Category Archives: Jeremy’s Notes

Please note that service reminders aim to build a bridge between the last Saturday service two weeks before and the one being announced. They will therefore often focus on the previous parshah rather than on the one in the title.

Chayyei Sarah

Usually, when God speaks to Abraham, Abraham responds, argues, even laughs at God’s words. Whenever he is told to do something, however, he simply gets on with it. He leaves his father’s land, circumcises himself and his household, and takes his son Isaac up the mountain for sacrifice. He is the supreme example of faith. Why doesn’t he question God about sacrificing his son? ”It would be sacrilege even to ascribe such an act to you – to kill the innocent with the guilty… Shall the whole world’s Judge not act justly?” are the words he doesn’t say. Abraham, the man who has himself acted justly throughout his life, who has given his nephew Lot the first choice of land when they separate their households and flocks, who has refused to take the spoils of war, who makes treaties of friendship with his neighbours, knows surely that God cannot be less just than him, but he does not question God’s command. Perhaps he senses that Isaac’s sacrifice is a logical impossibility. He has two choices: either he sacrifices Isaac or he doesn’t. If he chooses the latter option, Isaac lives. If he chooses the former, God will stop the sacrifice, as indeed He does.

The Akedah comes near the end of Va-yeira, but we are now come to Chayyei Sarah, in which Abraham buys the only land he will ever own, i.e. a burial place for his wife and, later, for himself. The overall spirit of this parsha is one of beauty and generous feeling set against a weaker, if disturbing, mercenary intent. Abraham willingly pays grasping Ephron over the odds for a burial plot. This transaction between honour and deceit is reflected later on when Abraham’s steward, thought to be Eliezer, meets Rebecca. She is all kindness, not only giving water to Eliezer, but also to his camels and in offering food and shelter to him, his men and their animals. Contrast this behaviour with the hint of greed shown by her brother Laban, who treats the visitors with hospitality, but notices first and foremost the gold ring and bracelets given to Rebecca.

It is, though, the minor character, Eliezer, who perhaps distinguishes himself most, for he is so overcome with joy at meeting Rebecca that he prostrates himself and exclaims, “Blessed be God, Lord of my master Abraham, who has not withdrawn the kindness and truth that He grants to my master.”

Blessed indeed be God, and to take part in blessings, prayers, songs and readings, come to this Shabbat service at 10:30. Harvey Kurzfield of melodious blessings will guide us.

LEch L’cha

‘”Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”‘ This is the beginning of Abraham’s story as we are told it. It is said that, before he set out, he smashed his father’s idols. Abraham and Sarah are so familiar to us that it is easy to overlook a detail of their story which comes right at the end of the momentous preceding parsha of Noah. This is that Abram’s father, Terach, himself leaves his land:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (Haran’s son), and his
daughter-in-law Sarai (Abam’s wife). With them, he left Ur Casdim,
heading towards Canaan. The came as far as Charan and settled there.

Why does Terach leave Ur Casdim? Did he wish to escape from his father’s idols? Whatever the answer, he starts a journey continued by his son and great grandson, his great, great grandchildren and, much later, by a huge group of escaped slaves. The journey has a mysterious symmetry. Abraham’s journey will take him to the promised land. He will leave it and return. Jacob and his children will also leave, after which there will be no return for hundreds of years, hundreds plus forty extra ones because of our lack of faith. Given Abraham’s own goodness and faith, why did God not simply simply send him to the promised land and go from there, with gentle guidance for a few generations while the people multiplied and populated the land? Isaac and Rebecca would add contemplative insights and kindness. Jacob, Leah and Rachel would add shrewdness, bright intelligence, a deep sense of family and ever greater insight into the nature of the divine. Was this not enough to make a holy nation? Well, no, because wisdom is gained only by the slow accretion of experience, knowledge, insight and self-awareness. It cannot be learnt in a day, any more than can advanced Mathematics. Every step of the journey from when Terach led his son, grandson and daughter-in-law out of Ur Casdim to when Joshua led the people over the the river Jordan needed to be taken, taken and understood, taken and remembered. We are still journeying, still remembering, teaching and learning.

Now, what have I forgotten? Oh yes, do come along this Saturday at 10:30 am. Adam Feldman will be leading us on Abraham and Sarah’s way.

Bereshit

This Thursday, 22 Tishri, is Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the day when a circle is completed. On this day, Moses dies and on this day the world is born. Sadness becomes joy when the Torah cycle begins again. At the same time, Joshua becomes the leader and is instructed by God to be of stout heart and to cross the river Jordan. Israel begins a new life.

A new life, but soon the first death takes place, as we hear on the first Shabbat of the new cycle. A brother kills a brother.

Before the murder takes place, God says to Cain, who is angry that his brother’s offering had been preferred to his, “If you do good, will there not be special privilege? And if you do not do good, sin is crouching at the door. It lusts after you, but you can dominate it.”

These words are like a seed within from which the whole of the Torah grows. They encapsulate the moral choice facing humanity and which is so eloquently expressed by Moses in Devarim. “See! Today I have set before you the life and the good and the death and the evil.”

To return to Cain, after the murder, God asks him, Where is your brother Abel?” ”

I do not know,” replies Cain. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer to this is yes. We are one another’s keepers and the stories to come of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, Aaron and Miriam and, much later, of David and Jonathan, all provide good and bad examples of how we treat one another. Israel’s very creation and education are God’s living experiment in learning to care for one another and, by so doing, to honour God.

Don’t miss the beginning of this great journey. Come along this Saturday at 10:30. Liz Berg will be leading the service.

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.