In the opening chapters of the Torah, we learn that God has a range of different names. In the very first line of the Torah, God is referred to as Elohim; “Bereishit Barah Elohim”. (Bereishit 1:1).

In a number of places in chapter 2, God is called Adonai Elohim, and in chapter 4, God is called Adonai. The most common explanation is that the variations are used to describe God’s role or the specific environment in that chapter. For example, Elohim is used as a universal name, and Adonai as a specific name; Elohim as the name God uses when exercising judgment, and Hashem when exercising mercy. So, what is the Torah trying to teach us here?

From the very beginning, one of the key themes of this parasha is naming (which also applies to many of the other sections of the Torah). In the first chapter, God creates the heavens and the earth, and all that is within them, and God also gives names to these objects. In chapter 2, Adam is given the task of naming the living beings. In chapter 5, we read a concise genealogy from Adam through to Noah, and while it is a brief description of each of the ten generations, we learn the names of the key players in each generation.

Names are a way of identifying a specific person or a group of people, and we all have our own names, as well as some nicknames or other names people may refer to us as. As parents, we get to name our children, and we have important reasons as to why we choose their names. When we name a person or an animal, or an object, we establish a specific connection to that person, animal or object, and we (even if subconsciously) establish some control over that which we have named. Now let us turn our attention to God’s name. We cannot name God. If we did, we would be stating that we control God, which is in direct contrast to role of God as the Creator. However, we also can’t not have a name for God. To do so would be to live without a relationship with God, and so, we need a name for God.

This predicament is not reliant on whether we believe God exists or not. It is a necessary part of how we interact with the a consistent role through the Torah, and further in our teachings. It would be very difficult to read and learn from the Torah, each and every week, if we chose not to include God as part of story.

It is very possible that there is no resolution to this quandary. It is the nature of being human. By using God’s different names throughout the parasha, perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that from the outset, there exists the reality of a multitude of perspectives within our own experiences, to the many relationships we have with the world, our spouses, our children, our parents, ourselves, and God. The human story is bound up with God’s story, our name is bound up with God’s name, both within our control and beyond it, close and distant at the same time. May the new cycle of reading Torah allow us to renew our relationship with its teachings and challenges, and may we continue to learn, discuss, and grow together.


Walking down the hill to my new home I am slightly overcome with emotion. I’ve got somewhere real to live. Opening the front door I go straight to the bathroom, put the wet bags down and take off my jacket and my waterproof pants, hanging them up on the shower rail to dry. Proceeding to the kitchen with my first bag of groceries, I unpack them…following a cuppa and a sandwich I get domestic by making up my bed. Pulling my blankets out of three garbage bags and finding they are dry is a good thing. Folding the blankets the right way gives me six layers on top of the carpet that is laid on a timber floor. What luxury I think to myself and laugh… laying down I notice how quiet it is compared with the city, also just how soft my new bed feels. Waking the next morning with the sunlight streaming through the windows for a few moments I wonder where I am. I remember I have just spent my first night in my new home.” (Herald Sun Extra pg. 27, August 13, 2017)

These words are from AJ, a man who was living on the streets, homeless for over 10 years, finally finding a place to call home. He speaks of his time on the streets: exposure to the elements, the uncertainty, the interrupted sleep, and how it is good to be up early because “you do not have to endure the evil looks of the public. It is as though they spit on you with their eyes.” Every day we pass by people who live on the streets. They do not have the most simple and basic of necessities, and we ‘spit on them with our eyes.’ They do not have a place to call home, safety, shelter. There are more than 30,000 people in poverty in Gloucester and Salem counties and over 10,000 of them are children. The fastest growing homeless population is older women and children, and the statistics are the same in other counties in our region. There are also many people living very close to homelessness. A recent survey showed that if a large majority of households received an unexpected bill of $500 or more it would push them into debt and towards homelessness. We walk a very fine line.

Sukkot is the time we sit in our temporary booths, open to the elements, exposed and we pause to think about the fragility of our existence and how fortunate we are to have a roof over our heads. For seven days we contemplate the vagrancies of life and we consider what it is to have a home, shelter, safety, a place. We read the book of Ecclesiastes and its themes of futility and meaning, asking what is life about? What is really important? Is it money, possessions and wealth, prestige? or is it finding a purpose, recognizing what is enough and counting our blessings. Many of us choose to live in a sukkah for seven days, to take time out from our homes and create a place outside. But we know that if the weather is bad we can go inside, we have a place to shower, to sleep, to prepare food, to eat. We are safe. So many do not have such privilege. So this sukkot as we contemplate the meaning of our lives, our purpose, we take a moment to be grateful for what we have, for the blessings of a place to call home and we turn our thoughts to those who are not so fortunate. Perhaps this Sukkot is the time to reach out to the homeless in our communities, to look each person in the eye, to treat them with dignity and respect and to help everyone find a home.

Leadership has always been a great topic for discussion, especially with reference to the Torah.

Moses has always been seen as the major prophet and leader within the Torah. He gives this advice to Joshua as a parting word, if you like. Of course, if you look at Moses’ leadership style throughout the Torah, this advice doesn’t really reflect his character.

He tells Joshua; “Do not be afraid or feel insecure before them”. Wasn’t it Moses who kept telling God that he didn’t think he was the right candidate for the job, when God told him to approach Pharaoh and instruct him to let the Children of Israel go.

There were also other instances throughout the Torah, where Moses has difficulty living out his own advise, and we notice that many of the occasions where he doesn’t have confidence in himself appear toward the beginning of his leadership term.

Throughout the years, Moses learns to overcome his leadership weaknesses. When he strikes the rock, is that not a show of confidence? We could argue that it wasn’t a wise move to make, in light of the instruction he was given, but in contrast to the Moses in Egypt, this Moses had definitely gained in confidence.

So, perhaps Moses’s advice to Joshua is a reflection on what he had learned throughout his own leadership term.

If we bear that in mind, and we take another look at Moses’ advice to Joshua, where he says; “Al tira’u v’al tir’atzu mip’neihem, ki Adonai Elohecha hu ha-holeich imach, lo yar’p’cha v’lo ya’azveka – Do not be afraid or feel insecure before them, for Adonai, your God, is the One who is going with you, and God will not fail or forsake you”.

We see that Moses’ earlier leadership days reflect exactly the opposite of his advice. Yet, he learns through the years, and possibly he feels that this is good advice for Joshua to start from.

Moses’ act of completing the writing of a Torah (also shows the necessity for completion of tasks. While we could argue for days on end about how Moses completed the writing of a Torah, when some of the events, such as next week’s parasha had not yet occurred, that doesn’t seem to be the lesson the Torah is trying to teach us.

The lesson here adds to the section I mentioned earlier about Moses’ leadership skills, and how they had taken a 180 degree turn from where they were when he first became a leader, way back near the beginning of the Torah.

In completing the writing of a Torah, Moses shows that he has completed the cycle of a leader. Perhaps we could equate this act with a great leader who writes down their memoirs, for future generations to read and learn from.

The difference here, is that God instructs Moses to write the Torah. Possibly, it’s God’s way of giving Moses a big send-off, like his eternal superannuation fund.

A way for us to remember Moses and the events of the Torah, recollected by Moses.

Themes in this week’s Torah section include: the importance of gratitude and the importance of celebrating the fruits of our labour. These are also relevant to our preparation for the High Holiday period.

Moses instructs the people that when they enter the Land of Israel and cultivate the land they are to bring the first-ripened fruits to the Temple as a sign of gratitude.

The word for gratitude in Hebrew is “hodaya” (“todah” means thank you). This word shares the same root as the word Jew, “Yehudi”. The Sages connect these words and teach that a fundamental aspect to being a Jew is cultivating a sense of gratitude and hence, there are many prayers and rituals within Judaism that connect us with sentiments of thanksgiving. In fact the first prayer of the morning, the very first words a Jew is encouraged to say each morning are: “model ani” (“Modah ani” for a woman), meaning “I am grateful”.

We also know that studies in psychology show that feelings of gratitude and practices In our lives that help us remember what we are grateful for, lead to greater levels of wellbeing.

So, instilling routines in our lives to remind us of things we are grateful for can be helpful making our lives and the lives of those around us more harmonious. We can learn from the ancient tradition of bringing the first-ripened fruits to Jerusalem as an act of gratitude and consider how it might be relevant to us today.

Firstly, we can make time regularly to consider the fruits of our labor, to celebrate them and to give thanks for them. So often we can achieve something and quickly go on to the next thing, not making time to fully recognize the success, and also not making time to give thanks.

A second aspect is that making time to give thanks reminds us that we are not alone. Every achievement we have is a composite of many factors – luck, help from others, hard work and more.

During this month of Elul, it is a fitting time to reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives and also to consider what we have been working towards over the year and what fruits have come from it. It is a time to celebrate what we have achieved and to thank others for the help they have given. We can also make time to consider how we can make giving thanks a regular part of our lives. What routines will we put in place for the year to come so our levels of wellbeing can be even better.

Wishing you a Shabbat shalom and a Shabbat of gratitude.

The true test of someone’s character is not when things are going smoothly, as fundamentally, those situations do not test our character. It is when times are challenging that our moral integrity truly presents itself. How that person reacts to adversity is really the litmus test. In this week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei, we have a host of laws that delineate the expectations for how the Israelites are expected to act in relationship among themselves, towards other nations and all of God’s creatures. They are the foundational guide to how we are to build a healthy, holy and just society.

Having these laws is an extremely powerful guide, yet what I find most telling are the laws that pertain to times of war. War is a time that can potentially lead to the unshackling of our human restraints. Where violence is involved, our base instincts are in danger of taking over and extreme acts of brutality are possible. These laws are reminding us, that even in those circumstances, we are not to allow ourselves to lose control. We are taught to know that “All is fair in love and war” is simply not true. Specifically, in this week’s parasha, we are reminded not to take advantage of the weak or the captured. This is embodied in the law about allowing a captive woman to mourn for her parents a full 30 days. Only once that period has concluded, according to the rabbis, may the soldier marry her, but only if she consents. It has been the way of war for a vast portion of human history, that the conquered were enslaved or even forcibly married. Our tradition forces us to restrain ourselves in a time when that would be exceedingly difficult and in the process doing away with a barbaric tradition, compelling us to have compassion on the weak. If we can achieve that in a moment of war, then how much the more so in peace, it should be no challenge.

This is further reinforced by the injunction at the end of the parasha, to destroy the nation of Amalek. The reason given is that Amalek attacked the weakest members of Israel. By abusing the weak, their true character was revealed. The test of our morality is how we treat the weak or the most vulnerable in our society. Those who abuse and take advantage of the weak are the lowest of the low.

I pray this week that we always keep in mind those who may be less fortunate than ourselves and in challenging moments, we always remain true to our tradition and keep our hands open to assist those who are in need. Further, I pray that while we may be facing many threats, we always remember who we are and govern ourselves accordingly.

Justice, Justice, you shall pursue!” is one of the key phrases from this week’s Torah reading. Moses instructs the leaders of the Children of Israel to appoint judges and gives details about giving testimony and how each individual has the right to be judged fairly.

The sages ask: “Why is the word justice (tsedek) repeated twice?” One explanation is that there are two types of justice: strict justice – black and white with no wriggle room; and justice that is informed by compassion, a justice that considers the person, their intention, their history including social considerations.

The main text of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, states that justice combined with understanding and compassion is a higher principle and one that is worth striving to live by. Even though you might not be a judge, each of us makes judgment calls many times each day. This week the Torah invites us to consider how we judge things and how much understanding we apply to our discernment process.

This is also the first Shabbat of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh ha-Shana, the Jewish New Year. It’s a time of reflection and self-judgement in which we think about the year gone by and ask ourselves: “What went well in the last year?” “How can I improve?”. It’s not a black and white process, we have a whole month to consider different aspects of our life – our health, our emotional wellbeing, our finances, our intellectual endeavors. How can we improve as individuals, a community and a society? This is the process of repentance, teshuvah, which literally means “to return”. Return to what? Return to our essence and to connect to what is truly important in our lives. It is a time to make amends, to find healthy ways to forgive and ask for forgiveness. It is also a time to notice where we need help and to ask for it.

The name of the month, Elul, is the acronym of this phrase from Song of Songs: “Ani Le’dodi Ve’dodi Li – I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is mine”. And so it is important that the process of teshuvah is meant to be a compassionate one, where we act with gentleness in our judgment towards ourselves as well as others.

Are we animals or just lower than the angels? A little bit of each, according to our tradition, which teaches that we are physically the same as animals but intellectually and morally superior to them. As our tradition has evolved, so too has a discussion about our greater similarity to animals – and therefore what is the “ideal” form of kashrut, or fit manner of eating. In parasha Re’eh, the laws of what animals are “tahor”, pure to eat, and which are “tamei” or forbidden, is repeated. The land animals that are “tahor” must chew the cud and have a cloven hoof, the pure sea animals must have fins and scales (NB, all fish that have scales have fins, so it is the former characteristic that is determinative), and only birds that can be domesticated are “tahor”. It seems that the Torah suggests that our superiority to animals enables us to eat them. Yet, nearly all the laws of kashrut are to limit our eating of animals. Is eating kosher animals an ideal or an accommodation to human nature?

All evidence indicates that one of the things that has distinguished the human animal from the other primates is our ability to kill animals and eat their flesh. Perhaps the development of human civilization stems from our being carnivores. Again, the mythic stories of Torah hint that this might be the case – after the disaster of the flood, the Noah story describes humans as over and against animals: “the fear and dread” of us is upon all the animals. The question with which we must grapple is what is the ethical approach to animals. We are clearly animals – if we are to be “a little lower than the angels” we must look at them with eyes that are not merely human but humane.

Many traditional rabbis look back to the opening story of the Torah, the beginning of all life in the imaginative Garden of Eden and say that the ideal human relationship to animal is to recognize the sacredness of all life, and not to consume animals at all. That story teaches that we should eat a vegan diet: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” (Genesis 1:29). According to the great 20th century mystic, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, vegetarianism is the ultimate ethical way of eating. Chasidic traditions have disagreed, teaching that to eat animals elevates their souls.

While the Jewish jury is out on what is the ideal approach to eating animals, Judaism clearly states that we must not treat animals cruelly. These days, that requires that we rethink our approach to the farming of animals and their slaughter, their testing for products and many other issues. This week’s parasha tells us that we will have blessing if we follow “the commandments of God”. Throughout the Torah the notion of blessing, life and good are interconnected. If animals, as it is suggested, are driven by instinct, then humans have the power of discernment and the ability to make moral choices. That most of us consume animals does not absolve us from thinking about and taking responsibility for how they live and how they die. That we are permitted to eat them does not require us to do so, and now more than ever we should reflect on the Torah’s dietary options. Our daily choices have life long consequences.