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.

Mas’ei: map of the past, map of the future

Forty years of wandering through wilderness, mountains and desert are coming to an end and the future is about to arrive. What stories of hardship, inspiration, rebellion and faith we have heard. The one constant through all of them has been the towering, though most humble, figure of Moses. Moses has been through so much. He has put up with repeated kvetching, pleaded with God to spare the people on several occasion. He has fought battles, dictated laws, directed the construction of the Tabernacle and all its furnishings. For years he was supported by the brother and sister, who had shared so much and been so close, but now he has lost them. His wife seems absent or also dead. He has been told that he will not enter the Promised Land and, on asking God to appoint a successor, he has had to accept that he will not pass on the leadership to either of his sons. He has endured more than any of his fellow Israelites. Does he complain? Does he speak out in bitterness? No, he continues to guide the people, while appointing Joshua to lead where he will not go. He continues to pass on the laws given by God, to encourage and to reassure them as they prepare for a great and daring venture. What nobility is here, self-sacrifice and heroism!

And so we come to the end of B’minbar but not the end of the story. There are words to come, many and rich. Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek!  And to help us all be strong, Sharim Atilano will lead us in prayer and song and prepare us for the journey ahead. Be there at 10:30 this Saturday.

Pinchas

Balak and Balaam are a right pair, two nasty pieces of work determined to curse and persecute an innocent people. Balaam is a right pair in himself, a two-sided coin, one side seemingly good, the other definitely bad. He is a prophet and says repeatedly that he can only declare the words that God puts in his mouth. Initially, he rebuffs the emissaries sent by King Balak. Yet he also appears to be a sorcerer  and he ascends with Balak to the “High Altars of Baal”. He also tries three times to curse Israel, but is unable to do so, not through repentance or compassion, but because he is only able to utter the words God gives him. Equally bad, he beats a poor donkey who hears the divine voice better than he does. 

Israel is other. “God does not look at wrongdoing in Jacob, and He sees no vice in Israel. God their Lord is with them and they have the King’s friendship…. How good are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles Israel. They stretch out like streams, like gardens by the river; they are like the aloes God has planted, like cedars by the water. His branches shall overflow, and his crops shall have abundant water.”

It is all clear: Moabites bad, Israelites good. And yet, and yet, immediately after this episode, some of the Israelites, seduced by the Moabile girls, accept invitations to eat and worship with them. How good are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel, now? Not very good at all, I think. What is needed is a good zealot to put things right, and this is precisely what Pinchas does by setting an example in dispatching an Israelite and a Midianite woman who are cavorting in the former’s tent. Pinches is rewarded with “My covenant of peace… a covenant of eternal priesthood” and the people are, once again, forgiven. Why, though, is the vav in the word ‘shalom’ written in the Scroll in a broken form? 

Besides the intriguing questions raised by the sequence of events in the stories of Balaam and Pinchas, there is much else to consider in this week’s parsha. Here in Cornwall to help us consider the parsha and to lead us in prayer, song and conversation will be two special guests: David and Hannah Jacobs. Do join us this Saturday at 10:30. As already announced, the service will be followed by a session led by David and Hannah on ‘Nine reasons to be Reform and one not‘. 

At least ten reasons to come.

Weekly Commentary on Chukkat

Fair-weather believers seem to be the underlying narrative in the B’Midbar parshot, from the pusillanimous ten spies to the blasphemous insurrection of Korah, Dathan and Abiram and on to

the bitter waters of Meribah and more rebellion near Ma’im Suf, The Sea of Reeds. Will these wavering Children of Israel, clearly not yet Am Yisrael, ever stop complaining?

Just in the nick of time, the concept of Chukkat, also the title of this week’s parashah underscores not only the supremacy (and mercy) of the God of Israel, it also emphasises the comprehensiveness of all the commandments. Some are blatantly reasonable, rational and understandable, Mishpatim, but others, Chukkat, require leaps of faith and moral exactitude on a much higher, esoteric plain.

We do not understand the prohibition against mixing seeds together or of wearing cloth of mixed wool and linen or, in this week’s parsha, the rules regarding the Red Heifer. We obey them because God says so. End of argument? Not really. Nothing in Torah is that simple.

There is a rationale here. These laws are concerned with a higher morality, with life, not death and regulate one’s less apparent emotional states. These laws, as in the case of the Red Heifer and others, often appear before the narrative event explaining how to act in particular circumstances. Considering, too, that Chukkat tells of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron and its impact on Moses, the need for ‘higher guidance, is exactly what is needed.

To find out more, we are very fortunate this week to have the professional advice of Rabbi Amanda Golby who will be leading our services.  Please make every effort to come so that we cannot only learn and celebrate Shabbat together, but also, give Rabbi Golby a warm, Cornish welcome.

Naso

Was perhaps Spike Milligan supposed to represent a Nazirite when he emerged from a hole in the desert, jumping up and down, half naked, three-quarters mad and one whole funny in Monty Python’s Life of Brian

The rules regarding the conduct of the Nazirite appear in this week’s sedra, which is jam-packed with other themes, including the prosecution of the woman accused by her husband of adultery. The trial by ordeal brings to mind ‘prosecution’ procedures used to identify witches or other supposed malefactors in mediaeval Europe. To return to the Nazirite, however, he (or she, for women can also assume the role)  is a curious figure in Judaism. Once someone takes the vow, they become holy to God. This suggests that it is a virtuous act to take such a vow. However, the Nazirite must refrain from consuming wine, or indeed anything related to grapes. It is unusual in our religion to practice such self-denial. Indeed denying oneself totally the pleasures of life is seen as a wilful rejection of the gifts given us by God. The ascetic is a foreign concept in Judaism. Perhaps this is why the Nazirite vow was said by many rabbis to be limited to a period of thirty days. 

One of the most interesting examples of a Nazirite is Samson, and part of his story is sometimes read as the Haftorah accompanying Naso. Some rabbis say he was physically strong but morally weak. I think, though, that he was a tragic figure. He must have had spiritual strengths, since it says that God blessed him and that he was moved by God’s spirit, but he did clearly, too, have a weakness. I remember listening to and reading his story as a child. It was easy to think that his hair possessed some kind of strength imparting magic. But the real reason he became powerless before his Philistine enemies is because he broke his Nazirite vows, drinking and allowing his hair to be cut. And how holy could he be under the thrall of a treacherous lover like Delilah? Like other tragic heroes he ended his life with a dramatic act that somehow restored his dignity and greatness. 

Come along this Saturday at 10:30. Sharim Atilano will be leading us.

B’chukkotai

In one or two recent services, we have discussed the challenges of some of the laws appearing in the weekly readings when we examine them in the light of contemporary sensibilities. The rules of priestly purity, for example, are difficult to reconcile with our modern attitudes and policies regarding disability and difference. In B’har, however, we cannot but be taken aback at the enlightened, inspired spirit of the laws given to Moses to pass on to the children of Israel. In a world in which, throughout most, if not all, of history, people have striven with one another to create power and wealth and amass as much land as possible, the laws of the jubilee year are remarkable. Basically, they make it impossible for any single person or family to become the owner of a vast estate. The instructions not to exploit, humiliate or lord it over debtors and the poor share the same inspired, ethical spirit. 

B’chukkotai, continues in similar vein, reminding me of modern UK practice with regard to leasehold property. The parsha also anticipates the book of D’varim in its enumeration of blessings and curses following on from good or bad behaviour respectively. But enough from me, for, this coming Shabbat, we are in for a special treat in the form of Rabbi Maurice Michaels, who is coming to Cornwall to lead our service. When Rabbi Maurice took up his post in Bournemouth, he was described by the local Daily Echo as being an “inspirational rabbi”. Besides having a previous career in commerce and industry behind him, he has served, among other positions, on the Board of Deputies and as Chairman of what is now Reform Judaism. Several of our members have attended services in Bournemouth and I for one can vouch for his ‘inspirational’ leadership. 

Rabbi Maurice will also conduct, as I have possibly mentioned already, a special service to welcome Mai Jacobson and Roger Chatfield into our community. How can you miss such a promising Shabbat day?