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

How much punishment does Pharaoh want? Having watched – nay, been instrumental in making – his people suffer ever increasing horrors, he gathers his army and sets off in pursuit of the Israelites only hours after agreeing to their departure. Once he catches up with them, does he not see the pillar of cloud which guides them by day or the pillar of light which guides them by night? Well, he is not the only one not to see clearly, for the Israelites themselves suffer from a failure of vision and a failure of faith. The sight of the Egyptian army throws them into a blind panic. Yet God is there to support and save them. They cross the Red Sea and thank God in song. This should be enough, but it isn’t, and soon the people are complaining again, this time about the lack of fresh food. God sends quails and manna and, in so doing, introduces the basic law of Shabbat. They travel some more and became thirsty, and again they lapse into discontent.

Of course, they are not used to freedom. One of the contradictions of slavery is that, while you are forced to labour, often for long hours every day with little or no respite, you are not obliged to do anything for yourself. Everything is decided for you. It is, therefore, not so surprising that a people that has not acted for itself in living memory should be frightened and easily discouraged when it walks into the unknown. What is more, by the end of B’shallach, for that is where we are in the story, the people have started literally to fight for themselves and to provide support for their leader. As they engage in battle with Amalek,  they enable Moses to be their inspiration by holding up his hands where the soldiers can see them from the battleground. The road to freedom, both physical and spiritual, is not completed, but it is begun.

A fitting preparation for Yitro, which begins with Moses’ father-in-law advising Moses to appoint community leaders at different levels to administer justice, so setting the foundations for a system of government which will last until the time of the kings. The people move on to Mount Sinai, where there is to be a great revelation. But to hear this revelation, you will need to come to the service this Saturday at 10.30. Liz Berg of the lyrical voice will be leading us.

Bo

Joseph started life in Egypt as a slave and died there a free man. His grandchildren and those of his brothers and sister started life as free citizens and were later enslaved. What sort of man was the Pharaoh who enslaved them? Did he have no knowledge of his history, or did he choose to ignore it? Did he not know that a Hebrew has saved Egypt from starvation and been honoured above all men by his ancestor, or did he not care?

What sort of man was a yet later Pharaoh who attempted mass infanticide?  And finally what sort of man took apparent sadistic pleasure in increasing the severity of the Israelites’ bondage and who allowed his own people to suffer ever more abominable plagues rather than allow the Israelites the freedom to worship God? Imagine those plagues: the river turned into blood, swarming frogs, even in your bed, lice driving you mad with their bites, flies buzzing like thunder over fields, houses and palaces, to be followed by disease attacking all the animals, and then by hail destroying crops and livestock. It is hard to imagine how any ruler could allow one disaster after another to bring his own people and his country to ruin. Yet this is what Pharaoh did, and there is worse to come. For Va-eira has only recounted seven plagues, but there are still three more not yet unleashed, the last so terrible that, while it mirrors dimly the attempted killing of all Israel’s male children, it still sends a shudder through our hearts. This plague and the two before it will appear in Bo, as will the Exodus itself and the first laws given to a nation beginning its long, long journey to freedom.

Remember and discover new insights this Saturday at 10.30. Adam Feldman of the euphonious voice will be leading us out of Egypt.

Shemot

Believe it or not, the last parsha, Va-y’chi, marked the end of Bereshit, and what an immensity and intimacy we have witnessed. Genesis starts on the most macro of levels, with the creation of the world, of light and of life; it moves through the epic destruction of the flood and of the scattering of nations after the hubristic attempt to reach the heavens and, then, focusses on the most micro of levels: a tiny family. For weeks and weeks, we have been absorbed in the most human of tales, of the great-hearted Abraham and his determined wife Sarah, of the far-seeing Rebecca and the meditative Isaac, of the heart-rending suffering of Hagar and Ishmael, of the intense drama of Jacob and Esau and then of Jacob’s sons. Va’y’chi brings a sort of closure with the death of Jacob, happy to be reunited with his lost, favourite son, his blessings for all his sons and Joseph’s confirmation of his forgiveness of his older brothers. The family reach a period of peace and understanding, all of them wiser and better. Why, however, when Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, Ephrahim and Manasseh, does he put the younger before the elder? Is this another example of the apparent reversing of the accepted hierarchy, or is there another subtler message contained here? Whatever is going on, it does not retract from the general atmosphere of a family being somehow complete and at peace with itself.

We are about to embark on Shemot, Names, or Exodus and, in so doing, we move from the story of a family to that of a nation. This is both a huge development, the transformation of Israel, the single individual, into the children of Israel, and eventually into the people of Israel, and a disjuncture. Genesis ends with a family accepted and honoured by the Egyptian Pharaoh and his subjects, one of the sons of this family the second most important person in the land. Exodus begins with a people who have no power and yet who are feared, and who are therefore persecuted. Does it sound familiar to us now? Things certainly don’t look good, but there is hope, there is always hope.

To be in on the beginning of the story of Moses and the beginning of a people, of a faith and of a social experiment which are still alive and developing, come along this Saturday at 10.30. Pat Lipert of the sagacious voice will be leading the service.

Vayiggash

We left Joseph at the end of Vayeshev in prison, forgotten by the Pharaoh’s chief wine steward, whose own release had been revealed by Jospeh’s interpretation of his dream. Joseph’s fate is about to change, however, once Pharaoh is himself troubled by two parallel dreams. It is with these dreams, and Joseph’s interpretation of them, that the parsha of Mikkeitz begins. What is perhaps more interesting than Joseph’s reading of the dreams is the strategic thinking he displays immediately after he has interpreted them, for he advises Pharaoh on what he should do to avert the human catastrophe which seven years of famine will bring if not prepared for. No wonder Pharaoh appoints him viceroy. Thus Joseph’s early precocity, so irritating to his brothers when he was a boy, matures into wise and effective state management. Even more interesting is how his brothers re-enter the story, particularly Judah. When last they had seen Joseph, they had been ready to kill him, until they settled for the less heinous, but still awful, crime of selling him into slavery. Years later, they clearly feel guilty for what they did and they are determined not to allow their youngest brother Benjamin, Rachel’s only other child, to suffer a similar fate, at least not without them all sharing it. Their fierce jealousy and resentment of years before has evaporated, as they have become more generous and ready to shoulder joint responsibility. The stage is prepared, but for what?

For Judah – a man who has already learnt to recognise righteousness in others (see the story of Tamar in Yayeshev) and who has made himself personally responsible to his father for Benjamin’s safe return from Egypt – is about to step forward and… Well if you want to know what Judah is about to step forward to do, you should come along on Saturday at 10.30. Harvey of the melodious voice will be leading and guiding us.

Vayeshev

We left Jacob, and his now large family, at the end of Vayetze, having made just made his peace with his father-in-law Laban and now ready to return to his father in Canaan. The beginning of the next parsha, Vayishlach, finds him fearful of meeting his brother Esau. After all, Jacob bought his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup and later cheated him out of his blessing. Who would not be fearful in such a case? Jacob is a wise strategist, however, and he plans his meeting with Esau in such a way as to reduce the chance of violence and to minimize its effect, should it occur. He divides his camp into two and sends a succession of tributes or peace offerings ahead.

The night before the meeting, Jacob wrestles with an angel, and thus Israel is born. The child who grabbed his brother’s heel becomes the man who struggles with God, and so we, the children of Israel, have been doing ever since. As Jacob is transformed, so is his relation with his brother. It turns out that he had nothing to fear from Esau, who greets him with great kindness, embraces and kisses him and weeps. This is a wonderful moment. The one who carries forward within himself the Covenant is reconciled with the brother he so sorely deceived years before and who now shows great generosity. Surely, Esau has earned God’s blessing too.

Jacob’s return is followed by the terrible episode of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter (as far as we know). After the local Hivite chief Chamor, his son Shechem and all the men of the city have allowed themselves to be circumcised, is it right for Simeon and Levi to slay them because of the rape of their sister? Later Isaac dies and is buried by his sons Esau and Jacob, just as Abraham was buried by Isaac and Ishmael years before. The parsha ends with a genealogy of Esau and Edom, interesting if only because it is there.

This week, it is Vayeshev that we will be reading from, another momentous parsha, in which Joseph will make his appearance and in which yet another example of sibling rivalry will begin to play out. Let’s face it, Joseph could be seen as somewhat of a pain in the elbow by any band of brothers, though not enough to merit being butchered or sold into slavery. We will see him in Egypt, trusted by his master and betrayed by his mistress and flung into prison. Vayetze contains more, though, than Joseph’s misfortunes. It also tells the fascinating story of Judah and Tamar and of how a man can learn the meaning of righteousness and  justice from the seemingly immoral behaviour of a daughter-in-law.

Enough already. For more come to the service this Saturday at 10.30. Liz Berg will be leading us and we will surely learn much more.