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.

Yitro

What a feckless lot the Israelites were, feckless, feeble and faithless. I mean, for Moses’ sake, they have no sooner witnessed the plagues, all of which struck the Egyptians with ever increasing force and devastation, while leaving them free from hail, beasts, boils, darkness and death, than they panic at the sight of the pursuing Egyptians and complain to Moses. They would rather scuttle back to Egypt and drop into the grave of slavery than face a new life of freedom. Reassured and led between the divided sea, they watch the Egyptian army swept away only to complain soon afterwards that the water is too bitter. The water is made sweet, but soon they are moaning about hunger. Manna and quails they are given aplenty, but it is not enough. They’re complaining about the water again. What is wrong with this people? I would never have behaved like that, would I?

Well, yes, I most probably would have. After all, these Israelites were all born into slavery, as were their parents. All their lives they had learnt nothing but to obey their Egyptian masters, who could in turn be indulgent, allowing their slaves to keep animals and grow good healthy food, and horribly cruel, depriving them of the materials they needed to fulfil their daily quotas of production and then blaming them for not doing so. The Israelites had fought no wars, made no difficult political decisions, faced no challenges, except for that of hard, back-breaking work. They had made no choices. Except one, and it was this choice which made them worthy of God’s faith in them. They had never wholly, through all the long years of dispossession and persecution, deserted their God, the one and only God. Yes, idolatry had rubbed off on them to some extent, as we see later in the sad episode of the golden calf, but it had not taken hold. The spark of faith had remained alight and it would not go out.

In Yitro, Moses receives some sound advice from his father-in law, Jethro, which will help him nurture this spark. Jethro is himself an example of a righteous and God fearing gentile. Moses also receives some rather important laws from God. To hear these and to join in song, prayer and conversation come along at 10.30 this Saturday, when Liz Berg will lead us.

Bo

According to the Talmud, when the angels were about to burst into song on seeing the Egyptian forces drowning, God rebuked them, saying, “How dare you sing for joy when my creatures were dying.” The Israelites, on the other hand, were allowed to sing. But what about Moses? How did he feel on seeing his adoptive countrymen drown? We know nothing of the years Moses spent growing up in the Egyptian court, but, given that a princess adopted him as her own son, presumably he was educated as a prince, surrounded by the Egyptian elite. Did he shed a tear when the first-born were struck, from the first-born of Pharaoh to the first-born of the prisoner in the dungeon? Did he shed another when the army was drowned? After all, he must have known that not all Egyptians were evil and wished the Israelites harm. It is thought that his adoptive mother was named Bithiah, which means daughter of God. Shifrah and Puah, the two midwifes who flouted Pharaoh’s order to kill the Israelite baby boys, according to some sources, were also Egyptian. Did Moses think upon such individuals, those who are rich not in wealth or power, but in integrity, courage and goodness, whose souls are kept pure, though surrounded by despotism, corruption and evil? These individuals lived in Egypt, as they live today in similar regimes around the globe. How little has the world changed!

Moses spends forty years pleading for the Israelites before God, asking over and over again for mercy, as he was shown mercy by an Egyptian princess. Perhaps we should bear this in mind as we read Bo, with its shocking tenth plague, balanced by the long-last liberation of the children of Israel.

Come along this Saturday at 10:30 and read the story of the final plagues and the exit from Egypt, join in song and prayer, as Pat Lipert leads us forth.

Shemot

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” For the Israelites, enslaved by the people who years before had welcomed, even honoured, them, one might adapt this nursery rhyme to: “Brick making may be back breaking , but our names will help preserve us.” “V’eileh shemot, these are the names of Israel’s sons who came to Egypt with Jacob…” This reiteration of their identities opens the Book of Names, just as the last word of the Book of Genesis is “b’mitzraim, in Egypt”. The first book of the Torah emerges from the divine, unknown vastness, as God fashions the world, which is also vast in its own way for us much more limited humans. It ends in a specific place, Egypt, which by the beginning of Exodus has enslaved the family of Jacob. The naming of this family preserves a dignity which would otherwise be destroyed and reminds us of other preceding names: Leah and Rachel, Isaac and Rebecca, Abraham and Sarah. Thus, the promises made by God to the patriarchs and matriarchs are preserved,

Bereshit ends, in one way, on a good note. The brothers are reconciled with Joseph, who is Viceroy in Egypt. The family has been given choice land to live in and seems safe. Yet it also ends with two deaths, first Jacob’s and then Joseph’s. Shemot starts with the family’s descendants oppressed and miserable, but it also starts with a birth of a baby who will grow up and be given a task to lead the people out of slavery. There is a sort of model of Jewish history in the few pages which cover these events. Settlement and security are followed by persecution and apparent hopelessness, but a glimmer of hope, of courage and of righteous behaviour point to a better future. We will not be beaten down. After all, we have names, memory and promise.

Our next service promises to be an excellent opportunity to share some memories and embark on an amazing journey together, all the more so as we will be led by Harvey Kurzfield. Come along at 10.30 to be part of this.

Va-y’chi

In his recent commentary on the parsha of Mikkeitz, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs, argues that Joseph was the world’s first economist. Confronted with the prospect of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, Joseph plans and executes an efficient economic strategy which saves both Egypt and Canaan from the famine. Almost in passing, Rabbi Sachs mentions how Joseph effectively turned the whole population of Egypt into serfs. First he has them use all their money to buy grain. Then he has them sell their livestock. Finally, he tells them to sell their land. From then on, they will own nothing, and 20 percent of their labour will be Pharaoh’s. Eventually, a new Pharaoh will impose a more severe version of such serfdom on the Israelites. The following two parshiyot – Va-yiggash and Va-y’chi – present Joseph and, by extension, his family as at the pinnacle of Egyptian society. Joseph is the Viceroy and respected by everyone. When Jacob dies, he is given a state funeral. The Canaanites in the area say to each other, “Egypt is in deep mourning here.” Yet we know that the end of Bereshit is close and that when the story reopens in Shemot, the Israelites have become miserable slaves. It seem that Joseph’s economic strategy, in the long run, resulted in evil. Or did it?

The story, or stories, of the Torah may seem to follow a simple sequence, one event after another with corresponding moral parallels. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, so they are expelled from Eden. Cain murders his brother, so he becomes a wanderer. Overreaching humans build Babel, which is bad, and are scattered, which is just. Joseph is sold into slavery, which is bad. He rises to the top of Egyptian society and saves his family from famine, which is good. There is, though, a constantly shifting counterpoint, which raises many questions. What if Adam and Eve had not eaten the forbidden fruit? Where would we all be? Would it have been better for the world or not? Cain, the first murderer, is marked by God with a sign of guilt, but it is also a sign of mercy. The destruction of Babel leads to a multiplicity of languages with worlds of meaning. Joseph saves his family, yes, but their descendants end up as slaves. Is this good or bad? Could we exist as Jews if it were not for the story of our slavery, our rescue and the hard, oh so hard, lessons in how to be free?

And it goes on in Tanach. Solomon is the wisest of kings. He builds the Temple. Yet he ends up amassing wealth, horses and women and dies feared by his people. Before the era of kings, the Judge Jephthah swears to God that he will sacrifice whatever comes first out of his house on his return from battle if God will grant him victory over the Ammonites. He is victorious and returns home, but it is his daughter who emerges first to greet him. “Alas, my daughter,” cries Jephthah in agony, “I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” It is easy to read this like some tragic Greek story of obligatory human sacrifice, but it isn’t. Jephthah, although not an evil man, has forgotten, surrounded as he is by idolatry and barbarous practices, the Akeidah. God does not want human sacrifices and so does not want anyone to make a vow that would oblige them to make one. Things are not as simple as they may seem.

This week we have two special visitors, Mike Frankl and Fiona Karet, who have come down from Cambridge and will lead the service on Saturday, starting at 10:30. Come along to listen, pray, sing and share.

Va-yeishev

Va-yishlach features one of the iconic episodes of the Jewish story, i.e. Jacob’s wrestling match with the stranger, which leaves him lame in body but strengthened in spirit. According to one tradition, this stranger is Sameal, the guardian angel of Esau and the incarnation of Evil. According to others, however, it is a holy angel. It would certainly be strange for an angel of Jacob’s enemy and an incarnation of Evil to bless Jacob and to give him the name Israel. Consider, too, that when Jacob finally meets Esau, the older brother he had deceived and who had threatened to kill him in return, Esau is all kindness and forgiveness. Jacob says something extraordinary: “For seeing your face is like seeing the face of the Divine, you have received me so favourably.” Does the divine dwell in the face of an evil man? Surely, Esau’s actions and Jacob’s words demonstrate that hatred can turn to love and that other people, whom so often we fear, can hold within themselves their own imprint of the divine.

It is important to bear the story of Jacob and Esau in mind when we come to Va-yeishev, another version of sibling rivalry and the beginning of Israel’s encounter with Egypt. This week’s parsha starts badly. A precocious and rather vain younger brother, perhaps not sufficiently controlled by his doting father, irritates his bothers so much that, driven by jealousy and resentment, they sell him into slavery. Yet already by the end of the parsha, despite the dire circumstances in which it ends, with Joseph in prison for a crime he had not committed, there is a ray of light, and that is Joseph’s growing wisdom and his moral uprightness. He could have curried favour with his mistress by sleeping with her, but he refuses to betray his master.

Before I end, allow me a little addendum. Joseph has been unjustly treated, but he has not been killed. Neither Potiphar, in a fit of jealousy, nor his wife, in her fit of pique has taken a dagger to him. At the risk of stating the obvious, this shows that there was a legal system and a concept of justice in Egypt. This is very important and gives us a moral context in which to place many of the laws which are given to the Israelites after the Exodus. What is important about these laws is not so much that they regulate our social and legal behaviour, but that they must be justly and fairly administered. The law is a ragged and dirty instrument when it favours wealth and power over impartiality. Israel’s mission will not be to follow a mass of laws and rulings but to use them as the foundations of a just society.

To hear the story of the sons of Jacob and to share in prayer, song and conversation, come to the service this Saturday at 10:30. Liz Berg will lead us in tune.