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.

Summer Reading

What I've been Reading

Over the summer, I managed to read the following books, mentioned here in author order

 

Talia Carner

Jerusalem Maiden


David A. Cooper

God Is A Verb: Kabbalah And The Practice Of Mystical Judaism


Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend (recommended by Leslie Kolbrener)


Todd M. Endelman

The Jews Of Britain 1656 to 2000 (thanks to Robin Summers)


Martin Gilbert

In Ishmael’s House: A History Of Jews In Muslim Lands (thanks to Rabbi Liss)


David Hazony

The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life (recommended by Clare Goldwater)


Roxana Jones

While I Was Learning To Become God (review copy)


Judy Klitsner

Subversive Sequels: How Biblical Stories Mine And Undermine Each Other (thanks to Simon Cohen)


 Ze’ev Maghen

John Lennon And The Jews: A Philosophical Rampage (recommended by Melanie Phillips)


Bernard Malamud

The Fixer (recommended by Mike Posen)


Yvettte Alt Miller

Angels At The Table: A Practical Guide To Celebrating Shabbat (review copy)


Simon Sebag Montefiore

Jerusalem: The Biography


This is also an opportunity to introduce my new 'Book Blog', Belovski's Books, which will feature short reviews of these and other books.

Sermon Notes 10/09/11 - Ki Taitzey

Of Riots, Honesty and Mending Society

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

Just before Tisha B’Av, I spoke about two recent murders in the Jewish world.  I suggested that the root cause of much evil in society is the lack of respect for human life, something very much on the mind of the prophet Isaiah when he rebuked our ancestors.  This thought seems especially relevant this weekend, as the world marks the 10th anniversary of the ‘9/11’ attacks on the USA.  As we think of the victims, their families and mull over a day which destabilised the world in radical ways, Isaiah’s message seems especially apt.

Just after that Shabbat at the beginning of August, the UK was treated to a series of devastating riots.  Exploiting unrest over the death of a man in a police shoot-out, violent criminals looted, burned and destroyed high-street shops and warehouses, causing huge damage, closing businesses and terrifying local residents.  Much has been written about the riots, including an important and sensitive piece by the Chief Rabbi here.  Many of us will have also been distressed to note the appearance of some Stamford Hill Chassidim caught rubbernecking in footage from the Tottenham riots.  This has given rise to a new anecdote: there are three types of people in Stamford Hill – those who don’t have a television; those who do have a television but don’t tell anyone; those who now have a television!

This week’s parashah ends with two, ostensibly unrelated, mitzvot – the requirement to deal honestly in business, and the obligation to eliminate the memory of Israel’s murderous archenemy, Amalek.  Rashi addresses this juxtaposition:

If you cheat with weights and measures, you should fear the attack of the enemy... (Rashi to Devarim 25:17)

It is noteworthy that the Torah refers to a dishonest person as an ‘abomination’ (Devarim 25:16), a form of opprobrium usually reserved for the most severe transgressions.  According to Seforno (commentary to Devarim 32:16), these acts drive away the divine presence – that is they cause the rupture and demise of society.

But that is just the point – dishonesty and bloodshed, here represented by crooked business dealings and Amalek, are closely linked.  A society in which there is no respect for the property of others will, given time, slide into one in which human life is cheap and dispensable.  It is a small and frighteningly-easy progression from looting to killing, from the abomination of theft to the abomination of bloodshed.

Yet the converse must also be true – scrupulous honesty mends society, invites spirituality and nurtures our sense of the value of every human being.

Sermon Notes 03/06/11 - Naso

The Nazir and the Self-Critical Jew

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

A nazir or is a man or woman who voluntarily takes a vow to abstain for a defined period from wine and grape products, taking a haircut and contact with the dead (See BeMidbar 6).

To get to the bottom of this rather odd concept, it is necessary to understand the key word – יפלא   – which appears in its opening sequence of the relevant passage.  It teaches something about the nature of the vow itself: the Talmud translates it as ‘with clarity’.  While this has certain technical aspects, it can also mean that the nazir must be certain of his or her motivation and fully understand the vow’s ramifications before taking it.

This touches on why someone might choose to become a nazir.  Possible reasons are: (a) to articulate a burning passion for spiritual growth which is expressed through the temporary adoption of a set of personal stringencies; (b) because of a ‘holier-than-thou’ approach to life – the nazir thinks that he or she is ‘better’ or more spiritually advanced than others.  While, at least in some circumstances, motivation (a) is laudable, b) is harmful and a misuse of a powerful spiritual opportunity.  By demanding פלא   – clarity, the Torah expects the nazir to engage in a process of soul-searching before taking the vow to ensure that it is taken for the right reason.

The haftorah (drawn from Shoftim 13), describes the miraculous events surrounding the birth of Shimshon, who was a life-long nazir.  An angel appeared to Manoach and his wife and promised them that they would produce a child who would save the Israelites from the Philistines.  When challenged by Manoach, the angel revealed that his name was פלאי   – the very word that introduces our passage.  Shimshon was to aspire to devote every fibre of his being to God and the Israelites; while in practice, he didn’t always succeed, the angel left his parents in no doubt as to what would be expected – an extraordinary degree of clarity of altruism in pursuing his mission.

Although we no longer have the vow of the nazir (although see here and here for information about Rabbi David Cohen, the ‘Rav ha-Nazir of Jerusalem’, a real nazir of recent times), its principles are certainly germane today.  Stringencies – in Hebrew, חומרות – are very much in vogue in the religious world.  While in the right circumstances, the implementation of carefully-selected stringencies can stimulate genuine spiritual growth, it is regrettably common for them to be little more than a type of destructive halachic one-upmanship.  The passage of the nazir provides a stark lesson – one must always question one’s motivation when adopting voluntary religious responsibilities.  The Torah requires us to develop the self-awareness needed to distinguish between a genuine desire for spirituality and ‘keeping up with the Cohens’.

Finally, the importance of the nazir’s motivation, and by extension, the need to become a self-critical Jew, is illustrated by a famous piece in the Talmud.  Shimon ha-Tzadik, a high-priest of the Second Temple era, explained that with one exception, he never ate the offerings brought by nazirim, as he suspected their motivation:

Shimon ha-Tzaddik said: Only once in my life have I eaten of the guilt offering brought by an impure nazir.  On one occasion a nazir came from the South, and I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was of handsome appearance, and with thick locks of hair symmetrically arranged. I said to him: ‘My son, why did you see fit to destroy your beautiful hair?’ He replied: ‘I was a shepherd for my father in my town. [Once] I went to draw water from a well, gazed upon my reflection in the water, whereupon my evil desires rushed upon me and sought to drive me from the world [through sin]. But I said to it [my lust]: "Wretch! Why do you brag in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to become worms and dust? I swear that I will shave off [his beautiful hair] for the sake of Heaven."’ I immediately arose and kissed his head, saying: ‘My son, may there be many nazirim such as you in Israel! (Nedarim 9b)

Sermon Notes 07/05/11 - Emor

Responding to the Downfall of the Wicked

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

The recent death of Osama bin Laden should prompt us to think about the appropriate way to respond to the elimination of evil.  How should we feel when arguably the most hated man on the planet meets his end?  What is our reaction to footage of Americans uproariously celebrating the news of bin Laden’s demise?

Of course, it is impossible for those not directly affected to appreciate the full impact of his heinous deeds – the US itself and not just specific Americans were terribly traumatised at what they have viewed as an attack on their very way of life and ideals.  Yet, it still behoves us to consider what may be a proper and spiritually-sensitive approach to such events.

An obvious starting point is the Book of Mishlei, which insists that: ‘When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; do not let your heart rejoice when he stumbles’ (24:17).  This verse is supported by the Talmud’s observation that when the Egyptians drowned at the Reed Sea:

The angels wanted to sing.  God said to them: ‘My creations are drowning in the Sea, and you want to sing?’ (Megillah 10b)

This concern for the fate of the Egyptians is reflected in the abbreviation of the celebratory Hallel Psalms said on the latter six days of Pesach.  At the Seder, we spill a few drops of wine from our cups when mentioning the ten plagues to recognise the Egyptians' suffering.

Yet there seem to be another stream of sources.  Although the angels were not allowed to sing at the time the Egyptians drowned, Moses and Miriam led the entire nation in Song the very next day; we celebrate the downfall of Haman on Purim, often with wild abandon.  Another verse in Mishlei (11:10) suggests that 'there is joy when the wicked perish', and the Talmud notes that:

King David did not say ‘Halleluiah’ until he saw the downfall of the wicked, as the verse says: (Tehillim 104) ‘May the wicked perish from the land and let the wicked be no more; bless the Lord, My soul, Halleluiah’. (Berachot 9b)

These sources do not actually contradict each other.  However despicable a human being may be, and however much better the world is without them, their death should always be tinged with sadness.  At the moment of their demise, the possibility to admit their wrongdoing and do whatever they can to rectify it is lost forever – that is not a time for celebration.   Indeed, Beruriah, wife of the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Meir, pointed out to him that it would be preferable for his oppressors to repent rather than be eliminated.  He accepted her viewpoint, prayed for mercy and they repented of their evil ways. (Berachot 10a)  This is why it was not appropriate for the angels to sing while the Egyptians were drowning.

Once the moment has passed, however, it is appropriate to celebrate – but not the enemy’s death.  Instead, it is correct to be glad that the good-evil balance has shifted in favour of good, and that as a result, we are a little closer to achieving our spiritual objectives.  We should be glad that bin Laden is no more, yet saddened that his death was the only way in which to eliminate the evil that he represented.  The rejoicing at the Sea and Purim focus not on the removal of our adversaries, but on our survival.

In the same vein, the classic commentary Metzudat David notes that the reason there is joy when the wicked perish is 'because while they are yet alive, they harm people'.  Sadly, in most cases, only the death of the wicked removes the evil from the world.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner explains that there are moments in history when it is possible to gain a brief glimpse of an idyllic world, in which the good are rewarded and the evil get their come-uppance.  The spectacular downfall of the wicked, such as happened at the Sea, qualifies.  As such, when King David visualised the elimination of the wicked, he felt motivated to say ‘Halleluiah’ for the first time.  For a fleeting instant, the world was set to rights

But Psalm 104 is not a vengeful song of the victor, but a beautiful paean to God’s complete control over the wonders of the terrestrial and celestial realms.  The psalmist used the downfall of the wicked to emphasis his conviction that it is God, not Man, who runs the world – this is expressed in every facet of existence, from the majesty of the mountains to the chirping of the birds, and most certainly in the eventual demise of those who commit evil.

Our response to the death of bin Laden should be gladness at the elimination of the wickedness he perpetrated, muted by the realisation that there is a great deal of evil left to combat and much work to be done to bring God-awareness to humanity.

Thanks to Rabbi N.S. Liss for helpful suggestions

Sermon Notes 09/04/11 - Metzora

Tzara’at and the Contagious Smile

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

I didn’t actually give a sermon this week, but on Friday night, I spoke briefly about tzara’at, the mysterious skin-disease which is the major topic of this and last weeks’ parshiot.

Sources are divided as to whether tzara’at was a contagious form of leprosy or similar.  Some, like Chizkuni, understood its symptoms to refer to an infectious illness; others, like Rav Hirsch, insisted that the rules governing the management of tzara’at indicate beyond doubt that it was not infectious.  For an excellent study of this disagreement, see MD Spitzer's excellent article: ‘Is Tsara’at infectious? A unified theory of Tsaraat’.[1]  Yet whatever the nature of the disorder, the rabbis insist that it was visited on the sufferer as a punishment for one of a range of anti-social crimes, such as theft, arrogance or, more famously, gossip.

It occurs to me that whether or not tzara’at was actually contagious, the socially-destructive, toxic mind-set that underlies the behaviour that produced it most certainly is.  Negativity, destructive talk, and the unwillingness to see good in others, all pollute the atmosphere within a community.  Apart from the direct harm they cause, they also preclude positive thinking, stifle altruism and lead to self-seeking individualism rather than co-operation and mutual-affirmation.  It is unsurprising that the Torah removes the pedlars of this poison from society, isolating them and their world-view from everyone else; this allows them a period of reflection and re-orientation before their re-admission to normal life.

And if negativity and anti-social behaviour are infectious, positivity, altruism and the insistence on always seeing good in others are even more so!  We’ve all been touched by a contagious smile or a random act of kindness; these can spread like wildfire and change our world. 


[1] MD Spitzer', ‘Is Tsara’at infectious? A unified theory of Tsaraat’, in Degel: Torah and Jewish Studies from Alei Tzion, Tishrei 5771, Vol. 3 (1), pp. 23-30, available at < http://www.aleitzion.co.uk/contents_files/5771-degel-tishrei-563.pdf>.

Sermon Notes 02/04/11 - HaChodesh and Tazria

HaChodesh and Cautious Radicalism

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

This week marks the conclusion of eight wonderful years at Dunstan Road – we joined the community on 1st April 2003.  It’s another opportunity for Vicki and me to remind ourselves what a privilege it is to serve as spiritual leaders to this wonderful community and to thank all of you for your support and continued enthusiasm for everything that we do.

Such milestones are also an opportunity to reflect on a particular aspect of the rabbi’s role in the community – ensuring that I am actively and constantly engaged in fostering Jewish growth, change and development, balancing those with the need to preserve and continue our community’s legacy.   Every community, especially ours, includes people who would like the rabbi to overhaul everything with little regard to the past, and others who see no need to change anything at all – if it worked last year or century, why shouldn’t it work now?  Striking the balance between these needs is no mean feat.

This week’s special reading of HaChodesh is helpful in considering this issue.  It begins with God telling Moshe that ‘this month (Nissan, which begins this week) will be the first of months for you’ (Shemot 12:2).  Simply understood, it refers to the beginning of independent Jewish nationhood, which is characterised by our own calendar and festival cycle.  And of course, it all happens in Chodesh HaAviv – the month when nature comes back to life after the dormancy of winter.

However, the Sefat Emet of Gur (d. 1905) understands the verse to refer what he calls כח התחדשות   – the ability to renew, change, reform and innovate (‘month’ and ‘renewal’ are the same word in Hebrew).  He explains that this capability is something innate to the Jewish people; yet it was lost when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and, indeed used against them by Pharaoh.  According to Sefat Emet, this is the meaning of the phrase ויקם מלך חדש על מצרים   – a new king arose over Egypt (Shemot 1:8) – a king arose who usurped the ability to change and adapt and used it against the Israelites, heralding the start of the Egyptian slavery.  As such, the redemption dawned when the capability to innovate was restored to them; this is the true meaning of HaChodesh.

Yet while this renewal may have involved national redemption, it did not wipe away the past entirely, just the negative aspects of the slavery.  Their renewal and recreation was based on the promises that God made to the forefathers, and the continuation of their legacy.  Real Jewish renewal requires one to have one eye on the future with another on the past.

So, while the rabbis sometimes gets caught in the crossfire between the changers and the conservatives, proper pro-active leadership ensures that we are constantly growing, changing and re-evaluating, but only in a way that secures the future by neither merely aping the past or disregarding it: it should make both groups slightly uncomfortable, but not too much!  If it isn’t an oxymoron, this might be termed ‘cautious radicalism’.

I have a feeling that the next year in our community is going to be very exciting.  There are hard decisions to be made, but we have a great management team with a terrific plan; we are about to undergo a carefully-thought-through makeover / repackaging, we have innovative ideas for educational and social programming, and do you know, that we’ve had a recent flurry of young couples joining the Shul and expressing interest in our plans.  All these build on the past without being enslaved by it.  This is real התחדשות, something I am proud and honoured to lead and guide, and should, with God’s help, steer us towards a rosy and vibrant future.

A Torah Haven in the Geordie Heartlands

A Sabbatical Trip to my Alma Mater

I have recently spent a week in Gateshead, a Yeshiva town in the north of England, where my wife and I lived when we were first married and I was a student at the Gateshead Yeshiva.  I remain eternally indebted to Gateshead for the outstanding Torah education I received there, and particularly for the encouragement I received to develop into an independent rabbi and halachist.  Yet it was the first time since my departure for the rabbinate some 13 years ago that I’d spent more than the odd day there.

On the surface, very little has changed in Gateshead: the same spiritually-striving and hospitable Torah families hidden behind gloomy ‘Coronation Street’ terraces; the same economic challenges.  Yet the community has doubled in size since the early 90s, necessitating expansion into areas that were once exclusively Geordie, and there is a greatly enhanced infrastructure including a community health-centre (in our former home).  But the most significant ‘news’ has been the appointment of Rabbi S.F. Zimmerman as town Rav following the passing of the esteemed Rabbi Rakow.  A brilliant, articulate and thoughtful American, he seems to have struck just the right balance between preserving Gateshead’s conservative character and instigating changes vital for the community’s development.  These include modernising the education system by facilitating alternatives to long-term Torah study for adults, and encouraging working families to settle and start businesses in Gateshead, fostering greater religious and social diversity and increasing local prosperity.

I am delighted that I found the experience overwhelmingly positive: I was royally hosted by dear friends, sat in my former seat in the Yeshiva for Shacharit, and enjoyed a visit to the colossal Lehmann’s bookshop, where I picked up a couple of hard-to-come-by mediaeval commentaries on Rashi.  I also had the privilege of private meetings with the Rav, the Rosh Yeshiva and the Yeshiva’s spiritual supervisor.  Of course, much of this is nostalgia: it felt good to retrace familiar steps and to show the children where ‘Daddy used to learn’.

I was especially struck by the mature attitude of many of the people I met when confronted with someone (me) whose outlook and objectives differ considerably from theirs.  I recall that this had always been my experience in Gateshead, especially at the Yeshiva.  When I joined in 1990, I was several years older than my class-mates; they had strong backgrounds in Torah learning, I did not; whereas my wife and I had recently graduated from Oxford, most of them had no intention of attending university; they wore the sombre ‘yeshiva kit’, and I was none too keen on the dress-code.  But from the very first day I was welcomed as a full member by staff and students alike.

Those contrasts of twenty years ago are now more manifest.  I spent the entire week in Gateshead working on my doctoral dissertation.  It is well-known that the ‘Yeshiva World’ tends to view academic Jewish studies with distrust, and the potential holder of a ‘Rabbi Dr.’ moniker with suspicion.  Yet everyone, without exception, from the people I met casually to the Rav, were interested in what I am doing, and genuinely enthusiastic about my achievements.

My experience was repeated in conversations with old friends, some of whom have children of the same ages as ours.  I was asked a number of times what our eldest daughter Michali, who is now in school-year 11, will be ‘doing next’.  Here, the differences couldn’t be more pronounced: it is the norm in Gateshead for children to leave school after GCSEs to go to yeshiva or seminary, whereas Michali is choosing her A-Level subjects in preparation for university.  Again, I found the people with whom I spoke to be supportive and encouraging, even though Michali’s plans diverge so greatly from what they would consider appropriate for their children.

I think that this phenomenon reflects the fact that the Gateshead community contains many people who are not just thoroughly decent, but happy and secure with their own life-choices.  I’ve noticed that unhappy and insecure people within our religious world feel a need to run down others in order to validate their own positions; those who are secure can celebrate the choices of others, even when they strongly disagree with them, without feeling threatened.  And while I’m sure that that there are those in Gateshead who do not behave like this, I have realised that this is why I have continued to feel comfortable with the people there, despite the considerable gulf between our aspirations.

Thinking more broadly, this is a good working model for cross-communal cohesion.  Even those individuals and communities with radically different styles and understandings of the world can peacefully co-exist, but this is unlikely to happen unless their leaders are happy and secure with their own identities, and make this manifest in the message they preach.  Regrettably, this is uncommon – in many places, religious life thrives on delegitimisation.  Much rests on our ability to convey a sense of contentment and joy to our children and students.

I was encouraged by my visit to Gateshead: for all its pious insularity, it is a community of people who appear to be secure in their choices, something that can only contribute to harmony in an otherwise fragmented religious world.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle here.

Sermon Notes 19/03/11 - Zachor and Purim

Purim, murders in Itamar and catastrophe in Japan

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

The past few days have been filled with tragedy: in Japan: first the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami which have destroyed countless thousands of lives, I have already posted a little about the unfolding tragedy in Japan here; we must continue to pray for the wellbeing of the survivors, for a successful resolution to the nuclear emergency there and to assist in whatever way we feel we can.

And then, in our beloved Israel, the despicable, unspeakable terrorist murder of the Fogel family in Itamar has shaken us all and our thoughts are with the surviving children and other family members.  On Parashat Zachor are we in any doubt that ‘in every generation they stand up to annihilate us’ (Haggadah) and that remembering the evil of those who will ‘destroy, eliminate, murder all the Jews, women and children’ (Megillah) is just as relevant today.

In the light of this, it is very difficult to be in the mood for Purim – it hardly feels like a time of celebration and victory, with Japan devastated and orphans mourning the victims of another senseless attack.  Yet how can we not celebrate Purim – which recognises Jewish survival throughout history, despite all the odds?

I suggest that what all of us feel at times like this is a sense of hopelessness – a fear that we are, in fact, subject to purely deterministic forces and random chance.  We are despair that nothing we do really makes any difference – if any of us just ‘happened’ to be in North-Eastern Japan last Friday morning or in the wrong house in Itamar last Friday night, we too could have been killed.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (commentary to VaYikra 11) explains that the laws of impurity governing human remains are intended to address precisely this issue:

The human corpse calls attention to a fact that is liable to foster the misconception that is called impurity.  For the fact is that, when a corpse lies before us, a human being has succumbed to the compelling physical forces of nature.

But the following is also true: The corpse we see before us is not the whole man, nor even his essence.  For man’s true being cannot be touched by the power of physical forces.

These are the truths that must be impressed upon the mind of the living person who faces the phenomena of death.  For whereas death brings to mind man’s frailty and his submission to the forces of nature, man must stand tall in the midst of the physical world, proud of his vital freedom.

The notion that we are subject to random forces entirely beyond our control engenders religious and moral torpor and is the antithesis of everything Judaism holds dear.  It is also the ideology of Amalek: Amalek ‘chanced upon you on the way’ (Parashat Zachor) and Haman cast lots to decide when to kill the Jews.  As such, while Purim (and Zachor) certainly remember the evil acts of our enemies past and present, it is also an affirmation and celebration of the most important religious idea of all: the rejection of determinism and randomness.  Of course, this leaves serious theological questions about the nature of calamity and the lot of its victims.  Yet while mustering the strength to celebrate will certainly be more difficult than usual, this Purim offers an unprecedented opportunity to affirm and celebrate the role of God, meaning and purpose in every moment of life.