All posts by Jeremy

Nitzavim-Vayelekh

If you travel around the towns and villages of Britain, you will find in almost all of them one or more memorials to the dead of the First and Second World Wars. This is fitting in a country which lost so many of its citizens and suffered so much privation, in the first case in a war whose rationale the ordinary soldier was hard pressed to understand, in the second in a war for survival against the most evil of regimes. We see these memorials as part of the national landscape, a prop in the background to our lives. Now imagine living in the newly founded state of Israel, after Joshua took the people over the river Jordan. The monuments you would have seen standing at the entrance to the new land, like the British war memorials, built in stone, would have had inscribed upon them texts from Devarim. They would have reminded you of the instructions on how to build a just and harmonious society, of moral laws designed to guide you in the ways of righteousness and of contrasting blessings and curses to be earned for good or bad behaviour. Together with mezuzot, tefillin, tziztit, rituals and festivals, the stones would have been a constant reminder of Israel’s sacred mission. The blessings are as comforting as the curses are terrifying. They are given in Ki Tavo, which is followed by the double parsha for this week of Nitzvaim and Yayelekh.

They are standing, listening to Moses’ final discourse, both those who hear the words at the time they were first spoken and the many, many generations of Jews who have come after, right up to us, and those who will come after us. It is suggested in Nitzvaim that we will forget the covenant, even though it is, or should be, “in your mouth and in your heart”. We will one day choose evil and we will reap the consequences. Yet there is a thread running through the parsha, which is carried along the haftorah, one of Seven Haftarot of Consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah. As we prepare to repent, or rather to return, to God, the awful curses, the foreboding of future evil, are softened by the promise of a return and of forgiveness. The haftarot, which are beautiful and poetic, all come from Isaiah. Our prophets are poets as well as righteous men.

Vayelekh – “then he went out” – as the first word of the parsha suggests moves towards the future and the impending leadership of Joshua. To find out more of this and of the preceding parsha, come along this Saturday at 10:30 am. Liz Berg will light up the majestic words of two of the most inspiring parshiyot in the Torah.

Ki Teitzei

An aged parent sits at home in his favourite armchair, surrounded by his children. He speaks softly of the past and of the future. He knows that death approaches and wishes to pass on his accumulated wisdom and experience to his descendants. His children face a future full of promise and some uncertainty. They will move on into a world the parent will never know, but they badly need his advice. The old man thinks of everything. He provides moral rules to guide their behaviour both at home and abroad. He gives guidance on property and land rights. He has practical advice on building houses. He even covers personal hygiene necessary to avoid ill-health for both his children and their neighbours. It seems he can see well into the future, for he knows that one day some of his descendants will become kings. Humble for both himself and for his illustrious progeny, he warns against the greed and self-indulgence which power can bring. As he speaks, he looks serene, or is there a hint of regret in his eyes for a future he will not know, for a world he will not explore?

Thus speaks Moses, only Moses speaks to a whole people and he is not sat at home in his favourite armchair. Indeed he has no home at all, for he is one of thousands on thousands of refugees wandering the desert, shunned by the resident tribes and peoples, moving ever on. Also, Moses does not speak his own words, but those of God, though it is the same thing, since Moses’ heart is with God.

The parshas for last week, Shoftim, and for this, Ki Teitzei, overflow with laws and guidance. Surely, the people will go forth and build as near perfect a society as humanity can hope for. Or will they?

To have a better idea of the blueprint for a better world, come to the service this Saturday at 10.30. Adam Feldman will lead us in prayer, song and reflection.

R’eih

Can there be a more impressive scene? Moses, the humblest of men, the stammerer, devoid of ambition, who has surrounded himself with no pomp or ceremony, servant of God, leader and servant of the people, knowing he is near death, that he will not enter the promised land, but without bitterness or resentment, delivers the greatest of addresses. He reminds the people of their long journey to where they now stand, both physically and morally. He recounts the most important laws and puts before the community the choice they have between good and evil, life and death. He warns against idolatry, complacency, and forgetfulness. He warns against idolatrous prophets, who are not real prophets. And what is this at the beginning of R’eih?

The curse will come if you do not obey the commandments of God your
Lord, and you go astray from the path that I am prescribing for you today,
following other gods to have a novel spiritual experience.

One of the most significant developments in the last fifty years in the west, particularly in the UK, has been the decline in the number of people regularly attending places of worship or identifying themselves with a traditional religion. At least this is true of the main religion of the country, i.e. Christianity. In some cases, people have simply lapsed into secularism and become agnostic or atheist. In other cases, they have still had spiritual yearnings but have looked for meaning elsewhere, in alternative or new religions. The conceptualisation of faith in these cases is often vague, sort of eastern, sort of pagan. It is precisely to avoid a similar fate for Judaism that Moses reminds the people that the stories and the laws and the words of God should be placed in their heart and soul and, oh so importantly, taught to their children both at home and away from home. The Torah is for then, for now and for the future. And to keep it ever relevant, it has, is and will be questioned and interpreted by sages and men and women of faith through the ages.

So how can you possibly resist hearing the insights of Harvey Kurtzfield, who will be leading the service this Saturday, starting 10:30 a.m.?

What is it like to be British and Jewish?

This is the subject of some research being carried out by Hila Zaban, an UK-based Israeli research fellow working in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Dr Zaban is also looking at the types of connections that British Jews have with Israel. Her research is mainly based on interviews and participant observation, but as part of this project she is also running a survey.

The purpose of the survey is to reach people all over the UK, not just in London, in order to understand broader trends among British Jews and their connections with Israel.

Dr Zaban would be most grateful to anyone who completes her online survey. It takes about
ten minutes to answer and is fully anonymous and will only be used for research purposes.