Rabbi Andrea's Sermons
25th March / 3rd Nisan
OF PAGANS AND SACRIFICES
We begin this week by reading the Book of Leviticus, a book with a terrible reputation. The opening of this book, this week's Torah portion, consists of instructions for sacrifices. And we don't like animal sacrifices.
Later in the book, we find the to-do list for the Kohanim, the priest who worked in the Temple in Jerusalem. And we don't like to talk about the Temple in Jerusalem.
And then, there are chapters about ritual purity, menstruation, and nocturnal emissions. Very gross.
On the whole, it is hardly an inspiring reading - especially for us Reform, emancipated Jews, who believe in modern science and see the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem as a fantasy with dangerous political implications.
I remember a particularly Liberal teacher who openly stated, in front of us students, his support for the Romans' prohibition of the public reading of the Book of Leviticus. Like some radical American Reformers of two hundred years ago, he believed that those pages must be replaced by passages of Prophetic literature. Imagine that. On a Shabbat like today, no Torah reading, only Haftarah!
My purpose today is to demonstrate that this snobbery towards the Book of Leviticus is misplaced. The description of sacrifices performed in the Temple in Jerusalem can be inspiring and morally elevating, even for people like me (better to say it outright!) who do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple nor aim to re-establish the practice of sacrifices (I hope I have spelled that out loud and clear!)
To begin with, what is a sacrifice? In the Ancient Middle East, e.g. for the Babylonians, sacrifices were meant to feed the gods.  Those civilisations were polytheistic; they had many gods, each ruling over one city and one city only. The centre of many Babylonian cities was indeed the Temple. To ensure the welfare of the town and to maintain the ruling class in power, gods needed to be periodically fed. A curtain was drawn before the table while the god "ate". Usually, the king shared in these sacrificial meals.
But those divinities had no power beyond the boundaries of their city. The land between one town and another, the wilderness, or the desert, was – literally - no god's land. No god ruled there.
The Jewish understanding of God is, obviously, different. God is everywhere. This is why the desert is so important in the stories of our Patriarchs; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Because that family, for the first time in history, experienced a God that was everywhere, whose power was not restricted to the boundaries of a city.
And Jewish sacrifices were utterly different from Babylonians. Our God does not need to be fed.
For the Jewish religion, sacrifices were a means for human beings to express gratitude.
We associate sacrifices with the expiation of sins, which is partly accurate. Some sacrifices were indeed offered to expiate transgressions (after the damage had been repaid!).
Still, first and foremost, Jewish sacrifices were expressions of gratitude. They were offered to celebrate joyous moments such as after childbirth or to mark the end of a dispute and the restoration of peace, shalom, among human beings. Sacrifices were offered following the recovery from an illness, and when debtors and slaves have gained freedom.
Pesach is approaching, right? It's the festival of our liberation, true! But please remember that the sacrifice of a lamb is part of the Pesach narrative of liberation.
And now I hear you saying, "Fine, Rabbi. Thank you for the history lesson. But I still don't get why I should read all these rules about sacrifices every year. What's the point? I get that we are different from the pagans because of our relationship with God. But there are no pagans around anymore!"
And my answer is: Really? Are you entirely sure that in contemporary society, gratitude is a value? Do you think that everybody agrees with the Jewish moral teaching that the same law must be observed by all humanity, regardless of background or social class?
Because I see politicians who live as if they were entitled to a different lifestyle from ordinary citizens, with different values and more relaxed moral standards.
I see paedophiles who brand themselves "Minor Attracted Persons" and market themselves as another minority who demand recognition and claim to be marginalised.  A similar path is followed by the "polyamory" folk, for whom monogamy is a moral standard that does not apply .
I see on the media that attacks on Ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York are downplayed as ordinary crimes (if the criminal belongs to a Black or Latino gang ) and are prosecuted as they should be only when the perpetrators are white supremacists and Nazis.
It seems to me that the Jewish value of universal morality, of a moral law that should be observed everywhere by all human beings, is far from being universally acknowledged. It seems to me that we live again, or perhaps have reverted to, a sort of cultural paganism, and values such as morality, responsibility and gratitude are entirely out of fashion,
For this, I think it's worth studying Leviticus, as a way to familiarise ourselves with Jewish ethics, with the idea that there is a basic moral law to be observed by all human beings, regardless of provenance, background, social class, and identity,
I invite you to consider one detail in the text we have read, Lev 2:11: "No meal offering that you offer to the Eternal shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be offered to the Eternal". What's the problem with leaven and honey? Why were our ancestors forbidden to offer in sacrifice these two kinds of food? Did God care about the ingredients of the meal offering?
Abarbenel [ad loc.] explains that both honey and leaven are a symbol of self-indulgence.
11th March / 18th Adar
LAW AND LOVE
Like in every Jewish text, in the Torah, there is narrative - a plot, and normative - rules and norms.
Narrative. You can read the Torah to find the plot. This week's portion has much to offer: the episode of the Golden Calf. The narrative is as follows: while Moses is on the top of Mount Sinai and God gives him the Law, the Israelites are left alone. So they built an idol, the Golden Calf no less, and start a great party - as we have read – with dancing, eating, drinking and all the rest. As a result of this, God becomes upset and threatens to annihilate the Israelites and to make Moses the leader of another nation. But Moses manages to placate the Divine anger. Then he goes down to see with his eyes what is happening and loses his temper. This is the moment when Moses breaks the tablets of the law. (It's a moment portrayed by artists many times - Rembrandt, possibly, the most famous.) Then Moses climbs Mount Sinai again. There, he receives a second set of tablets.
That's the main plot of our Torah portion. There are other plots (Moses sees God, no less!). The narrative is excellent.
The normative in this Torah portion is, however, less attractive.
If you are a mitzvah-nerd, if you count the commandments in each Torah portion, you find -more or less - nine commandments (there is a bit of disagreement on this point between Maimonides and the rest of the world... but that's for another sermon).
There is also one of three occurrences of a commandment: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk". In the whole Torah, this commandment appears three times. The Rabbis explain that there cannot be repetition in the Torah, so there must be a reason why this particular commandment is repeated three times, each time using precisely the same words.
Somebody says that the commandment is repeated three times because: (one) you should not cook meat with milk; (two) you should not eat meat with milk; and (three) you should have separate dishes for meat and for milk.
Another interpretation is: (one) you should not cook meat with milk; (two) you should not eat meat with milk; (three) you should not profit by selling dairy and meaty foods combined together.
Then there is that joke about Moses, when he writes the commandments under Divine dictation:
Moses hears this commandment once, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk", and asks God to repeat it. God dictates the commandment for the second time, so Moses reluctantly engraves it into the tablets.
But he is perplexed. He tries to explain to God that this commandment will be problematic; without an explanation, it will engender thousands of discussions; you know how Jews are... Is this kind of meat allowed, or is it not? Lamb or goat? What about cow? And, sorry, chicken? Chicken's milk... does not exist! And which kind of milk are we talking about? Goat's milk or cow's milk, and is soya milk forbidden or not?
By listening to Moses going on about the Jewish love for discussions and distinctions, God grows even more angry. So He raises His voice and dictates the commandment for the third time, shouting. This is why Moses wrote: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk"- for the third time.
Jokes apart, Jewish Law is often mocked as obscure and illogical. We live in a Christian Country, and I am sure you are all familiar with the opposition: "Christianity, the religion of love vs Judaism, the religion of the Law".
A Law which - according to this view- is ossified, out of time, and in desperate need of an update. The intricacies and the strictness of the "abstruse Jewish law" are material for humour, often Jewish humour, sometimes good humour (like the joke above).
But you know what? It is all based on a misunderstanding.
Let's review the Torah portion of this week.
Moses ascends the mountain, and the Israelites - out of nostalgia - build an idol, a Golden Calf. It is an act of idolatry. It is a betrayal. Obviously, God is enraged. God threatens to destroy the Israelites and to make Moses the leader of another nation. It makes sense. After all, Moses is a bit of an outsider. He grew up at Pharaoh's court, never experienced slavery, and indeed his status as an outsider was known by the Israelites. Nonetheless, Moses refuses God's offer. He wants to stay with his people. So Moses reminds God of the covenant stipulated with Abraham, repeated to Itzak, reiterated to Jakov etc.
Do not underestimate this.
Religions are founded after a prophet accepts the Divine call. In ancient mythologies, the heroes do what the gods command them to, but not so in our religion. The foundational moment of Judaism, as a system of laws, is when a man – Moses - refuses an offer by God. God offers Moses the chance to lead another people, but Moses refuses to obey and persuades God to give the Jews a second chance. This is the moment when God gives the Law to the Jewish people.
And now, please, let's have a look at the calendar.
According to the Midrash, Moses ascends to Sinai for the second time on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Moses descends then with the second set of tablets after forty days. Which is Yom Kippur! On Yom Kippur (I know someone is starving already...) we expiate our transgressions, we amend, we try to forgive and be forgiven, and God gives us a second chance. Just as God gave to our ancestors on that first Yom Kippur, thanks to the pleading of Moses.
This is the great point missed by all the humour (Jewish or not) on the intricacies of Jewish law and by the theological nonsense about the unforgiving, vengeful "God of the Old Testament".
The Jewish Law, the Halacha, the Jewish way of life, has been given by God to the Jews as a sign of love, proof, and evidence that that horrible act of idolatry, the Golden Calf, has been forgiven. We Jews follow the Halacha not because we are a tribe of neurotics or because of fear of hell. The Halacha is not a burden. It is a sign of God's love for us, for his people.
And please let us not forget another essential point. The first pair of tablets materialised in the hands of Moses when he ascended Sinai for the first time. Then Moses descended, saw the people debasing themselves in front of the idol, and out of anger broke those tablets, the first gift of God. But the second set of tablets was the result of Moses's work - God dictated to Moses, or if you are Reform, God inspired Moses, to carve the law into the stones.
These tablets, the place from which the Torah literally originates, required the work of the human being from the very beginning. The Halacha needs the cooperation of human beings. It just does not come from above. It needs practice. It needs our acceptance. Like the way, in a family, love must be cultivated and kept alive.
I, as much as anyone, enjoy good Jewish humour about Jewish neurosis and about the Rabbis' talent in finding loopholes. But it's easy to recognise that theological mistake at the basis. While another stereotype, the ever-argumentative Jew, possibly originated in that act of rebellion by Moses.
And I love Moses' rebellion. Imagine this. God gives you an offer and you say "no thanks". That rebellion was so bold that even God was impressed and changed His mind.
All the mitzvot, the commandments, stem from that moment. Including that line "do not boil the kid in its mother's milk" - given to us so that we learn, practice and teach compassion towards the animals…
What did I just say? Learn, practice and teach.
That must be the reason why the commandment appears three times!
4th March / 11th Adar
ON PARASHAT ZACHOR, AND SANCTIMONIOUSNESS
Today, Shabbat Zachor, we have read an extra bit of Torah besides the regular weekly Torah portion. It is the famous - or infamous - commandment to erase Amalek, the tribe of our enemies, so that not even their memory remains. Possibly the earliest recorded case of cancel culture.
Which poses an intriguing problem. How is it possible to put the commandment to remember your enemy in the same sentence as the commandment to erase his memory? Ibn Ezra has solved this paradox. He explains that the Israelites have to follow this commandment only when they live in the Land of Israel. Even by that point, the nation of Amalek won’t have stopped their attacks. Hence the commandment: cancel them — from your land. Keep them far from you.
But who is Amalek? According to the Torah, he is the grandson of Esau. The Amalekites, his descendants, have transmitted the grudge that their forefather held against Jacob and against the descendants of Jacob.
The origin of Amalek’s hatred for our people is a perceived injustice — you know, that old story of the lentil soup and the birthright. Over time, such a grudge has magnified, inflated, and now it has become a real obsession. The Amalekites bond with each other — for lack of a better word – through this racial hatred against the descendants of Jacob, all because of a misdeed committed generations ago.
The piece of Written Torah that we have read commands us to exterminate the descendants of Amalek. Shall we all start killing Amalekites once Shabbat is over? Obviously not. The Rabbis in the Oral Torah establish that there is no purity of lineage, so it is impossible to identify who the current Amalekites are. Unless they reveal themselves through their actions. One of those guys who obsessively hates the Jews and wants to exterminate us is: guess who? The evil minister in the story of the Megillah… Haman.
Haman is an Amalekite, so the Rabbis teach, and as we know, he does his best to prove it. We have read these few lines in Parashat Zakhor: “remember what Amalek did to you”, to give us a reason to drink and to make a noise on Purim, during the reading of the Megillah every time we hear the H-name (Haman).
Now, I have to admit I have a problem with this whole business of Amalek, of Parashat Zakhor, and all the rest - especially with the fact that it is an introduction to Purim.
My problem is that the Shabbat before Purim, today, Shabbat Zakhor, has become a time for unbearable sanctimoniousness. It’s the time of the year when self-appointed Jewish leaders of all denominations, from the more Orthodox to the more politically progressive, literally mount on the pulpit and give the most moralising, boring sermons ever.
Parashat Zakhor, the commandment to erase the memory of Amalek is, for the Far Left, a terrible commandment, an exhortation to genocide (and who cares if generations of Rabbis read it otherwise). To them, these few lines in our Holy Book are so upsetting. Being exposed to passages like this hurts their feelings. And of course, when they read it, they think (surprise, surprise!) about the crimes of the Israelis. For these people, ancient Israelites wishing bad on their enemies are wrong, while similar sermons from contemporary Muslim preachers leave them unperturbed.
The spectacle on the more traditional side of the Jewish spectrum is even more pathetic. For these people, identifying who Amalek is, is the main focus. Who is this bad guy we must erase from our midst? The answer is: everyone except them. Reform Jews are Amalek because they do not follow the Orthodox way of life. Secular Jews are Amalek because, well, because they are secular. Don’t ask. Whoever dares to ask questions is, above all, Amalek. Amalek is the male Jew who “marries out” and thus brings foreign blood into our midst. And an especially perverted kind of Amalek is the Jew who marries a non-Jewish person and then dares to Jewishly educate the offspring. Yes, you are Amalek for passing down the Jewish identity of your family to the next generation.
All of this, mind, happens on the Shabbat before Purim. Sometimes the sanctimoniousness even extends to Purim itself. So you have the Far Left moralising about the concluding part of the Megillah, when - like in a Quentin Tarantino movie - Jews take revenge on their enemies. The presence of this kind of fantasy in our tradition troubles them more than, for example, actual terrorists such as Shamina Begun, whom they would gladly like to welcome back to England.
In the same way, the most traditional (should I say bigoted) on the Right extend their sanctimoniousness by finding the most incredible excuses for Esther’s sexuality. Are we all adults here? OK, so we can say it. Esther makes use of her feminine beauty in order to persuade the Emperor to spare her people. And she succeeds! With an even more savant performance, she persuades the sovereign to get rid of Haman. But don’t tell the frummers. They will bring lots of stories and excuses to portray Esther as a modest, discrete, nice little Jewish girl. Possibly the only recorded case of a modest concubine in the world’s history. Why, oh why, such a need to coat Purim with moral posturing? Why do both Left and Right want us to enter Purim in this sanctimonious mood?
Of course, the Megillat Esther is problematic for Orthodox Jewish sensitivity. Of course, the Megillat Esther offends the devotees to the religion of Wokeness. There’s everything in the Megillah that both sides find upsetting. There is sex. There’s violence. There is an arrogant evil villain who, in the end, is impaled, the most humiliating form of the death penalty. There is an idiotic king, easily manipulable and actively manipulated. There is a beauty pageant, and the girls paraded in front of the king are scantily clad and probably minor. No one checked their age anyway. The conclusion is an orgy of violence. The opening scene is a banquet with damsels dancing naked. Heaven forbid, perhaps there is even mixed dancing!
Everything contrary to religion and morality is there in the Megillah. I actually wonder why it never comes with a trigger warning, such as: “Warning! Contains scenes that may be considered disturbing and cause occasional anxiety, such as a non-Jewish ruler who plans a genocide of his Jewish subjects. Here’s a list of resources besides your Rabbi. This book is not suitable for readers under the age of … etc”
Of course, the Megillat Esther is not suitable for minors. It’s not the bedside story I would read to my children. But who said that religion is only for children and children only?
Let’s state things how they are. Purim, the joyous, chaotic & cathartic public reading of the Megillah, has sustained the Jewish people through centuries of persecution and exile in situations and times when fantasies of revenge were totally understandable, even natural. Every oppressed minority nurtures this kind of fantasy. The difference is that despite reading a tale each year whose surprising conclusion is the massacre of the antisemites, our fantasies have never become a reality. No Gentiles were harmed in the production of this Megillah.
The most pious among us have used the Megillat Esther as a frame to understand the events and find God even when He or She is hidden. Much has been written about the absence of God in the Megillah. He or She is not even mentioned, and this is troubling for the religious. But all Jews are troubled by the absence of God in our life. Especially when we look for God and find nothing.
Throughout the Jewish world, there have been countless local Purim on various days of the year, when Jewish communities celebrate the rescue from threats and dangers. There are special prayers, mishlach manot and a lot of merriness. Purim-like, indeed.
In Istanbul, there was the Purim de Sargosa, with which the Jews from Saragosa, expelled from Spain in 1492 and resettled in Turkey, celebrated the anniversary of the cancellation of another threatened expulsion — from Istanbul this time. Because you know life for the Jews was not always easy under the benevolent rule of the Ottoman Emperor, and whoever says the opposite is lying. Jewish life is always precarious. There is even a Jewish version of the gunpowder plot, the powder Purim - commemoration of the explosion of a powder magazine at Vilna in 1804, when a local Jewish merchant miraculously survived. In Padua, they even have five extra Purim scattered throughout the year, the most recent one instituted in the 20s when the local Fascist mob tried to assault the synagogue and the entrance door almost burnt down.
Throughout the centuries, Purim has provided our people with a framework, if not to understand the ups and downs of our collective history, at least to give hope that hostile decrees can be reversed and that our enemies, as strong as they may seem, can in the end be vanquished. In a sense, Purim is a subversive holiday. It reminds us that no matter how powerful the powerful think they are, there is always someone above them, a Higher Authority, in charge of the ultimate decisions. And no one who’s in power is happy to be reminded of this.
I really don’t know why self-appointed spiritual leaders, just before Purim, make such a point of lavishing their audience with moral posturing…Perhaps they love order and discipline more than they love Judaism. Perhaps they feel so insecure that they need to assert their personal authority. Perhaps it’s just another example of inflated egos. Perhaps they just don’t like it when Jews are happy. But in the end, who cares. Today is Shabbat Zakhor - let’s erase the memory of Amalek, and on Monday, on Purim, we will deal in the proper way with his descendant, that evil guy: Haman (booooo!)
25th February / 4th Adar
GOOD NEWS FROM ISRAEL
I have good news. Good news from Israel.
But first, let me share a story with you. When Menachem Begin visited the States for the first time as Prime Minister in 1977, he spent one night in a hotel in New York. Unsurprisingly, a group of protesters gathered on the street beneath his window. They were anti-Israel folks of the ultra-Orthodox variety, those black-dressed lunatics whomaintain that Zionism is blasphemy and the Israeli Prime Ministers - all of them - are bloodthirsty criminals. It was a small clique but very noisy. Past 10.00 PM, the hoteliers and the security services offered to disperse the group so that the Prime Minister could have his night of rest. But Menachem Begin had no time for it. "Let them protest,” he said. “Let them make all the noise they want. Those people have waited two thousand years for a Jewish prime minister to protest against and the freedom to protest aloud. Don't you dare destroy the gift that they have finally received!"
Reading the news from Israel over the last weeks, I thought several times about this story.
The numbers are impressive. 250 thousand Israeli citizens, more than 2 per cent, regularly participate in demonstrations against the proposed judicial reform. To give you an idea of scale, think of more than 180,000 English citizens demonstrating. Or 8,000 citizens out of the whole population of Brighton. These are the biggest demonstrations in the history of the country, and they have been going on for weeks.
It used to be that every Israeli knew at least another Israeli who had died in war. Now every Israeli knows at least one Israeli citizen who has taken part in these demonstrations. These protesters belong to every stratum of Israeli society. They are farmers, social workers, students, and hi-tech entrepreneurs. Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachis. Religious and secular. There are Left-wing leaders, like our own Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a Labour MP, and Right-wing personalities, such as Tzipi Livni and Benny Begin. So many people and so diverse that they cannot even appoint an official spokesperson.
And now let me ask you, how often would you see something similar happening in England? I mean people ‘doing’ politics, things like demonstrations and rallies. I am talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Not that often, I suppose. These days, doing politics means writing two lines on Twitter, pushing the send button, and then waiting for someone to argue back. This is how politics is done here these days.
Some people still go canvassing; that's true. But remember when we organised a meeting with all the candidates for the political elections in 2019? The average age of the participants was so high; there were no young people. This is not good for the future: it means that young UK citizens are not interested in democracy.
The lack of participation in political life in this country is dramatic – and it is not only happening in the UK. It's a problem throughout the whole of the Western world. In Italy two weeks ago, people voted for the Governors of the two biggest regions, Lombardy and Lazio, that is, Milan and Rome: 40% of people did not bother to vote. These are the elections that decide who will govern the major cities and their regions, that is, the politicians who will take decisions for matters that affect their daily lives, such as public health, traffic, and transportation... But an increasing number of citizens simply do not care, do not trust the system or the politicians. They choose not to have a voice. And the problem is the same all over the Western world. There's a dramatic mistrust in democracy. This is the reason why populist political forces are growing everywhere: because distrust of democracy forms the basis of their agendas.
The result is that many people all over the world do not care for politics and do not trust democracy at all. And then there is a small Country where things are different. A Country - lest we forget - that is constantly targeted by terrorists, even now, even at this very moment. Israel is the only Country in the world that a coalition of other countries (led by Iran) has committed to erase from the face of the earth.
Nonetheless, despite being under threat of annihilation, the citizens of this Country, the Israelis, prove that they believe in democracy and mobilise themselves. In that Country, hundreds of thousands of citizens join public rallies in all the major cities, in every part of the Country, from the impoverished villages in the South to big cities such as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and even in some settlements in the West Bank.
It may be, as Menachem Begin said, that we Jews have waited for such a long time to have a government against which to protest that now we want to savour this opportunity. (Try to organise a Jewish demonstration against the Iranian Government in Tehran: good luck with that). It could also be that the high concentration of Jewish citizens in a Jewish State creates the conditions for highly participative and opinionated Jewish public life...
Whatever the reason for such mass participation, the important point is this, and I am quite impressed that no one has noticed: the Israelis are teaching the rest of the world that democracy matters.
I do not have a high opinion of the current Israeli Government. I think that Netanyahu is a cynical, albeit very talented, man who, at this point, should build a different coalition. To be honest, I am worried about the judicial reform, and I am worried about worse things to come - especially restrictions on Jewish immigration from Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, etc. That would be a betrayal of Zionism. Nonetheless, let me state it clearly. Our faith commands us to judge everybody for good.
Perhaps those who - even now - spend their time insulting Israel on social media (and call it "doing politics" and identify themselves as Jewish...) have never been in touch with this important teaching of our Tradition. It's not a secret that those critics-of-Israel know very little of Judaism, and even the very little they know, they get wrong (it's funny to see how the ultra-Orthodox are held in huge esteem for some anti-Zionist rant published before the 20s...). But who cares about their rant. We must judge Israel for good.
And so here is my opinion: How can you not admire the Israelis? How can you not be proud of being a Jew, of being a Zionist right now? Look at the passion and dedication to democracy that, over these past weeks, the Israelis are showing to the world. Precisely when people in the Western world have lost faith in democracy and the despot in the Kremlin smirks "I told you so, Western democracy is over".
Having faith in the power of democracy these days means being a light upon the nations, which is what Zionism is all about.
There is something in the Jewish culture which encourages us Jews to take part in public life. This week's Torah portion, for example, is all about God's instructions to make the Tabernacle and its furnishings: quite a trivial and, dare I say, boring topic. But commentators have read in these paragraphs important teachings regarding public life - even when the text is about a portable altar! For example, they compare the Tabernacle to a leader and, by extension, that political leaders must be gold (that is, pure) on the inside and outside.
In the opening of the Torah portion, God commands the Israelites to bring gifts with a well-disposed heart. But what exactly happens here? Asks the Sfas Emet. Are these spontaneous donations, or rather are people being asked to contribute? How can you command anyone to feel generous and hence to give generously? Are these taxations or donations? And the answer is - people are happy to give money to pay taxes if they feel a sense of belonging to society.
This is an extraordinary teaching by a Rabbi at a time when democracy as we know it, with universal suffrage, was yet to be invented. The Jewish tradition finds political meaning even in the description of the building of a portable altar!
Our tradition encourages us to be involved in politics. If you wonder why when the rest of the world does not trust democracy anymore, the Israelis are showing the opposite faith in democracy, and you suggest that the answer is in the Torah: that's fine for me. I am willing to concede that when the Israelis do something good, it is because they are inspired by the Torah. I am a Rabbi and helping Jews to find inspiration in the Torah is, after all, my job.
But the main point, and we should not be afraid to say it openly, is that the Israelis are doing something very good, something remarkable, something inspiring.
Kol ha Kavod, maximum respect and Yasher koach. May the force be with them.
11th February / 20th Shevat
Thank you Liz
You probably already know the story of the wise Italian Rabbi Eliahu Benamozzegh, who was walking
towards the synagogue one day when he bumped into an atheist. The atheist started teasing the Rabbi. "
Rabbi," he said, I have read the Holy Books of you Jews, the Bible. I have read it all.. but I still don't get
why you consider it holy. True to be told, I found in it only nonsense!"
"Of course -replied the Rabbi- You see, the Torah is Holy because there is everything in it. There is
poetry for the poets. There is philosophy for the philosophers. There is also, you know, a bit of that
raunchy stuff - for those who have that taste. And for idiots like you, there is plenty of nonsense..."
The Rabbi had a point. The Bible is a very diverse book. There is narrative. For example, in the portions
we read last week, there were the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the manna.... and this week,
we read the story of a wise man, Ythro, who gives Moses precious pieces of advice, like: learn to
delegate, my friend. You cannot spend all your time trying to solve the problems of everyone and
listening to all those grievances... That is narrative.
But besides the narrative, in the Bible, there is much else. There are rules, laws, and commandments.
Stuff like "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (three times) ", let the land rest every seven
years", and rules about sacrifices, holidays... plus this week, the ten commandments, or "asserei dibarot"
those ten sentences s engraved which you can see here. So this week's Torah portion has both narratives
That is because the Israelites are in transition at this point of the narrative. The miracles that brought
them out of Egypt -the plagues, the Crossing of the Red Sea- are now a thing of the past. Now this group
of people must learn to organise themselves and follow the rules. That's the reason why from now on, the
Torah is more normative than narrative. Liberation has happened. It's time now to learn what to do with
this new situation of being free. It's the time to get tachlis, a Hebrew word that means, indeed tachlis.
And at this point, it would be very easy, too easy for me, to praise Liz for her extraordinary talent in
matter of tachlis indeed. She has run the practical side of synagogue's life, often by herself, and I mean
alone, with perfect efficiency: the admin stuff, the communication, the calendar., She has handled our
calendar in coordination with other important community organisations (Helping Hands) and what was
happening in this building (remember the Zumba?).
Because, you know, it is great to have the vision -a synagogue, which is Reform and traditional at the
same time, a place of prayer but also a kehilla, a community- but then you have to deal with the
practicalities, the services, the calendar... So let me be clear. If you have received a card on your birthday
from our synagogue, this is thanks to Liz. If the Bar/Bat mitzvah of your son or daughter ran smoothly:
Grandpa found the parking, seats were reserved, we started in time and ended in time, this is not Rabbi's
zehut, merit. Rabbi is indeed a pretty unorganised person (ask his wife). This is all merit of Liz. I am so
grateful to Liz, and I regret the many times I did not say thank you. For giving us the strength to turn our
vision and our values into a real community.
But that's easy, as I said. You already know this. Perhaps you don't have the full idea of how hard Liz's
work is, But I reckon that for many of us, it's not new.
THANK YOU, LIZ
There is something else in this Torah portion that makes me think of Liz. The Torah portion of this
week teaches that a vision needs organisation. But it also narrates how a group of individuals became
a people, a community. The common experiences have implanted in the souls of the Israelites a deep
sense of belonging. And if in this room, there is someone who, deeps in her soul, knows what being
Jewish really means, that person is Liz Shaw. I am revealing a secret right now. Liz has helped me
enormously to know better each of you. As someone who grew up here, who has been present in the
life of so many here, Liz always helped me to find the proper way, or the proper words to say, the
proper time to reach out, or just to make a call.
Over the last few years, our community, like every Jewish community, has had its ups and downs. We
remember the relief following the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn, the anxiety surrounding COVID, the
excitement for new developments, and the celebration of the significant anniversary of this building.
We have gone through a lot, and Liz was always there to get things going and to offer support in
difficult moments, to offer a helping hand (that was easy) and to rejoice, or to put it better to organise
the party. Truly she has been close to the soul of so many in our community. Making a real difference
for so many of us. And remember, every time my sermon made a bit of sense, that was because of
So, Liz, I will miss you, and I know (and you know) I am not the only one. As I have the privilege of
being your Rabbi, I have particular memories of you, of your 50s birthday party as well as the first
time you wore the tallis. I will miss the Habonim girl to tease with my Likud-oriented quips, and I
will miss funny stories such as the first time you drove a car in your life (it was the Rolls Royce of
Lee Panto's husband, zikhrono livrakha). I will try to be attentive and empathic as you show me to be,
especially with people who are alone.
The only thing I can say, as a Rabbi, is that I hope to see you in shul because it's a proven fact that
when you come to shul, the Albion wins the match, especially against Crystal Palace. And because
when you are not here, something is missing in our souls.
Liz Shaw, Sara bat Abraham, you have made such a difference in the life of so many Jews here in
Hove (actually). And you also set an example.
For this, everybody who is here is deeply, deeply grateful.
Rabbi’s Sermon (cont.)
4th February / 13th Shevet
PARASHAT BESHALLACH, OR, WHERE WAS GOD?
A Holocaust survivor dies and goes to heaven. Because he has been such a saintly and pious Jew, they bring him in front of God. The survivor is terribly nervous - as you can imagine, a religious person standing literally in front of God. So he tries to break the ice with a Holocaust joke. God does not laugh nor smile; He is not amused and perhaps even upset. So the survivor asks: “What’s wrong, O Eternal One?”. God replies that the joke was crass, offensive, racist…. nothing funny about it at all. So the survivor replies: “well, dear God, I guess You just had to be there”.
As per the best tradition of Jewish humour, this joke is not only a joke. It is theology in two lines.
Where indeed was God at Auschwitz? At that most horrible place in history, where human beings were committing the worst, unredeemable, systematic acts of violence against other human beings, where was God? This is a very compelling question if you accept the traditional Jewish theology, which is exposed in this week’s Torah portion.
This week’s Torah portion is B’shalach. It narrates the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the provision of manna, and everything in between. In last week’s Torah portion, we read that Pharaoh, hit in his dominions by the plagues, eventually let the Israelites go. This week Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after the Israelite people with his army, trapping them at the Sea of Reeds. God commands Moses to split the sea, allowing the Israelites to pass. Then God closes the sea back over the Egyptian army. This is the final punishment for the Egyptian enslavers and oppressors. And it is the biggest miracle narrated, actually sung, in the Torah. Then the Israelites are fed with manna and given pure water to drink and clean with. In the last paragraph, the nation of Amalek attacks, and the Israelite people are victorious.
In short, this is the Torah portion where the evildoers, such as the Egyptians and Pharaoh, are punished, and the Israelites are rewarded with miracles never before seen. It is also the Torah portion which tells us of the victory of the Israelites over the Amalekites, a tribe who hate the Jews just because they are Jews (and, well, because somehow they occupy their land). And the Israelites defeat them.
Parashat B’shalach tells us about a God who punishes evildoers and protects the Jews from their enemies. The faith in such a God sustained the millions of people starving in ghettoes, enslaved by the Nazis, tortured and used as objects for so-called medical experiments. But despite the faith of His people, God did not help. God was not at Auschwitz.
And here’s the problem we face because of the coincidence of Holocaust Memorial Day and the Torah portions we read these days. Where was God?
Somebody finds the answer in ideology. God was not in Auschwitz, they say. But evil was there; they do not believe in God, but they identify who is evil: the Nazis. And then, they build a whole ideology based on opposing Nazism. It is what Vladimir Putin is doing. For him and for his followers, Nazis are the Eastern European Countries who refuse to become Russian colonies. Following this logic, all the people who inhabit Eastern Europe and are not Russians, are Nazis. The Ukrainians are Nazis, the Lithuanians are Nazis, the Polish are Nazis., the Germans are Nazis (when they help the Ukrainians), and of course the British and Americans are Nazis too.
Nazism is this monster that one century ago was born in some beerhouse in Munich and has then conquered Europe. Russia is the only nation that followed its duty to fight against the Nazis. It is not only propaganda; there are people, although we cannot know how many, who really believe this nonsense. Not only in Russia, by the way.
Obviously, this is nonsense. There are Far Right, nationalists and Nazi sympathisers in more or less every European Country and beyond. But it does not mean that they are in power. And even when they came close to power, immediately after the end of Communism (think of Croatia, for example), they later became a tiny minority.
Another example of nonsensical ideology goes as follows. God was not in Auschwitz. God was not there. God probably does not exist. But evil exists. What is evil? Nazism is evil. Nazism was a form of nationalism. Hence every form of nationalism is evil because nationalism is the root cause of every evil; wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide. All these plagues are fueled by nationalism. And as nationalism for these people is evil; of course, Jewish nationalism is, well, perhaps the worst. And there you have it: Nazism and Zionism are, for those ideologists, precisely the same thing - an illness of the soul, symptoms of the same disease. If you have noticed, these people spend more time and energy fighting against (Zionist) Jews than against (Nazi) antisemites.
This is a nonsensical ideology, precisely like the Putinista’s. They both begin with an attempt to answer the question “Where was God in Auschwitz?” or “Why does God not punish the evildoers?” And they believe they have found the answer in the realm of ideology. And look at the pathetic outcomes. People who believe in these ideologies end up worshipping Vladimir Putin or some Palestinian terrorist, as if they could offer genuine protection of the Jewish people.
But I know that now you want answers. Why did God punish Pharaoh and not the Nazis? Why did God protect our ancestors against the Amalekites when they were wandering in the desert, and not when they were in the shtetl and in the ghettoes?
And I have no answer. These are answers that every Jew must search for, in our textual and interpretative tradition, the Talmud and the Rabbinic literature. You wonder where God was in Auschwitz; my answer is: I don’t know; keep looking - in our sources, in our commentaries, in the Talmud, in every written effort to make the Torah the centre of Jewish life.
Judaism is not only the reason why certain people hate us. Judaism is a spiritual path based on texts which contain amazing insights and have the potential to give meaning to our lives. It may not give you all the answers you search for, but it definitely teaches you to ask questions.
So now let me share with you a particularly deep passage by the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (yes, he of Religious Zionism; I know there will be one of you amongst my readers who at this point is already starting to shout “and-what-about-the-Occupation?”. Here’s my answer: “Thank you for reading this far; you can go reading elsewhere now”).
And so, back to Soloveitchik. He asks the following:
Why did the Israelites sing after the drawing of the chariots and the split of the Sea of Reeds? Why do they not even thank God for the previous series of miracles, the plagues? Some plagues affect only the Egyptians, such as the boils, the lice, and the killing of the firstborns.,. all these makkot hit only the Egyptians. At the same time, the Israelites are saved. No boils. No flies. Even the darkness that fell upon all of Egypt did not disrupt the Israelite’s lives; the Israelites could get along with their lives while a thick dark, oppressive atmosphere paralysed the Egyptians, who could not move from their houses; they could not even get out of their beds… These were impressive miracles, signs and wonders. Yet, the Israelites did not even say thank you to God; only with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, did they sing out of gratitude. It is a solemn, inspiring wonderful song (which, like every year, I have butchered with my voice). But why do the Israelites sing only here, only at this point?
Because, says Soloveitchik, in Egypt, the Israelites were still spiritually enslaved. They could see the Divine punishment falling upon their taskmaster and not upon themselves. But they had internalised slavery. Their minds, attitudes, and hearts were still those of enslaved people. Only by physically getting outside of Egypt, could the Israelites understand that their slavery was not a given nor a perennial condition. At the time of the plagues, the Israelites did not even dare to think that their lives could be better or free.
The move from slavery to freedom is an enormous step, and it is not only a physical step; it is also, or mainly, a spiritual process. To replace the mindset of an enslaved person with the one of a free human being is an enormous effort. But once the oppressed have experienced freedom, there is no way back. The Ukrainian people have experienced freedom and are now fighting hard to avoid a return to life under Russian rule. The Iranian women experience the possibility of walking around bareheaded for the first time in their lives. As much as the Islamist police attack and torture them, they have experienced freedom. Their wonderful souls are not willing to return to slavery and oppression.
I have opened this sermon with a tragic question, where was God at Auschwitz? And I am not afraid to admit I do not have an answer. I can only warn you against the ideologues who believe that they - and only they - know how to defeat Evil. Don’t trust them; they think they have the kind of wisdom that only God can have. For even if I cannot give you the answers you are looking for, and in a slightly cheeky way, I say that you have to find the answers for yourselves, there is one thing that I know for sure. God is on the side of freedom. And by defending the Iranian women and the Ukrainian people, we help God to do His job. Because God, wherever He is, desperately needs our help.