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Ten Commandments – season 3 333 – at a synagogue near you

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Religion

We love round numbers. The celebration of decades, half centuries, and centuries always takes on special significance. Next week, on Shavuot, we will celebrate, for the 3 333rd time, the anniversary of the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The covenant took place in the year 1948 from creation, (1 313 BCE), hence 33 centuries and 33 years have now elapsed. Besides being an aesthetically pleasing number with a great ring, is there any significance to the number 3 333?

It turns out that the number 33 is very closely connected to the essence of the Sinai covenant. Allow me to take you on a journey into some simple numerology. In Psalms 119, King David begs Hashem to “uncover my eyes so that I can behold wonders in your Torah”. The Hebrew for uncover is gal which is spelt gimmel-lamed. According to the Gimatryia code, which ascribes a numerical value to each of the letters of our alphabet, a gimmel is worth 3 and a lamed 30. That adds up to 33!

On the very first Shavuot, back in the year 1948, the assembled nation at the foot of the mountain had their eyes opened to the true reality of this world, a place where G-dliness permeates and fills all space. Being a physical environment, the realm that we inhabit conceals, by its very nature, its true essence. But there at Sinai, we were shown a glimpse of the hidden divine dimension of this world.

There, we were given the Torah: a set of detailed instructions enabling us to crack the veneer of suppression, to uncover for ourselves the deeper spiritual dimensions of this world. The mitzvot, 613 divine instructions (248 obligations and 365 prohibitions) form the code that unlock that reality. Studying this Book of the Law helps us to delve into the G-dliness that’s all around us. Following the instructions therein, by all of us across many generations, will reveal the true reality that comprises this world.

Each generation builds on the achievements of the former. As we move down the course of history, closer and closer to an era when the knowledge of G-d will finally fill the world, we are delving deeper and deeper into loftier and more sublime levels of Torah. The initial unearthing took place at Mount Sinai, one week into our current month of Sivan. Another watershed event in this process was the revelation of the Kabbalah, the inner dimension of Torah, by the great Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This took place on his final day on this earth. The anniversary of his death, and of the huge exposure of Torah, is the 18th of Iyar, corresponding to the 33rd day of the Omer – a day commonly referred to as Lag B’Omer (Lag is spelt gimmel-lamed = 33)!

King David prayed for Hashem to open his eyes and reveal to him the wonders that are found in Torah. This year’s Shavuot comes to us after a year and a half of what appears to us to be deep concealment, and weeks after a day of Lag B’Omer in which celebration turned into tragedy. As we prepare to celebrate the gift of this Torah for the 3 333rd time, we beg Hashem to open our eyes and show us the divine within this physical world so that all will finally be understood.

On Monday morning, at a synagogue near you, come hear the ten commandments read from the Torah. May season 3 333 turn out to be the final one, ushering in the era of moshiach that Jews have prayed and hoped for these 33 centuries and 33 years!

Chag sameach

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Religion

Moving from tumah to tahara

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This week’s parsha introduces us to the detrimental spiritual effects of tumat met, the impurity that comes from being in contact with the dead and the requisite process of purification through the mechanics of the sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer – the para adumah.

Tumah (ritual impurity) is a prevalent topic in the Torah and in many instances, we are warned to distance ourselves from numerous sources of tumah.

But what is it anyway? The English translation does it no justice (as is the case with most English translations of Hebrew concepts).

I have heard rabbis and teachers try and compare tumah to a type of “spiritual radiation”, which can affect anyone who comes close to its source.

Another idea which I read a while ago describes tumah as deviation from an object’s designation, while tahara (the opposite of tumah) is the return or recalibration of an entity to its purpose and goal. For example, a dead animal is by definition tamei (impure) while an animal shechted in accordance with halacha, is tahor (pure), and can be eaten by the holiest and most pure Jew around – apologies to all the vegans out there. A human corpse carries the highest form of tumah, as he can no longer fulfil his purpose in this world, namely living and sanctifying Hashem’s name in the world.

But I think the best explanation is that tumah is the erroneous sensation that Hashem has abandoned us. Hashem is all of reality. (The ineffable name “havaya” talks to this concept.) The truth is that Hashem is always everywhere and intimately involved in our lives. When we perceive and appreciate this, we live on a lofty level of tahara and kedusha. However, when we don’t perceive Hashem’s presence because of a death or being in contact with certain spiritually tainted objects, we are labelled as being tamei.

It’s for this reason that a mourner, someone who by definition came into contact with a relative who passed away and mistakenly felt that Hashem had abandoned him, has to recite kaddish publicly in shul and re-infuse himself with kedusha – sanctity and the realisation that Hashem was always there and would never forsake him.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

Quarrels and Korach

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I remember once being peripherally involved in a community dispute (a rare occurrence in Jewish life to be sure) some years ago. Discontent had been bubbling for a while, but it all boiled over around this time – parshat Korach. As support was being mustered, one party approached me during the week and asked, “Are you with me, or are you with Korach?” About a day later, I was speaking to the other party, who raised the dispute and asked me, “Are you on my side, or that of the other party, who is clearly Korach?”

In the end I was able, more or less, to stay clear of it (thank G-d), but the nature of that interaction is indicative of the challenge of learning the lesson from our parsha generally. Is the lesson that we should be confident in our position, invoking the wrath of G-d to strike down those who are clearly in error since they disagree with us? Obviously not. Is the lesson that there’s no right and wrong, and it all just depends on your perspective? I don’t believe our Torah is compatible with such moral relativism. The parsha can teach us how to engage in such difficult situations through two-fold analysis of a situation, as we can see with the Korach dispute.

First, look at the merits of the arguments raised by each side. Korach is claiming that Moshe has claimed power for himself, without divine mandate, in order to rule over the Jewish people. Moshe is claiming that he has no personal desire for power, he’s simply doing what G-d instructed. We, the astute readers of the Torah, know that Moshe is correct, that in fact, he shunned leadership at the burning bush, and accepted the position only at Hashem’s insistence. Besides, all of the Jewish people have seen that Hashem entrusted Moshe to deliver the ten commandments, and that he succeeded in achieving atonement for us after the sin of the golden calf. Is it more logical that such a man would attempt a power grab, or that the troublesome former slaves needed a leader with a firm hand on the wheel?

Second, look at the approach of each side. Korach begins by wheeling and dealing – mustering support, putting spin on his position, and using soundbites to signal his virtue. Moshe appeals for de-escalation, reaches out to other disputants Datan and Aviram, and asks for trust based on his history of dedication to the people.

Our cognitive biases, particularly what’s known as the “halo effect”, nudge us to prejudge people and situations and to take sides based on who we like better. But, before deciding who is Moshe and who is Korach, we would be well served by applying these parsha lessons.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

How to avoid blindness

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Do you want to preserve your eyesight? Mishna Berura (24,7) quotes an ancient custom that will prevent blindness. Passing the tzitzit over our eyes when reciting the third paragraph of the shema will guarantee that we don’t lose the ability to see. How are we to understand this blessing?

The final passage of this week’s Torah reading teaches us the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes we are instructed to attach to the edges of four-cornered garments in order to remember all of Hashem’s commandments. After spelling out the details of the laws of tzitzit, the portion concludes with a seemingly unrelated reminder that Hashem took us out of Egypt.

Egypt is actually the embodiment of the polar opposite of remembering. This was the country that forgot all about Joseph and all the blessings he had brought upon the land, saving them from a certain famine. A generation later, his erstwhile VIP family, who had been invited to settle in Goshen as the king’s preferred subjects, were enslaved and committed to hard labour. This was a blatant display of ingratitude – a total lack of appreciation for Joseph’s contribution.

Instead, the Egyptians turned a blind eye to the plight of the Hebrews around them, never objecting to the injustices decreed upon them by Pharoah. This explains why one of the ten plagues was darkness, a physical manifestation of their ingrate sightlessness. The Hebrew word for this plague is choshech, which is written with the three letters chaf-shin-chet, letters which also spell the words shachach (forgot) and kichesh (denied).

The precept of tzitzit is about remembering – the antithesis of the Egyptians’ behaviour. Hashem took us out of that land, physically and spiritually, removing us from and from us the evil of ungratefulness. The tzitzit, on the contrary, are all about gratitude, a reminder of the 613 commandments given to us after the exodus. (The numerical value of the word tzitzit, 600, added to the number of strings, eight, and knots, five, that make up each of the four fringes, serves as a mnemonic of these obligations.)

Hence, the custom to pass these fringes over our eyes each time we call out the word tzitzit when reading the third paragraph of the shema every morning. This will ensure that we aren’t struck with the blindness of the Egyptians. And, please G-d, the merit of the mitzvah will also preserve our physical eyesight.

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