Lech Lecha

Contributed by Marcel

Why did G-d choose Abraham, over all others?

In the parsha Noah, G-d appeared to show understanding when He reminded Himself “the devising’s of man’s mind are evil from his youth”, (possibly referring to Adam and Eve), and thus G-d swore He would never destroy man again, using floods. (Jewish Publication Society Page 15)

In contemporary times, man’s evil mind could be interpreted as the ego.

The ego is identified  by persistent ongoing thoughts and negative feelings (fear), for both real or imagined situations or circumstances. We have an ego to keep us safe, and perhaps as stated, the ego originated when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of knowledge, and immediately felt unsafe.

The ego is certainly preoccupied in trying to understand everything, but tends to fail when trying to understand people, or the complexities of life. The ego is present and active during the use of intellectualization, solving problems, self -absorption finding issues, concerns. In addition, whenever we use expressions such as “I” or “Me” or “Mine”, our ego is at work.

It appears G-d chose Abraham, because he had a small ego, and was therefore  primarily driven by the only other powerful feelings apart from fear; love and positivity. Not many individuals can boast of love as the primary response, rather for most people fears and concerns are the default positions.

In Lech Lecha there are a number of instances that point to Abraham’s inherent ability to draw on love.

  • Importantly, we are reminded Abraham was a shepherd, and it appears G-d preferred shepherds to farmers. When G-d declared to Adam man would work hard all his days tilling the soil, Abraham apparently decided otherwise. Instead he would sit back and watch his herds do the work, and G-d liked this (The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scriptures by Yoram Hazoni). G-d it appears likes us to challenge Him, especially at times when the ego will emerge, grumbling and complaining, just as Cain the farmer did, when he saw G-d preferred his shepherd brother Abel.
  • Abraham was a listener rather than a talker. Thus he heard G-d tell him to uproot from his homeland, and relocate far away. Abraham did this without question or complaint. An extraordinary feat for an old man, with lots of staff, chattels and animals. However, listening to the Universe provides the courage to embraced the unknown, unlike the ego that dreads the unknown. Most of the chatter in our heads appears to beguile us, without realising it is the chatter of the ego.
  • Interestingly when it came to the well-being of G-d’s creations, Abraham lost his compliance, and challenged G-d. For example, prior the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. And G-d was prepared to listen to Abraham. Both knowing the challenges came from a position of love. Unlike the ego, where it is every man for himself.
  • Abraham was highly principled. For example, he allowed his nephew Lot to choose grazing land first, and then Abraham then travelled in the opposite direction with his cattle, trusting once again the Universe would guide him. Abraham was able to take others perspectives. He valued cooperation rather than competition. Unlike the ego, which only thinks about itself, and treats the world as a means to an end.
  • Abraham felt gratitude toward G-d for all his possessions, and was humble, not arrogant. He did not boast and pretend that his wealth came from all the hard work and his enterprising nature. When the King of Sodom offered Abraham spoils, he declined suspecting the King of Sodom would grand note himself in the future, boasting how it was he who made Abraham rich. Unlike the ego, which trusts no one, envies others, and is always trying to bolster its image and its bank account.
  • Abraham was not a sycophant. When G-d announced Sarah would have a child, Abraham fell on his face laughing, knowing G-d saw his response. The ego would never bite the hand that feeds it, so would stay silent, but chuckle inwardly.
  • In conclusion, parshas Lech Lecha reminds us to continue to manage our ego. Using love as the energy force means we can challenge and not attack, or sabotage. In particular the parsha reminds us that we must challenge ourselves, and the best way to do this is to challenge the Ultimate first. When He listens to us, it opens the portal of self consciousness, and the ability to manage ourselves, as the ego regularly deceives between right and wrong.
  • Piety is one thing, but following G-d’s commandments is another. The alte Rebbe said it well in relation to the Sitra Achra (animal soul/ego). He tells us to shout and scream and get angry with the Sitra Achras, as a way of subduing it. (Tanya)
  • Finally, I will never forget the words of the late rabbi Chaim Gutnick addressing a group of traumatised Holocaust survivors about fifty years ago. In his usual passionate way, he encouraged us to get angry with G-d. And that G-d needed to know we cared about Him, in a world where many has given up on Him. If a stranger does something wrong, we tend to manage, but when a loved one does the same thing, we can become enraged. This is a true sign of love sharing that pain, and this is what G-d needs from us.

Shabbat Shalom


I believe that imagination plus knowledge leads to creativity. My writing is about using the little knowledge I have, and combine it with my imagination that has no limits, to generate creative responses to the Hebrew Scriptures.

My hope is that my creative response will also awaken the reader’s imagination, so together we can create something even bigger, and both move closer to the Ultimate Creator.

*Wherever “man” is mentioned, “woman” is also intended



Genesis and the reappearance of God

Contribution By Marcel 

I believe that imagination plus knowledge leads to creativity. My writing is about using the little knowledge I have, and combine it with my imagination that has no limits, to generate creative responses to the Hebrew Scriptures.

My hope is that my creative response will also awaken the reader’s imagination, so together we can create something even bigger, and both move closer to the Ultimate Creator.

*Wherever “man” is mentioned, “woman” is also intended

Bereishit provides some wonderful insights into improving G-d-man* relationship, just like the good old days in the Garden of Eden.

Nowadays it seems G-d has assumed a position of irrelevance in many peoples’ lives, and I believe this comes at a great cost to us all, including the planet.  As a result, it seems many individuals act as if they were the ultimate rulers on earth, that they can do whatever they want, including wanton raping and pillaging.

Bereishit is a reminder of man’s true status, not as omnipotent beings, but solely as custodians, or tenants of Mother Earth, with the responsibility and accountability such a position holds. Bereishit goes back to the roots of the matter, and offers us the opportunity to change some of our ways, and to remember our true position on Mother Earth, as custodians and not as ultimate rulers.

In the Parsha, G-d instructs Adam and Eve to name all sentient beings, and they do so, with no other motive than the command. One can only wonder whether such a privileged task eventually went to man’s head, deflating man’s heart, and giving humanity a false sense of superiority as the quintessential labellers.  Our actions certainly indicate our exclusivity at naming rights has gone askew somewhat.

I suggest this is most apparent in our naming of G-d.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with labelling and categorisation. As humans we have a unique need to understand, and to find meaning in life. Especially within the limitations of our perceptions, sight, hearing, touch, etc.

However, labels come at a cost. We are no longer the naïve Adam and Eve living in Nirvana with only pure intentions driving our behaviour. For example, it is common for many to declare some people as depressed, or anxious or as narcissists to explain certain behaviours. This process is called pathologising.

Trained labellers use scientific evidence to substantiate their reasons for labelling. Both approaches have the propensity to develop self-interest groups, for example in the medical profession, or cliques that outgroup the vulnerable. Victimisation can be an outcome of out grouping, which is antithetical to Jewish moral code

Labelling can also lead to missing the experience, rather seeing the label first, compromising the uniqueness or beauty of the person or item.

I remember my two sons as little boys chasing sea gulls, excited and elated. At the time they had no idea what a sea gull was, but were enchanted by the flying, swooping and elusive creatures above them. Nowadays, the sea gulls continue to swoop, but my sons like most of adults, have lost interest.

I suggest labelling has been a contributor to their non-participation. Labelling has killed their creativity in this context. They now see the label first which blurs their experience of the birds.

I agree with the Buddhist saying “ once you label a butterfly, you never see the butterfly again”., and suggest this is what we have being doing to G-d for a long time.

Labels are great for alleviating uncertainty in us, but a relationship with G-d requires uncertainty, a leap of faith into the unknown, using creativity and imagination.

Mankind inspired by the labelling trend appears with good intentions, to have given G-d multiple names as part of our desire to make sense of the relationship with Him.  Names such as “The Lord’, “Our Father”, “The King”, “The Judge”, “Compassionate One”, to name some.

I suggest anthropomorphising G-d with such labels comes fraught with its own problems. Mainly because the labels are loaded with expectations, and expectations often lead to disappointments. Plus the labels miss G-d’s own revelations to man, found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

For example,  “I will be what I will be”, when Moses asked G-d to identify Himself, reminding us, it is impossible to pin down G-d using Human attributes.

And “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways”, declared by prophet Isiah to the Jews. In other words, we must not expect to understand His actions, as they make no rational sense to us. Even though to this day we are not convinced, and scratch our heads asking why bad things happen to good people, and vice versa?

When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, before eating from the Tree of knowledge, their relationship with G-d was pure, and authentic, there were no expectations, and thus no disappointments.  They were one with G-d, and with all sentient beings, as well as with the planet. Labelling of all life was a pure egoless act.

Adam and Eve were initially    blessed with a natural curiosity, the segue to creativity. Of course this also got them into trouble, as it was curiosity not malice that drove Eve to eat from the forbidden fruit

Those halcyon days are unfortunately gone forever and the self-interested ego rules supreme. However given some love and some encouragement, we all still have the ability to reawaken the creativity we inherited from the first people on Earth.

Remembering we are not alone, can help us to become inspired to once more be curious, take risks jump into the unknown using our imaginations and creativity, cognisant that the Unknown is G-d’s home. That G-d is particularly close to us, but most of the time, aided by mnemonics such as labels, we can be aeons away from Him.

Instead of the above emotionally charged labels for G-d, we should consider also naming Him as the “Umanifested”, or the “Unknown”, or the “Unfathomable”, or “No-thing”. This would then familiarise us to G-d’s real home in the Unknown, and help us to be better equipped as “things’ to get closer to “No-Thing”.

We can be each other’s life buoys, so when we jump into the abyss and the chaos, there are others of us waiting above with love, tenderness and compassion, and don’t forget with that bowel of chicken soup with matzo balls.

Abraham, Knife

Contributed by  Dr Howard G.

He gets up early. There’s a task he has to carry out. He wonders if it’s a test. He looks down at himself. Circumcise yourself, the Voice said.

This is going to hurt. He knows he must do it right: the target organ is the sole organ of generation. After the knife has finished its work, that organ has to work for generation. You will be father to nations…

He sharpens the knife. It’s the best Hittite bronze, this ma’acheleth, this knife that makes others to eat. He looks at the earthenware jug. Will he take wine? Wine will dull pain, will it dull the surgeon? No, wine will wait. There will be time for that after He gives him a son.

Hooded eyes look down again, calculating, reckoning. How much will suffice? How much will be too much? He raises the knife. It trembles in his hand. Vision blazes, the eyes widen, the blade strikes.


He’s up early again. When he hears the Voice he knows he has to act. It’s always daunting, always a task. Or a test? Take your son…

I have two sons. At least I used to have, before the Voice commanded: Listen to the voice of your wife. My wife told me to send the boy away. But still, which son does He mean?

Your only son…

He can’t mean Isaac! There’s the Covenant, the promise: father of nations…

Isaac, whom you loved. 

Well, there it is. No doubt, no further questions. So, up early, he saddles the ass, he takes two servant lads and they set off for the place which the Voice said to him. On the third day they stop at the foot of the mountain. Abraham speaks to his lads: You two stay here with the ass, and I and this lad will go on; we’ll bow ourselves down and we’ll come back to you.

Will we come back to you?

Both of us? 

Either of us?

How will I face his mother?

Why didn’t the Voice command me this time to hearken unto her voice?
So Abraham takes the wood pieces for the offering and he takes in his hand the fire and the voracious knife.

And the two of them go on together.

No speech in their mouths.

Silent climbing.
At length he hears the voice of his son: My father!

I’m here my son.

Here are the fire and the wood pieces; but where is the sheep for the sacrifice?

And Abraham says, God will see a sheep for sacrifice to Himselfmy son.

Isaac does not speak again to his father. Not ever.

And they go, the two of them, together.
And they come to the Place that God said to him.

Abraham builds an altar.

He arranges the firewood.

He binds his son. 

He places him on the altar, atop the firewood.
And Abraham stretches forth his hand.

And he takes that voracious knife to slaughter his son.

He moves deliberately, without haste, he allows time, as if awaiting the Voice, as if doubting the Voice, as if he now were the one setting a test.

The hooded eyes open wide. He is blinded by vision: he hears a Voice, the voice from heaven of a messenger.


Abraham says here I am.

He heeds the voice.
Abraham lifts up his eyes and he sees a ram and he slaughters it in the stead of his son.
The two descend.

They do not speak.

In hearkening unto a Voice that comes from heaven, he has obeyed.

No-one but he hears the Voice. Or the voices.

Were both the same true Voice?

If they were not the same voice, which was true?

The father and his son go to Beer Sheva and Abraham settles there.
What does Sarah hear from Abraham?

What does Sarah hear from her son?

What does she know?
The next we hear of Sarah is of her death in Kiryath Arba, which is a good distance from Beer Sheva.

Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot Torah reading

Contributed By Marcel

I believe that imagination plus knowledge leads to creativity.

My writing is about using the little knowledge I have, and combine it with my imagination that has no limits, to generate creative responses to the Hebrew Scriptures.

My hope is that my creative response will also awaken the reader’s imagination, so together we can create something even bigger, and both move closer to the Ultimate Creator.

This week’s Torah portion provides essential clues on getting closer to G-d.

Firstly, a major premise is G-d lives in the present, past, and future simultaneously, and has no concept of time as we know it. Thus generally, we have an opportunity to draw closer to Hashem, by encountering Him in the present, past and future as best we can. In the moment time stands still, G-d dwells.

Engaging with G-d in the past is easy. As G-d informs Moses, “I shall remove My hand and you will see My back” (after G-d has passed). Thus the Torah written thousands of years ago is relevant today.

We can easily exhort G-d for a better future, encouraged by His words in the Parsha  “Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations”

However, our efforts to encounter G-d in the moment, seem to be fraught with danger, “You will not be able to see My face, for no human can see My face and live.”

In the  Parsha further G-d informs us our relationship with Him is complex when He declares, “I shall show favour, when I choose to show favour, and I shall show mercy, when I choose to show mercy”. Words indicating G-d is not easily flattered, or beguiled by our praises, nor our actions to appease Him. Praying that we will be better Jews in the future, and asking forgiveness for our past transgressions, does not automatically lead to G-d’s acquiescence. Piety as an effort to engage with Hashem in the moment does not guarantee one favourable response by G-d. Of course piety does not mean there won’t be a favourable response. The Jew-G-d relationship as stated, is complex.

In addition the Parsha states clearly, the iniquity of parents is carried by the third and the fourth generations. Living a pious life today, does not preclude being punished for the transgressions of our great grandparents.

True intimacy can only occur in the present. Love affairs based on future predictions, or past experiences lack substance. It would mean if I only loved my wife because of her good looks when she was young, then by default I would lose interest in her as she ages she aged. G-d seeks our love NOW.

The Parsha offers a way of encountering Hashem in the moment.

The two Tablets of Stone mentioned in the Parsha, hold the key. They contain the Ten Commandments, the most exemplary moral code on HOW humans need to live their lives. The messages the tablets hold are unequivocal, and ensure living life with a  mutual respect for one another, a positivity towards all sentient beings, and to the planet. This is only possible through deep connections, only possible when we are fully engaged with life in the  present moment.

I believe reinstating the Ten Commandments to its position of importance and reverence, provides us with access to the ultimate moral code, a template on how to live a good and true life. A life where we are truly connected with all sentient beings and with the planet.

Since it is nigh well impossible for us to connect with G-d in the moment, as Moses, the greatest of all prophets found, surely the next best thing is to connect with his creations.

What does all this have to do with Sukkot?

Living in the moment is the most difficult thing for many people to do, exemplified by the never ending “to do lists” we carry in our heads, always taking us away into an unknown future, and often driven by negativities in our past. However, the present is the only time we are at our most vulnerable, able to show our true humanity. This is the encounter Hashem needs from us.

Living in booths is a ritual, and rituals generally do not make sense. We could celebrate Sukkot by simply reading the scriptures, in the comfort of our air conditioned home, rain and wind free, yet Hashem dictates us taking action, and with Melbourne’s weather in Spring,  inconveniencing ourselves at times as well. This ritual increases our vulnerability and our humanity.

Rituals by their nature compel us to experience the moment, because they are ‘unknowing’, just like the Unknown. This idea of being ‘unknowing’ takes us out of our frontal lobes, where endless planning, categorising, thinking and remembering occurs, leaving us to simply experience the ritual unprotected by our usual defence mechanisms, thereby getting closer to G-d.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach


Sukkot Insight

First day Sukkot 2021, Torah Reading

By Marcel 

There is a strange command in this Torah reading…
“You shall dwell in booths for a seven day period every native in Israel”
It seems strange is because the message was directed to the wandering Jews who had already been living in “booths” for close to forty years, they were not natives to Israel, and had never set foot in the place.
I suspect the last thing these Jews wanted to do was continue to dwell in booths, when they finally arrived at their destination, even for one week a year. Especially since they had been city dwellers when back in Egypt, and their current accommodation was not five star by any means
I suspect Hashem was once more delivering a cryptic message with his command. Since G-d lives in the present, past and future simultaneously, He was wanting to bolster the morale of the wandering Jews in exile, by pre-empting their status whilst they were still in the desert, wondering when they would get to their destination, and having no crystal ball.
In G-d’s view the Jews were already natives of Israel, because of all the effort they had made to arrive thus far. He afforded them citizenship as a way of inspiring them to keep going. The booth dwelling was a reminder of the context of their struggle.
The command reminds me of the stories of impoverished Jews, putting on their Shabbos best clothing, despite living in poverty. Their surrounds suddenly improved dramatically, just because of the garment change, and what it did for their self-image.
I believe the same principle applies to us nowadays. When we sit in our humble sukkah, and the rain leaks in (every September in Melbourne), we also need to remember we are Am Israel, the people (natives ) of Israel, and that our surrounds will never be onerous or wet enough to dampen (pun) our enthusiasm for our wonderful rituals and traditions.

Chag Sameach


By Dr Howard Goldenberg

When my stroke struck it struck my words

I’d speak a word and hear it slurred

The stroke struck my spoken word –

My word! How dear to me my darling words

The stroke struck words

Uttered aloud at prayer

I slurred those words

Unless I prayed with care

When I spoke the word

I recalled the ‘absurd’

Tale of the  Baal Shem,

Master of the Name:

when a man is born his words are numbered:

a man lives and speaks and exhausts his store

of words, then falls,

silenced, is heard no more…

That tale, to which I’d ascribed no store

Came to mind, and led me to deplore

The words I’d tasted,

Words I’d wasted

The basilar artery

That feeds the pons

Sometimes doesn’t

And it happened to me.

As strokes go

It wasn’t much –

Not so much a stroke

As a gentle touch –

And as strokes go

Mine went.

My words returned!

To heaven sent

But it was a stroke

Pontine infarct in fact

Seen by scan

It took me aback

Mum said, after her second stroke,

The next one will get me –

Three strokes and you’re out!

We both laughed at death’s little joke.

Or was it a joke?

 Words are the weapon of the Jew. Amoz Oz and his daughter co-authored a book on the subject of Jews and words. We have a love of words. Our Commandments are called The Ten Words, and by contrast, when Scripture endows an animal with speech, the endowment is potent for evil (the serpent) or for truth (Balaam’s ass).

 The stroke, (more a caress than a stroke, really) fell in the month of Ellul. Was Balaam’s ass talking to me? – I wondered. A wound to my words, that’s all it was, and only those words uttered without thought. That is, I was afflicted only when I davvened without intent. The immediate result was a slowing of that automatic utterance which had become my ritual. And when I slowed, words and phrases leapt out at me: I’d awaken and I’d say Modeh ani l’fanecha (I thank you…)  I’d start the Amidah with: Hashem, sfatai tifthach  (Hashem, open Thou my lips!) and I’d close that passage of pure prayer with Elokai, n’tzor l’shoni me’rah (My God, guard my tongue from evil).

I came to realise that our practice of spoken prayer was itself a sly joke: we use words to pray that our words be good. I heard myself reciting the prayer to Hashem that He should listen (shema koleinu, Hashem Elokeinu) when I, the speaker was not even attending. That realisation of my careless holy speech reminded me how colossally impertinent I was, as if I’d addressed the Bench with my back turned.

This enterprise of prayer is, by its nature, audacious. We speak to Hashem with our requests (nineteen of them, in fact, in even a routine Amidah). The act of prayer presumes to imply that the Almighty should listen, take heed and alter His plan or His intent: Hey, listen, God, I’ve got this great idea, actually a better idea than Your own.


In sefer Dvarim Moshe warns us: motza sfatecha tishmor (guard that which departs from your lips). Perhaps he’s recalling that occasion when Miriam, his own sister, traduces him for his union with a Cushite woman. For that sin of speech she is stricken with leprosy. Moshe’s immediate response is instinctive and impassioned. He cries, el nah, refah nah la (O God, heal her, I pray!)  Moses’ words redeem Miriam’s words. Moses literally asks God to reverse His decision. God heeds, acts and heals.


Ellul turned to Tishrei. On Rosh Hashanah I blew the shofar: one

hundred impassioned notes, now the pained cry of tekiah, now the helpless yelping of teruah, now the stuttering of shevarim. One hundred notes and not a single contaminating human word, nothing insincere, nothing half-hearted, nothing sly, sophistic or even clever. Pure prayer. The shofar had stopped my lips from speech.

In this season of confession it’s meet for me to confess. An addict of words, a wielder of words – in work, in play, in creation, in war, I’ve erred and I’ve wounded. I offer this confession with these public words, which alone will be utterly vain, unless underlaid with deeds. That’s our paradox: we’ll use speech to try to atone for speech. Other than the whirling of chickens overhead in an attempt to make the thought flesh, we have only words.

So, we’ll solemnly pray to God to annul our vows. We’ll say contritely al chet she’chtannu bevitui sfattayim, for the sin we sinned before You by an utterance of our lips.

We’ll follow this with al chet she’chattanu… b’dibbur peh, for the sin we have sinned before You in speech,

and shortly afterwards with al chet she’chattanu… be’vidui peh for the sin we have sinned before You by insincere confession.

The liturgy searches out my errors relentlessly:

Al chet she’chattanu … be’tumm‘at sefattayim (for the sin we have sinned before You by impure speech (ah, all those dirty jokes, all that sexist speech.)

Al chet she’chattanu…b’tifshut peh for the sin we have sinned before You by the folly of speech.

I thought of Roberta Flack:

Strumming my pain with his fingers

Singing my life with his words

Killing me softly with his song

Killing me softly with his song

Telling my whole life with his words

Killing me softly with his song…

And I thought of Moshe Rabbeinu, who said, va’ani aral sfattayim, (and I am uncircumcised of lips), and remorsefully, and vainly, I wished I was too.

Alot Can Happen Over Yom Kippur

A lot can happen over Yom Kippur

A short poem by Murray Meltzer

With Yom Kippur out I turn on the news,
the world has moved on with hardly a snooze.

In less than 24 hours we now have a nuclear roadmap at sea,
We’ve barely got past Neilah and our first cup of tea

We’ve upset the Chinese and pissed off the French,
I’ve only just eaten and have yet to Bench.

Our case load is up, it’s a pandemic still here.
The shrill sound of the shofar blasts through the air.

SpaceX has put 4 civilians into Space.
Dan is still taking on Sydney and it’s hardly a race.

Somehow we managed another Yom Tov at home.
We’ve heard a few tunes via Zoom on the phone.

We look forward to Succos and the joys of Spring,
And (wow) a mobile succah on a bike the Rabbi will bring !

So as we finish one year and a new one begins,
we’ve repented and atoned and cast out our sins.

There’s no looking back, with restrictions now easing,
it’s picnics outdoors with a friend now that sounds pleasing !!!

So in 24 hours we stopped for a while,
each in our own way with plenty of style

We move forth invigorated with sense of wonder,
a Yom Kippur 24 hours in Lockdown down under.

Broken and Whole

Victor Frenkel the great Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor is often asked why he didn’t flee while he had the chance once Hitler occupied Austria.

He explains that although he had a visa to flee to the USA, he was wrestling with the dilemma of abandoning his aging parents who weren’t able to travel with him.

One day he saw a broken shard of marble on the table at his family home. His father told him that when the national socialists burned down the largest Viennese synagogue, he had taken this piece from amongst the rubble because he noticed it was from the ten commandments that had been  part of the building façade.

One gilded letter was on the shard of marble referencing one of the ten commandments. Which of the ten was it referencing? Honour your father and mother so that you may live a long life on this earth. It was from this “little sign” that Victor Frankl decided to remain in Austria with his parents and the rest is history. He was taken to the concentration camps where he developed a therapy and therapeutic approach that saved the lives of countless people in the concentration camps.

Sometimes it is the broken shards of the law that teach us the most important lessons in life.

Our tradition teaches us that the Holy of Holies section of the ancient temple in Jerusalem housed the ark of the covenant with the stones of the ten commandments. To which set of ten commandments are we referring ?

We know that when Moses descended the mountain and found the Israelites sinning with the golden calf he threw the two tablets with the ten commandments to the ground and shattered them. The midrash offers this dramatic vision of the shattered stones lying on the ground and the Hebrew letters flying upwards to heaven. 

At that point G-d was pretty much thinking this whole Divine revelation to a chosen people was a bit ill conceived. He suggested un-choosing the Israelites but Moshe rejected this suggestion and prayed for their forgiveness and another 40 days later received a second set of tablets that remained whole and carried the words of the law for posterity.

Here’s where it gets interesting: The Talmud says that  it was both the whole tablets and the broken tablets that were kept in the ark of the holy of holies in the temple.

This is quite shocking! 

The broken tablets were the evidence of a people who turned against G-d at precisely the moment that they made their commitment to being faithful people. Or as the Talmud rather colourfully puts it  – as a spouse desecrating the marriage covenant whilst still under the wedding canopy.

What possible benefit is there in keeping these broken tablets, a remnant of a disgraceful episode in our history and keeping them in the holiest location of all.

There are many explanations to this formidable question. Some relate this notion to the psychology of life where we carry our broken experiences alongside our whole ones.

Yet an even more profound explanation relates to the relationship between a fallible human and a perfect law.

Moses descended the mountain with great hope and fanfare celebrating the monumental occasion of delivering the law to the people holding tablets stating ten of the most critical commandments. Lo and behold he finds the people desecrating the very first two commands on the tablets.

I can almost picture Moses looking up at the frenzied scene in front of him of the people worshipping a golden calf and then back down at the tablets that explicitly forbid this. Looking at the people; back at the tablets and thinking well this isn’t gonna work…

At that point Moshe, our leader and teacher, had a stunning and simple choice. Something has to go; the people or the law. 

And Moshe, spontaneously and instinctively, cast down the law shattering it into pieces.

And the people endured.

He chose the people over the law. Not because the law isn’t important or holy, it certainly is, but because no matter how valuable the teachings or law is, it is worthless without the people to bear its teachings and practice its principles. 

This might sound controversial but the tablets and indeed the Torah despite being filled with sanctity and life changing ideas, is an inanimate object containing abstract ideas. 

It is the practice of these ideas by humankind that gives the Torah its true meaning and life. If (and when) we fail there is no other choice but to reboot and start again. 

In the final words of the entire Torah, Moshe is regaled for the acts and decisions he made before ‘’the eyes of all Israel.” Rashi,  the most famous 11th Century Torah scholar, comments that the final words of the Torah are alluding to Moshe’s greatest act – the shattering of the tablets. 

This is Moshe’s greatest act? The final word on Moses? The final message of the whole Torah? The greatest prophet who threw G-ds word to the ground and shattered the law!

Every year we commemorate the day of the giving of the Torah on the 6th of Sivan and then 40 days later we commemorate the destruction of the tablets on the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz.

It is a sad day because it teaches us of the fallibility of human decision making but it is also a hallowed day because from within the broken shards Moshe taught us his greatest lesson of all.

A body of laws and ideas needs living – even if fallible – practitioners to bring its words to life. 

One day on the eve of the festival of the giving of the Torah, someone walked into the shul and gifted me with a broken folio of torah she had found in an antique shop in rural Morocco. Perhaps serendipitously the section she gave me was precisely the description of the festival we would commemorate that night. The giving of Torah and the ten commandments.

I looked at this broken piece of the Torah and was reminded of the shattered stones of Moses that rested in the holy of holies. 

Our responsibility is to be the living bearers and practitioners of the law.  We carry it. We teach it. We practice it. We give it its life as it gives us our life.

Speaking of those who bear the law with such distinction I want to acknowledge all of you who come in every year for this service and for the work that you do throughout the year. This year we pay special homage to Justice Weinberg as he comes to the conclusion of this phase of his career for bearing and applying the law with such integrity.

I also just wish to say a personal thank you to Justice Kaye on behalf of our shul and the entire community for without your enthusiasm and encouragement this important service may well have faded. 

Every year I receive a thank you with the Supreme Courts letterhead and before I open it I’m always certain that some of the unsavoury actions of my troubled youth have finally caught up with me, but no they are a most dignified and heartfelt letter of thanks from Justice Kaye for hosting the legal year service. You deserve our appreciation for bearing the spirit and the practice of our law with dignity and integrity. And thank you to Raph, Ruth, Bronwyn, Sam, Didi, Adam, Danny and Paul and all who contribute to this service.

I wish you all a successful year in your most hallowed role of being at the forefront of those who are the living bearers and practitioners of the law in our community.

About my father and me: exile and return            Ruth Leonards

Between 1993 and 2005 I worked as a librarian at the Makor (now Lamm) Library, which had begun a program called Write Your Story to help people write and publish their autobiographies. In 1998 when their first anthology was to be published, the library staff were asked to contribute in order to fill out its contents. I wrote the story below at that time and have not changed it since.

 Cleveland, Ohio, has been home to a vibrant Jewish community since the turn of the century. In fact, by 1920 Jews represented 9% of the population; they currently number about 60,000. I grew up in the comfortable middle-class suburb of Cleveland Heights, where my siblings and I walked to the local primary school and attended the nearby Presbyterian Church. Our neighbours were Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, as far as I knew. I never questioned the absence of our father at church every Sunday; after all, he had two jobs, was studying for his MD and was hardly around anyway.

I don’t remember hearing anything about Jews until I was ten. My paternal grandparents, who lived in Montreal, had sent me a Queen Elizabeth doll on the occasion of her coronation. After writing the requisite thank-you note, I asked my mother for their first names and address. She told me that their last name was not Leonards, like ours, but Rabinovitch, which was a Jewish name. My father, she said, had changed it when he went to university because his future would be better if he didn’t have a Jewish-sounding name. I don’t remember thinking anything very much about this seemingly startling piece of information. It had no effect on my daily life and I certainly never contemplated asking my father about it.

Only years later did I learn anything more of my father’s mysterious Jewish origins. I would learn that he was the elder of two sons, always his mother’s favourite and the focus of the ambition born of her Russian immigrant experience in the Jewish area of Montreal. Although he gained entry to McGill (the premier English-speaking university) under the Jewish quota as Jacob Rabinovitch (needing to score 25% higher than non-Jews), he soon saw that he would never be accepted in the ‘right’ circles with his name. Getting his mother (clearly the decision-maker in the family) to agree was apparently not too difficult and he thus became Jack Leonards, his middle name being Leonard, with the ‘s’ added to give uniqueness.

When war broke out in 1939 he was completing undergraduate studies in science. He set his sights on a future in the United States, where research opportunities existed and the draft thus far did not. Virginia Polytechnic Institute offered him scholarship money and over the next two years he got master’s degrees in chemistry and nutrition and began dating my mother. They married in late 1941. Somehow my father kept his bride ignorant of his background and his mother unaware of his marriage. They moved to Cleveland, where my father was to gain his PhD in biochemistry and where his deception was revealed. His brother, sent by his mother, arrived on the doorstep to be greeted by his unknown sister-in-law and two nieces. I never learned of his mother’s reaction to this news.

We visited my grandparents in Montreal on several occasions in my childhood. They lived in an ‘apartment’, not in a house like us. I remember cooking smells that were unfamiliar to me, though I don’t remember what we ate. We went to a place where bagels were being made; I do remember the delights of eating the warm rolls, as we called them. Uncle Izzy had a dry goods store, where my sister and I were given new dresses. My mother later told me that my sister had overheard our grandparents speaking a different language. When she asked our father what they were speaking, his reply was ‘French’! My father’s work as a professor in biochemistry and as a research physician brought him into close contact with members of the Cleveland medical community, many of whom were Jewish. At a party one night, my mother later recounted, a friend approach them saying, ‘Come on, Jack, I’m Jewish and I know you are too. Why don’t you just say so?’ My father’s response was to grab his wife’s hand, saying, ‘Come on, Betty, we’re leaving,’ and turn his back on an astonished friend.

When I was twelve, my father had to move out of the house. He had a ‘drinking problem’ and his increasingly intolerable behaviour was making our lives miserable. His departure was a relief to us all. My own relationship with him had always been fraught with fear and discomfort. I stayed out of his way; when asked, I did what he wanted with complete compliance. I hated the corporal punishment he inflicted on my three brothers and admired the way my older sister stood up to him in support of our mother. My own cowardice was a source of shame to me. I avoided seeing my father in the ensuing years, although he made some effort to re-establish a relationship with me. I told him that I was ‘busy with my own life.’ I was not to revisit my paternal grandmother until I was close to thirty and in the process of converting to Judaism.

Free of the anxiety of my father’s presence, I launched into a very successful high school career. Cleveland Heights High School gathered students from four junior high schools, three of which had very high percentages of Jewish students. I came from the one that had none (that I knew of, anyway). At Heights, everyone got along very well – we just didn’t socialise outside school hours; interfaith dating was uncommon. In my senior year I briefly went out with a Jewish boy, but his parents pressured him into returning to his Jewish girlfriend.

After graduating, I was awarded a four-year scholarship to a small liberal arts college in Ohio. My freshman class boasted one black and one Jew! My Jewish friend from high school wrote letters from Harvard, so when I finished up in Boston after graduating, he looked me up. We were married a year later. At his parents’ request, we went to see a rabbi, who might have agreed to marry us if only I hadn’t burst into tears at the suggestion. I could not contemplate the hurt it would inflict on my mother and on her four maiden aunts who had nurtured us all after the ‘dreadful’ way things with my father had turned out.

We lived a kind of non-aligned university life, my husband and I. The only taste of Jewish life I experienced was our yearly trip to Cleveland for Passover. I don’t remember a Haggadah being opened, though we may have spilled a few drops of wine. What I’ve never forgotten are the verbal exchanges, their volume and animation, which I would have called serious fighting but which my in-laws somehow treated as perfectly normal. In my home such behaviour would have been considered disrespectful and impolite. Yet I could see that this family shared an open affection and acceptance that I greatly admired. Nonetheless, five years later I walked out of that marriage and into the arms of my second Jewish man.

This time the question of converting was my own initiative. I remember my thinking centring around the importance of finding a sense of community for myself, as I was approaching the age of thirty. I also believed that my attraction to Jewish men pointed towards a need to establish a link with my father through his past, as I was not very interested in him in the present. I also sensed the importance of making the commitment to Judaism for my future parents-in-law, both survivors of Russian work camps during the Holocaust. The mechanics of the process in Toronto were expeditious and painless: weekly classes (with a written exam at the end), a connection with a Jewish family (cousins of my partner) and immersion in the mikvah.

Before leaving for Australia in 1974, I visited my father to say farewell and to discover his reaction to my becoming Jewish. When I told him, he looked away, telling me that he’d been to Australia for medical conferences, where he found the telephone service total inadequate and where he couldn’t even book a plane ticket after 5 pm. I never saw my father again. He died five years later, aged 59, never having achieved his lifelong ambition of winning a Nobel Prize. At the memorial service we held at his home, colleagues told us they believe he could have, if only …

Converting to Judaism took six months; becoming Jewish took at least ten years. In 1985, on a visit to the U.S., I realised that everything about my mother’s home and lifestyle seemed foreign (goyish is what I really thought) to me. What took another ten years to learn was that I could not turn my back on the first 30 years of my life, on the American Protestant values that persisted despite my best efforts to ignore them. I had not denied my origins, as my father had; instead I denigrated or dismissed most aspects of my background. The process of learning to accept and integrate my past has been not only a challenge but also full of ironies. In 1991 I returned to Cleveland for the 30th anniversary of my high school graduation. I felt immediately at home, as the predominantly Jewish gathering could have been a wedding or bar mitzvah in Melbourne. I even danced with my first husband. A few years ago I began going to shul on Shabbat, which in my marriage we had never done, but which I see as akin to my attending church as a child – only the day and venue have changed.

My father’s self-imposed exile, despite its tragic side, also had its ironies. After his death the Cleveland Jewish News ran his obituary! He might have denied his being Jewish, but the community claimed him. His daughter in Australia can say Kaddish for him. Surely we never fully understand the paths our lives take, but I have come to believe that my parents’ choice of my name was more than a simple coincidence.

Inner City Jew by Justine Sless

I am a fabled Jew of the North, of the red lipstick wearing, Radio National quoting, back yard chook owner variety. I am conversant in acronyms, grant writing idioms and the bureau speak of the not for profit sector from my day job and I can wax lyrical for hours about the perils, pleasures and pitfalls of doing stand up comedy, but the language of orthodoxy sometimes leaves me flummoxed.

The tenets of doing stand-up comedy for me are; fear, failure and humiliation. Laughter from the audience is strangely secondary to being able to control all three tenets at once.

When I go to the synagogue I love as an Inner city Jew, my lack of understanding about Orthodoxy feels similar; but private, without a spotlight glaring down on me and my palpable discomfort inhaled deeply by the audience.

I go to the shule in the city, not because it saves me the schlep of a Southside shule, where I know that there are more liberal options, but because I feel like it is my spiritual homeland, because it’s old and calming and the Rabbi and his wife, despite my complete lack of understanding about so many things are warm, friendly and welcoming.

Like the time I go to shule, to an event promoted in the small magazine posted out to me as a ‘spine tingling event,’ a night of nights.

As I approach the throng gathered outside I know that the greeting isn’t ‘Good Shabbos’ but maybe it’s ‘Chag sameach’, then someone nods and says ‘Good Yontif.’

‘Good Yontif’ I reply. That’s the greeting for tonight’s event: ‘Good Yontif.’

I climb the stairs with other women, the paint is peeling in parts and the walls are thick, cold and very, very old.

I look around as everyone does, to check out who is there.

The Rabbi begins talking. The men are doing that thing they do, seemingly in a private space, but so publicly; swaying and moving their lips silently.

I feel vaguely foolish and gauche, wearing a turquoise sweater, printed skirt and a red scarf, many of the women are dressed in black and some, including the Rabbi’s wife are in white.

Around me there are writers, philanthropists, gallery owners, sons of men who have been barmitzved there, wives and husbands who have been married in this, the oldest synagogue in Melbourne. They appear to know precisely what to do, say and wear.

One of the Rabbi’s sons is taking a book from where the Rabbi stands. I have not even bothered to get a book, because I know that my eyes will only scan the pages. I want instead to just feel the words and not have to flick through the pages, never sure if I am on the right one or not.

Another of the Rabbi’s sons runs into the now packed shule, he is around 6 or 7. This is his life, the rituals, his father speaking, praying and swaying amongst people. The young boy doesn’t look bored, but open and accepting.

I think of my own two children, 2 girls aged 10 and 17. If they were here, they would be sighing and asking when it will all be over, so that they may get back to their screens and to the spaces that they understand.

The open look on the Rabbi’s son’s face makes me think about respect and it makes me wonder which of the Rabbi’s boys will become a Rabbi themselves, and which of them might throw their hands up and reject it all.

I look at the Rabbis wife, she is slim and beautiful, and she always looks happy. I wonder if she is happy because she need not look any further, because this is her life and she is satisfied with it. I wonder is she is happy because she has chosen this life, or maybe it has chosen her. I think about what that must be like, if she grew up knowing that she would marry a Rabbi, the rituals and traditions grounding her in someway and offering a deep and nourishing meaning to her life

Sometimes I catch my reflection in a shop window and so often I don’t look happy, because I am always striving to be better, busier, more competent, more involved. More, more, more and so very rarely just being. So when I am silent in the shule that night, and on other nights, just watching and following and never quite understanding, it is a stillness that brings me calm and in a strange way contentment.

I can sing ‘Morning has broken, like the first morning’, I can recite ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, and I want to follow.’ I can sing ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ but I cannot sing this song on this night of Yom Kippur. My schooling in North East England was entrenched in the Church of England, Judaism was not there in that space, ever.

The rituals continue. I am still and calm. The Rabbi begins to tell us about this ancient night of prayer and song.

Everyone laughs as the Rabbi describes his son hitting his own chest so hard as he said the sins out loud, that he fell over.

We are asked to repeat the sins and hit ourselves on our chests: not to gossip, not to over eat, to be kind and good.

I wish there was one to say don’t worry, just relax unless you’ve been taught this stuff from birth then how can you know it all?

As the scrolls are brought upstairs after the men have kissed and touched them, I am afraid that a spotlight will suddenly shine upon me and highlight my lack of understanding.

The lady next to me pushes chairs aside and pulls me by the arm:

‘You must’ she says, ‘it’s only once a year, you must touch the scrolls. I am a project engineer I can make this work.’
She gestures to the young man carrying the scrolls. I touch the silken cloth, I sit down quickly, feeling embarrassed that a fuss has been made.

Then the songs and words and the rituals begin to soothe once more. I am still, because this place connects me deeply with my past: to my family, to those who perished in camps, to those who have come for thousands of years before me. The  Hebrew writing that I do not understand is like a set of symbols that has been the warp and weft in my world, but never enmeshed into a landscape that I can truly understand.

I watch the Rabbi and his wife greet the congregants as they leave. They look like a new bride and groom, thanking well-wishers on their nuptials.

‘It was lovely,’ I hear people say, ‘such a lovely evening.’ Like they have been to the theatre, or out to dinner.

We spill out into the wet night, moving back into our own worlds, my sense of fear, humiliation and failure ebbing like the sound of fading laughter.