Rabbi Andrea's Sermons
Korah & Mr Levi
This week's Torah reading looks out of place in a Reform Synagogue.
It is about the obligation of the community to maintain the Levites, who worked in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
We Reform Jews do not share the enthusiasm of other denominations for the Temple, let alone for the efforts of rebuilding it.
And what about the Levites? According to this Torah reading, the Israelites must subsidise them with offerings because their job is to work in the Temple. This, frankly speaking, looks nonsense. We do not do sacrifices and do not see any reason to support the priests and the sacrifices with our taxes. Let Mr Levi find a real job.
Why then, do we read in the synagogue, a piece of text which seems to have nothing to say to us? As always, the answer is: look at the context, in our case, at the whole Torah portion.
This week's Torah portion (of which our reading is the last part) is Korah, the story of a serious challenge for Moses. At the beginning of the Torah portion, Korah, a man of the tribe of Levi, attacks Moses violently. Korah and his band of followers asked Moses and Aaron why they placed themselves above the rest of the community, "for all the people are holy," he said. Everyone heard the Commandments at Mount Sinai; Everybody was there when the Revelation happened. Why does God only deal directly with Moses? Why does Moses want to keep his relationship with God to himself? This is wrong because "all the people are holy".
The confrontation ends in favour of Moses: the earth opens, Korah's people are swallowed up and a giant fire consumes his followers. God reasserts His power and the predilection for Moses by causing a plague that annihilates thousands of Israelites.
The message is clear: do not question God's choices
OK, but what does Mr Levi have to do with it? What is the connection between the rebellion of Korah and the duties of the Levites?
After the Korah's rebellion, the Israelites feared that God may continue with His rage and inflict other punishments.
Now that Moses' authority has been re-established, the Israelites are afraid that no human being (other than Moses) will be allowed to approach the Tabernacle, the tent inside which Moses deals directly with God.
Therefore the Almighty appoints these two groups of people, the family of Aron (the Kohanim) and the tribe of Levi (Levites), with the special task of taking care of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan and all the holy items that are needed there. But, and this is the trick, Kohanim and Levites are not privileged. On the contrary, the Levites are the only Israelite tribe that will not have a share of land once the people will settle in the land of Israel. They are tasked with responsibilities by God; hence their livelihood will depend on God. Before the tragedy of Korah, all the offerings were given directly to God. Now a part of the offerings will be given to the Levites. It is as if God gives parts of his income to those who work in the sanctuary.
Mr Levi takes his salary from God.
Korah belonged to a noble family, and -despite the rhetoric- his rebellion was driven by personal ambition, as it is often the case when a leader boasts of being "a man of the people" and that "all the people are holy". He wanted access to the direct relationship with God, which Moses enjoyed. He saw it as a privilege. As a result, his people will have to learn that it is rather a responsibility.
Quite a difficult message, nowadays. How often do we hear the words of Korah ("all the people are holy!") in the political realm. It's so easy to see things in black and white and humanity as if only the privileged and oppressed exist. (And of course, like Korah, place yourself in the camp of the oppressed). Reality is far more nuanced. Reality demands that we learn that there are responsibilities, and this is -in Biblical times and today- a very difficult message to learn.
Two kinds of humility
There were 3 Rabbis in a taxi. One says to his colleagues: "I have thought about it, and I have come to the conclusion that I am the humblest person in the world".
The second rabbi says: "Sorry my friends, I have to disagree. I have considered the matter, and I came to the conclusion that I am the humblest person in the world".
To which the third Rabbi replies, "Rabbis, even I usually do not talk about myself but I have to say that I have considered the matter seriously, and I came to the conclusion that I am the humblest person in the world".
At this point, the driver, who is obviously Jewish, says: My most esteemed customers, I happened to have overheard your conversation, and I must say that, after long and serious consideration, I came to the conclusion that I am the humblest person in the world".
To which the three pious and religious men scoff and comment: "What does this guy know about humility!"
The story was told to me by Ivor Sorokin, and it came to my mind when reading this week's Torah portion, which has a passage (Numbers 12:3, if you want to check) that explicitly states that Moses was very humble, more than any person in the world.
Now, humility is a tricky matter. How is it possible to compete in terms of humility? The winner cannot boast and if a person is really humble, should avoid the competition totally. Or leave the victory to someone else.
The commentators of the Mussar school explain this strange expression: "the most humble person on the earth" with a story.
On Yom Kippur, there is this Jew in shul who weeps for the whole duration of the service. He cries out “Oh my God, I am such a terrible person, I am such a bad Jew, how many transgressions I have committed during this year, how can God forgive me...". The individual next to him is obviously impressed by such a -guess what- humility.
Then the Jew is called up to the Torah for the third aliyah. After a while, he returns to his seat, and he is visibly upset. He says: "I cannot believe it; they gave me only the third aliyah. They gave the second to that nothing of a Jew, did you see? Don't they know who I am? How dare they offend me in such a way? On Yom Kippur, of all days!"
Besides being funny, this story says a great deal about an important distinction. The teacher of the Mussar school explains that there are two kinds of humility: humility towards God and humility towards other human beings.
Let me explain: if we compare ourselves to God, obviously, we feel that we are nothing, that God is everything, and we are naturally humbled. By definition, God knows more than human beings. God is more powerful, wiser, more knowledgeable, etcetera.
It is more difficult to experience humility, or to feel humble, in relation to other people. In human relations, there is always an element of competition, and it is hard to avoid its impulse when we consider what other people achieve or are able to do.
When we think of God, we all feel humble. Less so when we think of other human beings.
This distinction explains the passage we are talking about: Moses was truly humble because he was humble in his relations both with God and with human beings.
Humility nowadays has become an even more tricky subject. In the public dominion, in the realm of communication, humility is very trendy. It is almost a requirement. For example, it is common to put on social media and in regular emails the four letters IMHO, an acronym for "in my humble opinion", following which usually one can read very rude and offensive sentences. I mean: there is almost a pleasure to show yourself off in terms of humility, to display how humble you are, and immediately after this, to hit your opponents by hitting where the self-esteem relies on.
We actually live in an era almost defined by victimhood; every category of human beings, every group, no matter how great or small, have some wounds to display; in politics as well in the society at large, the more you show off, with humility of course, how bad you've been treated by everyone, the more political points you score. The story of the Rabbis in the cab who compete about who is the most humble is a funny story. Less so is the reality when different groups compete among themselves about who is more entitled than others to call themselves, humbly of course, a victim.
And it is even less funny when you notice how this profession of humility and victimhood go together with the justification for violence. We have seen it over the last few days in the streets of London. In the name of the poor Palestinian victims, who cannot even talk because the Zionist-owned media deny access to the media, Jews are now physically attacked and/or forced to hear proclaims such as "your daughters will be raped, you will be beheaded" and the like.
This is, unfortunately, where we are now. The competition of victimhood has brought us to a place where the norm is violence, verbal and often real, But humility should not be the pretext for the violence of groups who pretend to be tired of being, indeed, humiliated and then take revenge hitting at the first "oppressor" they bump into, who, quite often is a Jew.
For this reason, it is worth considering how the Mussar school deal with this concept of Moses' humility.
Moses was humble in his relationship with God; he could have access to God at every moment during the wandering in the desert, but rather he did it at appointed times.
With literally God on his side, Moses could achieve and win every possible confrontation. It actually happened a couple of times when God really helped Moses. But as a rule, Moses dealt with other human beings in a very humble way: giving them time, listening to their voices and opinion.
This is the true meaning of humility. Being able to listen to other human beings, to make room for their voice and perspective, to consider other narratives – be it in politics, government, racism, Middle East...- equally worthwhile and important as our own.
I cannot say I have seen this happening over the last few weeks. I really hope that, now that a ceasefire has been reached, humility and dialogue will prevail. It's difficult to be the humblest person on the Earth, but learning to listen should be far, far easier.
Reasons for close reading
These days, Rabbis are expected to avoid certain topics, but what can I do, I have the reputation of a trouble maker, and I am doing my best to keep it, so I will spend a couple of words about a very embarrassing topic.
The so-called Reverend Louis Farrakhan and his followers.
Farrakhan is an American Muslim leader who preaches a bizarre version of Islam. He enjoys undeserved success among social justice warriors, writers, actors, popstars.... Farrakhan preaches that slavery in America has always been a Jewish business, that it was run and managed by Jews, and that mainly Jews benefitted from it.
Historically speaking, this is complete nonsense. At the time of the slave trade, Jews were excluded from the major economic enterprises. Therefore the involvement of Jews in the vile business was very limited, and very few Jews benefited from selling and buying human beings.
You're welcome to surf the excellent database on the web site of the University of Liverpool. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/search/ You'll discover how many English benefitted from the slave trade (in Brighton in the 19th century, there were a dozen families, good Christian families, who owned shares of plantations in Jamaica).
But on the whole, in all England, very few Jews owned slaves or benefitted from slavery.
People believe in all sorts of things, such as that vaccinations cause autism. The Apollo mission had been staged under the direction of Steven Spielberg... And unfortunately, people believe in antisemitic legends spread by the so-called reverend Farrakhan and -as we know- by some Far Left politicians on this side of the Atlantic.
But it must be said that in certain parts of the Torah -for example, in this week's Torah reading [Lev 25:47ff]- there seems to be some basis for this antisemitic nonsenses.
I am talking, of course, about the distinction that we can track in the text between Israelites and strangers (that is, between Jews and Gentiles) regarding slavery. This seems a situation of two different rules for two people living in the same land (or apartheid, as some anti-occupation obsessed may say).
As we have read, when a Jew becomes a slave of a Gentile, family and relatives are expected to redeem their relative (because he is "flesh of their flesh"). It is as simple as that: the very human and understandable inclination to rescue a relative who has fallen in disgrace. Nothing particularly racist. But Farrakhan and others see here a piece of evidence that Judaism condones slavery. They use this text to "prove" that Jews aim to subjugate the Gentiles and to keep the non-Jews in a state of unending slavery, while focusing on the freedom and redemption of Jews only.
It should be said that the ancient Israelite society was not 18th Century Jamaica. It was not an economic system based on plantations where human beings were bought and sold, families split, and slaves were considered disposable objects.
A close reading of the text shows that what it is translated as "slavery" was, properly speaking, indentured servitude, a form of labour in which a person agrees to work without salary for a specific number of years for debt repayment. In other words, when one Israelite could repay a debt, he was forced to work for free - until the debt was repaid. Indeed the text mentions the case of "the slave who redeems himself", something which did not happen in the plantations in Jamaica!
Historical accuracy is not the forte of Farrakhan and of his followers. They have this weird reading of the Biblical according to which the Gentiles are oppressed, and the Jews are oppressors. "Look at this passage of Leviticus; the Jews only help each other; certainly, they do not rush to the rescue of the Gentiles!"
Why is this antisemitic fantasy so persistent, even if it contradicts the Biblical text itself? Good question, thanks for asking. I will answer in a moment; first, let me raise another subject.
Why, for millennia, have we Jews read this passage in the synagogue? It does not refer to a legal system that was familiar to the readers. In Christian and Muslim Countries, Jews did not benefit from indentured servitude.
Guess what? The answer can be found if we look closely at the text. First of all, if we continue the reading -as we have done today- we see [Lev 26] that the Torah warns us against idolatry, making idols, worshipping idols and the like.
Second, the text repeats more than one time that the Israelites are God's servants. That is - in case it was not clear- servants of God, not servants of man.
All the norms that protect the dignity of the Israelite slaves are grounded in this principle: you, the Israelites, are servants of God, because God has liberated you from Egypt because you must serve Me, not other gods, or idols, neither another human being,
I think that here we begin to see why antisemitic legends about Jews and slavery continue to circulate nowadays, despite the absolute lack of evidence, archaeological or otherwise. The society in which we live is dominated by this idea of being free, completely, free, absolutely free. We keep in high consideration the idea of having no obligations towards anyone, no commitment, just casual relationships with no attachment of sort.
And where does it end up? To a world of individuals, of absolute loneliness, to the absence of any sense of community and of belonging. Call it idolatry, the idolatry of absolute freedom.
Or call it more properly slavery. Because the slaves have no family, no permanent relations, their Master can break every relation at any moment. Anyway, this idea of absolute freedom, which leads to absolute loneliness, is the opposite of what Judaism teaches. Our Torah portion repeats over and over that the Israelite, the Jew, must not aim to be free, but rather to be a servant of God.
It is quite ironic how self-professed atheists, who claim to be free from any religious obligation, are often very superstitious.
All the Italian atheists I know believe that the sight of a priest, or worse of a nun, it's a bad omen. And have you noticed how many atheists believe in colourful nonsenses such as Chrystal healing, or worse in conspiracy theories such as QAnon?
Monty Python and the Meaning of Stoning
Every time I read in the Torah the stories about stoning; I think of a true masterpiece of Biblically based cinema: The Life of Brian by the Monty Python. If you don't know what I am talking about, do yourself a favour, Google the title, find it somewhere and watch it all; you won't regret it. If you know the Life of Brian, you also know what I am talking about. That is because of the famous stoning scene. This guy had committed the sin of pronouncing the name of God. And he is therefore condemned to death via stoning. The crowd was so eager to punish the sinner and end up stoning even the High Priest who was reading the sentence during which the High Priest had mentioned the Name of God. Bigots, fanatics: this is how the Monty Python portrayed the Israelites living under Roman occupation in nowadays Israel. That scene is clearly inspired by our Biblical reading of this week which is also about a transgressor guilty of blasphemy, and punishment via stoning. The Life of Brian is one of my favourite movies, and I never found that scene particularly offensive. The movie is equally irreverent against every religion, Christianity included. Nonetheless, one must add, that Monty Python evoked a nasty stereotype. One of the cornerstones of Catholic antisemitism is the idea, according to which the Jewish Law is harsh and cruel. A favourite motif of Christian painting is the Jewish mob, intoxicated by the desire to punish every transgression, harshly violent, with no forgiveness. There is a word for this. and it is a bit complicated, but bear with me. Supersessionism, also called "replacement theology". It is a Christian doctrine that asserts that the New Covenant, all centred around love and forgiveness, has superseded, that is, replaced the "Old Covenant" which God made with the Jewish people and was centred around the Law. In other words, they say, our Torah is outdated; it was created only as a premise for the New Testament. Why then do we Jews continue to exist and do not choose to enter into the New Covenant and become Christian? Because here comes the answer, we are fanatic and perverse, (like the crowd in the Life of Brian); or because we are mad, mentally unstable, and our psyche has degenerated. As you see, it does not take that long to move from sophisticated Christian theology to stereotyping about Jewish neurosis. And then to crude antisemitism, the kind of Nazi propaganda about Jewish mental diseases. Having said all that, the Biblical passage we have read is highly disturbing. There is this poor fellow, son of a mixed marriage, (father Egyptian, mother Jewish), who is quarrelling with a group of Israelites. He says the wrong word, the Name of God. It's a transgression, for sure, but they don't know what to do. Technically, the prohibition of pronouncing the name of God applies only to Jews, and we don't know whether this guy was considered Jewish. Probably not, hence the quarrelling. So they took him into custody. And then God commands to kill the man via stoning. Stoned for the sin of blasphemy. Monty Python loved this story. Many Christian preachers and theologians love this story. And perhaps in some corner on the Far Left, today, they are mourning this half Egyptian/half Jewish. He was the first victim of Israeli racism, or, as they say nowadays "othering". But I would rather ask a question. What is wrong with blasphemy? Why is it such a serious transgression pronouncing bad words next to the Name of God? In certain parts of Italy, this kind of swearing is commonplace, almost folkloric. It is certainly rude and not polite. But why should one deserve to die for this? Does God care? Does the Almighty pay attention to words uttered by little creatures like us human beings in moments of rage? Now, this is neurotic: conceiving God as an ever-punishing despotic Power who does not forgive even the smallest of the transgressions... Let us think differently. Let us assume that this is a story meant to teach us something, and not the account of an historical fact, of something that really has happened. After all, who says that the Torah is a book of history? It's not. Why is blasphemy such a serious transgression? In a memorable shiur, Soloveitchik explained that the blasphemous person does not offend God. He humiliates the human being. Because humans are created in the image of God. So, whoever curses God, curses those whom God has created and that is us, human beings. The punishment is inflicted on a sinner whose "Jewish status" is unclear. His Father is Egyptian, his Mother an Israelite. Still, he schmooses and socialises mainly with Jews: he is in the Israelite encampment. The Israelites themselves don't know what to do. They place him in custody because it is not clear whether the prohibition of naming and shaming God applies to someone who probably does not believe in that God. He has an Egyptian family with which he perhaps shares values and beliefs. The blasphemer teaches Soloveitchik and destroys the divine image rooted in every human soul. This is the reason why his transgression was so serious. The episode is not a long one: just 5 verses (Numbers 24:11-15). But see what comes after? Look, v. 17. The prohibition to strike - not to strike your fellow Jew, but to strike every other human being. This transgression, too, is punished with death. I don't want to enter into the thorny subject of whether these laws and rulings have ever been effectively in place. Historians and archaeologists disagree. According to the prevailing opinions, this Law (stoning for the sin of blasphemy), has never been implemented or put into practice. The prohibition against cursing God, denying dignity to human beings, is in the Torah a premise, expressed as a story. Then the text returns to be normative and not narrative; it lists other prohibitions, first and foremost the prohibition to strike your fellow human being. The succession of paragraphs reminds us that every strike - every abuse- starts with denying humanity. First you deny that the other human being is like you, I mean like us, created in the image of God. And then you feel free to strike, to cause pain, to inflict violence. I, of course, continue to enjoy Monty Python and to be cautious in Interfaith activities. The supersessionist (and antisemitic) theology is still around. But meanwhile, I also read (and I invite you to read) this troubling story in a different way. To read it as a reminder of what happens if we forget that other human beings are like us, created in the image of God. When this noble Jewish teaching is forgotten, then we condemn our enemies, and ourselves, to death. We cease to be human, like the blasphemous individual whose story we have just read. It still happens, and it happens too often. May it happen no more, may we be able to learn, and may all humanity choose life.
Love and (how to) hate
You should learn Hebrew. You really should. For a number of reasons. For example, to talk about love; or to say it in a better way: to talk about the difference between love and hate.
This week's Torah portion includes the very famous commandment, "you shall love your neighbour as yourself". Despite what you may have heard, it is not an innovation included in the New Testament. It is Jewish, and you can find in Leviticus 19:18.
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
And if you want to better understand what love is, just look at the context, in the same verse: "You shall not take vengeance against the sons of your people".
לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ
In the commandment about love, there is a prefix, the letter lamed. Which means "toward". The sentence can be translated this way: "you shall feel love towards your neighbour" or "in the direction of your neighbour".
It is very direct; it's not mediated.
While the relation of hate is described with the help of a fascinating and somehow mysterious preposition: אֶת. As every grammarian knows, the preposition אֶת introduces the object of the verb. Like: "you will not hate אֶת your people".
Those who know Torah have been looking into the text and have discovered this: every time there is some variation of "to hate" (like "to destroy" "to reproach" "to take revenge"), there is always this אֶת preposition between the verb and the object.
Why? Scholars have been scratching their heads around this problem and have some hypothesis, but I am more interested in what can we learn from this.
Love is always direct, not mediated. While hate is mediated. The object of hate is always introduced by this small proposition אֶת which is composed of the first and the last letter of the alphabet aleph and tav. Why?
One fascinating explanation is that these two letters represent the speech, the faculty we human beings have to talk about.
Hate is always expressed with words: a declaration of war, an insult... While love is direct, love does not need words. I mean words of love are fine but not always necessary.
This is a fascinating explanation, but there is something even more profound. This difference between the two verbs tells us something about which kind of hate we are allowed to feel.
We are not allowed to hate anyone completely. We can hate a part of a person. We can feel bad at something a person has done, but not against a person as a whole.
Figure out this small proposition, אֶת as a part of the personality of our enemy.
It can be big; אֶת is the first and the last letter of the alphabet, encompassing the whole alphabet.
It can be small: after all, it is a very short proposition. The main point is that our feelings, our bad feelings, are not directed against the whole personality of anyone but only against a small part.
This is extraordinary. First of all, the Torah doesn't forbid us to feel hate. The Torah does not command us to feel love and only love and pleasant, peaceful feelings. We are allowed to have our share of bad feelings.
They must be addressed against something that somebody has done; they must not be addressed against a whole personality. There are actions that are hateful; there must not be persons who we hate.
On the surface, we may think that hate is just the opposite of love, but it is not. Love is direct, love doesn't require mediation, love is addressed to all personality, not only to a part. On the other hand, hate is a human feeling, and the Torah teaches that it must be addressed to specific parts; and not to the totality of a human being.
And here, I want to be extremely personal.
As you know, I am one of the few Reform Rabbis who over the last few years has not hesitated to talk about Arab antisemitism. This synagogue has been the first in England to observe the commemoration of the Jewish communities from Arab Lands on November 30. Even before the day was inscribed in the official calendar of the State of Israel, we commemorated these victims during our service.
It is safe to say that it was not a popular choice. I have been violently attacked on social media. They even called me a racist: think about it: they call you racist because you want to talk about antisemitism... In certain environments talking about Arab antisemitism, is a taboo subject; you can do it only if you blame Israel in the same sentence (another nonsense).
The results? Because you cannot talk about Arab antisemitism, the whole experience of Sephardi Jews is completely erased. There are no English Mizrahi students at Leo Baeck College. And try to commemorate the victims of Arab antisemitism among certain Progressive Jews: Good luck with that.
It is a sad state of affairs. I won't hide that it has caused me deep suffering being told that mentioning the victims of Muslim led pogroms in Iraq or Libya (not to mention places such as Hebron) was detrimental to interfaith dialogue. I had to keep silent.
As much as they pride themselves on being inclusive and pluralistic, Progressive and Reform synagogues are dramatically failing to include Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.
As you probably know, months ago, the Board of Deputies commissioned an enquiry on the inclusion of non-Ashkenazi Jews. Among the recommendations of the report just published, you can read something very specific addressed to Reform synagogues. We have been told that we have to be more welcoming and inclusive towards Sephardi Jews. Commemorating the end of Jewish communities from Arab lands on November 30 is highly recommended.
Let's get back to the differences between love and hate or, to be more precise to what hate is in the Torah.
And let me ask a question: do we hate the Arab Nationalists and Islamists that have caused the end of Sephardi communities and have murdered Jewish children, for example, in front of the Rome Synagogue in 1982? Well: the answer is no!
Of course, we want justice. But we also celebrate the new era of good relationships between the Jewish State and the Arab States that has begun. Arab anti-Semitism exists; it is tolerated too much by governments, by the Western public opinion and sadly by many Jews as well.
But we do not make an equivalence between Arab antisemitism and Arab culture or Arab people. We want to change a part of Arab culture; we don't want to destroy the whole Arab world.
And I think that commemorating the victims of Arab antisemitism is a necessary step to build a better future.
I really hope that many other Reform synagogues will join us in writing this page of history, to honour the memory of Sephardi Jewish martyrs from Arab lands.
May this be God's will.
Transition, transition... today is all about transition.
The transition of the world from the COVID pandemic to the post-pandemic era.
The transition of the UK from membership of the European Union to a post-Brexit world.
And for us Jews, the transition from Pesach to the post-Pesach part of the calendar.
For example, in some tradition, among Jews of Moroccan background, this transition is marked by a festive meal. On the evening the last day of Pesach, Moroccan Jews sing, pray and of course eat hametz, leavened food, particularly muffletta, a kind of pancake.
In Italy, as soon as the last day of Pesach is over, we rush to the restaurant for a well-deserved plate of spaghetti or a pizza, while the home is still kosher-le-Pesach.
A British Jewish friend of mine celebrates the end of Pesach with a pint of beer - which he has conscientiously avoided for all the seven days. Traditions vary.
But it is not only -or not mainly about the food.
In the opposition between matzah, the unleavened bread, which is our main food during the days of Pesach, and hametz, the leavened food to which we return to once Pesach is over, there is a spiritual dimension that is worth exploring.
Matzah is food without time. You do not let it leaven. It is baked suddenly as soon as the dough is ready. You do not need the help of the time to prepare matzah. And once it is ready, it does not deteriorate with time.
I am not suggesting you taste last year's matzah; it may not be healthy. I just want to point out the very important feature. Matzah is food without time.
While hametz - bread, pizza, pasta... beer! - is food produced with the help of time.
You need to give time to the dough to leaven, to expand, to transform itself (and the space around it). And even once it is ready, there is usually an expiration date; bread, for example, deteriorates very quickly; in a few days, it changes its nature, and you cannot eat it anymore.
This points to a very profound concept.
On Pesach, when we live on matzah, we live in a dimension without time. During the Seder, we tell each generation of Jews that as if they themselves were slaves exiting from Egypt and then liberated. We know it's a story that happened many many years ago, but we re-enact it as if it was present day, happening in the time we live in. As if we were contemporary to the events. Most of the events are narrated in the present tense: We say, "Why IS this night different from all other nights?" - We say IS and not WAS. On Pesach, we recount the miracles, the plagues as if they were happening now, right in front of our eyes, as if we were actually living and witnessing all these miracles.
On Pesach, we live, we pray, we study as if God was present to us, and for our benefit was performing all these miracles and wondrous deeds.
We are supposed to see, just as our ancestors saw, actions of God, such as the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians.
Not by chance, the reading of the last day of Pesach is the Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, the opening of the Red Sea, which we recite in such a majestic tune. The crossing of the Red Sea was the last stage of the exodus from Egypt, the last miracle that all the people of Israel saw and lived through. As we have re-enacted the liberation during the Seder, so we have re-enacted today the parting of the sea and the triumph of God over the chariots and the soldiers of Pharaoh.
But then Pesach comes to an end. We return to the regular time, to the leavened food, food which has been produced with the help of time.
We do not benefit from the presence of God anymore. The time of miracles is concluded, and we return to live to our ordinary lives.
What can we do about that? How can we deal with living in a secular time, remote from God's presence, once the time of the miracles is over?
The traditional answer to such a question is prayer. Every time we say the Shema, we remember the exodus from Egypt and the miracles.
Daily life, the life during weekdays, can be ordinary and trivial. Certainly -as a rule- it does not inspire us holiness and miracles. That is why we have prayers three times a day: in each prayer, the memory of the exodus and of the miracles is revamped somehow. We need to repeat them often.
I know which sort of objections comes at this point "Rabbi, but I have no time to daven three times a day" or "I tried to join the minyan, but it is so boring, just people mumbling quickly I don't understand the words, I cannot join, it is so uninspiring". I am a Reform Rabbi, and I acknowledge the truth of this. I totally understand. I could deal with all these objections in a proper way. I am always happy to tutor congregants of the basics of Jewish prayer so that joining the service can be spiritually rewarding. But that's not the point.
The point is that there is another way to keep the memory of the exodus from Egypt alive, during the post-Pesach time.
Which is Shabbat.
Shabbat also is -we say when we do the Kiddush- "zekher yetziat Mizrayim" memory of the exodus from Egypt.
That is because, on Shabbat, we remember we are free, entitled to rest. But also because Shabbat happens every week, even if we do nothing to prepare for it.
It is a creation of God. Even if we do not prepare for Shabbat, nonetheless, every week, we have the opportunity to reinvigorate the connection with other Jews, with our community and its history rooted in that series of miracles that accompanied our liberation.
Shabbat is, of course, different from Pesach. Pesach is about miracles, and Shabbat is about rest.
But: during the week, our lives are so busy and packed with commitments, having the chance to slow down once a week, together with family and friends, really, really, can be a true miracle. So let us make it happen!
Ladies and gentlemen: Leviticus, or, in Hebrew, Vayikra. Perhaps the most boring, or anyway the least exciting, of the five books of the Pentateuch.
There is nothing in Leviticus that compares with the fascinating family dynamics of which Genesis is about.
There is nothing, in Leviticus, majestic and inspiring like the story of the Exodus from Egypt or the giving of Ten Commandments.
Instead, we have, as the reading for this week, the norms regarding sacrifices, especially animal sacrifices. Hardly an inspiring reading, especially in this day and age.
We don't like animal sacrifices. Even those of us who are neither vegan nor vegetarian agree on the principle that unnecessary suffering to animals must be avoided. We all agree that sensitivity and empathy towards animals is a Jewish principle, a Jewish value, meaning something good. We all want to banish or limit animal suffering.
We don't see the religious value of killing animals and (literally) shedding their blood on the altar, as prescribed by the Book of Leviticus.
Of course, the Rabbis tell us that we don't do that anymore. Because to perform sacrifices, you need the Temple. The Temple is not there anymore. This is a good thing because of the absence of a physical, material Temple emphasises spirituality and compassion.
When we have all learnt how to lead a more compassionate life, and we build a society upon the values of love and compassion.... that is when the Temple will be rebuilt. Not because of some crazy bearded guy taking a walk close to a mosque in Jerusalem.
So, of course, we have to be kind to each other and towards the animals, so that the Temple will be rebuilt, but there won't be any sacrifices. This is what I call "standard Liberal Orthodoxy".
The "non-Liberal Orthodoxy", or ultra-Orthodoxy, also preaches that the Temple will be rebuilt with love and compassion. They say that sacrifices MAY resume, but animals won't suffer. Don't ask how this is possible that animals willingly accept to be sacrificed. You don't ask questions in the non-Liberal Orthodox world. We'll know the answer when the Messiah comes.
Whether you like or dislike the Orthodox approach, liberal or not, one thing is clear: when we talk about animal sacrifices (and a large part of Leviticus is about animal sacrifices), we talk about animal suffering; and when we talk about animal sacrifices we also talk about the Temple; and guess what: we hate both.
Our discomfort with sacrifices has, I believe, a more profound reason; the topic makes us uncomfortable for something more profound than Israeli politics or animal suffering. I'd like to explore these motivations.
First of all: what are sacrifices about? Ramban explains the matter in its introduction to the Book of Leviticus.
In the last chapters of Exodus, the previous book, we read the description of the building of the Mishkan, the portable altar which the Israelites carry in the wilderness. We have read how the Divine Glory, God Himself, fills the Tabernacle and dwells among the Israelites during the time of their wandering.
The Presence of God is a serious thing, and wandering in the desert is a risky situation.
Ramban talks of the danger that the Divine Presence may leave so that the Israelites will be left -literally- wandering in the desert without direction.
It is a real fear. At this stage, the Israelites are a bunch of former slaves that have escaped to freedom. They are in the process of becoming a people. It's like a process of maturation; they are like children that are becoming adults. They internalise rules, laws and boundaries. As children, they are sometimes afraid that the parents may leave them if they misbehave.
This is the role of the rules for the sacrifices. Knowing that it is possible to perform sacrifices, to donate something to God to expiate for our transgressions, either voluntary or involuntary, is a source of emotional and psychological balance
Sacrifices are a means for repentance. You've done something wrong? Well, OK, it happens.
But you, meaning your nature, your personality, is not wrong, it is not evil. By sacrificing a part of your belonging by donating it to God, you paid for your mistake. You’ve learnt and now you can return to the community.
In the Jewish worldview, you never stop belonging to the Jewish community, even if you transgress. There is always a way to amend, and a means to expiate and to set things right.
This is the principle: you can mend your mistakes; your mistakes do not define you; you are something more than your transgressions; you can be better. You can change: precisely this principle is unpopular today, or shall we say countercultural.
Transgressions today are dealt with in a very different way. I am thinking of the phenomenon known as "cancel culture": the idea that a "safe space" can be created simply erasing the presence of the transgressor, or in theological terms, of the sinner.
It's not surprising that cancel culture was born in the USA. That country was founded by Puritans, and, although their religious history is much more nuanced than that, the Puritanical communities were based on the assumption that sinners must be banished permanently from the community.
The Puritans were religious people; they knew that their ideal community was a utopia; they knew that such a utopia was not for this world.
Contemporary cancel culture and the idolatry of "safe spaces" is a secular phenomenon. Its supporters, unfortunately, are aiming for the here and now.
They believe that the world can become a better place by banishing permanently those who transgress. Those whose souls are tainted by sins such as "patriarchate", "toxic masculinity", "colonialism", and, obviously, "Zionism."
Don't get me wrong. Every culture needs its own spaces, and everybody has the right to feel safe. Synagogues can be considered a "safe space" for us Jews, where we know we are the majority, where we do not have to explain our culture and our rules (unless you are the rabbi: in such a case explaining these rules is precisely your job). During these months of the pandemic, we deeply felt our need of physical Jewish safe spaces, of synagogues.
So, yes, we all need safe spaces. But our culture, Jewish culture, the foundation for our spaces, acknowledges the right to be wrong and provides a path for spiritual change and for improvement. Such a path is built around the rules for sacrifices, of which we have read one sample today; verses that teach us that there are different levels of guilt; different kinds of sins and other situations, e.g. in terms of social class. The sacrifices required to the poor, to the Biblical equivalent of the working class, are always less financially onerous. God knows, the Rabbis teach, that those who did not have the means to study and to learn deserve more compassion and empathy, even when they transgress.
This is what is missing in today’s cancel culture; empathy towards the sinners and the transgressors. Perhaps, of all things, they should learn more about sacrifices in the Bible and Ramban.
Or perhaps, just learn to listen.
Just a boring lists?
Let's face it, this week's Torah portion, Vayakhel- Pekudei, is frankly speaking, boring. Its main topic is the construction of the Mishkan (or Tabernacle), the portable earthly dwelling place of God, used by the Israelites during their wandering in the desert until the conquest of Canaan.
A large part of this Torah portion is just lists. A list of metals such as gold and silver; a list of precious materials: oils, spices incense; a list of artefacts and furnishing: the table, the lamp-stands...; and then the detailed description of the clothes of the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, which seems challenging to wear: a heavy breast place, a linen vest adorned with stones. Even the expenses are recorded: how much gold, how much silver, how much copper etc.
Making sense of such verbosity is a challenge. Commentators read these passages searching for moral insight. For example, Hirsch points out that the Tabernacle's copper came from mirrors donated by the Israelite women. This means that items usually associated with vanity and frivolity, to something which by definition does not last (the image of a human face mirrored) can become part of the holiest, most enduring piece of work; the construction of the dwelling for the Almighty.
It's a fascinating approach. There are several moral articles of this kind, but I must confess I find it sanctimonious.
The basic assumption is valid. Every human soul's trait (or every part of the human psyche) can become a source of evil or a source for good. It's up to us to choose, and we must feel free to choose and act for the good, even when we watch ourselves in the mirror, an action that we often associate with vanity and frivolity.
The problem is that such a classification of the human soul's various qualities, of our impulse and tendencies, sounds judgemental, and nobody likes to be under judgment.
So: thank you for mapping my soul, thank you for making a list of my qualities, thank you for telling me that even when I look myself in the mirror, I can have inspiring thoughts and think to holiness, but my main problem is (and I don't think I am the only one to ask such a question): what the hell is holiness?
We are not wandering in the desert with the portable altar, carrying the dwelling of God. In those days the answer was easy. Do you want to know what holiness is? It is where God dwells. Look at the Tabernacle, which is holy because of God - you know, our Boss- when and if He decides to stop by for a visit, He dwells there, and there He speaks with Moses.
Nowadays, there's no Mishkan, and there is no one around who can answer our question anymore. So we have lost the idea of sanctity. Not only do we not know what it is, and how to figure it out, we have even missed the words. We don't know how to describe holiness. Do you want to embarrass a religious person - of every religion? Ask him or her to explain what sanctity is. The answer will most likely be clumsy, something difficult to relate with. Or it will sound incredibly authoritarian, such as when we think of "Holy Men" or "Men of God".
Indeed, we often associate sanctity with being judged, and we mix up "sanctity" with "authority".
Sanctity has become a synonym of sanctimoniously, of being judgmental, authoritarian. Perhaps a kind of spiritual bullying.
If we want to understand better the sanctity of the Mishkan, which the building of was a collective enterprise in which all the Israelites took part, we have to look better into the text. We ought to compare it to another cooperative building enterprise that took place sometime before—the building of the Golden Calf: when Moses went up to Mount Sinai and left the Israelites. The episode, I think, is pretty famous. They worshipped and proclaimed, "This is Our God, this is the God of Israel". Then as we know, Moses went down from Sinai, saw what was going on and – well, let's say he was not happy.
The comparison between the construction of the Mishkan, which we have seen in our Torah portion, and the building of the Golden Calf is very profound. There, when the Israelites built an idol, a replacement of God, they act unanimously. The verbs are all in the plural. The subject is always ha-am, the people. They take the most private, personal items, golden rings, earrings, jewels attached to the body and throw everything in a basin to melt together. These are the materials the idol was built with. There is no individuality, no singular personality; they all act as a unified entity, as part of a mass. Not as persons, not as individuals.
Whereas in the account of the construction of the Mishkan, there are names of artists, such as Bezalel and Oholiab, there are men and women, and different offerings carefully listed, as they speak of other persons.
The Israelites offer their precious belongings that are carefully listed. They do not throw their golden jewels in a sort of bowl to melt them together.
In short: when the Israelites built the Golden Calf, the idol, they acted as subjects of a totalitarian State. When they make the Mishkan, they act as free and independent human beings.
Perhaps this is sanctity; something that makes our personality, every part of it, welcome and celebrated. A place, a spiritual place, I mean. A place where this sense of inclusivity and community is uplifting, and nothing is excluded, and no one feels excluded.
And idolatry is precisely the opposite: when we are stripped of a precious part of our identity, and they are melted together, and we end up prostrating ourselves, that is, renouncing our individuality, our dignity and our freedom.
In a few weeks, we'll celebrate Pesach, the Festival of freedom. Think about this: to describe freedom is almost as difficult as to describe sanctity. But to feel freedom, and to feel sanctity, that is something we all do.
I wish everyone good luck in the holy work of preparation to the Festival of Freedom.
Today is Shabbat Zachor "Shabbat of Remembrance”, the Shabbat before Purim.
We have read the two verses from Deuteronomy, describing the attack by Amalek against the Israelites. That is because of a tradition from the Talmud according to which Haman [boooh!], the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek.
Haman and Amalek are two different kinds of people.
Amalek was a nomadic tribe, like many at that time. They were very territorial; they assaulted the Israelites for no particular reason other than hate, pure hate and a desire to erase our presence from the face of the Earth. There were no reasons for Amalek's assaults. They didn’t want to steal our belongings. They did not want to kidnap women and children and sell them as slaves, (as nomadic tribes in the desert often did, at least in literature). They were not driven by greed or by a misunderstood will to survive. It was pure, savage, barbarian hate.
Haman [booooh!] seems to be a much more sophisticated guy. He was a minister at the court of one of the most powerful kings of that time. He knew how to speak, how to dress, how to captivate people. He was manipulative and subtle. A very cultivated person, not a savage. But the kind of hate that Haman nurtures against the Jewish people is the same as Amalek: unreasonable, ferocious and gratuitous, with no reason. Yes, he disliked Mordechai, but how quickly Haman moved from opposing one individual to planning genocide. There was clearly some hostility in his soul already and ready to come to the surface at the first pretext.
The Rabbis link these two individuals and establish a genealogy of evil that goes back to Esau (Amalek is portrayed as a descendant of Esau).
What do the Rabbis want to teach us by constructing such a genealogy? That antisemitism runs in the family. Not because there are families out there that pass the genes of antisemitism to each other. Rather: that antisemitism is a matter of education. It's a set of prejudice and stereotypes that is part of the general culture, and comes to the surface at certain points in history, quite often unexpected.
Antisemitism is an undercurrent—a set of images, prejudices and perceptions that become popular at certain points in history.
One example: at a time when plagues and pestilences were common, the Jews were accused of spreading the contagion. Why? Because in Christian mythology, Jews hate the Christians and profit from their deaths. Generally speaking, Jews led a healthier lifestyle than the Christians and went to the mikveh regularly, while some branches of Christianity did not have personal hygiene as a spiritual duty. In times of pestilence, it could happen that Christians died more frequently than Jews. That was seen as evidence of Jewish conspiracy, which Jews were forced to confess with torture.
Fast forward to 2021, and you have the BBC that -as last week was forced to acknowledge- spread a similar rumour: Israelis want to murder the Palestinians through the use of COVID, And how? By denying them vaccinations and medical care, which is not true and -let me repeat it again- the BBC itself has been forced to admit it was a lie.
You see? The prejudice is the same: Jews hate the non-Jews, especially the most vulnerable and for this reason, spread viruses, pestilence and contagions. It has been widely believed in Christian Europe and it is reformulated in the secular world we live in.
There are several other examples. If you look at the way news from Israel is reported by the media, you can easily see an undercurrent of anti-Semitic prejudices and legends.
We are familiar with the descriptions of Palestinian children slaughtered by Israeli soldiers. Most of these stories turn out not to be true: the alleged child often is a teenager; he was attacking the soldiers with stones or worse; thank God he has not been tortured but only immobilised (and shouting in front of the cameras of CNN). The legend according to which Jews torture and kill non-Jewish children dates back from the Middle Ages. People believed it in the past, and today people believe that the Israeli Army is not an army like any other, but a sadistic institution that serves the interest of "Jewish supremacists" that is us, and our plans to subjugate the world, beginning with Palestine.
The myth of the lobby that uses the power of money to subjugate the Governments, to force them to do the Jews' interests? That was already shouted on the squares of Italian cities during the Middle Ages, by preachers and friars, at a time when the local rulers were in debt with the local Jewish moneylender. International banking was the dominion of great Christian dynasties, but this was not visible for the mob who assaulted the Jews after the preachers' sermon. As an aside, the local rulers found their debt cancelled after the Jews were burned. What a curious coincidence.
At this point, I should probably explain that Israel is not perfect, that it has its faults and that this Rabbi does not want to censor anyone.
I should reassure that it is possible to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic and, as the Americans say: ya-dah ya-dah ya-dah or blah blah blah. You got the idea.
But I won't, because I am a bit tired of stating the obvious. And it seems obvious to me that criticising the Country where you live is an elementary right. Israel indeed has a very vibrant vocal and critical media system. In fact, their Prime Minister is criticised every day, even when his name was Ben Gurion, his Party had 40% of Parliament, and his trade union ruled the economy in an almost Socialist way. But one thing is to criticise the Country where you live, pay your taxes and serve in the Army. Another thing is to voice your criticism from the comfort of your home, judging from afar and expressing your criticism in front of an audience that is fed with lies on a daily basis, and for which the Jewish State is always wrong. Don't tell me that talking of antisemitism is a way to silence the critics of Israel because it is not.
And because today it's Shabbat Zachor, when we Jews reflect on how antisemitism threatens us in every generation, we are commanded not to forget about that. There's a time for everything, and today, the Shabbat before Purim, it's time to think about antisemitism, not about international politics.
And we think about antisemitism by retelling the story of Purim.
And we wish the anti-Semites the same destiny as Haman. Boooooh! .
Shabbat shalom and see you on Purim.
Last Shabbat, following the conversation with our MP Peter Kyle, I went on Twitter to drop him a line to thank him. Being the mensch who we all agree he is, Peter Kyle had already twitted how thankful he was for our hospitality
But here you go. There was a reply.
It was a tweet by the "Brighton BDS campaign" -you know, the local chapter of the organisation who advocate the destruction of the only Jewish State in the world. They say it is for the good of the Jews, obviously, so don't you dare to call them anti-Semitic.
With the usual menacing language, and as usual protected by being anonymous (thanks to Twitter) these activists, addressed Peter, with the usual brutality, demanding a public statement in support of some Palestinian activist due to be sentenced in three days.
Which, you know, makes perfect sense.
After all, doesn't it happen for every religion? I mean we all see that, every time a British MP visits a mosque, some activists demand a public statement about human rights in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. (I am being sarcastic: this does not happen). These are the same people who scribble "Free Gaza" on Synagogue walls. Which again, makes perfect sense. Don't you remember how many Anglican churches were defaced with similar graffiti during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at the time of the Falkland war? Of course you don't, because it did not happen.
Only we Jews, only our community, have the privilege of being targeted in relation to international politics. Only the politicians who set foot in a synagogue are then demanded to condemn a State thousands of miles away.
I think it's complete nonsense.
First of all, I cannot see how the living conditions of the Palestinians can improve, by putting pressure on the Jewish community and, because this is what these thugs are doing, ingenerating in the senior members of our community the memories of the Kristallnacht, when synagogues were vandalised and Jewish owned business boycotted, (then, again, because Jews were accused of being loyal to another Country). These "anti-Zionist" attacks are most likely to achieve the opposite effect, which is to persuade us further that we need a Jewish State for our own survival, to take refuge if things go bad. So, dear self-appointed pro-Palestinian fighters, you're behaving as idiots (what a surprise).
But why do they continue to attack us in this way, even if it is clear to see that it is so counterproductive and nonsensical?
It is, I believe, partly our responsibility. Or, to be more accurate, the responsibility of the Jewish world, (unfortunately some of the Reform and Progressive), that buy into a narration according to which Jews, or at least young Jews, are not Zionists anymore. They do not feel a particular connection with Israel, and are embarrassed by the Israeli Government and the like. This narrative is a fraud. No one in the Diaspora likes Netanyahu, (and he does nothing to be liked by the Diaspora), but only fools and lunatics want to replace Israel with a State where Jews will be a ghettoised minority like in contemporary Syria, (which is the plan of the PLO, by the way). And even less support fringe groups like Naamod, those of the Kaddish for Gaza, that for the record has no official membership and whose presence is mainly on social media, obviously on the side of Brighton BDS and similar enemies of Peter Kyle (and of us).
And as per the alleged uneasiness of young Jews with Israel, I think we should take into consideration how difficult it is on certain campuses for those Jews who dare to express their support for Israel. The SOAS has recently been condemned to repay a Jewish student, whose mental health was seriously damaged by pro-Palestinian extremists. What I'm saying is that among young Jews there are always debates about Israel, but certain positions at the moment cannot be expressed without consequences. So we are left with the impression that fringe groups such as Na'amod, JewDas or Yachad, (recently caught red handed to inflate the number of signatories on a petition for them), speak for the majority of British Jews. They are but a group of people in their 30s, not so young anymore, managing a multitude of accounts on social media.
Let's hope that the acceptance of the IHRA definition of antisemitism will change things for good so that other voices will be allowed to speak out.
Anti-Semites, such as those who harass Peter Kyle on social media or vandalise our synagogues, should not be left with the impression that with their bullying they are "achieving something" that is intimidating us Jews and forcing us into silence on campus and elsewhere.
Nonetheless, they continue to encourage vandalism, (or worse), against Jews on social media and elsewhere. Even if they know they are not going to achieve their goals. And why? I believe the answer is: religious hatred. They may call themselves secular or even atheist, but they are betrayed by the anger they pour against the symbols of the Jewish religion and, above all, by their total, complete, hopeless lack of will to negotiate. Politicians negotiate and look for compromises. When there are conflicts regarding territory and pieces of land, the politicians find themselves around a table with a map and proceed to draw lines on the map, they partition the land between States and political entities. This kind of approach has been experimented in the past in the Middle East. But it is completely rejected by the violent thugs whom I am talking about, who do not want to divide the land and protest and cry and shout that the whole of Palestine (including Israel) will one day be "liberated" and ethnically cleansed. It is a religious, fanatic, fundamentalist approach, not a political one.
What is religious hatred? What does the fanatic want? I believe the word is: conformity. These anti-Semites attack us and want to replace Israel with a so called secular Country, (which in reality would be another Arab dictatorship; or a fundamentalist entity like ISIS). That is because they want a world without religious differences and without organised, self-determined cultural minorities, like us. In the end, you know, I am sorry for their own insecurity: for fanatic Marxists, the existence of a minority that refused to be assimilated is deeply threatening. It's deeply distasteful to witness such an insecurity becoming rage and be poured against good willing public personalities, of every background, who work hard for the good of society, like Peter Kyle and thank God a number of others, in all political parties.
When you face this kind of extremists it's hard to keep your temper. It's generally difficult to be a reasoning, measured person in front of extremists who shout and cry all the time. But it is precisely what the Torah commands us to do; and the politicians who stand up against this sort of extremists are precisely the politicians we need.
Food and commandments
I want to talk about a very spiritual, highly sophisticated, extremely important Jewish subject: food.
Jewish food is a paradox. We Jews have many rules regarding food. The list of foods we cannot eat is quite long. One would think that, in a culture where such a strong emphasis is placed on prohibitions, there was not such a thing as good food, tasty food, food to enjoy.
Wrong. As we all know the strict dietary restrictions of the Jewish Law has allowed the blossoming of our extraordinary rich culinary culture.
One of the reasons that make the experience of Jewish food so rich is that it is connected to the calendar. Matzo balls are delicious, but we love them more on Pesach. Who does not love cheesecake, but wait for Shavuot to have the best. Chicken soup is great all year round, but best on Friday night. Etcetera. Such a connection to the Jewish calendar can be very specific. Last Shabbat, when the Torah portion was about the defeat of Pharaoh's chariots, we Italian Jews had Pharaoh's wheel on our tables, a sort of round pie. Wait for the end of the pandemic and Sara will share the recipe.
Jewish food not only puts us in touch with our faith, but it also creates our community. From a very Rabbinic, normative point of view: when we eat as a group, we can fulfil the mitzvah of benching more completely. We can say the tzimun, the opening "Rabotai nevarech". But even if you don't want to bother yourself with the intricacies of Jewish law, think about this: being part of the Jewish people, or of the Jewish culture, means spending time with other Jews variously related to you, around the same table often discussing a serious topic such as how terrible were the fish balls last Friday and whether the Israelis have eventually learnt how to prepare a proper Gefilte Fish.
Food is such an important element of Jewish culture that it's often the first things that non-Jewish people learn about us. Last week on a Facebook group about local history, someone posted a 60s photo of the Goodmans Deli, a true landmark of Brighton Jewish history. The comments were fascinating: so many Hoveians remember Goodmans Deli fondly and were familiar with the place and the people. Yet, at the same time, it was (and I am quoting) an "exotic place".
This is the relationship we Jews have with the non-Jewish majority. We are familiar; we are the oldest cultural minority in Europe, yet we are also "exotic," following different rules and coming from a faraway place.
Ah, yes, the place. Last week, a hate storm erupted in the Guardian's comment section, because anti-Semites who hang around that part of the political spectrum did not digest, (sorry, could not resist), the publication of the last masterpiece by Claudia Roden "the Book of Jewish Food". Among the delicacies that embellished that comments section, you could read sentences such as "Would you have brought a German recipe book during the WWII slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people?"…. Show us the Palestinian version. I guarantee it'll be more authentic and FAR more popular." "No, thank you, I do not eat stolen food from the original owners, Palestinian."
Which is a peculiar way to address the job of a daughter of Jewish refugees from Egypt, like Claudia Roden. The hate was expressed is such violent terms, that even the Guardian thought it was too much and shut down the comments page. But anyway, as you see, there are folks out there who believe that we are thieves. We steal food from the Palestinians and that our culture, culinary or otherwise is never authentic.
Yes, anti-Semites have Jewish food. Or, to put it a better way, even the existence of a Jewish food culture enrages our enemies. In medieval times, Jews in Europe were second class citizens and forced to live in restricted urban areas, the ghettoes. There were taverns in ghettoes, often visited by Christians; the fascination for the exotic Jewish food is clearly not a recent phenomenon. The Catholic Church did not like these interactions across the religious divide. The Inquisitors used to impose fines to discourage the pious Christians to visit these Jewish places (a medieval version of the BDS movement...). Still, traditional Jewish taverns and bakeries continued to exist for centuries.
And for centuries anti-Semites have targeted Jewish food as one of the most visible features of Judaism, and of Jewish life.
As I have said before, Jewish food is defined by a certain set of rules, that define what we can eat, what we cannot eat, how can it be prepared and also when it can be eaten.
And the same is true for Jewish life. Yes, of course: one is Jewish because he or she is born Jewish or has converted to Judaism and the status of Jewishness cannot be taken away, once you are Jewish that's it. It’s for life. But being Jewish means very little if you do not do Jewish, if you do not put your Judaism in practice following the mitzvot, the commandments, which make it possible to live a Jewish life that is inspired by Jewish values.
You cannot be Jews without the commandments, either you choose to follow them or not. The commandments, the mitzvot, begin to appear in a systematic fashion, as explicit commandments by God to the Israelites, in this week's Torah portion. The Israelites have left Egypt, they are no longer slaves and they are beginning their journey towards the Promised Land, they are beginning to become a people with its own Law. Precisely these laws and these precepts make the Jewish life worth living. They look like a compilation of prohibitions and regulations, some of which are obvious such as "you shall not murder", others difficult to follow, such as "you shall not covet" and then many peculiar and specific ones, (such as the commandment to the Cohanim to dress and act modestly when working at the Temple). But when you try to live your life according to these rules, then your life becomes much more meaningful. The same for Jewish food: the dietary restrictions seem to be a patchwork of obvious rules, difficult rules, and very specific rules. But when you put them together and prepare your meals accordingly, you realise how beautiful and inspiring our culture is, so centred around the concept of community, and how varied and tasty definitively is. Jewish food is great, observing the commandments is great and Judaism is a wonderful thing.
Shabbat shalom and enjoy your meals.
Last week a friend urged me to check out the comments of an article in Jewish News. Jewish News is quite a local publication. It rarely attracts readers who live beyond the M25, and its articles usually get a couple of comments each. This one was different. There were more than tens of comments.
It was an interview with Ruth Posner, retired actress and Holocaust survivor. The commentators were anti-Semites. Italian anti-Semites, as my friend pointed out, and as it was evident from their Facebook pages.
Think about this: there are people who live in Italy and spend their time on the Facebook page of a local English Jewish publication. They post stuff such as "oh, she is a good actor, is she?" "Did you fake another million dead?" "When will we see a Memorial Day for Native Americans, Japanese WWII victims, Palestinians... oh, sorry, it's a politically incorrect question!"
The Facebook accounts of these racists were anonymous. As is customary in the Far-Right, they faked exaggeratedly Jewish names, like "Shlomo Iperovitch" or so. In place of pictures they show off caricatures; the sort of caricature with a big nose, kippah etc. They complete their profiles with sentences such as "workplace: loan sharks professional association, Tel Aviv".
I surfed these pages terrified and disgusted. In horror, I counted the number of likes. I looked at their contacts, some of which are real people and not fake accounts.
People not ashamed to hate Jews.
Real people proud to be anti-Semitic.
I obviously reported that garbage to Facebook. After all it fits the definition of hate speech. We are told that social media are now paying some sort of attention on the matter, and - naive that I am- I thought that was precisely the case.
Wrong, Facebook blocked blatantly racist posts of these Nazis, such as "it is scientifically proven that the N-word have a smaller brain". But Facebook did not cancel the anti-Semitic posts. They were, in a word, too sophisticated. The caricature of a Jew as a logo for a brand of soap does not violate the standards of the Facebook community. That's the sad truth: on social media, antisemitism gets a pass. And why? Because the moderator cannot understand it or even see it. What they see, in a sea of violently racist contents, are sentences such as "oh, what a good actor that lady is".
It is an anti-Semitic sentence, it's an offence to Holocaust survivors, but the moderator cannot get it, as he, or she, misses the context.
Of course, I expect from Twitter, Facebook and similar corporations that they invest in training their staff, to improve the monitoring, which at the moment looks very poor. But I nurture no illusion. Antisemitism is expressed in incredibly sophisticated ways, more difficult to identify than a crass statement on "inferior race".
Scrolling the Facebook pages of these Italian racists, I saw all the perverse variety with which how anti-Semitic tropes are exhibited. They had even the hutzpah of posting a video.
In such a video they were pretending to be in Israel (they were not, they were in some city in Northern Italy). They pretended to give an interview, reporting how many Jews were dying of COVID; and went on with tirades such as "how sorry we are, it's almost Holocaust Memorial Day, will we soon hit the 6-you-know-what figure? Because we are sooo ready to cry and mourn".
Ten minutes of this sickening stuff, from two men in their thirties, faces covered, but clearly identifiable as Far-Right militants, because of the details of such badges on their jackets. One of the two was carrying a leashed Doberman dog; and they were saying... well what you think they were saying about Jews and Dobermans. And laughing..
All of it in a quite unremarkable place; a little piazza with a couple of rundown trees. In the background, I could see some passers-by. They probably saw only two men who were walking a dog and having a laugh. I saw something worse. And other viewers of Facebook saw it. And liked it, too.
My feelings at this point were fear and, above all anger, because of the incompetence of the moderators and because of the pure hate that that video emanates. Hundreds of similar videos are added every hour, on social media, public and secret. How many get a pass from the moderators? Probably most of them. This is terrifying.
I also thought of the Midrash, Rabbinic comments, on this week's Torah portion. It is probably the most famous Midrash of all, since we quote it on Pesach, during the Seder.
Do you know when we list the plagues? When we spill drops of wine? There is a reason for that, and it is actually that Midrash. The Torah merely describes the plagues and their effects on the Egyptians; the Rabbis add to that a story, to teach that we ought to respect even the Egyptians, our enemies.
The story goes that when the chariots of Pharaoh's soldiers were submerged by the waters of the Red Sea, the Israelites were safe and the angels started singing for joy. But God rebuked the angels, reminding them that even the Egyptians, the enemies of the Jews, were created in the Divine image, human beings too, and their deaths must not become a reason for celebration.
I looked at the faces of these anti-Semites, at their jeering grins while they were wishing a painful death to me, and to my family. And I asked myself: do I want them to die? More precisely my question was: would I celebrate, would I sing while I see the death of these two people, perhaps submerged by waters, like the Egyptian soldiers, the ancient equivalent of the Nazi soldiers?
And I know you probably expect an answer from me. If I were an Orthodox rabbi, I would point out that in the Midrash the angels are forbidden to sing, while God says nothing to the human beings, not in that moment at least. God just gives a commandment regarding how to memorialise the event, which is not exactly forbidding, neither it's celebrating. And if I was a Progressive, liberally inclined Rabbi, I would probably explain that antisemitism is one of the many forms of racism out there and that we need to invest more in education, because when people are properly educated they then stop hating the Jews, especially if we add a measure of social justice, lessen the gap between rich and poor, so we eliminate the need for a scapegoat.
I don't want to criticise my colleagues. I think they are -in good Rabbinic fashion- both right and wrong. I am neither Orthodox neither Liberal. I am a Zionist.
I know that the hate that I saw, thankfully mediated by Facebook, from the eyes of these two individuals, it's just the contemporary manifestation of ancient hate, which begins in the time of Pharaoh and continues throughout history.
Sometimes it lessens, sometimes it increases, often it goes into hiding, and at certain points in history, it erupts violently. It's not something we Jews can control. It does not depend on us.
My understanding of the rabbinic story is not so sophisticated. The Israelites simply could not live in Egypt, in that kind of society. That is the reason why they had to get out. Obviously, we do not celebrate anyone's death; but equally, we do not have to live next door to anti-Semites!
And what about these two Italian Nazis? On the one hand, they are clearly idiots: they do not realise that Nazis hate Italians too. But they are dangerous anyway.
And my thought is: thank God, Israel exists. Thank God there is a Jewish State. Thank God, there is a place to take refuge if and when these people become too dangerous for us. And -once again, thanks to God- for the Israeli Army. It is far more efficient than the moderators of Facebook!
It's Tu bi Shvat!
Four years ago, one Shabbat before the service, we met for a cup of coffee and a chat and we asked ourselves whether the world was going mad.
It was a discussion, or rather a sharing of emotions and feelings, about the election of Donald Trump. We were a bunch of people Jewish enough to disagree at least on something, and English enough (including the two Americans in the room) to do it politely. Donald Trump has now gone, but the world has not returned to normality, not yet. The new President's approach to politics is more measured, less visceral, and I think this is what America - and the world - needs right now. But I don't want to talk about Joe Biden, not now.
Wednesday, 27th January will be Holocaust Memorial Day. Because of COVID, it will be an entirely digital ceremony. There will be a national ceremony at 7:00 PM which can be followed via the internet, based on the theme of lighting the candles of hope, to counter the darkness of abuse and intolerance. The City Council has organised a commemoration, which will broadcast on Latest TV: our member Yael Breuer will interview representatives of various communities, including of course the Jewish communities, Holocaust survivors, artists and so on. But I don't what to talk about Holocaust Memorial Day, not now.
Rather, I want to talk about Tu biShvat, which this year is on Thursday, 28th January. That is because everybody knows what Holocaust Memorial Day is, everybody knows that there is a new American President, but very few people know, or are aware of what Tu bi Shvat is about.
To begin with: Tu bi Shvat is certainly not a major holyday. It's not mentioned in the Bible. The date, the 15th of the month of Shevat, has been established by the Rabbis, to calculate the age of the trees, their "birthday" so that they could be taxed properly. Most of the trees were indeed planted in mid-winter, after the rain season, when the soil was properly watered.
An important point: The plants and the trees we are talking about, to be taxed for the up keeping of the Temple, were planted in the Land of Israel.
This rather dry recurrence became a festivity, something to celebrate only in medieval times, in the mystical circles of Zfat, Safed, in the Galil. The same intellectual environment to which we owe the Lekha Dodi and large part of the Friday night ritual.
Another very important point: these people held strong Messianic beliefs. We are all used to our friends Chabad and their enthusiasm filled ways to observe the Jewish religion. You know the song "Mashiach Mashiach". They believe that Mashiach is coming, if not in this generation, in the next,only if the Jews pray with the proper fervour. These were the same ideas and values of the mystics that lived in Safed during the Early Modern Era. Precisely because they were waiting for the Messianic times to begin, these people moved to the Land of Israel coming from all over the Jewish world of that time.
They started celebrating Tu biShvat, the birthday of the trees, to celebrate the holiness of the Land of Israel, the region of the world, they speculated, where Mashiach would have revealed himself. And indeed if you visit Zfat you may see several spots, alleys or balconies, with a view on the valley. These mystics davened there every morning as they wanted to be the first to see Mashiach coming from Jerusalem.
Now let us say something very politically incorrect. That land was a desert. The land of Israel, in the 15th and 16th century was a half-forgotten region of the Ottoman Empire, where people died of malaise at a very young age. There was a bit of textile trade, which the Jews brought there and managed to expand. But generally speaking the descriptions of the Galil at that time are depressive, to say the least.
So you have these mystics who have moved to that part of the world (literally in the middle of nowhere) out of messianic fervour, because they expected the Messiah to arrive. They believe that the land they live in is holy. They see how rare and how precious the trees are. So they decide to celebrate the birthday of the trees of the land of Israel, a date that they manage to find in some page of the Mishna. And how do they celebrate? Good question. And because they are Jewish the answer is: with food.
They designed a ritual, a Seder, like the Pesach Seder, with four cups of wine: the first totally white, the last totally red and two different combinations in the middle. Moving from the white, which symbolises the winter, and the desolation of the land of Israel, to the red, the blossoming of life in the spring, and the redemption of the land. Between one cup and the other, they introduced the custom to eat fruits, different kind of fruits, and all from the Land of Israel. An obvious choice, since they were celebrating the birthday of the trees.
Once the Seder, the ritual, was printed, it had a massive circulation and within a few generations Tu bi Shvat Seders were celebrated all over the Jewish world, to celebrate the connection with the land of Israel and to express hope in the future Messianic redemption. And because it is a celebration of the Land of Israel and of the trees, the Zionist movement transformed the date into a day for another typical Jewish activity: fundraising.
On Tu bi Shvat, with the Seder we celebrate our connection with the Land of Israel and proclaim our faith in the Messianic future redemption. This is what we will celebrate on Thursday, together with the rest of the Jewish world.
It is particularly telling that this year, the 15th of the Jewish month of Shvat, happens to be on January 28, the day after January 27, which is -in the Gregorian calendar- Holocaust Memorial Day.
We move from the commemoration of the darkest page of human history to the celebration of the redemption of the Land, which is the Jewish way to express hope.
And of course we all look to the new American president, the successor of Donald Trump, with the hope that he won't repeat the mistakes of his predecessor. We have been asking ourselves too much "is the world going mad" and we hope, really hope, that a time for normality has come.
THE NAZIS AND THE PLAGUES
I have a confession to make. Last week I found myself peeking several times at the photos of the Far-Right extremists who, on January 6th, stormed Capitol Hill.
I am not particularly disturbed by the odd Israeli flag that these people display. I know that some of them, though anti-Semitic, worship Israel for all the wrong reasons. To be honest, I know that physical strength is the only language that they understand. Do they know that Israel is strong? Good for us, chances are that some of them (at least) will think twice before attacking a synagogue. The common thread that allegedly unifies the disciples of Jabotinsky with White supremacism is just a laughable fantasy. These people hate the Jews and if there is a regime in the Middle East that they support, it's Iran, not Israel.
I found myself, somehow against my own will, looking at these angry expressions, at their customs and flags.Norse customs, horns and Viking paraphernalia are -unfortunately- nothing new for me. You can see many of them in Italy, at the conventions of Matteo Salvini's racist party. And they convey exactly the same message: rage, hate against blacks, against Jews, against immigrants, against LGBT, against every minority. These Americans show off the Confederate flag, a symbol of a bygone era when slavery was the norm. Their European friends show off the symbols of an imagined Medieval society when all Europe was (they think) Christian and white. And on both sides of the Atlantic, they show off swastikas, nooses and other symbols of violence.
Besides the symbols, these people share a culture. Paranoid narratives such as "only 3% of Americans fought the British in the War of Independence", a war that they see themselves fighting again, this time against the USA Government, the New World Order or whatever international conspiracy. And the Q Anon cult. The allegation that Donald Trump is the only world leader fighting against an international network of paedophiles and human traffickers, of which all the "global elites" are a part of.
Don't think that it's only an American phenomenon! Last year, between one lockdown and the other there. have been Q Anon rallies in at least ten cities in the UK. These crazy ideologies have followers on this side of the Atlantic too. And when they mention "the elite", "the bankers", "the mainstream media", in short: their enemies, they mean the Jews. They mean us. They hate us.
But why? What is the source of their anti-Semitic hate? What do these people believe? Some on them may call themselves pagans; they may claim they believe in some Northern deity: Wotan, Thor or whatever, of which probably they know nothing. Others, on the basis of some third rate prophecy book, perhaps are persuaded that a racial war is coming, and they have been stockpiling weapons in view of that. But those things are only the surface of their ideologies. If you scratch the surface you see that Nazis, white supremacist and Far-Right radicals believe in one thing only: power. They worship power.
Power is the centre of their worldview. They believe that power is everything and that at this moment power is in the wrong hands. They see themselves as those who are restoring things as they should be. They are fighting a war to give back power to those who are entitled: themselves. In such a worldview either you have power, or you are powerless. Either you rule or you are ruled. Either you dominate or you are subjugated.
To these people, politics is, as we say, a zero-sum game. Democratic politics as we know, coalitions and compromise, is a foreign planet. In their world there are only masters and slaves. And they believe to be oppressed, to be the slaves who are revolting against their masters: the elites, the bankers, the Jews, us.
Now, if we look at the Egyptian society, as it is described in the Torah portions that we read during weeks, we find a kind of society whose basic values are exactly the same.In Ancient Egypt, power was everything. Whoever was in charge, whoever had the power, decided what was good and what was moral. The powerful were the good. For example: when Pharaoh gave the order to murder all the Jewish male children, only a few Egyptians refused to obey. The vast majority of the Egyptians did not. It was an order by Pharaoh, it must therefore be good. In such a world, Pharaoh is in power and whoever is in power decides what is right and what is good.
This is the world from which the Israelites are commanded to escape. By whom? By God. Which Pharaoh refuses to recognise: in Egyptian culture, there is no one above Pharaoh.
We are used to reading the story of Exodus; we read as the story of a group of slaves that escape slavery and become one people. It is a legitimate reading. Not by chance, the story of Exodus has inspired fights for freedom and dignity of many minorities: there's a lot of Exodus in Afro American music, for example.
Nonetheless, in the Jewish reading of this Jewish story, there is an additional element. A confrontation between God and Pharaoh. Pharaoh is a human being so devoured by the desire for power that we do not even know his name. He doesn’t have a name. He only has a title: Pharaoh. Like all the dictators, Pharaoh is obsessed by order. This is the reason for the plagues: With the plagues, God destroyed the order of nature and shows to Pharaoh that he is only a human being, not a universal ruler.
In the account of Creation, in Genesis, God separated the water from the land, and with the plagues, God turned the water into blood, mixed two elements that in nature are separated. The fish and creatures that live in the depth of the sea do not have much blood in their veins; but creatures that live on land have blood. God created light in the beginning and towards the end of the series of plagues, God causes three days of darkness over Egypt, so thick that no one can move, and Creation comes almost under paralysis. The highest point of Creation is the creation of the human being. The harshest of the plagues is the death of the Egyptians' firstborn. This is the rationale of the plagues: to prove that the ultimate source of power, and of morality, is God and not human kings and sovereigns, however powerful they are.
You know these folks who wear kitschy Viking customs and wave the flag of racialist utopias..?. Those Fascists and racists that plan a coup against American democracy? They hate many minorities: LGBT, Afro American (and Black in general), Travellers, Asian, Latinos, Italians... But in their hell, in their gallery of enemies, we Jews have a special place.
Have you ever wondered why? I did. And I think the answer is here.
We Jews, with our existence, with our faith, are the enduring proof that power is not everything. We prove that power can be resisted, whether the power of the Roman Empire or the Soviet Empire or of Arab autocrats. These enemies, in the end, fell. We still exist. And we do not worship power, we worship God. Perhaps not perfectly and not always and not properly as we should, but we Jews are aware that the source of power and the source of morality is not, and cannot be, a human being.
I don't know what's happening in America these days. Nobody knows. Hopefully, the police are arresting these Nazis, one after the other, catching them in their homes, the way they did with Islamists after 9/11. I hope so. My great fear is that White supremacist and Far-Right extremists may have supporters in the American police and in the American armed forces. As an Italian citizen, I know how deeply this kind of ideology can penetrate the police forces. Let's hope America is different.
But I refuse to be intimidated by the Fascists, the Nazis, the QAnon, the conspiracy theorists and similar extremists. On the contrary I continue to be Jewish, to study and teach the Jewish tradition, to live according to the Jewish faith. We all must refuse to be intimidated by Pharaoh and by his thugs for one simple reason: because we are all Jews and our God knows better than any human ruler.
Who does not like a good gangster movie? Personally, I do. My favourite characters in gangster movies are, what a surprise, Jewish. Meyer Lansky (there's an upcoming movie with Harvey Keitel); Dutch Shultz played by Dustin Hoffman in "Billy Bathgate", 1991 (lovely Yiddish songs, there); and of course the fictional David "Noodles" Aronson that is: Robert De Niro in Sergio Leone's masterpiece "Once Upon a Time in America".
Noodles, this last one, is fictional; he never existed. But even other characters are fictional. The real Jewish gangsters who ran the American underworld decades ago, were different, were not the tormented souls we see on the screen. They rarely had remorse.
Cinema apart, in 20th Century, the mafia was a real problem for the Jewish community.
We know that gangsters were denied burial in Jewish cemeteries, for example. In 1905, in Warsaw, the Jewish Socialists, the Bundists, led a three-day assault against the town's brothels. Many of them were run by a Jewish mafia organisation, which was dismantled in 1939 by an international police operation. At the origin of the operation, there was the denunciation of one of the victims, Raquel Lieberman. The trafficked women were Jewish. Gangsters and pimps were marginalised by the Jewish communities. During the War, in Eastern Europe, many became collaborators of the Nazis.
But anti-Semites made no distinction. The Catholic media and the reactionary political parties associated Jews with prostitution and prostitution (and venereal diseases) with Jews.
It happened in Berlin, in Vienna, in New York, in Warsaw, in Prague, in Buenos Aires... wherever there was a sizeable community of Yiddish speaking, mainly immigrant Jews.
The media influenced public opinion. But there was also an academic background. Theories about Jews and sexual deviations were common among psychiatrists and psychologists, well before Nazism. Actually, this was the "scientific" background which, in the end, provided justification to the Holocaust.
The relationship between Jews and sexuality was studied, was theorised, was "analysed". And since we Jews are never "normal", conclusions were drawn either about the oppressive and sexophobic Jewish religion or about the propensity of Jewish brain to sexual deviation. Either we are totally perverted or completely repressed.
The racist nonsenses were peddled by the newspaper, reinforced by the scientists, and served to the general public.
The stereotype has deep medieval roots, it dates back when we Jews refused to be converted to Christianity; therefore, we were associated with perversion. And it surfaced in the 20th Century, cloaked with the white coat of medical science.
Something similar took place last week. It all started last Sunday with an article in The Observer. It claimed, falsely that "Palestinians excluded from Israeli Covid vaccine rollout as jabs go to Jewish settlers'". Next to the title, there was the photo of an elderly bearded man receiving an injection: one of those privileged Jews, you know. This settler colonialist Jew will survive, the title suggests; the poor native Palestinians will not. See how evil the Jewish State is and how racist the Jewish religion is.
It was, of course, a lie. Palestinians that are Israeli citizens are vaccinated just like the Jewish citizens. Those who work in Israel without Israeli citizenship are treated like any foreign worker; meaning they are vaccinated as well. By the next Pesach, all the Israeli population, Jews and non-Jews alike, will be completely vaccinated.
Things are more complicated for Palestinian citizens; or Palestinian residents, or whatever you want to call the population who live in the regions that are under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian National Authority, since the time of the Oslo Accords.
They are Palestinian citizens and the Palestinian Authority that, by the way, is one of the major recipients of money in the world, should take care of their vaccinations. Which it does according to its slow and unaccountable schedule.
To make things more complicated, you have to also take into consideration those Israelis who live in settlements that are Jewish villages, located inside the Palestinian territories. As Israeli citizens, they are vaccinated according to the Israeli schedule. So it may actually happen that elderly Jews who live in a settlement are vaccinated (by Israeli doctors) while the young Palestinians who live in the village nearby are still waiting for their turn. That is because the Palestinian Authority (which is not exactly accountable) is carrying the vaccination program according to its own schedule.
Which by the way excluded the Beduins: they are nomads and preservation of Beduins lives is never a priority for any Arab regime in the world.
At this point you may ask why the Palestinian health minister does not ask for help from the more organised neighbouring Country, that is Israel. Indeed Israel has offered help more than once but received no answer. And why? Very good question.
Nobody knows, but everybody can guess. Palestinian politicians are people of principle, you know. And their principles are as follows: never ask for help from Israel, a State whose existence you don't want to recognise. And: never waste the opportunity to send to the world the message that Israelis are bad and Jews are racists, despicable and perverted.
Such a message did work when Jewish women were trafficked by gangsters that also happened to be Jewish, it should work today too.
And indeed it did. Following the publication of the article in the Observer, the anti-Semitic slander of the denied vaccination has been spread by organisations such as Amnesty International and also amplified by voices in the so-called peace camp (Naamod, Yachad and the like).
It's not different from the times when Jewish women were trafficked by gangsters that happened to be Jewish.
The media simplify a complicated situation. Then come the academics or the human right organisations, and they provide a respectable theoretical frame to the crass prejudice.
A few days ago we saw what happens when fake news, such as "the elections have been stolen" is repeated over and over, to cater prejudices against "the elite" and to feed the worse impulse of the mobs.
Don't close your eyes
You all should have an Aliya one Shabbat or another. If you have never had an Aliya in your life, you should accept one. It does not take that much. Just reading the blessing before the reading, then someone else does the reading in Hebrew: Steve, Roger, sometimes the Rabbi, after which you say the concluding blessing and, well, it's done. It is a great mitzvah which, if performed when we are in shul, gives you the experience of seeing a Sefer Torah, or Torah Scroll. The Torah Scroll is a fascinating item, for several reasons. For example, there are neither vowels nor musical notes. Not only do we need the Sefer Torah to hold our services. The Sefer Torah needs us, so to say. It can only be read by a Jew who possesses enough knowledge of the text and knows which vowel is here and which musical note is there etc. We need the Torah for our survival, but the Torah also needs us, to become alive. When we are in Shul, we deal with a material Torah Scroll without vowels and music notes. We have to locate where the reading begins. Some people use a printed edition of the Torah, a Chumash and others use a Tikkun, a book which provides the vocalised and the un-vocalised text in two columns. This is to help find their way because sometimes it is very difficult. Some parts of the Torah are long paragraphs, more than one or two columns without any breaks, without a capo, and without interruption; good luck with that. Finding the proper place where a readings finish and the following begins is not at all easy. This week's Torah portion is one of those. It begins towards the end of a very long paragraph, two or three columns with no capo, no interruption and no white spaces. It is one of those portions technically known as stumah, closed. It is unusual. Most of the Torah consists of short-ish paragraphs (easy to memorise), and on the whole there are several capos. Why not here? Classical, medieval commentators have suggested interesting interpretations related to the content. In this part of the Torah, we read of the death of Jacob and his blindness; the lack of white spaces between the paragraphs. The "close" disposition of the text is a reminder of Jacob's condition and the confusing way he now sees the world. Others notice that in the second part of the Torah portion, Jacob addresses his children and somehow foresees their future and the future of their tribes. In this part of the Biblical narration, the past is confused with the present. The disposition of the text, the absence of white spaces and interruptions, impresses in our minds how Jacob felt, while his illness was progressing. But there's another reading, which I find incredibly profound. This text is about the last period of the life of Jacob, and it mentions blindness. Blindness in the life of Jacob was indeed significant, think for example of his father Isaac’s blindness, and why and how Jacob became the firstborn. Yet, this passage is not about Jacob. It's about his children, the B’nei Israel, the Israelites, the Jews; us. With Jacob's death, his children, the people of Israel, lost a reminder of their condition. No one was there to remind them that they lived in a land that was not theirs, Egypt. They have been living with their father in the land of Canaan, which is the future Eretz Israel. They moved to Egypt and met Joseph because of the famine, as we remember. The life in their land, in Canaan, was hard and difficult, marked by misery. In Egypt, thanks to Joseph's connection and the protection by Pharaoh, they do well. Quite naturally, they forget where they came from. The disposition of the text is there to remind us not only of the poor state of the sight of Jacob, whose eyes were closing, rather, his children are closing their eyes. They refuse to see where they come from and - crucially- what is going on around them. The Torah portion tells us, what is going on. Jacob dies and then Joseph dies, and next week we will read how Pharaoh also dies. Pharaoh had granted protection to Joseph and had encouraged the children of Israel, Joseph's brothers, to immigrate and to settle in the region of Goshen. The death of Pharaoh is the beginning of the worsening of the condition of the Israelites. When Joseph was alive, the Israelites were the middle class, intermediaries between the sovereign and the peasants. Joseph dies, and the new ruler is a king that, so the Torah says, had never known Joseph, therefore does not protect the Israelites from persecution and enslavement. Gradually the situation of the Israelites worsens. The Israelites keep their eyes shut. They did not see, or they did not want to see, where they came from. They didn’t want to see their connection with the land of Israel; and the fact that for the Egyptians they still are strangers, adversaries and possibly enemies. In other words, the text reminds us, graphically, what happens when we Jews forget what we are and think we can easily assimilate and integrate. In Jewish history, the changes in political systems such as the rise to power of a new Pharaoh, had often been uncertain moments, a time in which we were exposed and weak. The life of us Jews nowadays is not any more precarious and fragile as it has been for centuries. We have today a State, a place where to take refuge if and when things go bad, and we are in danger of becoming scapegoats of political tensions. We may not think about the Land of Israel every day, but we are not like the children of Jacob, who had forgotten the existence of the Land of Israel and where they came from. Contrary to the generation of those enslaved in Egypt, our generation benefits from the Jewish State's existence. And even the most assimilated Jews, who feel remote from the rest of the Jewish people, who believe they have lost any contact with our faith: even they have a sense of pride for Israel’s existence and achievements. As it happens now, when Israel has managed to conclude, first in the world, the mass vaccination of its population. The text's disposition reminds us, the readers, not to close our eyes, not to forget that we are Jews and to remember how meaningful the connection is for us with the Land of Israel. Forgetting Israel is forgetting our identity and ultimately means losing our freedom. It simply cannot happen. It must never, never happen.