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    Which neighbour? – K’doshim

    May 5th, 2024

    The great human duty is to love our neighbour as ourselves (Lev. 19:18). Rabbi Akiva called it “the great principle of the Torah”.

    Commentators address themselves to all three phrases – “love”, “your neighbour”, and “as yourself”.

    Over the years we have looked in detail at the first and the third phrase, so this year let us examine the word “neighbour” and ask the question, “Who is my neighbour?”

    The Hebrew re’a is understood by some as “your Israelite neighbour”. If this were the sense of the term it would already be an important idea, especially in an age like ours when – tragically – one group of Jews is seen and heard insulting another and giving them the no-love treatment.

    But re’a is used in the Torah in a general sense and is not limited to our fellow Jews. In Ex. 11:2 it means an Egyptian. In Deut. 10:19 it means a stranger. In Lev. 19:34 the command to love a person as yourself applies to any fellow human being.

    Who then is my neighbour?

    Anyone. Everyone. All are made in the image of God. All are children of the same Father. All (even the unlikeable ones!) are entitled to our love and respect.


    Chametz all year round – K’doshim

    May 5th, 2024

    We don’t talk too much about chametz once Pesach is over. Maybe we should. There is a lesson for the whole year in the idea of chametz.

    Apart from one small segment of the year, the ingredients of chametz are no problem. The problem is caused not by the make-up of the chametz but by the date. If it is Pesach, chametz is out: for the rest of the twelve months it is in and acceptable.

    Let’s now apply this idea to this week’s Torah reading, K’doshim, “holy people”. What makes us holy is not withdrawal from the world but elevating every ordinary event and experience.

    Water makes us holy when we need to be physically and spiritually clean. Fire makes us holy when we need to prepare food and kindle the Sabbath light. But like everything else, water can also be a curse; floods do untold damage to human life. Fire can be a danger when it spreads and destroys nature and human habitation and life.

    Like chametz, the question is the timing. If we carefully control water and fire, we can use them to make life magnificent. If they get out of control, they become our enemies.

    As someone has said, we can use a brick to build a place of worship – or to construct a gas chamber. The question is what we do when the moment of opportunity is upon us.


    Alexander & the city of women – Ask the Rabbi

    May 5th, 2024

    Q. Is it true that a Jewish source mentions a city in the time of Alexander the Great inhabited only by women?

    Coin depicting Alexander the Great

    A. The Talmud (Tamid 32a; there are versions in various Midrashim) relates that after the “elders of the south” showed Alexander how to cross the “mountains of darkness”, he found a land somewhere in Africa inhabited only by women.

    He wanted to start a war against them, but they said, “If you fight us, people will mock you and say that you make war on women; if we kill you, people will say that Alexander was the king who was killed by women”.

    He asked for bread, and they gave him a loaf of gold on a table of gold.

    He asked, “Do people in your city eat gold?”

    They replied, “Did you want ordinary bread? Had you no bread in your own country that you had to come here?”

    When he left the place, he wrote on the gate of the city, “I, Alexander of Macedon, was a fool until I came to the city of women and learned counsel”.

    The story has no specifically Jewish content, though it illustrates the age-old Jewish fascination with Alexander who not only defeated the great Persian empire but is said (the story is told in Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews”, Book 11) to have come to Jerusalem, made peace with the high priest, showed respect to God and the Temple, and allowed the Jews to live “by the laws of their ancestors”.

    There are stories in many cultures about a place where there were only women, often called the Amazons.

    In another Jewish source the place inhabited by women is called Kartagena (“Karta” from an Aramaic word for “city” and “gena” from a Greek word for “woman”).

    In the Greek version of the story, the women’s city was near the Black Sea.

    The Alexander stories often depict the king as a philosopher who admitted that he learned wisdom from many sources.

    In the Talmudic passage in the tractate Tamid some of his discussions with the sages echo the fourth chapter of Pir’kei Avot.


    Not like the others – Acharei Mot

    April 30th, 2024

    EgyptAcharei Mot carries God’s warning that we should not copy the ways of two nations which our ancestors knew well – ancient Egypt and Canaan (Lev. 18:1-5).

    This is part of a general admonition against chukkat hagoy, the ways of the heathens.

    The problem was both theology and ethics. In fact the two issues were intertwined. Because they had a false theology they had false ethics, and Israel had nothing to learn from them.

    It is not just an ancient historical question, because many of the cultures whom we encountered, even in modern times, were also dangerous.

    Not only Jews suffered from such regimes and ideologies; their own people were often victimised. Experience proved that when Jews were not safe, nobody was safe.

    Sometimes Jews thought it was a counsel of prudence to make their peace with their neighbours, but it rarely worked.

    In Germany there were Jewish thinkers who adulated German civilisation, but it turned against them and unleashed a Holocaust that destroyed the dream of harmonious symbiosis.

    What should a Jew do then when it is obvious that a nation failed to meet the standards that were second nature to Judaism?

    The answer is twofold – increased dedication to Judaism and its ideals, and unremitting determination to improve the ways of the host society.

    Leo Baeck said that the Jew is the eternal protestant who never accepts the present situation as the best of all worlds.

    One can and must be a loyal citizen of the country where one lives, but that must never be at the cost of surrendering or squashing the Jewish moral conscience with which one was born.


    Aaron’s sons – another approach

    April 30th, 2024

    Not everyone agrees that Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu met their death because they sinned.

    Nadab & Abihu, by James Tissot

    Some expositors view the incident much more positively. The Torah says, “they drew near to the Lord and they died” (Lev. 15:1).

    One school of Midrash (Lev. R. 12) thinks they were impudent towards God and had to be punished.

    Another, reported in the Talmud (Zev. 115b) says they died in order to sanctify the honour of God. They loved Him so greatly that they yearned to rise above their physical bodies and attach their souls to the Almighty.

    Their death was a reward for their piety; as the Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of those that love him” (Psalm 116:15).

    According to this approach, we read their story on Yom Kippur in order to inspire us to dedicate ourselves to God with every fibre of our being.