Sermon Notes 18/02/12 - Mishpatim

An Eye for an Eye: Literalism and Traditionalism

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Following the account of the Sinaitic theophany in last week’s parashah, one would have expected the text to describe the construction of the Mishkan, moving from the revelation to the means (the Mishkan) to keep it fresh in the minds of the Israelites.  Instead, the narrative is broken up by the Mishpatim, laws mostly governing interpersonal conduct.  Rav Soloveitchik points out that this interruption conveys an important message – sensitive, honest behaviour lies at the very heart of Jewish life; one cannot even contemplate building the sanctuary without first accepting the Mishpatim.

Rabbi Yishmael notes that ‘one who wishes to become wise should study the financial laws, for there is no greater Torah topic; they like an overflowing spring’. (Mishnah Bava Batra 10:8)  It remains customary for a child’s first tractate to be one dealing with financial responsibility, not ritual law.  These rules hone the intellect and ensure that honesty and care with the resources of others is absorbed by children from an early age.

The most well-known verses in this section describe what is known as lex talionis – the law of retaliation: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound’. (Shemot 21: 24-5)  For centuries, Jews were maltreated on the basis of a literal reading of these words, which assumes that we are revengeful, hateful people, whose law requires us to exact awful punishment from wrongdoers.  Yet the Talmud insists that the text actually refers to compensation for the lost limb (Bava Kama 84a); indeed, this has always been the approach of applied Jewish law.

As expected, Rashi cites the Talmud’s approach.  More startlingly, his grandson, Rashbam, known for his enthusiasm for the plain meaning of the text, also follows this view: in his critical notes to Rashbam, Professor Martin Lokshin observes that ‘Rashbam accepts the traditional reading of the text’.

In the 19th century, the validity of this interpretation was threatened by biblical criticism and a growing rejection of the authenticity of the Oral Tradition.  In response, commentators such as Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Meklenberg (HaKetav VeHaKabbalah) and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch sought to defend the traditional picture.  In what amounts to rather deft interpretative apologetics, each explains that the verse actually refers to compensation – i.e. the text means not ‘an eye for an eye’, but should be translated as ‘compensation for an eye for an eye’.  Meklenberg explains that in context, this is the only credible reading, whereas Hirsch demonstrates that the word תחת – usually translated as ‘for’, actually means ‘compensation for’.

Yet these readings leave a very obvious question – if the Torah means compensation, why does it seem to refer to retaliation?  An unambiguous text would certainly have prevented much misunderstanding and a great deal of persecution.  Is it possible to reconcile the literal meaning of the text with the traditional interpretation?

Seforno, writing around 1500, does just this.  For him, the text describes a theoretical ideal – in a perfect universe, the perpetrator of an injury should personally experience the precise consequences of his or her actions – in this case, the loss of the limb of which the victim has been deprived.  Yet the traditional reading recognises the reality that this cannot, in fact, may not, reflect actual practice, for various practical and ethical reasons.  As such, it is not necessary to distort the plain meaning of the words, which do in fact refer to retaliation; the traditional reading is not a translation of the words, but an interpretation, albeit one that represents the only valid practical application of the Torah’s law.  Indeed, it reflects the will of the divine within the confines of an imperfect world, beautifully harmonising the ‘real’ meaning of the text with an age-old interpretation.

Sermon Notes 28/01/12 - Bo

Of Darkness, Rationalism and Jewish Leadership

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

The last three plagues are described in the first part of this week’s parashah.  A controversial approach to the ninth plague – darkness (Shemot 10:21-23) – appears in the Torah Temimah.  This work, published in 1902 by Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein of Pinsk, comments on selected midrashim verse by verse.  Analysing a midrash which claims that the darkness was ‘as thick as a coin’ (see Yalkut Shimoni to Tehillim 105), Rabbi Epstein says the following:

Were I not afraid to produce an entirely novel approach, I would have said that the darkness was not in the air, but in the Egyptians’ eyes – a kind of cataract obscuring their pupils.  The rabbis point out that this cataract was tangible and was ‘as thick as a coin’. (Torah Temimah to Shemot 10:21, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

Whenever a rabbi introduces an observation with the phrase ‘were I not afraid… I would have said’, he knows that what he is about to write will is contentious.  Indeed, some critics viewed Rabbi Epstein’s understanding as an unacceptable deviation from ‘normative’ interpretation; to this day, some ultra-conservative groups treat the entire work with suspicion.

In fact, Rabbi Epstein was merely following a well-trodden, but unpopular, mode of interpretation, one based firmly in the writings of the Rambam:

It is incumbent upon us to combine Torah and rationalism, to explain matters as naturalistically as possible.  Only when something is absolutely inexplicable by natural means, should one say that it is a ‘miracle’. (Rambam, Epistle on the Resuscitation of the Dead, section 2, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

The Rambam means that one should only resort to a complex – supernatural explanation – of any event described in the Torah – when all simpler – read: naturalistic – explanations have been exhausted.  I would term this a Maimonidean version of Occam’s Razor.

While of course, the opportune appearance of targeted cataracts can only be attributed to divine intervention, Rabbi Epstein’s explanation minimises the miraculous nature of the plague of darkness by rationalising it as far as possible.  Apparently, this was something that Rabbi Epstein’s detractors found unforgivable.

This long-forgotten controversy highlights the tension between rationalistic and super-rationalistic approaches to Judaism that have existed since long before the publication of the Torah Temimah.  It lies at the heart of the radically different world-views of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari and the Rambam’s Moreh Nevochim – Guide for the Perplexed, and continues today.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the rationalistic approach to Torah interpretation and Jewish thought is in retreat and has gradually ceded to the super-or even anti-rationalism which now characterises much of Orthodox society.  This is evident in every area of Jewish life: the content of popular works; the adulation of leaders; the immense growth in segulot – spiritual remedies of the ‘give your money to this cause and you’ll find a spouse, have a baby, be cured of an illness, or make a living’ variety.

There are too many negative spinoffs of this phenomenon to consider in a short space.  They include the unwillingness to contextualise talmudic texts describing the observable universe and the subsequent rejection of the need to reconcile Torah with scientific discoveries, a naive, romanticised understanding of world history and a hagiographic approach to the lives of Jewish leaders.  All of these and others make some prevalent forms of Jewish life deeply unattractive to thinking people and mean that there is little opportunity for those already within the system to find answers to genuine questions.

But a particularly worrying consequence of the super-rationalistic approach is the manner in which leaders of some parts of the community are appointed and the uncritical way in which their performance is evaluated.  Sadly, rabbinical leaders are not always chosen because they have the appropriate qualifications, can identify with the lives and concerns of their charges and will fight for them.   And when they remain silent in the face of injustice, as has happened too often in recent times, their disciples are willing to attribute this to the rabbis’ higher knowledge or holiness rather than to a failure of leadership.   And while, of course, every system of governance can be abused by its leaders, Jewish leadership should be a beacon of good sense, fairness and transparency, not words one would immediately associate with some contemporary leaders.

A return to rationalism, a neglected, but bona fide Jewish alternative, is sorely needed, especially in Israel.  It’s not the answer to every problem the Jewish world faces, but it will go a long way to making authentic Orthodox Judaism more attractive to intelligent people, better able to face the social and intellectual challenges of living a religious life in a modern world, and, perhaps most importantly, more capable of producing leaders who will actually lead our communities. 

תורה תמימה, שמות י:כא

ומבואר במדרשים שהחושך כעובי דינר, וכלל הענין מופלא מאד, דמה שייך להתפיס שיעור ממשות בחושך, וגם צ"ע דלפי פירש"י שהיה כל משך המטל"ע כולו לילה ולא היה יום כלל א"כ נשתנו סדרי בראשית , וזה קשה מאד שהרי הקב"ה הבטיח לנח ולבניו ויום ולילה לא ישבותו.

ולולא מסתפינא להמציא דבר חדש מאד ה"א דענין החושך היה לא באויר רק בעיני האנשים, והיינו שהיה מתוח תבלול על אישון העין, ואמרו חכמים שאותו התבלול היה נמוש ביד וגם היה כעובי דינר, וניחא הכל.

רמב"ם, מאמר תחית המתים, קטע ב'

ואנחנו נשתדל לקבץ בין התורה והמשכל וננהיג הדברים על סדר טבעי אפשר בכל זה, אלא מה שהתבאר בו שהוא מופת ולא יתכן לפרשו כלל אז נצטרך לומר שהוא מופת.

Why Are More Orthodox Couples Getting Divorced?

Belovski interviewed by Steve Savitsky of the OU

Jan 2012

A society which discourages commitment. A too-short dating process. Unaddressed personal issues. High financial expectations. Steve Savitsky talks with Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski, Rav of Golders Green Synagogue in  London, England, about dating and marriage – and why they sometimes end in divorce.

Listen here

Sermon Notes 07/01/12 - VaYechi

Where are the Leaders?  Shoftim, Shotrim and the Current Crisis

 If you’d have wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but…

I’ve just spent a wonderful week in Israel with our third daughter, Tomor Chemdoh, as part of her Bat Mitzvah celebrations.

During our stay, there was a mass rally in Bet Shemesh against the behaviour of a particular group of the Charedi locals.  Ostensibly provoked by an incident in which a man spat on a school-girl because he disapproved of her attire, it was really the result of months of tension generated by a sect of zealots who often use violent means to impose extreme standards of modesty on the rest of the community.  The actions of these self-styled ‘Sikrikim’1 have distressed and infuriated their victims and have attracted international interest (the rally was the second item on the BBC News website the following day).  They have also led to pointed questions about the direction and future of the Charedi communities, and indeed the entire Orthodox world.

Some people are exercised by the fact that the frum community has spawned these extremists, but I am not.  Every group gives rise to a certain number of crazies who will attempt to attain their narrow, dysfunctional goals by whatever means, irrespective of whom they hurt or the damage inflicted on the society they insist they are protecting.  I am much more troubled by the failure of the community, particularly its leaders, to deal properly with the extremists.  A society is judged not by whether it produces radicalised lunatics, but how its leaders respond to the danger that such people pose.  By that measure we are currently failing.

The Torah articulates this clearly: ‘You shall appoint shoftim ve-shotrim - judges and enforcers - in all of your gates’ (Devarim 16:18).  A Torah-based community can only function successfully when the judges - its religious leaders, and the enforcers – its police, work together to ensure that law and order is maintained: protecting the weak and dealing appropriately with troublemakers whose behaviour threatens to destabilise society or oppress groups within it.

While in modern Israel, the religious leaders are not the lawmakers, nor are the police their agents, both have an important role to play in eliminating the canker of extremism and the primitive and often deeply misogynist behaviour (many of their antics are geared to eliminating women from the public sphere) that often follows in its wake.  In a religious society, especially a contemporary Charedi one, the rabbinic leaders are alleged to reign supreme, yet when it comes to the Sikrikim, most rabbis have either been silent or have issued feeble statements that they cannot do anything to restrain them.2  The police have also claimed that they cannot control the zealots.  Yet the Torah expects the rabbis and the police - the shoftim and the shotrim - to work separately or in collaboration to facilitate a just religious society; right now this means ridding it of these sectarians.

Not that this vindicates their lack of response, but I suspect that the police are concerned that their intervention will be counterproductive; there have been statements to this effect.  Like other volatile groups, the extreme edge of the Charedi world is easily radicalised; indeed, there were at least two sizeable counter-demonstrations soon after the Bet Shemesh rally.

As for the rabbis of some Charedi communities, I regret that I must interpret their impotence in one of the following ways: a) they fear the physical consequences of speaking out3 against the Sikrikim; b) they are apprehensive about the professional consequences of condemning them - i.e. they risk being marginalised and losing their own authority; c) like the police, they believe that their intervention will fail or even exacerbate the problem; d) they actually approve of the Sikrikims’ objectives in ‘purifying the camp’, if not the means they use to achieve them.  Unfortunately, it is hard to escape the conclusion that silence from a rabbinate that has vociferously declaimed on such diverse topics as army service, concerts, mixed-seating on buses, the denier of hosiery, secular education, mobile ‘phones and the validity of scientific enquiry, may indeed indicate tacit approval.  I hope that I’m mistaken about this.

Yet whichever of these is correct, and it is probably a combination, the picture is not pretty.  Leaders who are frightened of their constituents or are too weak to act decisively against a public perversion of Jewish values and the consequent mass Chilul HaShem are part of the problem, not the solution.  It is fascinating, albeit predictable, that even in a community where Da’as Torah4 supposedly determines the ‘correct’ view on every topic, presumably including the appropriate way to behave towards those with whom one disagrees, the leaders cannot really control extremists.  Perhaps this exposes something about the Charedi world that is obvious in more democratic societies - despite appearances to the contrary, the authority of the leaders derives from the will of the people.

Leaders must speak out against injustice, irrespective of the personal cost.  They must teach that the ways of Torah are pleasant and peaceful, that Torah societies are compassionate and tolerant, and a light to, rather than a blight on the modern world.  They must show that the Torah demands high standards of interpersonal conduct from its adherents and that its leaders harshly condemn and punish those who distort its message.

The fact is that in the case of the Sikrikim, there is safety in numbers: there are hundreds of prominent Charedi rabbis - yeshivah deans, halachic decisors and Chassidic Rebbes.  If they would sign strongly-worded letters of censure and publicly condemn the perpetrators after every incident much could be achieved quickly.  They should also deny known trouble-makers the essentials of Orthodox life - community membership, inclusion in a minyan, aliyot, and even refuse them business and burial - the old-fashioned cherem (ban of excommunication issued against miscreants to deprive them of social and economic opportunities).  And most importantly, the rabbis should work together with the police to identify, apprehend and punish this scourge on the religious world.  And even though this strategy will never be entirely effective, it will shown beyond a doubt that Orthodoxy and its teachers utterly repudiate these contemptible people, something which, rightly or wrongly, is being questioned at the moment.  Then with God’s help will we succeed in restoring the sense that a real Torah society is headed by shoftim ve-shotrim.


1.  The word is a corruption of the Latin ‘Sicarii’, an extremist Jewish group active against the Romans immediately before the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

2. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a small number of other important rabbis have spoken out against the Sikrikim, but there has been mostly silence from the primary leaders of the Lithuanian-Yeshivish and Chassidic communities.

3. Sadly, this is no idle concern.  There have been some ugly incidents when the property and family members of outspoken rabbis have been threatened; one well-known rabbi who spoke out on a previous occasion had to go into hiding for a week following the publication of his remarks.  Much more seriously, there was even the horrific murder last year of a prominent Sefardi rabbi by a demented ex-follower.

4. The doctrine that rabbinical guidance determines the ‘correct’ approach to every issue, even those outside of narrow halachic parameters.

Sermon Notes 24/11/12 - Chanukah

Of Chanukah and Minority

If you’d have wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but…

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the war of the Maccabees over the Yevanim and the Jewish Hellenist, resulting in the rededication of the Second Temple and a period of limited Jewish autonomy.  In the liturgy we thank God for having handed ‘the mighty in the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure in the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, the evildoers into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah’ (Al HaNissim prayer).

The second phrase in this text refers to the victory of a minority over the predominant numerical and ideological forces at the time of the Chanukah story.  It also provides an opportunity to briefly consider the challenges of living as a minority - something Jews have experienced for most of our history.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a marvellous and insightful analysis of this topic, an excerpt of which follows.  It’s quite long, but it’s good!  I have retained the US spellings of the translation from the original German.

There is one other particular danger which is to be feared by a Jewish minority.  It is what we would like to call a certain intellectual narrow-mindedness.  This danger becomes especially acute the more closely a minority clings to its cause and the more anxious it is to preserve that cause.  We have already pointed out that, by virtue of its weak position, a minority depends for its survival on whether it can further and foster within all its members the spirit of the cause it represents.  In order to prevail, a minority must be wholly imbued with the truth for which it stands.  We have already noted that such intensive spiritual concern with its cause is the essential prerequisite for the minority’s survival and hailed this concern as the most significant advantage that a truth stands to gain when its guardians constitute a minority.

However, precisely such complete dedication to its cause may easily lead the minority into intellectual one-sidedness.  This may well stunt to a degree the development of the minority’s unique intellectual life.  Furthermore, it may make that minority incapable of representing its cause effectively to the outside world.  Thus such one-sidedness in a minority may do grave damage to the very cause that the minority seeks to preserve and to promote.  The richer the minority’s cause, the more will the minority treasure it.  But then it may easily come to regard all other knowledge in “outside” domains as unnecessary, or even as utterly worthless.  It may reject all intellectual activity in any field outside its own as an offense against its own cause, as an inroad upon the devotion properly due to that cause and an infringement on its prerogatives.

Such a one-sided attitude does not stop at mere disregard for other intellectual endeavours.  Once this attitude has taken hold in a Jewish minority, that minority will be unable to form a proper judgment and a true image of those intellectual pursuits which are not cultivated in its own ranks but pursued mainly by its opponents.  Then, as a result of simple ignorance, the minority will begin to fear that which at first it merely neglected out of disdain.  Consequently the minority will begin to suspect the existence of an intrinsic close relationship between these “outside” intellectual pursuits and those principles to which the Jewish minority stands in opposition.

Indeed, the minority may come to regard these “outside” pursuits in themselves as the roots of the spiritual error which it deplores in the majority.  Eventually it may reach a point where it will fearfully shun all intellectual endeavors other than those directly related to its own philosophy as an enemy of its cause and as a threat to the purity and loyalty of its adherents.  (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol. 2, pp. 246-8)

Although written in the mid 19th-century, Rabbi Hirsch’s analysis describes some segments of the contemporary Orthodox world with astonishing prescience.  Interestingly, one thing that Rabbi Hirsch could not have envisioned is that this minority mentality might be imported into a modern Jewish state in which Jews, albeit not fully-observant ones, are the majority!

Returning to Chanukah, it is easy to see how the occasion has often been viewed through the lens of a triumphant religious minority seeking to build a high and impervious barrier between it and the predominant culture.  This casts Chanukah as a victory in a simplistic, ‘Yiddishkeit over Goyishkeit’ battle.

Yet, the very symbol of Chanukah teaches that it need not be like this.  Interestingly, the miracle of the oil was not the trigger for the institution of the festival, but actually a symbol of the ideological significance of the war.  The Temple Menorah, on which our Chanukah Menorah is based, represents the notion that all forms of human intellectual endeavour can be incorporated within a Jewish purview.  Its main lamp, also known as ‘Menorah’ and representing the Torah, stands in the centre, while the other six arms represent the “other” forms of human wisdom.  Note that the entire lamp must be made of a single gold ingot, the six lateral arms emerge from the central lamp and that only the wick at the top of the central lamp stands upright, while the other six wicks must face the centre.  These requirements indicate that all human wisdom ultimate originates in the same divine source and that the spiritual mission of the Torah must be the focus of all intellectual endeavour.

Indeed, failing to acknowledge the importance and value of the “other” may ultimately prevent Judaism from realising its spiritual potential.  Rabbi Hirsch continues by explaining that the minority:

…has cause to regard all truth, wherever it may be found on the outside, as a firm ally of its own cause, since all truth stems from the same Master of truth.  Finally, the minority should not regard all disciplines that are compatible with its own principles as enemies.  The cause represented by a Jewish minority is not purely theoretical but also involves the practical life of its adherents.  It demands the dedication of all aspects of life to the realization of its principles.  It can have real, true existence, only to the extent to which it can mold and dominate the most varied facets of everyday living…

Chanukah Sameach!

Tomor Chemdoh's Bat Mitzvah

Speech at Seudah Shelishit

GGS 17/12/11

Good Shabbos.  I would like to thank you all for coming to celebrate with me and my family today.  I would also like to thank the Shul for hosting this Simchah and in particular Jacqui Zinkin and Susan Winton for organising the event.

Over the last year, I've been learning a section from Shmuel alpeh with Daddy.  We have focused on perek kaf hey, which is about the story of Avigail, her husband Novol and Dovid HaMelech.  Let me give you a brief outline of the story.

The story starts with the death of Shmuel the prophet.  Here’s an outline of the chapter:

The scene is set when Shmuel dies and Dovid goes to to the Levaya even though King Shaul is trying to kill him and he is at risk, although Novol, a wealthy man and one-time friend of Dovid doesn’t go because it is the season to shear his sheep. When Dovid hears that Novol is shearing his sheep he sends ten attendants to ask them for food.  However, Novol, whose name means ‘repulsive’, is selfish, refuses the request and denies knowing Dovid. When Dovid hears what has happened, he resolves to kill Novol, judging him to be a ‘mored bemalchus’ - someone who has rebelled against the king.  (Dovid has been selected to replace Shaul, which is why Shaul is out to get him). 

When Avigail, Novol’s wife, hears about this, she intervenes to save the day.  Without telling Novol, she took food and stopped Dovid en route. When Avigail sees Dovid she falls on her face before him and prostrates to the ground.  She says “ Let my lord not send his heart against Novol for his name implies - Novol is his name and revolution is his trait.” Dovid then says to Avigail “Blessed is Hashem, God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me. And blessed is your advice, and blessed are you, who have restrained me from coming to bloodshed and avenging myself by my own hand.”

Dovid accepted Avigail’s prophetic understanding of the situation and recognised that he had been wrong about his right to kill Novol.  When Avigail returns home, and Novol has sobered up after a great feast, she tells him what has happened and how she has saved his life, and he is completely stunned.  Ten days later Novol died. When Dovid heard that he had died he called for Avigail to be his wife. Avigail then became Dovid’s wife.

There are two reasons that I am excited by this story.  One is because although I am known as Tomor Chemdoh, or Thomas or just Tom, my name is actually Tomor Chemdoh Avigail - Avigail is the heroine of the story and I wanted to find out who she was, what the name means and what I can learn from it.  The other is something that I found out about when I learned about what she did.

First, the name Avigail.  Interestingly, she is described as ‘of good intellect and beautiful appearance’.

She may well have been beautiful, but more important, she was clever and capable.  This is understood to mean that there is a relationship between her ‘inside’ and her ‘outside’ - she is beautiful both internally and externally and ‘what you see is what you get’. This is what the rabbis call ‘tocho k’baro’ - the way one appears is the way one really is.

The name Avigail is usually translated as ‘my father rejoices’ or ‘my father’s joy’, but some sources explain it differently.  Sometimes ‘av’ means principle, rather than ‘father’, as in the laws of Shabbos or Nezikin.  Here that would mean that Avigail is an example of rejoicing, but what type?  Malbim explains that ‘gilah’ means the celebration of something new or creative.  Avigail made Dovid HaMelech see Novol and even his own life from a new perspective, which is really what her story is all about.  In fact, another meaning of Avigail is Avi – Geulah (redemption) - her mission was to save her husband and Dovid.

These ideas are very important to me, as everyone must contribute something of their own to their family, their community, school, and to the world.  I hope that I can do this and make people happy at the same time!

But it’s something else that Avigail achieved that really spoke to me when I learned about her life.  Her intelligence shines throughout the story, but it’s her courage that is so impressive.  She is willing to risk her life to meet with Dovid HaMelech, a strong and powerful person to save Novol.  She meets him in the mountains, when he is already en route to kill Novol and challenges his decision.  She explains to him that while Novol is not a good person, he must not kill him.  The meforshim explain that Dovid believed Novol to be a mored bemalchus (someone who has rebelled against the king), but Avigail’s approach to him, which is said with nevuah, shows Dovid that he is not entitled to judge Novol this way.  He may be the king in waiting, but he is not yet the king.  Avigail shows him that if he kills Novol, he will do two wrongs - one to unnecessarily end Novol’s life and the other to spoil his chances of actually becoming the king - she saves, as her name suggest, both Dovid and Novol. Avigail shows that she can challenge even powerful people when they are mistaken, but does so politely and successfully.  This is something I would like to emulate: to be able to stand up for things that are right and to be able to challenge even powerful people even when personal risk is involved, but of course always in a polite and respectful way.

Turning now to today’s parashah, which is the day of my actual Bas Mitzvah.

In perek lammud zayin, posuk gimmel it says: “And he loved Yosef from all his sons because he was ‘ben zekunim hu’ for him and he made him a beautiful coat.”

I’ve left the phrase ‘ben zekunim’ untranslated, as that’s what I’m going to talk about. Rashi comments on Ben Zekunim - son of old age - that is, Yosef was the son of Yaakov’s old age.How can this make sense if Yosef had a younger brother Binyomin and Yaakov was even older when Binyomin was born?

Rashi is obviously unhappy with the first answer because of this problem (I found that the Maskil LeDovid says the same thing), so he looks for other meanings of the word Zekunim.

He relies on the Targum who translates it as “a wise son for him.” Rashi explains that this means that Yaakov handed Yosef everything that he learnt from Sheim and Aiver - these were famous people who had run a yeshivah from ancient times to teach people about the one God.  But that means the verse is telling us that he loved him because he gave him all his wisdom, but really it is the other way round. He gave him all his wisdom because he loved him! Therefore Rashi offers a third explanation: Yaakov loved Yosef because he looked like him. Zekunim is being read midrashically as “ziv ikunim - his facial features” i.e Yosef resembled Yaakov.  This means that Yaakov loved Yosef because he saw in him his own character traits, capabilities and challenges.

The normal way to explain the three readings of Rashi is that only one reflects HaShem’s intention, but we don’t know which.  However, my father said, using the interpretative method of the Shem MiShmuel that all three can be correct readings, and they are linked in the following way.

Yaakov loved Yosef because he was born while his father, Yaakov was in his old age.  Because he was born at this stage in Yaakov’s life, he was the child who reflected his father’s character, and because of this, Yaakov chose to pass on his wisdom to Yosef.

This is another important message for me - I need to learn from my family and community how to be a successful Jewish adult, but also, like Yosef, strike out and find my own path in life.

I have had the pleasure of grwoing up in this warm and welcoming community and I want to thank you all very much for providing this for me.  I am very blessed to have grown up in my family and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Mummy and Daddy for providing me with the wonderful life that I have.  I would also like to thank my brothers and sisters for always being there for me.  One of the reasons I am here today is because I have three amazing grandparents - Grandma, Grandpa and Bubbe - who care for and love me.  I know that my late Zeide would be very proud of me today.

As I become an adult I hope that I can learn from this week’s parashah about how to enter the world successfully as a Jewish adult, and like Avigail, my name’s sake, be willing to fight for what’s right, and bring simchah to my family, to my community and to HKBH.

Sermon Notes 29/10/11 - Noach

Noah and Becoming One's Self

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

This week’s parashah starts with the phrase אלא תולדות נח נח – these are the products of Noach: Noach.  Rabbi K.K. Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe, notes that to be spiritually successful, the product of Noach must be, well, Noach.

Making one’s unique contribution to the world by developing, within the framework of Torah and mitzvot, one’s own spiritual character, is an essential feature of a meaningful religious life.  Too often, we try to fulfil the aspirations of others, becoming clones of them, rather than ourselves.

Sermon Notes 15/10/11 - Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot

Gilad Shalit: Rejoicing After The Deal Is Done

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

I have taken a couple of days to process my own feelings about the impending prisoner exchange in Israel, which will include the return of Gilat Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity.  By Shabbat Chol HaMoed I felt able to offer some thoughts on an extraordinary moment in Israel’s history.

I saw a quote from MK Yisrael Hasson which sums up my stance beautifully: הלב שמח, הראש דואג  – the heart rejoices, the head worries.  Who is not filled with delight at the prospect of Gilad’s return – a Jewish boy, a soldier captured protecting our land, will soon be freed and celebrating with his family?  Yet who is not also consumed with angst at the prospect of releasing 1000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were responsible for major terrorist atrocities?  And perhaps more worrying, what are the longer-term consequences for Israel of vastly inequitable deals such as this?  It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a victory for Hamas and an incentive for further abductions.

Jewish sources have long debated this issue.  The most well-know case was that of the 13th-century German-Jewish leader, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who was kidnapped in Lombardy in 1286.  Tradition has it that a huge sum was raised to ransom him, but he refused to allow the community to pay the money for fear of encouraging other abductions.  Even after he died in prison in 1293, his body wasn’t released for burial for a further 14 years.  In more recent times, the view of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, a world-leading American scholar, was solicited during a 1970 Arab plane-hijacking.  One of the passengers was Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, a famous Rosh Yeshivah and Torah personality.  Rabbi Hutner’s students were considering raising a large ransom for his release, but Rabbi Kaminetsky opposed this move.  He argued that in wartime (and he considered the ongoing Arab-Israeli hostilities to be such a situation), the delivery of a ransom strengthens the enemy’s position, something unconscionable, no matter the alternative.

Yet in my view, this position, while compelling, is only relevant pre facto and must not determine our response to the Shalit deal post facto.  This distinction is informed by a halachic rule about what one says about a poor purchase made by a friend – while beforehand one may say that one doesn’t like the item, once he or she has purchased it, one must set aside one’s reservations and be unfailingly supportive and positive.

The agreement over Gilad Shalit’s release is done.  Whatever our misgivings about the deal and its consequences, we must all now thank God that it has happened and enthusiastically celebrate Gilad’s imminent return to his family.  Any other response would devalue the significance of his release, spurn the efforts expended by so many on his behalf and divide the Jewish people.