Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Torah, a Contract, a Covenant of a Different Kind








In this week’s Torah portion,  Parshat Ekev, D’varim (Deuteronomy) 7:12-8:10, Moshe continues to remind Am Yisrael of the terms of the Covenant that they had entered with G-d at Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah.

Like any contract, written or oral that is entered into between the parties ,  the Mosaic Covenant specifies obligation, the mitzvot, as well as the rewards that result from fulfillment of all obligations and includes  the adverse results of violating its terms and how to deal with such consequences.

There are other Covenants that G-d has entered with Am Yisrael as as the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant. Unlike the Mosaic Covenant though, those are unconditional. This one is not only conditional, it is one that is not easy to follow. Yet, as we all know, Am Yisrael accepted it verbally and out-rightly when they said,  
   נעשה ונשמע“Naaseh Venishma.” (We shall do and listen).  It is one that is not easy to follow,
A law school professor might tell his students that the Mosaic Covenant is a “CONTRACT OF ADHESION”

A type of Contract, a legally binding agreement between two parties to do a certain thing, in which one side has all the bargaining power and uses it to write the contract primarily to his or her advantage.

That law professor would also possibly ask his students about its validity.  After all, what choice did the people feel they had about accepting such a contract from an all-powerful G-d who had just freed them from slavery in Egypt?   Moreover, they were asked to accept this deal without having really studied it and without benefit of legal counsel to help them understand its implications. 

In retrospect, would they agree that it was a good deal?  Some, like those who erected he Golden Calf or Korach and his congregation, did not and proceeded to violate the contract’s provisions with disastrous effect.
Now, why have we written about this?  

This story teaches something unique about Judaism and Jewish culture and why Torah should have been studied and seen only in the original Hebrew language.
It, also, illustrates something vastly different between traditional Jewish interpretations of Torah and those of others who have adopted Jewish literature and interpreted it to fit their own theologies.

One example where translations of the Torah from Hebrew has erred, innocently or deliberately, is when one refers to the information that was written on the Two Tablets that Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai as “commandments.” What was inscribed on them is described in the Torah asדברות   (Diberot) literally meaning  “pronouncements,” NOT “commandments” as the translation reads. There is a different word in Hebrew for commandments, מצוות (Mitzvot).

Our Torah, literally “instruction” (not law), in Hebrew, describes what happened at Mount Sinai  as ‘giving’ the Torah as a ‘gift’ (giving and gift in Hebrew  are derived from the same root, נ,ת,נ), implying that the giver is benevolent and loving,  like a caring parent,  caring for the welfare and best interests of its children. Therefore, though it may still be a contract of adhesion, it is one provided in love and concern.  It’s the parent who tells his child “look both ways before crossing the street, because the consequences of not doing so could be horrible”, not to set up the child to be fearful and not to be mean to the child, but out of love and care.   That, too, is a ‘contract of adhesion’, but one based on love and concern.

We are troubled by those who teach that all Abrahamic religions are essentially the same, just versions of the same themes and beliefs with little differences here and there.  Some Jews want to believe that as it makes them feel safer to be like everyone else in what they fear as a hostile world.  Christian Missionaries have for a long time preached that line to Jews to encourage them to convert, to just accept a small change, they claim, for salvation.   The problem is that between Judaism and the other “Abrahamic religions,” there is a theologically wide gulf that makes them almost polar opposites.

Christianity sees the establishment of the contract between G-d and Am Yisrael precisely as that definition above of the Contract of Adhesion.  A cruel and demanding G-d imposing harsh rules on the people with a deal they cannot dare refuse without an opportunity to study it.  They combine that with the Hellenistic belief that mankind is helpless and at the whim of the fates and gods, needing a hero to save them.  (according to Christian theologian Fr. Hans Kung). 

In great contrast, Judaism sees that contract more as directions and lessons (Torah, as we mentioned above, means instruction) from a benevolent kind father, who wants the best for his children and from a Benevolent G-d who wants the best for His People, ones who share the desire to set the standards and warn against what will naturally happen if those standards are not kept.  It’s the parent who warns his children to look both ways before crossing the street because he cares for their safety and welfare. 


Thus, for Am Yisrael and Jews, the Covenant is not the kind of one sided deal imposed by the powerful G-d.  It is lessons given as a gift to those who might benefit. In this case, it is Am Yisrael ONLY.


This article was written jointly by Roger Froikin and Bat-Zion Susskind

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Our Resilient Jewish Spirit




This Shabbat is another special day on the Hebrew Calendar. It is שבת נחמו Shabbat Nachamu. 

Shabbat Nachamu ("Shabbath of comfort/ing) takes its name from the Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah 40:1-26. It is called by this name because of the Haftarah’s opening words,נחמו נחמו עמי " “ : Be comforted, be comforted my People.”  It speaks of comforting the Jewish people for their suffering. It the first of seven Haftarot of consolation leading up to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

For me, this National milestone also bears a personal significance. It was on Shabbat Nachamu that my parents were liberated from the Nazi camps, seventy two years ago.

Growing up in the shadow of the Shoah, that is the date my parents always mentioned when asked about their liberation. Some found it strange. Why? You may ask.

Most people would remember and mark the Gregorian Calendar date as their anniversary of such an important event in their lives. Strangely enough, I never knew it by any other date other than “Shabbat Nachamu.” I doubt my parents ever remembered or at least did know the Gregorian date at some stage. Now, more than ever, I find it odd that they never remembered their Hebrew birth date, yet remembered the Hebrew date of their rescue from the inferno. That oddity is woven with bright coloured threads that send shivers through my spine each time that I stop to think about it.

It is only this year that I finally realized the significance or the symbolism of this date.

Firstly, for Jews to remember, observe and commemorate Jewish holidays and events, while being inmates of death camps in a hostile environment that tried to erase every connection to their essence as Jews, is commendable. As the years go by, I learn and read more and more stories of how some Jews risked their lives during those years to hang on to every possible shred of Jewish tradition. That is truly inspiring.
Clinging to their wonderful tradition, the customs, the celebrations at least through remembering them, infused in them the hope for better days and the firm belief that the “Eternal of Yisrael shall Never Lie.” What a fountain of optimism and courage it must have unfrozen in them. Their resilience was second to none.

Moreover, in Yiddish, the lingua franca of most European Jews upon whom the Shoah was brought, this disastrous event in Jewish history has come to be known as “Der Churben” דער חורבן  (The Destruction). This is the same name that was given by Jews to the destruction of both Temples, which according to tradition were both destroyed on Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av,  חורבן בית המקדש (the Destruction of the Temple).

How appropriate, then, that the Liberation of these Jews, who did all they could to cling to their Judaism, took place on the very day we console Am Yisrael on all of its sufferings.

And the parallel between their survival and that of Am Yisrael goes further than that. Like Am Yisrael, my parents and many other Jews were liberated to see the resurrection and the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. They came out of the Abyss, collected the broken pieces of their shattered lives and built a bigger and stronger tabernacle out of it in Eretz Yisrael.

May Am Yisrael continue to thrive on our Promised Land and make our Jewish Homeland go from strength to strength for ever and ever.

Amen!



Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Be the Change.......







“It is not incumbent of you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it…” Pirkei Avot 2:16
Being Jewish makes every day special and meaningful. Today, Tisha B’Av, is even more so.
Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Hebrew Calendar. According to tradition, many tragic events are said to have happened on this solemn day over the centuries. Both Temples were destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans respectively. On this day, the last stronghold of Bar Kochba was captured and his rebellion against the Romans was finally defeated. On the ninth of Av in 1290, King Edward I signed an edict compelling the Jews of England to leave the country. It was also on this day, according to tradition that the Jews were expelled out of Spain in 1492, and the day World War I broke out in 1914.
Naturally, we cannot change the events of our history. Can we, though, affect, influence or change its future course?
The question of whether events and circumstances control people or whether people control them, has long occupied the human mind. I am a firm believer in the latter. The optimist in me subscribes to Virginia Woolf’s belief of “forever altering one's aspect to the sun.” It is also known as adaptation.
The world we live in is far from perfect. It may never be that way but what is to stop us from striving towards that goal?
When it comes to affecting events in our lives and our world, I tend to distinguish between Fate and Destiny.
We cannot change fate. Fate is the common denominator all humans share. We are all born at some stage and will eventually die sooner or later. Destiny, however, that which takes place between the time of our birth and time of our death, is what we, as thinking creatures, Homo Sapiens, are capable of shaping and molding with change being its end result. “The measure of Intelligence is the Ability to change,” thus told us Albert Einstein. That includes our actions and the events that they produce (excluding, of course, natural occurrences over which none of us have any control).
The ability to affect and shape one’s destiny has been one of the prominent features of our Jewish People. It is not limited to individuals, though. It can also happen on the national realm. National survival or existence does not occur on its own. It needs to start with the smallest unit of that entity, the individual. In our case, it is you and me.
As a Jew, especially on this grim day of national mourning, I seek that change for our People. Jewish history is soaked with rivers of blood and a sea of tears. Why would we, or anyone want to repeat that? We need to understand, however, that it is the task of every Jew to be the change that they wish to see in our People. Learning and internalizing past lessons is the key and precursor to that change. On this day, I ask every Jew to stop and ask themselves, what have we learned from our People’s past so that we can change and improve in our Jewish future?
On Tisha B’Av, more than ever, the Jewish World must realize that it cannot afford to repeat past mistakes. Neither are we free to absolve ourselves from the duty and the task that G-d has entrusted us with, through the Covenant we entered with Him at Mount Sinai. We were ordered to choose Life and we agreed. Life, as we Jews know, is not always easy for us, if ever.
It is during such times that the wise words of Victor Frankl should light our path, “When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”