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Memorial Evening 2008

5768/2008 Memorial Evening
marking the 13th Yahrzeit of Etta Ehrman Kossowsky z.l.

True to form, on Shevat 23rd, the Yahrzeit of Etta Yonit bat moreinu ha Rav Zvi Ehrman, the snow arrived in Israel. Notwithstanding, some fifty people came to remember Etta on this, the annual Memorial Evening held in Bet Shemesh. It was particularly appreciated that Nechama Barash, our guest speaker, made it, risking the imminent weather problems.

Esther Ehrman welcomed everyone. Noting that Etta's Yahrzeit always falls on Parashat Yithro or Mishpatim, she considered one of the many links between these two sedras. The Israelite slaves were brought out of Egypt, not in order to be free but in order to 'serve' G-d and, at the Revelation at Mount Sinai, in Yithro, their 'new' Master states what kind of person He wishes for His service: one who does not murder or steal, who honours his parents, one who is mindful of his new Master by enjoying Shabbat and giving Him his undivided loyalty. In Mishpatim, we are instructed in some of the obligations that will regulate the society envisaged. To start with, the ex-slaves are shown the limitation of any future slavery, one which will never take up all, or even much of a lifetime. Applying these commandments will help us on the way to deserving the highest honorific, given to Moses, eved HaShem. Esther saw the function of the Etta Kossowsky Study Groups to be learning in depth those Torah instructions

Esther reported on the fairly healthy state of the finances of the Etta Kossowsky Fund, then welcomed the Guest Speaker, Nechama Barash, a scholar, versed in Talmud and dedicated to teaching its values.

Michi Kossowsky opened the learning with a 'devar Torah' on tefilla, prayer. Basing his thoughts on Rav Soloveitchik's Worship of the Heart and an essay by Rabbi Joshua Amaru, Michi raised the question: what is it that we are doing when we pray? We understand from Biblical and Rabbinic sources that the Almighty wants us to pray - as witness the repeated occasions when our 'mothers' were unable to have children until prayers by or for them were answered by G-d. Prayer, Michi said, is the process of prophecy in reverse, in that the conduit, the escalator, as it were, here leads up from below, from man. Michi noted the danger inherent in rigid models of prayer and the value of dialogue as Chassidut understands it.

The subject of the Guest Speaker's talk was 'Brurya, - setting the record straight'. Nechama showed Brurya, the learned, authoritative halachist, as e.g giving an opinion on an impure oven (Messechet Kelim), a compassionate wife, as in the story where her two sons die and she has to break the news to the father (Midrash Mishlei) and the aggressive defender of textual understanding, intolerant of those who fail to see her point ("you fool…" Mesechet Berakhot). Was Brurya really the wife of Rabbi Meir and the daughter of Rabbi Hananya Ben Teradyon, as tradition, based on sources in the Babylonian Talmud has it? Nechama showed that this is not as unequivocal as is usually thought. There are texts that speak of 'the wife' of R.Meir (e.g., Midrash Mishlei),'the daughter' of R.Hananya b.Teradyon. There is even a source (Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Demai), that speaks of R.Meir having a different father-in law, not Brurya's father. It is the Babylonian Talmud that mostly mentions Brurya by name and also names her husband and father. Without these sources, the record is open to question.

In his 'devar Torah', Rabbi Dr Ekstein stressed the difference in the tenor of the two sedras, Yithro and Mishpatim. In Yithro, when The Almighty reveals Himself at Mount Sinai, the atmosphere is overwhelming. The response of the Israelites is given in fear and awe. The tone in Mishpatim is very different. Since the commandments here largely determine the relations of human beings to one another, dealing with matters such as social equality, the people need to relate to these mishpatim with calm understanding. It is this same concern, to make the Torah accessible, that determines the tone used here, as it determined the advice given at the beginning of Yithro to Moses by his father-in-law.

A final devar Torah was given by Eli Ehrman, who took as his subject the story of Joseph and his brothers. Why, Eli asked, did the Torah tell this particular tale? Is the favouritism shown to Joseph by his father there to tell us that Jacob saw the line of Judaism continuing through Joseph? Is it a matter of lack of communication ? Why is the teshuva, the reform of Joseph's brothers here? Did Joseph simply want to ensure that Benjamin came to him? Eli did not offer answers to these questions. We are in the dark because, throughout the account, G-d does not speak, as earlier he had done to the patriarchs. The generation of Joseph, like our own generation, was left to figure things out. Given human nature and failing a direct communication, the Jewish people needs to face the challenge of behaving in accordance with the brit, the covenant that we are committed to. Etta, z.l., her brother recalled, was always very clear about what she thought was required and wholly committed to it.

The evening ended with friends chatting about Etta and about the learning while enjoying refreshments in the home of Lauri and Michi Kossowsky.