All posts by Jeremy

Sh’mini

There are a lot of unclean animals about: camels, hyraxes, long-eared owls, hoopoes, skinks and salamanders, to mention just a few. Not eating them may or may not have been a challenge for the early Israelites, but keeping their dead carcasses away from themselves and their dwellings would surely have been so when living in an environment so much less sanitised than ours. Quite a few reasons have been given to explain why certain classes of animal are forbidden, including health and hygiene, differentiating our diet from idolatrous peoples living nearby and a concern that it was a double violation of life to eat creatures which themselves killed and ate other creatures. And then there is the explanation that, by differentiating unclean and clean animals, we are reinforcing the distinction between the holy and the unholy and binding ourselves closer to God. 

Crossing boundaries can be extremely dangerous, as is illustrated by the fate of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. What exactly did they do wrong? According to Rabbi Akiva, they offered strange fire. Rabbi Yose says they entered the Holy of Holies at a time when divine service was not commanded. Rabbi Eleazar says they offered secular, not holy, fire. There are other, similar interpretations, but it seems that, while they committed some violation, they were not regarded as evil. God Himself seem to mourn their fate when, through Moses, he says, “I will be sanctified among those close to Me.” Besides, Moses tells “the entire family of Israel to mourn for the ones whom God has burned.” They are thus tragic figures, newly initiated as God’s priests, eager to serve, but blinded by a mistaken understanding of their role. 

This week we are following the Orthodox calendar in our choice of parsha in honour of one of our two service leaders, Murray Brown,  who, together with Adam Feldman, will be guiding us in our prayers, songs, reading and conversation. Come along on Saturday at 10:30 to join us.

Va-yikra

The two parshas which come immediately after the episode of the golden calf and which, this year, form a double parashiyot, are marked by their brightness and serenity. They begin with Moses asking the people to contribute to the building of the Tabernacle. From then on, everything that happens is good, with the people giving either of their possessions or of their labour. They bring bracelets, earrings, ornaments, sky blue, dark red and crimson wool, fine linen, skins and leathers, silver, copper, and acacia wood. As for the tribal leaders, they bring precious stones, fragrances and their best olive oil. Such is the enthusiasm and generous energy of the people that Moses has to tell them not to bring more. Now, with all necessary materials assembled, it seems that everyone is busy, as craftsmen and workers hammer and mould, carry and carve. The camp is filled with the noise of busy, happy work. The step-by-step description, first of the building, sculpting, weaving and sewing, followed by the  assembly of the Tabernacle, with all its parts – Ark, Table, Lamp. Incense Altar, Drape and Altar, Washstand, and Enclosure – has a mesmerising effect. The narration is imbued with a kind of tenderness springing from a people  joyful in God’s work. It is a tenderness which, despite all the setbacks and backsliding which will characterise our history, is realised in the Psalms of David and Songs of Solomon and even in the words of the Prophets, when they remember that God will remember His people. In more modern times we continue to add to this store with new songs and prayers, particularly during Shabbat.

It is good that the Book of Shemot, which starts with the fight to leave Egypt, should end on such a positive note, made most patent by the maftir describing the cloud covering the Communion Tent and God’s glory filling the Tabernacle.

And so on to Va-yikra, God calling to Moses and, through him, to the people. We start with the laws of sacrifice, and who better to introduce these than Pat Lipert, who is deep in her thoughts and her books in order to give you a service to remember this Saturday at 10.30.

Ki Tissa

The instructions given on the making of the priestly vestments in T’tzavveh are so extraordinarily detailed, a tailor and metalworker would have no problem following them. Interestingly, so many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century worked as tailors in the East End of London, in Glasgow and elsewhere. It is as though a shadow of the Torah passed by. Why was God so particular in what He wanted made and in how he wanted to be honoured? Perhaps one reason was because, in this way, He also honoured the Israelites. To be a priest dressed in magnificent robes and carrying on his person the engraved names of the tribes of Israel was a sacred duty. It was also a sacred honour.

This two-way honour continues in Ki Tissa with instructions on making the washstand, the anointing oil and incense. It is focussed on the persons of Uri and Ohaliev, the architects blessed with wisdom, understanding, knowledge and craftsmanship. They are joined by other talented and creative people, all blessed with God’s wisdom. And then what happens? From the heights of divine inspiration we plummet to the sin of the Golden Calf. It is curious that, when Aaron had all the gold given by the people to make a god melted and cast, what came out was a calf. A calf! Not a bull or a lion of power, not a mythical, inspiring beast like a sphinx, or a human body topped with an animal head, as one might expect from a people recently parted from Egypt, but a baby cow. What a pathetic falling is this.

Yet Ki Tissa does not end in pathos. Having started with the creative divine, it rises again to the sublime. Moses witnesses God’s presence. A second set of tablets are made and the parsha ends with a description of Moses’ face filled with divine light. A parsha packed with drama and resonance. To experience more, come along this Saturday at 10.30. Pat Lipert, who has an eye for a good story and two for an excellent one, will unpack some more drama and resonance for us.

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. 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 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.

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.