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.

Va’yikra – Leviticus

What a story has unfurled over the Book of Sh’mot (Exodus). An Israelite, brought up in the heart of Egypt, married to a Midianite woman, is chosen by God to lead his people from the clutches of the empire which nurtured him. The people escape from Egypt and are saved from the might of its imperial army by a miracle, or by that army’s own military strength, whose weight literally bogs soldiers, chariots and horses down in the mud, where they are drowned by the returning sea. For the Israelites there follows a host of adventures, of ups and downs, of moments of glory and moments of shame, as they veer between faith and love of God on the one hand and fear and petulance on the other. Sh’mot finishes on a high, however, as the Tabernacle is erected and all its furniture and furnishings are installed, everything “as God had commanded Moses”. The Maftir of the final parsha (final section of the weekly portion of Torah readings), P’kudey (Accounts) ends on a particularly comforting and mystical note as it describes how “the cloud covered the Communion Tent, and God’s glory filled the Tabernacle.”

And so we come to the third Book, Va’yikra, where we plunge into a series of detailed descriptions of the many sacrifices demanded by God. In the daily Sacharit (morning service) in Orthodox communities, some of these offerings are described and, in the Amidah, Jews pray for the restoration of the Temple services. We don’t do this in Reform synagogues and many of us would find it difficult, possibly distasteful, to witness animal sacrifices. Indeed, I suspect that not a few Orthodox Jews would too. However, do we have the ‘right’ to feel this way? I suspect that much of our aversion to sacrifices is due to the distance that now exists for the vast majority of us between the act of killing animals and our consumption of them. Besides, we should remember that the vast majority of animals sacrificed by our ancestors were eaten either by the Priests, the Levites or by the people offering the animals. Is it not perhaps something to be admired, that the food that was eaten was also dedicated to God? Would this not make the act of killing animals and eating their flesh more significant, more holy?

To get to understand sacrifices better, to pray, sing, read and converse come along this Saturday at 10:30. Pat Lipert will be leading the service and, apparently,  there is a whiff of frankincense about it. 

Vayakhel

Last week, in Khi Thisa, we read of how our ancestors made a golden calf, danced around it and even made sacrifices. How could a generation not so far removed from Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel have been so stupid?  The patriarchs and matriarchs had committed themselves to monotheism, reaffirming their trust in the Eternal One many times. How their souls must have grieved to see the degradation in which their descendants sank. The sin of the golden calf is, though, according to the sages easier to understand when one takes into account the recent history of the children of Israel in Egypt. Deprived of liberty, enslaved and debased, they had been surrounded by idolatry. Wherever they looked, they must have seen statues and carvings of gods and goddesses, many of them curious mixtures of beast and human. Besides, are we today really any better? How easy it is to    s   l   i   d   e     s   l  o  w  l  y   i n to  idolatry. It may start with superstition or a belief in the power of talismans. Even sacred objects associated with deeply held faith may seem to take on a power in themselves, which then becomes divorced from what the objects symbolise. When we touch a mezuzah, do we think of the words inside, or do treat the mezuzah as an object of power in its own right? In our deep reverence for the Sefer Scroll may we not forget the significance of the text is contains? 

Let us hope we can laugh off all superstition, see the talisman for what it is and pop the hollow idol.  Just as I hope, with no touching of wood, no crossing of fingers, no searching for a black cat to cross my path and no avoidance of thirteen of anything, that things will improve for the Israelites this week. I do believe they will, for I am reminded by Adam Feldman, who, together with Melanie, will be leading the service, that this Saturday, 25th Adar, is also Shabbat Shekalim, being six weeks prior to Pesach. 

To quote our service leaders  “We thought it may be nice if people could bring, in place of half a shekel, an item or two of non-perishable food (tins or dry packets) that we can collect as our Shabbat Shekalim donations, and we’d be happy to pass this to one of the local food bank collection points.”

So come along this Saturday at 10:30 for a super double bill and perform an extra mitzvah at the same time by responding to Adam and Melanie Feldman’s call. 

T’tzavveh

Starting with T’rumah last week, the final sedrot of Sh’mot deal almost exclusively with the Tabernacle and all its furniture and furnishings. Some sages say that what is happening here is a mirror image of the Creation as described at the beginning of Bereshit. In the latter, God creates the world for us to live in. In the case of the Tabernacle, we create a space for God to dwell in. This is a beautiful idea. There is also a very practical aspect and possible foresight to the extraordinarily detailed instructions for the building and filling of the Tabernacle. The blueprint provided has enabled us, once the second Temple was destroyed, to build synagogues which incorporate aspects of the Tabernacle. There is also another piece of brilliance in the work passed on by Moses from God to the people. Accustomed to relentless years of forced labour, they now find themselves in the wilderness with not a great deal to do beyond the sporadic journeying from one place to another. There is not much point in building houses, nor in clearing and planting fields. Food falls literally from the skies. So much unaccustomed idleness in a strange and sometimes hostile environment could only add to the feeling of insecurity and discontent already bubbling under the surface. What better solution than for the people to be given a task, not this time for the glory of an oppressive regime, but for the glory of God? What is more, rather than toil in the back-breaking and spirit-numbing drudgery of making and carrying endless quantities of bricks, now the Israelites are asked to take part in the creative, fulfilling tasks of carving, sculpting, dyeing and weaving of beautiful, meaningful objects.  

Much of T’tzavveh is occupied with the design of the priestly vestments, which will reinforce the role of the priests as the link between God and the people, for the priests are both “Holy to God” and the focal point of all the tribes. 

Come along this Saturday at 10:30 and share in our creative thoughts, songs, prayers and conversation. Sharim Atilano will bring it all together. 

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.