Weekly Torah Portion

VAETCHANAN

The Fewest of All Peoples

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

Buried inconspicuously in this week’s parsha is a short sentence with explosive potential, causing us to think again about both the nature of Jewish history and the Jewish task in the present. Continue reading VAETCHANAN

DEVARIM

Lessons of a Leader

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

It was one of the great moments of personal transformation, and it changed not only Moses but our very conception of leadership itself.

By the end of the book of Bamidbar, Moses’ career as a leader would seem to be ending. He had appointed his successor, Joshua, and it would be Joshua, not Moses, who would lead the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses seemed to have now achieved everything he was destined to achieve. For him there would be no more battles to fight, no more miracles to perform, no more prayers to make on behalf of the people. Continue reading DEVARIM

MATOT – MASSEI

Conflict Resolution

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

One of the hardest tasks of any leader – from Prime Ministers to parents – is conflict resolution. Yet it is also the most vital. Where there is leadership, there is long-term cohesiveness within the group, whatever the short-term problems. Where there is a lack of leadership – where leaders lack authority, grace, generosity of spirit and the ability to respect positions other than their own – then there is divisiveness, rancour, back-biting, resentment, internal politics and a lack of trust. True leaders are the people who put the interests of the group above those of any subsection of the group. They care for, and inspire others to care for, the common good. Continue reading MATOT – MASSEI

PINCHAS

Lessons of a Leader

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

The parsha of Pinchas contains a masterclass on leadership, as Moses confronts his own mortality and asks God to appoint a successor. The great leaders care about succession. In parshat Chayei Sarah we saw Abraham instruct his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, so that the family of the covenant will continue. King David chose Solomon. Elijah, at God’s bidding, appointed Elisha to carry on his work. Continue reading PINCHAS

BALAK

Leadership and Loyalty

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

Is leadership a set of skills, the ability to summon and command power? Or does it have an essentially moral dimension also? Can a bad person be a good leader, or will their badness compromise their leadership? That is the question raised by the key figure in this week’s parsha, the pagan prophet Bilaam. Continue reading BALAK

HUKAT

Miriam, Moses´ Friend

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

It is one of the great mysteries of the Torah. Arriving at Kadesh the people find themselves without water. They complain to Moses and Aaron. The two leaders go to the Tent of Meeting and there they are told by God to take the staff and speak to the rock, and water will emerge. Continue reading HUKAT

KORACH

Servant Leadership

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

“You have gone too far! The whole community are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above God’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3).

What exactly was wrong in what Korach and his motley band of fellow agitators said? We know that Korach was a demagogue, not a democrat. He wanted power for himself, not for the people. We know also that the protestors were disingenuous. Each had their own reasons to feel resentful toward Moses or Aaron or fate. Set these considerations aside for a moment and ask: was what they said true or false? Continue reading KORACH

SHELACH

Confidence

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

It was perhaps the single greatest collective failure of leadership in the Torah. Ten of the spies whom Moses had sent to spy out the land came back with a report calculated to demoralise the nation. Continue reading SHELACH

BEHALOTECHA

Power or Influence?

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

There is a lovely moment in this week’s parsha that shows Moses at the height of his generosity as a leader. It comes after one of his deepest moments of despair. The people, as is their wont, have been complaining, this time about the food. They are tired of the manna. They want meat instead. Moses, appalled that they have not yet learned to accept the hardships of freedom, prays to die. “If this is how You are going to treat me,” he says to God, “please go ahead and kill me right now – if I have found favour in Your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Num. 11:15) Continue reading BEHALOTECHA

NASSO

The Politics of Envy

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

Few things in the Torah are more revolutionary than its conception of leadership.

Ancient societies were hierarchical. The masses were poor and prone to hunger and disease. They were usually illiterate. They were exploited by rulers as a means to wealth and power rather than treated as people with individual rights – a concept born only in the seventeenth century. At times they formed a corvée, a vast conscripted labour force, often used to construct monumental buildings intended to glorify kings. At others they were dragooned into the army to further the ruler’s imperial designs. Continue reading NASSO

BAMIDBAR

Leading a Nation of Individuals

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

The book of Bamidbar begins with a census of the Israelites. That is why this book is known in English as Numbers. This raises a number of questions: what is the significance of this act of counting? And why here at the beginning of the book? Besides which, there have already been two previous censuses of the people and this is the third within the space of a single year. Surely one would have been sufficient. Additionally, does counting have anything to do with leadership? Continue reading BAMIDBAR

BEHAR BEHUKOTAI

We, the People

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

In the final parsha of the book of Leviticus, in the midst of one of the most searing curses ever to have been uttered to a nation by way of warning, the Sages found a fleck of pure gold. Continue reading BEHAR BEHUKOTAI

EMOR

On Not Being Afraid of Greatness

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

Embedded in this week’s parsha are two of the most fundamental commands of Judaism – commands that touch on the very nature of Jewish identity.

Do not desecrate My holy name. I must be sanctified among the Israelites. I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord.’ (Leviticus 22:32)

Continue reading EMOR

ACHAREI – KEDOSHIM

Sprints and Marathons

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

It was a unique, unrepeatable moment of leadership at its highest height. For forty days Moses had been communing with God, receiving from Him the Law written on tablets of stone. Then God informed him that the people had just made a Golden Calf. He would have to destroy them. It was the worst crisis of the wilderness years, and it called for every one of Moses’ gifts as a leader. Continue reading ACHAREI – KEDOSHIM

TAZRIA – METSORÁ

How to Praise

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

The Sages were eloquent on the subject of lashon hara, evil speech, the sin they took to be the cause of tsara’at. But there is a meta-halachic principle: “From the negative you can infer the positive”[1] So, for example, from the seriousness of the prohibition against Chillul Hashem, desecrating God’s name, one can infer the importance of the opposite, Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name. Continue reading TAZRIA – METSORÁ

SHEMINI

Reticence vs. Impetuosity

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

It should have been a day of joy. The Israelites had completed the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. For seven days Moses had made preparations for its consecration.[1] Now on the eighth day – the first of Nissan (Ex. 10:2), one year to the day since the Israelites had received their first command two weeks prior to the Exodus – the service of the Sanctuary was about to begin. The Sages say that it was in heaven the most joyous day since Creation (Megillah 10b). Continue reading SHEMINI

TZAV

The Courage of Identity Crises

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

Good leaders know their own limits. They do not try to do it all themselves. They build teams. They create space for people who are strong where they are weak. They understand the importance of checks and balances and the separation of powers. They surround themselves with people who are different from them. They understand the danger of concentrating all power in a single individual. But learning your limits, knowing there are things you cannot do – even things you cannot be – can be a painful experience. Sometimes it involves an emotional crisis. Continue reading TZAV

VAYKRA

The Sins of a Leader

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

As we have discussed so many times already this year, leaders make mistakes. That is inevitable. So, strikingly, our parsha of Vayikra implies. The real issue is how leaders respond to their mistakes. Continue reading VAYKRA

VAYAKHEL-PEKUDÊ

Celebrate

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

If leaders are to bring out the best in those they lead, they must give them the chance to show they are capable of great things, and then they must celebrate their achievements. That is what happens at a key moment toward the end of our parsha, one that brings the book of Exodus to a sublime conclusion after all the strife that has gone before. Continue reading VAYAKHEL-PEKUDÊ

KI TISSÁ

How Leaders Fail

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

As we have seen in both Vayetse and Vaera, leadership is marked by failure. It is the recovery that is the true measure of a leader. Leaders can fail for two kinds of reason. The first is external. The time may not be right. The conditions may be unfavourable. There may be no one on the other side to talk to. Machiavelli called this Fortuna: the power of bad luck that can defeat even the greatest individual. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we fail. Such is life. Continue reading KI TISSÁ

TETZAVÊ

The Counterpoint of Leadership

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

One of the most important Jewish contributions to our understanding of leadership is its early insistence of what, in the eighteenth century, Montesquieu called “the separation of powers”[1]. Neither authority nor power was to be located in a single individual or office. Instead, leadership was divided between different kinds of roles. Continue reading TETZAVÊ

TERUMÁ

The Home We Built Togheter

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

The sequence of parashot that begins with Terumah, and continues Tetzaveh, Ki Tissa, Vayakhel and Pekudei, is puzzling in many ways. First, it outlines the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), the portable House of Worship the Israelites built and carried with them through the desert, in exhaustive and exhausting detail. The narrative takes almost the whole of the last third of the book of Exodus. Why so long? Why such detail? The Tabernacle was, after all, only a temporary home for the Divine Presence, eventually superseded by the Temple in Jerusalem. Continue reading TERUMÁ

MISHPATIM

Vision and Details

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

Our parsha takes us through a bewildering transition. Up until now, the book of Shemot has carried us along with the sweep and drama of the narrative: the Israelites’ enslavement, their hope for freedom, the plagues, Pharaoh’s obstinacy, their escape into the desert, the crossing of the Red Sea, the journey to Mount Sinai and the great covenant with God. Continue reading MISHPATIM

YTRÔ

A Nation of Leaders

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

This wek’s parsha consists of two episodes that seem to constitute a study in contrasts. The first is in chapter 18. Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law and a Midianite Priest, gives Moses his first lesson in leadership. In the second episode, the prime mover is God Himself who, at Mount Sinai, makes a covenant with the Israelites in an unprecedented and unrepeated epiphany. For the first and only time in history God appears to an entire people, making a covenant with them and giving them the world’s most famous brief code of ethics, the Ten Commandments. Continue reading YTRÔ

BESHALACH

Looking Up

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

The Israelites had crossed the Red Sea. The impossible had happened. The mightiest army in the ancient world – the Egyptians with their cutting-edge, horse-drawn chariots – had been defeated and drowned. The children of Israel were now free. But their relief was short-lived. Almost immediately they faced attack by the Amalekites, and they had to fight a battle, this time with no apparent miracles from God. They did so and won. This was a decisive turning point in history, not only for the Israelites but for Moses and his leadership of the people. Continue reading BESHALACH

The Far Horizon

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

To gain insight into the unique leadership lesson of this week’s parsha, I often ask an audience to perform a thought-experiment. Imagine you are the leader of a people that is enslaved and oppressed, that has suffered exile for more than two centuries. Now, after a series of miracles, it is about to go free. You assemble them and rise to address them. They are waiting expectantly for your words. This is a defining moment they will never forget. What will you speak about? Continue reading

VAERA

Overcoming Setbacks

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

At first, Moses’ mission seemed to be successful. He had feared that the people would not believe in him, but God had given him signs to perform, and his brother Aaron to speak on his behalf. Moses “performed the signs before the people, and they believed. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” (Ex. 4:30-31) Continue reading VAERA

SHEMOT

Women as Leaders

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

This week’s parsha could be entitled “The Birth of a Leader.” We see Moses, adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, growing up as a prince of Egypt. We see him as a young man, for the first time realising the implications of his true identity. He is, and knows he is, a member of an enslaved and suffering people: “Growing up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people” (Ex. 2:10). Continue reading SHEMOT

VAYECHI

Moving Fowarts

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

The book of Bereishit ends on a sublime note of reconciliation between Jacob’s sons. Joseph’s brothers were afraid that he had not really forgiven them for selling him into slavery. They suspected that he was merely delaying his revenge until their father died. After Jacob’s death, they express their concern to him. But Joseph insists: Continue reading VAYECHI

VAYGASH

The Unexpected Leader

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah..

I was once present when the great historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, was asked to predict the course of events in the Middle East. He replied, “I’m a historian, so I only make predictions about the past. What is more, I am a retired historian, so even my past is passé.” Predictions are impossible in the affairs of living, breathing human beings because we are free and there is no way of knowing in advance how an individual will react to the great challenges of their life. Continue reading VAYGASH

MIKETZ

The Approaches to Dreams

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah..

In one of the greatest transformations in all literature, Joseph moves in a single bound from prisoner to Prime Minister. What was it about Joseph – a complete outsider to Egyptian culture, a “Hebrew,” a man who had been languishing in jail on a false charge of attempted rape – that marked him out as a leader of the greatest empire of the ancient world? Continue reading MIKETZ

VAYESHEV

The Power of Praise

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah..

Reuben is the leader who might have been but never was. He was Jacob’s firstborn. Jacob said of him on his deathbed, “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honour, excelling in power.” (Gen. 49:3) This is an impressive tribute, suggesting physical presence and commanding demeanour. Continue reading VAYESHEV

VAYSHLACH

Be Thyself

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah..

I have often argued that the episode in which the Jewish people acquired its name – when Jacob wrestled with an unnamed adversary at night and received the name Israel – is essential to an understanding of what it is to be a Jew. I argue here that this episode is equally critical to understanding what it is to lead. Continue reading VAYSHLACH

VAYETSÊ

Light in the Dark Times

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah..

What is it that made Jacob – not Abraham or Isaac or Moses – the true father of the Jewish people? We are called the “congregation of Jacob,” “the Children of Israel.” Jacob/Israel is the man whose name we bear. Yet Jacob did not begin the Jewish journey; Abraham did. Jacob faced no trial like that of Isaac at the Binding. He did not lead the people out of Egypt or bring them the Torah. To be sure, all his children stayed within the faith, unlike Abraham or Isaac. But that simply pushes the question back one level. Why did he succeed where Abraham and Isaac failed? Continue reading VAYETSÊ

TOLEDOT

Communication Matters

Rabbi Sacks zt’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

The Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816–1893, dean of the yeshiva in Volozhin) made the astute observation that Isaac and Rebecca seem to suffer from a lack of communication. He noted that Rebecca’s “relationship with Isaac was not the same as that between Sarah and Abraham or Rachel and Jacob. When they had a problem, they were not afraid to speak about it. Not so with Rebecca.” (Ha’amek Davar to Gen. 24:65) Continue reading TOLEDOT

CHAYE SARAH

Beginning the Journey

Rabbi Sacks z’’l had prepared a full year of Covenant & Conversation for 5781, based on his book Lessons in Leadership. The Office of Rabbi Sacks will carry on distributing these essays each week, so people around the world can continue to learn and be inspired by his Torah.

A while back, a British newspaper, The Times, interviewed a prominent member of the Jewish community and a member of the House of Lords – let’s call him Lord X – on his 92nd birthday. The interviewer said, “Most people, when they reach their 92nd birthday, start thinking about slowing down. You seem to be speeding up. Why is that?” Continue reading CHAYE SARAH

VAYERÁ

Answering the Call

The early history of humanity is set out in the Torah as a series of disappointments. God gave human beings freedom, which they then misused. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Cain murdered Abel. Within a relatively short time, the world before the Flood became dominated by violence. All flesh perverted its way on the earth. God created order, but humans created chaos. Even after the Flood, humanity, in the form of the builders of Babel, were guilty of hubris, thinking that people could build a tower that “reaches heaven” (Gen. 11:4). Continue reading VAYERÁ

LECH LECHÁ

The Courage not to Conform

Leaders lead. That does not mean to say that they do not follow. But what they follow is different from what most people follow. They don’t conform for the sake of conforming. They don’t do what others do merely because others are doing it. They follow an inner voice, a call. They have a vision, not of what is, but of what might be. They think outside the box. They march to a different tune. Continue reading LECH LECHÁ

NOACH

Righteousness is not Leadership

The praise accorded to Noah is unparalleled in Tanach. He was, says the Torah, “a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” No such praise is given to Abraham or Moses or any of the Prophets. The only person in the Bible who comes close is Job, described as “blameless and upright (tam ve-yashar); he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Noah is in fact the only individual that the Tanach describes as righteous (tzaddik). Continue reading NOACH

BERESHIT

Taking Responsibility

If leadership is the solution, what is the problem? On this, the Torah could not be more specific. The problem is a failure of responsibility. Continue reading BERESHIT

SUCOT 5781

O Que Rosh Hashaná Diz Para Nós

A gen

Nitzavim Vayelech

How to Renew a Nation

The Talmud gives an ingenious reading to the line, “Moses commanded us a Torah, as a heritage of the congregation of Israel.” Noting that there are 613 commands, and that the numerical value of the word Torah is 611, it says that in fact Moses gave us 611 commands, while the other two – “I am the Lord your God,” and, “You shall have no other gods beside Me,” (the first 2 of the 10 commandments) – the Israelites received not from Moses but directly from God Himself.[1] Continue reading Nitzavim Vayelech

KI TAVO

Be Silent and Listen

During our first Coronavirus lockdown, there was one question I was asked more than any other: What about prayer? Just when we needed it the most, we found ourselves unable to participate in tefillah be-tsibbur, public communal prayer. Our most sacred prayers, devarim she-bi-kedushah, are communal. They require a minyan. There was an argument between Rambam and Ramban as to whether, originally and essentially, the command of prayer was directed to individuals or to the community as a whole. But there was no disagreement between them as to the importance and value of praying as part of a community. That is supremely how we, as Jews, come before God, not primarily as “I” but as “We.” How then were we to find spiritual strength without this communal dimension? Continue reading KI TAVO

KI TETSÊ

Does Love Conquer All?

Our parsha contains more laws than any other. Some of them have generated much study and debate, especially two at the beginning, the law of the captive woman and that of the “stubborn and rebellious son.” There is, however, one law that deserves much more attention than it has generally received, namely the one placed between these two. It concerns the laws of inheritance: Continue reading KI TETSÊ

SHOFETIM

A Sage is Greater than a Prophet

In Shoftim, Moses speaks about the great institutions of Judaism: courts, judges, officers, Kings, Priests, Levites and Prophets. In the case of the Prophet, Moses says in the name of God:

I will raise up a Prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him. (Deut. 18:18)

Continue reading SHOFETIM

REÊ

The Good Society

Moses, having set out the prologue and preamble to the covenant and its broad guiding principles, now turns to the details, which occupy the greater part of the book of Devarim, from chapter 12 to chapter 26. But before he begins with the details, he states a proposition that is the most fundamental one in the book, and one that would be echoed endlessly by Israel’s Prophets: Continue reading REÊ

EKEV

The Covenant and the Love

An interesting phrase appears at the end of last week’s parsha and at the beginning of this week’s, and they are the only places where it appears in the Torah. The phrase is ha-brit veha-chessed (Deuteronomy 7:9) or in this week’s parsha, et ha-brit ve-et ha-chessed (Deut. 7:12). Continue reading EKEV

VAETCHANAN

The Infinite Game

The popular author and TED lecturer Simon Sinek recently published a book entitled The Infinite Game.[1] Based on the distinction first articulated by James P. Carse,[2] it is about the difference between two types of enterprise. One, a finite game, has a starting and ending point. It obeys rules, recognises boundaries, and has winners and losers. Most sports are like this. So, often, is politics: there are campaigns, elections, rules and regulations, successful and defeated candidates. Businesses can be run this way, when they focus on quarterly profits, share price, market share and the like. Continue reading VAETCHANAN

DEVARIM

Followership

In the last month of his life, Moses gathered the people. He instructed them about the laws they were to keep and reminded them of their history since the Exodus. That is the substance of the book of Devarim. Early in this process, he recalled the episode of the spies – the reason the people’s parents were denied the opportunity to enter the land. He wanted the next generation to learn the lesson of that episode and carry it with them always. They needed faith and courage. Perhaps that has always been part of what it means to be a Jew. Continue reading DEVARIM

MATOT-MASSEI

My Teacher: In Memoriam

There are moments when Divine Providence touches you on the shoulder and makes you see a certain truth with blazing clarity. Let me share with you such a moment that happened to me this morning.

For technical reasons, I have to write my essays for the Covenant & Conversation series many weeks in advance. I had come to Matot-Masei, and had decided to write about the cities of refuge, but I wasn’t sure which aspect to focus on. Suddenly, overwhelmingly, I felt an instinct to write about one very unusual law. Continue reading MATOT-MASSEI

PINCHAS

Moral vs. Political Decisions

The coronavirus pandemic raised a series of deep moral and political issues.[1] How far should governments go in seeking to prevent its spread? To what extent should it restrict people’s movements at the cost of violating their civil liberties? How far should it go in imposing a clampdown of businesses at the cost of driving many of them bankrupt, rendering swathes of the population unemployed, building up a mountain of debt for the future and plunging the economy into the worst recession since the 1930s? These are just a few of the many heart-breaking dilemmas that the pandemic forced on governments and on us. Continue reading PINCHAS

HUKAT-BALAK

Kohelet, Tolstoy and the Red Heifer

The command of the parah adumah, the Red Heifer, with which our parsha begins, is known as the hardest of the mitzvot to understand. The opening words, zot chukat ha-Torah, are taken to mean, this is the supreme example of a chok in the Torah, that is, a law whose logic is obscure, perhaps unfathomable. Continue reading HUKAT-BALAK

KORACH

How Not to Argue

Korach was swallowed up by the ground, but his spirit is still alive and well, and in the unlikeliest of places – British and American universities.

Korach was the embodiment of what the Sages called, argument not for the sake of heaven. They contrasted this with the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who argued for the sake of heaven.[1] The difference between them, according to Bartenura, is that argument for the sake of heaven is argument for the sake of truth. Argument not for the sake of heaven is argument for the sake of victory and power, and they are two very different things. Continue reading KORACH

SHELACH

What is Going On?

In March 2020, whilst launching a new book,[1] I took part in a BBC radio programme along with Mervyn King, who had been governor of the Bank of England at the time of the financial crash of 2008. He, together with the economist John Kay, had also brought out a new book, Radical Uncertainty: decision-making for an unknowable future.[2] Continue reading SHELACH

BEHALOTCHA

Loneliness and Faith

I have long been intrigued by one passage in this week’s parsha. After a lengthy stay in the Sinai desert, the people are about to begin the second part of their journey. They are no longer travelling from but travelling to. They are no longer escaping from Egypt; they are journeying toward the Promised Land. Continue reading BEHALOTCHA

NASSO

The Blessing of Love

I confess to a thrill every time I read these words:

Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
“May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord turn His face toward you and grant you peace.”’
Let them put My name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. (Numbers 6:23-27)

These are among the oldest continuously-used words of blessing ever. We recite them daily at the beginning of the morning service. Some say them last thing at night. We use them to bless our children on Friday nights. They are often used to bless the bride and groom at weddings. They are widely used by non-Jews also. Their simplicity, their cumulative three-word, five-word, seven-word structure, their ascending movement from protection to grace to peace, all make them a miniature gem of prayer whose radiance has not diminished in the more than three thousand years since their formulation. Continue reading NASSO

BAMIDBAR

Egalitarian Society, Jewish-Style

The parsha of Bamidbar is generally read on the Shabbat before Shavuot, z’man matan torateinu, “the time of the giving of our law,” the revelation at Sinai. So the Sages, believing that nothing is coincidental, searched for some connection between the two. Continue reading BAMIDBAR

BEHAR-BECHUKOTAI

The Power of a Curse

The book of Vayikra draws to a close by outlining the blessings that will follow if the people are faithful to their covenant with God. Then it describes the curses that will befall them if they are not. The general principle is clear. In biblical times, the fate of the nation mirrored the conduct of the nation. If people behaved well, the nation would prosper. If they behaved badly, eventually bad things would happen. That is what the Prophets knew. As Martin Luther King paraphrased it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[1] Not always immediately but ultimately, good is rewarded with good, bad with bad. Continue reading BEHAR-BECHUKOTAI

EMOR

Radical Uncertainty

There is something very strange about the festival of Succot, of which our parsha is the primary source. On the one hand, it is the festival supremely associated with joy. It is the only festival in our parsha that mentions rejoicing: “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Lev. 23:40). In the Torah as a whole, joy is mentioned not at all in relation to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Pesach, once in connection with Shavuot and three times in connection with Succot. Hence its name: z’man simchatenu, the festival of our joy. Continue reading EMOR

ACHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM

The Ethic of Holiness

Corren

Kedoshim contains the two great love commands of the Torah. The first is, “Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). Rabbi Akiva called this “the great principle of the Torah.” The second is no less challenging: “The stranger living among you must be treated as your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34). Continue reading ACHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM

TAZRIA – METSORÁ

Words That Heals

At the risk of disclosing a spoiler, I would like to begin this week’s Covenant & Conversation by discussing the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Tom Hanks plays the beloved American children’s television producer/presenter Mister Rogers, a legendary figure to several generations of young Americans, famous for his musical invitation, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Continue reading TAZRIA – METSORÁ

SHEMINI

Limits

The story of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two eldest sons who died on the day the Sanctuary was dedicated, is one of the most tragic in the Torah. It is referred to on no less than four separate occasions. It turned a day that should have been a national celebration into one of deep grief. Aharon, bereaved, could not speak. A sense of mourning fell over the camp and the people. God had told Moshe that it was dangerous to have the Divine Presence within the camp (Ex. 33:3), but even Moshe could not have guessed that something as serious as this could happen. What did Nadav and Avihu do wrong? Continue reading SHEMINI

TZAV

Left- and Right-Brain Judaism

The institution of the Haftarah – reading a passage from the prophetic literature alongside the Torah portion – is an ancient one, dating back at least 2000 years. Scholars are not sure when, where, and why it was instituted. Some say that it began when Antiochus IV’s attempt to eliminate Jewish practice in the second century BCE sparked the revolt we celebrate on Chanukah. At that time, so the tradition goes, public reading from the Torah was forbidden. So the Sages instituted that we should read a prophetic passage whose theme would remind people of the subject of the weekly Torah portion. Continue reading TZAV

VAYKRÁ

The Prophetic View of Sacrifice

Sacrifices, the subject of this week’s parsha, were central to the religious life of biblical Israel. We see this not only by the sheer space devoted to them in the Torah, but also by the fact that they occupy its central book, Vayikra. Continue reading VAYKRÁ

VAYAKEL/PEKUDEI

Communities and Crowds

Melanie Reid is a journalist who writes a regular column for The (London) Times. A quadriplegic with wry lack of self-pity, she calls her weekly essay Spinal ColumnOJanuary 2020, she told the story of how she, her husband, and others in their Scottish village bought an ancient inn to convert it into a pub and community centre, a shared asset for the neighbourhood. Continue reading VAYAKEL/PEKUDEI

KI TISSÁ

Moses Annuls a Vow

Kol Nidre, the prayer said at the beginning of Yom Kippur, is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, perhaps the strangest text ever to capture the religious imagination. First, it is not a prayer at all. It is not even a confession. It is a dry legal formula for the annulment of vows. It is written in Aramaic. It does not mention God. It is not part of the service. It does not require a synagogue. And it was disapproved of, or at least questioned, by generations of halachic authorities. Continue reading KI TISSÁ

TETZAVÊ

Dressing to Impress

Tetzaveh, with its elaborate description of the “sacred vestments” which the Priests and the High Priest wore “for glory and for splendour,” seems to run counter to some fundamental values of Judaism. Continue reading TETZAVÊ

TERUMÁ

What Do We Receive When We Give?

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Tell the Israelites to take an offering for Me; take My offering from all whose heart moves them to give” (Ex. 25:1-2).

Our parsha marks a turning point in the relationship between the Israelites and God. Ostensibly what was new was the product: the Sanctuary, the travelling home for the Divine Presence as the people journeyed through the wilderness. Continue reading TERUMÁ

MISHPATIM

We Will Do and We Will Hear

Two words we read towards the end of our parsha – na’aseh ve-nishma, “We will do and we will hear” – are among the most famous in Judaism. They are what our ancestors said when they accepted the covenant at Sinai. They stand in the sharpest possible contrast to the complaints, sins, backslidings and rebellions that seem to mark so much of the Torah’s account of the wilderness years. Continue reading MISHPATIM

YTRO

The Universal and the Particular

The quintessential Jewish expression of thanks, gratitude and acknowledgment is Baruch Hashem, meaning “Thank God,” or “Praise be to the Lord.”

Chassidim say of the Baal Shem Tov that he would travel around the little towns and villages of Eastern Europe, asking Jews how they were. However poor or troubled they were, invariably they would reply, Baruch Hashem. It was an instinctive expression of faith, and every Jew knew it. They might have lacked the learning of the great Talmudic scholar, or the wealth of the successful, but they believed they had much to thank God for, and they did so. When asked what he was doing and why, the Baal Shem Tov would reply by quoting the verse: “You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:4). So every time a Jew says Baruch Hashem, he or she is helping to make a throne for the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. Continue reading YTRO

BESHALACH

Crossing The Sea

Our parsha begins with an apparently simple proposition:

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the land of the Philistines, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt prepared for battle. (Ex. 13:17-18)

Continue reading BESHALACH

The Story We Tell About Ourselves

Sometimes others know us better than we know ourselves. In the year 2000, a British Jewish research institute came up with a proposal that Jews in Britain be redefined as an ethnic group and not as a religious community. It was a non-Jewish journalist, Andrew Marr, who stated what should have been obvious. He said: “All this is shallow water, and the further in you wade, the shallower it gets.” Continue reading

VAERÁ

The Weighing of the Heart

In this week’s parsha, before even the first plague has struck Egypt, God tells Moses: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply My miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3)

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is referred to no less than twenty times in the course of the story of the Exodus. Sometimes it is Pharaoh who is said to harden his heart. At other times, God is said to have done so. The Torah uses three different verbs in this context: ch-z-k, to strengthen, k-sh-h, to harden, and k-b-d, to make heavy. Continue reading VAERÁ

SHEMOT

Faith in the Futuro

Some measure of the radicalism that is introduced into the world by the story of the Exodus can be seen in the sustained mistranslation of the three keywords with which God identified Himself to Moses at the Burning Bush. Continue reading SHEMOT

VAYECHI

Family, Faith and Freedom

If you want to understand what a book is about, look carefully at how it ends. Genesis ends with three deeply significant scenes. Continue reading VAYECHI

VAYGASH

The Future of the Past

In our parsha, Joseph does something unusual. Revealing himself to his brothers, fully aware that they will suffer shock and then guilt as they remember how it is that their brother is in Egypt, he reinterprets the past:

 “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no ploughing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.” (Gen. 45:4-8)

Continue reading VAYGASH

MIKETZ

Joseph and the Risk of Power

Mikketz represents the most sudden and radical transformation in the Torah. Joseph, in a single day, moves from zero to hero, from forgotten, languishing prisoner to viceroy of Egypt, the most powerful man in the land, in control of the nation’s economy. Continue reading MIKETZ

VAYESHEV

The Angel who did not know he was an Angel

The story of Joseph and his brothers, spread over four parshiyot, is the longest and most tightly-scripted of all the narratives in the Torah. Nothing is there by accident; every detail counts. One moment, however, seems gloriously irrelevant – and it is this that contains one of the most beautiful of the Torah’s ideas. Continue reading VAYESHEV

VAYSHLACH

No Longer Shall You Be Called Jacob

One fact about this week’s parsha has long perplexed the commentators. After his wrestling match with the unnamed adversary, Jacob was told: “Your name shall no longer be Jacobbut Israel, for you have striven with beings Divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29, JPS translation). Or “Your name will no longer be said to be Jacob, but Israel. You have become great (sar) before God and man. You have won.” (Aryeh Kaplan translation). Continue reading VAYSHLACH

VAYETSÊ

Laban, O Arameu

Os eventos narrados na parashá desta semana – a viagem de Jacob para Laban, sua estada lá e sua fuga, perseguido pelo sogro – deram origem à passagem mais estranha da Hagadá. Comentando Deuteronômio 26: 5, a passagem que expomos na noite do Seder, ela diz o seguinte: Continue reading VAYETSÊ

TOLEDOT

Isaac and Eisav

It’s a haunting question. Why did Isaac love Esau? The verse says so explicitly: “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob” (Gen. 25:28). Whichever way we read this verse, it is perplexing. If we read it literally, it suggests that Isaac’s affections were governed by no more than a taste in a particular kind of food. Surely that is not the way love is earned or given in the Torah. Continue reading TOLEDOT

CHAYÊ SARA

To Have a Why

The name of our parsha seems to embody a paradox. It is called Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah,” but it begins with the death of Sarah. What is more, towards the end, it records the death of Abraham. Why is a parsha about death called “life”? The answer, it seems to me, is that – not always, but often – death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it. Continue reading CHAYÊ SARA

VAYERÁ

Negative Capability

I have written about the binding of Isaac many times in these studies, each time proposing an interpretation somewhat different from the ones given by the classic commentators. I do so for a simple reason. Continue reading VAYERÁ

LECH LECHÁ

A Palace in Flames

Why Abraham? That is the question that haunts us when we read the opening of this week’s parsha. Here is the key figure in the story of our faith, the father of our nation, the hero of monotheism, held holy not only by Jews but by Christians and Muslims also. Yet there seems to be nothing in the Torah’s description of his early life to give us a hint as to why he was singled out to be the person to whom God said, “I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Continue reading LECH LECHÁ

NOACH

The Light in the Ark

Amid all the drama of the impending flood and the destruction of almost all of creation, we focus on Noah building the ark, and hear one detailed instruction:

Make a tzohar for the ark and terminate it within a cubit of the top. (Gen. 6:16)

Continue reading NOACH

BERESHIT

The Genesis of Love

IThe Lonely Man of FaithRabbi Soloveitchik drew our attention to the fact that  Bereishit contains two separate accounts of creation. The first is in Genesis 1, the second in Genesis 2-3, and they are significantly different. Continue reading BERESHIT

VEZOT HABERACHÁ

End Without an Ending

What an extraordinary way to end a book: not just any book but the Book of books – with Moses seeing the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, tantalisingly near, yet so far away that he knows he will never reach it in his lifetime. This is an ending to defy all narrative expectations. A story about a journey should end at journey’s end, with arrival at the destination. But the Torah terminates before the terminus. It concludes in medias res. It ends in the middle. It is constructed as an unfinished symphony. Continue reading VEZOT HABERACHÁ

SUKKOT

The Festival of Insecurity

What exactly is a sukkah? What is it supposed to represent?

The question is essential to the mitzvah itself. The Torah says: “Live in sukkot for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in sukkot so that your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23: 42-43). In other words, knowing – reflecting, understanding, being aware – is an integral part of the mitzvah. For that reason, says Rabbah in the Talmud (Sukkah 2a), a sukkah that is taller than twenty cubits (about thirty feet or nine metres high) is invalid because when the sechach, the “roof,” is that far above your head, you are unaware of it. So what is a sukkah? Continue reading SUKKOT

HAAZINU

Let My Teaching Drop as Rain

In the glorious song with which Moses addresses the congregation, he invites the people to think of the Torah – their covenant with God – as if it were like the rain that waters the ground so that it brings forth its produce:

Let my teaching drop as rain,
My words descend like dew,
Like showers on new grass,
Like abundant rain on tender plants. (Deut. 32:2)

Continue reading HAAZINU

VAYELECH

The Torah as God’s Song

At the end of his life, having given the Israelites at God’s behest 612 commands, Moses gave them the final mitzvah: “Now therefore write down for yourselves this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be My witness against the people of Israel” (Deut. 31:19). Continue reading VAYELECH

NITZAVIM

Not Beyond the Sea

When I was a student at university in the late 1960s – the era of student protests, psychedelic drugs, and the Beatles meditating with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – a story went the rounds. An American Jewish woman in her sixties travelled to north India to see a celebrated guru. There were huge crowds waiting to see the holy man, but she pushed through, saying that she needed to see him urgently. Eventually, after weaving through the swaying crowds, she entered the tent and stood in the presence of the master himself. What she said that day has entered the realm of legend. She said, “Marvin, listen to your mother. Enough already. Come home.” Continue reading NITZAVIM

KI TAVÔ

A Nation of Storytellers

Howard Gardner, professor of education and psychology at Harvard University, is one of the great minds of our time. He is best known for his theory of “multiple intelligences,” the idea that there is not one thing that can be measured and defined as intelligence but many different things – one dimension of the dignity of difference. He has also written many books on leadership and creativity, including one in particular, Leading Minds, that is important in understanding this week’s parsha.[1] Continue reading KI TAVÔ

KI TETSÊ

Animal Welfare

Ki Teitse is about relationships: between men and women, parents and children, employers and employees, lenders and borrowers. Strikingly, though, it is also about relationships between humans and animals. Continue reading KI TETSÊ

SHOFETIM

The Ecological Imperative

In the course of setting out the laws of war, the Torah adds a seemingly minor detail that became the basis of a much wider field of human responsibility, and is of major consequence today. Continue reading SHOFETIM

REÊ

Collective Joy

If we were to ask what key word epitomises the society Jews were to make in the Promised Land, several concepts would come to mind: justice, compassion, reverence, respect, holiness, responsibility, dignity, loyalty. Surprisingly, though, another word figures centrally in Moses’ speeches in Deuteronomy. It is a word that appears only once in each of the other books of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.[1] Yet it appears twelve times in Deuteronomy, seven of them in Parshat Re’eh. The word is simcha, joy. Continue reading REÊ

EKEV

The Politics of Memory

In Eikev Moses sets out a political doctrine of such wisdom that it can never become redundant or obsolete. He does it by way of a pointed contrast between the ideal to which Israel is called, and the danger with which it is faced. Continue reading EKEV

VAETCHANAN

Why Is The Jewish People So Small?

Near the end of Va’etchanan is a statement with such far-reaching implications that it challenges the impression that has prevailed thus far in the Torah. This remark gives an entirely new complexion to the biblical image of the people Israel: “The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you are the fewest of all peoples”. (Deut. 7:7) Continue reading VAETCHANAN

DEVARIM

The Teacher as Hero

Imagine the following scenario. You are 119 years and 11 months old. The end of your life is in sight. Your hopes have received devastating blows. You have been told by God that you will not enter the land to which you have been leading your people for forty years. You have been repeatedly criticised by the people you have led. Your sister and brother, with whom you shared the burdens of leadership, have predeceased you. And you know that neither of your children, Gershom and Eliezer, will succeed you. Your life seems to be coming to a tragic end, your destination unreached, your aspirations unfulfilled. What do you do? Continue reading DEVARIM

MATOT-MASSEI

Priorities

The Israelites were almost within sight of the Promised Land. They had successfully waged their first battles. They had just won a victory over the Midianites. There is a new tone to the narrative. We no longer hear the querulous complaints that had been the bass note of so much of the wilderness years. Continue reading MATOT-MASSEI

PINCHAS

The Crown All Can Wear

Moses said to the Lord, “May the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num. 27:15–17)

Continue reading PINCHAS

BALAK

Not Reckoned Among the Nations

The year is 1933. Two Jews are sitting in a Viennese coffee house, reading the news. One is reading the local Jewish paper, the other the notoriously antisemitic publication Der Stürmer. “How can you possibly read that revolting rubbish?” says the first. The second smiles. “What does your paper say? Let me tell you: ‘The Jews are assimilating.’ ‘The Jews are arguing.’ ‘The Jews are disappearing.’ Now let me tell you what my paper says: ‘The Jews control the banks.’ ‘The Jews control the media.’ ‘The Jews control Austria.’ ‘The Jews control the world.’ My friend, if you want good news about the Jews, always read the antisemites.” Continue reading BALAK

HUKAT

Losing Miriam

It is a scene that still has the power to shock and disturb. The people complain. There is no water. It is an old complaint and a predictable one. That is what happens in a desert. Moses should have been able to handle it with ease. He has been through far tougher challenges in his time. Yet suddenly at Mei Meriva (“the waters of contention”), he exploded into vituperative anger: “‘Listen, you rebels, shall we bring you water out of this rock?’ Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff” (Num. 20:10–11). Continue reading HUKAT

KORACH

Argument for the Sake of Heaven

The Korach rebellion was not just the worst of the revolts from the wilderness years. It was also different in kind because it was a direct assault on Moses and Aaron. Korach and his fellow rebels in essence accused Moses of nepotism, of failure, and above all of being a fraud – of attributing to God decisions and laws that Moses had devised himself for his own ends. Continue reading KORACH

SHELACH

Fear of Freedom

The episode of the spies was one of the most tragic in the entire Torah. Who sent them and to what end is not entirely clear. In this week’s parsha, the text says that it was God who told Moses to do so (Num. 13:1–2). In Deuteronomy (1:22), Moses says that it was the people who made the request. Either way, the result was disaster. An entire generation was deprived of the chance to enter the Promised Land. The entry itself was delayed by forty years. According to the Sages, it cast its shadow long into the future.[1] Continue reading SHELACH

BEHALOTCHA

Camp and Congregation

The parsha of Beha’alotecha speaks about the silver trumpets – clarions – Moses was commanded to make:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Make two trumpets of silver; make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the congregation [edah] and cause the camps [machanot] to journey.” (Num. 10:1–2) Continue reading BEHALOTCHA

NASSO

Sages and Saints

Parshat Naso contains the law of the Nazirite – the individual who undertook to observe special rules of holiness and abstinence: not to drink wine or other intoxicants (including anything made from grapes), not to have his hair cut, and not to defile himself by contact with the dead (Num. 6:1–21). Such a state was usually undertaken for a limited period; the standard length was thirty days. There were exceptions, most famously Samson and Samuel who, because of the miraculous nature of their birth, were consecrated before their birth as Nazirites for life.[1] Continue reading NASSO

BAMIDBAR

Leading a Nation of Individuals

Bamidbar begins with a census of the Israelites. That is why this book is known in English as Numbers. What is the significance of this act of counting? And why here at the beginning of the book? Besides which, there have already been two previous censuses of the people and this is the third within the space of a single year. Surely one would have been sufficient. And does counting have anything to do with leadership? Continue reading BAMIDBAR

BEHUKOTAI

The Birth of Hope

This week we read the Tochecha, the terrifying curses warning of what would happen to Israel if it betrayed its Divine mission. We read a prophecy of history gone wrong. If Israel loses its way spiritually, say the curses, it will lose physically, economically, and politically also. The nation will experience defeat and disaster. It will forfeit its freedom and its land. The people will go into exile and suffer persecution. Customarily we read this passage in the synagogue sotto voce, in an undertone, so fearful is it. It is hard to imagine any nation undergoing such catastrophe and living to tell the tale. Continue reading BEHUKOTAI

BEHAR

Evolution or Revolution?

There are, it is sometimes said, no controlled experiments in history. Every society, every age, and every set of circumstances is unique. If so, there is no science of history. There are no universal rules to guide the destiny of nations. Yet this is not quite true. The history of the past four centuries does offer us something close to a controlled experiment, and the conclusion to be drawn is surprising. Continue reading BEHAR

EMOR

Three Version of Shabbat

There is something unique about the way Parshat Emor speaks about Shabbat. It calls it a mo’ed and a mikra kodesh when, in the conventional sense of these words, it is neither. Mo’ed means an appointed time with a fixed date on the calendar. Mikra kodeshmeans either a sacred assembly, a time at which the nation gathered at the central Sanctuary, or a day made holy by proclamation, that is, through the human court’s determination of the calendar. Shabbat is none of these things. It has no fixed date on the calendar. It is not a time of national assembly. And it is not a day made holy by the proclamation of the human court. Shabbat was the day made holy by God Himself at the beginning of time. Continue reading EMOR

KEDOSHIM

From Priest to People

Something fundamental happens at the beginning of this parsha and the story is one of the greatest, if rarely acknowledged, contributions of Judaism to the world.

Until now Vayikra has been largely about sacrifices, purity, the Sanctuary, and the Priesthood. Continue reading KEDOSHIM

ACHAREI MOT

Thinking Fast and Slow

If we put together recent discoveries in neuroscience with Midrashic tradition we may be able to shed new light on the meaning of the central mystery of Yom Kippur: the two goats, identical in appearance, over which the High Priest cast lots, sacrificing one as a sin offering and sending the other, the scapegoat, into the wilderness to die. Continue reading ACHAREI MOT

METSORÁ

The Power of Speech

As we saw in Parshat Tazria, the Sages identify tzara’at – the condition that affects human skin, the fabric of garments, and the walls of a house – not as an illness but as a punishment, and not for any sin but for one specific sin, that of lashon hara, evil speech. Continue reading METSORÁ

TAZRIA

The Sacrifices of Childbirth

At the start of this parsha is a cluster of laws that challenged and puzzled the commentators. They concern a woman who has just given birth. If she gives birth to a son, she is “unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.” She must then wait for a further thirty-three days before coming into contact with holy objects or appearing at the Temple. Continue reading TAZRIA

SHEMINI

Between Hope and Humanity

It should have been the great day of celebration. The Tabernacle, Israel’s first collective house of worship, was complete. All preparations had been made. For seven days, Moses had performed the inauguration. Now, the eighth day, the first of Nissan, had arrived. The Priests, led by Aaron, were ready to begin their service. Continue reading SHEMINI

TZAV

Destructive and Self-Destructive

This sedra, speaking about sacrifices, prohibits the eating of blood:

Wherever you live, you must not eat the blood of any bird or animal. If anyone eats blood, that person must be cut off from his people. (Lev. 7:26–27)

This is not just one prohibition among others. The ban on eating blood is fundamental to the Torah. For example, it occupies a central place in the covenant God makes with Noah – and through him, all of humanity – after the Flood: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it” (Gen. 9:4). So too, Moses returns to the subject in his great closing addresses in the book of Deuteronomy:

But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat. You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. Do not eat it, so that it may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord. (Deut. 12:23–25)

Continue reading TZAV

VAYKRA

The Pursuit of Meaning

The American Declaration of Independence speaks of the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Recently, following the pioneering work of Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, there have been hundreds of books published on happiness. Yet there is something more fundamental still to the sense of a life well-lived, namely, meaning. The two seem similar. It’s easy to suppose that people who find meaning are happy, and people who are happy have found meaning. But the two are not the same, nor do they always overlap. Continue reading VAYKRA

PEKUDEI

Sobre o Caráter Judaico

Pekudei has sometimes been called the accountant’s parsha, because that is how it begins, with the audited accounts of the money and materials donated to the Sanctuary. It is the Torah’s way of teaching us the need for financial transparency. Continue reading PEKUDEI

VAYAKEL

The Beauty of Holiness or the Holiness of Beauty

In Ki Tissa and in Vayakhel we encounter the figure of Betzalel, a rare type in the Hebrew Bible – the artist, the craftsman, the shaper of beauty in the service of God, the man who, together with Oholiab, fashioned the articles associated with the Tabernacle. Judaism – in sharp contrast to ancient Greece – did not cherish the visual arts. The reason is clear. The biblical prohibition against graven images associates them with idolatry. Historically, images, fetishes, icons and statues were linked in the ancient world with pagan religious practices. The idea that one might worship “the work of men’s hands” was anathema to biblical faith. Continue reading VAYAKEL

KI TISSÁ

A Stiff-Necked People

It is a moment of the very highest drama. The Israelites, a mere forty days after the greatest revelation in history, have made an idol: a Golden Calf. God threatens to destroy them. Moses, exemplifying to the fullest degree the character of Israel as one who “wrestles with God and man,” confronts both in turn. To God, he prays for mercy for the people. Coming down the mountain and facing Israel, he smashes the tablets, symbol of the covenant. He grinds the calf to dust, mixes it with water, and makes the Israelites drink it. He commands the Levites to punish the wrongdoers. Then he re-ascends the mountain in a prolonged attempt to repair the shattered relationship between God and the people. Continue reading KI TISSÁ

TETZAVE

Brothers: A Drama in Five Acts

It is interesting to note the absence of Moses from the parsha of Tetzaveh. For once Moses, the hero, the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver, is off-stage in the only instance where the name of Moses is not mentioned at all in any parsha since the first parsha of the book of Shemot (in which he is born). Continue reading TETZAVE

TERUMÁ

A Portable Home

The parsha of Terumah describes the construction of the Tabernacle, the first collective house of worship in the history of Israel. The first but not the last; it was eventually succeeded by the Temple in Jerusalem. I want to focus on one moment in Jewish history which represents Jewish spirituality at its lowest ebb and highest flight: the moment the Temple was destroyed. Continue reading TERUMÁ

MISHPATIM

Loving The Stranger

There are commands that leap off the page by their sheer moral power. So it is in the case of the social legislation in Mishpatim. Amid the complex laws relating to the treatment of slaves, personal injury and property, one command in particular stands out, by virtue of its repetition (it appears twice in our parsha), and the historical-psychological reasoning that lies behind it: Continue reading MISHPATIM

YTRO

Mount Sinai and the Birth of Freedom

The revelation at Mount Sinai – the central episode not only of the parsha of Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole – was unique in the religious history of mankind. Other faiths (Christianity and Islam) call themselves religions of revelation, but in both cases the revelation of which they spoke was to an individual (“the son of God,” “the prophet of God”). Only in Judaism was God’s self-disclosure not to an individual (a prophet) or a group (the elders) but to an entire nation, young and old, men, women and children, the righteous and not-yet-righteous alike. Continue reading YTRO

BESHALACH

The Divided Sea: Natural or Supernatural?

The splitting of the Reed Sea is engraved in Jewish memory. We recite it daily during the morning service, at the transition from the Verses of Praise to the beginning of communal prayer. We speak of it again after the Shema, just before the Amidah. It was the supreme miracle of the exodus. But in what sense? Continue reading BESHALACH

Against Their Gods

The ninth plague – darkness – comes shrouded in a darkness of its own.

What is this plague doing here? It seems out of sequence. Thus far there have been eight plagues, and they have become steadily, inexorably, more serious. The first two, the Nile turning blood-red and the infestation of frogs, seemed more like omens than anything else. The third and fourth, gnats and wild beasts, caused worry, not crisis. The fifth, the plague that killed livestock, affected animals, not human beings. Continue reading

VAERÁ

The God Who Acts In History

The Israelites were at their lowest ebb. They had been enslaved. A decree had been issued that every male child was to be killed. Moses had been sent to liberate them, but the first effect of his intervention was to make matters worse, not better. Their quota of brick-making remained unchanged, but now they also had to provide their own straw. Continue reading VAERÁ

VAYECHI

The Future of the Past

The scene that brings the book of Genesis to a close is intensely significant. Joseph’s brothers were terrified that, after the death of their father Jacob, Joseph would take revenge against them for selling him into slavery. Years before, he had told them that he forgave them: “Now, do not worry or feel guilty because you sold me. Look: God has sent me ahead of you to save lives” (Gen. 45:5). Evidently, though, they only half-believed him. Continue reading VAYECHI

VAYGASH

Does My Father Still Love Me?

It is one of the great questions we naturally ask each time we read the story of Joseph. Why did he not, at some time during their twenty-two year separation, send word to his father that he was alive? For part of that time – when he was a slave in Potiphar’s house, and when he was in prison – it would have been impossible. But certainly he could have done so when he became the second most powerful person in Egypt. At the very least he could have done so when the brothers came before him on their first journey to buy food. Continue reading VAYGASH

MIKETZ

The Universal and the Particular

The story of Joseph is one of those rare narratives in Tanach in which a Jew (Israelite/Hebrew) comes to play a prominent part in a gentile society – the others are, most notably, the books of Esther and Daniel. I want here to explore one facet of that scenario. How does a Jew speak to a non-Jew about God? Continue reading MIKETZ

VAYESHEV

Refusing Comfort, Keeping Hope

The deception has taken place. Joseph has been sold into slavery. His brothers dipped his coat in blood. They bring it back to their father, saying: “Look what we have found. Do you recognise it? Is this your son’s robe or not?” Jacob recognises it and replies, “It is my son’s robe. A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces.” Continue reading VAYESHEV

VAYSHLACH

Physical Fear, Moral Distress

Twenty-two years have passed since Jacob fled his brother, penniless and alone; twenty-two years have passed since Esau swore his revenge for what he saw as the theft of his blessing. Now the brothers are about to meet again. It is a fraught encounter. Once, Esau had sworn to kill Jacob. Will he do so now – or has time healed the wound? Jacob sends messengers to let his brother know he is coming. They return, saying that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with a force of four hundred men – a contingent so large it suggests to Jacob that Esau is intent on violence. Continue reading VAYSHLACH

VAYETSÊ

When the “I” is Silent

This week’s parsha relates a powerful, primal vision of prayer: Jacob, alone and far from home, lies down for the night, with only stones for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending. This is the initial encounter with the “house of God” that would one day become the synagogue, the first dream of a “gate of heaven” that would allow access to a God that stands above, letting us know finally that “God is truly in this place.” Continue reading VAYETSÊ

TOLEDOT

Why Isaac? Why Jacob?

Why Isaac, not Ishmael? Why Jacob, not Esau? These are among the most searing questions in the whole of Judaism.

It is impossible to read Genesis 21, with its description of how Hagar and her son were cast out into the wilderness, how their water ran out, how Hagar placed Ishmael under a bush and sat at a distance so she would not see him die, without feeling intensely for both of them, mother and child. Continue reading TOLEDOT

CHAYÊ SARA

On Judaism and Islam

The language of the Torah is, in Erich Auerbach’s famous phrase, “fraught with background.” Behind the events that are openly told are shadowy stories left for us to decipher. Hidden beneath the surface of Parshat Chayei Sarah, for example, is another story, alluded to only in a series of hints. There are three clues in the text. Continue reading CHAYÊ SARA

VAYERÁ

God and Strangers

God appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men were standing over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent entrance, and bowed down to the earth… (18:1–2)

Thus Parshat Vayera opens with one of the most famous scenes in the Bible: Abraham’s meeting with the three enigmatic strangers. The text calls them men. We later discover that they were in fact angels, each with a specific mission. Continue reading VAYERÁ

LECH LECHA

Four Dimensions of the Journey

Within the first words that God addresses to the bearer of a new covenant, there are already hints as to the nature of the heroism he would come to embody. The multi-layered command “Lech lecha – go forth” contains the seeds of Abraham’s ultimate vocation. Continue reading LECH LECHA

NOACH

A Drama in Four Acts

The parsha of Noach brings to a close the eleven chapters that precede the call to Abraham and the beginning of the special relationship between him and his descendants, and God. During these eleven chapters, the Torah gives prominence to four stories: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the generation of the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Each of these stories involves an interaction between God and humanity. Each represents another step in the maturation of humanity. If we trace the course of these stories, we can discover a connection that goes deeper than chronology, a developmental line in the narrative of the evolution of humanity. Continue reading NOACH

BERESHIT

The Three Stages Of Creation

“And God said, let there be… And there was… and God saw that it was good.”
Thus unfolds the most revolutionary as well as the most influential account of creation in the history of the human spirit. In Rashi’s commentary, he quotes Rabbi Isaac who questioned why the Torah should start with the story of creation at all.[1] Given that it is a book of law – the commandments that bind the children of Israel as a nation – it should have started with the first law given to the Israelites, which does not appear until the twelfth chapter of Exodus. Continue reading BERESHIT

VEZOT HABERACHÁ

Unfinished Symphony

Each year, as we near the end of the Mosaic books and Moses’ life, I find myself asking: Did it really have to end that way, with Moses denied the chance to even to set foot on the land to which he led the people for forty tempestuous years? In the Heavenly Court, could Justice not have yielded to Mercy for the few days it would have taken Moses to cross the Jordan and see his task fulfilled? And for what was Moses being punished? One moment’s anger when he spoke intemperately to the Israelites when they were complaining about the lack of water? Can a leader not be forgiven for one lapse in forty years? In the words of the sages: Is this the Torah and this its reward?[1] Continue reading VEZOT HABERACHÁ

HAAZINU

Emotional Intelligence

In March 2015 I had a public conversation at Yale with the University’s President Peter Salovey. The occasion was quite an emotional one. It celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Marshall Scholarships, created by the British parliament as a way of expressing thanks to the United States for the Marshall Plan, that helped Western Europe rebuild its economies after the Second World War. Continue reading HAAZINU

VAYELECH

The Second Mountain

What do you do when you have achieved it all, when you have risen to whatever career heights fate or providence has in store for you? What do you do as age lengthens its shadow, the sun sinks, and the body is no longer as resilient or the mind as sharp as it once was? Continue reading VAYELECH

NITZAVIM

The World is Waiting for You

Something remarkable happens in this week’s parsha, almost without our noticing it, that changed the very terms of Jewish existence, and has life-changing implications for all of us. Moses renewed the covenant. This may not sound dramatic, but it was. Continue reading NITZAVIM

KI TAVÔ

The Story We Tell

The setting: Jerusalem some twenty centuries ago.  The occasion: bringing first fruits to the Temple. Here is the scene as the Mishnah describes it. Throughout Israel, villagers would gather in the nearest of 24 regional centres. There, overnight, they would sleep in the open air. The next morning, the leader would summon the people with words from the book of Jeremiah (31:5): “Arise and let us go up to Zion, to the House of the Lord our God.” Continue reading KI TAVÔ

KI TETSÊ

Social Capital & Fallen Donkeys

Many years ago, Elaine and I were being driven to the Catskills, a long-time favourite summer getaway for Jews in New York, and our driver told us the following story: one friday afternoon, he was making his way to join his family in the Catskills for Shabbat when he saw a man wearing a yarmulke, bending over his car at the side of the road. One of the tires was flat, and he was about to change the wheel. Continue reading KI TETSÊ

SHOFETIM

To Lead is to Serve

Our parsha talks about monarchy: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the surrounding nations,” set over you a king whom the Lord your God chooses” (Deut. 17:14-15). So it should be relatively easy to answer the question: From a Jewish perspective, is having a king a good thing or a bad thing? It turns out, however, to be almost unanswerable. Continue reading SHOFETIM

REÊ

On Not Being a Victim

Making a series of programmes for the BBC on morality in the twenty-first century, I felt I had to travel to Toronto have a conversation with a man I had not met before, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Recently he has recently become an iconic intellectual for millions of young people, as well as a figure of caricature and abuse by others who should know better.[1] Continue reading REÊ

EKEV

Listen, Really Listen!

Some 20 or so years ago, with the help from the Ashdown Foundation, I initiated a conference at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, on the future of Jewish peoplehood. I feared the deepening divisions between secular and ultra-orthodox in Israel, between the various denominations in the Diaspora, and between Israel and the Diaspora themselves. Continue reading EKEV

VAETCHANAN

Making Love Last

Over the past few months I’ve been having conversations with leading thinkers, intellectuals, innovators and philanthropists for a BBC series on moral challenges of the 21st century. Among those I spoke to was David Brooks, one of the most insightful moralists of our time. His conversation is always scintillating, but one remark of his was particularly beautiful. It is a key that helps us unlocks the entire project outlined by Moses in Sefer Devarim, the fifth and final book of the Torah. Continue reading VAETCHANAN

DEVARIM

The Effective Critic

The first verse of Devarim, the fifth and culminating book of the Torah, sounds prosaic. “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan—in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahav.” There is no hint of drama in these words. But the sages of the Talmud found one, and it is life-changing. Continue reading DEVARIM

MATOT – MASSEI

Miles to go Before I Sleep

Etre ailleurs, “To be elsewhere – the great vice of this race, its great and secret virtue, the great vocation of this people.” So wrote the French poet and essayist Charles Peguy (1873-1914), a philosemite in an age of Anti-Semitism. He continued: “Any crossing for them means the crossing of the desert. The most comfortable houses, the best built from stones as big as the temple pillars, the most real of real estate, the most overwhelming of apartment houses will never mean more to them than a tent in the desert.”[1]

What he meant was that history and destiny had combined to make Jews aware of the temporariness of any dwelling outside the Holy Land. To be a Jew is to be on a journey. That is how the Jewish story began when Abraham first heard the words “Lech Lecha”, with their call to leave where he was and travel “to the land I will show you.” That is how it began again in the days of Moses, when the family had become a people. And that is the point almost endlessly repeated in parshat Masei: “They set out from X and camped at Y. They set out from Y and camped at Z” – 42 stages in a journey of forty years. We are the people who travel. We are the people who do not stand still. We are the people for whom time itself is a journey through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land.

In one sense this is a theme familiar from the world of myth. In many cultures, stories are told about the journey of the hero. Otto Rank, one of Freud’s most brilliant colleagues, wrote about it. So did Joseph Campbell, a Jungian, in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Nonetheless, the Jewish story is different in significant ways:

1) The journey – set out in the books of Shemot and Bamidbar – is undertaken by everyone, the entire people: men, women and children. It is as if, in Judaism, we are all heroes, or at least all summoned to an heroic challenge.

2) It takes longer than a single generation. Perhaps, had the spies not demoralised the nation with their report, it might have taken only a short while. But there is a deeper and more universal truth here. The move from slavery to the responsibilities of freedom takes time. People do not change overnight. Therefore evolution succeeds; revolution fails. The Jewish journey began before we were born and it is our responsibility to hand it on to those who will continue it after us.

3) In myth, the hero usually encounters a major trial: an adversary, a dragon, a dark force. He (it is usually a he) may even die and be resurrected. As Campbell puts it: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”[2] The Jewish story is different. The adversary the Israelites encounter is themselves: their fears, their weaknesses, their constant urge to return and regress.

It seems to me, here as so often elsewhere, that the Torah is not myth but anti-myth, a deliberate insistence on removing the magical elements from the story and focussing relentlessly on the human drama of courage versus fear, hope versus despair, and the call, not to some larger-than-life hero but to all-of-us-together, given strength by our ties to our people’s past and the bonds between us in the present. The Torah is not some fabled escape from reality but reality itself, seen as a journey we must all undertake, each with our own strengths and contributions to our people and to humanity.

We are all on a journey. And we must all rest from time to time. That dialectic between setting out and encamping, walking and standing still, is part of the rhythm of Jewish life. There is a time for Nitzavim, standing, and a time for Vayelekh, moving on. Rav Kook spoke of the two symbols in Bilaam’s blessing, “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, and your dwelling places, Israel.” Tents are for people on a journey. Dwelling places are for people who have found home.

Psalm 1 uses two symbols of the righteous individual. On the one hand he or she is on the way, while the wicked begin by walking, then transition to standing and sitting. On the other hand, the righteous is compared to a tree, planted by streams of water, that gives fruit in due season and whose leaves do not wither. We walk, but we also stand still. We are on a journey but we are also rooted like a tree.

In life, there are journeys and encampments. Without the encampments, we suffer burnout. Without the journey, we do not grow. And life is growth. There is no way to avoid challenge and change. The late Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l once gave a beautiful shiur[3] on Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ with its closing verse:

The woods are lovely dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

He analyses the poem in terms of Kierkegaard’s distinction between the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of life. The poet is enchanted by the aesthetic beauty of the scene, the soft silence of the falling snow, the dark dignity of the tall trees. He would love to stay here in this timeless moment, this eternity-in-an-hour. But he knows that life has an ethical dimension also, and this demands action, not just contemplation. He has promises to keep; he has duties toward the world. So he must walk on despite his tiredness. He has miles to go before he sleeps: he has work to do while the breath of life is within him.

The poet has stopped briefly to enjoy the dark wood and falling snow. He has encamped. But now, like the Israelites in Massei, he must set out again. For us as Jews, as for Kierkegaard the theologian and Robert Frost the poet, ethics takes priority over aesthetics. Yes, there are moments when we should, indeed must, pause to see the beauty of the world, but then we must move on, for we have promises to keep, including the promises to ourselves and to God.

Hence the life-changing idea: life is a journey, not a destination. We should never stand still. Instead we should constantly set ourselves new challenges that take us out of our comfort zone. Life is growth.

Shabbat shalom.

 

NOTAS
[1] Charles Peguy, Basic Verities, New York, Pantheon, 1943, 141.
[2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, New World Library, 2008, 23.
[3] http://etzion.org.il/en/woods-are-lovely-dark-and-deep-reading-poem-robert-frost

PINCHAS

The Lost Masterpiece 

A true story that took place in 1995: It concerns the legacy of an unusual man with an unusual name: Mr Ernest Onians, a farmer in East Anglia whose main business was as a supplier of pigswill. Known as an eccentric, his hobby was collecting paintings. He used to go around local auctions and whenever a painting came on sale, especially if it was old, he would make a bid for it. Eventually he collected more than five hundred canvases. There were too many to hang them all on the walls of his relatively modest home, Baylham Mill in Suffolk. So he simply piled them up, keeping some in his chicken sheds. Continue reading PINCHAS

BALAK

A People that Dwells Alone

This is an extraordinary moment in Jewish history, for good and not-so-good reasons. For the first time in almost 4,000 years we have simultaneously sovereignty and independence in the land and state of Israel, and freedom and equality in the Diaspora. There have been times – all too brief – when Jews had one or the other, but never before, both at the same time. That is the good news. Continue reading BALAK

HUKAT

The Consolations of Mortality

Hukkat is about mortality. In it we read of the death of two of Israel’s three great leaders in the wilderness, Miriam and Aaron, and the sentence of death decreed against Moses, the greatest of them all. These were devastating losses. Continue reading HUKAT

KORACH

The First Populist

The story of Korach has much to teach us about one of the most disturbing phenomena of our time: the rise of populism in contemporary politics. Korach was a populist, one of the first in recorded history – and populism has re-emerged in the West, as it did in the 1930s, posing great danger to the future of freedom. Continue reading KORACH

EMOR

In The Diary

Time management is more than management and larger than time. It is about life itself.  God gives us one thing above all: life itself. And He gives it to us all on equal terms. However rich we are, there are still only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, and a span of years that, however long, is still all too short. Whoever we are, whatever we do, whatever gifts we have, the single most important fact about our life, on which all else depends, is how we spend our time.[1]

“The span of our life is seventy years, or if we are strong, eighty years,” says Psalm 90, and despite the massive reduction of premature deaths in the past century, the average life expectancy around the world, according to the most recent United Nations figures (2010-2015) is 71.5 years.[2] So, concludes the Psalm, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom,” reminding us that time management is not simply a productivity tool. It is, in fact, a spiritual exercise.

Hence the following life-changing idea, which sounds simple, but isn’t. Do not rely exclusively on To Do lists. Use a diary. The most successful people schedule their most important tasks in their diary.[3] They know that if it isn’t there, it won’t get done. To Do lists are useful, but not sufficient. They remind us of what we have to do but not when. They fail to distinguish between what is important and what merely urgent. They clutter the mind with trivia and distract us when we ought to be focusing on the things that matter most in the long run. Only a diary connects what with when. And what applies to individuals applies to communities and cultures as a whole.

That is what the Jewish calendar is about. It is why chapter 23, in this week’s parsha, is so fundamental to the continued vitality of the Jewish people. It sets out a weekly, monthly and yearly schedule of sacred times. This is continued and extended in Parshat Behar to seven- and fifty-year schedules. The Torah forces us to remember what contemporary culture regularly forgets: that our lives must have dedicated times when we focus on the things that give life a meaning. And because we are social animals, the most important times are the ones we share. The Jewish calendar is precisely that: a structure of shared time.

We all need an identity, and every identity comes with a story. So we need a time when we remind ourselves of the story of where we came from and why we are who we are. That happens on Pesach, when we re-enact the founding moment of our people as they began their long walk to freedom.

We need a moral code, an internalised satellite navigation system to guide us through the wilderness of time. That is what we celebrate on Shavuot when we relive the moment when our ancestors stood at Sinai, made their covenant with God, and heard Heaven declare the Ten Commandments.

We need a regular reminder of the brevity of life itself, and hence the need to use time wisely. That is what we do on Rosh Hashanah as we stand before God in judgment and pray to be written in the Book of Life.

We need a time when we confront our faults, apologise for the wrong we have done, make amends, resolve to change, and ask for forgiveness. That is the work of Yom Kippur.

We need to remind ourselves that we are on a journey, that we are “strangers and sojourners” on earth, and that where we live is only a temporary dwelling. That is what we experience on Sukkot.

And we need, from time to time, to step back from the ceaseless pressures of work and find the rest in which we can celebrate our blessings, renew our relationships, and recover the full vigour of body and mind. That is Shabbat.

Doubtless, most people – at least, most reflective people – know that these things are important. But knowing is not enough. These are elements of a life that become real when we live them, not just when we know them. That is why they have to be in the diary, not just on a To Do list.

As Alain de Botton points out in his Religion for Atheists, we all know that it is important to mend broken relationships. But without Yom Kippur, there are psychological pressures that can make us endlessly delay such mending.[4] If we are the offended party, we may not want to show other people our hurt. It makes us look fragile, vulnerable. And if we are the offending party, it can be hard to admit our guilt, not least because we feel so guilty. As he puts it: “We can be so sorry that we find ourselves incapable of saying sorry.” The fact that Yom Kippur exists means that there is a day in the diary on which we have to do the mending – and this is made easier by the knowledge that everyone else is doing so likewise. In his words:

It is the day itself that is making us sit here and talk about the peculiar incident six months ago when you lied and I blustered and you accused me of insincerity and I made you cry, an incident that neither of us can quite forget but that we can’t quite mention either and which has been slowly corroding the trust and love we once had for one another. It is the day that has given us the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to stop talking of our usual business and to reopen a case we pretended to have put out of our minds. We are not satisfying ourselves, we are obeying the rules.[5]

Exactly so: we are obeying the rules. We are following the Jewish calendar, which takes many of the most important truths about our lives and, instead of putting them on a To Do list, writes them in the diary.

What happens when you do not have that kind of diary? Contemporary Western secular society is a case-study in the consequences. People no longer tell the story of the nation. Hence national identities, especially in Europe, are almost a thing of the past –one reason for the return of the Far Right in countries like Austria, Holland and France.

People no longer share a moral code, which is why students in universities seek to ban speakers with whose views they disagree. When there is no shared code, there can be no reasoned argument, only the use of force.

As for remembering the brevity of life, Roman Krznaric reminds us that modern society is “geared to distract us from death. Advertising creates a world where everyone is forever young. We shunt the elderly away in care homes, out of sight and mind.” Death has become “a topic as taboo as sex was during the Victorian era.”[6]

Atonement and forgiveness have been driven out of public life, to be replaced by public shaming, courtesy of the social media. As for Shabbat, almost everywhere in the West the day of rest has been replaced by the sacred day of shopping, and rest itself replaced by the relentless tyranny of smartphones.

Fifty years ago, the most widespread prediction was that by now almost everything would have been automated. The work week would be down to 20 hours and our biggest problem would be what to do with all our leisure. Instead, most people today find themselves working harder than ever with less and less time to pursue the things that make life meaningful. As Leon Kass recently put it, people “still hope to find meaning in their lives,” but they are increasingly confused about “what a worthy life might look like, and about how they might be able to live one.”[7]

Hence the life-changing magic of the Jewish calendar.   Philosophy seeks timeless truths. Judaism, by contrast, takes truths and translates them into time in the form of sacred, shared moments when we experience the great truths by living them. So: whatever you want to achieve, write it in the diary or it will not happen. And live by the Jewish calendar if you want to experience, not just occasionally think about, the things that give life a meaning.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

NOTES
[1] For an excellent recent book about the way our behaviour is governed by time, see Daniel Pink, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Riverhead Books, 2018.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy.
[3] See Kevin Kruse, 15 Secrets Successful People Know about Time Management, 2017.
[4] Of course, Yom Kippur atones only for sins between us and God, not for those between us and our fellows. But it is a day when, traditionally, we seek to make amends for the latter also. Indeed most of the sins we confess in the long list, Al Cheit, are sins between humans and other humans.
[5] Alain De Botton, Religion for Atheists, Hamish Hamilton, 2012, 55 – 56.
[6] Roman Krznaric, Carpe Diem Regained, Unbound, 2017, 22.
[7] Leon Kass, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, Encounter Books, 2018, 9.

SHEMINI

When Weakness can become a Strength

Have you ever felt inadequate to a task you have been assigned or a job you have been given? Do you sometimes feel that other people have too high an estimate of your abilities? Has there been a moment when you felt like a faker, a fraud, and that at some time you would be found out and discovered to be the weak, fallible, imperfect human being you know in your heart you are? Continue reading SHEMINI

TZAV

Giving Thanks

The first words we are taught to say each morning, immediately on waking, are Modeh/modah ani, “I give thanks.” We thank before we think. Note that the normal word order is inverted: Modeh ani, not ani modeh, so that in Hebrew the “thanks” comes before the “I.” Judaism is “gratitude with attitude.” And this, according to recent scientific research, really is a life-enhancing idea. Continue reading TZAV

VAYKRA

The Call

It was never my ambition or aspiration to be a rabbi. I went to university to study economics. I then switched to philosophy. I also had a fascination with the great British courtroom lawyers, legendary figures like Marshall Hall, Rufus Isaacs and F. E. Smith. To be sure, relatively late, I had studied for the rabbinate, but that was to become literate in my own Jewish heritage, not to pursue a career. Continue reading VAYKRA

VAYAKEL/PEKUDEI

Making Space

With this week’s double parsha, with its long account of the construction of the sanctuary – one of the longest narratives in the Torah, taking a full 13 chapters – comes to a magnificent climax:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Sanctuary. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the Glory of the Lord filled the Sanctuary. (Ex. 40:34-35)

Continue reading VAYAKEL/PEKUDEI

TETZAVE

Crushed for the Light

There are lives that are lessons. The late Henry Knobil’s was one. He was born in Vienna in 1932. His father had come there in the 1920s to escape the rising tide of antisemitism in Poland, but like Jacob fleeing from Esau to Laban, he found that he had fled one danger only to arrive at another. Continue reading TETZAVE

TERUMA

Why We Value What We Make

The behavioural economist Dan Ariely did a series of experiments on what is known as the IKEA effect, or “why we overvalue what we make.” The name comes, of course, from the store that sells self-assembly furniture. For practically-challenged people like me, putting an item of furniture together is usually like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle in which various pieces are missing, and others are in the wrong place. But in the end, even if the item is amateurish, we tend to feel a certain pride in it. Continue reading TERUMA

MISHPATIM

The Power of Empathy

William Ury, founder of the Harvard Program of Negotiation, tells a marvellous story in one of his books.[1] A young American, living in Japan to study aikido, was sitting one afternoon in a train in the suburbs of Tokyo. The carriage was half empty. There were some mothers with children, and elderly people going shopping. Continue reading MISHPATIM

YTRO

The Bond of Loyalty and Love

In the course of any life there are moments of awe and amazement when, with a full heart, you thank God shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazeman hazeh, “who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this day.” Continue reading YTRO

BESHALACH

The Longer, Shorter Road

At the end of his new book, Tribe of Mentors, Timothy Ferris cites the following poem by Portia Nelson. It’s called ‘Autobiography in Five Short Chapters’:

Chapter 1: I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost… I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter 2: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in this same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter 3: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in… It’s a habit… But, my eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
Chapter 4: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
Chapter 5: I walk down another street.

Continue reading BESHALACH

The Story We Tell

It remains one of the most counterintuitive passages in all of religious literature. Moses is addressing the Israelites just days before their release. They had been exiles for 210 years. After an initial period of affluence and ease, they had been oppressed, enslaved, and their male children killed in an act of slow genocide. Now, after signs and wonders and a series of plagues that have brought the greatest empire of the ancient world to its knees, they were about to go free. Continue reading

VAERÁ

Freewill: Use It or Lose It

In parshat Va’era we read for the first time, not of Pharaoh hardening his heart but of God doing so: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart,” said God to Moses, “and multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 7:3). And so indeed we find in the sixth plague, boils (Ex. 9:12), the eighth, locusts ((Ex. 10:1, 20), and the tenth, the firstborn ((Ex. 11:10). In each case the hardening is attributed to God. Continue reading VAERÁ

SHEMOT

God Loves Those Who Argue

I have become increasingly concerned about the assault on free speech taking place throughout the West, particularly in university campuses.[1] This is being done in the name of “safe space,” that is, space in which you are protected against hearing views which might cause you distress, “trigger warnings”[2] and “micro-aggressions,” that is, any remark that someone might find offensive even if no offence is meant. Continue reading SHEMOT

VAYECHI

What it Takes to Forgive

Joseph forgives. That, as I have argued before, was a turning point in history. For this was the first recorded act of forgiveness in literature. Continue reading VAYECHI

VAYGASH

The First Psychotherapist

The phrase “Jewish thinker” may mean two very different things. It may mean a thinker who just happens to be Jewish by birth or descent – a Jewish physicist, for example – or it may refer to someone who has contributed specifically to Jewish thought: like Judah Halevi or Maimonides. Continue reading VAYGASH

MIKETZ

Jews and Economics

We know that Jews have won a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes: over twenty per cent of them from a group that represents 0.2 per cent of the world population, an over-representation of 100 to one. But the most striking disproportion is in the field of economics. The first Nobel Prize in economics was awarded in 1969. The last as of the time of writing was in 2016. In total there have been 78 laureates, of whom 28 were Jews; that is, over 35 per cent. Continue reading MIKETZ

VAYESHEV

Improbable endings and the defeat of despair

We live life looking forward but we understand it only looking back.

As we live from day to day, our life can seem like a meaningless sequence of random events, a series of accidents and happenstances that have no shape or inner logic. A traffic jam makes us late for an important meeting. A stray remark we make offends someone in a way we never intended. By a hair’s-breadth we fail to get the job we so sought. Life as we experience it can sometimes feel like Joseph Heller’s definition of history: “a trashbag of random coincidences blown open in a wind.” Continue reading VAYESHEV

VAYSHLACH

The Struggle of Faith

There are Mozarts and there are Beethovens. Which are you?
I have only the most amateur knowledge of music, but the impression one gets about Mozart is that, from him, music flowed. There is something effortless and effervescent about his compositions. They are not “sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought.” He wrote at speed. He carried the worries of the world lightly. Continue reading VAYSHLACH

VAYETSÊ

Out of The Depths

What did Jacob add to the Jewish experience? What is it that we find in him that we do not find to the same measure in Abraham and Isaac? Why is it his name – Jacob/Israel – that we carry in our identity? How was it that all his children stayed within the faith? Is there something of him in our spiritual DNA? There are many answers. I explore one here, and another next week in Vayishlach. Continue reading VAYETSÊ

TOLEDOT

Why Isaac? Why Jacob?

Why Isaac, not Ishmael? Why Jacob, not Esau? These are among the most searing questions in the whole of Judaism.

It is impossible to read Genesis 21, with its description of how Hagar and her son were cast out into the wilderness, how their water ran out, how Hagar placed Ishmael under a bush and sat at a distance so she would not see him die, without feeling intensely for both of them, mother and child. Continue reading TOLEDOT

CHAYÊ SARA

The World’s Oldest Man

On 11 August 2017, the world’s oldest man passed away, just a month short of his 114th birthday – making him one of the ten longest-lived men since modern record-keeping began. If you knew nothing else about him than this, you would be justified in thinking that he had led a peaceful life, spared of fear, grief and danger. Continue reading CHAYÊ SARA

VAYERA

The Space between Us

The stories told in Bereishit chapters 21 and 22 – the sending away of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac – are among the hardest to understand in the whole of Tanakh. Both involve actions that strike us as almost unbearably harsh. But the difficulties they present go deeper even than that. Continue reading VAYERA

LECH LECHÁ

Inner-Directedness

Is character strictly personal – either you are or aren’t calm, courageous, charismatic – or does culture have a part to play? Does when and where you live make a difference to the kind of person you become? Continue reading LECH LECHÁ

NOACH

The Trace of God

The story of the first eight chapters of Bereishit is tragic but simple: creation, followed by decreation, followed by re-creation. God creates order. Human then destroy that order, to the point where “the world was filled with violence,” and “all flesh had corrupted its way on earth.” God brings a flood that wipes away all life, until – with the exception of Noah, his family and other animals – the earth has returned to the state it was in at the beginning of Torah, when “the earth was waste and void, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Continue reading NOACH

BERESHIT

The faith of God

In stately prose the Torah in its opening chapter describes the unfolding of the universe, the effortless creation of a single creative Force. Repeatedly we read, “And God said, Let there be … and there was … and God saw that it was good” – until we come to the creation of humankind. Suddenly the whole tone of the narrative changes:  Continue reading BERESHIT

CHOL HAMOED SUCOT

Life-changing Ideas

What is Judaism? A religion? A faith? A way of life? A set of beliefs? A collection of commands? A culture? A civilization? It is all these, but it is emphatically something more. It is a way of thinking, a constellation of ideas: a way of understanding the world and our place within it. Judaism contains life-changing ideas. That is what I want to talk about in Covenant and Conversation, 5778. Continue reading CHOL HAMOED SUCOT

YOM KIPUR

The Ten Days of Repentance

The Ten Days of Repentance are the holy of holies of Jewish time. They begin this Wednesday evening with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and culminate 10 days later with Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. At no other time do I feel so close to God, and I suspect the same is true for most Jews. Continue reading YOM KIPUR

HAAZINU

Moses the Man

That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people …For you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” Continue reading HAAZINU

NITZAVIM – VAIELECH

Why Be Jewish?

In the last days of his life Moses renews the covenant between God and Israel. The entire book of Devarim has been an account of the covenant – how it came about, what its terms and conditions are, why it is the core of Israel’s identity as an am kadosh, a holy people, and so on. Now comes the moment of renewal itself, a kind of national referendum as it were. Continue reading NITZAVIM – VAIELECH

KI TAVÔ

Covenant & Conversation

In two sentences in this week’s sedra, the Torah summarises the entire relationship between God and the people of Israel: Continue reading KI TAVÔ

KI TETSÊ

Two Types of Hate

It is by any standards a strange, almost incomprehensible law. Here it is in the form it appears in this week’s parsha: Continue reading KI TETSÊ

SHOFETIM

The Consent of the Governed

The contribution of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, to political thought is fundamental, but not well known. In this study I want to look at the institution of monarchy. What does it tell us about the nature of government as the Torah understands it?

The command relating to a king opens with these words:

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses . . . (Deut 17:14-15).

It continues by warning against a king acquiring “great numbers of horses for himself”. He “must not take many wives”, nor may he “accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” He must write a Sefer Torah, and “he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and . . . not consider himself better than his brothers, or turn from the law to the right or to the left.”

The entire passage is fraught with ambivalence. The dangers are clearly spelled out. There is a risk that a king will exploit his power, using it to acquire wealth, or wives, or horses (one of the status symbols of the ancient world). This is exactly what Solomon is described as doing in the Book of Kings. His “heart may be led astray”. He may be tempted to lord it over the people, considering himself “better than his brothers”.

The most resonant warning note is struck at the outset. Rather than commanding the appointment of a king, the Torah envisages the people asking for one so that they can be “like all the nations around us”. This is contrary to the whole spirit of the Torah. The Israelites were commanded to be different, set apart, counter-cultural. To want to be like everyone else is not, for the Torah, a noble wish but a failure of imagination and nerve. Small wonder then that a number of medieval commentators held that the creation of a monarchy is not a biblical imperative. Ibn Ezra held that the Torah did not command it but merely permitted it. Abarbanel – who favoured republican government over monarchy – regarded it as a concession to popular sentiment.

However, the key passage is not here but in I Samuel 8. [1] As predicted in Deuteronomy, the people do eventually request a king. They come to Samuel, the prophet-judge, and say: “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

Samuel is displeased. God then tells him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected Me as their king.” This seems to be the heart of the matter. Ideally, Israel should be under no other sovereign but God.

Yet God does not reject the request. To the contrary, God had already signalled, through Moses, that such a request would be granted. So He says to Samuel: “Listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.” The people may appoint a king, but not without having been forewarned as to what are the likely consequences. Samuel gives the warning in these words:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants . . . and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Despite the warning, the people are undeterred. “‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’ When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, ‘Listen to them and give them a king.’”

What is going on here? The sages were divided as to whether Samuel was setting out the powers of the king, or whether he was merely trying to dissuade them from the whole project (Sanhedrin 20b). The entire passage, like the one in Deuteronomy, is profoundly ambivalent. Is God in favour of monarchy or against? If He is in favour, why did He say that the people’s request was tantamount to rejecting Him? If He is against, why did He not simply command Samuel to say no?

The best analysis of the subject was given by one of the great rabbis of the 19th century, R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes, in his Torat Nevi’im. His thesis is that the institution of monarchy in the days of Samuel took the form of a social contract – as set out in the writings of Locke and Rousseau, and especially Hobbes. The people recognise that they cannot function as individuals without someone having the power to ensure the rule of law and the defence of the nation. Without this, they are in what Hobbes calls a “state of nature”. There is anarchy, chaos. No one is safe. Instead, in Hobbes’ famous phrase, there is “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes was writing in the wake of England’s civil war). This is the Hobbesian equivalent of the last line of the Book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”

The only way to escape from anarchy is by everyone agreeing to transfer some of their rights – especially the use of coercive force – to a human sovereign. Government comes at a high price. It means transferring to a ruler rights over one’s own property and person. The king is entitled to seize property, impose taxes, and conscript people into an army if these are necessary to ensure the rule of law and national security. People agree to this because they calculate that the price of not doing so will be higher still – total anarchy or conquest by a foreign power.

That, according to Chajes, is what Samuel was doing, at God’s command: proposing a social contract and spelling out what the results would be. If this is so, many things follow. The first is that Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel were right. God gave the people the choice as to whether or not to appoint a king. It was not compulsory but optional. The second – and this is the fundamental feature of social contract theories – is that power is ultimately vested in the people. To be sure, there are moral limits to power. Even a human king is under the sovereignty of God. God gives us the rules that are eternal.

Politics is about the laws that are temporary, for this time, this place, these circumstances. What makes the politics of social contract distinctive is its insistence that government is the free choice of a free nation. This was given its most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence: “to secure these rights (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That is what God was telling Samuel. If the people want a king, give them a king. Israel is empowered to choose the form of government it desires, within the parameters set by Torah law.

Something else follows – spelled out by R. Avraham Yitzhak haCohen Kook (Responsa Mishpat Cohen, no. 143-4, pp. 336-337): “Since the laws of monarchy pertain to the general situation of the people, these legal rights revert [in the absence of a king] to the people as a whole. Specifically it would seem that any leader [shofet] who arises in Israel has the status of a king [din melekh yesh lo] in many respects, especially when it concerns the conduct of the people . . . Whoever leads the people may rule in accordance with the laws of kingship, since these encompass the needs of the people at that time and in that situation.”

In other words, in the absence of a king of Davidic descent, the people may choose to be ruled by a non-Davidic king, as they did in the age of the Hasmoneans, or to be ruled instead by a democratically elected Parliament, as in the current State of Israel.

The real issue, as the Torah sees it, is not between monarchy and democracy, but between government that is, or is not, freely chosen by the governed. To be sure, the Torah is systematically skeptical about politics. In an ideal world, Israel would be governed by God alone. Given, however, that this is not an ideal world, there must be some human power with the authority to ensure that laws are kept and enemies repelled. But that power is never unlimited. It comes with two constraints: first, it is subject to the overarching authority of God and His law; second, it is confined to the genuine pursuit of the people’s interests. Any attempt by a ruler to use power for personal advantage (as in the case of King Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard: 1 Kings 21) is illegitimate.

The free society has its birth in the Hebrew Bible. Far from mandating a retreat from society, the Torah is the blueprint of a society – a society built on freedom and human dignity, whose high ideals remain compelling today.

 

NOTE:
For a brilliant recent study, though one that does not touch on the issues raised here, see Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes, The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, Princeton University Press, 2017.

REÊ

The Limits of Grief

“You are children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Deut. 14:1-2). Continue reading REÊ

EKEV

Why Civilisations Fail

What is the real challenge of maintaining a free society? In parshat Eikev, Moses springs his great surprise. Here are his words: Continue reading EKEV

VAETCHANAN

Philosophy or Prophecy?

What was the first commandment? On this there are two fascinating disagreements in Judaism. One was between Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and the author of the Halakhot Gedolot, written in the period of the Gaonim, probably by R. Shimon Kayyara (eighth century), that for the first time enumerated in a systematic way the 613 commands. The other was between Maimonides and the poet and thinker Judah Halevi (c. 1080-c.1145). These were two different arguments, and they touched, as we will see, on fundamentals of faith. Continue reading VAETCHANAN

DEVARIM

The Book of the Covenant

As we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, I would like to discuss three questions. First, why does the book of Devarim have the structure it does: a mix of history, law, recollection and anticipation? Continue reading DEVARIM

MATOT-MASSEI

The Prophetic Voice

During the three weeks between 17 Tammuz and Tisha b’Av, as we recall the destruction of the Temples, we read three of the most searing passages in the prophetic literature, the first two from the opening of the book of Jeremiah, the third, next week, from the first chapter of Isaiah. Continue reading MATOT-MASSEI

PINCHAS

Influence and Power

Knowing that he is about to die, Moses turns to God and asks him to appoint a successor: Moses said to the Lord, “May the Lord, God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.(Num. 27-15:17).

Continue reading PINCHAS

BALAK

A People That Dwells Alone

One of the most profound and influential comments ever made about Jewish destiny was made by the pagan prophet Bilaam in this week’s sedra:

As I see them from the mountain tops, 
Gaze on them from the heights, 
Behold it is a people that dwells alone,
Not reckoned among the nations. (Num. 23:9)

To many – Jews and non-Jews, admirers and critics alike – that has seemed to epitomise the Jewish situation: a people that stands outside history and the normal laws governing the fate of nations. For Jews it was a source of pride. For non-Jews, it was all too often a source of resentment and hate. For centuries, Jews in Christian Europe were treated, in Max Weber’s phrase, as a “pariah people.” All agreed, though, that Jews were different. The question is: how and why? The biblical answer is surprising and profound.  Continue reading BALAK

HUKAT

Descarte´s Error

In his recent bestseller, The Social Animal, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes:

We are living in the middle of the revolution in consciousness. Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. And a core finding of their work is that we are not primarily products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.(1) Continue reading HUKAT

KORACH

A Lesson in Conflict Resolution

The Korach rebellion was the single most dangerous challenge to Moses’ leadership during the forty years that he led the people through the wilderness. The precise outline of events is difficult to follow, probably because the events themselves were tumultuous and disorderly. Continue reading KORACH

SHELACH

Freedom Needs Patience

Whose idea was it to send the spies?
According to this week’s sedra, it was G-d. The Lord said to Moses, “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.” So at the Lord’s command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. (Numbers 13:1-3) Continue reading SHELACH

BEHALOTCHA

Leadership Beyond Despair

Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is remarkable for the extreme realism with which it portrays human character. Its heroes are not superhuman. Its non-heroes are not archetypal villains. The best have failings; the worst often have saving virtues. I know of no other religious literature quite like it. Continue reading BEHALOTCHA

NASSÔ

The Pursuit of Peace

The parsha of Naso seems, on the face of it, to be a heterogeneous collection of utterly unrelated items. First there is the account of the Levitical families of Gershon and Merari and their tasks in carrying parts of the Tabernacle when the Israelites journeyed. Then, after two brief laws about removing unclean people from the camp and about restitution, there comes the strange ordeal of the Sotah, the woman suspected by her husband of adultery. Continue reading NASSÔ

BAMIDBAR

The Ever-Repeated Story

Bamidbar takes up the story as we left it toward the end of Shemot. The people had journeyed from Egypt to Mount Sinai. There they received the Torah. There they made the Golden Calf. There they were forgiven after Moses’ passionate plea, and there they made the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, inaugurated on the first of Nisan, almost a year after the exodus. Now, one month later, on the first day of the second month, they are ready to move on to the second part of the journey, from Sinai to the Promised Land. Continue reading BAMIDBAR

BEHAR – BEHUKOTAI

Minority Rights

One of the most striking features of the Torah is its emphasis on love of, and vigilance toward, the ger, the stranger:

Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be strangers, because you were strangers in Egypt. (Ex. 23:9) Continue reading BEHAR – BEHUKOTAI

EMOR

The Duality of Jewish Time

Alongside the holiness of place and person is the holiness of time, something parshat Emor charts in its deceptively simple list of festivals and holy days (Lev. 23: 1-44). Time plays an enormous part in Judaism. The first thing God declared holy was a day: Shabbat, at the conclusion of creation. Continue reading EMOR

JUDAISM’S THREE VOICES

The nineteenth chapter of Vayikra, with which our parsha begins, is one of the supreme statements of the ethics of the Torah. It’s about the right, the good and the holy, and it contains some of Judaism’s greatest moral commands: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” and “Let the stranger who lives among you be like your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt.” Continue reading ACHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM

TAZRIA – METSORÁ

IS THERE SUCH A THING AS LASHON TOV?

The Sages understood tsara’at, the theme of this week’s parsha, not as an illness but as a miraculous public exposure of the sin of  lashon hara, speaking badly about people. Judaism is a sustained meditation on the power of words to heal or harm, mend or destroy. Just as God created the world with words, so we create, and can destroy, relationships with words. Continue reading TAZRIA – METSORÁ

SHEMINI

The Light of Holliness

The great moment has come. For seven days – beginning on the 23rd Adar – Moses had consecrated Aaron and the priests. Now, on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the time has arrived for Aaron to begin his service, ministering to the people on behalf of God: It came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel, and he said to Aaron, take a young bull for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord. Continue reading SHEMINI

PESSACH

Seasons of Love

Shir HaShirim (which will be read on the afternoon of Shabbat chol ha’moed Pesach) is not the only biblical book about love. It is a complex emotion that cannot be defined from a single perspective, nor do all its dimensions become apparent at the same time. In a way that is subtle and richly complex, the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, all have their special book, each about love but about different phases of it. Continue reading PESSACH

TZAV

Why Civilisations Die

In her recent “The Watchman’s Rattle”, subtitled ‘Thinking our way out of extinction’, Rebecca Costa delivers a fascinating account of how civilisations die. Their problems become too complex. Societies reach what she calls a cognitive threshold. They simply can’t chart a path from the present to the future. Continue reading TZAV

VAYKRA

The Sin Offering

Vayikra is about sacrifices, and though these laws have been inoperative for almost 2000 years since the destruction of the Temple, the moral principles they embody are still challenging. One set of sacrifices, set out in detail in this week’s sedra, warrants particular attention: chattat, the ‘sin offering’. Four different cases are considered: the anointed priest (=high priest), the assembly (=the Sanhedrin or supreme court), the Prince (=King), and an ordinary individual. Because their roles in the community were different, so too was the form of their atonement. Continue reading VAYKRA

VAYAKEL-PEKUDEI

Emcapements and Journeys

Right at the end of the book of Shemot, there is a textual difficulty so slight that it is easy to miss, yet – as interpreted by Rashi – it contains one of the great clues as to the nature of Jewish identity: it is a moving testimony to the unique challenge of being a Jew. Continue reading VAYAKEL-PEKUDEI

KI TISSA

The Sabbath: First Day Or Last?

In the immensely lengthy and detailed account of the making of the Tabernacle, the Torah tells the story twice: first (Ex. 25:1 – 31:17) as Divine instruction, then (Chs. 35 – 40) as human implementation. In both cases, the construction of the building is juxtaposed to the command of the Sabbath (31:12-17; 35:1-2). Continue reading KI TISSA

TETZAVE

Who Is Honoured?

Tetzaveh is the only sedra from the beginning of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy, that does not contain the word “Moses”. For once Moses, the hero, the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver, is offstage. Instead our focus is on his elder brother Aaron who, elsewhere, is often in the background. Indeed virtually the whole sedra is devoted to the role Moses did not occupy, except briefly – that of priest in general, high priest in particular. Continue reading TETZAVE

TERUMÁ

The Architecture of Holiness

From here to the end of the book of Exodus the Torah describes, in painstaking detail and great length, the construction of the Mishkan, the first collective house of worship of the Jewish people. Precise instructions are given for each item – the tabernacle itself, the frames and drapes, and the various objects it contained – including their dimensions. So for example we read:

“Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim woven into them by a skilled worker. All the curtains are to be the same size—twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide … Make curtains of goat hair for the tent over the tabernacle—eleven altogether. All eleven curtains are to be the same size—thirty cubits long and four cubits wide … Make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. Each frame is to be ten cubits long and a cubit and a half wide …” (Ex. 26:1-16)

And so on. But why do we need to know how big the tabernacle was? It did not function in perpetuity. Its primary use was during the wilderness years. Eventually it was replaced by the Temple, an altogether larger and more magnificent structure. What then is the eternal significance of the dimensions of this modest, portable construction?

To put the question more sharply still: is not the very idea of a specific size for the home of the Shekhinah, the Divine presence, liable to mislead? A transcendent God cannot be contained in space. Solomon said so:

“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built.” (1Kings 8:27)

Isaiah said the same in the name of God Himself:

“Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Where is the house you will build for Me? Where will My resting place be?” Isaiah 66: 1

So no physical space, however large, is big enough. On the other hand, no space is too small. So says a striking midrash:

When God said to Moses, ‘Make Me a tabernacle,’ Moses said in amazement, ‘The glory of the Holy One blessed be He fills heaven and earth, and yet He commands, Make me a tabernacle?’ … God replied, ‘Not as you think do I think. Twenty boards on the north, twenty on the south and eight in the west are sufficient. Indeed, I will descend and confine My presence even within one square cubit.’ (Shemot Rabbah 34:1)

So what difference could it make whether the tabernacle was large or small? Either way, it was a symbol, a focus, of the Divine presence that is everywhere, wherever human beings open their heart to God. Its dimensions should not matter.

I came across an answer in an unexpected and indirect way some years ago. I had gone to Cambridge University to take part in a conversation on religion and science. When the session was over, a member of the audience came over to me, a quiet, unassuming man, and said, “I have written a book I think you might find interesting. I’ll send it to you.” I did not know at the time who he was.

A week later the book arrived. It was called ‘Just Six Numbers’, subtitled ‘The deep forces that shape the universe’. With a shock I discovered that the author was the then Sir Martin, now Baron Rees, Astronomer Royal, later President of the Royal Society, the oldest and most famous scientific body in the world, and Master of Trinity College Cambridge. In 2011 he won the Templeton Prize. I had been talking to Britain’s most distinguished scientist.

His book was enthralling. It explained that the universe is shaped by six mathematical constants which, had they varied by a millionth or trillionth degree, would have resulted in no universe or at least no life. Had the force of gravity been slightly different, for example, the universe would either have expanded or imploded in such a way as to preclude the formation of stars or planets. Had nuclear efficiency been slightly lower the cosmos would consist only of hydrogen; no life would have emerged. Had it been slightly higher there would have been rapid stellar evolution and decay leaving no time for life to evolve. The combination of improbabilities was immense.

Torah commentators, especially the late Nechama Leibowitz, have drawn attention to the way the terminology of the construction of the tabernacle is the same as that used to describe God’s creation of the universe. The tabernacle was, in other words, a micro-cosmos, a symbolic reminder of the world God made. The fact that the Divine presence rested within it was not meant to suggest that God is here not there, in this place not that. It was meant to signal, powerfully and palpably, that God exists throughout the cosmos. It was a man-made structure to mirror and focus attention on the Divinely-created universe. It was in space what Shabbat is in time: a reminder of creation.

The dimensions of the universe are precise, mathematically exact. Had they differed in even the slightest degree the universe, or life, would not exist. Only now are scientists beginning to realise how precise, and even this knowledge will seem rudimentary to future generations. We are on the threshold of a quantum leap in our understanding of the full depth of the words: “How many are your works, Lord; in wisdom You made them all” (Ps. 104:24). The word “wisdom” here – as in the many times it occurs in the account of the making of the tabernacle – means, “precise, exact craftsmanship” (see Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, III:54).

In one other place in the Torah there is the same emphasis on precise dimensions, namely, Noah’s ark: “So make yourself an ark of cypress wood. Make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around” (Gen. 6:14-16). The reason is similar to that in the case of the tabernacle. Noah’s ark symbolised the world in its Divinely-constructed order, the order humans had ruined by their violence and corruption. God was about to destroy that world, leaving only Noah, the ark and what it contained as symbols of the vestige of order that remained, on the basis of which God would fashion a new order.

Precision matters. Order matters. The misplacement of even a few of the 3.1 billion letters in the human genome can lead to devastating genetic conditions. The famous “butterfly effect” – the beating of a butterfly’s wing somewhere may cause a tsunami elsewhere, thousands of miles away – tells us that small actions can have large consequences. That is the message the tabernacle was intended to convey.

God creates order in the natural universe. We are charged with creating order in the human universe. That means painstaking care in what we say, what we do, and what we must restrain ourselves from doing. There is a precise choreography to the moral and spiritual life as there is a precise architecture to the tabernacle. Being good, specifically being holy, is not a matter of acting as the spirit moves us. It is a matter of aligning ourselves to the Will that made the world. Law, structure, precision: of these things the cosmos is made and without them it would cease to be. It was to signal that the same applies to human behaviour that the Torah records the precise dimensions of the tabernacle and Noah’s ark.

MISHPATIM

God’s Nudge

First in Yitro there were the aseret hadibrot, the “ten utterances” or general principles. Now in Mishpatim come the details. Here is how they begin:

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything . . . But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (Ex. 21:2-6)

There is an obvious question. Why begin here? There are 613 commandments in the Torah. Why does Mishpatim, the first law code, begin where it does? Continue reading MISHPATIM

YTRÔ

Justice or Peace?

The sedra of Yitro, which contains the account of the greatest Divine revelation in history, at Mount Sinai, begins on a note that is human, all too human. Yitro, priest of Midian, has come to see how his son-in-law Moses and the people he leads are faring. It begins by telling us what Yitro heard (the details of the exodus and its attendant miracles). It goes on to describe what Yitro saw, and this gave him cause for concern. Continue reading YTRÔ

BESHALACH

The Power of Ruach

In September 2010, BBC, Reuters and other news agencies reported on a sensational scientific discovery. Researchers at US National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado have shown through computer simulation how the division of the red sea may have taken place.

Using sophisticated modelling, they demonstrated how a strong east wind, blowing overnight, could have pushed water back at a bend where an ancient river is believed to have merged with a coastal lagoon. The water would have been guided into the two waterways, and a land bridge would have opened at the bend, allowing people to walk across the exposed mud flats. As soon as the wind died down, the waters would have rushed back in. As the leader of the project said when the report was published: “The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus.” Continue reading BESHALACH

BO

The Necessity of Asking Questions

It is no accident that parshat Bo, the section that deals with the culminating plagues and the exodus, should turn three times to the subject of children and the duty of parents to educate them. As Jews we believe that to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilisation you need education. Freedom is lost when it is taken for granted. Unless parents hand on their memories and ideals to the next generation – the story of how they won their freedom and the battles they had to fight along the way – the long journey falters and we lose our way. Continue reading BO

VAERA

Freedom and Truth

Why did Moses tell Pharaoh, if not a lie, then less than the full truth? Here is the conversation between him and Pharaoh after the fourth plague, arov, “swarms of insects” (some say “wild animals”):

Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God here in the land.” But Moses said, “That would not be right. The sacrifices we offer the Lord our God would be detestable to the Egyptians. And if we offer sacrifices that are detestable in their eyes, will they not stone us? We must take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, as He commands us.” (Ex. 8: 21-23)

Continue reading VAERA

SHEMOT

Who Am I?

Moses’ second question to God at the burning bush was, Who are you? “So I will go to the Israelites and say, ‘Your fathers’ God sent me to you.’ They will immediately ask me what His name is. What shall I say to them?” (Ex. 3:13). God’s reply, Ehyeh asher ehyeh, wrongly translated in almost every Christian Bible as something like “I am that I am,” deserves an essay in its own right (I deal with it in my books Future Tense and The Great Partnership).

His first question, though, was, Mi anochi, “Who am I?” (Ex. 3:11). Continue reading SHEMOT

VAYECHI

Jewish Time

Different cultures tell different stories. The great novelists of the nineteenth century wrote fiction that is essentially ethical. Jane Austen and George Eliot explored the connection between character and happiness. There is a palpable continuity between their work and the book of Ruth. Dickens, more in the tradition of the prophets, wrote about society and its institutions, and the way in which they can fail to honour human dignity and justice. Continue reading VAYECHI

VAYGASH

Choice And Change

The sequence from Bereishit 37 to 50 is the longest unbroken narrative in the Torah, and there can be no doubt who its hero is: Joseph. The story begins and ends with him. We see him as a child, beloved – even spoiled – by his father; as an adolescent dreamer, resented by his brothers; as a slave, then a prisoner, in Egypt; then as the second most powerful figure in the greatest empire of the ancient world. At every stage, the narrative revolves around him and his impact on others. He dominates the last third of Bereishit, casting his shadow on everything else. From almost the beginning, he seems destined for greatness. Continue reading VAYGASH

MIKETZ

The Author of Our Lives

It was Joseph’s first real attempt to take his fate into his own hands, and it failed. Or so it seemed.

Consider the story so far, as set out in last week’s parsha. Almost everything that happens in Joseph’s life falls into two categories. The first are the things done to him. His father loves him more than his other sons. He gives him a richly embroidered cloak. Continue reading MIKETZ

VAYESHEV

What is the theme of the stories of Genesis?

One of the most fundamental questions about the Torah turns out to be one of the hardest to answer. What, from the call of God to Abraham in Genesis 12 to the death of Joseph in Genesis 50, is the basic religious principle being taught? What does the entire set of stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives, together with Jacob’s sons and daughter, actually tell us? Abraham brought monotheism to a world that had forgotten it, but where do we see this in the actual text of the Torah itself? Continue reading VAYESHEV

VAYSHLACH

The Jewish Journey

Why is Jacob the father of our people, the hero of our faith? We are “the congregation of Jacob”, “the children of Israel.” Yet it was Abraham who began the Jewish journey, Isaac who was willing to be sacrificed, Joseph who saved his family in the years of famine, Moses who led the people out of Egypt and gave it its laws. It was Joshua who took the people into the Promised land, David who became its greatest king, Solomon who built the Temple, and the prophets through the ages who became the voice of God. Continue reading VAYSHLACH

VAYETSÊ

The Birth of the World’s Oldest Hate

“Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. Pharaoh made his decree only about the males whereas Laban sought to destroy everything.” This passage from the Haggadah on Pesach – evidently based on this week’s parsha – is extraordinarily difficult to understand.

First, it is a commentary on the phrase in Deuteronomy, Arami oved avi. As the overwhelming majority of commentators point out, the meaning of this phrase is “my father was a wandering Aramean”, a reference either to Jacob, who escaped to Aram [=Syria, a reference to Haran where Laban lived], or to Abraham, who left Aram in response to God’s call to travel to the land of Canaan. It does not mean “an Aramean [=Laban] tried to destroy my father.” Some commentators read it this way, but almost certainly they only do so because of this passage in the Haggadah. Continue reading VAYETSÊ

TOLEDOT

Why Did Isaac Love Esau?

Even before they were born, Jacob and Esau struggled in the womb. They were destined, it seems, to be eternal adversaries. Not only were they were different in character and appearance. They also held different places in their parents’ affections:

The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Gen. 25:27-28)

Continue reading TOLEDOT

CHAYÊ SARA

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

 

Our parsha contains the most serene description of old age and dying anywhere in the Torah: “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8). There is an earlier verse, no less moving: “Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen. 24:1). Continue reading CHAYÊ SARA

VAYERA

The Miracle of a Child

There is a mystery at the heart of Jewish existence, engraved into the first syllables of our recorded time.
The first words of God to Abraham were: “Go out from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house . . . And I will make you a great nation . . .”
In the next chapter there is another promise: “I will make your children like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust of the earth, so shall your offspring be counted.” Continue reading VAYERA

LECH LECHÁ

On Being a Jewish Parent

The most influential man who ever lived, does not appear on any list I have seen of the hundred most influential men who ever lived. He ruled no empire, commanded no army, engaged in no spectacular acts of heroism on the battlefield, performed no miracles, proclaimed no prophecy, led no vast throng of followers, and had no disciples other than his own child. Yet today more than half of the 6 billion people alive on the face of the planet identify themselves as his heirs. Continue reading LECH LECHÁ

NOACH

Individual and Collective Responsability

I once had the opportunity to ask the Catholic writer Paul Johnson what had struck him most about Judaism during the long period he spent researching it for his masterly A History of the Jews? He replied in roughly these words: “There have been, in the course of history, societies that emphasised the individual – like the secular West today. And there have been others that placed weight on the collective – communist Russia or China, for example.” Continue reading NOACH

BERESHIT

The Faith of God

There is a deep question at the heart of Jewish faith, and it is very rarely asked. As the Torah opens we see God creating the universe day by day, bringing order out of chaos, life out of inanimate matter, flora and fauna in all their wondrous diversity. At each stage God sees what He has made and declares it good. Continue reading BERESHIT

HOL HAMOED

Sukkot For Our Time

Of all the festivals, Sukkot is surely the one that speaks most powerfully to our time. Kohelet could almost have been written in the twenty first century. Here is the ultimate success, the man who has it all – the houses, the cars, the clothes, the adoring women, the envy of all men – who has pursued everything this world can offer from pleasure to possessions to power to wisdom and yet who, surveying the totality of his life, can only say, in effect, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” Continue reading HOL HAMOED

HAAZINU

The Spirituality Of Song

With Haazinu we climb to one of the peaks of Jewish spirituality. For a month Moses had taught the people. He had told them their history and destiny, and the laws that would make theirs a unique society of people bound in covenant with one another and with God. He renewed the covenant and then handed the leadership on to his successor and disciple Joshua. His final act would be blessing the people, tribe by tribe. But before that, there was one more thing he had to do. He had to sum up his prophetic message in a way the people would always remember and be inspired by. He knew that the best way of doing so is by music. So the last thing Moses did before giving the people his deathbed blessing was to teach them a song. Continue reading HAAZINU

VAYELECH

To Renew Our Days

The moment had come. Moses was about to die. He had seen his sister Miriam and brother Aaron pre-decease him. He had prayed to God – not to live forever, not even to live longer, but simply, “Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan,” (Deut. 3: 25). Let me complete the journey. Let me reach the destination. But God said No: “That is enough,” the Lord said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter.” (Deut. 3: 26). God, who had acceded to almost every other prayer Moses prayed, refused him this.[1] Continue reading VAYELECH

NITZAVIM

Not In Heaven

When I was a student at university in the late 1960s – the era of student protests, psychedelic drugs, and the Beatles meditating with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – a story went the rounds. An American Jewish woman in her sixties travelled to north India to see a celebrated guru. There were huge crowds waiting to see the holy man, but she pushed through, saying that she needed to see him urgently. Eventually, after weaving through the swaying throng, she entered the tent and stood in the presence of the master himself. What she said that day has entered the realm of legend. She said, “Marvin, listen to your mother. Enough already. Come home.” Continue reading NITZAVIM

KI TAVÔ

We Are What We Remember

One reason religion has survived in the modern world despite four centuries of secularization is that it answers the three questions every reflective human being will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? Continue reading KI TAVÔ

KI TETSÊ

Love Is Not Enough

In a parsha laden with laws, one in particular is full of fascination. Here it is:

If a man has two wives, one loved, the other unloved [senuah, literally “hated”], and both the loved and the unloved bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the unloved wife, then when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the beloved wife in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the unloved wife. He must recognise [the legal rights of ] the firstborn of his unloved wife so as to give him a double share of all he has, for he is the first of his father’s strength. The birthright is legally his. (Deut. 21:15-17).

Continue reading KI TETSÊ

SHOFETIM

The Greatness of Humility

At a dinner to celebrate the work of a communal leader, the guest speaker paid tribute to his many qualities: his dedication, hard work and foresight. As he sat down the leader leaned over and said, “You forget to mention one thing.” “What was that?” asked the speaker. The leader replied, “My humility.” Continue reading SHOFETIM

REÊ

The Deep Power of Joy

On 14 October 1663 the famous diarist Samuel Pepys paid a visit to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Creechurch Lane in the city of London. Jews had been exiled from England in 1290 but in 1656, following an intercession by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, Oliver Cromwell concluded that there was in fact no legal barrier to Jews living there. So for the first time since the thirteenth century Jews were able to worship openly. Continue reading REÊ

EKEV

The Spirituality of Listening

It is one of the most important words in Judaism, and also one of the least understood. Its two most famous occurrences are in last week’s parsha and this week’s: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” and “It shall come to pass if you surely listen to My commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul” – the openings of the first and second paragraphs of the Shema. It also appears in the first line of the parsha: “It shall come to pass, if you listen to these laws.” Continue reading EKEV

VAETCHANAN

The Power of Why

In a much watched TED talk Simon Sinek asked the question: how do great leaders inspire action?[1] What made people like Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs stand out from their contemporaries who may have been no less gifted, no less qualified? His answer: Most people talk about what. Some people talk about how. Great leaders, though, start with why. This is what makes them transformative.[2]

Sinek’s lecture was about business and political leadership. The most powerful examples, though, are directly or indirectly religious. Indeed I argued in The Great Partnership what makes Abrahamic monotheism different is that it believes there is an answer to the question, why. Neither the universe nor human life is meaningless, an accident, a mere happenstance. As Freud, Einstein and Wittgenstein all said, religious faith is faith in the meaningfulness of life. Continue reading VAETCHANAN

DEVARIM

To 120: Growing Old, Staying Young

On 27 March 2012, to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the Queen, an ancient ceremony took place at Buckingham Palace. A number of institutions presented Loyal Addresses to the queen, thanking her for her service to the nation. Among them was the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Its then president, Vivian Wineman, included in his speech the traditional Jewish blessing on such occasions. He wished her well “until a hundred and twenty.” Continue reading DEVARIM

MATOT-MASSÊ

The Complexity of Human Rights

The book of Bamidbar comes to a close that is very strange indeed. Earlier in the parsha of Pinhas we read of how the five daughters of Tzelophehad came to Moses with a claim based on justice and human rights.[1] Their father had died without sons. Inheritance – in this case, of a share in the land – passes through the male line, but here there was no male line. Surely their father was entitled to his share, and they were his only heirs. By rights that share should come to them: “Why should our father’s name be disadvantaged in his family merely because he did not have a son? Give us a portion of land along with our father’s brothers” (Num. 27:4). Continue reading MATOT-MASSÊ

PINCHÁS

Moses´ Disappointment

Hidden beneath the surface of parshat Pinhas the sages uncovered a story of great poignancy. Moses, having seen his sister and brother die, knew that his own time on earth was coming to a close. He prayed to God to appoint a successor: “May the Lord, God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” Continue reading PINCHÁS

BALAK

What Makes G-d Laugh

There is an old saying that what makes God laugh is seeing our plans for the future.[1] However, if Tanakh is our guide, what makes God laugh is human delusions of grandeur. From the vantage point of heaven, the ultimate absurdity is when humans start thinking of themselves as godlike. There are several pointed examples in the Torah. One whose full import has only recently become clear occurs in the story of the Tower of Babel. Continue reading BALAK

HUKAT

Healing the Trauma of Loss

It took me two years to recover from the death of my father, of blessed memory. To this day, almost twenty years later, I am not sure why. He did not die suddenly or young. He was well into his eighties. In his last years he had to undergo five operations, each of which sapped his strength a little more. Besides which, as a rabbi, I had to officiate at funerals and comfort the bereaved. I knew what grief looked like. Continue reading HUKAT

KORACH

Hierarchy and Politics: The Never-ending Story

It was a classic struggle for power. The only thing that made it different from the usual dramas of royal courts, parliamentary meetings or corridors of power was that it took place in Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem, Holland, and the key characters were male chimpanzees.

Frans de Waal’s study, Chimpanzee Politics,[1] has rightly become a classic. In it he describes how the alpha male, Yeroen, having been the dominant force for some time, found himself increasingly challenged by a young pretender, Luit. Luit could not depose Yeroen on his own, so he formed an alliance with another young contender, Nikkie. Eventually Luit succeeded and Yeroen was deposed. Continue reading KORACH

SHELACH

Two Kinds of Fear

One of the most powerful addresses I ever heard was given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on this week’s parsha: the story of the spies. For me, it was nothing less than life-changing.

He asked the obvious questions. How could ten of the spies have come back with a demoralising, defeatist report? How could they say, we cannot win, the people are stronger than us, their cities are well fortified, they are giants and we are grasshoppers? Continue reading SHELACH

BEHALOTECHA

From Despair to Hope

There have been times when one passage in today’s parsha was for me little less than life-saving. No leadership position is easy. Leading Jews is harder still. And spiritual leadership can be hardest of them all. Leaders have a public face that is usually calm, upbeat, optimistic and relaxed. But behind the façade we can all experience storms of emotion as we realise how deep are the divisions between people, how intractable are the problems we face, and how thin the ice on which we stand. Perhaps we all experience such moments at some point in our lives, when we know where we are and where we want to be, but simply cannot see a route from here to there. That is the prelude to despair. Continue reading BEHALOTECHA

NASSO

The Blessing of Love

At 176 verses, Naso is the longest of the parshiyot. Yet one of its most moving passages, and the one that has had the greatest impact over the course of history, is very short indeed and is known by almost every Jew, namely the priestly blessings:

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘Thus shall you bless the Israelites. Say to them:
May Lord bless you and protect you;
May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you;
May the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace.’
Let them set My name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” (Num. 6:23-27)

This is among the oldest of all prayer texts. It was used by the priests in the Temple. It is said today by the cohanim in the reader’s repetition of the Amidah, in Israel every day, in most of the Diaspora only on festivals. It is used by parents as they bless their children on Friday night. It is often said to the bride and groom under the chuppah. It is the simplest and most beautiful of all blessings. Continue reading NASSO

BAMIDBAR

The Sound of Silence

Bamidbar is usually read on the Shabbat before Shavuot. So the sages connected the two. Shavuot is the time of the giving of the Torah. Bemibar means, “In the desert.” What then is the connection between the desert and the Torah, the wilderness and God’s word? The sages gave several interpretations. According to the Mekhilta the Torah was given publicly, openly and in a place no one owns because had it been given in the land of Israel, Jews would have said to the nations of the world, “You have no share in it.” Instead, whoever wants to come and accept it, let them come and accept it. [1] Another explanation: had the Torah been given in Israel the nations of the world would have had an excuse for not accepting it. This follows the rabbinic tradition that before God gave the Torah to the Israelites he offered it to all the other nations and each found a reason to decline.[2] Yet another: just as the wilderness is free – it costs nothing to enter – so the Torah is free. It is God’s gift to us.[3] Continue reading BAMIDBAR

BEHUKOTAI

A Sense of Direction

Smartphones can do amazing things – few more amazing than Waze, the Israeli-designed satellite navigation system acquired by Google in 2013. But there is one thing even Waze cannot do. It can tell you how to get there, but it cannot tell you where to go. That is something you must decide.

The most important decision we can make in life is to choose where we want eventually to be. Without a sense of destiny and destination, our lives will be directionless. If we don’t know where we want to go, we will never get there no matter how fast we travel. Yet despite this, there are people who spend months planning a holiday, but not even a day planning a life. They simply let it happen. Continue reading BEHUKOTAI

BEHAR

Family Feeling

I argued in Covenant and Conversation Kedoshim that Judaism is more than an ethnicity. It is a call to holiness. In one sense, however, there is an important ethnic dimension to Judaism.

It is best captured in the 1980s joke about an advertising campaign in New York.  Throughout the city there were giant posters with the slogan, “You have a friend in the Chase Manhattan Bank.” Underneath one, an Israeli had scribbled the words, “But in Bank Leumi you have mishpochah.” Jews are, and are conscious of being, a single extended family. Continue reading BEHAR

EMOR

Holy Times

The parsha of Emor contains a chapter dedicated to the festivals of the Jewish year. There are five such passages in the Torah. Two, both in the book of Exodus (Ex. 23: 14-17; 34: 18, 22-23), are very brief. They refer only to the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. They do not specify their dates, merely their rough position in the agricultural year. Nor do they mention the specific commands related to the festivals. Continue reading EMOR

KEDOSHIM

In Search of Jewish Identity

The other day I was having a conversation with a Jewish intellectual and the question came up, as it often does, as to the nature of Jewish identity. What are we? What makes us Jewish? This has been one of the persisting debates about Jewish life ever since the nineteenth century. Until then, people by and large knew who and what Jews were. They were the heirs of an ancient nation who, in the Sinai desert long ago, made a covenant with God and, with greater or lesser success, tried to live by it ever since. They were God’s people. Continue reading KEDOSHIM

ACHAREI MOT

The Courage to Admit Mistakes

Some years ago I was visited by the then American ambassador to the Court of St James, Philip Lader. He told me of a fascinating project he and his wife had initiated in 1981. They had come to realise that many of their contemporaries would find themselves in positions of influence and power in the not-too-distant future. He thought it would be useful and creative if they were to come together for a study retreat every so often to share ideas, listen to experts and form friendships, thinking through collectively the challenges they would face in the coming years. So they created what they called Renaissance Weekends. They still happen. Continue reading ACHAREI MOT

ÚLTIMOS DIAS DE PESSACH

And the Sea Opened!

The last days of Passover will be celebrated from thursday night till saturday night emphasizing the miracle of the splitting of the sea and the faith for the future redemption in the coming of Moshiach. We read the Torah portion that describes the dramatic moments of the people facing the sea, led by Moses, pursued by the Egyptians and singing the songs of praise when they saw the miracle. Continue reading ÚLTIMOS DIAS DE PESSACH

PESSACH

Passover Tells Us: Teach Your Children Well

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

As one nation after another in Africa and the Middle East engages in a fight for freedom, Passover, which begins this week, still has much to teach us about the nature of that fight. The Jewish festival of freedom is the oldest continuously observed religious ritual in the world. Across the centuries, Passover has never lost its power to inspire the imagination of successive generations of Jews with its annually re-enacted drama of slavery and liberation.

Continue reading PESSACH

METSORÁ

The Power of Shame

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

On 20 December 2013, a young woman, Justine Sacco, was waiting in Heathrow airport before boarding a flight to Africa. To while away the time she sent a Tweet in questionable taste about the hazards of catching AIDS. There was no immediate response, and she boarded the plane unaware of the storm that was about to break. Eleven hours later, on landing, she discovered that she had become an international cause célèbre. Her Tweet and responses to it had gone viral. Over the next 11 days she would be googled more than a million times. She was branded a racist and dismissed from her job. Overnight she had become a pariah.[1] Continue reading METSORÁ

TAZRIA

The Eighth Day

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Our parsha begins with childbirth and, in the case of a male child, “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev. 12:3). This became known not just as milah, “circumcision”, but something altogether more theological, brit milah, “the covenant of circumcision”. That is because even before Sinai, almost at the dawn of Jewish history, circumcision became the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:1-14). Continue reading TAZRIA

SHEMINI

The Danger of Enthusiasm

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Excavating the history of words can sometimes be as revealing as excavating the ruins of an ancient city. Take the English word “enthusiasm”. Today we see this as something positive. One dictionary defines it as “a feeling of energetic interest in a particular subject or activity and an eagerness to be involved in it.” People with enthusiasm have passion, zest and excitement, and this can be contagious. It is one of the gifts of a great teacher or leader. People follow people of passion. If you want to influence others, cultivate enthusiasm. Continue reading SHEMINI

TZAV

Understanding Sacrifice

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

One of the most difficult elements of the Torah and the way of life it prescribes is the phenomenon of animal sacrifices – for obvious reasons. First, Jews and Judaism have survived without them for almost two thousand years. Second, virtually all the prophets were critical of them, not least Jeremiah in this week’s haftarah.[1] None of the prophets sought to abolish sacrifices, but they were severely critical of those who offered them while at the same time oppressing or exploiting their fellow human beings. What disturbed them – what disturbed God in whose name they spoke – was that evidently some people thought of sacrifices as a kind of bribe: if we make a generous enough gift to God then He may overlook our crimes and misdemeanours. This is an idea radically incompatible with Judaism. Continue reading TZAV

VAYKRÁ

The Pursuit of Meaning

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

The American Declaration of Independence speaks of the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Recently, following the pioneering work of Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, there have hundreds of books on happiness. Yet there is something more fundamental still to the sense of a life well-lived, namely, meaning. The two seem similar. It’s easy to suppose that people who find meaning are happy, and people who are happy have found meaning. But the two are not the same, nor do they always overlap.  Continue reading VAYKRÁ

PEKUDEI

Don´t Sit: Walk

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Sitting is the new smoking. So goes the new health mantra. Spend too much time at a desk or in front of a screen and you are at risk of significant danger to your health. The World Health Organisation has identified physical inactivity as the fourth greatest health hazard today, ahead of obesity. In the words of Dr James Levine, one of the world’s leading experts on the subject and the man credited with coining the mantra, says, “We are sitting ourselves to death.” Continue reading PEKUDEI

VAYAKHEL

The Social Animal

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

At the beginning of Vayakhel Moses performs a tikkun, a mending of the past, namely the sin of the Golden Calf. The Torah signals this by using essentially the same word at the beginning of both episodes. It eventually became a key word in Jewish spirituality: k-h-l, “to gather, assemble, congregate.” From it we get the words kahal and kehillah, meaning “community”. Far from being merely an ancient concern, it remains at the heart of our humanity. As we will see, recent scientific research confirms the extraordinary power of communities and social networks to shape our lives. Continue reading VAYAKHEL

KI TISSÁ

The Coleseness of God

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

The more I study the Torah, the more conscious I become of the immense mystery of Exodus 33. This is the chapter set in the middle of the Golden Calf narrative, between chapter 32 describing the sin and its consequences, and chapter 34, God’s revelation to Moses of the “Thirteen attributes of Mercy”, the second set of tablets and the renewal of the covenant. It is, I believe, this mystery that frames the shape of Jewish spirituality. Continue reading KI TISSÁ

TETZAVÊ

Inspiration and Perspiration

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Beethoven rose each morning at dawn and made himself coffee. He was fastidious about this: each cup had to be made with exactly sixty beans, which he counted out each time. He would then sit at his desk and compose until 2:00 or 3:00pm in the afternoon. Subsequently he would go for a long walk, taking with him a pencil and some sheets of music paper to record any ideas that came to him on the way. Each night after supper he would have a beer, smoke a pipe, and go to bed early, 10:00pm at the latest. Continue reading TETZAVÊ

TERUMAH

The Gift of Giving

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

It was the first Israelite house of worship, the first home Jews made for God. But the very idea is fraught with paradox, even contradiction. How can you build a house for God? He is bigger than anything we can imagine, let alone build. Continue reading TERUMAH

MISHPATIM

Doing and Hearing

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

One of the most famous phrases in the Torah makes its appearance in this week’s parsha. It has often been used to characterise Jewish faith as a whole. It consists of two words: na’aseh venishma, literally, “We will do and we will hear” (Ex. 24:7). What does this mean and why does it matter? Continue reading MISHPATIM

YTRÔ

To Thank Before We Think

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

The Ten Commandments are the most famous religious-and-moral code in history. Until recently they adorned American courtrooms. They still adorn most synagogue arks. Rembrandt gave them their classic artistic expression in his portrait of Moses, about to break the tablets on seeing the golden calf. John Rogers Herbert’s massive painting of Moses bringing down the tablets of law dominates the main committee room of the House of Lords. The twin tablets with their ten commands are the enduring symbol of eternal law under the sovereignty of God. Continue reading YTRÔ

BESHALACH

Renewable Energy

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

The first translation of the Torah into another language – Greek – took place in around the second century BCE, in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy II. It is known as the Septuagint, in Hebrew Hashiv’im, because it was done by a team of seventy scholars. The Talmud however says that at various points the sages at work on the project deliberately mistranslated certain texts because they believed that a literal translation would simply be unintelligible to a Greek readership. One of these texts was the phrase, “On the seventh day God finished all the work he had made.” Instead the translators wrote, “On the sixth day God finished.”[1] Continue reading BESHALACH

The Spiritual Child

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

The American writer Bruce Feiler recently published a best-selling book entitled The Secrets of Happy Families.(1) It’s an engaging work that uses research largely drawn from fields like team building, problem solving and conflict resolution, showing how management techniques can be used at home also to help make families cohesive units that make space for personal growth. Continue reading

VAERÁ

Spirits in a Material World

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

The Torah sometimes says something of fundamental importance in what seems like a minor and incidental comment. There is a fine example of this near the beginning of today’s parsha.
Last week, we read of how Moses was sent by God to lead the Israelites to freedom, and how his initial efforts met with failure. Not only did Pharaoh not agree to let the people go; he made the working conditions of the Israelites even worse. They had to make the same number of bricks as before but now they had to gather their own straw. The people complained to Pharaoh, then they complained to Moses, then Moses complained to God. “Why have you brought trouble to this people? Why did you send me?” Continue reading VAERÁ

SHEMOT

Turning Curses into Blessings

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Genesis ends on an almost serene note. Jacob has found his long lost son. The family has been reunited. Joseph has forgiven his brothers. Under his protection and influence the family has settled in Goshen, one of the most prosperous regions of Egypt. They now have homes, property, food, the protection of Joseph and the favour of Pharaoh. It must have seemed one of the golden moments of Abraham’s family’s history. Continue reading SHEMOT

VAIECHI

On Not Predicting The Future

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Jacob was on his death-bed. He summoned his children. He wanted to bless them before he died. But the text begins with a strange semi-repetition:
“Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.
Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel.” (Gen. 49: 1-2)
This seems to be saying the same thing twice, with one difference. In the first sentence, there is a reference to “what will happen to you in the days to come” (literally, “at the end of days”). This is missing from the second sentence. Continue reading VAIECHI

VAYGASH

Reframing

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Maimonides called his ideal type of human being – the sage – a rofe nefashot, a “healer of souls.” Today we call such a person a psychotherapist, a word coined relatively recently from the Greek word psyche, meaning “soul,” and therapeia, “healing.” It is astonishing how many of the pioneering soul-healers in modern times have been Jewish. Continue reading VAYGASH

MIKETZ

To Wait Without Despair

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Something extraordinary happens between last week’s parsha and this week’s. It is almost as if the pause of a week between them were itself part of the story.
Recall last week’s parsha about the childhood of Joseph, focussing not on what happened but on who made it happen. Throughout the entire roller-coaster ride of Joseph’s early life he is described as passive, not active; the done-to, not the doer; the object, not the subject. Continue reading MIKETZ

VAYESHEV

How to Change the World

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

In his Laws of Repentance, Moses Maimonides makes one of the most empowering statements in religious literature. Having explained that we and the world are judged by the majority of our deeds, he continues: “Therefore we should see ourselves throughout the year as if our deeds and those of the world are evenly poised between good and bad, so that our next act may change both the balance of our lives and that of the world.” We can make a difference, and it is potentially immense. That should be our mindset, always. Continue reading VAYESHEV

VAYSHLACH

Feeling the Fear

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

It is one of the most enigmatic episodes in the Torah, but also one of the most important, because it was the moment that gave the Jewish people its name: Israel, one who “wrestles with God and with men and prevails.”
Jacob, hearing that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men, was terrified. He was, says the Torah, “very afraid and distressed.” He made three forms of preparation: appeasement, prayer and war (Rashi to Gen. 32: 9). He sent Esau a huge gift of cattle and flocks, hoping thereby to appease him. He prayed to God, “Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother” (32: 12). And he made preparation for war, dividing his household into two camps so that one at least would survive. Continue reading VAYSHLACH

VAYETSÊ

How the Light Gets In

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Why Jacob? That is the question we find ourselves asking repeatedly as we read the narratives of Genesis. Jacob is not what Noah was: righteous, perfect in his generations, one who walked with God. He did not, like Abraham, leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house in response to a Divine call. He did not, like Isaac, offer himself up as a sacrifice. Nor did he have the burning sense of justice and willingness to intervene that we see in the vignettes of Moses’ early life. Yet we are defined for all time as the descendants of Jacob, the children of Israel. Hence the force of the question: Why Jacob? Continue reading VAYETSÊ

TOLEDOT

A Father’s Love

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

“The boys grew up. Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Gen. 25: 27-28).
We have no difficulty understanding why Rebekah loved Jacob. She had received an oracle from God in which she was told: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (25: 23). Continue reading TOLEDOT

CHAYÊ SARAH

Faith in the Future

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

He was 137 years old. He had been through two traumatic events involving the people most precious to him in the world. The first involved the son for whom he had waited for a lifetime, Isaac. He and Sarah had given up hope, yet God told them both that they would have a son together, and it would be he who would continue the covenant. The years passed. Sarah did not conceive. She had grown old, yet God still insisted they would have a child. Continue reading CHAYÊ SARAH

VAYERÁ

To Bless The Space Between Us

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

There is a mystery at the heart of the biblical story of Abraham, and it has immense implications for our understanding of Judaism.
Who was Abraham and why was he chosen? The answer is far from obvious. Nowhere is he described, as was Noah, as “a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” We have no portrait of him, like the young Moses, physically intervening in conflicts as a protest against injustice. He was not a soldier like David or a visionary like Isaiah. In only one place, near the beginning of our parsha, does the Torah say why God singled him out: Continue reading VAYERÁ

LEKH LEKHA

Journey of the Generations

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Mark Twain said it most pithily. “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Continue reading LEKH LEKHA

NOACH

The Courage to Live With Uncertainty

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

For each of us there are milestones on our spiritual journey that change the direction of our life and set us on a new path. For me one such moment came when I was a rabbinical student at Jews College and thus had the privilege of studying with one of the great rabbinic scholars of our time, Rabbi Dr Nachum Rabinovitch.
He was a giant: one the most profound Maimonidean scholars of the modern age, equally at home with virtually every secular discipline as with the entire rabbinic literature, and one of the boldest and independent of poskim, as his several published volumes of Responsa show. He also showed what it was to have spiritual and intellectual courage, and that on our time has proved, sadly, all too rare. Continue reading NOACH

BERESHIT

The Art of Listening

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

What exactly was the first sin? What was the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil? Is this kind of knowledge a bad thing such that it had to be forbidden, and was only acquired through sin? Isn’t knowing the difference between good and evil essential to being human? Isn’t it one of the highest forms of knowledge? Surely God would want humans to have it? Why then did He forbid the fruit that produced it? Continue reading BERESHIT

VEZOT HABERACHÁ

Moses’ Death, Moses’ Life

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

And so Moses dies, alone on a mountain with God as he had been all those years ago when, as a shepherd in Midian, he caught sight of a bush in flames and heard the call that changed his life and the moral horizons of the world.
It is a scene affecting in its simplicity. There are no crowds. There is no weeping. The sense of closeness yet distance is almost overwhelming. He sees the land from afar but has known for some time that he will never reach it. Neither his wife nor his children are there to say goodbye. They disappeared from the narrative long before. His sister Miriam and his brother Aaron, with whom he shared the burdens of leadership for so long, have predeceased him. His disciple Joshua has become his successor. Moses has become the lonely man of faith, except that with God no man, or woman, is lonely even if they are alone. Continue reading VEZOT HABERACHÁ

HAAZINU

THE ARC OF THE MORAL UNIVERSE

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

In majestic language, Moses breaks into song, investing his final testament to the Israelites with all the power and passion at his command. He begins dramatically but gently, calling heaven and earth to witness what he is about to say, sounding ironically very much like “The quality of mercy is not strained,” Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice. Continue reading HAAZINU

VAIELECH

TORAH AS SONG

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Moses’ long and tempestuous career is about to end. With words of blessing and encouragement he hands on the mantle of leadership to his successor Joshua, saying, “I am a hundred and twenty years old today. I may no longer go out and come in, since the Lord has said to me, you will not cross this Jordan.” (31: 2). As Rashi notes, he says, “I may not”, not “I cannot.” He is still in full bodily vigour, “his eye undimmed and his natural energy unabated.” But he has reached the end of his personal road. The time has come for another age, a new generation, and a different kind of leader.

Continue reading VAIELECH

NITZAVIM

WHY  JUDAISM?

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

This week’s parsha raises a question that goes to the heart of Judaism, but which was not asked for many centuries until raised by a great Spanish scholar of the fifteenth century, Rabbi Isaac Arama. Moses is almost at the end of his life. The people are about to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. Moses knows he must do one thing more before he dies. He must renew the covenant between the people and God. Continue reading NITZAVIM

KI TAVÔ

THE PURSUIT OF JOY

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

Happiness, said Aristotle, is the ultimate good at which all humans aim.  But in Judaism it is not necessarily so. Happiness is a high value. Ashrei, the closest Hebrew word to happiness, is the first word of the book of Psalms. We say the prayer known as Ashrei three times each day. We can surely endorse the phrase in the American Declaration of Independence that among the inalienable rights of humankind are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Continue reading KI TAVÔ

KI TETZÊ

TO THE THIRD AND FOURTH GENERATIONS

A partnership of the Sinagoga Edmond J. Safra – Ipanema with The Office of Rabbi Sacks

There is, on the face of it, a fundamental contradiction in the Torah. On the one hand we hear, in the passage known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the following words:

The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and truth … Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex. 34: 7).

Continue reading KI TETZÊ

SCHEDULES OF PRAYERS