All posts by Jeremy

Va’ethannan

The names we give today to the five books of the Torah are revealing. In the beginning is Bereshit, which, with vibrant intensity balanced by serene elegance, launches the Torah, life and the world. Shemot and Exodus are both apposite names. The latter is a perfect introduction to the story of our, well, exodus from slavery, Egypt and the past. The former is more subtle. Names are wrenched from people who are enslaved or are imprisoned in concentration camps. Their names are replaced by numbers as one part of the brutal process of dehumanisation. Our names, after all, are part of our identity and have their stories to tell. It is fitting then that, immediately before we read of the slavery of our ancestors, we start with the names of their tribal parents. We never stopped being people. 

Vayikra (and He called) Moses. Why? To tell us the levitical, and other, laws. B’midbar is perfect, for, while it also includes more laws, it also focuses on the forty years we spent in the wilderness, seemingly going from pillar to post, but really preparing to arrive, to become Israel. 

Which brings us to Devarim. Words, just words, words which make us human. God uses words in Bereshit to create the world. Adam and Eve complete the creation of the animals by naming them. Together with music and art, words are what enable us to transcend our mortality.  While they may be used to hurt, deceive and lie, at their best, they enable us to soar with the angels, though our feet may be made of clay. They are what dreams are made from. They weave harmony, beauty, Torah.

Now we have come to the second parsha of Devarim, Va’ethannan, which is packed with riches, some of which have entered into our liturgy, and a special guest, namely Student Rabbi Lev Taylor, will tell us more, lead us in prayer and song (for, remember, Lev Taylor has a full-hearted, melodious voice). Don’t miss him this Saturday at 10:30.

Mas’ei: map of the past, map of the future

Forty years of wandering through wilderness, mountains and desert are coming to an end and the future is about to arrive. What stories of hardship, inspiration, rebellion and faith we have heard. The one constant through all of them has been the towering, though most humble, figure of Moses. Moses has been through so much. He has put up with repeated kvetching, pleaded with God to spare the people on several occasion. He has fought battles, dictated laws, directed the construction of the Tabernacle and all its furnishings. For years he was supported by the brother and sister, who had shared so much and been so close, but now he has lost them. His wife seems absent or also dead. He has been told that he will not enter the Promised Land and, on asking God to appoint a successor, he has had to accept that he will not pass on the leadership to either of his sons. He has endured more than any of his fellow Israelites. Does he complain? Does he speak out in bitterness? No, he continues to guide the people, while appointing Joshua to lead where he will not go. He continues to pass on the laws given by God, to encourage and to reassure them as they prepare for a great and daring venture. What nobility is here, self-sacrifice and heroism!

And so we come to the end of B’minbar but not the end of the story. There are words to come, many and rich. Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek!  And to help us all be strong, Sharim Atilano will lead us in prayer and song and prepare us for the journey ahead. Be there at 10:30 this Saturday.

Pinchas

Balak and Balaam are a right pair, two nasty pieces of work determined to curse and persecute an innocent people. Balaam is a right pair in himself, a two-sided coin, one side seemingly good, the other definitely bad. He is a prophet and says repeatedly that he can only declare the words that God puts in his mouth. Initially, he rebuffs the emissaries sent by King Balak. Yet he also appears to be a sorcerer  and he ascends with Balak to the “High Altars of Baal”. He also tries three times to curse Israel, but is unable to do so, not through repentance or compassion, but because he is only able to utter the words God gives him. Equally bad, he beats a poor donkey who hears the divine voice better than he does. 

Israel is other. “God does not look at wrongdoing in Jacob, and He sees no vice in Israel. God their Lord is with them and they have the King’s friendship…. How good are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles Israel. They stretch out like streams, like gardens by the river; they are like the aloes God has planted, like cedars by the water. His branches shall overflow, and his crops shall have abundant water.”

It is all clear: Moabites bad, Israelites good. And yet, and yet, immediately after this episode, some of the Israelites, seduced by the Moabile girls, accept invitations to eat and worship with them. How good are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel, now? Not very good at all, I think. What is needed is a good zealot to put things right, and this is precisely what Pinchas does by setting an example in dispatching an Israelite and a Midianite woman who are cavorting in the former’s tent. Pinches is rewarded with “My covenant of peace… a covenant of eternal priesthood” and the people are, once again, forgiven. Why, though, is the vav in the word ‘shalom’ written in the Scroll in a broken form? 

Besides the intriguing questions raised by the sequence of events in the stories of Balaam and Pinchas, there is much else to consider in this week’s parsha. Here in Cornwall to help us consider the parsha and to lead us in prayer, song and conversation will be two special guests: David and Hannah Jacobs. Do join us this Saturday at 10:30. As already announced, the service will be followed by a session led by David and Hannah on ‘Nine reasons to be Reform and one not‘. 

At least ten reasons to come.

Sh’lach l’cha

Can you have too much of a good thing? Certainly, the Israelites had. After complaining about their limited diet. God sends them quails, so many that the people gather staggering quantities of birds and then eat until they are utterly nauseated. Poor Moses! He’s had enough of ‘a good thing’ too, weary of the kvetching and backsliding of the people he leads and teaches. To make matters worse, Aaron and Miriam complain about their brother’s choice of a foreign wife and the fact that God talks to him more than to them.  Moses, who has recovered some of his equanimity after the episode with the quail, immediately asks God to forgive Miriam, for Moses is a patient teacher and a forgiving brother.

Then we are into Sh’lach L’cha and the episode of the spies. This time it seems to be God who has had enough, and Moses who begs Him to forgive the people. God does, but He condemns them to forty years of wandering through the wilderness and the death in the wilderness of all those who were adults when they left Egypt. There is more evil to come, but that is in the next parsha. For now, we will stick with Sh’lach L’cha.

Adam Feldman will be leading the service this Saturday, starting at 10:30. Now, there’s someone who is a patient and humble teacher, too, so come along and listen, learn and practise. 

Naso

Was perhaps Spike Milligan supposed to represent a Nazirite when he emerged from a hole in the desert, jumping up and down, half naked, three-quarters mad and one whole funny in Monty Python’s Life of Brian

The rules regarding the conduct of the Nazirite appear in this week’s sedra, which is jam-packed with other themes, including the prosecution of the woman accused by her husband of adultery. The trial by ordeal brings to mind ‘prosecution’ procedures used to identify witches or other supposed malefactors in mediaeval Europe. To return to the Nazirite, however, he (or she, for women can also assume the role)  is a curious figure in Judaism. Once someone takes the vow, they become holy to God. This suggests that it is a virtuous act to take such a vow. However, the Nazirite must refrain from consuming wine, or indeed anything related to grapes. It is unusual in our religion to practice such self-denial. Indeed denying oneself totally the pleasures of life is seen as a wilful rejection of the gifts given us by God. The ascetic is a foreign concept in Judaism. Perhaps this is why the Nazirite vow was said by many rabbis to be limited to a period of thirty days. 

One of the most interesting examples of a Nazirite is Samson, and part of his story is sometimes read as the Haftorah accompanying Naso. Some rabbis say he was physically strong but morally weak. I think, though, that he was a tragic figure. He must have had spiritual strengths, since it says that God blessed him and that he was moved by God’s spirit, but he did clearly, too, have a weakness. I remember listening to and reading his story as a child. It was easy to think that his hair possessed some kind of strength imparting magic. But the real reason he became powerless before his Philistine enemies is because he broke his Nazirite vows, drinking and allowing his hair to be cut. And how holy could he be under the thrall of a treacherous lover like Delilah? Like other tragic heroes he ended his life with a dramatic act that somehow restored his dignity and greatness. 

Come along this Saturday at 10:30. Sharim Atilano will be leading us.