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.