Your mother, stepmother, sister, half-sister, aunt, granddaughter, sister-in-law and daughter-in-law are not relatives you should marry or have sexual relations with according to the instructions given through Moses to the Israelites in the sedra of Acharei Mot. We can infer from this that the same would apply to one’s father, stepfather, brother, etc. Following similar logic, all these relatives should not marry or have sexual relations with you. Personally, I have never been tempted to marry my half-sister, for all the affection I feel for her and, while one day, I hope to have grandchildren I am confident I won’t want to marry any of them. Animals are also forbidden partners. I can safely say that the very idea fills me with horror.
None of the above is problematic and for the vast majority, if not all, of our people has never been so. One’s neighbour’s spouse is more tricky, and there may have been some slippage here, even while the offending parties have realised that what they are doing is not right. More difficult for Reform and similar (and perhaps for some Orthodox) Jews has been the prohibition against relations with the same sex. We accept people’s right to make choices based on their sexual identity. The important thing is to respect and honour one’s partner, whoever they may be. How do we reconcile our belief and practice with what it says in the Torah?
Acharei Mot also deals with the Yom Kippur service, the slaughtering of animals and the stamping out of idolatrous sacrificial practices. There is much to consider, and our service leader, Pat Lipert, will make her own wise and considered choice of what to focus on and how. Our Saturday service starts at 10:30. This Shabbat will also be the last day of Pesach, so no leaven for lunch please.
“Unclean! Unclean!” That’s what you would have had to shout out if you were struck by the leprous curse in the days of the Israelites. You would have also had to tear your clothes, grow your hair long and cover your face down to the lips. And then you would have had to leave your family and friends and go, alone, to live outside the camp. How terribly shaming and sad this must have been. The leprous curse was supposed to be the physical sign of a spiritual defect. However, the long description of how it was to be identified, the treatment and purification of the sufferer and their eventual rehabilitation under the jurisdiction of the priest, as described in Tazria and Metzora, is preceded by the law concerning the period of ritual uncleanness experienced by the mother who has just given birth. It is followed by the leprous curse affecting houses and clothes and the uncleanness of menstruation and male discharges. Surely, birth is no sign of sin, houses and clothes cannot be spiritually responsible and female and male discharges are merely natural processes.
How are we to understand all this? The marking out of what is ritually clean and unclean is part of the architecture of the physical and spiritual worlds. There is the divine and the human, the holy and the profane, the ordinary and the extraordinary, sacred space and sacred time, a space where God draws us close and a space where we strive to draw Him close. There is humanity and Israel, heaven and earth, darkness and light. It is our job to negotiate our way within or through or round these many rooms.
Well, that is just an idea, but for more ideas, prayer, song and conversation, join us this Saturday at 10:30, when Sharim Atilano will lead us along.
Spring is coming and, with it, one of the most wonderful festivals of the Jewish year: Pesach. It is fitting that, at the same time as the world around us begins again to burst into growth, we celebrate the throwing off of the bonds of slavery. We clean our houses, looking for chametz and in the process, sweep away the dust and crumbs at the back of drawers and cupboards, the grey cobwebs in the corners of our kitchens. Pesach is also a time to look inside our hearts and perhaps clear away a few dusty habits and modes of thought grown stiff with complacency. And it is a time to celebrate together the great gift of freedom and the coming together of the people of Israel in a shared covenant with God.
The first night of Pesach this year will be on Friday, 19 April and we will be celebrating it in grand style. There will be the traditional story, given new life by the ever fresh reading of our Honorary Life President Harvey Kurzfield and Deputy Chair Adam Feldman, the traditional seder plate, and a wonderful buffet lovingly cooked and prepared by some of the talented chefs of the community.
Our seder is a wonderful occasion for both children and adults. If you are visiting Cornwall during Pesach and wish to join us, please contact Anne Hearle for details.
One last thing. This year the seder begins on Erev Shabbat, so we will be lighting candles for both Shabbat and Yom Tov. Please bring with you your candlesticks, candles and kiddish cup. We will then have two mitzvot for the price of one, plus a beautiful seder table covered with joyous lights.
Instructions for the many sacrifices mandated by God continue apace in Tzav. It cannot have been easy to remember and follow all the stages of each of these sacrifices to the letter. At the end of Tzav, we come to the installation of the Priests. Everything is going well until, suddenly, a terrible tragedy occurs. Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, make an offering they have not been commanded. Fire springs forth and consumes them. The sages have offered several explanations for this, including the brothers’ failure to understand the nature of holiness, and their being ruled by their own egos rather than by God’s word. Whatever the reason, or reasons, the punishment is terrible and it is understandable that Aaaron and his surviving sons are so shocked that, later in the day, they fails to follow the commandment to eat the sin offering. What is also shocking is how Nadav and Avihu’s punishment is so suddenly meted out and just as suddenly left behind. It goes like this. After the installation of the Priests, Aaron blesses the people and God’s glory is revealed to them. The people respond. Then, without introduction we are told that the two brothers take their fire pans and place fire and incense on them. They are consumed by fire. Moses gives a brief explanation of their death to Aaron and gives instructions for the bodies to be removed. Without more ado, he tells Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar not to go without a haircut or to tear their clothes. As listeners or readers we cannot but be aghast, however much we accept what has happened.
There is lots more in Sh’mini, including detailed dietary laws. Being Shabbat Parah, however, many congregations will read the episode of the Red Heifer, taken from B’minbar, a challenging sacrifice to understand.
To understand more, come along this Saturday at 10:30 when Harvey Kurzfield will lead us.
What a story has unfurled over the Book of Sh’mot (Exodus). An Israelite, brought up in the heart of Egypt, married to a Midianite woman, is chosen by God to lead his people from the clutches of the empire which nurtured him. The people escape from Egypt and are saved from the might of its imperial army by a miracle, or by that army’s own military strength, whose weight literally bogs soldiers, chariots and horses down in the mud, where they are drowned by the returning sea. For the Israelites there follows a host of adventures, of ups and downs, of moments of glory and moments of shame, as they veer between faith and love of God on the one hand and fear and petulance on the other. Sh’mot finishes on a high, however, as the Tabernacle is erected and all its furniture and furnishings are installed, everything “as God had commanded Moses”. The Maftir of the final parsha (final section of the weekly portion of Torah readings), P’kudey (Accounts) ends on a particularly comforting and mystical note as it describes how “the cloud covered the Communion Tent, and God’s glory filled the Tabernacle.”
And so we come to the third Book, Va’yikra, where we plunge into a series of detailed descriptions of the many sacrifices demanded by God. In the daily Sacharit (morning service) in Orthodox communities, some of these offerings are described and, in the Amidah, Jews pray for the restoration of the Temple services. We don’t do this in Reform synagogues and many of us would find it difficult, possibly distasteful, to witness animal sacrifices. Indeed, I suspect that not a few Orthodox Jews would too. However, do we have the ‘right’ to feel this way? I suspect that much of our aversion to sacrifices is due to the distance that now exists for the vast majority of us between the act of killing animals and our consumption of them. Besides, we should remember that the vast majority of animals sacrificed by our ancestors were eaten either by the Priests, the Levites or by the people offering the animals. Is it not perhaps something to be admired, that the food that was eaten was also dedicated to God? Would this not make the act of killing animals and eating their flesh more significant, more holy?
To get to understand sacrifices better, to pray, sing, read and converse come along this Saturday at 10:30. Pat Lipert will be leading the service and, apparently, there is a whiff of frankincense about it.