On Saturday 13 February, we will be celebrating the Bat Mitzvah of one of Kehillat Kernow’s prayer leaders, Liz Berg. Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner will be coming down to Cornwall to lead the service. Rabbi Laura will also run a guided discussion after the service on the subject of the stranger. This is particularly pertinent at present as we make our way through the book of Exodus, where the Israelites exchange the settled life of strangers in Egypt for that of wanderers in the desert. The experience of being strangers haunts the Jewish people throughout its history, in the Torah, in Tanach, and right up to the present day. Kehillat Kernow is now a settled community in the ancient land of Cornwall, one of a fellowship of communities in Britain. At the same time, we are now witnessing the suffering of peoples being forced to flee their homes and become strangers in neighbouring countries in the Middle East and in Europe. We cannot ignore this phenomenon.
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.
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.
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.
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.