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Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation
Weekly Musings November 2004

Friday, November 5 2004

One of the difficulties of reading the Torah from a literalist perspective (and yes, I do truly believe that every word in the Bible is a Divinely inspired description of actual historical events) is accepting as factual the reported ages of the Biblical characters.

People aren't so bothered by the fantastic longevity recorded for those who lived in the immediate generations post creation, the Methuselahs et al, as the Torah clearly states that post flood, nature and the aging process changed to accord with modern life-expectancies. What raises eyebrows is, for example, the information that our forefather Avraham had "recognised G-d" and developed his whole system of monotheism by the age of three, yet was made to wait till age 100 for the opportunity to father and begin rearing a child who would ensure the propagation of that system.

Or, for example, we read tomorrow how Rivka was sent to draw water from the well, met Avraham's servant Eliezer and her subsequent decision to leave home, against her families wishes, to marry that child, Yitzchak. Did you know that this entire episode took place when she was three years old?

This last is not totally incomprehensible. It must be remembered that we live in such a blessed time and society, that for us the image of a child swinging a pickaxe is an incongruouity For much of history and even until today in many less economically advanced countries, child labour and indeed child marriage is the norm.

It is staggering to consider however, that a child could have the emotional and intellectual maturity to come to an independent conclusion about their own future or the place of humanity in the divine pantheon at such a young age. On the other hand consider the strength of character entailed in basically beginning anew at Avraham's advanced age. Clearly our forefathers were larger than life characters by our standards, gifted with rare abilities and proclivities.

Equally true however is the recognition that we are not exempt from the responsibility to emulate them. Each of us has inherited the ability to bring about far reaching changes on the system and ourselves at any age and stage of life. Youth is no hindrance and age is no barrier.

Friday, November 12 2004

Jews vs. pigs

Of all non-kosher animals, the pig is by far and away the most reviled. Even many Jews who unfortunately do not yet adhere to all the kosher laws generally avoid pork. In fact, of all the pungent insults and curses with which the Yiddish language is so blessed, one that stands out for malignancy of expression is to be called a chazer fissel (pigs foot).

There are two identifiers of a kosher animal, cud chewing and split hooves. The pig alone of all animals in G-d's barnyard has split hooves while not being a ruminant. Have you ever seen a pig sleep? Splayed out in the mud with an idiotic grin plastered on its snout, it stretches out its trotters as if calling on all to witness its inherent kashrus. And you know what? Pious pretensions to the contrary, it still remains a pig.

We read tomorrow of the impious actions of Yitzchak's eldest son, Esav (Esau). Some people are just plain wicked; they make no affectation of virtue, revelling in evil for its own sake. Esav however was a crafty conniver; he went to great pains to present to his father as one truly righteous, only revealing his true character in his dealings with his younger brother, Ya'akov.

In many ways, dealing with and defeating evil incarnate is far easier than challenging those who assume a patina of purity. An unredeemed terrorist may cause more death and destruction in the short-term than one who exchanges battle fatigues for a veneer of respectability, but the moral clarity of being able to expose and denounce malevolence is obstructed. When the Esavs and Arafats (may his name and memory be blotted out) make a great play of declaring for the side of angels while simultaneously sowing the same wanton wickedness and moral turpitude, only in a surreptitious manner, then even well-meaning people can be fooled and the price paid to eventually defeat them will be far higher.

The present exile which Jews have been suffering the last two millennia is referred to in Rabbinic lore as the Exile of Edom (a son of Esav). When presented with outright, undisguised evil, one merely needs to take a stand, commit to the crusade and enter into the fray with the certain knowledge that decency will soon triumph. The reason why this battle has been so prolonged is because our enemies have so deeply embedded themselves in their charade that identifying evil as such is its own challenge.

Terrorist organisations run their own "benevolent funds" and "charity" outlets, they have their tame spruikers in the BBC et al and profess to repudiate violence. It is only when men of conscience will be willing to look beyond this fake front and reveal the inherent corruption, vacuousness and viciousness that those who hate us really represent, then the chazer fissels will be revealed as the pigs they really are, the "peace of the brave" will have been earned and a true era of redemption will be allowed to dawn.

Friday, November 19 2004

I love my congregants. Even those who come but 3 days a year are to be praised for their contributions to the Shul and my salary, but to truly capture my heart become a regular.
I am in awe of my minyanaires, those, brave and true, who show up on time, week after week, no matter the weather outside or temperature within. They gargle along with my off-key chanting, know in advance when to stand and sit and follow the Biblical narrative on our annual journey through the Torah.
If I have but one whinge it is the tendency of just one or two of these wonderful people to catnap during my speech. Now, I?m not egotistical enough to rank my effort at erudition on any sort of par with the Torah reading or prayers but yet, I do prepare my sermons (more-or-less) and the knowledge that I have only to ascend the pulpit stairs for them to descend into narcolepsy is, I must admit, a little insulting.
I once brought up the subject with the chief offender, observing that, considering he falls asleep even before I begin, how can he know whether he would agree with what I'm about to say, only for him to look me in the eye and declare "Rabbi, I trust you!"

Were I to point out to him that it is perhaps less than appropriate to sleep in a Shule, tomorrow's Torah reading would prove the perfect rejoinder. Ya'akov is escaping from his brother and travelling from Israel (home of all that is holy) to Choron (a city steeped in immorality). He stops off to spend the night in Jerusalem at the site that will eventually become the Beis Hamikdash. (It is the accepted tradition that the Akeida- the binding of Yitzchok, happened at that spot and that ever since the beginning of time this site was consecrated for prayer.)

My question is, if the place was so redolent with spirituality, had Ya'akov nothing better to do there than go to sleep?

While awake and standing, the head, seat of the intellect, is set above the body. Conversely, once asleep one's mind and body are level with each other. The rationalist in us would demand that one act at all times in a measured manner, intellect before emotion, submitting all impulses to logical analysis. In approaching the Divine however, there is occasional need to take a leap of faith, to render one's mind on par with one's emotions and actions. This Ya'akov accomplished by visiting the most holy place on earth and deliberately lying down to sleep, thus allowing the revelation of G-dliness prevalent to concurrently seep into every pore of his brain and body, uninhibited by the burden of consciousness.

Friday, November 26 2004

Do you remember?
Remember doing something so embarrassingly stupid as a child that even now the memory of that moment makes you blush? Or do you remember being bullied? Think back to that sharp agony of ignominy and I bet you can even now taste the bile, and smell the sickly smell of your own humiliation.
Memories are powerful, they can pull you back into the moment with such clarity that you would swear you are still there.
I remember as a 14 year old, away from home for the first time, studying in an overseas Yeshiva. I had received a birthday/Chanuka present from my parents and wanted to write a thank-you note which would simultaneously demonstrate that I was really studying Torah and not wasting my time.
I found a verse in tomorrows Torah portion where Ya'akov expresses his thanks to G-d for the kindnesses he'd received to date: "kotonti mikol hachasodim"- I have been humbled from all the kindnesses (Vayishlach 32:11) and thus started off my letter to home: "Dear Daddy and Mommy, kotonti mikol hachasodim "
My stupidity was in leaving the unfinished letter lying around for others to read and make fun of?
Thinking back, I can see the humour of a 14 year old starting a letter with such affected pomposity but at the time I was mortified by the teasing I received.

Interestingly, according to one of the explanations of the above verse, Ya'akov too was at that time summonsing up remembrances of past humiliations.
Ya'akov was seemingly riding high. The down-at-heels pauper who had stumbled into the country but a few short years before had been transformed into a wealthy magnate with an excess of possessions, four wives and a host of children. Strange then for Ya'akov to declaim Kotonti? "I feel low, unworthy, diminished."
For a person to grow, to develop, one first must undergo a process of diminishment. Every accomplishment is preceded by a period of struggle. Strength, for example, is developed by tearing ones muscles during exercise. Over the following few days the body repairs itself and larger muscles grow. Similarly any new intellectual achievement demands focusing ones total concentration on the task at hand during which time all ones previous knowledge is not only useless but also distracting.
Some people can?t do it. They get stuck in a zone of comfort; they remain so entranced by their previous accomplishment; their self image is locked into their vision of self as is; that they don't have sufficient breadth of vision to dream of what may be.
Ya'akov had previously experienced a process of self-development when first leaving the comforts of home to travel out into the big wide world. Now, years later, he was travelling back to Israel a self-made man with the opportunity to relax, comfortable in his past achievements and at ease with his new station in life. By declaring kotonti Ya?akov was challenging himself to stay hungry. He was purposely summonsing up those powerful memories of previous humiliations and discomfort to guarantee that he enter this new phase of life still unsatisfied and with a reawaken drive to achieve new success.
His declaration kotonti symbolised a figurative purge of past triumphs. "I revoke everything I have strived for and attained till now" said Ya'akov "and commit myself to humbly start again."