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!

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.

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.

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.