All posts by Jeremy

Pesach in Cornwall

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, 30th March and we will be celebrating it in grand style at Trelissick Gardens Barn Restaurant. 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 on  01736 731686 for details.

One last thing. This year the seder begins on Erev Shabbat, so we will have both Shabbat and Yom Tov candles to light. 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.

T’rumah

We are not very far into the Book of Shemot, when the laws begin to come thick and fast, as though there were an urgency to setting the foundations for a just society and a nation holy to God. The Ten Commandments given in Yithro are followed almost immediately with the lesser, but still important, rules of Mishpatim. These range across the treatment of slaves, manslaughter, murder and kidnapping, cursing a parent, treatment of animals, loans and borrowing, the rectitude of those in authority and the administration of justice. Then Moses ascends the mountain and, while the people can see the “appearance of God’s glory on the mountain top”, God begins to give instructions for the building of the Tabernacle and its accompanying furniture and trappings.

Rabbi Lord Sachs has pointed out in Covenant and Conversation how the building of this small but beautiful home for God (though, of course, God needs no home in the way we can conceive of it) parallels God’s own creation. There is, too, a broader theme. One can see the Torah as a great and multi-level work of architecture. It begins with the creation of the world, while this week we are given the blueprint for the Tabernacle. As mentioned, the rules for building a new society have also begun. The architectural motif applies on other levels too. The theme of sibling rivalry, often referred to, opens with an opposition so strong it leads to murder, develops in different ways, through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, displaying a little more growth of understanding and reconciliation, until it culminates in the story of moral change, repentance and forgiveness in the story of Joseph and his brothers.

There is a pattern. The creation of things itself has an overarching design. The grandeur of the creation is followed shortly by the building of Noah’s ark, a relatively small construct which carries the seeds of life on vast, stormy waters. The hubris of Babel follows. For its builders it is a grand and aggrandising tower, but it is toppled by God as we might topple the play-brick tower of a toddler. Much later, in Egypt, the Israelites are forced to build the ambitious cities of imperial Egypt, but then escape into the desert to live in flimsy, ephemeral tents. Yet they build there a small, but intricate, dazzling house for a presence which is beyond all presences.

There is, too, an architecture of language in the Torah, but this is enough already. I will leave the last to a gentile with rather a way with words:

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

And to listen to another man with a way with words, come along this Saturday at 10:30, when Adam Feldman will be leading the service.

Yitro

What a feckless lot the Israelites were, feckless, feeble and faithless. I mean, for Moses’ sake, they have no sooner witnessed the plagues, all of which struck the Egyptians with ever increasing force and devastation, while leaving them free from hail, beasts, boils, darkness and death, than they panic at the sight of the pursuing Egyptians and complain to Moses. They would rather scuttle back to Egypt and drop into the grave of slavery than face a new life of freedom. Reassured and led between the divided sea, they watch the Egyptian army swept away only to complain soon afterwards that the water is too bitter. The water is made sweet, but soon they are moaning about hunger. Manna and quails they are given aplenty, but it is not enough. They’re complaining about the water again. What is wrong with this people? I would never have behaved like that, would I?

Well, yes, I most probably would have. After all, these Israelites were all born into slavery, as were their parents. All their lives they had learnt nothing but to obey their Egyptian masters, who could in turn be indulgent, allowing their slaves to keep animals and grow good healthy food, and horribly cruel, depriving them of the materials they needed to fulfil their daily quotas of production and then blaming them for not doing so. The Israelites had fought no wars, made no difficult political decisions, faced no challenges, except for that of hard, back-breaking work. They had made no choices. Except one, and it was this choice which made them worthy of God’s faith in them. They had never wholly, through all the long years of dispossession and persecution, deserted their God, the one and only God. Yes, idolatry had rubbed off on them to some extent, as we see later in the sad episode of the golden calf, but it had not taken hold. The spark of faith had remained alight and it would not go out.

In Yitro, Moses receives some sound advice from his father-in law, Jethro, which will help him nurture this spark. Jethro is himself an example of a righteous and God fearing gentile. Moses also receives some rather important laws from God. To hear these and to join in song, prayer and conversation come along at 10.30 this Saturday, when Liz Berg will lead us.

Bo

According to the Talmud, when the angels were about to burst into song on seeing the Egyptian forces drowning, God rebuked them, saying, “How dare you sing for joy when my creatures were dying.” The Israelites, on the other hand, were allowed to sing. But what about Moses? How did he feel on seeing his adoptive countrymen drown? We know nothing of the years Moses spent growing up in the Egyptian court, but, given that a princess adopted him as her own son, presumably he was educated as a prince, surrounded by the Egyptian elite. Did he shed a tear when the first-born were struck, from the first-born of Pharaoh to the first-born of the prisoner in the dungeon? Did he shed another when the army was drowned? After all, he must have known that not all Egyptians were evil and wished the Israelites harm. It is thought that his adoptive mother was named Bithiah, which means daughter of God. Shifrah and Puah, the two midwifes who flouted Pharaoh’s order to kill the Israelite baby boys, according to some sources, were also Egyptian. Did Moses think upon such individuals, those who are rich not in wealth or power, but in integrity, courage and goodness, whose souls are kept pure, though surrounded by despotism, corruption and evil? These individuals lived in Egypt, as they live today in similar regimes around the globe. How little has the world changed!

Moses spends forty years pleading for the Israelites before God, asking over and over again for mercy, as he was shown mercy by an Egyptian princess. Perhaps we should bear this in mind as we read Bo, with its shocking tenth plague, balanced by the long-last liberation of the children of Israel.

Come along this Saturday at 10:30 and read the story of the final plagues and the exit from Egypt, join in song and prayer, as Pat Lipert leads us forth.

Shemot

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” For the Israelites, enslaved by the people who years before had welcomed, even honoured, them, one might adapt this nursery rhyme to: “Brick making may be back breaking , but our names will help preserve us.” “V’eileh shemot, these are the names of Israel’s sons who came to Egypt with Jacob…” This reiteration of their identities opens the Book of Names, just as the last word of the Book of Genesis is “b’mitzraim, in Egypt”. The first book of the Torah emerges from the divine, unknown vastness, as God fashions the world, which is also vast in its own way for us much more limited humans. It ends in a specific place, Egypt, which by the beginning of Exodus has enslaved the family of Jacob. The naming of this family preserves a dignity which would otherwise be destroyed and reminds us of other preceding names: Leah and Rachel, Isaac and Rebecca, Abraham and Sarah. Thus, the promises made by God to the patriarchs and matriarchs are preserved,

Bereshit ends, in one way, on a good note. The brothers are reconciled with Joseph, who is Viceroy in Egypt. The family has been given choice land to live in and seems safe. Yet it also ends with two deaths, first Jacob’s and then Joseph’s. Shemot starts with the family’s descendants oppressed and miserable, but it also starts with a birth of a baby who will grow up and be given a task to lead the people out of slavery. There is a sort of model of Jewish history in the few pages which cover these events. Settlement and security are followed by persecution and apparent hopelessness, but a glimmer of hope, of courage and of righteous behaviour point to a better future. We will not be beaten down. After all, we have names, memory and promise.

Our next service promises to be an excellent opportunity to share some memories and embark on an amazing journey together, all the more so as we will be led by Harvey Kurzfield. Come along at 10.30 to be part of this.