Parashat Noah 5775 (on languages and understanding people who are different)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Shabbat shalom,

or pacan sabaton, as they say in Esperanto (feel free to correct my pronunciation later).

וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים

The whole world had one language and one speech. (Gen. 11:1)

Thus opens the story of the migdal bavel, the Tower of Bavel. Though building project of the citizens of Bavel earns them God’s punishment, a unifying language for all the world does seem utopian. In pursuit of of peaceful coexistence between all peoples, L. L. Zamenhof, who grew up amongst the inter-ethnic strife of late 19th C Bialystok in Poland, created what came to be known as “Esperanto”, a universal language. Continue reading

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Parashat Balak 5774 (on misleading others and the paths of peace)

Written for the JTS Torah Commentary

That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. And God was very angry when he went. (Num. 22:20–22)

Poor Balaam. He does what God tells him to do, and God gets angry with him. This strange response is explained by most traditional Jewish sources by resorting to a caricature of Balaam as a wicked person who hates the Israelites and loves the wealth and glory that Balak promised him in exchange for cursing them.

Read more at JTS Torah Online →

Parashat Vayigash 5774 (on developing a narrative for one’s life)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

How would you reintroduce yourself to someone who you had completely lost touch with, who hasn’t seen you in years, hasn’t heard about what you’ve been up to from your connections and hasn’t even been following your exploits on Facebook?

How would you frame your new life and the story of how you got from the person you were then to the one you are today? What are your values and priorities now? Would you confront the awkward fact of your lack of contact for all these years, and if so, how would you make sense of it? Continue reading

Parashat Hukat 5773 (on God’s presence in human affairs)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

In the middle of our parasha, overshadowed by: the ritual of the red hefer, the deaths of Moses’ siblings, the sin of striking the rock, the plague of serpents, tales of diplomacy and war, the narrative pauses to include… a really short song, recounting what happened earlier in the parasha when the people needed water:

This song is interjected into a passage listing the stages of the journey.

 וּמִשָּׁם, בְּאֵרָה:  הִוא הַבְּאֵר, אֲשֶׁר אָמַר ה` לְמֹשֶׁה, אֱסֹף אֶת-הָעָם, וְאֶתְּנָה לָהֶם מָיִם. אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת:  עֲלִי בְאֵר, עֱנוּ-לָהּ. בְּאֵר חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים, כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם, בִּמְחֹקֵק, בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם; וּמִמִּדְבָּר, מַתָּנָה.

And from there to Be’er, which is the well where God said to Moses: gather the people and I will give them water. So Israel sang this song: Spring up, well, sing to it:  the well that princes dug; the nobles of the people started it, with the scepter, with their canes. And from Midbar to Mattanah. (Num 21:16-18)

…and so the list continues. Continue reading

Parashat Yitro 5773 (on revelation and arbitration)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

After hearing of the Israelites’ wondrous escape from Egypt, Jethro brings Tzipora and her sons to meet with Moses, his son-in-law. He must have been expecting that their future would be bright, in a family headed by the leader of the people to whom God has shown favor.

One day later, he is not so optimistic. Moses, it seems, spends all day every day with the people “standing on him”, awaiting his guidance. What time will he have have to spend with his spouse and raise his children? Continue reading

Parashat Vayeshev 5773 (on playing a role in someone else’s story)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

There are some things that are better kept inside one’s own head. For example, Joseph told his brothers and father of his dreams that they would one day be subservient to him. This did not go over well, all things considered. But then, it was not in the young Joseph’s nature to consider such things. If he were to have a lightbulb joke it would be (with apologies to Ivy League or Oxbridge students and graduates):

How many of Jacob’s sons does it take to change a lightbulb? Just Joseph: he holds the lightbulb still and the universe revolves around him.

It doesn’t help, I suppose, that he has a whole four weeks of Torah reading, all about him. Continue reading

First Day Rosh Hashana 5773 (on Hagar and Hannah, and making teshuva from where we are)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

If you have a strong sense of guilt, and if the caricature has any foundation in reality, many Jews do, there can be a peculiar dilemma during this time of year: either we experience guilt about our personal failings, or, we experience guilt at our failure to experience guilt about our personal failings!

However much the liturgical additions, rabbinic texts and blasts of the shofar may tell us that this is the time to make teshuva, real changes in ourselves, it rarely feels like the right time. Only at a very few moments in our lives do we realise that we are in just the right place to reflect, decide and enact the decision to change.

But what is “just the right place”? In a few minutes, we’ll read about some women in very different places in their lives, and see what we can learn from their stories. Continue reading

Redemption Takes More than Remuneration

A response to this article

For good reason we refer to the greatest leader of the Jewish people as Moshe Rabbenu – Moses, our teacher. As Rabbi Paul Steinberg highlighted in his article last week, talented, motivated and passionate teachers are invaluable for high quality Jewish education. But, Moshe would have lived the rest of his life quietly tending flocks in Midian had he not encountered God at the burning bush and received his commission to redeem Israel from slavery. “Human agency”, quite literally, was not enough. Continue reading

Parashat Korah 5772 (on dealing with people who are wrong!)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

How do we deal with people who are just wrong?

We are given an archetype of people who simply have the wrong idea in parashat Korah. Korah, Datan and Aviram, together with 250 other Israelites, rebel against Moses and Aaron’s authority. Whatever their intentions may be and whatever fair points they may make, the Torah makes clear that they are incorrect and even sinners: Moses and Aaron are who God has chosen, and Korah and his followers are to be eliminated.

The parasha sends a clear message as to how people like this are to be dealt with: the ground opens up its mouth and swallows Korah and his closest followers, together with their families and possessions. This is a solution of destruction. The only way to move on in the face of this nature of opposition is to get rid of those who are wrong, finally, dramatically and publicly. Continue reading

First Day of Pesah (Shabbat) 5772 (on freedom and noble freedom)


Shabbat shalom, chag sameah

Shopping on the internet should be fantastic. There’s more choice than could ever be available in a mall or on Fifth Avenue; we can read reviews of every product; and sellers can cater to a very particular consumer base, even though they may be scattered across the globe.  Even so, although I will neither confirm nor deny it, it has been alleged that I once spent several hours combing the web for the perfect pair of gloves, and then bought the first ones that I had seen.

This is known as “decision paralysis”. Aesop’s fables already told of the Fox and the Cat, where the fox boasted of the number of escape methods he had at his disposal, compared to the cat’s one. And of course when the hounds came along, while the cat looked down from the tree it had climbed, the fox took so long deciding what to do that he was eaten. Recent studies among consumers buying products have confirmed that the more choices one has, the more likely one is to give up on the endeavor at all, or to make a poor choice. This second result was also found, scarily, amongst doctors: a wider choice of treatment options resulted in less appropriate decisions. (see
Switch)

Yet the freedom to choose is exalted in our society. From religious diversity to the number of brands of yogurt on the shelf, the freedom to choose for yourself was the rallying cry of American society against the Soviet model of one approach for all.

And Pesach is the holiday of freedom.

Or is it? The Torah’s standard word for the freedom that a slave has when released from its master’s authority is חופשי – free. But this term is never employed with respect to Israel’s state on leaving Egypt.

The Torah instead recounts God’s instruction to Pharaoh: send forth my people that they may serve me. Serve. Avad. The same word as “eved”. Slave.

This is one reading of the complaint of the wicked child in the haggada: He asks “what is all this service – avoda” to you? The British Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, characterises the perspective as: “The only difference is change of master… That is a distinction without a difference. …” (Covenant & Conversation: Exodus, 86) Slavery is slavery. There has been no significant redemption if we have only transistioned from following Pharaoh’s orders to following God’s orders.

Some see the attitude of the wicked child who questions the meaning of freedom if we continue to observe mizvot reflected in the line of Hatikva “am chofshi be’artzenu” – “a people free in our land”. They understand the word “chofesh” to be explicitly secular. Chofesh is the absolute freedom of an enlightened nation,  who have thrown off the yoke of religion. There are frum Israelis who go as far as substituting the the word “chofshi” for “dati” – religious, to distance themselves from the idea that the ideal Israeli Jew is one who is free from both political oppression and religious obligation. (ref)

The radical freedom that some secular Zionists, as well as many others, strive for is a tricky concept though. 19th Century political philosopher John Stewart Mill’s great essay “On Liberty” lays out a vision of society founded on the principle of individual freedom – but still permits the law to regulate “social acts” – if our actions intrude on other people’s lives, we should not necessarily have the freedom to do as we wish.  His examples of these acceptable regulations include the sometimes-controversial laws around Sunday closing laws and taxation. Taking this principle to its extreme, few acts are entirely free from social consequences other than those which take place entirely inside your own head! Where then will regulation end and freedom begin?

Everyone wants freedom in principle, but defining its parameters and ensuring a safe and livable society for all is tricky, though many philosophers have tried. Bertrand Russell mocked one of these theories of freedom  – Hegel’s – as “freedom to obey the police”. Russell was, in effect, making the same critique that the wicked child made of combining freedom with mitzvah – what good is freedom, if it is only to follow orders?

If we turn back to the Tenakh, we do not see that once the Exodus was completed and the people settled the Land of Israel, that they lived in a utopian state with the perfect mix of religion, freedom, and social regulation. By the end of the book of Judges, a time of relative anarchy, there has been a brutal civil war, and the refrain has become:

 בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם אֵין מֶלֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו יַעֲשֶׂה

In those days there was no King in Israel, and each person did what was right in their own eyes. (Judges 17:6, 21:25; cf. 18:1, 19:1)

When, in response to this chaos, the people do ask for a King, that is seen as a rejection of God, the ultimate King. As we read on, we discover that most of the kings are, through the eyes of the Tenakh at least, bad. Among the few “good” Kings, David misuses his military power to steal another man’s wife, and Solomon imposes burdensome taxes, enraging half the Kingdom so much that it secedes after his death.

The Bible certainly fails to clearly lay out a model for the ideal society based on freedom.

A society based on freedom may not even make any sense, if we consider that almost any freedom can be understood as impeding another freedom. For example, the freedom from gun violence is an affront to the freedom to bear arms – and vice versa.

Freedom alone, therefore, will not help us attain a better life or a better society. We need something more. If God had only freed us, would it really have been enough?

Just as the Torah does not refer to leaving Egypt as “hofesh”, so too rabbinic sources use a different word, with, perhaps, a significantly different meaning. The mishnah, repeated in the haggada and reflected in our liturgy for pesah, use a different word as the counterpart to slavery: me’avdut le … herut.

The term herut does not appear in the Bible at all. Other forms of the same word, such as “horin”, do appear a few times in chronologically later books of the Tenakh, but “benay horin” are not just free people; they are nobles.

To be a noble, you do need to be free. In certain societies, such as amongst the cavaliers of colonial Virginia, considered freedom from labour to be so intimately associated with nobility that some even underwent some hardship so as to avoid having to earn a living, which, would, despite giving them the resources to live a more comfortable life, de facto lower their status. (Fischer, Albion’s Seed, “The South of England to Virginia”)

Just being free – even from having to work at all – does not automatically make you noble. It is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. We still need a fuller description of what makes a life of herut.

The rabbinic tradition has a predictable solution. In pirke avot, we find a midrash that tells us to understand the description of the tablets, not as harut – being engraved, but as “herut”, teaching us that only one who is engaged with the Torah is a “ben horin” – which I would now translate as nobly free. (Avot 6:2)

Once one has the hofesh – pure freedom to choose, one must, according to this text, choose the Torah and God’s commands in order to be raised up to the state of herut – noble freedom. This is all very well, but presents a very exclusivist perspective: we cannot be truly noble unless we spend our time studying Torah? How much time? How much do we have to understand? What about non-Jews?

I would never want to discourage the study of Torah, but this doesn’t seem to fit an understanding of herut as an aspiration for all. Furthermore, we already have a holiday for receiving, accepting, and studying Torah. Zman matan toratenu – the time of the giving of the Torah is Shavuot; zman herutenu can’t be exactly the same thing!

In Deuteronomy (30:19), Moshe implores the Israelites who are about to enter the Land without him: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse: uvaharta bahayim! choose life! The Israelites’ hofesh is guaranteed, for the moment at least. They will be “am hofshi be’artzenu” – a nation free in our land – but will they continue to be benei horin – nobly free – without Moshe’s leadership? They have the freedom to choose – Moshe is reminding them to choose well.

Moshe makes it sound easy: choose life. duh. And the following verse explains how to do it:
לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ וּלְדָבְקָה-בוֹ: Love God, listen to God’s voice, and hold fast to God. Working out what that consists of is less easy.

In our lives, we can confidently say that in terms of absolute freedom of choice, we are richer than ever. At pesah, though, zman herutenu, we need to consider how to best use that freedom, how to become nobly free. This is where, if we are not careful, decision paralysis can kick in. We can put off the decision for “later”. We can say: I don’t need to decide what my life’s priorities are, after all, I can do anything I want. I’m not going to choose an approach to religion, or politics, or business, because this is America, and all the options are open to me.

Even if we grant that one clear way to make our free choice and achieve noble freedom is through choosing Torah, we proudly affirm that there are seventy faces to the Torah, and these sometimes conflict. Decisions must still be made, and no-one is going to make them for us.

The more hofesh we have, the greater the potential for herut, but the harder it can be to find it.

Those of us privileged to spend Pesah at this retreat, sometimes reflect that we are granted the freedom that the holiday emphasises. We take the week off work; we don’t cook or clean; we are free from our everyday concerns. But that is a description of hofesh. This pesah, may we use the hofesh we have here at Ramah, to make some decisions that we have left in paralysis, and, through making these choices wisely, may God bring us into herut.

Shabbat shalom, hag sameach.