Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple
Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleCourtesy

Q. How can God justify our suffering? We blame the enemy, but why don’t we complain about God Himself?

A. There is no easy answer. We yearn for assurance (in the words of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev) that the suffering was for God’s sake, that He mourns as we do. But if He too mourns, why didn’t He step in and rescue us?

It is strange that (in the words of Eichah) He seems to have acted like an enemy. We ask with Abraham, "Does the Judge of all the world not act justly?"

The Talmud says that Elijah the Prophet heard God weeping, "Woe is Me that I have destroyed My house and exiled My children."

Nonetheless, the fact that Jews, Judaism and Israel have survived and flourished in recent decades helps us to believe that He has not forsaken us but loves us.



A "KINGDOM OF PRIESTS"

Q. Why does the Torah call us a "kingdom of kohanim"?

A. The source of the phrase is Ex. 19:6 and it is not just a slogan. It breaks down the barrier between the kohanim and people.

In some cultures the priesthood was an exalted caste with special privileges and responsibilities. In Judaism the ordinary person was a priest in that sense.

Certain roles needed an actual priest, a descendant of Aaron, but in terms of learning and living by the Torah every Jew was equal.

Christian Europe often locked up the Bibles and only allowed access to them by the priests. Judaism did the opposite. It regarded the Torah as "the inheritance of the (whole) community of Jacob" (Deut. 33:4). It taught that whoever withholds knowledge of the Torah from a person is as though he robbed him (Sanh. 91b).

It honoured scholars but would not let them insult the ordinary person; when Rabbi Yannai found that a guest could not say the Grace After Meals, he said, "A dog has eaten at Yannai’s table!" and the guest retorted, "The Torah belongs to the whole congregation, not just to Yannai!"

It built up a spiritual democracy whereby every individual could get to God and did not need a priest to convey his prayers or to bring him forgiveness.

THE DAY AFTER

Sh’mini tells us that the eighth day of a week tells us something important. The eighth day, you ask? Weeks have only seven days! But the day after the end of a week has its own character.

The eighth day opens the imminent week, with all its challenges and opportunities. It also says a great deal about the week that has now ended. With the eighth day a message remains from last week, and you know whether that week has been spent well.

Since the Shabbat of Sh’mini this year comes just after Pesach the effect of the festival still lingers. If we have spent Pesach as a family the following week reveals what sort of family life we are likely to have.

If we spent Pesach committed to the ethic of freedom we will know whether the coming week is likely to show progress towards freedom.


BODY & SOUL

This sidra is one of the major sources of the Jewish food laws, kashrut, setting out what we should eat and what we should not eat. The Torah text constantly uses the word "holy", which indicates that the food laws are part of the overall requirement of living a holy life.

There are claims by the critics that the original reason for these laws has to do with health – i.e. "Keep kosher and be healthy". The Torah itself speaks of spiritual and not bodily health, though bodily health is not unimportant. It says, "Sanctify yourselves and be holy" (Lev. 11:44).

Maimonides makes a distinction between the impetus of kashrut (why we choose to keep kosher) and its effect (what keeping kosher does for us). He says that abstaining from prohibited foods helps us to be holy. In this way the body and soul are intertwined (Guide for the Perplexed 3:33).


Rabbi Dr. Raymnd Apple, AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective..