Divrei Torah-Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence
First Day: When I come to shul must I leave my conscience behind?
Second Day: Election Special
Kol Nidrei: Keeping our Promises
Yizkor: 40th Anniversary of Yom Kippur War
Ruth – Physical and Spiritual Rags to Riches
On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth which is a beautiful romantic tale of spiritual and physical Rags to Riches. It opens with the return to Israel of Naomi, who fled Beth-Lehem in a time of famine. Her husband and sons have died. Her widowed Moabitess daughter-in-law Ruth chooses to accompany her and comes to love and marry her kinsman Boaz. They become the grandparents of Jesse, whose son, David will be the first king of Israel and in turn the father-figure of the Messianic house.
There are many reasons why the Book of Ruth Is read on Shavuot. “Where you go, I will go… Your God will be my God… Your people, my people…” It is the story of Ruth’s conversion; an individual willingly accepting the life of Torah. This is a personal Mount Sinai moment which in turn affects all subsequent generations. The encounter between Ruth and Boaz is set at the wheat harvest, which falls at this time of year. According to tradition, their great-grandson King David was born and died on Shavuot.
A theme that the commentators highlight is the interplay within the story between passion to do what feels right and conforming with the requirements of law and custom. In this, Ruth represents noble passion and Boaz the qualities of compassion and righteous action - going “beyond the letter of the law.”
Ruth is a descendent of Moab. Moab’s birth is described in Genesis 19 as the son fathered by Lot and his eldest daughter in the aftermath of God’s fire and brimstone destruction of their home in Sodom. Lot’s wife had been turned to salt. His daughters imagined that they were the last three people left on earth. Terrified that they would be the end of humanity, on successive nights they got their father drunk and became pregnant by him. Moab is the child of incest.
Boaz’s ancestry is scarcely more auspicious. He is described as a descendent of Peretz. We learn in Genesis 38 that Peretz was the child of Jacob’s son Judah and Judah’s own daughter-in-law Tamar. She had been married to his eldest son Er and upon Er’s death to the second son, Onan. Upon his death, Judah was reluctant to let her score thrice so he kept his third son Shelah from her. Tamar was nonetheless betrothed under the prevailing principles of levirate marriage. She resolves to teach Judah a lesson. Disguised, she seduces him and becomes pregnant. When he is angered at her unchaste behaviour and infidelity to his youngest son, she reveals that he, himself, is the complicit, guilty party. Peretz, conceived through deception and indignation is the fruit of this union.
Ruth, the great-grand-descendent of Moab and Boaz, the great-grand-descendent of Peretz come together at night at the end of the harvest in the seclusion of the threshing floor. (Ruth chapter 3) Ruth, the widow from Moab, sees this as a way to secure family and a future. While temptation and passion are there, Boaz from Judah and Peretz resists because there is a closer kinsman who must first relinquish his ties to Ruth. He holds back, insistent that unlike their ancestors, they must wait, follow the process and only fulfil their passionate desires and nobility of purpose the right way. This they do.
As we accept the Torah upon ourselves on Shavuot we reflect upon our place in the context of history and destiny. When God spoke at Sinai, the people of Israel became a nation charged with the Torah to live true to its values and bring redemption to the world. While that redemption will come through the Torah and the people of Israel, it will be manifest through the person of the Messiah. We can look upon the Messiah as the descendent of the Psalmist, King David – how wonderful and fitting or dig deeper and see behind that his own ancestry of Moab and Peretz, the shameful incidents of Lot and Judah.
Our vision of the Messiah is not one of abstract perfection, a child of innocence seeded through pure godliness. Our Messianic encounter, set in Bethlehem is a tale of gritty, human failings ultimately made good by the chance to overcome justifiable passion, making our lives just a little harder, going the extra distance to do what is right.
Whatever we may have done in our own lives, however black or bleak our past, the story of Ruth and the festival of Shavuot reminds us that we can always lovingly accept upon ourselves the teachings of the Torah and with it reorientate our lives.
We are a nation with a proud history, chosen to accept the Torah through the merits of our distant ancestors. We are encouraged to be a “choosing people” – electing to follow that Torah and making it our personal guide to better living. As the Book of Ruth teaches, it is our personal and private choices which can transform physical and spiritual rags to riches and forge our nation’s destiny. If we will it, redemption is in our hands.
Wishing you a chag sameach
R’ Jeremy Lawrence
Address to The Great Synagogue Law Service Download as pdf
In tomorrow morning’s Torah reading we shall retell the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. According to Maimonides, that moment was the defining moment of truth on which Jewish belief is based.
While Sporting Life in Porgy and Bess warns that
It ain’t necessarily so,
It ain’t necessarily so,
De t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
To read in de Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.
Maimonides is clear: the experience of revelation at Sinai occurred before the entire nation. Everyone was a witness. Sinai was not a private prophecy enjoyed by a single leader or holy man. It was not just the select few who heard God. From the tribal Princes through to the humblest; men and women and children all heard the voice of God. Maimonides says that, because it was shared and because it has been passed down through the last 140 generations, we found our belief on that.
It is necessarily so!
The Jewish Torah has 613 Commandments. They are spread from the beginning of Genesis through Deuteronomy. They cover all aspects of our lives; ritual, interpersonal relations, the regulation of society. Some have universal, moral dimensions. Others, like the laws of our festivals and the commemoration of our national history apply to us alone.
We give the 10 Commandments great prominence; they are displayed here in the synagogue above me and in just about every synagogue I have ever visited. But they are not the first Commandments, nor are they the last Commandments. Some commentators find that they can extrapolate all the other 603 Commandments from these 10. But in fact, Jewish commentary does not identify the Decalogue as the most important; the top 10 of the Commandments. When they are described as the basis of Jewish belief it is because the moment of revelation was experienced by the nation as a whole. They are the basis of Jewish belief but are not necessarily the basis of Jewish law.
Open up a Jewish daily prayer book and you will find the 10 Commandments.
Traditionally they are placed after the morning service. The reason for this is historic. The Talmud records that once upon a time the 10 Commandments were recited daily in our morning worship. However, when they were misrepresented by other faiths as being more important than the Torah’s other laws, they were actually excised from our prayers.
As principles, the 10 Commandments are definitely indicative and comprehensive. They establish God’s authority over Creation and speak to our history, our conduct, our families, our workers and our aspirations. Religious instruction is an all-embracing guide to our lives. But can we prioritise? What is more important?
In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva suggests that the verse from Leviticus, “you should love your neighbour as yourself” is the “great principle of the Torah.” Few would disagree with the sentiment.
However, His contemporary, Shimon Ben Azzai, did challenge Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai favoured a relatively obscure verse from Genesis. He championed the verse, “this is the book of the generations of mankind.”
“This is the book of the generations of mankind!” Some wonder if Ben Azzai was being deliberately provocative, suggesting that every verse of the Torah has equal validity. However, his reasoning is profound. Rabbi Akiva’s verse is limited. It speaks only of one’s neighbour. Its context is the laws binding the Jewish people. Ben Azzai’s verse shows that God is the God of all humanity and that the book of human goodness and godliness has universal as well as parochial applications.
Their discussion was finally addressed by the House of Lords. From Palestine to Babylon it worked its way through the system to Paisley, Renfrewshire and the Wellmeadow Café. And then to London. The Talmudic debate opened in the early second century. The appeal was heard by Lord Atkins in 1932.
After Mrs Donoghue poured a decomposing snail from her bottle of ginger pop and wretched over her pear ice cream, she sued not the café but the manufacturer. In his judgement, Lord Atkins channelled Rabbi Akiva and asked the celebrated question, “who then is my neighbour?... It receives a restrictive reply”.
Of course in law it is important to define proximity as well as reasonable foreseeability when we are defining, attributing and quantifying liability. There is no question that we owe the greatest duty of care to our neighbours. And there says Rabbi Akiva is found the underlying principle of the Torah.
However, Ben Azzai makes a critical point. The Torah is more than just a book of laws and prescription. It is a book of values. The values which guide us and guide society are addressed to the widest audience. Ben Azzai would not have us see God as restrictive, narrow and parochial.
Having recognised that the Torah is more than just a story and more than just a collection of laws, it is about values, the Psalms and the prophets try to condense God’s message in different formulae. The most famous, of course, is Micah, who asks what it is that is good and that God demands of us, “but to do Justice, to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.”
As the rabbis seek to fathom what is “good”, they identify values of the Torah which are indirectly expressed. Much is learnt from the hospitality of Abraham, from Laban’s concern for his daughters and Moses’ regard for his sister. Virtuous living as well as human frailties are learnt from their examples.
In being told to do that which is “right and good”, we are called upon to apply common sense and discrimination to circumstance. When God instructs us to do that which is “right and good”, it is not a bland motherhood statement embracing the laws which are elsewhere clearly expressed. It is a recognition that we can identify what is right and what is good and should apply those faculties rather than just nitpick at the letters and technicalities of legislation.
This point is eloquently made by the great sage Nachmanides when he explains the injunction, “be holy!”
What is Holiness?
Nachmanides explains that holiness is the antithesis of being degenerate. To be a glutton on kosher food is to be degenerate. To contrive the language and the wisdom of the Torah to justify abuse and oppression is degenerate. One cannot be holy if one follows the letters of the law and ignores all the values of the Torah.
There is a classic case in the Talmud where the rabbis are asked about a distinguished young teacher who has gone astray. It is acknowledged that he is the most inspiring and successful teacher in his community. It is reported that to lose his services would be a great loss.
However, our young scholar has gone astray. It is not that he has become a heretic. It is not that he has some dark past for which he has atoned and from which he has now emerged. The commentaries explain that he is privately known to be living a life of ongoing scandal. However he believes his reputation as a teacher should supersede or excuse his ongoing philandering.
Even though he is the best teacher in town, the Talmud rules that the Torah cannot be learnt from such a mouth. Law and learning without applied values cannot sustain a society.
I was horrified to see in today’s paper and even more horrified to watch on You-tube an interview with a revered religious leader of the American Jewish community. He made a succession of offensive and inappropriate remarks about child molestation in religious organisations and on the impact of sexual abuse.
It was shocking.
The rabbi represented his remarks as coming from a Jewish philosophical perspective and was demeaning of psychology and investigation as dangerous.
It was wrong on so many levels it is difficult to know where to start. But the remarks so clearly failed the “do what is right and good” test and the “love your neighbour” test and the “respect for individuals” test and the “care for the sick test” and the “be hospitable” and “responsible to those in your care” tests, I could not begin to see where his remarks came from a Jewish philosophical perspective.
He does not speak for the Judaism or Torah or the God that I follow.
My God teaches that one should respect the person and property of others; should love one’s neighbour as oneself and not do detestful things. Our bodies should be holy and inviolate. Our feelings matter. When we violate another we violate God.
Victims of abuse must step forward. Perpetrators of abuse must be reported and condemned.
Our regard for God is illustrated in the way we deal with all humanity. The way we are seen by our fellows determines the way we are judged by God.
Chief Justice, it is always a pleasure to welcome you and your judiciary into The Great Synagogue at the beginning of the annual Law Term.
The stability of our society is underpinned by the Rule of Law. You, with your judiciary are its guardians. From a Jewish perspective, the Rule of Law, itself, even the rule of God’s Law is underpinned by great values; the love we show our neighbour and the respect we accord to every individual; great or small, proximate or remote.
Our regard for God is illustrated in the way we deal with humanity. The way we are seen by our fellows determines the way we are judged by God.
Chief Justice may you and your judiciary be blessed, may you judge favourably and may you be favourably judged in the year ahead.
Is God in our Midst?
This week we read Parashat Beshallach – one of the most dramatic of the entire Torah.
As the children of Israel leave Egypt after the culmination of the ten plagues they are pursued by Pharaoh’s chariots; we see the miracle of the parting of the waters at the Red Sea; the Israelites crossing in safety; the drowning of the Egyptians as the waters close around them.
The parasha sees a pool of bitter waters made sweet; it sees God feed the Israelites with daily mannah from heaven. And then when they are parched in the wilderness, Moses is told to strike a rock with his staff and water gushes out.
The Israelites are saved and sustained by one miracle after another. If the Ten Plagues were about demonstrating to Pharaoh and the Egyptians that their gods were impotent; the clear message of Parashat Beshallach must be the awesome power of the God of Israel.
And yet, we have a problem. As the parashah closes, after the crossing of the sea, the sweet waters, the mannah and the water from the rock we are told that the Israelites were attacked by Amalek, who stole upon them from behind and preyed upon the weak. The verse immediately preceding Amalek’s assault tells of the Israelites’ doubting refrain, “Hayesh Hashem bekirbaynu im ayin?” which translates as “Is God amongst us or not?”
Is God amongst us or not? The commentaries understand from the juxtaposition, “when Israel doubts, then Amalek appears.” Our spiritual hollow creates space for his physical havoc. To repel Amalek, we must have faith in God.
But we do have a problem – given all that the Israelites had experienced, in the few days covered by this parashah alone, given the succession of miracles – how could they even begin to ask the doubting question. “Is God amongst us or not?” With one miracle after another surely God’s existence and his presence were manifest.
Perhaps the focus of the question is misunderstood – it isn’t doubting God’s existence – the key is the word “bekirbaynu”, amongst us.
The question is really – Is God found in us as a collective? Is God found in us as a whole?
Up to the Amalekite attack, The Israelites are referred to as Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel and as an “Am” – a people – still a collective phrase for group of individuals. When Amalek attacks, we’re told for the first time that he is attacking “Israel” – the very first time the nation is called just “Israel.”
The lesson we are being taught is that we must look to see God’s presence in the nation as a whole.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be divided into strong or weak, observant or secular so that we identify some as godly and others as godless. When we give up on our fellows and imagine that God is surely with me – but perhaps less with you – we construct a self-destructive schism. The unity of Israel is its defence against Amalek.
Unity is one element. Faith is the second. Our unity must be a unity of faith. Miracles are about God’s undeniable power. They are an external manifestation. We see them and we are in awe. Faith comes from within. Faith is what we need when God is less visible. Faith is our security in the absence of certainty. To defeat Amalek we need faith that God is with us – with Israel as a whole.
There is no harm and no shame in diversity. God wants each of us to serve with our own life’s experience and in our own way. We make choices for ourselves; we seek to live in compatible communities with similar standards. The harm is when we draw our own lines which disenfranchise others; when we suggest we don’t care.
It is a timeless lesson which we are exhorted to remember in all generations. Particularly this week as Israelis exercise their democratic privilege in their national elections, we pray that commitment to unity, faith and common purpose will make us strong; stave off attacks and bring us redemption and peace.
A Season of Goodwill
Channuka is our festival of lights. It falls on 25th Kislev in the Jewish calendar and as such can begin as early as 28th November (next year) and as late as 26th December. The channuka candles are supposed to be lit after dark, explained in the Talmud as the time that people are coming home from work.
That works well in the northern hemisphere where it gets dark early.
A Midrash (rabbinic fable) recounts that in his first year after the expulsion from Eden, Adam noticed that the days were getting shorter and shorter. He feared that eventually it would become irrevocably dark and cold. He worried for the future of the world. Was it that cursed? But then, after the first solstice the sun rose earlier, set later; warmth returned and the days grew longer again. He celebrated. The Midrash explains that all peoples have a festival of lights in this season.
The Midrash was clearly not written by those who look up to see the Southern Cross in their summery Channuka skies; with a surfing Santa in bathers, rather than thick duffel and furs. Nonetheless, there are a many festivals of light at this time. Christmas, Diwali and the Harvey Norman domestic furnishings sale.
In America it is “Happy Holidays” all around. I used to enjoy the lights in London’s Oxford Street and the impressive window displays at Selfridges. The Elizabeth Street David Jones is quite impressive; though a typo on this year’s centrepiece had “Angels on a High”. Spliffing!!! I note also that last year’s Sydney seasonal banners all around Hyde Park were a multi-coloured six pointed star. This year the star has been reconfigured and looks less like a Magen David.
At this time of year I’m often asked by radio and breakfast time television programmes, “So tell me Rabbi, how does your community celebrate Christmas?” Hmmm – “Much like Jesus and the Apostles did,” I have answered. “We light our Channukias and thank God for the miracles he’s done for the Jews.”
Channuka is about us proclaiming our miracle of the oil, the rededicated Temple, and with it a renewed commitment to Jewish living. It is predominantly about building stronger Jewish bonds. There is no doubt that the Maccabees were rigidly opposed to the cosmopolitan and assimilationist tendencies of their era.
While halacha is firm that we should not celebrate the religious rites of other peoples, there is, nonetheless, our Midrashic acknowledgement of the season as one of light, warmth and collective hope. Also the recognition that we should be cognisant of others and aware of and concerned for our environment.
May we be blessed to share the warmth of the season with our families and to enjoy our summer holidays celebrating our traditional values and the glory of our past; and instilling our love and reverence for them in our next generations. From the purity of the oil to the family recipes for latkes and donuts; from the learning of our traditional texts to the spinning of the dreidel in memory of the sages who risked their lives to study, while pretending to be at play – may all these illuminate our Festival of Lights.
If the Garden of Eden had been in the southern hemisphere, Adam would have feared for global warming, the melting of the ice-caps and skin cancer. The Midrash would acknowledge the need for all peoples to commemorate a “Slip, Slop, Slappy New Year!”
May it be one of good will and blessing of peace to Israel… and all humankind.