All posts by Jeremy

yitro – wise old bird

A wise old bird who, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, arrives in the Israelite camp with his wise daughter Zipporah, who  earlier saved Moses from the wrath of God when on his way back to Egypt together with his wife and two sons. What do we know about Yitro? He is described as the priest of Midian. The Midianites were a pagan nation at the time of Moses, but Yitro appears to be a monotheist and refers frequently to ‘the Lord’ as if he himself is a believer. Yitro is also identified as the father of the Druze and he could surely not have asked for more illustrious descendants, just as they could ask for no more illustrious ancestor. The Druze are a remarkable people. In Israel they number just 143,000. They call themselves Ahl al-Tawhid “People of Unitarianism or Monotheism” or “al-Muwaḥḥidūn”. They are recognised as a religious minority and serve in the IDF and in civic and political life. Many of them have achieved high positions of authority. Their role in Israeli society has parallels with that of Jews in many countries in which they have lived, for, like the Druze, Jews have invariably striven to be patriotic members of the countries they have inhabited.

But I digress again, or do I? To return to both man and parsha, his advice to Moses to set up a sort of civil service to help him administer justice and leave himself time for the really important work precedes one of the most monumental sections of the Torah. Yitro’s conversation with Moses is followed by the foundation block of the Covenant, namely the Ten Commandments, which are delivered to the Israelites in the most solemn and awe-inspiring manner as they stand at the foot of Sinai.

To show us more with his customary skill, touch and wisdom will be Adam Feldman. Come along on Saturday at 10:30. You will not be disappointed.

Footnote: According to the Midrash, Jethro had been looking out for Moses ever since he was a baby in Pharaoh’s palace:“And she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter,” etc. (Exod. 2:10). Pharaoh’s daughter used to kiss and hug Moses, loved him as if he were her own son, and would not allow him out of the palace. Because he was so handsome, everyone was eager to see him, and whoever saw him could not turn his eyes away from him. Pharaoh also used to kiss and hug him, and Moses used to grab Pharaoh’s crown and put it on his own head. The magicians of Egypt sitting there said, “We fear this one who grabs your crown and puts it on his head may be the one, as we have been saying, who will take your kingdom away from you.” Some of the magicians suggested that he be slain, others that he be burned alive. But Jethro, who sat among them, said, “This child has yet no understanding.” (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:26) The Book of Legends: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, Hayim Nahum Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (eds.), translated by William G. Braude, p. 60.

bo: a plague on all your houses

Ten plagues, actually, and on their houses not ours. We have a seder plate at home on which all the plagues are represented around the rim. Similar to pictures in some illustrated haggadahs, the plagues have an almost cartoonish quality about them and the faces of the Egyptians are comically grotesque. Of course, we celebrate the plagues insomuch as they are instruments of HaShem’s salvation. Yet once liberated from slavery, we are told many times not to hate the Egyptians, for we we were strangers in their land. It does not say ‘slaves’, but ‘strangers’. Compare this with the instruction we receive to blot out the name of Amalek. As far as we can tell, it is the Pharaoh who hardens his heart against the Israelites, not the Egyptians as a whole. Interestingly, too, when God says he will strikes the land with the plague of hail, it says, “He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses.” This suggests that some Egyptians believed in God, though whether they also believed in the sun and river and other gods as well we cannot tell. Most tellingly, when Pharaoh finally gives in long enough to allow the Israelites to leave, his people shower them with gifts and it is mentioned how greatly respected Moses was among the Egyptians. No wonder that one of the several reasons why we spill drops of wine as we recite the plagues during the Seder is to show our sorrow for the suffering Egyptians. 

Our relationship with Egypt did not end when we were led away be Moses, Aaron and Miriam. We have turned towards it for support and even returned to live more than once. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah warn, as we can see in the haftorahs for Va-eira and Bo respectively, against depending on Egypt for help against the invading Assyrians and Babylonians and prophesy that Egypt will be humbled. However, they also allow for a resurgence of Egyptian power, though much reduced. Around 650 BCE, Jews settled in the city of Elephantine, many serving in the imperial Persian army and establishing a confident, thriving community. In Ptolemaic times, they settled in Alexandria, among other places, and there were several more waves of settlement, including after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. It was not until the establishment of the state of modern Israel that Jews began to disappear almost totally from Egypt.

It’s a complex, messy thing, life, and the Torah does not pretend otherwise. Fortunately, this week we will have the wisdom of our Life President, Harvey Kurzfield, to help us unscramble things, not to mention to lead us in more harmonious voice than is our wont. Be there, this Saturday at 10:30 a.m.

Sh’mot: sins of the parents

“…for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth
generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.”

Hang on a minute. We haven’t got to the iniquity of the fathers yet. Well, true and not true. It’s coming up in Exodus XX, at least the passage quoted above. Similar words appear in Exodus XXXIV, then again in Numbers XIV and yet again in Deuteronomy V. It’s a tricky one, this. In what way are the sins of the fathers visited upon the children and mercy sown to the thousandth generation that love HaShem and keep His commandments? And why am I talking about it here, as an introduction to Sh’mot? The reason is Jacob’s blessings delivered at the end of his life, in the final sedra of Bereshit and what comes immediately afterwords.

Do Jacob’s blessings prefigure the future of his sons’ descendants? To take two of the most poetic of the patriarch’s blessings:

“Zebulun shall be a shore for ships,
And his flank shall be upon Zidon
……. Naphtali is a hind set loose:He giveth goodly words”

Is there a prophesy here that proves that the character of these two men will determine the destiny of their children? The tribe of Zebulun eventually settle close to the sea and Naphtali’s descendants gained a reputation for eloquence. But what about the second and third eldest of the sons? Their father’s blessing, as it recalls the two brothers’ merciless attack on the men of Shechem, sounds disturbingly like a curse:

“Simeon and Levi are brethren;
Weapons of violence their kindred.
Let my soul not come into their council;…
Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce,
And their wrath for it was cruel;
I will divide them in Jacob,
And scatter them in Israel.”

Now, the Hertz points out that the Simeonites were intermingled in the inheritance of Judah and the tribe of Levi dispersed among the other tribes of Israel. However, Moses, who will be born and live his first eighty years of life in this week’s sedra of Sh’mot, was the great-grandson of Levi. And I don’t need to tell you what kind of man Moses was and what kind of things he did. “And there hath not risen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face-to-face.” Aaron, the first High Priest and father of priests and Miriam, a prophets were also Levites. Moreover, the whole tribe was chosen for God’s service after they stood against the sin of the Golden Calf. It seems, therefore, that, while evil may come back and haunt us, the children will not be punished for their parents’ wrongdoing, not if they choose good.

And talking of good, we have a good service to look forward to this Saturday, for Rachel Brown will make her debut as a service leader, supported by Roger Chatfield, who will deliver a brilliant derusha. Come along at 10:30 to begin the Exodus together.

vayiggash

The last four parashiyot in Bereshit deal mostly with the story of Joseph. However, when discussing the parsha of Va-yeishev two weeks ago, Melanie Feldman focussed on the story of Judah embedded in the seemingly more prominent narrative. One could argue that Judah is actually the most impressive character we have come across so far. He is not so virtuous as Abraham, so faithful and meditative as Isaac, so dedicated to God’s initial Covenant with the family of Abraham as Rebecca, but he undergoes real change – change for the better. It is not that he starts out totally bad or nasty. He does not engage in the merciless slaughter of the men of Shechem carried out by brothers Simeon and Levi. Unlike Reuben, he does not engage in illicit relations with one of his step-mothers. Nor does he appear to bay for Joseph’s death. He does suggest, on the other hand, that his younger brother be sold into slavery. He turns his daughter-in-law into a helpless widow, although, having lost his first two sons when married to her, there is surely some excuse for this. The point is that he becomes a better human being, first in recognising Tamara’s plight and blamelessness, second in doing everything he can to protect his youngest brother when the latter is threatened with prison or slavery. He does not think of himself, only of his father and of Benjamin, to the point of volunteering to be enslaved in place of his brother. 

We should be proud to be named after Yehuda, to be Yehudi. We are, as Mai Jacobson pointed out last Saturday evening, at the Chanukah party and presentation, named after praise and thanks. ‘Toda’ should be on our lips while we should do our utmost to inspire thanks among others, not to hear it in vanity, but to deserve it in humility.

And even Joseph, who certainly deserves a lot of praise and thanks, has become humble before his brothers, at the same time as he has become most powerful.

We are in for a treat this Saturday. Pat Lipert will be leading the service and Karen Myers will be presenting a derusha. Thank you, both. Come along the rest of you at 10:30 to take part… and thank you, too.

Va-yeishev

“I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan;
Greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”

Thus laments David on the death in battle of Jonathan and his father, King Saul. Jonathan and David were not actually brothers and it might actually have been better that way to judge from the succession of ‘brothers’ we come across in the Torah. The first ever siblings last only as long as it takes Cain to kill Abel in a rage of jealousy. Ham shames his two brothers, Shem and Japheth. Ishmael apparently taunts his half-brother Isaac. Jacob deceives his brother Esau and comes close to being killed by him in revenge. Jacob’s own sons are infected by rivalry and envy between the eldest ten and the second youngest which also lead the former close to murder. As for sisters, they fare little better in the case of Leah and Rachel. Nor do the rivalry and hostility end with Devarim. The throne of Israel, and later that of Judah, inspires war and fratricide. David’s own son, Absalom, has his brother Abner murdered for having raped his sister Tamar years before, then rebels against his own father. Another brother, Adonijah, tries to usurp Solomon’s place as David’s successor, as his father lies weak and helpless, close to death.

All this unbrotherly brotherness is not mythical stuff. History is full of royal families engaging in fratricide, patricide and filicide. Sadly, too, the world as a whole is full of families broken by jealousy and resentment. So are the patriarchs and matriarchs just like everyone else? Well, a bit yes and quite a lot no. What differentiates them from so many families of myth and history is that they learn moral wisdom, compassion and forgiveness. As we know, Ishmael and Isaac come together as adults to bury their father. Esau and Jacob are reconciled in a most moving scene of generosity and humility and later come together again to bury Isaac. Joseph and his brothers are not only reconciled but united in a spirit of humility, repentance and forgiveness. To return to Jonathan and David, the latter, once he is king, rather than having the former’s son killed as a possible rival to the throne, adopts him as his own.

It is possible to be brothers in arms without being up in arms.

This Saturday marks the return of one of our great service leaders: Adam Feldman. Come along and listen, learn, pray, sing and converse, as the best families should.