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    The Cinderella of the festivals

    June 8th, 2024

    Cinderella Gustave DoreIt’s a shame for Shavu’ot. Rosh HaShanah has its shofar, Pesach its matzah, Purim its Megillah – but Shavu’ot has no special mitzvah to make it colourful and popular, and Jewish opinion seems to have decided that it is a non-event.

    Further, every yom-tov except Chanukah has its own masechta, and even Chanukah has a structure of laws – but Shavu’ot has neither a tractate nor a large body of halachot.

    It’s decidedly odd. Shavu’ot marks the greatest event in our history, but there is no pattern of ritual to celebrate it.

    Yes, there is cheesecake (and other milchig delicacies) – but cheesecake is too trivial to be the answer to why tradition has not ordained a serious pattern of observance for Shavu’ot.

    There are two explanations, historical and theological.

    Historically, our sages saw Shavu’ot not as an independent event, but as an adjunct to or completion of Pesach. Instead of the name Shavu’ot, the festival was known as Atzeret, “completion”. Pesach and Shavu’ot were part of one total experience of freedom, physical and moral.

    Theologically, any symbol of Shavu’ot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, would have to represent Torah, but as God cannot be limited or constrained (Isaiah 66), so can Torah not be encapsulated or symbolised.

    The only possible symbol of Torah is not a noun like a shofar, matzah, Megillah and sukkah, but a verb – in fact, two verbs, “learning” and “living”. We mark Torah not by seizing upon a symbol, but by a pattern of action.

    Its first element is learning.

    There is a special way of learning Torah.

    “What does this mean?” asks Ludwig Lewisohn. “It means a devout and seeking attention to the word of prophet or master; it means slaking a thirst of the soul.

    “It means reading with the right and pure kavanah intention, the right and pure aspiration after the sources of wisdom and of good.

    “It desires to understand, not to argue; to absorb, not to brag with; to find words of life and follow them, not to find formulae for dispute or victory in dispute. It desires immersion into an eternal source of spiritual joy and rectitude” (“What is this Jewish Heritage”, 1954, p.47).

    How do we live Torah?

    Let Ludwig Lewisohn answer this question too. “That way which Jews have pursued,” he says, “that halachah is the way of sanctification of all life, in order that life may be truly human and may illustrate man’s likeness to God.

    “The Jew’s recommitment is not a recommitment of preaching or teaching, of writing or joining parties. It is a life to be lived. And it is to be lived not consciously or spectacularly, but with quiet self-containment, with tranquillity with dignity, beyond all clamour and contention” (p.43).

    Our generation has encountered many major problems and will need steady nerves for many years in order to endeavour to contain those problems and control their fall-out.

    But let us not fail to recognise that this is also an age of great wonders. Some of them no one could have predicted. Some have surprised even the greatest believers in the possibility of miracles. For instance, the amazing resurgence of Torah learning and Torah living.

    Who, on the morrow of the Holocaust, standing amid the ashes of the intense Torah life of pre-war Eastern Europe, was rash enough to imagine that Torah would rise from the ruins like a phoenix?

    And yet it has happened. Jewish learning is the great Jewish growth industry, Jewish living is attracting ever more of our people, especially and significantly the young.

    The two verbs of Shavu’ot are back in fashion. The Cinderella of Shavu’ot has become a princess!

    Revelation on Shavu’ot

    June 8th, 2024

    Shavu’ot is the festival of Revelation.

    According to Franz Rosenzweig, it is one of three leading themes of Judaism – Creation, Revelation and Redemption.

    All are difficult thoughts for the human mind. All are intertwined, but traditional Judaism believes that Revelation is the most important of the three since Creation and Redemption are part of God’s self-revelation.

    There are two aspects of Revelation, the process and the content.

    Looking at the process, we ask in what way God revealed Himself.

    Looking at the content, we ask what it was that He revealed.

    The content is apprehended with the eye, the process with the ear.

    The eye looks at the verbal content of Revelation, the letters and words that constitute the narrative and the commandments.

    The ear – agent of the soul – apprehends the Presence. The Talmud says that when a king is coming, even the sightless person senses the royal presence.

    We use the term Revelation for both the process and the message which it articulates.

    By what means does God reveal His existence, His Presence, His love and concern?

    In one sense it is one of His secrets. When we say, HaShem echad – “God is unique”, we affirm that we finite humans do not need to know everything about Him and how He operates. If we understood God, say the philosophers, we would have to be God – Lu yedativ heyitiv.

    One thing is certain: there are many ways to knowledge, and they are not all types of “seeing with the eye”. God’s self-revelation is not measured in mandates or millimeters but spiritually, in moments and moods.

    From the content of the Revelation – the pattern of Torah and commandments – we learn that He is a moral God who stands for goodness, decency, justice and peace.

    Our eyes can explore the words, our five senses can taste them (like the little children who learnt the alphabet by licking off the honey with which the letters were written on their slates), our minds can search out their meanings.

    The legal and literary dimension of the commandments can occupy the best human brains, the historians can study the unfolding narrative of the ages, the challenge of the Divine will can assure us that while the Giving of the Torah only occurred once, the Receiving of the Torah is for every day of our lives.

    The content of the Revelation and its process need one another. If all we had was the content we would miss the spirit of the Living God.

    Having the Living God is already a wondrous boon (Dayyenu!), but if that was all we had we would miss the message that His will is for us to live by His law.

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple z”l

    June 8th, 2024

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple z”l passed away in January 2024. As an archive of the Rabbi’s written contributions across his many fields of interest, this site is a tribute to the man and his work. More information about his life is available in the About section. Y’hi zichro baruch.

    10 cobblers make a minyan – B’midbar

    June 2nd, 2024

    cobblerThe sidra deals with the census of the Children of Israel in the wilderness.

    From the human point of view the census has an obvious importance. We need to know how many people make up our population and whether our numbers are growing or declining.

    But it is God who commands the census, and He is all-knowing – so why does He need the numerical information from the census?

    Rashi explains that the census was a mark of God’s love. It wasn’t for God Himself that the numbers had to be ascertained, but in order to teach His creatures a lesson.

    That lesson is that whichever place an individual occupies in the community list, God still loves him or her exactly the same as anyone else.

    A Jewish saying says that nine rabbis do not make up a minyan but ten cobblers do.

    There are places where the shammas stands outside the shule when they need a tenth man for minyan, and nobody complains if the tenth man he brings in is a High Court judge – or a street sweeper. God loves them all.

    Let the wilderness rejoice – B’midbar

    June 2nd, 2024

    map_israelShabbat B’midbar reminds us of the prophet’s words, “Let the wilderness and its cities rejoice” (Isa. 42:11).

    A wilderness rejoicing? Surely not. By definition, a wilderness is crude and cruel, and no-one would really want to live there.

    But if we take the word “wilderness” metaphorically – representing the people of Israel – we come to a different conclusion.

    The prophet Isaiah is comforting Israel. Israel has suffered so much that it feels bereft, bothered and bewildered.

    But the people that knew darkness and despair is being told that its future is assured, that it will still find joy in life, and the darkness will vanish and be replaced by light and happiness.

    In our day, history has seen the prophecy come true, and the State of Israel is one of the happiest places on earth. Repeated studies have found that more than most nations, the people of Israel are high up on the global happiness scale.

    The voices that call for Israel’s dismantling ought to be jealous. If only their own people had something of the Israeli spirit!

    Two things have brought about Israel’s emotional and psychological triumph – our God, and our own spirit.

    The hostile winds of criticism might howl, the acid tongues of criticism might shoot their barbs, but the erstwhile wilderness has become an oasis.