Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Paradox of Noah

Every time I look at this Sedra, I am perplexed. The Bible- our Torah paints Noah as a righteous man, yet our Sages seem to view him from an entirely different perspective: they play down his goodness. So, on a Biblical level he gets a very good press, but our Rabbis don’t entirely concur with that viewpoint.

Think of these words from the beginning of the Sedra:

“These are the generations of Noah- Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generation”.
The Rabbis analyse every word of the Torah and the question is why was it necessary for the Torah to add in the word Ledorotav- that he was perfect in his generation? It would have been enough to have said that he was just perfect- full stop. By saying, he was perfect in his generation, it becomes exclusive.

Rabbi Yochanan interprets this in a disparaging way about Noah- he says that in his generation he was a righteous man, but if he had lived in the generation of Avraham, he would not have amounted to much. In other words it was all relative. Yes, in his generation he was good because most of the people living in that generation were corrupt, therefore he stood out as a good man, but if he had lived in the generation of a greater man like an Avraham, then he would not have been reckoned as such a big mentsch.

Resh Lakish says completely the opposite. He says we read out from this a praise of Noah. Look at his generation, everybody was wicked and corrupt, yet Noah stood out as a man who wasn’t influenced by his surroundings, he managed to maintain integrity and decency in a world that wasn’t upright. For that you need to be a Tzaddik. When the rest of the world is going in one direction and you go in the other direction because you know that what you are doing is right, that takes strength and it takes courage.

I’ve said this so many times before.. The Torah speaks to me. I’ll say it again: The Torah speaks to me. And therefore when I read about Noah and the uncertainty of our Sages as to whether Noah was a Tzaddik only for his generation or whether he was a true Tzaddik, there’s something there for me.

This past week I viewed a video from China. (See photo above) I advise anybody not to watch this clip especially if you have young children because it will distress you.
The video comes from a CCTV camera of a street in a city in China. You might have heard about this from the TV reports. You see in the video a little girl around two years old called Yei Yei crossing the road, a van comes along and knocks her down. She’s on the ground. The driver of the van has seen what he’s done, he stops briefly. He then continues driving and you see the back wheels going over her again. Yei Yei is still lying in the street, nobody comes to her aid. A few cyclists and pedestrians  go by. Nobody comes to her help. In all, eighteen people passed by and nobody came to help her. Another car goes by and drives over her feet. Eventually a sanitary worker stops and pulls her to the side of the road.

She was then taken by the emergency services to the local hospital in intensive care

On 22nd October little Yei Yei died.

This is a true story

I mention this terrible story because I thought to myself: you know  in China there are special rules in urban areas in relation to population control. You are only allowed to have one child. If you have more, then you are fined mercilessly by the Chinese authorities, which is a great incentive not to have more children.
Why should it be that in a society where you are only permitted to have one child by law yet they can be so callous as to just walk by as a child gets knocked down. I would have thought that it would be completely the opposite, that because of the fact that families are only allowed one child, that people would recognise how precious each child is and do everything in their power to protect  and ensure the safety of their children,
But that was not the case.

A little girl was on the floor knocked down by a car but people kept walking impervious to what had transpired. They see but they do nothing about it. It’s not my business.
“Why should I care about what has happened to a little girl – she’s not mine“-so said the driver when he was found and interviewed by a reporter.

When I read the story of Noah I read into the story two possibilities of a Noah. I read about a Noah who knew about the oncoming flood yet he didn’t do anything for his generation. Yes they were wicked, yet he stood around and instead of caring and bringing people back to an upright way of life he stood around knowing that I and my family are going to be saved- why should I care for anybody else.
Or I think of another Noah, who despite living in a generation where everybody around him was thinking in a crooked way, he stood up for what was right. That’s not always easy it takes a lot of courage and strength.

Which type of Noah are you?

Monday, 10 October 2011

What's a Mitzvah worth?

There is a wonderful, magical movie- One of my personal favourites which was released a few years ago, and I’m sure many people here have seen the film it’s called Ushpizin- it is a Hebrew language film with subtitles in English.
It’s a wonderful film because it gives us- the public an opportunity to look into the lives and the mindset of the Charedi Jew in Israel. I have also spoken to Israelis who have told me that the film has broken down barriers between the Charedim and Chilonim in Israel because it has pierced through some of the pre conceived notions that people have about Charedi Jews.  
It is also interesting to note that a number of the actors are in fact Charedi Jews themselves which gives the film a certain amount of authenticity and honesty.
The film begins with the Arbaah Minim Shuk in Yerushalayim. Moshe the hero of the story, a Bresleva, Charedi Jew, is looking to buy an Esrog for the coming Chag of Sukkot. He is led into the room where the Esrogim are sold, and there he sees in front of him the diamond of all Esrogim- The jewel of the crown-the most beautiful Esrog you ever saw. However the Esrog is far too dear for Moshe- but he so much wants this Esrog for the Chag.
However, Moshe sits studying Torah all day long and he lives together with his wife Miriam on a very meagre existence, sustaining themselves on the very insufficient Kollel stipend and indeed for Sukkot this year they have no money.
Through a series of interesting circumstances, and a chain of events, they receive a sum of money, enough to sustain them for the Chag. The first thing Moshe does is he goes to the market to buy his Esrog- and what joy he experiences to have this beautiful Esrog to fulfil the mitzvah.
Looking from the outside in, you think to yourself maybe Moshe’s a meshugannah; He has to look after the needs of the house and his wife and he’s going spending crazy money on let’s face it- a glorified lemon- His wife Miriam when she hears what he’s done is none too pleased; you have to watch the rest of the film to find out what happens to his Esrog. But the question is; is there a basis to this behaviour whereas we take money and we use it disproportionately for the sake of a mitzvah?
The Mishneh in Sukkah tells us that on the first day of the Chag the Torah says

“You shall take for yourself (referring to The Arbaah Minim) on the first day”.
The Mishneh says that you have to take the four different kinds yourself- that means that for the duration of the mitzvah on the very first day of the Chag at the very least you have to own the Arbaah minim- it has to be yours. The Gemara then delves into a discussion about ownership. What is called ownership- How far do we extend this rule?
Does this mean that everybody has to go to the expense of buying his own Arba minim?
A story is told of Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva (sounds a bit like Pesach doesn’t it) who all were travelling on a ship together during Sukkot.
The only person who had the Arba Minim was Rabban Gamliel who had purchased his set for 1000 zuzim.
The Talmud then says that each one in turn used the Arba Minim of Rabban Gamliel, but each one of these Rabbonim in turn took the Lulav as a gift from Rabban Gamliel. They then gave it back to Rabban Gamliel. The Gemara concludes with two lessons. Number one that even though it has been given as a matanah al menat lehachzir, that means that the Arba Minim was given as a gift on condition that it would be given back to the original owner, it is still called a matanah and throughout the duration that the  
 Person fulfils the mitzvah he/she has ownership even though it has to be given back at the end.
Number two; why did the story have to say that Rabban Gamliel had purchased his Lulav for 1000 zuzim- what do we learn from this story? Answers the Gemorrah; Lehodiacha Kamma Mitzvos Chavvivos aleihen- To teach us how mitzvoth are so beloved by our Torah leaders. Rabban Gamliel was a wealthy man, but even for Rabban Gamliel 1000 zuzim is a lot of money- but he was ready to go over and above the call of duty in order that he would have the opportunity of fulfilling the mitzvah.
My friends, I think the message is clear; we cannot always estimate the value of a mitzvah. What might seem to me something very important and valuable may appear to another second person worthless- because we cannot put a price on the value of a mitzvah. Rabbi Yochanan in Pirkei Avot says this very succinctly in the Mishneh when he says “ Hevei Ratz lemitzvah Kallah kevachamurah-she-ein atah yodeah matan secharah shel mitzvoth”
“Run to fulfil even a light precept like you would for a stricter one- why?-for you do not know the reward for each individual mitzvah”
When I was in Yeshiva in Montreal and used to give my wash in to the local launderette, the lady behind the counter used to say; why do you give me this rag each week to wash? –and she was holding up my tzitzit- To me this was Tzitzit with which I remember all the mitzvot of Hashem, and with which I connect up to God and constantly look upon the Tzitzit to maintain my bond with Him - but from her perspective it was a simple rag brought in to be washed.
And we also do not know the value of a mitzvah on a second person. Every year we go on the first day of Rosh Hashanah around the houses and also to the local hospital to Northwick Park to blow Shofar and to bring people a little bit of the feel, of the Simchah of Yom Tov.  
Sometimes, we do not realise what a difference we can make-The opportunity to hear the Shofar; a little cup of grape juice, some apple dipped in honey, a few words of cheer – these little things- small though they may be-one has no idea the affect that one can have on somebody unable to be  in the shul at this crucial time of the year.
So. I wish you all once again Chag Sameach and with the message that we never always quite know the value of one single mitzvah.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

So many Jews in Shul!!

Some of my words from Kol Nidrei:

Joe Goldsmith lands at Tokyo airport – he’s picked up by a Japanese taxi driver who says: So you’re Jewish- did you know there are 999, 999 Jews all together in Japan?
No – I didn’t know that there were that many- How do you know?
Very simple- said the Taxi driver- Whenever I go past the Synagogue a man knocks on the window of my cab and says: 
We need one more for a milian!”
My friends, tonight there are more people in Shul than on any other night of the year. Indeed throughout Yom Kippur Jews come to Shul. I remember when I was a little boy being brought up in Gants Hill, Ilford. Now that was a massive community. On Rosh Hashanah + Yom Kippur the shul used to rent out the local Odeon cinema for the main service. This was a 3500 seater cinema- and every seat was taken. I remember going up to the very top of the Ladies section which was the circle seating and I used to look down on my dad who was a white speck on the stage below.
My dad also pointed out to me that the film Alien had been playing during the week- which curiously is Neila backwards!
Jewish people on the High Holydays want to be in Shul- Jews want to identify. Indeed I think of the words from the Talmud in Kiddushin: Yisrael af al Pi Shechata Yisrael hu-
 A Jewish person even though he/ she may have sinned is still part of the Jewish people.
The fact that I may have lapsed away from G-d His Torah – His people over the past year does not count me out as a Jew. I am quintessentially still part of the Jewish people. Even though I might not have been such a good Jew as I should have been nevertheless I am still connected with G-d and His Torah-and nothing can take that away from me.
And this idea is accentuated in the formula which we declared earlier just prior to Kol Nidrei.
 Biyeshiva shel maalah ubeyeshiva shel matah- In the upper courts and lower courts –
Anu matirin lehitpalel im ha-avaryanim- We sanction prayer together with transgressors.
In other words –there may be people here who may have strayed away from G-d and His Torah yet we pray and we are together as one.
The Hebrew word Tzibbur which means community is made up of three integral letters. These are Tzaddi- beit – and reish which stand for tzaddikim- beinonim and reshaim- righteous- intermediate and wicked- and all the gradations in between. I suppose that a community to be really called a Tzibbur – a community in the fullest sense has to include everybody of all different shades and opinions  
But I want to take this idea a little bit further…..
There is the famous story told about the Holy Ari Zal- Rabbi Yitzchak Luria who lived 500 years ago in Zefat and he used to spend a tremendous amount of his time and energy on Yom Kippur reciting all the Al chets- which is part of the Viddui – the confessional prayer on Yom Kippur
Al Chet Shachatanu lefanecha begilui arayot
For the sin that we have sinned before you for immorality
Al Chet Shechatanu Lefanecha bishfichot damim
For the sin that we have sinned before you for shedding blood
 His followers came to him and asked him; We know that you are a great Tzaddik, and that you live a life of purity and holiness-Why are you spending so much time  cataloguing sins that are not your own and that you have not done? 
He responded: You are right-  they are not my sins these are the sins of my fellow Jews and I feel responsible for them therefore I spend such a time in listing these sins and asking G-d to forgive my fellow Jews!
The Ari was citing an important Talmudic principle and that is:
 Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bezeh- All Israel are responsible for one another. The underlying principle is that if a Jew sins I cannot just say I am not responsible but the fact that a Jew is not keeping Shabbat or not eating Kosher is because there lacks something in me! I am therefore in some way responsible for my fellow Jew.
Rabbi Yochanan in the Medrash illustrates this with the parable of a boat travelling from Sidon to Tyre and in the middle- one of the passengers decides to start drilling a hole under his own seat. The other passengers say to him – what are you doing – why are you drilling a hole under your seat? He answers: It’s my seat I paid for it – so I can drill a hole under my seat.
But – respond the passengers if you drill a hole under your seat we will all drown because we are all in the same boat.
Thus- says Rabbi Yochanan- Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bezeh All Israel are responsible for one another.
We are all in the same boat
 On Yom Kippur we are judged in two ways: first on an individual level: we are judged according to our specific merits. But in addition we are judged as am Yisrael – Maimonides says it very succinctly. Through doing one extra mitzvah you may be:
 machria et atzmo ve-et kol haolam kulo lekaf zechut- you can tip the balance on your own scales and indeed for all the world for the balance of merits. Conversely if you do one sin you can tip the balance the other way G-d forbid.
This is reflected in our recitation of Viddui. Later on in Maariv- as we do throughout Yom Kippur you will notice that when we recite the Viddui,  we first recite it in our silent Amidah- then later on we recite it as a Tzibbur – as a community led by our chazzan tonight.
The first time we recite Viddui in our personal Amidah we do so as individuals- I have sinned before G-d – it is my autonomous responsibility to confess my sins before G-d. Only I can do that - nobody else can.
Ultimately it is You Hashem who knows and recognizes the truth-and we say this as part of the Viddui:
Atah yodeah razei olam
You know the secrets of the Universe and the hiddenmost mysteries of all the living. You probe the innermost chambers, and test thoughts and emotions, nothing is hidden from You and nothing is concealed from Your eyes.
But then later on we come as a community:- notice all the viddui is in the plural Al chet shechatanu lefanecha- for the sin that we have sinned before You. We come as a people and we ask You to forgive and pardon all the sins of Israel.
Have you noticed that when we recite the ashamnu – the al chet (Veal kulam) Ki anu amecha- veal chataim which all incorporate parts of the Viddui prayer, that the tunes that we use are all quite upbeat. Seems strange here we are talking about how bad we have been yet we sing catchy little tunes + ditties.
The Baal Shem Tov explains that even a cleaner who gets the opportunity to clean out parts of the king’s palace is happy because he/she has the privilege to clean out the palace of the king. So too we are joyful – we sing, we are cleaning out our souls, we are starting anew. Hashem has given us this opportunity to come back and return to Him.
The Mishneh in Taanit says the following: Lo Hayu yomim tovim beyisrael kechamisha asar beav ukeyom Hakippurim.
There were no greater Holidays in Israel like the 15th Av and Yom Kippur. The Mishneh is saying that these two festivals are so special that they have a greater joy than all the other festivals.
I’m not going to explain why 15th Av was a day of joy- not the place here. But Yom Kippur- a day of solemnity- of sadness- especially since we are delving on our sins, we think also about how far we have travelled from G-d, why should this be a day of Simchah and joy?
The Talmud answers Ki Yesh bo selicha umechilah- The reason why Yom Kippur is essentially a happy day because it affords us the opportunity to come back before Him and G-d has set it aside as a day of forgiveness and pardon for our sins. So rather than it being a day of sadness it is a day of joy- indeed tomorrow in the Avodah of Yom Kippur, the original temple Service we read how the Cohen Gadol, the Cohanim and the people were in a state of euphoria after the Service had been completed and the High Priest had come out from Holy of holies without blemish!
Every year over Yom Kippur we recite the following blessing: Baruch atah Hashem ….
Blessed are You O Lord who forgives and pardons our sins and passes over our guilt every year.
Asks Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev: How do we know that Hashem is going to forgive and pardon our sins every year- isn’t this therefore a beracha levatala- a blessing in vein?
He answers with a parable of a Rebbe with his young student who promises him that if he is a good boy he will be rewarded with an apple. The young student is a kluger- he’s very clever and sharp. He immediately recites the beracha: Baruch atah Hashem elokeinu melech haolam borei peri haetz- blessed are You O lord our G-d King of the Universe who has created the fruit of the tree. The teacher realizing that his student has recited the bracha is duty bound to give the apple to the student otherwise the blessing will be in vein.
So too we recite the blessing that G-d forgives and pardons our sins every year.
Says Reb Levi Yitzchak- G-d is now duty bound to grant us our blessing otherwise it becomes a blessing in vein.
My friends, we pray that Hashem give us His full brachot for this year and grant us selicha umechilah and let us say Amen.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The small thin voice

I want to take a few moments of your time to reflect on a few small words from the piyut: unetana Tokef which we read during Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

The context is Yom Hadin- the day of Judgement which is announced in heaven:

“A great Shofar sounds and a (kol demama daka)small thin voice will be heard”

Quite a strange phenomena to be using this idea of a small thin voice in relation to G-d and the Yom HadIn.

Look at the reaction of the celestial beings:

“Angels rush forward and are held by trembling /shaking”.

The actual source of this idea of the Kol demama dakah- the small thin voice- comes from the Book of Kings I. The Prophet Elijah is on Mt Carmel, the Prophets of Baal- the false heathen worshippers are pursuing him.

He finds himself alone in a cave on the side of the mountain.

He is told by G-d to go out onto the Mountain

Suddenly there was a great and strong wind that tore the mountains and broke the rocks before G-d.
Lo beruach Hashem
G-d was not to be found in the wind.

Then there was  an earthquake
Lo beraash Hashem
G-d was not to be found in the earthquake

And after the earthquake there was fire
Lo ba-aish Hashem
G-d was not to be found in the fire

And after the fire there was the Kol demama daka
A small thin voice and G-d appeared to Elijah.

The Kol demama daka announces that’s it in the small things- the details of creation where the infinitude of G-d is to be found.

I think there is here a little message: we emulate G-d as the Torah says Vehalachta bidrachav- Walk in His ways.

And just as G-d is too be found in the small thin voice – the beautiful details of creation- so too it is with our small deeds – the little act – this is what Hashem wants from each and every one of us.
In the words of Rav Soloveitchik;
Sometimes it is the small, modest, unseen act, the seemingly insignificant deed unnoticed and hardly discernible is precisely the one which fulfils a higher plane than through great renowned heroism.

Teshuva Tefillah utzedaka maaviril et roah hagezerah.

It’s through our deeds that we can make the difference.

Wishing you all a Gemar Chatima Tovah– you should be written and inscribed for a Happy Healthy and sweet New Year. Amen