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Crime and Punishment

18 June 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Crime and Punishment is a novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. The book focuses on the moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished university graduate in Saint Petersburg, who develops a plan to get rich by killing a moneylender. Raskolnikov believes that he can liberate himself from poverty and go on to perform great deeds. However, after the crime is committed, he finds himself depressed and confused. He struggles with guilt and horror and confronts the consequences of his deed.

Alienation is one of the main themes of Crime and Punishment. At first, Raskolnikov’s poverty and pride separates him from society. He sees himself as better than all other people. According to his philosophy, he sees other people as tools and uses them for his own needs. Repeatedly, Raskolnikov pushes away those who are trying to help him. Only in the end, he realises the total alienation that he has brought upon himself and finds it intolerable.

This week’s Torah portion, 'Chukkat', contains a story about the punishment of Moses and Aaron. In the wilderness of Zin, the Israelites found themselves without any source of drinking water. Not surprisingly, they complained against Moses and Aaron. After hearing this, the leaders fell on their faces at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of God appeared to them. God told Moses that he and Aaron should take the rod and order the rock to give water. Moses took the rod, assembled the congregation in front of the rock, then he struck the rock twice with his rod, and water came out. One may think that the outcome of this story is positive as Moses provided people with what they needed. But instead of praise, God told Moses and Aaron: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them."  (Numbers 20:12)

This story puzzled many Rabbis and Torah scholars. What did Jewish leaders do wrong? What was their crime and why did they receive this punishment? In his work 'Biur Bamidbar', Moses Mendelssohn expresses strong critique of Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Rather than facing the nation and dealing with the crisis, they escaped it and sought refuge in the Tent of Meeting. According to Mendelssohn, this reflected fear of the nation and an inability to lead and take initiative. In a time of crisis, the natural response for many people is to separate themselves from the community and look after themselves. This week’s Torah portion serves as a reminder that this individualistic approach to crisis ultimately leads to the loss of the Promised Land, to inability to achieve the long-term dream. The best way is to be together and support each other no matter what.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Igor

Tue, 22 June 2021 12 Tammuz 5781