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June 20, 2013 8:54 am

A Lousy Excuse

avatar by Yossy Goldman

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Participants of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) program study in a cave near the Madras Ruins just south of Jerusalem. Photo: Lisë Stern.

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” we are told. Try explaining to the traffic cop that you simply never knew crossing a red light was an offence. It won’t get you very far.

This week, we read the strange but famous Biblical narrative of the heathen prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. At one point an angel blocks the donkey’s path and the animal stops in its tracks. Balaam is frustrated and strikes the donkey. And Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey and it spoke to Balaam saying, “Why did you hit me?” …And then Hashem opened the eyes of Balaam and he realized there was an angel in the way. So Balaam apologized to the donkey and said, “I have sinned because I did not know.”

So if he genuinely didn’t know, why was it a sin?

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The answer is that for a prophet who is able to communicate with the Divine, not to be aware of an angelic presence right in front of his nose, is indeed sinful. A man of his spiritual stature should have known better.

There is no question that in many communities where organised Judaism is weak and not easily available, ignorance of what being Jewish entails may still be a valid excuse. For millions of Jews who grew up in the former Soviet Union under an atheistic regime, ignorance of Jewish law and lore is, undoubtedly, justifiable.

But for those of us who live in Jewish communities that are alive and vibrant, for those who are aware enough to be reading these lines, surely ignorance as a rationalisation no longer holds water.

In our own community of Johannesburg, thank G-d there are educational opportunities too numerous to mention. Not only Day Schools for children but adult education programmes too. I am personally pleased and proud that Sinai Indaba attracted many thousands to come, listen and learn.

The Internet, with all its serious flaws and dangers, is providing unparalleled opportunities for Jews, even in the remotest outposts, to connect with their heritage. So today, while Jewish ignorance still remains Public Enemy Number One, there are thankfully ample avenues for Jews who were never exposed to Judaism, its teachings and its relevance, to become more aware and better educated.

I remember an advertising campaign that ran in the United States years ago for what was then known as the United Negro College Fund. The Fund was established to provide a university education to promising black students from underprivileged backgrounds. To this day, I can still visualize that photograph of a young man studying and underneath the slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

How many Jewish attorneys, advocates and judges have never perused a single page of Judaism’s grandest legal repository, the Talmud? How many Jewish doctors and thinkers have never read any of the works of Maimonides, Judaism’s great physician/philosopher? How many spiritually enlightened Jews who meditate daily have never been exposed to the teachings of authentic Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism?

Why do rabbis become Rabbis? To teach. The word Rabbi means my teacher. Sure there are many facets to a spiritual leader’s position but the main incentive for me, as for so many of my colleagues, is the privilege of educating Jews about Judaism – especially those who, through no fault of their own, were not raised with that awareness.

In no way do I minimize the importance of the pastoral role a Rabbi plays in his community. Helping people in times of distress, as on joyous occasions, can be deeply gratifying. Counselling troubled souls or ordinary people with moral dilemmas is equally significant. But the most stimulating part of the job for me has always been teaching Jews how to be Jewish. Sharing Torah and introducing it to the previously uninitiated. The privilege of opening a Jewish mind to the beauty of Jewish wisdom and to the eternal relevance of the Jewish way of life is what led me to the rabbinate.

During my tenure thus far I have officiated at many hundreds of Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and, sadly, at as many funerals and unveilings. While I always treat each case with the sensitivity and respect it deserves and do my best to make these milestones meaningful rites of passage, my real ‘job satisfaction’ comes when a young person comes to see me for advice on how to explore his or her Jewish identity. Rabbis get a real ‘high’ when young couples take the initiative and ask for guidance on how to establish a really successful Jewish home and family. That’s a Rabbi’s nachas.

So wherever you are reading these lines, follow the wise counsel of Ethics of the Fathers and ‘Acquire for yourself a rabbi,’ i.e. a teacher.

In our age of the information explosion, ignorance has become a lousy excuse.

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