5th September, 2020 - Parashah Ki Tavo - given by Barbara Bell
I want to start by pointing out the obvious – we’re reading the book of the covenant and a covenant is not a contract.
A contract is a transaction between two or more parties who are pursuing and protecting their own benefits. A covenant is two or more people coming together in mutual respect and affection, to share their interests and even their lives, so that they might accomplish together what they could not alone. A contract manages competing interests. A covenant transforms identity.
Marriage is a covenant, not a contract, because two separate characters become a single entity. A woman and man become ‘one flesh’. Throughout Tanakh, Israel’s relationship with God is described as husband and wife, bride and groom. So, we could say that Israel is the one flesh that God puts on to show to the world.
Today’s parashah starts with an account of prosperity and joy in the promised land. God will carry His bride over the threshold and institute feasting and celebration in the marital home. He plans to open heaven and cover her with blessing. But our passage ends with a terrible list of curses. We might prefer to focus on the blessings and pretend the curses don’t exist, but sometimes we need to talk about the hard things, so we can put aside our doubts.
Indeed, today, we have stopped short of reading the curses, but they are normally read in a low voice. The passage, with its parallel in Leviticus 26 is known as tokhacha – ‘reprimand’ or ‘rebuke’. Here, the Hebrew for curse is arar, which means to execrate, that is - censure, condemn, denounce, reprehend.
I think that there is a logic to the tokhacha. It isn’t a random collection of harsh punishments.
From Abraham onwards, the land of Israel has been synonymous with the nation of Israel being a blessing to all ‘peoples on earth’. Israel’s fidelity to her marriage relationship with God determines her destiny in their land. Only idolatry will earn the Divine ‘reprimand’. In Biblical analogy, idolatry is likened to adultery and prostitution. So, if Israel gives thanks to graven images for her prosperity, in secret – in an occult fashion - as suggested here, rather than acknowledging God’s provision, then God will withhold His bounty by withholding rain. When Israel discovers that her idols are empty, she will return to marital fidelity and God will want her back. If Israel rejects her unity with God, other nations will overrun her. Then she will return to God for help. If Israel rejects God as King, then other kings will rule her and she will be subject to their whims and rules. Then, Israel will learn to appreciate God’s commandments and return to marital fidelity and God will take her back. And if Israel indulges in abhorrent sexual promiscuity, mirroring her idolatry with man or beast, then she is prewarned about the nature of untreatable, sexually transmitted diseases. In the end, persistent idolatry results in expulsion from the land.
Exile is the ultimate tragedy because when Israel leaves her land, she leaves the shelter of her home where her covenant with God can find ultimate fulfilment in absolute blessing.
All of the ‘rebukes’ had been fulfilled by the 1st century CE.
So, what is idolatry and can we be guilty of it?
Yeshayahu Leibowitz correlates mysticism with idolatry. The mystic sees the gods as aspects of the natural world which man can manipulate for his own benefit. He says, ‘Man and his world have become primary. God is merely activated on their behalf.’ Even our approach to keeping the commandments can become, ‘a system of magical functions that are somehow needed on high’.
Rabbi Sacks adds, ‘Absent God, and we tend to end up worshipping ourselves. What distinguished monotheism was its insight that the only thing worthy of worship is the Author of all. The worship of less than all — be it science, reason, class, race, nation, wealth, power or fame — is idolatry.’ He warns us that the prevailing culture of our time worships ‘the self, the me, the I’.
Perhaps this explains why those people who want to obliterate the concept of our God, or who prefer to exalt humanity to a type of divinity, may want to attack the Jewish people because she is God’s one flesh. You might agree with Nachmanides, as I do, that those who attack Israel are really attacking God. We are a thorn in their flesh because together we persevere in holding on to this book of the covenant. Wherever we are, our presence, is a persistent witness to the existence of an eternally faithful God who is before and above all things.
So, I find it enormously sad that there are a group of theologies that use today’s parashah as a basis for explaining the Shoah. Some judge God saying He has failed. He is wrathful. He is an abuser. The covenant is shattered. Some judge Israel as guilty. She earned the Shoah for her disobedience. But none of these Holocaust theologies are Judaism. They distort the Biblical portrait of God and redraw Him in the image of a capricious tyrant. They set the Israel-woman against her God- husband because we cannot love or trust such a covenant partner.
But the Tanakh makes it very clear that events like the Shoah do not teach us about Divine reprimand, but about human injustice.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg says, ‘Judaism teaches us that we would think that death would win, but it’s not so. There is this hidden field force, called God, an infinite source of life and goodness that sustains and nurtures and, therefore, the deeper truth…is that life has been growing and has been overcoming death. The Infinite Source of Life, the Infinite Consciousness we call God, shares the pain of the Shoah … and wants life and delights in life’.
When President Linden Johnson made his inaugural speech, he stole our script. He said, ‘They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.’
This parashah is unequivocal. If we keep the terms of our covenant we will flourish and we will inspire the hopes of all mankind. This has been so. Yet, Jewish history also raises questions that need honest answers. Marriages only survive and thrive on good, open communication and our union with God is no different. Judaism invites us to ask questions and pursue answers as active covenant partners.
So, this week, as we are presented with one of Torah’s most difficult passages, may we face its big questions, and discover in it the ‘Infinite Source of Life and Goodness’. And as we do, may we also flourish.
29th August 2020 - Parashah Ki Teitzei - given by Barbara Bell
In today’s parashah, Moses is addressing a generation of Hebrews whose parents’, grandparents’ and antecedents for some generations back, all had their humanity savaged by slavery. His job was monumental. He was to rehumanise, re-sensitise them, educate them to justice with mercy, honesty, decency, dignity. He brought Israel out of Egypt and is teaching them how to live in that freedom. Today’s parashah seems like a disorganised list of laws, but they all address this theme; Israel may have experienced cruelty, but they should never be cruel - not even to a bird. They may have experienced injustice but they must always judge with compassion and clarity. Now they are free, the oppressed should never become the oppressor.
Amongst the plain instructions of dos and don’ts we read one that addresses our attitudes. ‘Do not hate the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.’ Hang on! That’s odd. An important detail has been missed out here; a small matter of slavery. Not just strangers! Yes, at first, Egypt had been good to Israel and she had prospered, but surely, in this case, hatred is actually a justifiable and permissible response to Egypt’s oppression? Is Moses asking Israel to forget their enslavement, to pretend it hadn’t happened and only focus on the good times past? Or is he saying that when someone has been cruel, don’t forget their kindness too?
So, why give us this instruction?
Elsewhere, Torah tells us to love God with all our heart and soul and strength.
We are to love our neighbour as ourselves.
And - we should always love the alien amongst us. Why? Because we were aliens in Egypt. Because we are expected to be empathetic. We know what it feels like to be maltreated so we chose to create a society that cares for the vulnerable and marginalised. This is why, on Shabbat, at Pesach, at many times throughout our calendar, we remember that we were once slaves so that we will not replicate slavery in any of its forms. But - Moses is teaching us that this cannot happen whilst we hold on to hatred – of any kind – for any reason – towards any person – even towards the worst example, which to Israel, at the time of this parashah, was the Egyptian.
In 1794, in his poem about London, William Blake wrote,
‘… in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear’
Our strongest shackles to slavery are our ‘mind forged manacles’. Sometimes redemption is not out there in history or theology, but history and theology bring redemption to where it’s needed the most – in here, where our ‘mind forged’ manacles are prone to become a comfortable life style accessory.
Simon Jacobson tells this story.
‘On a sweltering summer day, an old man went down into a cool cellar for some relief. The moment he entered, he was blinded by the darkness. ‘Don’t worry,’ said another man in the cellar, ‘it’s natural that when you go from light to darkness, you’re unable to see. But soon enough, your eyes will grow accustomed to it, and you’ll hardly notice that it’s dark.’
‘My dear friend,’ replied the old man, turning to leave, ‘that’s exactly what I am afraid of. Darkness is darkness, the danger is convincing yourself it is light.’
Darkness is darkness.
Hatred is a fierce emotion that we might easily deny feeling. ‘It’s not really dark,’ we may say to ourselves, ‘it’s only mood lighting.’ But Moses does not evade the issue, repress or make excuses for it. He is speaking plainly. Hatred can skew our memory of a person, an event or situation, so that we become blinded to the whole truth. And when we are, we are not free.
So, what about hatred’s compatriots?
Are we free if we harbour anger or resentment towards someone who has hurt us? If we dwell on an injustice dealt to us, if we cannot escape an ancient betrayal, if we desire revenge, hold on to an offence or cannot forgive and move on – are we free? If we feel shame or guilt for something we have said or done to another – are we free? If we justify our own unpleasantness by blaming another, are we free? Together, we could make a very long list of this type of attitude. The problem is, if – or when - they exist in us, then we are simply shackled somewhere on the edges of hatred. All of these cast their dark shadow over our liberty so we cannot see their effect on our relationships with each other.
Viktore Frankel’s advice seems pertinent, ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves.’
He also said that we find meaning in life in three ways, ‘1) by creating a work or doing a deed; 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.’
Torah addresses each of these three, but Moses’ command not to hate the Egyptian directly addresses this third issue. In order for Israel to be an ethical nation and bear witness to their unique calling - do their deed - they need to rid themselves of unhelpful attitudes.
We are a people with a mission - to be the light in the darkness. And to fulfil that mission, we remember our past, the good with the bad, so that it might serve our future. We are empathetic so we forgive because we remember that we also need forgiveness. We act mercifully, because we remember that we need mercy. We are kind because we oppose cruelty. We serve because we resist oppression. We are generous because we feel compassion for those in need. And when we cannot love, we chose not to hate.
As Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach said, ‘Be the master of your will and the servant of your conscience.’
Frankel is famous for saying that, ‘Everything can be taken from us but the way we respond.’ But I think that Moses said it first in this parashah.
So, this week, as we go into our week and anticipate the upcoming High Holy days, may God’s light shine into all our dark shadows and may we be able to make any necessary adjustments to our attitudes and relationships. And may we establish a community together that reflects this light out into our needy world.
22nd August - Parashat Shof'tim - Given by Talia Reed
This week’s parashah gives a lot of material to talk about. From sorcery to the judicial system, from idolatry to the behaviour of kings – there’s certainly a lot to cover. But, as some of you probably know, I’ve recently graduated from university with a degree in ecology – so, naturally, when I was going through the entirety of this week’s parashah to try to find something to write about, the words that particularly jumped out at me were the ones relating to trees.
Now, of course, today we heard a portion of the entirety of Shoftim, and the part we heard did not actually cover the bits about trees. But I hope you’ll bear with me for a bit as I go on about them anyway, and I’ll come back to the portion we did read today in a minute or two.
Shoftim mentions trees in three main respects. Firstly, we have an instruction against idolatry – specifically, not to plant or build Asherah, being trees or poles dedicated to the goddess of the same name from an ancient polytheistic religion. Secondly, we have trees used in an example about justice – how to deal with someone who’s guilty of manslaughter, and the example given is of a death occurring during a forestry-related accident, and how they must be treated with a degree of empathy, in a just and fair way. And finally, we have a specific instruction regarding the treatment of trees during times of war – that trees that bear edible products (or even perhaps that are suspected of bearing edible products) must not be destroyed.
From this third point, a basic ethical principle is derived: bal tashchit, do not destroy. Maimonides writes that: “Not only does this apply to trees, but also whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, destroys a building, blocks a wellspring of water or destructively wastes food transgresses the command of bal tashchit.” So, we can see, this prohibition against wanton destruction applies much more broadly than just when we are considering besieging a heathen city.
I’m going to come back to the portion we heard today. Here we are warned against several kinds of esoteric activities, including soothsaying, charming, necromancy, and sorcery. Similarly, we are warned against trusting in false prophets. All of these groups have one thing in common: for whatever ulterior motives they may have, the information they give is misleading and deceitful – they are not words spoken in the name of God, and in a broader sense, they are not true.
I’m not sure how prevalent actual sorcery really is in our modern society, nor how likely it is that we’ll come across literal false prophets. But with a focus on the environment and dangerous information, I’d like to offer the following thought:
Surely, if the commandment of bal tashchit is the will of God, then the members of our society who seek to downplay the severity of the threat faced by life on our planet are clearly going against that. The denial of climate change, often awash with pseudoscience and propaganda – perhaps a false sorcery in its own right – has had a disproportionate impact on politics relating to the environment and has undermined efforts to act on and adapt to the warming climate.
The government recently promised radical reforms to the country’s building planning system. But can we afford to weaken environmental protections as part of those reforms? People that would argue ‘yes’ will give you examples of how green red tape impedes construction work, and that by getting rid of these excessive restrictions we can help bolster our ailing economy.
It might sound good economically, in the short term. In the long term we cannot afford to forget that we are living through a time of unprecedented climate change and a mass extinction event caused by human activity. We are hurtling very quickly towards a time where our way of life will be threatened by the results of the economic activities of the present and recent past – indeed, we are already beginning to feel some of those effects. Although, of course, we can and must use natural resources for our own gain, in the opinion of Ibn Ezra, we should not destroy when it would cause harm to ourselves(2). I would argue that not prioritising environmental protection in a time of environmental crisis is inevitably causing harm to ourselves and to other life on Earth, as well as going against God’s expectations of us to be good stewards of the planet.
Maybe it’s a little extreme to call people who would have us rip up our environment for short term economic growth ‘false prophets’, but, similar to a false prophet, they twist information and encourage things that in the long run are not good for us. There’s a midrash on the book of Ecclesiastes in which God shows Adam and Eve around the Garden of Eden, showing them its wonders but also instructing them: “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”(3) If our liveable environment is destroyed in the pursuit of economic growth, we can’t get a second chance.
As individuals, or even as a community, there are small things we can all do to reduce our negative impact on the planet, and I’m sure you’ve all heard those things before. But action needs to take place on a larger scale. Lockdown forced an unexpected pause, of sorts, and ideally this could have been used by governments around the world to consider how the economy could be restarted in an ecologically sensitive manner.
Also, we can think about how – if – this pause has changed our own relationship with nature. Maybe you’ve been making fewer trips out in the car, or going on more walks in your local area, or even trying your hand at growing your own vegetables. One thing I really noticed on my walks was the fantastic diversity of insects present in the grass verges during lockdown when they weren’t being cut – it made me realise the value of allowing even just a small area of a garden, for example, to grow wild. I think it’s good to reflect, not just on trees, but also what our relationship with nature will be like as time goes on.
2. https://www.reformjudaism.org.uk/bal-tashchit/No Title.
3. Midrash Rabbah Kohelet 7:13.
8th August - Parashat Eikev - Given by Jason Lever
Apparently, we are a congregation that does like to have a sermon each week – so we do, invariably, lay this on when Rabbi Andrea is away. You may well only have me once in the next 5 weeks, as we are fortunate to have a small group of willing volunteers! All with their own style, approaches and different personal interests to share – and I will be looking forward to them as I hope you will.
Now, there’s many ways to give a sermon, or drasha, as you know, and certainly no “one size fits all”. As well as the opportunity in the study passage, the sermon crucially allows some teaching of Torah which – as Rabbi Andrea likes to regularly remind us – is one of the highest values of our faith and we should do it every day...
But guess what, spoiler alert, we don’t all quite manage this hence the length of sermons!
Some sermons always open with a joke or an anecdote, to settle us in to listening to the harder part of concentrating on some Torah learning. You’ve just had mine! We are, I think, all created or conditioned to respond to story telling and a personal narrative.
My Rabbi growing up in Hendon Reform, Steven Katz, on average I reckon brought in the Spurs Arsenal rivalries of a N.W. London congregation at least once a quarter. I got over being left out as a QPR supporter in my teens (that’s two jokes now).
In my father’s last Shul in Pinner, the Rabbi there tended to go straight into the “fire and brimstone” messages to wake everyone up, though my dear Dad carefully chose his regular seat with a large pillar between him and the pulpit, as his schluffing invariably began 3 minutes in.
And of course the sermon giver has the discretion of which aspects to focus on. Sometimes – and myself included – the actual part of that week’s Parasha that is leined – in today’s case, the whole of chapter 10 of Devarim / Deuteronomy – does not offer promising source material. which case, there’s all the rest of the Parasha to glean from, fruitful connections that can be made to the Chags or other aspects of Jewish ritual, minhag or just what we like doing as Jews (eating and talking? – often both together, like at our lovely virtual Kiddush two weeks ago)!
Today, rarely for me, I felt no need to stray beyond the 22 verses that Roger’s just chanted.
Well, maybe just a little bit of context, courtesy of Rabbi Reuven Hammer. Moses is depicted in this portion as a man who is afraid. Afraid that the people will continue to be stiff-necked, stubborn, go back yet again on their pledges to uphold the covenant and before that to trust in God and Moses unhesitatingly.
To go a step further, Moses foresees two dangers: an outer danger that the Israelites might stray and follow the paths of the Canaanites; and the inner danger that their own prosperity (once settled in the Promised Land) could make them forget their dependence on God.
In these 22 verses, I feel so much is encapsulated of the vital ingredients, the essential truths and teachings, of the Torah, which Moses was setting out as a core set of directions for life in the land ahead. Summarised in my views by the three themes:
The physical and spiritual accompaniment of the Ten Commandments.
The passing on of Aaron’s High Priesthood role to the Levites.
And justice through love.
(I’ll come back to each in turn.)
To me, together, they act as reminders of our side of the covenant with God and also are a mini-portrayal of the key features of the ‘good society’ that the people, on the threshold of a new life, must start to take responsibility for. They are the post-kvetching generation, those who had overcome their hesitant slave mentality and not seen sufficient evidence of God’s commitment to them.
Their key teacher-prophets are gone or about to die – Miriam, Aaron and Moses in that order – before taking them over the precipice to full freedom. I chose the word ‘precipice’ as bringing us back to those worries of Moses, that they could yet fall at the last.
And indeed so much of the Book of Deuteronomy is Moses summing up (before he has to leave them behind) where they’ve come from, the earliest promises of redemption and prosperity made to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, right through their plight in and escape from Egypt, and finally the trials and tribulations of the wilderness years.
Respectively, I’d like to think of it as akin to Charles Dickens’ one man shows in later life, when he recreates one last time some of his most emblematic characters and episodes from his novels with messages about humanity and society that he wants to instil one last time.
First then, the physical and spiritual accompaniment of the Ten Commandments.
Re-reading the Parasha for this sermon, I hadn’t really thought how much of the Ten Commandments travelling with the people to the new land was both spiritual and physical.
Moses reminds them of when he came down from Mount Sinai “and put the tablets in the ark which I had made”. A small interjection on behalf of the crucial role of the chief artisan, Bezalel – perhaps a bit of the royal we probably, as he was name checked fully in Exodus. That was my dear Dad’s Hebrew named; and I used to walk past Bezalel Street in Jerusalem en route to buying more books for my Yeshiva study and smile.
We’re very familiar with the ‘rules’ part of the Commandments… the other aspect is ‘inspiration’. For Heschel, ‘to be spiritual is to be amazed’. This is the counterpart to the letter of the Mitzvot observance – to get up in the morning and look at the world, and see that everything is phenomenal. I very much identify with cultivating my Judaism around both poles – I love the rational and no-nonsense “just do what God asks” Maimonides, the Rambam, but I’m also more and more attracted to some of Hassidic spirituality and more mystical traditions like Rav Kook who I am drawing on for Friday night’s not-the-sermon slot at the moment.
Second, the passing on of Aaron’s High Priesthood role to the Levites.
Now, where do the Levites come in? Apart from the full disclosure that both Alison and I have those roots. But don’t hold it against us.
So, while the actual High Priesthood has been passed down from Aaron to his son, the wider role of the Levites is stressed here by Moses: “the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister unto Him, and to bless in His name, unto this day”.
Just as his father-in-law, Jethro, persuaded Moses of the need to spread the burden of leadership by appointing 70 elders, the embryonic judiciary of Israel society, I see the Levite role as the priests’ helpers as providing reinforcements to the Kohanim to continue to guide the people.
Why is this needed? Well, as this Parasha shows us in verses 12-13, what is God asking of us? Only this: “to revere [or fear] the Lord your God, to walk in all His paths, and to love Him... keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin [or charge] upon you today, for your good?”
Not much then! As Rabbi Hammer puts it, ‘just a small favour’. Only 613 mitzvot. Interestingly while our old Chumash friend, Hertz, translates as “commands”, Hammer prefers it as “asks”, in recognition of Moses, and perhaps, realising that ‘some things cannot be forced’. Much as some congregational Rabbis might go in for a bit more compulsion. though their sermons!
Which perhaps fits with all the lapses in faith during the exodus and the later failings of Israel society leading to the destruction of the Temples and periods of exile. And of course that notion of our free will.
Finally - the last of the verses we read is I think giving the message of justice through love.
This might sound a bit Brighton hippy’ish but is reminded by Moses in that familiar trinity (with a small ‘t’): “the great and mighty and fearsome God Who shows no favour and takes no bribe, doing justice for orphan and widow and loving the sojourner to give him bread and cloak”.
First, we are told that God takes no bribes. Or more specifically, He “regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward”. Now I think this is a pointed reminder that we should not fall back on being the ‘Chosen People’, and be complacent that ‘we have the game in the bag’ (not something any Brighton fans would ever do of course).
We’re pretty familiar with the ethical notion that we should treat the stranger, or ger in Hebrew, favourably (Biblically, the resident alien living in our midst), because that was our position in Egypt and we weren’t treated well. That’s why Reform Judaism last week encouraged us to help campaigning for the over a million Uyghurs who are being detained in Chinese 're-education camps' supporting an oppressed minority who have none of the freedoms that we have.
That’s why prophets like Jeremiah emphasised that God would only be with the people if they did not oppress the stranger, the orphan and the widow.
Robert Alter brings this together beautifully as, ‘Divine disinterestedness is joined with divine compassion for those in society who are most vulnerable to exploitation’.
It’s not enough to bring magnificent sacrifices to the Temple at the set times and think that’s serving God. And say ‘I’ve done my bit’.
To conclude (those welcome words in every sermon speech, asking your forbearance).
Now, if we were in a comedy club and you gonged me off at this point, I’d say all is summarised in the quote from the prophet Micah -
“What does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God”.
If I have a few more minutes, I’ll relate the three thrusts of the Parasha I talked about and Micah’s message to us in terms of BHRS and the local community today as I see it.
In terms of the ‘rules’ of the Torah and as interpreted by the sages and the Rabbis, us Jews we have been mostly seen at our best in placing safety first over face-to-face communal prayer and activities. Observing pikuach nefesh – saving a life in our family, friend or of strangers – by socially distancing and isolating during this pandemic.
We have not sat back (unlike a few in the ultra-Orthodox world) and relied on being the chosen people, relying on the power of tefilah, of prayer (or perhaps being the Chosen People), alone against those certainties
Through the Shul, Helping Hands, the Rep Council and in many other ways, we have been reaching out to Jews of the city and others in need. Some of us have been finding comfort and strength in daily prayer minyans. Overall, including Shabbat, I reckon around a quarter more people have been participating on Zoom.
Once might see Zoom (other platforms are available) as a modern-day incarnation of a portable tent and ark of the covenant, as a vessel for enabling us to keep Torah and mitzvot close to us when we don’t have the physical reminders of our beautiful ark doors, windows and the scrolls in our Sanctuary.
The modern day roles played by the priests and the Levite helpers – our Rabbi, choir, lay readers and all the rest of you participating.
Unlike the focus in Christianity on finding divine love, we are arguably asked in Judaism more to be the more active agent here. This is central to the two-way covenant with God.
To quote Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffat, ‘the love we are asked to implement is unity. To love God we aim to unify our aims with God’s, and to love each other, we must be united’.
This message is resonant at a time in our Jewish calendar when we have moved from the three weeks of consolation for the destruction of the Temple, twice over, and ending of settled though not entirely “Yiddishkeit” lives of the rulers and people in Israel, to the run in our High Holy Days, theYamim Noraim, and self-reflection on how we live our lives and regard God and other people.