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 and Blessing for Kislev – there’s business and business

If Abraham had been dealing with the landed gentry and merchants of Falmouth and Penzance, he would have had an easier time of it negotiating for a burial plot for his beloved Sarah. At the beginning of Chapter 8 (‘The Jewish Cemeteries’) in his The Jews of Cornwall – A History, Keith Pearce describes in perceptive detail how important burial and cemeteries are to Jewish communities. The sacred practice of honouring the dead starts, as one would expect, with Abraham. On Sarah’s death, he mourns and weeps for her.  He also seeks a secure place to bury her, a place which will become his own grave and that of the patriarchs and matriarchs down to Jacob, Rachel and Leah. Unfortunately, for Abraham, he has to deal with Ephron, the Hittite. While oozing charm and a thick veneer of seeming generosity, Ephron is really out to get whatever he can from the bereaved Abraham and ends up charging him an extortionate price equivalent to many years wages for a worker in those days. Contrast this with the terms under which the Jews of Cornwall obtained their burial grounds in Penzance and Falmouth. The Bassets and other land owners either offered very reasonable or generous terms or didn’t charge at all, despite knowing that in the case of burial plots, it is almost always going to be a seller’s market. 

Ephron is not the only calculating character in this week’s parsha. We also meet Laban, the bane of his sister’s life and, in years to come, the bane of his nephew’s. It is not all bad, however. There is happiness and promise in the marriage of Isaac and more fulfilment for Abraham himself. This week, we have another new service leader. Come along on Saturday at 10:30 and lend brave Jenni Zaidi your support and cheer. 

Lech l’cha

Our cat Queenie loves nothing more than to be cradled in the arms of one of the family and to bury his head in the crook of our elbow or in our chest, where he will purr with the utmost contentment. This behaviour is connected to the story of Abraham, which begins this week. To find out how come to the service on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. when the writer of these words will try to explain. He will also lead the service. 

Bereshit: what a beginning and how!

Words, words words – Devarim is full of them: eloquent, beautifully crafted words uttered by the man who protested to God over forty years before, as the burning bush burned and didn’t burn away, that he had no way with them, that he was an inarticulate stutterer. Now, back once more in Bereshit, where it all begins, God creates the world with words. What language did he use to do this? Did he speak in Hebrew, or in a language unknown to us? Was it in a thunderous voice, or in a small, still one, or with no voice at all, no letters, in a language and a voice as unfathomable as is God Himself? Certainly, the language as it appears to us at the beginning of the Torah is as remarkable for its simple grand majesty as it is for what it doesn’t say, at least what is doesn’t say if we are not listening. We are told over and over to listen, to hearken, to hear the voice of God. God rewards Abraham because he listened to His voice. Israel will realise this reward if it, too, listens. Given this repeated emphasis on listening, surely we must refer back to the beginning and listen there. What is said and what is unsaid? The Creation is described with broad sweeps of the brush. There are few details, shades or nuances. The firmament separated the waters below from those above (perhaps they sky separating the earth from the cosmos). The sea is separated from the land.  The sun and the moon come into being, animals on the land, fish in the sea and birds in the sky, trees and plants and, of course, man and woman. Yet there is no mention of tides or waves, hibiscus or daisies, eagles or sparrows, whales or minnows. We don’t even know what colour the first man and woman were. What sort of eyes and hair did they have?

While some of these questions have no answer, many others are completed through our lived knowledge of the world. We cannot know in any detail what the Garden of Eden looked like, but we know the tides and the waves and, generally, how the world looks, sounds, feels and smells. Genesis is not a blueprint or scientific treatise. It is the metaphorical evocation of whatever actually happened, whatever process brought the universe into being and how. And it is just as grand. “Just as?” you might protest in indignation. Surely, the theory of the big bang is nowhere as grand as the story of Genesis. Well, in a way it is. The idea of the universe being created from a seemingly nothing is pretty amazing, pretty grand in its own right, if you think about it, pretty incredible, too. Besides, whatever scientific theory is advanced and then developed to explain the creation of the universe, it is also a sort of metaphor. We will never fully understand exactly how it happened. Our brains are not capable of really conceiving of what there was before either. As God asks Job many (how many?) years after the Creation,

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
…..
“Have the gates of death been revealed to you?
Or have you seen the doors of the shadow of death?
….
“Who has put wisdom in the mind?
Or who has given understanding to the heart?”

What wisdom and understanding we have achieved should teach us to listen to the miracle of life, the coming into being of our fragile earth and of ourselves, born with the ability to choose good or evil. We now know how vital it is for us to chose good. Otherwise, the Garden of Eden and the world itself will most certainly die. 

This year, Genesis promises to be special, as Pat Lipert launches the new Torah cycle on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.

Ki-tetze

“Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a bondsman that is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose within one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not wrong him.” 

There is a tenderness about such a commandment, one of many aimed at protecting the poor and vulnerable. It fits with the command not to harvest all the corn, olives or grapes, but to leave some for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, and the law not to oppress a servant. Other laws appearing in Ki-Tetze seem to be designed to ensure the functioning of a well-ordered and considerate society, such as building a parapet around the roof of one’s house to prevent anyone from falling, or looking after the lost animals of a neighbour until they can be claimed. 

There are, on the other hand, some laws which, today at least, appear draconian. Stoning a rebellious child or the adulterous man or woman, or banning the mamzer (often translated as ‘bastard’ but, more likely, the offspring of an incestuous or forbidden union) from marrying a son or daughter of Israel are examples of such laws. Indeed, throughout the Torah, there are laws which are troubling, to say the least. Perhaps we should make a list of them and seek to explain or confront them. 

Do not miss this week’s service on Saturday starting at 10:30, for it will be your last chance to hear Sharim Atilano for some time, since she will soon be giving birth to a son or daughter of Israel.

Re-eh

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. Man is the measure of all things, at least that is what many would have us believe for the last few centuries. And yet, to me, this is a depressing prospect at best, since I, a member of the human race, am often filled with base thoughts, my mind full of trivia, my heart full of dross. If man is the measure of all things, poor man, poor all things! The possibility that there is no greater, better being in the universe than the human being is terrifying. How brilliant then that Re-eh, together with most of the other parashiyot in Devarim, is filled with a greater presence. Obviously, God is mentioned all through the Torah, but in the last Book His presence is at its most intense. Consider the following short passage from Chapter XIII, for example: 

 “…for the Lord your God putteth you to proof, to know whether ye do love your God with all your heart and with all your soul. After the Lord you God shall ye walk, and Him shall ye fear, and His commandments shall ye keep, and unto His voice shall ye hearken, and Him shall ye serve, and unto Him shall ye cleave.” 

Israel is so bound to God that it truly is the laws and the story which is woven between God and Israel which bring the nation into being and give it its identity. 

To hear the laws and the story at their most eloquent, come this Saturday at 10:30 when Pat Lipert will lead us with noble words and song.