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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.

Hoshana Rabbah

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.

Shemini Atzeret

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

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 info@lincolnjewishminyan.org.uk

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 their favour.

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. (Deuteronomy 11:26-2)

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 נַתֳמוּ נַתֳמוּ, עַמִּ י--יֹאמֵר, אֱלֹה ֵכֶם

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).



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