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.

Mishpatim

The people have not long been out of Egypt when Moses’ father-in-law Jethro comes to the camp with Tziporah and the children, Gershom and Eliezer. On only the second day of his arrival, Jethro sits down with Moses and gives him some fatherly advice on how to govern this new and uncertain nation. “You must seek out from among all the people capable, God-fearing men–men of truth, who hate injustice. You must then appoint them over the people as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens, ” he says. He goes on to say how these leaders should administer justice, reserving only the major cases for Moses to deal with. This is brilliant, superb. It is such a simple solution to the pressing challenge of instituting a system of government. It is not democratic, as we understand it today, but it decentralises power and localises it at several levels. What is more, the advice, which Moses immediately implements, comes not from God directly, nor from a fellow Israelite, but from a Midianite chief. Moses clearly made a wise choice of wife and father-in-law.

Almost immediately afterwards, God pronounces the Ten Commandments, bringing us to Mishpatim, which continues the theme through an amazingly rapid succession of laws covering slavery, manslaughter, murder, kidnapping, accidents caused by (criminal) negligence, theft, seduction, loans, the fair administration of justice, festivals and more. It appears that God wishes to set up as many ground rules as possible right from the start so that the people begin their new life with an already workable social, legal and moral code. What a wise old Torah we have!

All this sounds matter-of-fact, but we should not ignore the sacred, even mystical dimension to the story made manifest in the manner of communication of the new laws. The people are placed in awe of God as they stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, observe the fire and smoke, hear the thunder and feel the vibrations caused by God’s presence. Meanwhile, Moses ascends, descends, ascends again with seventy of the elders, who have a vision of God, before Moses and Joshua climb even higher. The stage is set for more Torah. 

Come along this Saturday at 10:30 to be, yourselves, enlightened along with the remnant of Israel in Cornwall. Harvey Kurzfield will be directing our gaze and our voices.

B’Shallach

The first four sedirot of the Book of Sh’mot are worthy of a thriller. They are packed with action and excitement and move at an almost dizzying pace.  A small baby is saved from death by the ingenuity of his mother and sister and by the compassion of an Egyptian princess. The baby grows to be a man, is angered when he sees an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and strikes down the oppressor. He becomes a hunted man, flees to Midian, where he steps in to help a group of women shepherds who are being bullied by their male counterparts, marries one of the women and settles down, only to be challenged by the voice of God coming from a burning bush. He begins, tentatively and full of misgivings, to assume a new role, is sent back to Egypt, but is almost killed by God on the way, rescued only by the good sense and faith of Tziporah, his Midianite wife. Reunited, after so many years, with brother Aaron and sister Miriam, he confronts the all-powerful Pharaoh and demands that the Hebrew slaves be allowed to go into the wilderness and sacrifice to God. The Pharaoh’s obstinacy means that plague follows plague until, finally, the killer blow of the death of the firstborn brings the Pharaoh to his senses – at least for a time. 

The Israelites prepare to leave Egypt, collecting their belongings as quickly as possible, wrapping their unleavened bread to take for the start of the journey. They leave, apparently with the blessing and good riddance of the Egyptians, only to be pursued by the now furious Pharaoh and his mighty army. The might of this army proves to be its undoing, since the weight of the heavily armoured soldiers and horses drags infantry, cavalry and chariots down into the mud, unable to flee the returning waters of the sea.  Seeing the Egyptian army drowned, Moses leads the people in a song of celebration and is followed by Miriam and the women, dancing, drumming and singing in their turn. This would  surely be enough, but, no, there is more to come. After the Israelites take their first steps towards freedom, swinging precariously back and forth from joy and faith to despair and complaint, they are attacked by Amalek. Led by their commander, Joshua, and inspired by Moses, they win their first ever battle. 

A thriller, but so much more, too. Justice has surely won the day. The Egyptians suffer in ways that lay bare their arrogance and false beliefs. Both the final plague of the death of the firstborn and the destruction of the Egyptian army are supreme examples of poetic justice. After all, the Pharaoh had commanded that all the Israelite baby boys should be killed at birth and the army is submerged and mired by its own strength. Surely the people are right to sing in celebration. Justice, yes, justice. Yet where is mercy, that all-important balancing attribute of the Eternal One? Not all the Egyptians hate the Israelites and, in years gone by, during the time of Joseph, they had honoured them. Well, mercy is there, too, and we will discover it many chapters later when God says to the people, through Moses, “You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land.”  Not only does God show mercy, he instructs us to do so too. We may have been oppressed, we may deserve to celebrate the humbling of our oppressors, but, one day, we need to forgive and forge a new relationship. 

We have much more than a thriller to consider. To find out a little of that much, come along this Saturday at 10:30, when Pat Lipert will lead us in celebration, justice and mercy.

Va-Eira

The first two sedrot of the Book of Sh’mot are so dominated by the early story of Moses that it is easy to pass over some of the ‘minor’ characters. Moses stands large at the front of the stage, while his family and others stand a little way behind him, merging into the background. Be this as it may, they play vital roles in his story and in the story of the people of Israel as it unfolds. First, before Moses is even born, there are the good midwives, Shifra and Puah, possibly Egyptian, who fear God and resolutely refuse to follow Pharaoh’s orders to kill newborn Hebrew babies. As soon as Moses is born, there is Moses’ mother, Yochebed, who realises from the moment of birth that Moses is a special baby and who manages to hide his presence for three months. Then there is the extraordinary little girl who, possibly with her mother’s guidance, bravely approaches the daughter of the oppressor of her people and, with amazing chutzpah, suggests to the Egyptian princess that she, Miriam, find a nurse for the baby. As a result, she enables her mother to look after her little brother for two years, presumably without fear of punishment. Probably knowing that the princess herself knows who she is and who the nurse will be, she refers to the latter, not as the baby’s – or her – mother, but as ‘a Hebrew woman’, so avoiding embarrassment for them both. There is the princess herself, surely one of the righteous among the gentiles. What would her family have thought when she eventually appeared with the little Hebrew boy? How did she prepare them for the appearance of her adoptive son, a child of despised and simultaneously feared slaves?

Moving forward, we encounter Jethro, a Midianite who shows true hospitality to a stranger and foreigner who had himself showed kindness to his daughters. What a contrast this is to the deceitful treatment meted out to Jacob by his own uncle centuries before when he had shown the same kindness to Laban’s daughter. Moses marries Jethro’s daughter, Tziporah, who, in turn, demonstrates her own mettle when she saves Moses’ life by circumcising his son in the desert. Finally, there is Aaron, who, while playing an important role in the negotiations with Pharaoh, and despite being Moses’ elder brother, still stands in the shadow of his brother. Later, both he and Miriam will have their time in the limelight, Aaron as the first chief cohen, Miriam as a kind of chazan, leading the people in song and praise.  For the time being, though, theirs are not the voices we chiefly hear.

There is only one Moses, but all of us can make our own special contributions to guiding, even fulfilling, the destiny of Israel and the world. 

To listen and follow one of our leaders in song and praise and to lend your own special voices to the endeavour, come along this Saturday at 10:30, when Harvey Kurzfield will be there to lead us. 

Va-y’chi and Bat Mitzvah

Bereshit ends this week in a way which, if it were a traditional novel, would leave its readers with a sense of contented fulfilment. After an epic first few episodes covering the creation of the world, the first humans, a cataclysmic flood and an attempt to impose global hegemony on all the peoples, a family drama begins to unfold. Parental and sibling conflicts, migration, famine and local wars are all eventually resolved through repentance, forgiveness and the wholesale uprooting of a family to a new land, where everything promises a bright future. The latest of the patriarchs dies in peace, reunited with his long lost son, now happily married, a proud father himself and occupying a position of power and renown. They all lived happily ever after…

Except they didn’t, for Bereshit is not a novel or, if it is one, it is only the first of a quintet… and then more. Life works its way through the Torah as an increasingly complex, intertwined and multi-layered destiny. Not a fate, for the characters are not puppets of predetermining forces bound to an inescapable future, but the subjects of a guiding and coaxing God, who constantly works to opens the eyes of His beloved creatures. The Torah is, besides, both an ever renewing work and the lead-in to the future of Israel and of the world. 

So be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened by the new found harmony of Jacob’s family. May we be strengthened and ready for a most challenging future that is about to unfold in Sh”mot. 

This week may Zehava Cohen, the golden one, be strengthened, too, as, guided by Harvey Kurzfield, she reads to us from the final sedra of Bereshit. The service will begin at the normal time of 10:30.

Could those of you who have your own siddur please bring it along to the service, since there will be over sixty guests and not enough siddurim for half of them. 

Mikkeitz

Let’s face it, Joseph was a bit of a pain as a young lad. Snitching on your brothers, especially when they are bigger, older and more numerous than you, is not wise. To follow such behaviour  by telling them your dreams in which all eleven brothers, plus your father and mother in one dream, seemed to be bowing down before you, related, what’s more, without so much as a self-deprecating intro or summing-up, these are not things which are likely to endear you to them, or to anyone, for that matter. Small surprise that Joseph was not greatly loved by his older siblings. By the time he is sold into slavery, however, a profound change is working away inside him. Thus, when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him, he refuses her solicitations. The reasons he gives, to his great credit, have nothing to do with concern for his own wellbeing and everything to do with loyalty, gratitude and righteousness. To give in to the importunate lady would be a sin against his master and against God. Falsely accused and condemned, Joseph quickly rises to prominence again, this time as a kind of prison warder, and he seems more concerned with the welfare of his fellow prisoners than with enforcing a harsh regime. Noticing, one morning, that two of them are unhappy, he tries to help. After the fortunate chief wine steward and unfortunate chief baker tell him that they each had a dream they don’t understand, in complete contrast to the boy who had declared his own dreams as though they were a mark of his own greatness, he prefaces his explanation with the words, “Interpretations are God’s business.” 

Which brings us to Mikkeitz. Summoned into the Pharaoh’s presence and asked to interpret his troubling dreams, Joseph again attributes any insight he might have to God: “It is not in my power. But God may provide an answer concerning Pharaoh’s fortune.” 

Joseph’s own moral development prefigures that of his brothers later in the story, as they repent and make amends for their previous cruelty towards him. Among the brothers, Judah shines out for his sincerity and courage, qualities which have themselves been heralded in the previous sedra in the episode of his daughter-in-law Tamar. 

There is much to ponder here and to help us do this most unponderously Adam Feldman will be leading us at this Saturday’s service, beginning at 10:30.