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.

Metzora

“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. 

Sh’mini

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.

Va’yikra – Leviticus

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. 

Vayakhel

Last week, in Khi Thisa, we read of how our ancestors made a golden calf, danced around it and even made sacrifices. How could a generation not so far removed from Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel have been so stupid?  The patriarchs and matriarchs had committed themselves to monotheism, reaffirming their trust in the Eternal One many times. How their souls must have grieved to see the degradation in which their descendants sank. The sin of the golden calf is, though, according to the sages easier to understand when one takes into account the recent history of the children of Israel in Egypt. Deprived of liberty, enslaved and debased, they had been surrounded by idolatry. Wherever they looked, they must have seen statues and carvings of gods and goddesses, many of them curious mixtures of beast and human. Besides, are we today really any better? How easy it is to    s   l   i   d   e     s   l  o  w  l  y   i n to  idolatry. It may start with superstition or a belief in the power of talismans. Even sacred objects associated with deeply held faith may seem to take on a power in themselves, which then becomes divorced from what the objects symbolise. When we touch a mezuzah, do we think of the words inside, or do treat the mezuzah as an object of power in its own right? In our deep reverence for the Sefer Scroll may we not forget the significance of the text is contains? 

Let us hope we can laugh off all superstition, see the talisman for what it is and pop the hollow idol.  Just as I hope, with no touching of wood, no crossing of fingers, no searching for a black cat to cross my path and no avoidance of thirteen of anything, that things will improve for the Israelites this week. I do believe they will, for I am reminded by Adam Feldman, who, together with Melanie, will be leading the service, that this Saturday, 25th Adar, is also Shabbat Shekalim, being six weeks prior to Pesach. 

To quote our service leaders  “We thought it may be nice if people could bring, in place of half a shekel, an item or two of non-perishable food (tins or dry packets) that we can collect as our Shabbat Shekalim donations, and we’d be happy to pass this to one of the local food bank collection points.”

So come along this Saturday at 10:30 for a super double bill and perform an extra mitzvah at the same time by responding to Adam and Melanie Feldman’s call. 

T’tzavveh

Starting with T’rumah last week, the final sedrot of Sh’mot deal almost exclusively with the Tabernacle and all its furniture and furnishings. Some sages say that what is happening here is a mirror image of the Creation as described at the beginning of Bereshit. In the latter, God creates the world for us to live in. In the case of the Tabernacle, we create a space for God to dwell in. This is a beautiful idea. There is also a very practical aspect and possible foresight to the extraordinarily detailed instructions for the building and filling of the Tabernacle. The blueprint provided has enabled us, once the second Temple was destroyed, to build synagogues which incorporate aspects of the Tabernacle. There is also another piece of brilliance in the work passed on by Moses from God to the people. Accustomed to relentless years of forced labour, they now find themselves in the wilderness with not a great deal to do beyond the sporadic journeying from one place to another. There is not much point in building houses, nor in clearing and planting fields. Food falls literally from the skies. So much unaccustomed idleness in a strange and sometimes hostile environment could only add to the feeling of insecurity and discontent already bubbling under the surface. What better solution than for the people to be given a task, not this time for the glory of an oppressive regime, but for the glory of God? What is more, rather than toil in the back-breaking and spirit-numbing drudgery of making and carrying endless quantities of bricks, now the Israelites are asked to take part in the creative, fulfilling tasks of carving, sculpting, dyeing and weaving of beautiful, meaningful objects.  

Much of T’tzavveh is occupied with the design of the priestly vestments, which will reinforce the role of the priests as the link between God and the people, for the priests are both “Holy to God” and the focal point of all the tribes. 

Come along this Saturday at 10:30 and share in our creative thoughts, songs, prayers and conversation. Sharim Atilano will bring it all together.