarse, man-made images; their devotees no more than irrational primitives? This seems unlikely, particularly as to qualify as idolatry, an act must involve a concomitant declaration on the part of the idolater that he regards the focus of his act as his god. This requires recognition that the idol possesses power and manifests aspects of divinity. Did the ancients believe that carved images had these qualities? It seems highly improbable. Why then was the dust on the visitors’ feet so important to them?

The Ben Ish Chai offers an attractive interpretation. He posits that before embarking on a journey, the ancient idolater would visit his temple to offer sacrifices to his god to invoke the deity’s presence on route. He prayed that the god would accompany him during his expedition, protecting him until he had reached his destination. In the mind of the idolater, he would follow the spirit of his god, which would walk ahead of him, so that every step he took in the dust had previously been trodden by his god When he arrived safely at the end of his journey, he expressed thanks to his god by worshipping the dust on his feet, which was the most tangible representation of his deity’s presence during his travels. Only then would he rinse his feet after his journey. According to this analysis, the dust, rather than being a god itself, carried an important association with his deity the idolater. It became sanctified through contact with the god, rather being a source of power in its own right. We find this explanation easier to comprehend than the possibility that the idolater may have regarded the dust itself as a god. The Rambam commences his legal code on this subject with an overview of the history and development of idolatry.

Perhaps his reader, living in a post-classical-idolatry world, would find it hard to relate to the subject matter that follows without such an introduction. He writes that in the times of Enosh, people made the first in a series of errors that led humanity towards full-blown idolatry. The leaders of the generation noted that God had apportioned honour to the sun and moon by giving them very significant roles in creation. Hence, they reasoned, it must also be the will of God for human kind to likewise honour them, by building temples in which to bring offerings to them. At this stage, they worshipped God indirectly, by relating to His ‘servants’, the luminaries. After some time had elapsed, false prophets arose, who claimed that God had instructed them to build temples and bring offerings to a particular star. Once these were built, it was only a small step to the claim that the star itself had spoken to the prophets, was capable of independent thought and thus made religious demands on the people. At this stage, the link to the one God was broken and idolatry spread throughout the world. Whole generations of children grew up oblivious to the existence of God, completely indoctrinated into the ways of the idols and their temple cults.

Perhaps a single theme underlies the whole of this dismal progression; Man finds it extremely hard to relate to a transcendent, invisible God. He seems so distant and unapproachable. It is attractive to anthropomorphise God, thereby making Him seem more ‘human’ and hence within reach. Judaism, however, understands that Man has the capacity to overcome this challenge and to form a real relationship with God, despite His apparent inaccessibility. The need to create an image of the divine that can be grasped by mere mortals has characterised religious systems throughout history. This idea enables us to achieve a more mature understanding of our subject.

The Maharal observes that the prophet (II Melachim 1:3) refers to ‘the master of the fly - god of Ekron’– indicating that there were people who worshipped the fly as a god. What quality does a fly exhibit that one should possibly feel in awe of it? The Maharal notes that people believed that they could not create a relationship with the holy God, so instead chose something mundane, as unholy entity, to which they could relate. Since this entity was closer to their own experience and world, they felt that they could find religious meaning and expression through it. Some chose the fly, others, apparently, chose dust. These represented forces in the non-physical world, rather than ends in themselves. The dust is a particularly interesting case, for it is the lowest physical part of the earth. The idolater felt that he could best reach out to the Divine by grasping the layer of experience just beyond his own – the lowest dimension of the spiritual world. This was represented by the lowest element of the physical world – the dust itself.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Shabbat In LA

Shabbat was wonderful; friendly people and great weather.

On Friday night I spoke at an Oneg Shabbat, which was held in a private home; wonderful, attentive people and very friendly hosts.

Shabbat morning, I was the guest of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, a small and friendly community which is in temporary premises while they rebuild. The only excitement was that they forgot to bring the Sefer Torah to the temporary location, so we had to wait while they borrowed one from another Shul (thank goodness for the eruv). The result was two sermons!

My final speaking engagement of the tour was at Se'udah Sh'lishit, where I spoke at Young Israel of Century City, which is where I have been davening each day since I arrived in LA. The very large crowd heard me launch the book and speak about the rainbow and diversity.

The week over, I am booked on the midnight flight back home.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday - Last School

After a day off, which I spent at the Getty Center and the Skirball Cultural Center, I returned today to 'work', with my final school lecture at Shalhevet High School in LA. Interesting place, with attentive kids and an unusual outlook.

Tonight, I will be the guest speaker at an Oneg Shabbat in a private home.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Wednesday - Two Large Schools in LA

Today I spoke at two large schools in the main Jewish area of LA, accompanied by Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, director of the Orthodox Union West Coast Region, which has sponsored my visit to the USA. Both of these schools have adopted the 60 days project.

First, I visited the girls division of Yeshiva University High School, where I spoke to 95 11th and 12th graders. I then moved to Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, where I launched the book to a co-ed audience of 8th graders, who were quite a rambunctious lot.

Tomorrow is a day off.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tuesday Evening In Calabasas

This evening I spoke for two communities in Calabasas, a suburb of LA about 30 mins from where I am staying near Beverly Hills. First was Young Israel of Calabasas, where I launched the book at their attractive small Shul. I then went on to the Calabasas Shul, where I repeated the performance at the home of one of the members of the community. 25-30 at each event, responsive and engaged audiences, and they even laughed at my jokes!

For those who are interested, I discovered that the kosher supermarket close to my hotel sells outstanding sushi at $5 a box.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Monday - San Diego And Irvine

San Diego has small high schools for Jewish children; this morning I had the pleasure of visiting first the Torah High School of San Diego for girls and then the Southern California Yeshivah High School for boys. Despite their very long names, they each have only around 30 kids, who were enthusiastic, polite and attentive.

I was then driven to Irvine, a smaller community 90 minutes north of San Diego, where I spent the afternoon (shopping).

In the evening, I was the guest of Beth Jacob of Irvine, where I launched the book project. The evening was quite well attended and the people were friendly and attentive. The rabbi had even used one of my books for a learning project and asked me to autograph it!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Sunday - Arrival And First Lecture

I am lecturing in Southern California on behalf of Tribe (Young United Synagogue) to coincide with the launch of the Holocaust memorial learning project '60 days for 60 years,' renamed for the US market as '60 days for 6 million.'

I shall try to give readers a taste of what I have been doing and where I have been. This is my first trip to the West Coast of the USA.

I arrived in San Diego to discover that the weather is hot and sunny. Spoke at Beth Jacob of San Diego to launch the book. Very friendly rabbi and community; several survivors in the audience. About 50 people came; a relatively quiet start.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Let Us Make Man (BeReishit 5767)

In a Sedrah that covers far more time than the whole of the rest of the Torah, it is not hard to find something of interest to share for this Shabbat. When creating Man, God said:

Let us make man in our form and like our image and he will rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the animals, all the earth and all the creatures which creep upon the earth. And God created the man in his image - in the image of God He created him; male and female He made them. (BeReishit 1:26-27)

Of course, God doesn’t have a ‘form’ in the way that human beings do; one of the Rambam’s axioms of Judaism is that God is utterly devoid of any properties of physicality. It clearly means that Man is capable of emulating God in some aspects of his experience. We are capable of ‘imitation dei’ – being like God.

The plural usage in the phrase ‘let us make man in our form and like our image’; has perplexed thinkers in all eras. Dualists have even used it as a ‘proof’ for their view of the world – after all, doesn’t this verse indicate that there is more than one Divine force? The Midrashic literature is well aware of the dangers inherent in the text.

Rebbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rebbi Yonatan, ‘when Moshe wrote down the Torah, he wrote the occurrences of each day (of Genesis). When he reached the verse which says: God said let us make man, he said before Him: Master of the world, why are You giving an opportunity for the heretics to speak? I am astonished. He replied to him: write and let one who wants to err, err....’ (BeReishit Rabbah 8:8)

What idea was so important that conveying it justified risking perversion of the Torah’s text? There are, predictably, numerous answers to this question. With whom did God consult? Here are some, but there are many others. First, a view from Chazal:

And God said let us make man. With whom did He consult? Rebbi Yehoshua said in the name of Rebbi Levi: He consulted with the work of heaven and earth.... (BeReishit Rabbah 8:3)

In this view, all of creation is harnessed to the creation of Man. When God ‘consults’, he is indicating that Man is the pinnacle and purpose of His creation. Here are two quite different views from classic commentators:

The correct explanation for the word ‘let us make’ is for it has already been proven that God only created ex nihilo on the first day, but after that, He formed and made from the elements which were already created. When he put into the water the ability to make it swarm with living creeping things, this was the statement, ‘let the waters swarm. The statement for the animals is, ‘let the earth bring forth.’ It says about man, ‘let us make,’ that is to say that I and the aforementioned earth shall make man, that the earth should bring forth the body from its elements, just as it did with the animals and beasts, as it says, ‘God formed man , dust from the earth.’ But God put in the spirit directly from on high, as it says, ‘and the breathed into his nostrils the living soul.’ (Ramban ad loc)

The Ramban adapts the above Midrash to demonstrate the uniqueness of Man’s creation.

Since the attributes of God’s mercy are thirteen and the name of God, ‘Elokim’, which is strict justice, agreed together to create man and they together said, ‘in our form and like our image’, perhaps what is intended is that he has in him both aspects of mercy and strict justice to result in ways of justice and ways of strict justice, as was intended. This is the deep meaning behind the verse, ‘and Lord God formed...’ (Ohr HaChayim ad loc)

The more esoteric picture offered here sees Man invested with a complex mixture of Divine forces.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Quotation From William James (Shemini Atzeret 5767)

On Shemini Atzeret I spoke about the notion of community. Some of you may be interested in the quotation I used from William James to illustrate my point:

The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Choosing A Lulav And Etrog (Sukkot 5767)

At Sukkot-time, one often sees an image of a bearded man examining an etrog with a jeweller’s loupe; those who have seen the popular Israeli film ‘Ushpizin’ will recall that selecting a beautiful etrog is a serious business.

The observance of Sukkot involves the use of four species: lulav - palm branch, etrog - citron, three myrtle sticks and two willow twigs; they are waved in devotion during the Hallel psalms. The Torah stipulates (VaYikra 23:40) that the etrog must be ‘beautiful’, but the rabbis understand beauty to be a prerequisite for all four species. Here, however, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, for the criteria of ‘beauty’ are very carefully specified in what has become a vast body of halachic literature.

So how does one select a beautiful set? Here is a very brief guide:

The lulav should be fresh and green, especially at its end. The leaves grow in pairs, all of which should be intact and together, particularly at the top. The leaves above the ‘spine’ of the lulav should be completely whole. Special attention must be paid to the central leaves.

The etrog must be undamaged, with its top (pitom) and bottom (uketz) protrusions intact. It should be as free of marks as possible, especially on the part that tapers; any black marks are particularly problematic. The etrog should be yellow, bumpy (not smooth like a lemon), with a wide lower portion narrowing symmetrically towards its pitom. Some varieties grow without a pitom; these are great for clumsy people!

The myrtles should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaves intact. Myrtle leaves appear in threes from its stalk (meshulash – tripled); each group of three leaves should emerge at the same level from the stalk, ideally along its entire length, but at least for the majority of it. The leaves should be upright and interlocking, covering the branch.

The willows too should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaf intact and the leaves in good condition. One should select a variety with long, smooth-edged leaves and red stems.

Daunted by all this? Fortunately, pre-checked items are available for the uninitiated, although one of the great pleasures of the season is selecting them oneself. As for the loupe, it isn’t necessary, as the naked eye at a normal distance will do; it is only used for resolving uncertainty.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Losing Oneself On Yom Kippur (Yom Kippur 5767)

One of the great themes of Yom Kippur is, at least for 25 intense hours, losing one’s own identity and merging it with that of the community and the entire Jewish people. We have mentioned in previous years that the role of community is crucial in the atonement process of Yom Kippur, which is why we begin Kol Nidre with an invitation to every member of the Jewish people to pray together; the incense compound included pleasant and unpleasant smelling spices, symbolising the entire people, righteous and not-so-righteous.

There is, however, another way in which one should try to ‘lose oneself’ on Yom Kippur. The Torah instructs that when the Kohen Gadol (high priest) enters the Holy of Holies:

No man shall be in the Meeting Tent when he comes to atone in the holy place, until he exits. He shall atone for himself, for his household and for the whole community of Israel. (VaYikra 16:17)

Of course, the literal meaning of the verses is that apart from the Kohen Gadol, no other person may be present during the atonement ritual in the Holy of Holies. However, the Midrash (end of Acharey Mot) questions this reading and offers a most perplexing suggestion – that no one at all, including the Kohen Gadol, should be present at this holy moment. This suggests that the Kohen, at least for a short while, transcends the physical world, and is, in some sense, not actually there; indeed the Midrash likens him at this time to an angel. The Kohen ‘merges’ with the Divine at the time when he approaches God to atone for the people; perhaps this symbolises the fact that in order to properly represent the nation, he, on their behalf, must completely submit himself to the will of God in order to achieve absolution.

This notion has other manifestations:

Said Rebbi Levi: we have a tradition about this matter from our ancestors – the ark is not included in the measurement. (Megillah 10b)

[Israel] is referred to as: the land of the deer. Just as the [flayed deer] skin [seems to be too small] for its flesh, so too the Land of Israel, when there are people living in it, it is expansive, but when there are no people living in it, it contracts. (Gittin 57a)

Ten miracles occurred for our ancestors in the Temple…. they stood squashed, but prostrated with space. (Avot 5:5)

The Ark of the Covenant was too large for the space designed for it, so it was somehow disregarded in the measurement; Israel seems far more spacious than it actually is and those who bowed in the Temple seemed to find enough space despite the crush on Yom Tov. These sources indicate that Israel, the locus of spirituality the opportunity to ‘lose’ oneself, and ‘occupy no space’ is greater than elsewhere. In Jerusalem, it is greater still, with the quintessential expression of the concept on Yom Kippur, with the Kohen in the Holy of Holies. The mystical writers refer to this phenomenon as the confluence of ‘time’, ‘space’ and ‘spirituality’, in this case Yom Kippur, the Temple and the soul of the Kohen Gadol respectively. We have this opportunity every year on Yom Kippur – to completely lose ourselves, albeit for just one day, in the Divine will. When we emerge at the end of the day, we will be changed forever.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Drashah For Shabbat Shuvah 5767

Golders Green Synagogue

41 Dunstan Road, NW11

שבת שובה תשס"ז



הרב בעלאווסקי ידרוש אי"ה בענין

סוכה בשמ"ע ואיסור בל תוסיף

Sukkah on Shemini Atzeret?

סוכה מו: - מז. ורש"י ורא"ש שם

יד הל' שופר פ"ו ה"יג

שו"ע או"ח תרס"ח ומג"א שם

סוכה מח. ורש"י ורא"ש שם

ראש השנה כח: ורש"י ותוס' שם

יד הל' ממרים פ"ב ה"ט והשגת הראב"ד שם

All Welcome

Walking The Walk And Talking The Talk (Rosh HaShanah 5767)

At this time of the year, rabbis often encourage their flock to live good lives, study Torah a little, come to Shul more frequently and generally commit to becoming exemplary members of the community. To support this, all kinds of Jewish sources are mustered to bend the congregants’ ears into submission. What does Jewish tradition really promise those who actually succeed in living a purposeful and righteous life? The Talmud offers us a brief insight:

In the ultimate future, God will make a dance-circle for the righteous and He will sit in the middle of them in the Garden of Eden. Everyone will point to God with his finger.

So after a life of righteousness, self control and altruism, what happens to our budding tzaddik when he reaches the afterlife? He gets to dance round and round and point to God, presumably for all eternity. A dance! Is that all? After an entire life dedicated to spiritual pursuits, is that the best we can hope for?

Of course, the Talmud is actually conveying a profound message in the form of an image. Regrettably, we often assume that the parables of the sages are simple fairy-tales, but if we are prepared to dig beneath the surface, we will always uncover the most uplifting concepts. As such, the dance-circle is a sophisticated image that may be understood as follows.

While it is not always apparent, there are many manifestations of Judaism – different styles of observance, degrees of engagement with the outside world and outlooks. Of course, all must be predicated on the belief in the historical truth of the revelation and the eternal imperative of Jewish law (devoid of these, of course, we don’t have Judaism at all). But part from these indispensables, there is considerable flexibility within the system. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that, within certain parameters, there are a range of possibilities. This idea is expressed beautifully by the great mediaeval thinker Ritva:

When Moses went up to receive the Torah, for every subject he was shown forty-nine ways to prohibit it, and forty-nine ways to permit it.

God Himself presented us with a religious system that recognises that we aren’t all the same and that we each need some degree of individual expression in our religious lives. Interestingly, as this flexibility is God-given, the truth (or if we like, validity) of each manifestation is not compromised, as they are each a version of the Divine will. It’s an amazing idea – rather than there being one right or wrong way to live, we need to function within parameters. As an aside, this idea should not be considered licence to consider anyone’s personal preference a legitimate expression of Judaism, as there are clearly boundaries beyond which one may not go.

In this lies a challenge, perhaps one of the most important that we will face in our lives - recognising (always within the parameters) the validity of other peoples’ views. This can be immensely difficult; we all feel comfortable with those who share our particular world-view and perspective on Judaism; less so with those with whom we differ. We are often especially poor at respecting those people whose life-style seems very alien to ours; they quite probably feel the same about us!

Yet to profit from the flexibility of the system, we must authenticate the religious expressions of others. This takes a great deal of maturity, but it is extremely rewarding. Through doing so one gains a breadth of perception, and understanding of others, a sense of love and tolerance for those with whom we disagree.

This is the meaning of the dance-circle of our original source. Note that the righteous dance in a circle, not a conga! The centre of the circle is equidistant from every part on its circumference. (As a mathematician, I can tell you that this defines a circle!) Each person on the circumference has a slightly different angle on life, a different form of traditional Judaism, yet is equidistant from God. No one is closer than any other and each can point to God and perceive Him from their perspective. But here’s the really exciting bit – as they dance round the circle, they experience the world from the viewpoint of each of the others in the circle. This is the greatest reward on offer – a direct perception of God with the maturity to appreciate the world through the eyes of others.

It would seem to take a lifetime to righteousness to reach this level of personal maturity. This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is a great time to start working on this aspect of personal growth. It is common in all parts of the community to view anyone to the ‘left’ of oneself as a dropout and any to the ‘right’ as a lunatic. Even the nomenclature ‘left’ /‘right’ is unhelpful in this quest. We are poor at tolerating difference within the observant community and mistakenly expect our children to all turn out the same way as each other. When one thinks about the extent of this problem in our families and communities, one quickly realises just how elusive the dance-circle really is. But one must try to take those first faltering steps along it: try by listening carefully to the viewpoint of a member of the Jewish community with whom one usually disagrees, consider, at least for a moment, that a man dressed in Chassidic clothes may lead a rich and sophisticated Jewish life, recognise that a child may need encouragement to express Judaism in a way different from his or her parents.

Happy Birthday World (Rosh HaShanah 5767)

Today is the birthday of the world. Today all created things in the world will stand in judgment, whether it be as children or as servants. If as children, have mercy upon us like a father upon his children. If as servants, our eyes are dependent upon You until You bring to light our judgment, awesome holy one. (Musaf, Rosh HaShanah)

This fascinating and familiar prayer, which we sing together three times during Musaf on Rosh HaShanah, gives us a remarkable insight into the way in which the great Jewish sages understood the whole notion of Rosh HaShanah.

We are so familiar with the idea that Rosh HaShanah is the ‘birthday of the world’, that we may never have stopped to think is it actually true. In fact, the status of Rosh HaShanah and whether it is actually the birthday of the world is a subject of dispute in the Talmud. Rebbi Eliezer's view is that the first of Tishrey (Rosh HaShanah) is indeed the anniversary of the creation of the world. Rebbi Yehoshua, on the other hand, understood that the world was created in Nissan. (the month in which Pesach falls).

This is an astonishing dispute. How can there be dissent about such a major issue? And if, as Rebbi Yehoshua claims, the world was created in Nissan, what is the purpose of the Rosh HaShanah which we celebrate today? How can we spend two whole days in prayer, focussed on new beginnings, blow the shofar to proclaim God King over the new world if Rosh HaShanah is not the anniversary of creation? Don’t we change the year number? (We have just moved from 5766 to 5767).

In this issue lies the key to understanding Rosh HaShanah. The great Tosfot essays (a collection of mediaeval studies on the Talmud) explains the dispute as follows. The world was indeed created in actuality in Nissan. However, it occurred to God to create it in Tishrey, but He did not actualise His plans until Nissan. What does it mean to say that God ‘plans’ to create something? Does He need time to implement the plan or to work out how to do it? This is obviously impossible. In fact, the notion that God ‘decides’ to create something is a metaphor for the projection of an ideal. Suggesting that ‘it occurred to God’ to create the universe means that God is determining and informing us what is expected of humanity. Tishrey represents pure din or justice - this means that Man is expected to merit judgment according to the Divine yardstick, which is the Torah. The reality, however, is that Mankind is fallible and needs Divine rachamim or mercy to survive at all. This is the actual creation in Nissan - the time of Divine mercy.

This tells us much about our Rosh HaShanah - we are striving for the ideal - attempting to gain such a clear vision of the Divine that we are able to live by the yardstick of Rosh HaShanah - Divine justice, rather than having to rely on Divine mercy. On the other hand, we recognise (and God validates this recognition) that we are weak human beings who fail. We may never bridge the gap between the reality and the ideal, but on Rosh HaShanah, we should be spending our time trying our utmost to do so.

This is actually indicated in the prayer with which we began. The word horat, which we translated as birthday, really means 'conception’, for 'today is the conception of the world.’ Today is the day on which the world was conceived in the perfect mind of God - and it is to that ideal which we aspire. Maybe this year we will close the space a little more; perhaps this Rosh HaShanah will inspire us to a deeper commitment to Judaism. The experience of Rosh HaShanah, during which the sovereignty of God is so palpable, should change us just a little. May we merit meaningful and fulfilling prayers, filled with awe of the Divine and the majesty of God.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Hidden Things (Nitzavim & VaYelech 5766)

The first part of this week’s parashah finishes with the well-known verse:

The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things are for us and our children to eternity to do all the words of this Torah. (Devarim 29:28)

The precise identity of these ‘hidden’ and ‘revealed’ things has perplexed the sources from the earliest times. The Ramban offers a simple reading:

The ‘hidden’ things are the sins that are concealed from those who do them, for example unknown errors. The hidden things are only for God, as we have no sin in them, but the ‘revealed’ things, which are the deliberate sins, are always our responsibility. (Ramban, loc. cit., paraphrased)

There is an additional difficulty, in that the words ‘for us and our children’ appear in the Torah with dots over each letter. This is considered to be related to the meaning of the verse:

Why are there dots over ‘for us and our children’ and the ayin of ‘ad’? To teach that they were not punished for the hidden things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan – the words of Rebbi Yehudah. Rebbi Nechemiah said to him: is one ever punished for the hidden things? Doesn’t it say: to eternity? Rather, just as one is not punished for the hidden things, so they were not punished for the revealed things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan. (Sanhedrin 43b)

This source is perplexing. It appears to read ‘hidden’ and ‘revealed’ as the hidden or revealed sins of others, thus understanding the passage to refer to the sins of others. One of the great themes of the end of Devarim is ‘arvut’ – mutual responsibility between all Jews. This didn’t begin to apply until the unifying force of the Land of Israel bound the Jews together – hence the reference to the crossing of the Jordan. Rashi’s comment on the verse is instructive here:

Isn't a man ignorant of his fellow's secrets?' I will not punish you for the inscrutable, which is the Lord our God's--- He will punish that individual. However, what is exposed is for us and our posterity, to eradicate evil from our midst. If we fail to implement justice against them, then the community will be punished. There are dots over ours and our children's to teach that, even with regard to what is exposed, the community was not punished until they had crossed the Yarden, when they obligated themselves with the oath at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, and became accountable for one another. (Rashi loc. cit.)

Rashi (which is at least partially based on the above quote from the Talmud) understands that the verse addresses the responsibility of the community for the religious performance of the individual. The verses are taken in their context, for the earlier passage refers to individuals who stray towards idolatry:

Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman or a family or a tribe whose thoughts stray today from [being] with the Lord, our God, to go serve the gods of those nations; lest there is within you a root producing gall and bitter fruit. The Lord will be unwilling to forgive him, because then the Lords’ nostrils will fume and His vengeful fury enflame against that man, and there will cling to him the entire oath-curse written in this book; and the Lord will eliminate his name from beneath the sky. (17 & 19)

The surprising thing about this text (which remains very difficult) is the assumption that at some level we are all accountable for each other and that dire consequences await those who abrogate this responsibility. While there are numerous other explanations of this passage, this one, based on Rashi and the Talmud appears to be the most common.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Gazing The Right Way (Ki Tavo 5766)

The Sedrah includes what is known as the ‘viduy ma’aserot’ – the declaration made by a Jewish farmer that he has tithed his produce correctly and met all other halachic requirements. The list of requirements is quite extensive:

When you finish tithing all the tithes of your crops in the third year, the year of tithes, you shall give it to the Levi, to the orphan and to the widow and they shall eat in you gates and be satisfied. You shall say before the Lord your God: I have removed the holy things from the house and I have also given of it to the Levi, to the orphan and to the orphan in accordance with Your commandment that you have instructed me; I have not passed over any of Your commandments nor forgotten anything. I have not eaten of it when I am in mourning, nor removed from myself in a state of impurity, nor have I given of it to the dead; I have listened to the voice of the Lord my God in accordance with everything He has commanded me. (Devarim 26:12-14)

Having assured God that he has performed all his duties correctly, the farmer offers an unusual prayer:

Gaze down from Your holy habitation from heaven and bless your people Yisrael and the land that You gave to us as You swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey. (26:15)

The word השקיפה – gaze down – is unusual and requires examination. The Mishnah remarks:

Gaze down from Your holy habitation from heaven – we have done what You decreed upon us. Now You do what You have promised us. Gaze down from Your holy habitation from heaven and bless your people Yisrael – with sons and daughters. And the land that You gave to us – with dew, rain and animal young. As You swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey – so that the fruits will be flavoursome. (Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni 5:13)

But we need to look into the Yerushalmi (there is Talmud Yerushalmi, but not Bavli, on the agricultural parts of the Mishnah) to get some insight into the meaning of the word itself:

Rebbi Huna bar Acha said in the name of Rebbi Alexandra: come and see how great is the power of those who perform a Mitzvah, for every time the word השקיפה is mentioned in the Torah, it refers to a curse, but here is refers to a blessing. (Yerushalmi Ma’aser Sheni 32b-33a)

In here lies the significance of the word השקיפה, which appears in other contexts as a negative concept – criticism and negativity. The blessing bestowed instead of the usual curse is instigated by the Mitzvah of tzedakah that precedes the prayer. As the Tanchuma says:

Said Rebbi Alexandri: great is the power of those who give tithes, for they turn the curse into blessing, for wherever the Torah mentions השקיפה is refers to distress, as in: He gazed upon the face of Sedom (BeReishit 19)…. All others are interpreted as referring to distress except for this … not just this, but it turns the curse into a blessing. (Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tissa 14)

So meeting one’s obligations to people in need literally changes the world. A great thought as Yom Tov approaches.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Last Tisha B'Av

The Jewish people are having a pretty rough time at the moment. The disturbing events in Israel are compounded by the lack of balance and what one can only reasonably call hatred in much of the media. I believe that history has carved a role for us as victims and when we step out of this, even by defending ourselves, the world finds us inexplicable. That every one of the hundreds of Hezbollah rockets fired on Northern Israel has been deliberately aimed at civilian targets seems to have escaped the attention of the press, as has the fact that Hezbollah locates its weapons in civilian areas, with the obvious consequences. We are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

But we shouldn’t really expect any different; these problems are just part of the harsh reality of galut – exile, of living in an unredeemed world. Some years, relating to the horrible reality of exile at Tisha B’Av has been difficult, but this year I suspect it may be easier.

We may accuse the media of bias, holding us to standards of behaviour it expects of no other people, but when we think about it, it can be no other way. Either we are God’s people, or we are not. Either we have a ‘special’ covenantal relationship with Him, or we do not. Either we are the ‘am segulah’ – the treasured nation of God, or we are not. We are, indeed, all of these things and by calling us to higher standards than those demanded of others, the nations of the world corroborate our special status. They may not admit it, or even be aware if it, but by expecting far more from us than they expect of themselves, they unwittingly uphold our unique place in the family of Mankind.

As we dip our bread in ash at the pre-Tisha B’Av meal, let us think also of the many people whose lives have been reduced to ash in Israel and in Lebanon.

As we sit on the floor to mourn for the Temple, let us think also of those sitting on the floor in shelters in Northern Israel.

As we mourn our beloved Temple, let us think also of those who have lost loved ones in the conflict.

As we cry the bitter tears of exile, let us think also of the tears of suffering of adults and children who have lost their livelihood and homes.

As we read Eichah and the Kinnot, let us also lament Mankind, our failures, moral weakness and inability to get on with one another.

But Tisha B’Av is also about hope and the future. It may be a day of mourning, but it is a kind of ‘festival’ of hope for a better world.

As we read the final line of Eichah, let us really believe that God will finally ‘restore our days as of old’ this year.

As we read Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s ‘Tzion’ poem, let us reflect on the beauty of Israel, its inimitable spiritual character and our ongoing responsibility to ‘inquire about the welfare’ of its prisoners, which is so apt this year.

As we sing the dirge ‘Eli Tzion’, let us remember that the whole, inscrutable process of history is ‘like a woman in her labour pains’; there will be a happy ending to the saga.

Wishing all readers a meaningful and redemptive day, the last Tisha B’Av.

The Name Belogski

Some readers may be interested to know that the name 'Belogski' was invented by my daughter Tehilloh.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Nine By Four Or Ten by Five? (Devarim 5766)

Deuteronomy, playing now at a synagogue near you, contains a curious mixture of encouragement, historical review, law, poetry, admonition and blessing. It is, in effect, a long speech, delivered by Moshe to the Jewish people in the weeks before his death. One of its most perplexing references is to Og, of whom we learn in this week’s reading:

Behold his bedstead was a bedstead of iron, is it not in Rabat Beney Amon, nine cubits by four cubits…. (Devarim 3:11)

This obscure verse was treated in an even stranger way by one mediaeval source, which seems to have suggested that it was added into the Torah later on. This is hard to square with the normative position that the entire Torah is the unmitigated word of God. Let us look at another way of understanding this.

Og was a king who had died in a battle with the Jews described in the book of Numbers. Og was distinguished by the fact that Moshe was afraid of him until God informed him that he need not be afraid. Why was Moshe scared of Og, when he seemed unafraid of the other foes encountered on route to the Land?

Our tradition contains many profound concepts couched in a unique literary form called Midrash; without it we would struggle to unravel this story. We must go back to Avraham and his servant Eliezer. To our surprise, we discover that Og is identified with Eliezer, who informed Avraham that his nephew Lot had been captured by warring chieftains. This enabled Avraham to rescue Lot and bring the war to an end. Conveying this message involved Eliezer/Og in great personal danger, for which he was rewarded with extreme longevity. When Moshe encountered Og centuries later, he was worried that he would not be able to overpower him; God assured him that Og’s time had come as the blessing of long life had expired.

Og’s trouble was that he spent his life cruising – relying on the merit that he had accrued in the distant past and on good fortune beyond his control. He may indeed have been circumcised by Avraham himself, helped to save Lot and embarked on a successful mission to find a wife for Yitzhak, but these were a very long time before. More recently, he had been sitting back drawing on his past, without much to show for the last few hundred years. Actually, the name Og means ‘circle’, indicating a man who was trapped in a closed, progress-free existence.

Back to the bed – do we really care that it was nine by four? The Ishbitzer Rebbe answered in the affirmative – the bed is the measure of the man; his spiritual, as well as his physical dimensions. Inspired people are measured by their spiritual achievements, by the extent to which they use every moment of existence to meet God and holiness face on. Their ‘beds’ – the lives they make for themselves – are dedicated to the pursuit of God – yah (yod = ten and heh = five). Og in comparison, and despite appearances to the contrary, was an also-ran, whose life can be circumscribed by the numbers nine and four.

How are we doing? Are we ten-by-fives or nine-by-fours? It’s worth some thought.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish News.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Nine Men And A Boy?

It is a tense moment. Nine men are waiting for a ‘tzenter’ – a tenth man to make up the Minyan. Will one turn up, or will the regulars and the man who came to say Kaddish go home disappointed?

From Talmudic times, the rabbis have attempted creative solutions to this problem.. In the Talmud (Berachot), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi indicates that one may add a pre-Bar Mitzvah boy to nine men to make the Minyan. As a matter of interest, the same section of the Talmud records that Rebbi Eliezer once arrived at a Shul to discover that it was one man short of a Minyan. Apparently, he manumitted his gentile servant (thus completing his conversion to Judaism) in order to make up the Minyan! While it is unlikely that the second case will ever be germane in the 21st century, the first proposal could be useful.

Actually, the Talmud discusses whether or not these suggestions were ever intended to be viewed as legally valid. This debate continued into the mediaeval halachic literature. While Rabbenu Tam (a grandson of Rashi) rules that in principle, one could include a boy in a Minyan, a number of major early halachists, including the Rosh and the Mordechai, contend that he never actually allowed it in practice. In fact, the Rosh himself disputes the halachic validity of including a boy at all.

The Tosafists mention the practice of including a boy who is holding a ‘chumash’. The ‘chumash’ mentioned is actually a scroll, not the type of printed book that we know today by the same name. Rabbenu Tam views this as nonsense; he asks, ‘is a chumash a man?’ Nonetheless, the idea appears to be based in a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, and despite Rabbenu Tam’s disapproval, is cited by a number of later sources.

The Shulchan Aruch, published in the 16th century, mentions the practice of including a boy, but points out that it is incorrect, as demonstrated by the fact that is rejected by many significant halachists. However, the Rema (Ashkenazi gloss) adds that while in principle he agrees with the Shulchan Aruch, there are those who are lenient and will include a boy in an emergency, even without a ‘chumash’ in his hand.

Later sources qualify what is already a limited application of this leniency: the boy should be at least of an age when he understands that the prayers are directed to God and only strictly obligatory prayers should be recited.

The possibilities that there will be no Minyan, perhaps no Torah reading and that eventually the Minyan may fold are considered by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to be ‘emergencies.’ Based on a careful study of the sources, he allows his respondent to rely on a boy to make a Minyan. He prefers that the boy be 12 years old (almost an adult) and while acknowledging that the ‘chumash’ trick is not really necessary, favours ‘giving him a Sefer Torah’ to hold. And of course, one may only use one boy in this way; no source will allow a small group of men to include two or more boys!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Clarity Of Moshe (Mattot & Masse 5766)

This week's Torah reading commences with the laws of vows. The Torah takes oaths and vows very seriously - indeed, when one makes a vow, then the responsibility to fulfil one's promise takes on a Torah character. For example, a person might vow not to drink whisky for a month, or he might vow to eat a bowl of cholent every Thursday morning. One assumes that the motivation for so doing is to help control some kind of undesirable behaviour or encourage a positive way of acting.

If pronounced in the correct way, these acts now become Biblical responsibility. He may not drink whisky for a month, and is prohibited to him as surely as if it were written in the Torah itself. Similarly, he must eat his bowl of cholent at the prescribed time, and if he does not, then he has failed in his religious duty. The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan observed that something very exciting lies within this obscure law. It is clear that while the Torah regulates many things in life, most things remain optional. It is our choice whether or not to eat certain foods, go to certain places - i.e. how to use most of our time and our resources. The Torah gives us a tool - the oath or vow - which enables us to bring any object or action within the ambit of the Torah system. Most actions or objects which the Torah does not demand we use within the Kedushah / holiness sphere, but we can choose to use them to fulfil Torah laws in this way. Of course, this can be dangerous, as by making more rules, we may fall more easily into wrong doing, but the principle is clear. The laws of vows are very complex and occupy a whole tractate of the Talmud (Nedarim) and a large section of the Talmud.

It is interesting to note that in the introductory verse to the section dealing with vows, we see an unusual phrase:

Moshe spoke to the tribal heads of the Jewish people saying - this is the thing which God has commanded. (BeMidbar 30:2)

The phrase this is the thing is uncommon - a more usual usage is thus says God. Rashi, noting this strange usage, observes that only Moshe communicated his prophecy using this is the thing. This is intended to convey the exceptional quality of Moshe's prophecy. The Maharal of Prague, commenting on this Rashi, notes that the phrase thus says God really means ‘an approximation’ - as though the prophet says 'this is pretty much what God said.' This is expressed through the ‘kaf hadimion’ – the comparative letter ‘kaf’ at the beginning of the word ‘koh’ – thus. In contrast, this is the thing means that the message is an exact communication of the Divine will. The sources tell us that prophecy must, perforce, come through the personality of the prophet. He may fall asleep or go into a trance, which means that his physical drives or distractions are limited during the prophetic experience. Nonetheless, the prophecy is filtered through his / her personality and therefore must be expressed in those terms. Hence, while the message repeated by the prophet contains the essence of the Divine communication, it is only a thus says type of prophecy. Not so Moshe, who was able to so limit the influence of his personality on the prophecy that he was communicating the exact word of God - this is the thing. At a deeper level, Moshe's physical reality and drives were so in tune with the will of the Divine that they did not interfere with or warp the prophecy at all.

The Talmud (Tractate Yevamot) expresses this idea quite succinctly - all the prophets saw through a clouded lens, but Moshe saw through a clear lens. Mind you, he was still viewing God's message through a lens, but that is another story....

This helps us to understand the context in which the quality of Moshe’s prophecy would be noted. Vows demand a level of clarity in speech and thought which is perhaps unmatched in any other area of Torah law. It thus makes sense that it was here that the Torah recorded the special nature and clarity of Moshe's prophecy.