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.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Tools Of War

The World Cup has just ended, bringing the planet’s greatest football tournament to another nail-biting finish. It’s no secret that I’m not a football fan, but I observe, albeit with incredulity, the enjoyment that so many people get from watching it. Relaxation is most important in a pressured world and the show that has just come to an end has given millions of people a pleasurable diversion from real life for a few weeks.

But while there is much to admire about the skill of the footballers themselves, as well as the dedication of their fans, there is also a great deal wrong. The fact that the captain of the losing team could be sent off for assaulting another player during the final match and yet still be declared the best player of the contest, speaks volumes. The minor matter of the arrests of numerous England fans in Germany following their team’s defeat by Portugal and the disturbances in Jersey (whose population is 10% Portuguese) around the same time also bear mention. The fervour with which the fans approached the contest and the extent to which the media focused its attention on what is, after all, just a game, is quite remarkable. And fortunate is the country whose time zone is such that the matches fall out of work hours; when play is on during work-time, the number of ‘sickies’ mysteriously sky-rockets.

The number of football headlines may be extraordinary, but the nature of the coverage is no less remarkable. Each match is subject to the most intense analysis imaginable; it goes without saying that every possible aspect of the game is scrutinised. Before kick-off, we are treated to analysis of the selection of players for a team and how their morale is affected by the weather, the behaviour of their fans and a host of other factors. Once the match is in progress, we can read or watch a blow-by-blow account of the game so far, in depth critique of the captain’s strategy and share the pundits’ predictions for the remainder of the game. The slightest irregularity is subject to intense consideration; was the referee justified in castigating a particular player, was a tackle motivated by malice, the likely prognosis following a player’s injury, according to four different experts. On this theme, in the weeks leading up to the contest, the extent of interest in Rooney’s damaged foot was quite obsessive. When the match is over, the recriminations against the losing side begin; resignations, similar to those following lost elections (vis Beckham’s tearful exit), are not unknown. And of course, every moment of the game can be replayed in excruciating slow motion as we are encouraged to consider the long-term significance of a team’s victory or defeat for a national team and its supporters. When a team wins, the reports of the huge celebrations remain prominent for nearly as long as the parties themselves.

These are, quite frankly, the journalistic tools of war, for the only other human endeavour subjected to so much media scrutiny is war itself. When nations are at war, every detail of strategy and shot fired may affect the destiny of an entire people. As such, healthy media reserve the most penetrating tools of analysis for war, yet they are used, de rigueur, to describe the fortunes of 22 men kicking a ball around a field. The conclusion of this is inescapable – football is considered by a significant section of the populace to be of immense importance; the result of a big match really matters to people. It shapes their self-image, their pride in their country and their attitude to other nations. The celebrations of victory, often involving parading the champions as though they are war heroes, reflect the pride and sense of nationhood conveyed by success in a major tournament.

While many will pass all this off as harmless fun, I’m not convinced at all. When the emotions raised by merely observing a game are on a par with those engendered by war, we have lost something vital to the wellbeing of society. Many people really believe that supporters of other teams are baddies; how could they not be, as they are on the ‘wrong’ side. This leads to violence and to occasionally disturbing incidents of xenophobia. While (à la 1970’s cult film ‘Rollerball’) there are those who argue that containing these sorts of feelings within a sporting environment prevents them from spilling into the streets, it is obvious that societal sanction of such sentiments increases, rather than reduces, their nefarious influence. And blurring the distinction between those things that are truly life-significant and those that are actually just fun diversions from reality, has far-reaching consequences in all aspects of life.

Most troubling, though, is what the supremacy of football reveals about those people who believe in it - a profound lack of exposure to what we might term ‘real experiences.’ Whether the intense fervour of Man’s yearning for God, the challenge and meaning in developing a successful monogamous relationship, from a Jewish perspective: the celebration of a family Shabbat or the emotionally draining cycle of Tishrey festivals – so many in our disconnected world are denied ‘real experiences.’ Much of modern life consists of shallow, synthetic encounters; watered down emotions, superficial relationships and phoney ideology. In fact, the Western World almost completely fails to cater for what may be the most basic human necessity, the need to sense meaning and purpose in life. But the desire to identify with a cause and to experience meaning through it does not disappear because a society denies its existence. It will, automatically, find another expression. So profound is this human need that the media, conmen and others who recognise it will exploit it for their own disreputable ends.

The application of the tools of war to football matches is a symptom of an ailing society, one in which Man’s yearning for meaningful existence finds its expression itself through a game, but not in reality. And as society becomes more fragmented and superficial, the significance of events like the World Cup will surely grow; for those living in the UK, the spectre of the 2012 Olympics seems not all that far away…..

Thoughts On 17th Tammuz

This year, the start of the Three Weeks comes at a time when tragedy is in the air. The horrific bombings in India and the appalling murder in Washington of Alan Senitt, a prominent Anglo-Jewish activist, have hit the headlines in the last few days. The disturbing escalation of the conflict in our beloved Israel, however, is probably where much of our attention is focused.

From time to time, I get asked whether in the modern world we really need the Three Weeks of mourning for the Temple in Jerusalem, which begin today with the Fast of Tammuz. This year, that question seems entirely redundant, as there is so much obviously wrong with our world. The imperfections, lack of harmony and hatred seem to more evident than ever; this year, we have a lot to think about between now and Tisha B’Av.

Our prayers and thoughts are with the people of Israel, the family of Alan Senitt and the victims of the Mumbai carnage. We will add a chapter of psalms to the synagogue service once more in the coming weeks, as a prayer for peace, but our main responsibilities lie within our own lives. The elimination of conflict in our world starts on a small and personal scale – improving our relationships with our spouses and children, treating those who are unlike us with more respect, evincing greater tolerance for those of other beliefs. Judaism believes that the micro-act has macro-ramifications. If small-scale quarrelling leads to global conflict, then achieving small-scale harmony is the starting point for healing our world. The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, yet use small personal, examples of dissent to illustrate their point.

May there be a rapid end to the conflict in Israel and harmony between peoples everywhere.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Bilam And The Avot (Balak 5766)

The second of our Sedrot this week, Balak, deals with the well-known episode of the gentile prophet Bilam. The sages note some interesting similarities between his behaviour and that of the forefathers:

Bilam arose in the morning and he saddled his donkey. He went with the princes of Moav. (BeMidbar 22:21)

We would not expect a man of Bilam’s standing to saddle his own donkey:

From which we learn that hatred corrupts the natural order, for he saddled it himself. God said: you wicked man, Avraham their father preceded you, as the verse says: Avraham arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey. (Rashi loc. cit.)

The Tanchuma, from where Rashi appears to have drawn his comment, is noting the similarity of phraseology. If we are troubled by Bilam’s actions, then we must also be bothered by Avraham’s. Of course, while Bilam’s intentions are assumed to be wicked, Avraham’s are assumed to be positive. Here is the original source:

Bilam arose in the morning and he saddled his donkey. Did he not have a servant or maidservant? Rather because of the great hatred with which he despised Yisrael, he arose with alacrity and did it himself…. (Tanchuma Balak 8)

Another similar source amplifies the idea:

Bilam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey. It was taught in the name of Rebbi Shimon ben Eliezer: one knows that love overturns the order of grandeur (the natural order, in which important people have servants to do menial tasks for them) from Avraham. One knows that hatred also overturns the order of grandeur. (Sanhedrin 105b)

The sages see in this detail and others that follow it an attempt by Bilam to undermine the Jewish people by usurping the foundational role of the forefathers. Another example:

God called to Bilam, who said to him: I have arranged the seven altars and I have brought up a cow and a ram upon the altar. (BeMidbar 23:4)

The text doesn’t say ‘seven altars’, rather ‘the seven altars’ (with a definite article). He said before God: their ancestors built seven altars before You and I have arranged (my altars) corresponding to them all. Avraham built four…. Yitzhak built one… Yaakov built two. (Rashi loc. cit.)

Bilam said to Balak: build with this for me seven altars. Why seven? To correspond to the seven altars that seven righteous men built from Adam to Moshe, which were accepted. They were Adam, Hevel, Noach, Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov and Moshe. Bilam said before God: why did you accept these? Isn’t it because of the idolatry that they performed (and brought offerings as a rectification)…. Wouldn’t it be preferable to be worshipped by the seventy nations than by just one people? (Tanchuma Balak 11)

These sources enable us to understand the thrust of Bilam’s true intent. He, in common with so many of our enemies throughout history, questions the nature of the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. By various devious means, he attempts to ‘persuade’ God that the world would be a better place without the Jews, or at least without the special relationship that He established with them at Sinai. Regrettably, we sometimes doubt the truth of this essential concept ourselves. This parashah should inspire us to remember just how central to Judaism it really is.