Shabbat - 19 October 2013 - Parshah Vayera
This week’s Torah reading contains two very well known stories: the destruction of Sodom
and Gemorrah and the Akeda, the sacrifice of Isaac.
In the first story we also witness the rather unusual spectacle of Avraham arguing with
God, negotiating even to try to persuade God not to destroy the cities. He was concerned that innocent,
righteous people would die when the destruction took place. He haggled with God like a market trader
extracting God’s promise not to destroy the city if he found 50 righteous persons there, and then 45 and
then 40, 30, 20 and even 10 before ending the bargaining. Yet despite this, clearly God did not find even
10 because the cities were destroyed with Lot, his wife and two of his children barely able to escape
with the help of one of God’s messengers. Then comes the rather unsavoury description of how Lot’s two
daughters, thinking the destruction had been of the whole world, vowed to rebuild mankind by lying with
Lot when he was drunk and each bearing a child, Moav and Amnon.
The Akeda is among the most famous, some would argue, infamous stories in the Torah.
Avraham was 137 years old and Isaac 37 years old when God chose to test Avraham’s faithfulness. Isaac was
therefore no child, but a discerning adult who at one stage in the story asks of his father where the
sacrifice was that they were preparing for. Avraham’s cryptic reply was that God would provide it. We
then learn that Avraham binds Isaac to the sacrificial pyre and is about to take his knife to do the
deed when God calls a halt to the proceedings. Of all the stories in the Tanach this has generated the
most commentaries that seek to identify what the message is we should glean from the Akeda. Did Avraham
pass the test or fail? Why did God choose to test Avraham at all? Why choose that particular test? What
effect did it have on Isaac? And so the questions continue and no-one really knows the true answers,
though, being Jewish questions, there is no shortage of opinions.
Shabbat - 12 October 2013 - Parshah Lech L’Cha
The Torah portion this coming Shabbat is partly action describing Avram’s travels and partly
covenantal describing God’s oft-repeated promises to Avram.
The reading begins with Avram leaving Aram, where he had been living with his household and
the family of Lot, his nephew, to settle in Canaan. He then moves further south to Egypt because of the famine
in Canaan. In Egypt he engages in subterfuge. He tells Sarai, his wife, to claim that she is his sister for fear
that her beauty would lead to Avram being killed by the Egyptians were they to believe she was his wife. As his
supposed sister and because of her attractiveness, Sarai is taken into Pharoah’s household presumably as a
concubine to Pharoah. In return, Pharoah rewards Avram with cattle, camels, servants, and other riches. When
Pharoah discovers Avram’s ruse, he banishes Avram and his whole family from Egypt.
Avram returns to Canaan. Here his nephew, Lot, decides to leave Avram’s household and live
elsewhere because there was insufficient room for the two families and all their wealth of possessions to live
together. Lot moves to the plains of Sodom, is captured during a civil war in the area and is subsequently
rescued by Avram.
The covenantal element of the Torah portion includes the very foundations of the Jewish faith.
In various places during the reading God promises Avram that he will make of him a great nation, that his name will
become great, that he will be a blessing, that his seed will be like the dust of the earth, that his seed will
be like the stars in the heavens.
Elsewhere, God promises Avram that he will establish his covenant throughout all his
generations, that Avram’s seed shall multiply very greatly, that his descendants shall be very fruitful, that
he will make them into nations, that kings shall emerge from them. At this point God changes Avram’s name to
Avraham. Avram came about as the shortening of Av Aram, the father from Aram, the native area he had once
lived in. Now he would be known as Av Hamon, hence Avraham, father of the nation.
A sub-plot in this Torah portion is the concern Sarai expresses that, despite all God’s
promises, she is too old to bear children. She gives her maidservant, Hagar, to Avram (as he then was) with
the result of this union being the birth of Ishmael when Avram was 86 years old. God promises that Ishmael,
too, will become the father of nations, but God’s covenant would not be with Ishmael, but with Avram.
When Avraham is 99 years old, God defines the sign of His covenant as being the requirement
for all males to be circumcised when 8 days old, Ishmael at that time being 13 years old. Avraham immediately
circumcises himself and all the males in his household. Sarai, too, has her name changed to Sarah. Sarai meant
‘my princess’, whereas Sarah meant ‘princess of all’.
Thus we witness the very foundations of the Jewish faith that have continued throughout
all our generations to the present day.
Shabbat - 5 October 2013 - Parshah Noach
This week's Torah reading, as it's name implies, is all about Noah, the flood, the animals,
the dove, the rainbow and finally the genealogy from Noah's generation through to Abram.
There is sufficient corruption in the world that God wants to destroy everything and start
again. In Noah he finds one righteous man and so resolves to save all species on earth through Noah, his family,
male and female animals of every description all cooped up in a boat for about a year. When the rains come they
last for 40 days and nights destroying all life that exists on land.
When the flood finally subsides, God resolves never to threaten life again, at least not by
using water as the means of destruction. At this point we also read that God gives mankind dominion over the
animals and allows mankind to use the animals for food (hitherto man had been vegetarian) provided certain
safeguards as to the humane treatment of animals was observed. The full laws of kashrut would come later.
God declares that the rainbow would be the new sign of the new covenant between himself and
mankind. Thus, even today, when observant Jews see a rainbow, they look upon it as a reminder of the covenant
and the need to be true to God's laws.
End of the Chag Season
We are now coming to the end of the season of almost continual festivals. This started three weeks
ago with Rosh Hashanah and ends this coming Friday with Simchat Torah. This week we will witness three consecutive
festivals, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Here are a few words about each.
Succot lasts for 7 days and on each day it is customary to sing Hoshana once on each of the first
6 days. Hoshana as a word can be broken down into Hosha (bring us salvation) and Na (please). However, to follow the
custom that prevailed when the Temple was standing, on the 7th day of Succot the Hoshana is said 7 times, hence the
name of the day Hoshana Rabbah, or the great Hoshana. This is the last day when we observe the mitzvot of entering
the Succah and waving the Arba Minim. This year, Hoshana Rabbah occurs on Wednesday, 24 September.
Immediately Succot ends we start the festival of Shemini Atzeret, which lasts for two days. The
Hebrew words Shemini Atzeret mean the “Eighth day of Assembly”. We hold this festival to fulfil the verse in the
Torah in Numbers 29 v 35: "On the eighth day you should hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your
occupation". This day also marks the start of the rainy season in the Middle East. A custom unique to Shemini
Atzeret is to recite the Tefilat Geshem, the Prayer for Rain. We are at the end of the growing season and this
prayer seeks an abundant supply of rainwater to ensure that next year’s harvest will be good. It is in a sense
the complimentary prayer to Tefillat Tal, the Prayer for Dew, recited during Pesach at the beginning of the
agricultural season. Shemini Atzeret this year falls on 25 and 26 September.
Simchat Torah means ‘Rejoicing in the Law’. This is a festival not mentioned in the Torah
because it was established in the Middle Eastern communities in the 10th century and spread throughout Judaism
over the ensuing years until today it is universally celebrated on the 2nd day of Shemini Atzeret with this
day being renamed Simchat Torah. In 2013 this will be on 26 September. One of the aims is to celebrate the fact
that we have completed a cycle of reading the whole Torah, in itself a cause for great excitement and joy. But
of equal importance our rabbis wanted to ensure we understood that we never stop reading from the Torah. The fact
that we have completed a cycle does not mean we now set the Torah aside. Far from it. We immediately turn back to
the beginning and start the cycle again. Thus, the tradition of Simchat Torah, in addition to the Hakafot that
involves dancing joyously seven times around the synagogue carrying the Torah scroll, also includes reading from
the final verses of Deuteronomy followed immediately by the opening verses of Genesis. We in LIM will follow our
own custom for two practical reasons. Our Torah scroll weighs a ton and most of our members would find it
impractical to carry it. Secondly, we have only one scroll and do not have the luxury of immediately turning from
the end to the beginning. To ensure we are all involved on this happy day, we read the final verses and then as a
replacement for the 7 Hakafot, we all take turns to roll the scroll back to the beginning. We wish all website
visitors a joyous Simchat Torah and a well deserved rest during the month of Cheshvan.
Succot - 20 September 2013
The commandments that we should observe the festival of Succot are found in Leviticus Chapter 23
vv 33-44. For example, verse 34 states
‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth
day of this seventh month, is the Festival of Succoth, a seven day period to the Lord.’
This establishes without any doubt that the
festival should last for 7 days, but later verses state that only the first day is a day of rest. A little later,
verse 40 states
‘And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of
the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before
the Lord your God for a seven day period.’
This is the source text that requires us to obtain a palm branch, myrtle
(braided tree), willow branches and an Etrog (citrus fruit). We traditionally combine the palm branch (centre),
willow (left) and myrtle (right) in the right hand while the Etrog is held in the left. However, Sephardi, Ashkenazi
and other regional variations apply according to local customs. These four ‘kinds’ or ‘species’ are waved in 6
directions, up, down, left right, forward and backwards to denote that God can be found everywhere in our lives.
Verse 43 then states that
‘For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among
the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of
Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt.’
Thus we have the commandment to build a temporary
structure in which ideally throughout Succot we take all our meals and even sleep. Here in the UK that is hardly
practical, but we are encouraged to make maximum use of the Succah during the festival.
LIM will be celebrating Succot together on Friday, 20 September. We have the Succah and we have
the four ‘species’. Any visitor to the website who is in Lincoln at this time would be very welcome to join us.
Please make contact using the email address email@example.com
Yom Kippur - 14 September 2013
Yom Kippur, perhaps the most important festival we have in our calendar after Shabbat, is a period of
25 hours that contain many aspects of Judaism that are completely different to the rest of the year. Below are just
some of them.
The eve of Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre (all vows) after the opening liturgy in which we stand
before a Beyt Din (court of law that includes two people bearing a Torah Scroll) to annul the vows we have made. This
is one of the very rare occasions when we wear a tallit in the evening. A tallit is traditionally worn during the
daytime to fulfil the commandment in Deuteronomy that we should look upon the fringes of the garment and remember
to do the mitzvot. This implies daytime wearing. But throughout Yom Kippur, including during the Kol Nidre service,
we wear white to be like the angels who also stand before God to confess their sins. There is also a tradition that
we be buried in a tallit, if not in a simple white shroud. Thus the wearing of a tallit on such an auspicious
festival is a sober reminder of our mortality as we stand before God to confess our sins.
Another tradition is to avoid wearing any item of clothing made from leather, especially footwear.
This is to avoid the conflict of intentions whereby we might be happy to benefit from the death of an animal on the
very day when we are seeking forgiveness for our sinful actions.
Several times during the festival we chant the ‘vidui’ (confessional) prayer listing our sins one
after the other. As we announce each sin, we lightly beat our chest just above the heart to emphasise that the source
of our actions and emotions had a part to play in our sinful behaviour and that our confessions are truly ‘heartfelt’./p>
From Rosh Hashana and throughout the intervening days the daily prayer services include liturgy
that states ‘cotveynu b’sefer chayim’, may we be inscribed for good in the Book of Life. Throughout this period of
the Yomim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, we carry before us an image of the Gates of Repentance slowly closing. As Yom
Kippur arrives we have but 25 more hours in which to complete our confessions before the Gates finally close. At the
very last hour, during the final Ne’ila service, the wording subtly chases to ‘cotmeynu b’sefer chayim’, may we be
sealed in the Book of Life. This is very powerful imagery and one that serves to focus our whole being on the urgency
of our repentance and the need for it to be honest and complete.
May we all in our small LIM kehilla, and all who visit our website have a complete and fulfilling
Yom Kippur and well over the Fast.
Shabbat - 7 September 2013 - Parshah Ha’azinu
The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Tshuva. It takes its name from
the opening words of the Haftara, "Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity."
In this final Torah reading at the very end of the Torah Moses describes God as being just, compassionate
and forgiving, thus any problems that occur in the world are the fault of mankind. We were chosen by God and are therefore
subject to His direct ministrations. Yet, Moses warns, like other nations, we will eventually stray away from Torah observance.
We will believe that we can survive without God, without the Torah and without need to identify ourselves with the Jewish nation.
Our punishment will be desolation, exile and a constant assault on our very right to exist at all. Yet we
can be redeemed with Tshuva, true repentance, a genuine return to God’s laws and an acceptance of our need to stay within
the structure of the Jewish faith.
The message is very clear as we enter the final few days before Yom Kippur. The Gates of Repentance are
starting to close. We are hoping to be written for good in the coming year in the Book of Life. We must therefore engage
in a deep introspection of ourselves, enter into a genuine desire for Tshuva, show sincere remorse and have a real yearning
not to stray again from God’s laws.
Shabbat - 31 August 2013 - Parshas Netzavim-Vayelech
The Parsha is always the last one before the arrival of Rosh Hashana.. It is the
day when Moses knows he will die. All the nation is gathered before him as he brings his final discourse
to an end. He concludes by bringing the nation’s attention to the covenant with God. This covenant,
of protection from God in return for obedience to the laws of the Torah, had been extant ever since
the dramatic days of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
Each generation will be obligated to educate the next generation to ensure the
continuity of the people. No-one can have the excuse that they were ignorant of God’s covenant.
Moses acknowledged that there would be many who would stray from observance of the mitzvot, who
would deny or reject their allegiance to Judaism, but he offers the hope that with true repentance
and forgiveness (Slicha) and returning (T’shuva), the future of our people would be assured.
Allied to this concept is the custom after Shabbat this week to hold Slichot
services. These focus on the acts of T’shuva we should make towards those we know, be they family,
friends or work colleagues. Offering and accepting an apology is a very basic human act, but this
interaction requires courage, honesty, integrity and humility, virtues we are not always willing to
display. But by apologising we have the chance to inspire in others the willingness to heal grudges
and humiliations and to generate forgiveness. And within ourselves, apologies have the power to
relieve guilt and shame and enable us to start anew in our relationships with others. Slichot
services usually contain beautiful liturgical music designed to evoke these emotions and to encourage
us to complete the process of T’shuva.
Shabbat - 24 August 2013 - Parshah Ki Tavo
The past two weeks have focused on justice and the rights of the individual. This week,
as the nation prepares to cross the Jordan, Moses draws attention to the realities of living in the
Promised Land and the special relationship between the people and God.
Early in the Torah reading we meet the laws of tithing and first fruits and a
declaration of God's mastery over the land. Later in the reading, Moses explains the status of
allegiance between God and His People. If the People keep to the Torah they will enjoy fame, praise
and favour. Moreover, on reaching the Promised Land, the People were expected to make a public
declaration of their acceptance of God's mitzvot and His covenant.
The 6th Aliya, known as the Tochacha, concentrates on warnings, admonishing and
punishments should the People stray from the laws of the Torah and ignore the warnings that they
should live a Torah-true life. Traditionally, this portion is read slightly faster and in a slight
undertone to mark it's special nature and content.
The end of the Parshah marks the start of Moses' final discourse. Here he reviews
the past 40 years of wandering in the desert and reminds the People of God's past protection and
promise of future protection.
The Haftara, taken again from the Book of Isaiah, once again offers a theme of
consolation provided that the People remain true to God's commandments.
Shabbat – 17 August 2013 - Parshah Ki Teytsey
In this week’s Torah reading, Moses describes an amazing 74 mitzvot. They cover a hugely
eclectic spread of topics, all of which are essential for the guidance of the people as they prepare to
enter the Promised Land become a nation.
The mitzvot include laws on hanging and burial, building safety regulations, agriculture,
prostitution, marriage to certain nearby peoples, the sheltering of runaway slaves, the penalty for adultery,
military exemptions for those who are required to take up arms, the need to pay wages on time, the care of
widows and orphans, flogging, what to do with remnants of the harvest, the honest use of weights and measures,
financial loans, prohibitions of marriage within certain family relations, returning lost articles,
transvestitism, the wearing of tsitsit and so the list goes on.
How appropriate it is that we should be reminded of all these laws as we head towards the
High Holydays, when we are expected to review our actions over the past year and consider how we might change
in the coming year. The rabbis teach that even one small seemingly insignificant mitzvah observed is a step
in the right direction and will almost certainly lead to another and another.
As we step quietly through the month of Elul and consider how we might make T’shuvah
towards each other, we can be encouraged by the knowledge that even one small act of kindness, of
reconciliation, of making amends, could so easily lead to another and another and eventually leave us
all emotionally and spiritually prepared for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
In the Haftara, taken again from the Book of Isaiah, the prophet describes Israel as
afflicted barren, and inconsolable in the aftermath of the Temple's destruction. Isaiah then goes on to
assure the People that God’s kindness and love for them is ever present, protecting and sustaining them
at all times. Thus, the theme of consolation continues.
Shabbat – 10 August 2013 - Parshat Shoftim
The theme of the Torah portion this week is justice. The title of the Parshah – Shoftim –
means judges and the key message that Moses imparts is that judges must be impartial and give their rulings
based only on the will of God as defined in the Halacha. Judges should not be swayed by the social standing
of the person being judged and should be above bribery or any other corrupt process that might curry
Moses continues with warnings against idol worship which perhaps is the starkest perversion
of justice since it means man is placing greater faith in the will of other human-based inventions rather than
in the will of God.
In the central portion of the Parshah Moses re-emphasises the special role played by the
tribe of Levi and the care and respect everyone should show towards the Levites since they were the teachers
of the law and therefore the foundation upon which the understanding of justice passed from one generation
to the next.
In the remainder of the Torah Moses warns against the impact of false prophets and false
witnesses, both of whom perverted the true justice that God intended.
The Haftara continues the theme of justice through the words of Isaiah and continues, too,
the theme of consolation and the promise of redemption. Here, Isaiah offers the hope that the people will
return to their homeland and that their oppressors will be punished. He also foretells that the prophet
Eliyahu will herald the arrival of the Messiah.
Shabbat – 3 August 2013 - Parshat Re'eh
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses continues his discourse focussing particularly on
the need for the people to avoid idolatry and pagan practices. It is here we find the famous passage:
I place before you today blessing and curse. The blessing that you listen to the
commandments of God that I command you today, and the curse if you do not listen to the commandments and
you turn away from the path that I command you today to go after other gods that you did not know.
In this Parshah we also find those laws that are specific to the Jewish faith and
which set us apart from other peoples. These include the laws on Kashrus,, Tithing, Shmittah the
Sabbatical Year, Pidyon HaBen the redemption of the first-born, and the Shloshim Regalim, the
three ‘foot’ festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot.
The Haftarah, taken from the book of Joshua is the third reading of consolation
in which the prophet comforts the people with hope if they would only trust in God.
Next week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, we have the New Moon for the month of Elul.
This is a very special month because it leads directly to Rosh Hashana. During Elul it is customary
to blow the shofar each morning and to prepare for the coming High Holydays. In this period we should
begin the process of T’shuva towards our fellow human beings, settling debts, repairing hurt and damage,
making amends for wrong-doing and generally ensuring we are ready to enter the Yamim Nora’im with the
right attitude and spiritual preparation.
Shabbat – 27 July 2013 - Parshat Ekev
In this week’s Torah readings, Moses continues his address to the people. Now he focuses
on the rewards that the people will enjoy if they observe the commandments and the punishment if they do not.
He also describes the Promised Land and assures the people that they should not be discouraged at the battles
ahead because God will be with them and will watch over the Land.
In this portion we also meet the commandment to say Birkat Hamazon, Grace after Meals,
and we come across the second paragraph of the Shema, again reiterating the rewards (rain in the land in
its due season) for fulfilling the Mitzvot and the penalties (famine and exile) if they do not. With regard
to the Land flowing with milk and honey, Moses explains how the land is blessed with the ‘7 kinds’ of sustenance,
wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and dates.
As a form of warning, Moses reminds everyone that they will be inheriting the Promised Land,
not through their own merits, but because of God’s compassion and forgiveness. He reminds the people of past
sins, especially the Golden Calf and the need for God to provide a second set of tablets containing the 10
Commandments because of the sins of the sons of Korach.
Finally, Moses reminds the Israelites once again of God’s generosity in choosing them as
His treasured people and of the many miracles performed to sustain and protect them.
The Haftara for Ekev is taken from Isaiah and is the second of the 7 readings of consolation
starting last week with the Haftara immediately after Tisha B’Av and culminating in the arrival of the High
Holydays. Isaiah’s message is very similar to that of Moses. He offers encouragement to fulfil commandments,
a reminder of past sins and rebelliousness in the desert and ends with encouraging words of prophesy of hope
for the future.
Shabbat Nachamu – 20 July 2013
Shabbat Nachamu takes its name from the opening words of the Haftara for this coming Shabbat.
In the book of Isaiah Ch40: verse 1 begins
Nachanmu nachamu ami, amar elohaychem – Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye my people saith your God. This
Haftarah always occurs immediately after Tisha B’Av, which occurred last Tuesday and commemorated the destruction
of the Temples and other misfortunes that have occurred to our people. The Haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu is the first
of seven haftarot of consolation leading up to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Each seeks to consol
our people and offer hope, comfort, strength, peace of mind and reassurance as we move from the sad remembrance of
Tisha B’Av to the solemn Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe, during the High Holydays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Turning to the Torah portion – Va’etchanan – Moses continues his discourse summarising the history
of the people since the exodus from Egypt. Here we find several repeats of commandments found earlier in the Torah.
Here, too, we discover the opening paragraph of the Shmah (Deut Ch6 vv 10-15) and in this week’s Torah reading Moses
reminds the people yet again to ensure they follow the teaching of the Torah.
Parashat Devarim - 13 July 2013
The Torah portion for Shabbat this week is called Devarim. It starts the book called Devarim
in Hebrew, or Deuteronomy in English. In it Moses begins his long discourse recounting the history of the Jewish
people from their departure from Egypt until the present day.
In this portion he describes the story of the spies sent into the Promised Land who returned
with false reports of doom and gloom about the land and its inhabitants. For this sin, God decided that that
generation of people were not fit to enter the Land and that they should wander in the desert for 40 years until
they had died out and the next generation were grown and ready to enter the Land. He then skips most of the 40
years and recounts battles that took place to enable the people to conquer the area known today as Trans-Jordan.
This coming Shabbat is also referred to as Shabbat Chazon (vision), the first word of the
Haftorah taken from the book of Isaiah and describing the vision Isaiah had of the fate awaiting the people who
had strayed so far from following the Torah.
All this is by way of setting the mood of lamentations that will be prevalent during the day called Tisha B’Av
(9th Av), the day commemorating many misfortunes that befell the Jewish people during our long history. Tisha
B’Av occurs on Tuesday of next week (16 July).