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Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation
Weekly Musings January 2004
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Friday, January 2, 2004

Today (assuming that you are reading this on Friday 8 Teves, Jan 2) is gloomy not just because Steve Waugh is retiring, but as a traditional Jewish day of mourning as well.
 
Ptolemy, ruler of Egypt summoned 72 Israeli sages, locked each up separately and set them the task of translating the Torah into the lingua franca of the day, Greek.
Task completed, the 72 versions were compared and found to be identical down to the punctuation. Even those passages willfully mistranslated to avoid misinterpretation, were mistranslated identically by each and every scholar.
 
Think about the sheer impossibility of this phenomenon.
The worlds greatest linguists once teamed up with a group of computer programmers to invent a Universal Translator, a machine that could render any word or phrase into any language one chose.
To beta-test it they selected a phrase in English, converted it to Russian and then bought it back to English.
The Phrase: The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak
The Result: The vodka was fine but the meat was tasteless
 
Miracles notwithstanding, the Talmud reckons today, the 8th of Teves, (assuming its still Friday), when the sages completed their assignment a national tragedy on par with the day the golden calf was constructed. For the first time in history our most precious possession the law and lore of G-d was available to all, demanding no apprenticeship in traditional Jewish modes of interpretation or methods of scholarship. Any schnook could acquire a copy and fool himself that he understands.
 
There is nothing wrong with translation per se. Prior to his passing Moshe himself was commanded to adapt the Bible into the 70 world languages, and, as we see at the present time, blessed as we are by a proliferation of Jewish books in all languages and a consequential explosion of interest in learning about our wisdom and culture, rendering Torah into the vernacular can promote Judaism. The trouble was how, why and for whom.
By taking possession, as it were, of the Torah, Ptolemy was attempting to convert Hashems Book into just another volume of classics in the universal library. Nothing G-dly, mystical or supra rational would be left after the compulsory conversion. No language can approach Hebrew for wealth of expression and depth of meaning. Every word in the original can be delved into, elucidated and savoured. By his forced rendering of the Torah into another, more sterile language, Ptolemy was the equivalent of a collector of beautiful butterflies- in order to display ones trophy; one first has to stick a pin through it.
 
Today (still Friday?) demonstrate your commitment to the timeless treasury that is Torah. Buy a Jewish book (in any language), or study a topic and discuss it around the table tonight. Authentic Judaism lives, not through transitory contacts with other cultures, but through our never-ending fascination and absorption with G-ds word and the medium through which He conveyed it.

Friday, January 9 2004
 
Q: Who was the straightest man in the Bible?
A: Yosef, he was a ruler in Pharaohs court.
 
The management would like to apologise for the preceding. As an example of incredibly weak, non-funny and corny attempt at humour, it is probably unparallel in its depravity and marks a new nadir. Mark it down as evidence of a misspent youth.
 
The question is valid though.
Yosef was a high achiever if there ever was one. By dint of hard work, intelligence, good judgment and a liberal dose of Divine assistance, he had scaled the heights of human ambition; master of all he surveyed, personally responsible for the lives and sustenance of all his subjects and one of the three richest men in recorded history.
And he achieved this despite maintaining his life-long straightness (honesty and trustworthiness).
So tell me something, why was his word alone, in their deathbed conversation, not good enough for his dying father Yaakov?
 
And let me lie with my fathers, and carry me away from Egypt and bury me in their burying-place.
And (Yosef) said, I will do as you say
And (Yaakov) said Swear it to me
 
An oath is the highest degree of commitment known to man. The act of swearing in G-ds name, attesting something to be true, with your immortal soul at stake if you are lying, is as perilous an endeavour as any demanded. There are many stories of innocent people preferring to pay huge sums rather than take an oath to clear their name. In traditional Jewish courts cases were decided by requiring the accused or litigants to take a vow. It was assumed that no person, no matter how dubious a character, would debase Hashems name by lying under oath.
And when one swears to carry out a task, one isnt just committing to Rabbi, Ill try (and we all know what that means.) rather, this is a self-binding pledge to achieve the promised outcome and never deviate till done.
 
Yaakov remains could not stay in Egypt. His soul-root was so much higher than the filth and immorality that Egypt represents that, before dying, he felt the need to guarantee his immediate ascent to Egypt, even to the point of requiring an oath of fidelity from Yosef to fulfill this last will and testament.
 
In life, always remember that this aint the goal, no matter how comfortable an existence we may find ourselves living. Creature comforts, spiritual delights, nothing we have on this world compares to the bliss awaiting us in the Messianic era. Never be satisfied; never settle for remaining in Egypt.
For two thousand years, through good times and bad we held firm to the belief in the speedy arrival of Moshiach, and even though he may tarry, I await his coming. Swear to yourself, with an unbreakable oath, that I will not relax till we achieve the true purpose of creation, till we get to go home to our fathers.

Friday, January 16 2003
 
Growing up, my next-door neighbour was a farmer. The last of the famous Feiglin family of Shepparton still on the farm, hed be away all week and come home to his wife for Shabbos. Living next door had its benefits: the occasional crate of seasonal fruits from his orchards and free schach before Succos. Best of all, a few Sundays employment each year helping him decanter his home (garage)-made wine, with frequent opportunities to sample that years vintage straight from the barrel.
One off-the-cuff comment of his often comes to mind; When you have to depend on the weather, sonny, everyone prays.
 
And every son born, throw them into the Nile- (Pharoahs decree against the Jews)
 
The Egyptians worshipped the Nile. Undisturbed by the vagaries of the climate with no need to pray for rain, an ingenious series of canals irrigated the farmlands of the region.  Till very recently, (when they managed to irreparably pollute the whole river system), the Nile Delta was the life-blood of the Egyptian economy, guaranteeing steady agricultural returns with minimum investment of effort.
A Jews wealth is different. Israel is the Land where G-ds eye is upon it, throughout the year. The original land of droughts and flooding rains where the quality and quantity of rainfall are directly proportional to the size of the harvest, a Jew from Israel is ever aware of Hashems imminence.
The Egyptians murderous decree could be homiletically rendered as an attempt to impose their atheistic worldview on us. Throwing the Jews into the Nile, immersing them into the Egyptian atavistic viewpoint, is the moral equivalent of denying the supra-rational and equating life with only the natural and routine.
Our founding fathers, Yaakov and his sons, came down to Egypt, carrying with them the knowledge of G-d and the need to pray to Him constantly. It was only after their demise, when the remaining Jews were left bereft and spiritually vulnerable, that the Egyptians conceived their wicked stratagem. Conversely, it was only through the offices of Moshe, raised in Pharaohs palace and educated in the Egyptian ways, immersed in the Nile as a baby, and having personally investigated and rejected all that Egypt represented, could the Jews make their break from the immorality of exile.
 
Life is a daily descent, into a world peopled by weird characters preaching bizarre philosophies and shrieking that there is nothing higher than nature or self.  Always remember that a Jews desire is to return to Israel- representing a constant awareness of Hashem and the recognition that everything that happens in life is by the bidding of, and offering a lesson from, G-d.

Friday, January 23 2004
 
 
I truly believe that everything I observe, every person I encounter and in every situation in which I find myself, there is a lesson to be learned and a purpose to be discovered.
Every moment contains a message, and to walk blindly through life, untouched by ones surroundings, would be to squander ones time; the equivalent to a lifetime spent turning over every page in the library without reading or understanding a single word.
I also believe that the Jewish people have an historical mission. For mine, the purpose of existence, G-ds ambition and compulsion to create, is for us to reveal the concealed G-dliness implicit in creation and render the world a stage for Him to headline on.
 
From this, admittedly biased, Judeo-centric perspective, the shards and shades of world events take on a distinctively tribe-tinted hue. Every politician is judged by his attitude to Israel; every editorial is scanned for instances of latent or blatant anti-Semitism, and the vagaries of modern life are weighed on the scales of is it good or bad for the Jews?
 
Well read tomorrow of the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians in the effort to persuade them to let my people go. Fine, Im sure the Shock and Awe campaign (to use contemporary terminology) was certainly persuasive and absolutely guaranteed to impose the requisite knowledge and fear of G-d on all the Egyptians. These however were not the main purpose of the plagues: So you (the Jews) will tell your children and you will know that I am G-d
Hashem went to the trouble of punishing the Egyptians so that the Yidden would learn a lesson! Reminds me of the old joke about the suburban Jewish mother whod done her semester of Psych 101 back in her University days, thus qualifying her forevermore as a expert psychologist. First day of school and shes explaining to the teacher how her pampered darling is never to be subjected to corporal punishment, as the trauma might inflict long term damage to his delicate psyche. If my bubele is naughty, pick up the kid at the next desk and spank him, and I promise you, my son will get the message. Hashem spanked the Egyptians so that those few Jews not yet persuaded would get the message!
 
If were so important; if the deeds and creeds of every single Jew make such a difference to Hashem that Hes prepared to cause such cataclysmic changes just to get our attention, imagine how every action we do has the capacity to affect the world. If one has the ability to influence self or other to adopt a new observance or undertake a mitzvah- do it. It matters and will make a world of difference.

Friday, Januaty 30 2004
 
And they shall borrow from their neighbours gold & silver vessels
Final instructions before the Exodus
 
Did you follow the news stories last year about the Egyptian Law Professor who was initiating a suit against world Jewry before the International Court of Justice? He demanded the Jews return the gold and silver that their ancestors had taken with them on their way out.
Its not the first time in history such claims have been made; Alexander the Great once presided over a similar trial where the Egyptian claims were eventually defeated by the Jewish advocate calculating the back wages due for the 600 000 slaves over 400 years and demanding payment first. The Egyptians did the maths and fled. (Talmud. Tractate Sanhedrin 91a)
 
OK, so they owe us more than we owe them, but why did we take the money in the first place? The average slave presented with an uncertain chance at freedom would surely be so busy high-tailing it out of the country to be worried about making the rounds begging for keepsakes from his former masters.
Tradition relates otherwise. The emptying out of Egypt was such a priority that Hashem insisted, through Moshe, that the Jews go door-to-door collecting. Commentators explain that Hashem ensured that the Jews would become rich to fulfil His deal with our father Avraham Your descendents will be strangers in a strange land, be enslavedand afterwards leave with great wealth.
 
In Chassidic thought this looting of Egypts wealth is analogous to the spiritual riches the Jews accrued during their sojourn in Egypt. They left accompanied by treasures of gold and silver, but the real reason they were exiled to Egypt was for the spiritual remuneration obtainable. The years of slavery were marked by the physical hardships they encountered, but G-ds intention was that their suffering should act as a smelting pot, refining and elevating the elements of holiness lurking there and rendering the whole experience ultimately rewarding.
 
Wherever one finds oneself, whatever one is doing, there is a purpose to be realised and spiritual profits to be pursued. The roads of life that we stumble down are not digressions on our journey, nor are the chains of desire that seek to enslave us undue restraints on our freedom. By overcoming all obstacles and fleeing from foreign masters we reach the pot of gold waiting at the end of our passage through life.

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