Friday, 5 March 2004
Jews do davka.
We answer questions with a question (why not?), name a
radical cause (Land Rights for Gay Whales?) and you can be sure that our brethren are heavily represented in the protest and
most obviously, force us into a position and just watch us kick and squirm, fighting against it. Ironically, fidelity to the
religion is always highest during times when the surrounding culture is most intolerant and, unfortunately, periods of respite
are often greeted by a widespread relaxation in commitment.
This is true of now and even truer of the period leading up
to the Purim story. The Jews had abandoned the faith. So shameless were they, that many didnt even hesitate to partake of
Achashverosh party thrown to commemorate the conquest of Israel and our subsequent exile. The Hamans of this world take particular
pleasure in reminding us that were never secure. Just yesterday you were treated as cherished citizens of the realm, swanking
around at the kings private party, today you are miserable vermin sentenced to death with nowhere to flee.
us Haman as a reminder of our priorities and look, didnt we just run back to religion. A huge revivalist meeting broke out,
prayer and repentance all round, and G-d sends in Mordechai and Esther to rescue the team from defeat.
near the end of the Megilla we find reference to the steps undertaken and the Mitzvos they recommenced while repairing relations
with G-d: Torah study, Bris, Yom Tov and Tefillin. Of interest is the fact
that all these observances are seemingly echoed in the practice of other nations and religions. Every race and creed has a
philosophical system and laws to study. Circumcision is widely practiced for the attendant health benefits. Doesnt everyone
celebrate public holidays? And every group, club or sect has an identifying dress or uniform.
However, it is davka these observance which epitomise our national merit. True, every nation has laws and philosophy,
but not for us any human-based logic, rather we believe that the Torah we study is the very will and wisdom of the Divine.
Our festivals are not characterised by wanton behaviour, rather a Chag is an opportunity to reacquaint oneself with ones soul
in a relaxed and G-d centered atmosphere. Occasionally an operations might become a medical emergency, but surely, treat it
as a necessary evil, only Jews would make a smoked salmon party out of it; and other national uniforms are usually a celebration
of bright colours and eye-catching design, not the somber all-black ensemble with which we do the daily wrap.
It was precisely
these traditions and observances, exemplifying our essential difference from the surrounding nations, our sense of in-your-face
davka, which the Jews re-embraced. Hashem welcomed their efforts, accepted us and sent the Purim miracles in response. We,
the descendants of Mordechai, Esther and the other Jews of Shushan, have inherited this sense of davka. It is our challenge
to display this bravado by rejecting prevailing culture and expectations and to shelter, secure in our faith, and with sufficient
self-believe to do the right thing, davka.
Friday, March 12, 2004
Moshe comes down the mountain to be confronted by a shocking and perverse scene. Barely a month
had passed since G-d declaimed the 10 Commandments, while the very echoes of the Sinaic revelation still reverberated around
the world, some Jews rebelled and built an idol, the Golden Calf.
In a display of supreme displeasure Moshe smashes the
2 Luchos (tablets), punishes those who had sinned and then heads right back up the mountain to beseech Hashems mercy.
Forty days later (on the day later to be known as Yom Kippur), G-d agrees to grant His nation a second chance and symbolises
this by allowing Moshe to carve out a second set of Luchos.
The two sets of tablets, the broken ones and their
replacements, are stored together in perpetuity in the Ark of the Covenant.
Why keep the broken pieces?
A guy wanders into an expensive gift store seeking
the perfect gift for his mother-in-law. Perfect, as in the most impressive for the cheapest price. As he checks out the selection
he cant help but overhear the boss berating a new employee whod just smashed an extremely expensive china vase.
approaches the owner and negotiates a very reasonable price to have the broken pieces gathered, packaged and delivered to
the party, with specific instructions that the klutzy employee accidentally drop the gift at the front door.
The big day arrives. So does the deliveryman. Our heros plan executes flawlessly. Sympathy all round and assurances
that dont vorry, dahlink, its de tought dat counts.
All would have ended perfectly if some nudnik hadnt decided
to open the package to examine what the gift had looked like You wouldnt want to be in his shoes when his Shvigger saw
that the stupid worker had lovingly gift-wrapped each individual shard separately.
In what way do the broken pieces of the original Luchos differ from the gift-wrapped public-relation
disaster in the above story? Arent they just a souvenir of our crime and punishment? Why stockpile a souvenir of the depravity
to which the Jews sank?
Self-satisfaction or self-delusion?
Someone who has never struggled, never
experienced disappointments, can never truly connect with G-d or His Torah. Self-grandeur and aggrandisement preclude one
from approaching the Divine. The scars the world has inflicted upon us, the vestiges of battles fought and temptations overcome
are the entry fees to the Kingdom of Hashem.
Receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai was an unparalleled ecstatic experience.
The sense of accomplishment of being personally selected for divine revelation must have been universally felt. How could
the Jews refrain from feelings of smug self-satisfaction?
By exhibiting the broken shards of the Luchos we were submitting to a constant reminder of our
imperfect past and blemished record. Displaying the evidence of our sins and the subsequent constant mood of regret, would
have engendered a community-wide inspiration to reunite with G-d and determination to avoid future pitfalls, thus guaranteeing
our right to not just receive but to live with Hashem and his Torah.
Friday, 19 March 2004
Im just walking in from my cousins wedding. (Thanks, simchas by you too). The evening
was great, mashke flowed, uninhibited joy all round and even my kids held off from kvetching for most of
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the pre-eminent American Halachic authority, arrived once at a golden wedding celebration.
One of the partygoers, whod clearly had too much alcohol, or chutzpa, and probably both, expressed surprise that
the Rabbi could find room in his demanding schedule to attend such a comparatively minor event. Rejoicing at a wedding is
a mitzvah, as is attending at a Bris, Bar Mitzva or other ceremonial occasion. Of what religious significance, however, is
a 50th anniversary party?
The Rabbi heard this comment and defended his priorities. We only celebrate a wedding to signify
the potential of that which is to come. Only childrens fairy tales finish just as the handsome prince captures the heart of
fair damsel. In real life the tale is only just beginning. This event, commemorating a shared life full of true yiddishe nachas,
with real accomplishments to point to, is the culmination of their wedding and the justification for the happiness and joy
of 50 years ago.
I remind myself of this story because I have been thinking this week of the difference between
process and results, the potential versus the actualised. The first words of this weeks (double) torah reading tell of the
commandment to observe the Shabbos.
Six days work shall be doneand the seventh day shall be holy, total relaxation
for Hashem. (Exodus 35:1)
Youve got to work to live. Paying the mortgage, school fees and food bills on time demands income.
Though G-d, were he to so desire, could provide us with all our needs without exertion, He set up a different system, and
thus working during the six days is just as much a necessity as resting on the seventh.
The workaholics among
us confuse the aims with the method. The verse stated work shall be done the passive voice, if you will. Becoming
so totally devoted to ones job such that ones work is ones total preoccupation and obsession is totally unhealthy and equally
an affront to the system. You may have to work but let it be done. Keep your aspirations and focus on your real purpose, exemplified
by Shabbos, a day when the cares and worries of the week can take back stage to delighting in ones family and religion.
this and the Torah guarantees you total relaxation. If all ones cares and aspirations are on money making and business,
then even when resting, the repose is not replete, ones mind is still whirling with all the worries and cares which rob one
of true equanimity. It is only the person who can accentuate the result at the expense of the process, who realises that the
successful outcome is the true goal can, upon achieving this, truly relax and celebrate, conscious of a job well done and
thus, justification for the entire journey.
Friday, 26 March 2004
The Torah we use most weeks at Moorabbin Shul is a nice one. (Yes, I know theyre all good, and all authentic hand-written
Torah scrolls have equivalent holiness and contain the same message, but I was referring to aesthetics). High-quality parchment;
comfortable size for lifting and generously endowed with silver accessories, it is an unusually handsome specimen of a Sofers (scribe) talent.
More accurately, Soferim, plural. It is clearly the result of a collaborative effort
between two separate practitioners of the trade. Just as everyones handwriting is distinctive so too every sofer fashions
the holy letters of his craft in an individual style. Exactly half way through the scroll, from one column to the next, the
lettering abruptly switches. This style change can be quite disconcerting and I well remember the shocked reaction of a guest
called up for the section in question: Whoa, change of font!
Every Torah ever written has a change of font in this weeks Parsha. The letter Alef, of the verse And G-d called to Moshe
is tiny. Far smaller than a regulation size Alef it excites comment and query from the audience every year.
explanation for the change is that it is written thus to give an indication of Moshes unparalleled humility. Though he alone
among men had communicated directly with Hashem, despite the fact that he was the leader whod defeated the Egyptians and freed
the Jews, and even after he merited to transcribe the Torah which bears his name, Moshe remained the most humble man ever
to exist on this earth (Bamidbar 12:3) and the verse is deliberately downplaying, as it were, Hashems summonsing of him.
Interestingly, the small Alef of our Parsha is counterpointed by another font change elsewhere in the Bible. The name Adam,
the first man and the personal handiwork of Hashem, is written once with an oversize Alef, to denote his grandeur and, by
extension, the greatness of all humans the ultimate purpose of creation
To exist is to have a purpose. Hashem created no
thing without reason. If birth is G-ds way of informing you that you matter then one needs to constantly bear in mind ones
responsibilities, live up to the large Alef.
Recognition of ones worth, however, should never lead to hubris and conceit.
Moshe, the most accomplished person ever to live was also the most humble. His small Alef was his awareness that his talent
and ability were gifts from G-d. His natural endowments had allowed him to soar but had he truly utilised his full capabilities?
This dual perspective of the dueling Alefs- an uplifting recognition of ones achievements tempered by the deflating sense
of challenge invokes a humility and drive to accomplish in religion and life and thus justify ones very existence.