Tuesday, May 30, 2006


A Midrash for Shavuot

The words of Torah are likened to water, as it is written, O all who thirst, come for water, (Is. 55:1)

Just as water goes from one end of the earth to the other, so does Torah go from one end of the earth to the other;
Just as water is a life source, so is Torah a source of life;
Just as water is free to all, so is Torah a free commodity;
Just as water comes from heaven, so too is the Torah's origin in heaven;
Just as water are given to the accompaniment of powerful thunderings, so is Torah given to the accompaniment of powerful thunderings;
Just as water quenches one's thirst, so does Torah satisfy the soul;
Just as water cleanses the body from impurity, so does Torah cleanse the soul;
Just as water originates in tiny drops and accumulates into mighty streams and rivers, so the Torah is acquired word by word today, verse by verse tomorrow;
Just as water descends from a high altitude, so does Torah depart from haughty individuals and remain in individuals who are humble and modest;
Just as water is not kept in silver or gold vessels, but the simplest [clay], so Torah is retained by those who are simple;
Just as a scholar is not embarrassed to ask a student, 'pass me some water,' a scholar is not embarrassed to learn from a student a chapter, a verse, a word, or even a letter;
Just as someone who does not know how to swim is drowned in water, so is Torah - if one doesn't know how to 'swim' one can drown in it. (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1, Midrash Shocher Tov 1, Sifrei Devarim 48)

Take them also

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

According to the well known tradition, the tribe of Levi was chosen to serve G-d after the sin of the golden calf when The Holy One was so disgusted with the first born that He decided to replace them with the one tribe that had not sinned, the tribe of Levi. The tribe of Levi served as the "wheels" of the Tabernacle, they took it apart, reassembled it and carried it during the long journey through the desert.

However, not everyone in the tribe of Levi had the same task. At the end of Parashat Bemidbar, which we read last week, the Torah described the tasks of the sons of Qehat, one of the three families of the tribe of Levi.

Our Parasha begins with the tasks of the sons of Gershon, another of the families of the tribe of Levi. During the journey of the Sons of Israel, the sons of Gershon were to carry the curtains that covered and protected the tabernacle together with the screens for the Tent of Meeting.

The sons of Qehat who were mentioned at the end of Parashat Bemidbar had a far more central task. They carried the ark and the table and the altars and all of the holy vessals.

Parashat Naso opens with the words: "And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying: Take also the sum of the sons of Gershon, by the houses of their fathers, by their families" (Bemidbar 4:21-22)

It would seem that there are two extraneous words in this opening sentence. Why does the Torah say "also"? Won't Moshe remember them? What is the meaning of these words?

Here is a much more mundane example. What about the football player whose team wins the world cup while he sat on the bench throughout the game? Has he won the championship to the same extent as those who actually played on the field?

The truth is that we must understand that peoples, communities (and football teams) are made up of different components with different places in the hierarchy. I imagine that the people of Israel looked upon the tribe of Levi as the chosen tribe. But the same phenomenon existed within the tribe as well. The sons of Gershon looked at the sons of Qehat as the chosen ones. The task of carrying the ark in public seemed much more central than the carrying of the curtains of the tabernacle and the screens of the Tent of Meeting.

People have a tendency to grant special importance to those who perform tasks rated highly in the hierarchy. However, the Holy One looks on from above and he sees groups of men who have in common a past, a present and most important, common goals.

There is a tale that once all the parts of the body went out on strike against the stomach. They claimed that they worked hard in order to feed the body, while the stomach just enjoyed the fruits of their labor. And so the hands decided not to bring food to the mouth. The mouth decided not to open. The teeth refused to chew. The throat refused to swallow. As a result, the whole body was weakened.

When the Holy One said about the sons of Gershon, "Take also the sons of Gershon", He was in effect saying "Don't think that their task is of secondary importance. For me there is no such thing. The people of Israel is a work force, resembling man's body, and not a number of individuals working together for different aims.

"Take also the sons of Gershon", said the Holy One.

For me there are no classes.
They all have their role to play.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Not just Statistics

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Maybe you know the joke about the teacher who wanted to catch out a pupil in front of the class. She asked him to stand up and asked him a very difficult question in Mathematics. The boy knew the answer. The teacher asked, "And where is Zimbabwe?" The boy knew that too. "In what year did Colombia declare independence?" Again the boy gave the right answer. "Tell me," continued the teacher, "How many people live in China?". The boy thought for a moment and said, "One milliard, 300 million, 600 thousand, 281." Then the teacher said, "Names! I want names!".


We know well how important our name is in our identity. Our name gives us uniqueness, a special place in society. For example, a slave is just a slave, cheap labour.

At the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Bemidbar) Moses is commanded to count the people of Israel again so as to know their number: "Take the sum of all the congregation of Israel by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names; all adult males" (Numbers 1, 2). This is the third census within a year since the exodus from Egypt.

The first commentary of RaSHI on this portion says: Because they are dear to G-d, He counts them again and again. When they left Egypt, He counted them. When they succumbed to the temptation of the calf, He counted them to know how many remained. When He caused the divine presence to dwell among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan the tabernacle was erected and on the first of Iyar He counted them.

Reading the data of the census that appears in our portion is boring only to the reader. But to those who were counted the census returns their names, their identities and their honour.

That is where the love lies, according to RaSHI.

A poor man counts coins, for example, because each coin is precious to him. A child counts candies to know how many he has to eat. The nobility count their horses so as to show their wealth. However, here we speak of a much deeper affection. G-d doesn't count His sons just to know how many He has or how many remain, but also so that each one will feel special. He wants to emphasise the importance of each individual after the hard and bitter experience of slavery in Egypt.

A census is not only statistics.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


The Omer Ladder

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

This Devar Torah is dedicated Le-Ilui Nishmat Michael Lapides Z"L

Forty-nine days pass between the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt and the revelation of Sinai and receiving of the Torah. This seven-week journey, entitled "The Counting of the Omer", is mentioned in our portion, Emor.

At this time of year the people of Israel undergo a process of preparation for the giving of the Torah, a process of breaking away from the Egyptian defilement and entering a life of purity. According to our sages, the people of Israel in Egypt had sunken into a process of spiritual degeneration.

With each passing day the nation of Israel frees itself of another layer of impurity, forty-nine in total, and instead of being deep in sin we ascend to the gates of holiness.

But within this bridge between Passover and Shavuot there is something else which is deep and thought-provoking even in the present-day reality. Passover is a festival of freedom and physical redemption. But there is no finality to this redemption, it is rather a step towards the spiritual rejuvenation realized at Mount Sinai. Just as the bridegroom counts the days until he may unite with his bride, the nation of Israel counts the days which separate between physical redemption of the nation and spiritual redemption.

During this past festive week, between barbeques and hot coals, I have given a lot of thought to this same point. For there is, in fact, a parallel situation with our Independence Day (Yom Ha-Atzmaut). Independence is obviously a positive thing. But, as a society, do we have a spiritual agenda? As a state, are we really a "light unto the nations"? Is independence part of a greater process, or do we already see it as the end?

Rabbi Moshe Garelik refers, in his book "Parashah U-Fishra", to that bridge known as "the Counting of the Omer", which connects the freedom of the body with that of the soul:

"The sons of the desert generation, through this counting, reduced the festival of Passover from its independent standing and transformed it into the forerunner of the festival of Shavuot. This is how the bridge and the connection between these two festivals came into being. The counting unified them and taught them not to separate national material redemption from spiritual redemption. The former does not exist without the latter.

The actual existence of the nation's redemption is in danger if it sees itself as the final purpose and as the most important thing of all. Many revolutions have weakened because of the fatigue of their heroes, who believed that they had reached the end of the road and that there was nothing further to which to aspire. The stability of many countries which had finally achieved independence was destroyed because all that remained were relentless power struggles between the liberators.

The counting of the Omer says "NO" to what has been achieved. It sees the exodus from Egypt as a stage, an important and valuable stage, but not to be exchanged for the process itself, the ladder for spiritual ascent and human perfection presented in the Torah of the Festival of Shavuot".

May we, too, be empowered to bridge this gap and ascend the ladder step by step towards the spiritual vision which would complete us as a society.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Windows to the Soul

Rabbi Gustavo Suraski

This Devar Torah is dedicated Le-Ilui Nishmat

Fanny bat Baruch VeSara Chacham Z"L

The commandment to observe the Sabbath appears in the first verses of the Parasha: "You shall fear every man his mother and his father and keep my Sabbaths." (Leviticus 19:3).

The observance of Shabat is much more than a religious imperative, it is a spiritual need.

A few weeks ago, a member of the congregation who has started coming regularly to Shabat services told me how crucial it is for her to finish the week and enter the atmosphere of Shabat with us, with the congregation (even though she defines herself as "secular").

And she is right.

The concept of Shabat is so crucial to Jewish tradition that we remember it every day even though we may not be aware of it.

In the ancient world the days were named after the stars. This appears in several modern languages. Sunday is named after the sun, Monday after the moon and Saturday after Saturn. (In Spanish Wednesday, "Miercoles", is named after Mercury).

But in Hebrew the situation is completely different. We have "Yom Rishon" (the first day after Shabat), "Yom Sheni" (the second day after Shabat), "Yom Shlishi" (the third day after Shabat) etc. In effect, each day we note how many days have passed since the previous Shabat and how many days are left until the next Shabat.

Why is Shabat so essential, even to those who describe themselves as "secular"?

In this day and age, people are more concerned with the health of the body than with the health of the spirit. The truth of the matter is that after all the tensions of the week we reach Shabat in a state of "spiritual pollution".

But how does the soul become polluted? It is easy to understand and discuss pollution in the Kishon River or air pollution, but...the soul? How?

This is my opinion. Our body has seven "windows". It is through these "windows" that the soul breathes, lives and relates to the world. These windows are all located in our heads. There is the window of the mouth. Two windows in the nose, two in the eyes and two in the ears. The "pollution" of the week enters through these windows in the same way that sand enters through the windows of the house during a sandstorm.

When we make "Havdalah" at the end of Shabat, we dedicate a blessing to each of these "windows". First to the mouth when we bless the wine. Secondly, we bless and smell the spices dedicating a blessing to the nose. Then comes the for the candle dedicated to the eyes and finally we hear the blessing of "Havdalah" which is dedicated to our ears. These blessings are in effect a gift and a shield for these very same senses just at the moment when a new week is beginning and pollution again finds its way into the depth of the soul.

In another week Shabat will arrive. I regret to say that I do not think that the coming week will be free of tensions and pressures. I do not think that the news we hear every evening will be particularly good…

But at least Shabat will arrive again, this gift of twenty five hours that erase a large amount of the pollution in our souls and improve our spiritual state. As is written in the Hagaddah of Passover, "If he had given us only the Shabat, it would have been sufficient.".