18 May 2017

Haftara for Behar-Behukotai 5777: Zombie Universe

Download a printer friendly version here.

Please click HERE to listen to this week’s audio recording read by Rabbi Joseph Dweck

Haftara for Behar-Behukotai 5777: Zombie Universe

‘My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness’.


Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14


Yirmiyahu opens proclaiming that God is his strength and stronghold. He heralds a time when all nations that built their lives on lies will return to God. God mentions the people’s guilt and the consequence. Focus is placed on the tendency of people to rely on flesh and blood for deliverance but being that flesh and blood is not the source of life, it cannot provide salvation. Trusting in God, however, is to trust in that source and those who genuinely do will flourish. We are reminded that the heart is devious and must be regularly vetted, for its ways are crooked and corrupt. ‘Most devious is the heart and weak, who can truly know it? I, God, probe the heart, search the mind, to give to each man according to his ways with the proper fruit of his deeds’. (17:9-10) God knows the content of our hearts and responds accordingly. God is called the Hope of Israel, the source of the waters of life. Yirmiyahu closes asking God to heal and save him for God is his whole praise and glory. 


I write this week from Prague. Prague is known for many things, but in the Jewish world one of the most well-known facts about Prague is that the great Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, otherwise known as ‘Maharal’, lived here in the 16th century (1520-1609). Maharal was a monumental thinker and a prolific writer, and his deep and penetrating ideas continue to inspire and enlighten us to this day. There is a well-known legend about the Maharal. It is said that he, using his knowledge of Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism), created a golem — a life-size mannequin — that he controlled and animated as if it were alive.

There is something haunting about the story of a golem, much in the way stories of zombies haunt us. The lack of a soul in these almost-human, animated beings makes us uneasy[1]. Without the soul there is no life, no warmth and no empathy. It is something akin to the glassy stare of a reptile that sends a shiver down our spines, as compared to the warm eyes of a mammal that may touch our hearts. The former is cold and empty while the latter is warm and interactive[2].

The question of the existence of a soul is one that is tied to the question of the existence of God. God is the ultimate soul of the universe, the source of all being; He imbues all that is with His life force. Our parasha teaches us that the intensities of His presence in the universe is detected in warmth, care and responsiveness.

I will grant your rains in their season,

so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.

Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing;

you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.

I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone;

I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land…

I will look with favour upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you;

and I will maintain My covenant with you.

You shall eat old grain long stored,

and you shall have to clear out the old to make room for the new.

I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you.

I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Lev., 26: 4-12)

A universe without God is a universe without a soul. It is a world that is cold, dark and oppressive.

I will break your proud glory.

I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper,

so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose.

Your land shall not yield its produce,

nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (ibid. 19-20)

The word golem literally means ‘raw material’. Without the force of life flowing through the universe, nothing but matter would be left, and the world would be nothing more than an elaborate golem. Any feeling of grandeur that an atheist might experience can be nothing more than materialistic and, necessarily, imagined — any experiences beyond the actual material are but interpretations of his brain rather than expressions of the life flowing through it. The atheist could never truly appreciate the experience one has in the faithful value and beauty of the world’s great disciplines. The words, for example, of Maria Callas[3] would not resonate in his ears: ‘You must serve music humbly — we are servants of art’. After all, a purely physical universe is nothing more than matter – emergent or otherwise.

To believe that there is no God or even to believe that God is indifferent and aloof, is to commit spiritual suicide. We may still move about, but we do so as nothing more than complex machines. In atheism or even agnosticism the tint of the world is a steel grey — bloodless and dark. A darkness that the West steadily sinks into while congratulating itself for having discovered it.

And why do people banish God? Because He does not fit into reason. The thinkers of the West along with their disciples fear that which is not contained in reason. Admittedly, they have grounds for it.

In the West, religion is suffering a slow and painful death. Slow, because of its massive presence and influence on the human psyche and painful, because it is not simply dying of old age, but of the heavy sins of its own practitioners. The iniquities include breaches of faith and trust, exploitations of ignorance and power, and the leveraging of fear to force people’s minds and hearts into submission. Religion is reaping the bitter fruits of the seeds it has sown for many centuries.

But reason is a false Messiah. It does not redeem us and bring us into the supreme heights of human achievement and greatness. It cannot provide life with meaning any more than a grammarian could explain a poem. Quite the contrary. It locks us away from something that religion does allow us — even with all of its drawbacks — an openness to experiencing God and a universe that is alive and reactive.

In our embrace of reason we have barred the doors of our hearts against any such experience. We have come to see faith in God as a threat to our capacity for rationality and truth and many have embraced atheism as the antidote when it is but another poison.

Reason has brought us many beautiful and valuable gifts. It encourages us to examine nature’s phenomena with scrutiny and, in the words of Einstein, to ‘look for what is, and not for what we think should be’. But reason is often employed unfaithfully by highlighting the limits of other disciplines while admitting none of its own.

When rationality is used exclusively to detect reality it is used arrogantly and dishonourably. It cuts away at entire worlds of human experience and knowledge that lie beyond its capacities. One of the greatest casualties of this handicap is that we lose God.

Of the Torah’s most beautiful, life-affirming teachings is that God not only exists, but cares. It makes the joy of being affected by exquisite music, breathtaking scenery, moving talent and emotive events aspects of an integrated, effulgent reality rather than fun figments of our imagination.

Perhaps the most graceful and loving teaching of Torah is that our world is a mode of God’s communication to us through its events and developments and their impacts on our lives.

It is a positive Torah commandment to cry out and to sound trumpets in the event of any difficulty that arises which affects the community…should the people fail to cry out and sound the trumpets, and instead say,

“What has happened to us is merely a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence,” this is a cruel and indifferent conception of things…and will lead to further distresses.

This is implied by the Torah’s statement [Leviticus 26:27-28]: “If you remain indifferent to Me, I will be indifferent to you….” (Rambam)[4] 

There are few ideas that are more out of fashion today than this one. It has never been an easy one to live with, because it depends on faithfulness and investment, but it has also never been so broadly and cynically rejected as it is today. Torah has taught our people to know that the world has a conscious Being Who guides it and drives it, and Who embraces us as much as He admonishes us. It is this Being Who sets the values within Creation from without.

With this awareness, Yirmiyah opens our haftara:

O Lord, my strength and my stronghold, My refuge in a day of trouble (16:19)

He teaches us that trusting in God is to know that the universe has a soul and that God, its source, will not let us down.

Blessed is he who trusts in God, Whose trust is in God alone.

He shall be like a tree planted by waters, Sending forth its roots by a stream: It does not sense the coming of heat, Its leaves are ever fresh; It has no care in a year of drought, It does not cease to yield fruit. (17:7-8)

To trust in human beings, however, is akin to plugging an electronic device into an extension that is not connected to the outlet. It has no power of its own.

Cursed is he who trusts in man, Who makes mere flesh his strength, And turns his thoughts from God.

He shall be like a bush in the desert, Which does not sense the coming of good: It is set in the scorched places of the wilderness, In a barren land without inhabitant. (17:5-6)

It is in this connection and commitment to God that we find hope. The word for hope in Hebrew is tikvah – תקוה its root is kav קו – a line. Hope lies in the line of life that comes from God – The source of the waters of life.

O God, Hope of Israel!…The Fount of the waters of life. (17:13)

Real relationships demand the participation, trust, faith and vulnerability of both sides. Our relationship with God is no different. He expresses Himself to us in so many beautiful ways and it is up to us to recognise it, knowing that He could never (nor would we ever wish Him to) be stuffed into the limiting box of reason, but He is only truly sensed through the highest aspect of ourselves — our conscious souls. This soaring, expansive, loving and nurturing reality lifts us above despair, protects us and embraces us. To embrace it is to bind oneself to Life.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] As the legend goes, the golem was in fact created in order to scare the wits out of the gentiles who were threatening the Jews with blood libels.

[2] See A General Theory of Love, T Lewis, F. Amini, R. Lannon; Random House, New York.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Callas

[4] Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Ta’anit, 1:2


Parasha Perspectives

IX  Behar
50a  The Seventh year  (25:1-7)
In Israel: six years sow and gather, 7th is a rest (shmitah)
for the land, a shabbat for God
50b  The Yovel year  (25:8-24)
Count seven shabbatot of years; announced on 10/7;
same laws as shmitah plus restoration
of land to original owners (25:8-17).
Obeying God’s laws will lead to safety and welfare
in shmitah year i.e. three times regular
produce in sixth year (25:18-23)
50c  Redemption of the land   (25:25-28)
If he is able, a relation buys back land. If not, wait
until yovel year.

50d  Redemption of houses   (25:29-34)
Walled city – houses can only be redeemed in first
year of sale (not yovel)
Villages – houses can be redeemed like fields in
yovel year
Levite land – houses redeemed in yovel. Their fields
can never be sold.
50e  Practical love of neighbour (25:35-38)
Support the poor, charge no interest on loans, fear
50f  No permanent servitude for any Israelite (25:39-46)
Obligations:  treat as if hired, yovel ends service, do
not overwork him, fear God.
Non-Israelite slaves can be kept forever while
Israelite ones are redeemed in yovel.
50g  Israelite slaves of ‘stranger’ settlers  (25:47-26:2)
Should be redeemed by a relative or himself if he
now has the money.
He is hired year by year, not overworked, free in
yovel if not earlier
Bnei Yisrael are servants to God alone, so do not
make idols.

X  Bechukotai 
51  Blessings for obedience  (26:3-13)
All land based:  Seasonal rain, successful produce, plenty
of bread, satisfaction, safety, peace.

Enemies will flee. Covenantal relationship.
52a  Results of disobedience – Part One: Sickness,
defeat, famine and wild beasts  (26:14-26)
Terror, consumption, fever, failed produce, enemies
attack, lose independence. Covenantal revenge,
pestilence, lack of bread, no satisfaction.
52b  Results of disobedience – Part Two: National
destruction and exile.  But…  (26:27-46)
Eat human flesh, destroy idols, destroy cities, desolate
land, scattered exile, Shabbatot repaid, no rest, constant
fear and almost die out. (26:27-41)
Remember covenant, and land. Covenant will not be
broken. These are the laws. (26:42-46)
53a  Evaluation of a personal vow  (27:1-8)
20-60   20-60
5-20       5-20
M   F
M       F

50sh   30sh
20sh       10sh

1mth.-5     1mth.-5     60+          60+
M           F               M             F
5sh         3sh           15sh        10sh
If too poor, Kohen makes valuation according to means.
53b  Redemption of animals, land, firstborn and the
tithe from the Mishkan  (27:9-34)
Animals – value plus a fifth. House – value plus a fifth.
Land – value (to yovel) plus a fifth.
Firstborn – value plus a fifth, or sold according to value.
Inalienable property of Mishkan. Redeem tithe – value
plus a fifth.

“These are the mitzvot which God commanded Moshe for the
      Bnei Yisrael at Mt. Sinai” (27:34)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS