Monthly Archives: November 2016

Parshat Hayei Sarah

Summary: Hayei Sarah is the 5th parasha in the Book of Genesis spanning chapters 23:1-25:18. There are two central stories occurring in this parasha; the first was the death of Sarah at age 127 and Avraham’s immediate need to acquire her burial place. The second entailed finding a wife for Isaac. To that end, Avraham dispatched his servant back to Haran in search of a woman fit to carry on the legacy of Hesed (kindness).

The servant (identified as Eliezer) serendipitously met Rebekah at a well, where she offered him drink and watered his camels. He gave her 3 pieces of jewellery and after she ran home to tell her mother, he was invited to meet and dine with her family. Before eating he insisted to explain his mission, retelling the entire series of events, persuading them to let Rebekah marry Isaac. The servant soon returned to Canaan where bride and groom were united.

Avraham then married Keturah and fathered more children, sending them away during his lifetime, to avoid any challenge to Isaac’s right as sole heir. Avraham died age 175 and was buried by his 2 sons. The parasha closes with a list of the 12 princes that descended from Ishmael and with Ishmael’s death age 137.

Comment: To the observant reader, Hayei Sarah begins and ends with the death of historic figures. Though the title means the Life of Sarah, in fact the demise of the key members in Avraham’s family (Abraham, Sarah & Ishmael) filters our attention to the central story – finding a wife for Isaac.

Many commentators, including Rashi, marvel at the number of verses used to tell (and re-tell) the miraculous story of how Eliezer found Rebekah and brought her to marry Isaac. Often under-emphasised is how much Rebekah’s character resembled Avraham’s and that the future of the Jewish people relied on her strength of character as much as if not more than on that of Isaac.

Avraham was renowned for offering hospitality to wayfarers. Rebekah was not unfamiliar with offering water to a stranger and his caravan of camels. Avraham was called by G-d to leave his homeland for an unknown destination. Rebekah left her family in Haran for Canaan. Rashi suggests her father and brother were more impressed by the description of Avraham’s fantastic wealth than by the mission of carrying on Avraham’s legacy. Rebekah was centred on the value of Hesed.

Marriage is an abstract concept wherein a man and a woman combine efforts and energies to become a new entity called ‘we’. Rather than thinking selfishly of one’s own well-being, marriage necessitates extending one’s view of ‘self’. When Isaac met Rebekah, the verse says he ‘brought her into his mother’s tent, he took her for a wife and came to love her, and that he was comforted of the loss of his mother’ (Genesis 24:67). This description suggests how deeply Isaac, even as an adult, was tied emotionally to Sarah.

As we will see next week, the story of Isaac & Rebekah and their children seems driven more by the character and maturity of Rebekah than by her husband.

Thoughts for the Week 24 November

AISH UK AMAZING RESULTS Congratulations to Aish UK for raising more than £1.1 million in 24 hours earlier this week. Helped by a 3-for-1 programme of matching donors, more than 1,500 people or institutions contributed on the day.

Aish UK has served the Anglo-Jewish community for 23 years. Yet, to see this remarkable outpouring of support was hugely exciting.

VIENNA CONFERENCE The rabbi will be in Vienna this week for the 3rd segment of the KAICIID programme on Conflict Resolution & Peace Building. The 20 delegates from around the world will be learning practical skills and techniques, and planning workshops for their respective countries.

And, as a follow-up to last week’s tribute to the Late Leonard Cohen, the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks posted a 15-minute Parasha piece about Cohen’s last song ‘You Want It Darker’ and it’s parallels with the world of Akeidat Yitshak (the Sacrifice of Isaac). Viewed by more than 365,000, the Chief Rabbi explained that while he was no Saint, Cohen was at times a profoundly prophetic voice for our times.

RECITING PSALMS Introduction: This brief comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [Note: Quoted verses are taken from the Mechon Mamre website.]

Chapter 18: Authorship of the 18th chapter of Psalms is credited to King David. It is 51 verses long and closely mirrors the story of David’s life and struggles also found in II Samuel Chap 2. It can be divided into 5 sections; all different variations of praise for G-d who delivered him from his enemies.

Referred to as a ‘Song,’ Section 1 espouses David’s love for the Almighty. Section 2 recounts in celestial and terrestrial imagery the ways G-d rescued David from danger. In Section 3, David professes his righteousness and loyalty to G-d. In Section 4, he attributes his military success exclusively to the Almighty. And, in Section 5, David anticipates continuing support and strength from the Divine.

Several of the verses in Chapter 18 appear in well-known prayers. The following two are part of the Sephardi liturgy before we read the Torah (though in the siddur they appear in reverse order). 

הָאֵל, תָּמִים דַּרְכּוֹ:אִמְרַתה צְרוּפָה; מָגֵן הוּא, לְכֹל הַחֹסִים בּוֹ. As for God, His way is perfect;the word of the LORD is tried; He is a shield unto all them that take refuge in Him. (Psalms 18:31)

כִּי מִי אֱלוֹהַּ, מִבַּלְעֲדֵי ה; וּמִי צוּר, זוּלָתִי אֱלֹהֵינוּ. For who is God, save the LORD? And who is a Rock, except our God? (Psalms 18:32)

The final verse here appears in the penultimate paragraph of Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals).  

מַגְדִּל, יְשׁוּעוֹת מַלְכּוֹ:וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד, לִמְשִׁיחוֹלְדָוִד וּלְזַרְעוֹ; עַדעוֹלָם. Great salvation He gives to His king; and shows mercy to His anointed, to David and to his seed, for evermore. (Psalms 18:50)

Thoughts for the Week 17 November

INTER-FAITH WEEK: In case you haven’t heard, this week is Interfaith Week – an opportunity to widen our circle of those working in the service of Goodness and in devotion to the Almighty, who we feel safe getting to know and befriending, regardless of whether we agree with their theology.

To mark the occasion, Chief Rabbi Mirvis & Archbishop Justin Welby launched ‘In Good Faith,’ a dialogue and social action initiative for local communities. More details here.

THE LATE LEONARD COHEN: In the excitement and anguish of last week’s USA election results, the media had little time to reflect on the passing of legendary singer/ poet Leonard Cohen.

Here are links to the article in this week’s Jewish Chronicle with quotations from the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks; to the Canadian Prime Minister’s statement, to a documentary on Cohen’s early music career and to his acceptance speech for the 2011 Prince of Asturias award.

A special Kaddish evening will be held at JW3 on 12 December. Tickets are available here.

Norwegian TV asked Cohen about returning from 6 years in a Zen Buddhist retreat to learn his trusted manager had embezzled his life savings. Cohen understatedly responded, ‘Money has a way of disappearing if you don’t watch it very closely.’

On a serious note, words can’t be found to express the feeling of immense bereavement for a proudly Jewish figure who made such a disarming impact over the past half century through profound poetry and music that often seared the soul while carving out a place of distinction for the imperfect.

RECITING PSALMS Introduction: This brief comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [Note: Quoted verses are taken from the Mechon Mamre website.]

Chapter 17: Authorship of the 17th Chapter of Psalms is attributed to King David who both beseeched G-d to take note of his righteousness and sought protection through G-d from his enemies. Here David longed to be part of G-d’s mercy and to bask in the glory of the Divine presence.

תְּפִלָּה, לְדָוִד: שִׁמְעָה ה, צֶדֶק– הַקְשִׁיבָה רִנָּתִי, הַאֲזִינָה תְפִלָּתִי; בְּלֹא, שִׂפְתֵי מִרְמָה. A Prayer of David. Hear righteousness, O LORD, attend my cry; give ear to my prayer from lips without deceit. (Psalms 17:1)

אֲנִי-קְרָאתִיךָ כִי-תַעֲנֵנִי אֵ-ל; הַט-אָזְנְךָ לִי, שְׁמַע אִמְרָתִי. As for me, I call upon You, for You will answer me, O God; incline Your ear to me, hear my speech. (Psalms 17:6)

David taught us that in praying to the Almighty one can only succeed through sincerity of heart, honesty and an absence of self-deception.

קוּמָה ה– קַדְּמָה פָנָיו, הַכְרִיעֵהוּ;פַּלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי, מֵרָשָׁע חַרְבֶּךָ. Arise, O LORD, confront him, cast him down; deliver my soul from the wicked, by Your sword; (Psalms 17:13)

אֲנִי–בְּצֶדֶק, אֶחֱזֶה פָנֶיךָ; אֶשְׂבְּעָה בְהָקִיץ, תְּמוּנָתֶךָ. As for me, I’ll see Your face in righteousness; I’ll be satisfied, when I awake, with Your likeness. (Psalms 17:15)

David asked the Almighty to heed not the plans and treachery of those who wished him harm, but rather grant him success during his lifetime and allow him the merit of being with G-d when his days were done.

[E.N.: Rashi interpreted this Psalm differently – as a lament – after David sinned with Bat Sheba. Contrite & broken in spirit, David prayed for forgiveness, protection from retribution and exoneration in the World to Come.]

Parshat VaYeira

Summary: VaYeira is the 4th parasha in the Book of Genesis spanning chapters 18:1-22-24. It contains the familiar stories of Abraham’s later years and the challenges that lead him to become the great man of faith and pursuer of justice.

Included in VaYeira are; Abraham’s recovery from circumcision, hosting 3 ‘men’ who inform Sarah will bear a child, G-d revealing plans to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah and Abraham pleading for it to be spared, the rescue of Lot and disgrace with his daughters, a famine that caused Abraham & Sarah to move to Gerar, Isaac’s birth, Hagar & Ishmael’s banishment, a covenant with Abimelekh and the Binding of Isaac.

Comment: Rabbi David Fohrman offers an original insight into the VaYeira drama of G-d and Abraham negotiating the rescue of the city of Sodom. Abraham challenged G-d to uphold justice and not punish the righteous among the wicked.

G-d consented to Abraham’s pleas to save the city if 50 righteous lived there. The dialogue continued until the ransom figure was only 10. Then the Torah informs ‘G-d departed after finishing to speak with Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place’ (Genesis: 18-32). But there’s ambiguity whether they had struck a deal.

Immediately the 2 angels went to rescue Lot. Embedded in that story, was a possible successful resolution. Lot was still considered among the righteous whom Abraham spoke about. He’d grown up in Abraham’s home and understood the custom of offering hospitality to strangers. He heard his visitor’s plea to gather up his family to escape but failed to hold sway over anyone but his wife and 2 unmarried daughters.

R Fohrman calculates the number of those in Lot’s household; 2 sons, 2 sons-in-law and 4 daughters plus Lot and his wife – equaled 10. Had Lot only been able to influence his extended family to join him, G-d would have consented – for this was Abraham’s bargain. Furthermore, had Lot influenced the townspeople toward peace and virtue, it might have averted the destruction.

We infer that in difficult and undesirable circumstances, those who have influence to change a situation of desperation and difficulty to goodness, are obliged to act resolutely and with courage. It’s not good enough to close ourselves off and turn away from troubles around us; we must take an active stand. The moral – as much as the wicked are held responsible for their actions, so too are those who stand by idly and watch!

Thoughts on the Week 10 November

RECITING PSALMS Introduction: This brief comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [Note: Quoted verses are taken from the Mechon Mamre website.]

Chapter 16:

Authorship of the 16th Chapter of Psalms is attributed to King David. It is about having the humility to know our portion in Life is entirely a gift from G-d.

David begins the chapter expressing his commitment and devotion to the Almighty. He attributes any Good that has happened to him to G-d’s benevolence.

אָמַרְתְּ לַ-ה, אֲדֹ-נָי אָתָּה; טוֹבָתִי, בַּל-עָלֶיךָ. I’ve said unto the LORD: ‘You are my Lord; I have no good but in You. (Psalms 16:2)

ה, מְנָת-חֶלְקִי וְכוֹסִי– אַתָּה, תּוֹמִיךְ גּוֹרָלִי. O LORD, the portion of my inheritance and cup, You maintain my lot. (Psalms 16:5)

He blesses G-d and pledges to set the Lord before him always. In return, he asks that his soul not be abandoned in the hereafter.

שִׁוִּיתִי ה לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד: כִּי מִימִינִי, בַּל-אֶמּוֹט. I’ve set the LORD always before me; surely at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (Psalms 16:8)

תּוֹדִיעֵנִי, אֹרַח חַיִּים: שֹׂבַע שְׂמָחוֹת, אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ; נְעִמוֹת בִּימִינְךָ נֶצַח. You make me to know the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy, in Your right hand bliss for evermore. (Psalms 16:11)

Our innate talents and the powerful forces around us are tools provided by the Almighty. What we think are the important determining factors in Life, more often than not, are illusions.

Perhaps because of its reference to those who lie in the grave, this Psalm is used in traditional funeral and stone-setting services.

Montefiore Endowment – New Dayanut Course for Rabbis

History was marked earlier this week at a Lauderdle Road reception officially launching the first Dayanut Course for Rabbis in the diaspora. The Montefiore Endowment in cooperation with Yeshivat Eretz Hemdah will be administering the 5-year programme. Based in London, it has students from Hong Kong, Australia, Amsterdam and Turkey participating online as well.

The programme was designed by Endowment Chairman Lucien Gubbay and Eretz Hemdah Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Yosef Carmel. The inaugural lecture took place on Tuesday evening 8 November with 6 of the students.  Participation is by application. Contact the Montefiore Endowment for more information.

Post Script:

Too much has been written this week about the astonishing results of the USA presidential election. We share the prayer and sentiments of religious leaders around the globe that the new President will be given wisdom, insight and grace as he faces the tasks before him, and that the Almighty will bless and bring reconciliation to the people of the United States of America.

Parshat Lekh-Lekha – Shabbat UK

Summary: Parashat Lekh-Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) introduces Abram & Sarai.

G-d called Abram at age 75 to journey from his father’s home to a land unknown. In return G-d pledged to make him a great nation through whom all the families of mankind would be blessed. So Abram left Haran with his wife and nephew and with what he’d already acquired, and set-out for G-d’s Promised Land.

Upon reaching Cana’an, he embarked on a set of local journeys to Shekhem, Beit El and the Negev where he built altars and offered sacrifices to G-d. Due to famine, their entire retinue were forced to relocate to Egypt. There Abram fearing he would be killed by the locals for his wife, asked Sarai to say she was his sister instead.

Because of her beauty, members of the Court informed Pharaoh who brought Sarai into his harem. Abram was rewarded with riches. But soon Pharaoh realised his error and summoned Abram to complain of this deceit.  Abram & Sarai and nephew Lot were deported from Egypt, returning to Cana’an enriched.

A feud developed between the financially independent Lot and Abram and between their shepherds, causing the two men to separate ways. Lot took-up residence in the fertile plains near Sodom.

Following years of vassal status, a revolution broke out when 4 kings threw-off the rule of the 5 kings. During the fighting, Lot was taken captive and Abram with 318 men intervened to rescue him. Malkisedek of Shalem greeted Abram with bread and wine and brokered a peace. The King of Sodom was given back the spoils taken from his lands and the captives.

G-d appeared to Abram once more promising him protection. Abram challenged G-d by pointing out he was without heir and that the son of his household servant would inherit him. G-d promised Abram he would have offspring of his own and called him to the Covenant between the Pieces. In a night vision Abram learned his descendants would, after 400 years of servitude, inherit the Land of Cana’an.

Concerned they had no offspring to carry on their legacy, Sarai told Abram to take Hagar her handmaid as a concubine, who fell pregnant. Thereafter, tensions arose between Hagar & Sarai, and Hagar fled to the desert where an Angel comforted her and foretold of the birth and character of her son. Returning to Sarai’s home, Hagar bore Ishmael when Abraham was 86.

In the last part of the parasha, G-d changed Abram’s name to Abraham (father of many nations) and commanded him – age 99 – to perform the Covenant of Circumcision. It would be an everlasting sign between G-d and Abraham’s descendants forming them into a holy nation and granting them a permanent homeland.

G-d changed Sarai’s name to Sarah and foretold to Abraham that he and his wife would within the year have a son together. Thereafter, Abraham circumcised himself, Ishmael and all the males in his household.

Comment: It’s left to the Midrash to provide Abraham’s background – his iconoclasm, his struggles with Nimrod, and his numerous tests of faith. Abram’s name first appears at the end of Parshat Noah as the son of Terakh who moved from Ur Kasdim to Haran. He was married to Sarai (his niece).

In hindsight, the story of Abraham shows everything worked out for the best. But to be first to herald Monotheism in a pagan world was an enormous effort without guarantee of certainty or success. Even after following G-d’s command to move to Cana’an, the reader senses in his constant building of altars a continuous need to seek out the Divine.

When G-d appeared to him in Shekhem, wouldn’t it have been enough to build the Altar and settle there? Instead, he uprooted himself toward the mountains, built another altar and called to G-d. And did so a third time in the Negev. Is it possible Abraham sought-out G-d on each separate occasion because the Divine presence wasn’t a constant in his life? In these early episodes G-d’s communication with Abram seemss intermittent at best.

Maintaining reception with G-d, was perhaps like today’s mobile technology; the challenge is to stay within transmission range. Abraham’s wandering ‘here and there through the Negev’ suggests his connection with G-d wasn’t constant. He had to regularly search new places where the Divine was present and then formalise them with an Altar and offerings.

This would continue into the generations of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph & his brothers until Moshe in his relationship with the Almighty brought Bnei Yisrael to Sinai to hear directly the word of G-d. In so doing, he helped form the nation that would become a living testimony to G-d’s connectivity with our world.

In 2016, when the unexpected and unthinkable happens more and more frequently, and Divine reception is so easily interrupted, how much more must we, like Abraham, seek out G-d if we want to keep our awareness intact. In the end all must work out well, but for the time being, it feels like our certainty and success are far from guaranteed.

Parshat Noah 5777

Summary: Parashat Noah (Genesis 6:8-11:32) contains, after the stories of Creation, probably the second best-known tales in the world; the Flood and the Tower of Babel.

A lengthy description of the Ark’s construction is followed by a narrative of the year-long experience inside the Ark. Eventually, the Ark came to rest on Mt Ararat.

Next is G-d’s ‘Rainbow’ covenant and promise never to destroy Creation again; the mysterious incident of Noah’s drunkenness, cursing Ham and blessing Shem & Yefet, and the list of families, descended from Noah’s three sons, who repopulated the Earth.

The parasha ends with the Tower of Babel Dispersion and a list of the 10 Generations from Noah to Abram.

Comment: By way of descriptive reference, there are 50 chapters in the Book of Genesis. Bereishith & Noah account for 12. Thereafter, the story shifts from mankind in general to the family of Abraham in particular. It’s a kind of narrowing of focus and would seem to imply that up until now the stage has been set explaining G-d’s disappointment with humanity and the search for those who could truly ‘comfort’ the Almighty.

At the end of Bereishith, Noah was named the ‘comforter’ (Lemakh called him Noah, saying: ‘He shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, coming from the ground the LORD has cursed’ Genesis 5:29). It’s suggested that Noah was the first to introduce the plough to farming.

Even though he was deemed worthy by G-d to build the Ark and rescue the remnants of civilisation from total destruction, somehow life after the Flood proved less meritorious. Many commentators point to his drunkenness as the disqualifier.

Nonetheless, the Talmud derives from the verses in this week’s Parasha a set of universal laws applying to all humanity known as the 7 Noahide laws. They are traditionally enumerated as:

  1. Belief in God
  2. Do not blaspheme God
  3. Do not murder
  4. Do not have illicit sexual relations
  5. Do not steal
  6. Do not eat an animal while it is still alive
  7. Establish a court system to ensure legal protection and obedience

The Talmudic rabbis agreed seven laws were given to the sons of Noah. However, they disagreed on which laws were given to Adam and Eve as well.

Like most of these pivotal early stories, much is shrouded in secrecy. What exactly happened in Noah’s tent when Ham saw his father’s nakedness is part of a Talmudic debate (Sanhedrin 70a). In next week’s parasha we will read another story involving drunkenness linked to sexuality – between Lot and his daughters. This leaves room to investigate whether there’s any correlation between them.

Thoughts on the Week 3 November

RECITING PSALMS Introduction: This brief comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [Note: Quoted verses are taken from the Mechon Mamre website.]

Chapter 15:

Authorship of the 15th Chapter of Psalms is attributed to King David. At only 5 verses in length, it is one of the shortest in the Book.

Posing the question ‘who is worthy to dwell in the presence of the Almighty,’ the Psalmist responds that only those who first embody high moral behaviour towards their fellow human beings can achieve G-d consciousness.

מִזְמוֹר, לְדָוִד: ה, מִי-יָגוּר בְּאָהֳלֶךָ; מִי-יִשְׁכֹּן, בְּהַר קָדְשֶׁךָ.

A Psalm of David. LORD, who shall sojourn in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon Your holy mountain? (Psalms 15:1)

The list of moral prerequisites covers thought, speech and action; walking upright, doing justice, speaking truth in one’s heart, avoiding the slander of others, neither loaning on interest nor taking a bribe against the innocent, and honouring those who fear G-d.

כַּסְפּוֹ, לֹא-נָתַן בְּנֶשֶׁךְ– וְשֹׁחַד עַל-נָקִי, לֹא לָקָח: עֹשֵׂה-אֵלֶּה– לֹא יִמּוֹט לְעוֹלָם.

He that doesn’t loan his money on interest, nor take a bribe against the innocent. He that does these things shall never be moved. (Psalms 15:5)

Such people will never be uprooted from their connection with the Divine.

Earlier this week a Scripture-based Dialogue sponsored by BIMA (Belief in Mediation & Arbitration) was held at the law offices of Charles Russell Speechlys. Attending were representatives of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities; including other solicitors, mediators, members of the government and police force.

The topic focused on Law vs. Morality – cases where religious jurisprudence is at odds with government legislation. One case, drawing from Numbers 30:2 the command to honour one’s oaths, was delivered by Clive Freedman QC. His talk looked at the legal debate and practice behind oral contracts in English versus Jewish law, and made the observation that even when legally an agreement is not binding, there is a concept in Judaism to go beyond the letter of the law (lifnim meshurat hadin).

Presentations were made by a Christian mediator and an Imam who also raised the issue of ‘good faith’ in contract law and afterwards a light discussion ensued. Two interesting points for comparison were that in Quranic law one may not swear an oath in an English court before giving testimony. And, with regard to witnesses, when there aren’t 2 men who can testify, the Islamic courts will accept one man and 2 women. The former is similar in Judaism but the latter seems more advanced – in that Judaism only accepts valid male witnesses.

While recognising the plurality of approaches and the subtlety in differences between these religious legal systems, and even touching upon the wish of the Islamic community to have permission to operate under Sharia Law, it was generally concluded that all 3 faiths espouse a set of common core values and that human beings will ultimately be held accountable for their actions by a Higher Authority.

In this, the week of Parshat Noah, we can ask ourselves ‘by the standard of Psalm 15 are we among those who would merit being chosen to build a new world?’ A combination of scriptural guidance and a reflecting conscience are tools to help each of us arrive at our own answer.

Post Script:

For those who are eligible, voting for the USA presidential election closes next Tuesday 8 November. America’s economy is $17 trillion with China next closest at $12 trillion. For the past year we’ve watched a partisan political race in which the candidates will have spent $2 billion trying to get elected.

The US presidency is the most powerful role in the world (perhaps only the Pope or Russia’s Vladimir Putin is more influential). Regardless of the outcome next week, sadly we should expect – like Brexit – nearly half of Americans to feel disenfranchised.

The rancour and hostility may likely continue for months to come. One would be excused for wondering aloud whether we’re not at the same state of chaos as the generation of Noah before the Flood?