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Shabbat – 13 December 2014 - Parashah Vayeshev

The Torah reading this week continues the rather sorry saga of Jacob and his dysfunctional family, this week focussing on Joseph. The story contains arrogance, cruelty, anger, deceit, plotting and intrigue, sexual temptation and prophesy.

At the start we learn of Joseph’s apparent arrogance in interpretingn two dreams he had that suggested that his brothers and even his parents would bow down to him. Much later of course this would prove to be the case, but at the time his attitude caused anger and resentment.

Initially the brothers plotted to kill Joseph, but Reuben persuaded them against this idea. Judah then saw a trader caravan en route to Egypt and suggested Joseph be sold into slavery instead for 20 pieces of silver.

To hide their cruelty from their father, Jacob, the brothers then played an even more cruel trick on their father. They took Joseph’s multi-coloured coat, stained it with animal blood and claimed that Joseph had been devoured by wild animals. Joseph had been Jacob’s particular favourite having been born in Jacob’s old age to Rachel, who had died during the birth. Jacob was thereby consumed with inconsolable grief.

The 4th Aliya digresses completely from Joseph’s story and concentrates instead on Judah and his family. Here again we read about rivalry, enmity, infertility, sexual deception and intrigue.

The tale then returns abruptly to Joseph who has been sold into the house of Potiphar, the Pharoah’s chamberlain. Joseph ‘found favour’ in God’s eyes and was successful in everything he did for the household. His success soon came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife. She pleaded with Joseph ‘to lie with her’, but Joseph refused to commit such a betrayal of his master, Potiphar. One day she and Joseph were alone in the house. She again propositioned him and again he refused, but this time as he fled from her presence, he left his coat behind. Angry at yet another rebuff, Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of attempted rape and Joseph was put in prison. Even here, he found favour in God’s eyes and prospered.

Also imprisoned with Joseph were Pharoah’s chief cupbearer and chief baker, both incarcerated for offenses they had committed against Pharoah. Each had a dream which Joseph interpreted. The cupbearer, Joseph prophesied, would be restored to his former position in Pharoah’s court, while the baker would be hanged. Both predictions came to pass. Joseph had asked the cupbearer to remember Joseph’s good deed and seek his release from prison, but the cupbearer forgot all about Joseph. The Torah portion ends with Joseph still languishing in prison.

Shabbat – 29 November 2014 - Parashah Vayeitsei

The Torah portion this week continues the story of the development of Jacob’s family The reading starts quietly enough with the well-known description of Jacob dreaming of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. In the dream God promises Jacob that the land where he is lying will be given to him and his seed, that his seed shall be as the dust of the earth and through him shall all the families on earth be blessed.

In the next section Jacob meets Rachel, the younger sister of Leah, and contracts with her father Lavan to work for 7 years for Rachel’s hand in marriage, but at the end of this period Lavan deceives Jacob by sending Leah to him instead. Jacob then has to work a further 7 years if he is to marry Rachel.

Now come intrigue and dubious sexual relationships. God saw that Leah was disliked so he ‘opened her womb’. Leah becomes the mother of Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Judah. But Rachel remained barren. She was jealous of her sister and wanted her own children. Because she could not conceive, she gave her maidservant, Bilhah, to Jacob. Bilhah becomes the mother of Dan and Naftali. By now, Leah had stopped bearing children. Not to be outdone, she gives her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob and Zilpah becomes the mother of Gad and Asher.

The plot thickens further. Rachel, still barren, sees Reuben, Leah’s son, harvest dudaim (also called mandrakes) which were a fruit seen as a cure for infertility. She asks Leah for the dudaim and, as payment, Leah insists that she sleeps once again with Jacob. She becomes the mother of two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and the only daughter of the generation, Dinah. Finally, God remembers Rachel and opens her womb with the result that she gives birth to Joseph.

Thus far we have 11 of the 12 tribes of Israel. Only later in a future Torah reading we will learn how Rachel gives birth to Benjamin after Joseph has been sold into slavery in Egypt.

Shabbat – 22 November 2014 - Parashah Toledot

The Torah portion this week focuses on the discord and disputes within Isaac’s family. At the start of the reading Rebecca is pregnant with twins. God tells her that she will give birth to two nations, but the older will eventually serve the younger. First to be born is Esau, red of hair who will grow up to be a hunter. Then came Jacob holding on to Esau’s heel. Jacob was not hirsute and was destined to be a ‘dweller in tents’.

The story then jumps several years to a scene when Esau returns from hunting so exhausted that he cries out for pottage to give him sustenance. Jacob first demands that Esau sell him his birth right. The latter feels at the point of death and sees no value in owning a birth right and so readily agrees. Thus, the enmity and rivalry between the two brothers is established.

In the next section there is a sense of déjà vu as Isaac and his family are forced by famine to move to Philistine where, just like Abraham in Egypt under similar circumstances, Isaac denies that Rebecca is his wife claiming instead that she is his sister for fear of his life. When the deceit is discovered he is banished from the land.

The spotlight next returns to the rivalry between Esau and Jacob, aided and abetted by Rebecca. Isaac is nearing the end of his life and wishes to bless his first-born son, Esau. He asks the latter to hunt for food so that he could have a final meal before bestowing his blessing on Esau. Rebecca hears of this and, while Esau is away, encourages Jacob to disguise himself as Esau by wearing hairy animal skins. Isaac, being by now almost blind, is fooled by the deception and bestows his blessing meant for Esau on Jacob. This blessing included the fact that nations would bow down to his seed and that he would be master over his brothers. “Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed”.

Quite understandably Esau is angry when he learns that Jacob has now deceitfully stolen his father’s blessing in addition to his taking his birth right by coercion. He vows to kill Jacob, so the Torah portion ends with Jacob running away back to Rebecca’s family to avoid Esau’s wrath.

Shabbat – 1 November 2014 - Parashah 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 Pharaoh’s household presumably as a concubine to Pharaoh. In return, Pharaoh rewards Avram with cattle, camels, servants, and other riches. When Pharaoh 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 – 25 October 2014 - Parashah 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.

Shabbat – 10 October 2014 - Succot

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 Succoth together on Friday, 10 October. 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

Shabbat – 4 October 2014 - Yom Kippur

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. This year, however, the festival actually falls on Shabbat.

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’.

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 – 20 September 2014 - Parashah 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 – 13 September 2014 - Parashah 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 its special nature and content.

The end of the Parashah 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 – 6 September 2014 - Parashah 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 – 30 August 2014 - Parashat 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 – 23 August 2014 - 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 – 16 August 2014 - 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 - 9 August 2014 - Parasha Va’etchanan

Moses continues his discourse to the people prior to his imminent death and their entering the Promised Land. He explains the purpose of his reiteration of the laws of the Torah “…in order that you may live and go in and possess the land…”. He further tells the people: ”Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it.” This is the command interpreted by the rabbis as meaning that nothing in the Torah may be added to or removed from the original. We therefore believe that the Torah we have today has exactly the same content as that which has been used over the centuries right back to biblical times. A little later Moses commands that the people not only hear the laws but ‘do’ them. This teaches us that we are not just a believing faith, but one that lives by its precepts and through our daily actions we fulfil the teachings in the Torah.

In Chapter 5, we read a repetition of the ten Commandments, albeit using slightly different wording from earlier versions. For example in Exodus 20 we read Zachor et yom hashabbat l’kodsho “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” while this week we read Shamor et yom hashabbat l’kodsho “keep the Sabbath Day to sanctify it”.

Chapter 6 opens with the very familiar words of the Shma, which further emphasises God’s commandments to keep the laws of the Torah. There are also at various times during the Torah portion encouragements to keep the laws and warnings about what will happen if the laws are transgressed. But always there is the proffered hope that if anyone who transgresses genuinely seeks to return to the laws, they will be received and forgiven.

This sense of comforting is further reflected in the Haftorah because the Shabbat immediately following Tisha B’Av (which occurred at the start of the week) is called Shabbat Nachamu. 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 Nachamu nachamu ami, amar elohaychem – Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye my people saith your God. This Haftarah always occurs immediately after Tisha B’Av, which 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.

Shabbat - 2 August 2014 - Parasha Devarim

We come now to the final book of the Torah. Devarim means ‘words’ and is both the name of the reading for this week and also for the whole book, which is better known as Deuteronomy, which in turn is a Greek word meaning a second reading of the law. We now begin over the next few weeks to read the whole discourse of Moses recounting all that has happened to the people and all the laws and commandments given by God, plus all the key events that have taken place during the 40 years of wandering through the desert.

We begin this week with the people still on the east bank of the Jordan, but now ready to enter the Promised Land. Moses reminds the people why they spent the last 40 years in the desert, to ensure the whole generation of people who doubted God’s promises and believed the erroneous reports of the spies when they had entered the Promised Land to report on its inhabitants. Of that whole generation, only Caleb and Joshua, who had fully trusted in God, would enter the land. Even Moses himself would not go in.

There follows many verses recounting the travels, the kingdoms they had encountered, how some had been very aggressive and others merely tolerant. There is express denial of certain lands such as that in and around Mount Seir, which had been promised to Esau and his descendants.

The final few verses remind us that the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of Manasseh would possess the lands where they now were on the east of the Jordan, but only after the warriors from these tribes had crossed the Jordan with the other tribes to help them conquer the lands that they were to possess.

Shabbat - 26 July 2014 - Parasha Massei

With this week’s reading we come to the end of the Bemidbar, or the book of Numbers. Massei is read as a double portion with last week’s Mattot when we are not in a leap year.

Massei begins with a detailed description of the 42 places of encampments to which Moses lead the people from leaving Egypt until arriving 40 years later on the eastern shores of the Jordan and about to enter the Promised Land.

There then follows an equally detailed definition of the borders of the promised Land showing the North, East, South and Western limits. God then commands Moses to explain to the people that the land will be inherited by lot according to the size of each tribe. Of the 12, 9½ tribes will cross into the land with the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh remaining on the East Bank. God also commands that the people drive out all of the current inhabitants of the land that they will possess, if not those that remain will become a thorn in their sides.

Next comes a description of the land to be given to the tribe of Levi, remembering that Levites did not go into battle, but were held back to serve in the Mishkan. Next follows further descriptions of the need to build 6 cities especially designated as cities of refuge to which a person can flee and seek refuge if accused of a capital crime that had been committed inadvertently. Such a person should only be put to death following the judgement of a court of law.

Shabbat - 19 July 2014 - Parasha Mattot

We have once again come to a reading that, in a non-leap year, would be connected to another, namely next week’s Mattei. Parasha Mattot is a particularly bloodthirsty account of warfare. But it begins with a lengthy legal disposition on the permanence or otherwise of vows made by various people. The vow stands or is rendered impermanent depending on how it was made, who might have heard it and who might have interrupted the person while making the vow. All very complicated, but it does emphasise the need for Kol Nidre, when, before a Beth Din, a court of judgement, we nullify our vows made over the past year.

We then come to a mighty battle against the Midianites. God commands Moses to send 1000 warriors from each tribe into battle. The Israelites are totally triumphant, kill all 5 of the Midianite kings, slaughter every male, lay waste the cities and palaces and take capture all the women, livestock and valuables. Also, during the battle, we learn that Balaam, who featured in the Torah reading two weeks ago, is also killed as punishment for his treachery. However, when the army returns to Moses with all the spoils of war, Moses is angry because they had not killed all the women who were capable of ‘knowing’ another man. Moses orders all these women to be killed explaining that these were the very women who had led the people astray in the recent Torah reading. Only girls too young to be sexually active were spared.

The next few verses describe how the plunder was to be purified and then distributed among the tribes. The Torah goes into great detail about the magnitude of the plunder, including 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys and 32,000 virgins!!

At this stage they are in what we now know as the country of Jordan, ie on the east bank of the Jordan river. The leaders of the tribes of Gad and Reuben, who were tribes specialising in the rearing of cattle, see that that land is rich in livestock. They ask Moses if they would be allowed to remain on the east bank of the river and not cross into the Promised Land. Moses is immediately angry at such a suggestion. He recounts to them the fact that the original spies 40 years ago had argued against crossing the river and as a result, the people had wandered in the desert until that whole generation had died out except for Caleb and Joshua, as God had promised. Why, then, should two whole tribes choose not to enter the land?

The leaders of the two tribes thereupon promise to build cities to protect their families and stock pens to protect their animals and would then enter the land and do battle until all the other tribes had been settled in the land that they were to possess. This reply satisfies Moses.

Shabbat - 12 July 2014 - Parasha Pinchas

Last week’s reading ended with the account of how Pinchas had stopped the plague ravaging the people by zealously removing the cause of the plague, ie he killed the Israelites who were consorting with Midianite women. This week’s reading opens with God’s reward to Pinchas for his zeal in the famous words “I hereby give him my covenant of peace”.

The people are now encamped in the region of Jericho. We then come to yet another census of the people, this time all the men aged 20 or over fit to go to war. The next 45 verses are devoted to this count listing the generations by name. The final total comes to 601,730. Bearing in mind the limited category of who was being counted, this suggests that the people in all continued to number well over 2 million, plus all their animals, possessions and baggage. This was a huge multitude. No wonder Balak last week was not keen for them to cross his territory.

Add to this number the 23,000 from the tribe of Levi who were not counted in the census as they were not required to go into battle. Even more remarkable is the fact that in this census there were no people who had been included in the census 40 years before at Mount Sinai. All had died in the wanderings in the wilderness as God had warned except Caleb and Joshua.

Next we read about the 5 daughters of Zelophehad of the tribe of Manasseh, who went to Moses to seek help because their father had died without any sons and they were seeking to be allowed to inherit a portion of the family possessions. Moses seeks God’s opinion of this. God agrees that the daughters should inherit and then adds further laws of inheritance in the event of there being no relations who might have been the next in line.

Immediately following this is the account of God calling Moses to ascend Mount Abarim to see the distant Promised Land that he would not enter because he had disobeyed God in the Wilderness of Zin, when he struck a rock to cause water to flow instead of speaking to it as God has required. God tells Moses that once he had seen the land he, too, would be ‘gathered to his people’ as Aaron had been. Moses asks who would succeed him and God replies that Joshua, son of Nun, would be the next leader and that Moses was to present Joshua to the people as such.

The remainder of this week’s portion describes the various sacrificial offerings the people were to make during the festivals throughout the year.

Shabbat - 5 July 2014 - Parsha Balak

The name of the reading this week tells us all we need to know about its content. Balak was the king of Moab. He sees the the multitudes of the tribe of Hebrews has arrived at his borders. He does not want them to pass through his land for fear that they will eat all his crops, destroy his lands and leave Moab the worse for wear.

He calls on a soothsayer called Balaam to curse the people in the hope that a cursed people would be defeated in any battle, but Balaam refuses even to go to the king. Finally, he is persuaded to go, but en route a disguised angel from God blocks the path. The she-donkey he is riding intuitively recognises the angel and diverts from the path so Balaam in anger beats the animal and forces it back the right way. Twice more the donkey diverts and twice more Balaam beats her.

Then comes the only occasion in the Torah when God empowers an animal to speak. The donkey turns to Balaam and asks why he has beaten her three times. God then reveals the presence of the angel to Balaam who now understands.

Balaam comes to King Balak. The latter orders him to curse the people of Israel, but Balaam replies that he can only utter words that God puts in his mouth. On two more occasions Balak takes Balaam to a hilltop where the whole host of the Hebrews can be seen and twice more Balaam refuses to curse them saying he can only say what is I his mouth from God. Then Balak says, "well, if you cannot curse them, then at least do not bless them." Again Balaam says that what God requires, that will he say. He then goes on to bless the people.

Shabbat - 28 June 2014 - Parsha Chukat

There is no common thread throughout the reading this week. Instead, it begins with the laws concerning purification using the ashes of a red heifer for those who have become unclean through having come in contact with a dead body.

Then without forewarning the next verses refer to the arrival of the whole people in the desert of Zin, which is right in the south of the country in what is now the Negev. The rabbis tell us that we are now 40 years later and all those who were destined to die in the desert during the wanderings, ie those who came out from Egypt and subsequently kept complaining and rebelling, have now died out. Then in the next verse we learn that Miriam dies.

Then in the next verse the people are complaining yet again that they have no water. God commands Moses to speak to a rock from which water would emerge. Instead, Moses is so angry with the people that he strikes the rock twice with his staff. Even so, water still emerges and the people have their fill, but because Moses disobeyed God by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, God tells Moses that he will not now enter the Promised Land alongside the people.

The action now moves to the next phase of their journey when the king of Edom refuses the people permission to cross his territory. But before this can develop further, the next few verses tell of the death of Aaron on Mount Hor and the succession of his son Eleazar to be Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.

Now we return yet again to the route of the journey. To avoid the land of Edom the people are sent once again via the Red sea where they do battle and win against the Caananite king of Arad. And once again the people complain that they were so near the Promised Land and yet are once again turning back into the desert to die. Because of their repeated complaining, God sends poisonous snakes to attack the people. They in turn repent of their complaining and ask for deliverance. God command Moses to make a snake on the top of his staff and anyone looking up to the snake will be saved from the real snakes.

The remaining verses tell of continued journeys, battles and lands that the people capture mainly to the east of the River Jordan. Finally they arrive at Jericho.

Shabbat - 21 June 2014 - Parsha Korach

The title of the reading this week gives a clue as to its content. Korach was a descendant of the tribe of Levi and was a leader of his people. He came to Moses and Aaron to complain that the latter had taken on too many honours for themselves. He was therefore leading a rebellion against them. He was joined by 250 others from his tribe.

Moses’ reply was that all that he did was at God’s behest and therefore not something he had assumed for himself. Any rebellion against him was in effect a rebellion against God. He ordered that the 250 should burn incense in censors and that God would decide who was in the right.

The next day Korach and his followers presented themselves at the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of meeting before the sanctuary burning incense. God ordered Moses to lead the people away from the 250 and away from the tents of the immediate family of Korach. He then opened up the earth and the families were consumed by the ground. The 250 holding the censors were also burnt to death. Thus did God show that Moses and Aaron were the chosen leaders of the people.

Despite all this the people still complained that they had left a land of milk and honey only to be left to die in the desert. God again set a demonstration as to who was the rightful leaders of the people. He ordered that a staff be gathered one from the heads of the 12 tribes, with Aaron’s staff representing the tribe of Levi. The staffs were placed in the Mishkan and next morning Aaron’s staff was found to have sprouted leaves and almonds while all the other staffs remained just lengths of wood. Again, the leadership of Aaron was demonstrated before all the people.

Shabbat - 14 June 2014 - Parsha Shlach

The word ‘Shlach’ means ‘send’ and we read here in the opening lines how God commands Moses to send out spies, one chieftain from each tribe, to assess the Promised Land, its people, the quality of the soil, the size and defences of the cities. Among the 12 are Caleb and Joshua.

The spies spend 40 days in the land travelling its length and breadth. They take examples of its fruits and assess the people. However, the report they bring back to Moses and the people is that, while the land might be flowing with milk and honey, nevertheless, it is inhabited by giants in cities impossible to capture. The people immediately start complaining to Moses that they would have been better off staying in Egypt rather than die here in the desert.

God now becomes angry with the people for yet again failing to trust in God’s divine protection despite the many miracles, signs and wonders that they had witnessed. He threatens to leave them all to die in the desert, but Moses persuades God to relent from this idea. Only Joshua and Caleb give a more positive report about how the land and its inhabitants can be conquered with God’s help. Despite relenting about destroying the people, God still decrees that none of the people aged 20 and older will ever enter the Promised Land. They are destined to wander over the next 40 years in the desert while that whole generation dies out. Only Caleb and Joshua are spared this decree.

The final verses of the reading deal with atonement for inadvertent sins committed and the commandment we read every time we say the Shmah that we should place fringes on the corner of our garments to help us to remember to do all the laws and not sin even inadvertently.

Shabbat - 7 June 2014 - Parsha Beha’alotecha

The reading this week contains a seemingly unrelated mixture of commands and events. It starts with the command to light the lights of the 7-branch menorah and then goes into a long and detailed description of how the tribe of Levi were to be presented to the people. From an earlier reading we had learned that the Levites had been chosen especially by God to support the Kohanim, the High priests who were the family of Aaron and descendants.

The point of cleansing and presenting of the Levites this week is to make the people aware of the special status the Levites had within the whole people. They did not go out to do battle, but stayed to defend the Mishkan and theirs was the task to dismantle it and carry it when the people were on the move, and then reassemble it and serve in it when they were camped.

From here we are reminded again that God will lead the people by a pillar of cloud by day and by fire at night and that whenever the cloud rested on the Mishkan was a sign that the people should make camp. The people had been in camp at Mount Sinai for about a year. Indeed, there is now a requirement for them to celebrate the first Passover since leaving Egypt. And it was then time to move on. There therefore follows a description of blasts on the Shofar, Teruah and Tekiah as required to signal when each tribe should set off and when they should make camp. To prove it, the Torah then gives a repetitive description of each tribe setting off on its journey.

Remembering that the people had only manna to eat, they began complaining to Moses that they wanted the provision of meat and that life had been better in Egypt. This angered God whose reply was that if they want meat they will get it every day for a month. Moses then asks how 600,000 plus people, will be fed meat every day for a month, saying that even if every animal they owned was slaughtered it would not be enough. God asked angrily: “Is my power limited? Now you will see if my word is true or not!” God then made a swarm of quails to descend on the camp such that there was an overabundance of them, far more than the people could eat.

Then comes a very strange incident, but one also challenging God’s decisions. Miriam criticises Moses for marrying a Cushite women. God, who sees Moses as a perfect vehicle for him to convey his commandments, punishes Miriam with leprosy. There then follows the first cry for healing in the Torah when Moses cries out “Eyl na refah na la”. I beseech you God, please heal her. God relented and demanded that Miriam remained outside the camp for 7 days and then could re-enter.

Shabbat - 31 May 2014 - Parsha Naso

In last week’s portion we read about the census of the 12 tribes. The tribe of Levi were counted from aged one month and upward and numbered 22,300 males. This week’s begins with a further census of the 3 families of Levi’s sons. These were counted from age 30 to 50 because now the count was to identify who among the men would be fit to help transport the Mishkan. Altogether there were 8580, comprising 2750 from the house of Kohath, 2630 from the Gershonites and 3200 from the Merarites.

Each family was then allocated different parts of the Mishkan as their responsibility to pack, carry and then unpack again when the next camp was made. The Gershonites carried te tentage and tapestries, the Merarites carried the wall panels, sockets, posts and other structural components while the Kohathites carried the many vessels and salvers.

There then follows a detailed description of the laws and punishments given to a Sotah, a wife who had gone astray morally and engaged in adultery. After these laws we then come across similar detailed laws concerning the Nazir, the man or woman who takes up the vows of the nezirut – abstinence – as a deeper process of worshipping God. The abstinence includes no contact with wine, growing hair totally uncut and not coming into contact with a dead body, even that of a close relative. The vow could be for a defined period, or even for a lifetime.

God then commands Moses to speak to Aaron to bless the people with the very familiar words which we repeat regularly in synagogue and at home and which became known as the Priestly Blessing.

The final part of the reading this week is devoted to a very repetitive description of the offerings that each tribe bought to the Mishkan. There were a total of 35 items, things such as a silver dish, a silver bowl, rams, bullocks, lambs, goats, flour and so on. What is rather odd is that every tribe brings exactly the same 35 items, yet the Torah doea not state that each tribe brought such and such. Instead, because each tribe brought its offerings on a different day, the exact nature of each tribe’s offerings is given, 12 times over.

Shabbat - 24 May 2014 - Parsha Bemidbar

Our reading this week begins the book called Bemidbar in Hebrew and ‘Numbers’ in English. This is an entirely apt name because it sets the scene right from the start with a long and detailed census of all the tribes. However the numbers quoted are only for men aged 20-60 who were deemed fit to go into battle. In all there are 603,550.

If we now add to that all the men in this age range not fit to fight, plus all the men outside this age bracket, plus all the women and children, the estimated total of the people reaches over 2 million. And then there was all the cattle and other animals that the people owned, plus all their baggage and other belongings. This was one huge host, the equivalent of four major cities all constantly on the move for days and weeks at a time and then encamped for a period before moving off again.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the latter part of the reading goes into equally great detail about how the tribes should organise and arrange themselves around the Mishkan , the Ark of the Covenant. Three tribes each were placed on each of the cardinal points around the Ark. Asher, Dan and Naftali to the north, Gad, Reuben and Simeon to the south, Issachar, Judah and Zebulun to the east and Manasseh, Ephraim and Benjamin to the west sides in four huge camps.

Given that there were so many people and such a logistics nightmare to resolve every time they set off and every time they set up camp, having a disciplined and orderly way of arranging the tribes made eminent sense. We read much earlier in the Torah how God would guide the people by a pillar of cloud by day and by fire at night. When not on the move, the people now knew how they had to set up camp in the specific formation set out in this week’s reading.

One tribe, however, is missing from the list above: the tribe of Levi. We still have 12 tribes placed around the Ark because Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were elevated in status to that of heads of tribes because the tribe of Levi was allocated the task of service in the Mishkan. The Levites were not included in the census. Indeed they had their own census, counting the males from one month and older, since they were not judged whether they were fit to go into battle. In all there were 22,300 Levite males, by far the smallest tribe. They in turn were divided into four sub-tribes based on the three sons of Levi – Gershon, Kohath and Merari – plus the Kohanim, the descendants of Aaron.

When setting up camp, each of these sub-tribes was placed closest to the Mishkan with the Merarites on the north side, the Kohanim on the east, the Kohathites on the south and the Gershonites on the west. Thus they were nearest to the Ark to be able to continue their service there, plus they were completely surrounded by the outer tribes and therefore best protected from any enemy attack.

Shabbat - 17 May 2014 - Parshah Bechukotai

This week's reading is the second half of what would, in a non-leap year, be a double portion. Bechuchotai is primarily concerned with what benefits and rewards will accrue if the people obey God's commandments and what punishments will be suffered if they do not. Interestingly,the former require only 11 verses to describe, while the detail of the latter takes up all of 28 verses.

In simple terms obeying the laws will cause the rains to fall, the land to be prosperous, wild beasts to be kept away, enemies to be subdued and life to be rich, healthy, rewarding and enjoyable. God's spirit will be among the people "I will walk among you to be your God, and you shall be my people".

Disobeying the laws brings very much the opposite, but the interesting phrase used is "If you treat me as happenstance...". The rabbis teach us that this means if the attitude towards God and all the commandments is fitful, random, temporary, half-hearted and altogether a chore then the many punishments will occur. What God is expecting is total devotion, commitment, dedication and effort to obeying the laws of the Torah; anything less would not suffice. Indeed, the details of the punishments far outweigh those of the rewards.

But despite everything, God holds out the olive branch of hope. At the end of a whole litany of fearful consequences for not obeying the laws, we read "If their clogged hearts become humbled, their sufferings will gain appeasement for their iniquity". What this means is that even after leading a life of sinfulness, anyone who truly repents and turns over a new leaf will be forgiven because the suffering already undergone will act as sufficient punishment for those sins.

Thus, we always have the hope of redemption, but that is no good reason for indulging in sins in the first place, but more a recognition that everyone will at some stage fall short of the ideal, but despite this, forgiveness and redemption remain options for the true repentant.

Shabbat - 10 May 2014 - Parshah Behar

Because we are in a leap year this week's reading is the individual Parashah Behar that in a non-leap year is coupled with next week's reading Bechukotai. We start with the commandment that the fields themselves should enjoy their own form of Shabbat in that during every 7th year (the Sabbatical Year) they should lie fallow and nothing grown in them them.

Even more the that, the people were to count seven times seven years and the 50th year was marked as the Jubilee Year when again nothing was sown. In this Jubilee Year the ownership of land was to be returned to the original owner and all slaves were to be set free.

The whole point of these laws was to preserve the health and productivity of the soil to enable the people to enjoy good harvests each year. In the year preceding the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, God had promised that the yields would be plentiful to ensure enough food would be available when nothing was grown.

The purpose of the Jubilee Year was to ensure that property was not lost in perpetuity from an owner or family who might have been forced by circumstances to sell the land. Similarly, anyone who was forced by circumstances to serve another could see a time when his servitude would be ended and was therefore not facing a whole lifetime of working for another.

Shabbat - 3 May 2014 - Parashat Emor

The focus in this week's reading is on the cleanliness of both the offerings given in the sanctuary and of the person giving the offering. Nothing that is unclean, damaged, mutilated or in any way less than perfect in form and construction is acceptable, nor is any person who is in any state other than 'clean' allowed to offer a sacrifice. The whole reasoning behind these very detailed and all-embracing requirements is that: "You shall not desecrate my holy name. I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel. I am The Lord who sanctified you. Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be a God to you."

We then come to Chapter 23 in the book of Leviticus where we find a repeat of the laws of the Shabbat, of Pesach, and of the counting the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Succoth, plus various repeated laws of behaviour towards our fellow human beings, towards animals and the need to avoid any blasphemy of god's name.

Shabbat - 26 April 2014 - Parsha Kedoshim

With Pesach now over, we return to the regular cycle of weekly Torah readings. This week, the text begins with the precious words "You shall be holy for I The Lord your God am holy." This command to be holy is immediately followed by several commandments, some a repetition of the 10 commandments, interspersed with such requirements not to place a stumbling block before a blind person and not to curse a deaf person.

Further injunctions include not sowing fields with a mixture of crops, not commit 'lashon hara', ie gossiping, judging everyone fairly and perhaps the very well known requirement to love your neighbour like yourself. Perhaps less well known is the command not to tattoo your flesh, not to destroy the edge of your beard, to rise before a venerable person and respect the elderly. You shall use true weights and measures and you shall love e stranger amongst you because were once strangers in a foreign land in Egypt. There then follow the laws of morality and sexual propriety.

The reading ends as it began with a reminder that "you shall be holy to me for I The Lord and holy and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be mine".

Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach 2014

Because the Shabbat this week falls on one of the intermediate days of Pesach (Chol Hamoed Pesach) we take a break from the regular Torah reading and replace it with two special readings. The first is Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs.

Shir Hashirim is a somewhat earthy love story written in poetic style and supposedly written by King Solomon. Taken in its literal sense it is a love story telling of the love of a beautiful young girl for a king and her eventual betrothal to him. The wording, while always polite, borders occasionally on the erotic. Taken in a more allegorical sense this is the love between God and the Children of Israel. The engagement is seen as the departure from Egypt and the marriage is seen as the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

At one time there was doubt expressed that Shir Hashirim should be included in the Tanach because of its somewhat racy context, but Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Torah scholars of his age at a time when the content of the Tanach was being decided, argued that since the Torah defines the love between a man and a woman as sacred, so too is the love between Israel and God. Traditionally, since around the 8th century, Shir Hashirim has been read in synagogues on the Shabbat that falls during Pesach immediately before the reading of the Torah.

For the latter, we return to verses in the Parsha Ki Tissa that we read on 15 February. You can refer back to that week’s commentary in the ‘looking back’ web pages of the site.

Shabbat - 12 April 2014 - Parsha Acharei Mot

The reading this week keeps us firmly embedded in the laws and rituals of sacrifices but specifically the theme this week is actions taken on Yom Kippur. We start with the actions Aaron is required to make to atone for his own sins, for those of his family and for those of the whole people. Apart from even more sacrificing of bulls and dashing blood about the place, Aaron is required to take two male goats, one to be sacrificed to the Lord and one is designated ‘for Azazel’. Azazel is a high precipice over which the goat is to be sent, bearing the sins of the people. Aaron’s act of atoning for himself, his family and then the whole people that forms the basis of the ‘Avodah’ service that takes place on the afternoon of Yom Kippur in most traditional communities.

There then follows the injunction to observe Yom Kippur ‘It is an eternal statute that on the tenth day of the seventh month you shall ‘afflict’ yourselves for on this day the Lord will affect atonement for you and you shall be cleansed from all your sins’.

In the next section we find the very strict and repeated command not to eat blood ‘for the soul of the flesh is in the blood and the blood is for atoning of sins, therefore any who eat blood shall surely be cut off (from the people)’. In the varied laws of Kashrut this and the law not to eat Chametz during Pesach are the two that would lead to the offender being excommunicated from the people, so high is the priority for observing them.

As a complete departure from sacrifices et al, there now follows a full list of all the prohibitions on sexual relations. The phrase used is ‘you shall not uncover the nakedness of…’. Taken metaphorically this means not to have carnal relations with.., but it has also come to have a literal meaning of never seeing the person naked. This even applies after death where members of the Chevra Kadisha, when carrying out the Tahara preparation of the body for burial which involves washing and dressing it, will keep the body covered at all times to preserve the sanctity of the command not to see its nakedness. This whole passage on prohibited sexual relationships is read traditionally during the Mincha(afternoon) service on Yom Kippur.

Included in the list of sexual morality is the simple command ‘You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman; this is an abomination. Neither shall you cohabit with any animal.’ These phrases are interpreted as applying equally to men and women.

This Shabbat, immediately preceding Pesach, is also called Shabbat Hagadol (the great Sabbath). There are several reasons for this, but the most logical one offered by the rabbis of old is that it derives from the final sentence in the special Haftarah for this Shabbat taken from Malachi which reads ‘I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of “yom adonai hagadol v’hanora” the great and fearful day of the Lord’. Thus we have a reminder of the reference to Elijah during our Passover Seder and his role as the harbinger of the Messianic Age.

Shabbat - 5 April 2014 - Parsha Metzora

Because this Jewish year is a leap year, we have this week the single Torah portion of Metzora, which in years that are not leap years is coupled with last week’s Tazria portion. We are now in the month of Nisan which serves to remind us that Pesach is not far away and that we should start preparing for it.

The whole of the reading this week continues with the theme of cleansing impurities. The focus for much of it is on what an individual should do to become clean again. The ritual is very involved, very expensive in resources and takes a long time. For example, the need to bring two birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson wool and hyssop. Then after eight days, two male lambs, one female lamb, flour and olive oil.

There is much sprinkling and daubing of blood on body parts and clothing, shaving all bodily hair, immersing the whole body in water and staying outside of the domestic home for a number of days. Then there are compromise requirements for those who cannot afford to do the whole rituals, but even these require copious provision of animals or birds.

If all this is not enough, the reading then goes on to describe what to do if the house has blemishes and might be deemed to be unclean. Finally, we read about the less than savoury topic of unclean bodily discharges.

If you read some of the rabbis’ explanations then perhaps some of this makes sense for the biblical period when the laws were first declared. Most, if not all, of these cleansing processes have no literal relevance today, but the message they carry is very clear and very pertinent to today’s world: we should be aware of hygiene needs and meet them, we should seek to correct or avoid bad, rotting or infected foods, materials or buildings and we should pay attention to personal hygiene of every type and affecting all parts of our bodies.

Shabbat - 29 March 2014 - Parsha Tazria

Because this Jewish year is a leap year, we have this week the single Torah portion of Tazria, which in years that are not leap years is coupled with next week’s Metsorah portion. This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Hachodesh, the last of the four special shabbatot leading up to Pesach. Shabbat Hachodesh always falls on the Shabbat immediately before the month of Nisan and serves to remind us that Pesach is not far away and that we should start preparing for it.

The opening few verses of the reading this week deal with a woman’s rituals following childbirth to include a period of being seemed unclean, then becoming clean again through a purification procedure including attending mikvah, the ritual bathing. Here we also find the direct commandment that a male child be circumcised when 8 days old.

The whole of the remainder of this week’s Torah reading is devoted to impurities of the human flesh. If certain kinds of defects occur such as boils, scabs, burns, lesions, bald patches, swellings or discolouration, then the individual is required to go to a Kohen, a priest, who will determine whether the condition should be declared ‘tzara’ath’. If so, then the person is declared tamei or unclean and is then subjected to various quarantine and later purification processes before being declared fully healthy and clean again.

Some commentators have erroneously likened such skin conditions to leprosy. The latter may in the end be the diagnosis, but in general this whole process is designed to deal with any unusual or abnormal skin conditions.

The final few verses then refer to materials or clothing being declared tzara’ath if they suffer certain defects. Only sheep’s wool, linen and leather can be thus afflicted. Again the symptoms are discolouration or abnormal appearances and again the Kohen decides on whether the garment is tzara’ath and what should be done either to cleanse it or to burn it if that is not possible.

Shabbat - 22 March 2014 - Parsha Shemini

In the reading last week we learnt how Moses instructed Aaron and his sons in the rituals of the various sacrifices. This week we have a description of them actually carrying out these rituals while all the peoples are gathered before the tent of meeting starting with burnt offering, then moving on to a meal offering, the sin offering and the peace offering.

Having done all this, Aaron then blesses all the people. A heavenly fire then descends and consumes all the offerings. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, act contrary to God’s instructions by bringing an unauthorised fire. The heavenly fire then consumes them and they die. Moses then commands that Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, not undertake the normal mourning for their departed kinsmen because they are still covered in the holy anointing oil and still have tasks to perform in the sanctuary.

The final section of this week’s reading focusses on the laws of kashrut with a full list of what is and is not kosher among birds, animals, sea creatures and things that crawl, citing examples of permitted and forbidden foods. For example, animals must have both a cloven hoof and chew the cud. Thus we are permitted all in the bovine family. If an animal meets only one of these requirements or even none of them, that animal is forbidden to be eaten. Examples here include, horses, camels and, of course, swine. Not only should we not eat them, but we should not even touch their carcasses.

We may eat all creatures living in water – seas, oceans, rivers, lakes - the seas provided they have both fins and scales. Thus what is commonly referred to as ‘fish’ we may eat, but what is known as ‘shellfish’ or ‘seafood’ we may not eat. The Torah goes further by declaring such creatures an abomination to us.

There is then a long list of birds of the air all forbidden. These include, eagles, vultures, owls, herons, gulls, starlings, magpies and so the list goes on. This basically leaves us able to eat all poultry – hens, geese, ducks, turkeys.

Finally, we are told not to eat any creature that creeps or crawls on its belly or on paws on four legs and even on many legs. This therefore rules out virtually all insects, worms, slugs, termites, even though such creatures might be a great delicacy in some non-Jewish cultures.

God ends this section by saying why we should keep the laws of Kashrut: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy because I am holy. For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God”.

Shabbat - 15 March 2014 - Parsha Tsav

The detailed instructions concerning the korbanot, the sacrifices and offerings, form the majority of this week’s Torah reading. God tells Moses to command that Aaron and his sons carry out all the sacrifices in a certain manner. These include byurnt offerings, meal offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings and peace offerings.

Some of the sacrifices are to be wholly consumed in the fire on the altar, which, incidentally, God commands Moses to ensure that it burns continuously. Some of the offerings are partly burnt with Aaron and his sons permitted to eat the remainder.

Having completed these instructions, God then commands Moses to assemble all the people before the sanctuary. Once this is done, Moses dresses Aaron and his sons with the sacred garments we read about a few weeks ago, anoints them in oil and then begins to give them the detailed instructions on how to conduct the sacrifices. They remain for seven days in the sanctuary area while Moses initiates them into their priestly duties.

Shabbat - 8 March 2014 - Parsha Vayikra

With the Mishkan now fully built, all the priestly clothing made and God’s presence seen and felt in the Sanctuary by cloud in the daytime and fire at night, this week’s Torah reading turns to the details of the sacrifices that the Kohen Gadol and his helpers should conduct. The burnt offerings involved a young bull if using cattle, a young ram if using sheep and a turtle dove if using birds. The Torah goes into great detail as to how the animal should be slaughtered and dissected before being burnt on the altar.

If the sacrifice, on the other hand, was a meal offering then it should consist of fine flour, and if already baked, of unleavened bread. There then follows further rules as to how the meal offering should be brought. A peace offering and a fire offering could consist of cattle, sheep or goats, all unblemished and all slaughtered at the entrance to the sanctuary and in each case the blood scattered on the altar. It is here we read the commandment throughout our generations not to eat any blood, which gives rise to the rules for preparing kosher meat.

Next comes the sin offering to expiate the fact that someone may have sinned by transgressing one of the commandments. The slaughtering ritual is similarly described in detail as for the previous offerings. Similarly, if one knows of a sin and has a sense of guilt about it, then a guilt offering is brought.

Some of these offerings were to be wholly consumed in the process of making the sacrifice and others only partly used, the remainder being the food eaten by the Kohen Gadol and the Levites since they would not inherit any land and would not therefore grow their own foods.

Shabbat - 1 March 2014 - Parsha Pekudei

The whole of this week’s reading is devoted to the actual construction of the Mishkan. This is the last of 5 weekly Torah readings that have been all about the creation of the sanctuary, its many artefacts and the holy garments worn by the priests.

The opening verses list the actual amounts, measures and weights of the materials used. One statistic of interest is that altogether they collected 1775 shekels of silver. Remembering that this silver comprised the half shekels for the sanctuary given by those men able to take up arms, this meant that altogether there were 3550 men able to fight for the people. However, things are not so simple because the rabbis tell us that the Shekel for the Sanctuary was not the same as an ordinary shekel being twice its worth. So perhaps something over 7000 would have been counted for the army. There is also reference here to the total of 603,550 people altogether in the host.

Last week’s reading detailed the construction of the Sanctuary. This week the focus is on the making of the priestly garments with the description of each given in the closest detail. With this work done, all the building, sewing, weaving, engraving and other artistry is completed and the whole brought to Moses who blesses all involved.

God now commands Moses to assemble the whole sanctuary on the first day of the first month (Nissan) and to anoint it with the holy oils, and to dress Aaron and his sons in the holy garments. The whole sanctuary and all that is needed to serve God and all who are called upon to serve God are now ready for this purpose. God enters the Sanctuary in a cloud by day and fire by night. While God rests in the sanctuary the people remain in camp. When the cloud (or fire at night) is lifted the people break camp and move on guided by the cloud during the day and the fire by night.

Shabbat - 22 February 2014 - Parsha Vayakel

The Torah reading this week takes us back to the construction of the Mishkan that we read about in detail in Parsha Terumah. Then, we read how God had commended Moses concerning the detailed design parameters of the building, plus the many different materials and craftsmanship to be used. Now, we read about the actual construction.

But before any work is started, God reminds the people that, despite the amount of work to be done, they should not work on Shabbat. Six days they can work, but the seventh is to be a day of complete rest to the Lord. There is here also the additional commandment not to kindle any fire on the Sabbath.

The people are then commanded to gather the various materials, precious stones, gold, silver, acacia wood and all the rest. Such was their enthusiasm that after a while more than enough materials had been gathered and Moses had to order the people not to bring more.

Moses then points out to the people the master craftsman, Bezalel, son of Uri, of the tribe of Judah. Bezalel is imbued with the spirit of God, with wisdom and insight and knowledge and with the talents of various craft skills such as weaving, working with precious metals, engraving stones and crafting wood. Bezalel would have overall oversight of all the work, assisted by Oholiab, son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. These two would then teach others who had skills so that the whole workforce would be imbued with the spirit of God and would have the relevant skills to complete even the most demanding and complex of the designs.

Shabbat - 15 February 2014 - Parsha Ki Tisa

Two weeks ago we read about the construction of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. Last week we were involved with the detailed design of the clothing Aaron and his brothers should wear as they ministered to God in the Aron Kodesh. This week’s reading starts with counting all who are of age to fight for the defence of the people. Rather than count heads, God commands Moses to order every male aged 20 and upwards to bring half a shekel coin as a donation towards the building of the Mishkan. Thus, counting the coins would reveal how many were able to be called to arms.

There then follows a detailed description of how to make a special holy oil. Materials used were to be fragrant spices, cinnamon, fragrant cane, cassia all mixed with holy olive oil. This special mixture was to be used to anoint the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, and the Aron Ha’eydut, the Ark of Testimony, plus all the accoutrements that go with them such as the tables, tools, menorah and altar, thus rendering the whole area a Kodesh Kedoshim, a Holy of Holies. In addition, Aaron and his sons were anointed with the oil to reinforce the holiness of their work within the sanctuary.

God reminds Moses that, despite the huge amount of work now to be undertaken to build the Ark, make the clothing and everything else described, no-one should break the Sabbath. God reiterates that the Sabbath ‘…is a sacred thing for you. …to make the Sabbath an everlasting Covenant throughout your generations.’

A bit confusingly, the next section of the Torah reading describes the whole episode of the making of the Golden Calf. The confusion arises because, the construction of the Ark and so on took place well after the episode of the Golden Calf. All the detailed descriptions we had been reading over the past two weeks were in fact the instructions God gave Moses while he was up on Mount Sinai.

Before departing for the mountain, Moses had warned the people that he would be away for 40 days. The episode of the Golden Calf should really begin, in true novella format, with the opening.. ”Meanwhile, back at the foot of the mountain…” Here the people became impatient and anxious and cried out for an alternative god to worship because Moses was clearly not going to return. The rabbis interpret this whole episode as being the work of Satan and that Aaron did his best to delay proceedings being fully confident that Moses would return.

“Meanwhile, back up on the mountain…” God tells Moses to return immediately because the people were committing idol-worship. Moses descends carrying the two tablets of stone on which the commandments were written. On seeing the sacrilegious behaviour of the people, Moses dashes the tablets to the ground destroying them. He now calls all those who were with him to step forth. The whole tribe of Levi did so, thus establishing the total loyalty of this tribe to God and their subsequent allocation of duty to serve in the Temple. Moses also returns to the mountain to plead with God not to destroy the people calling on God to remember the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God accepts Moses’s plea, but even so warns that many of the people will die for their apostasy.

God then orders Moses to hew two new stones upon which he will re-write the commandments. Moses ascends the mountain once again with the stones and falls on his face in wonder at the presence of God uttering the words very familiar to us as we use them frequently during the High Holydays services, ‘Adonai, Adonai Eyl Rachum v’Chanun, Erech Apayim v’Rav Chesed v’Emet’.

The Torah portion ends with Moses’s return to the people carrying the two new stones engraved with the ten commandments.

Shabbat - 8 February 2014 - Parshah Tetsaveh

The Torah reading this week opens with the commandment of the Ner Tamid, the requirement for a perpetual flame to be burning in the sanctuary. Then it was made of olive oil; today we use an electric light which is left on permanently over the Ark.

After last week’s closely detailed description of the building of the Ark, this week attention is turned to the clothes that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, should wear. At this time Aaron was the Kohen Gadol. The garments included a tunic, a robe, a cap, breeches, sashes, girdles, straps. The materials had to be of fine linen and wools, coloured gold, blue, purple and crimson. The garments had to be made by master weavers so that they were of the best quality. These garments were to be holy garments to sanctify the High Priest as he served God.

Placed on the tunic were two stones of onyx upon which were inscribed all the 12 names of the tribes of Israel (Joseph’s name was inscribed rather than Ephraim and Menasseh). The purpose here was twofold: first to remind the Kohen Gadol that he was the representative of all the people when he ministered to God and secondly to remind the people that they were being brought into the presence of God through the High priest.

Atop these garments would be a special overtunic in which would be set four rows of three stones, one each for the tribes of Israel with the whole held in place by chains and rings made of gold. ‘Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the people over his heart as he enters the Aron Hakodesh before the Lord’.

The robe was made of pure blue wool adorned with embroidered pomegranates of blue, purple and crimson wool plus bells made of gold so that Aaron shall be heard as he entered and left the sanctuary. Garments were also to be made for Aaron’s four sons so that they could be suitably attired as they assisted Aaron.

Having described the clothing, God now commands Moses to dress Aaron and his sons in them, and then slaughter a bull and a ram at the entrance to the sanctuary and use the two animals as burnt offerings having duly sprinkled blood round about the altar. They should then take a second ram, slaughter it and this time daub the blood on Aarons ear and hands and on those of his sons before using the ram as a wave offering and a sin offering.

This process, which seems rather bizarre in today’s judgement, was seen then as a process whereby Aaron and his sons (and priests of later generations) were spiritually sanctified and made holy. It also served to make extra special the holiness of the sanctuary and the exclusiveness of those who may approach it. As the Torah says: I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting, and I will sanctify Aaron and his sins to serve me. I will dwell in the midst of the people and I will be their God.

Shabbat - 1 February 2014 - Parshah Terumah

The reading from the Torah this week focusses mainly on the construction of the Mishkan, the Ark, and all its attendant trappings. In each verse we find very detailed explanations of what materials to use, the design of every aspect, the dimensions of everything, how every part is to be fitted with other parts designed to build the whole entity.

Apart from the Ark itself in which God’s testimony was to be placed, there were curtains and clasps, cherubim, ark cover, oil lamps, poles and rings, a table, a crown, spoons, pipes, a 7-branch menorah, tongs, scoops, a roof, planks and sockets, pillars, screens, an altar, pots, shovels and hooks. Materials used included gold, silver, copper, wool, goat’s hair, linen, ram skins, leather, acacia wood, dyes, oils, spices, incense, stones and embroidery.

The purpose of this whole structure was two-fold: first, it was to be a place where Moses was ordered to place God’s testimony; second, it was a place where God would come to speak with the people and give His instructions through the Kohen Gadol. In other words, the ark and all the paraphernalia that went with it became the symbol of God’s presence among the people as they travelled through the desert regions over the coming 40 years.

Shabbat - 25 January 2014 - Parshah Mishpatim

Having received the Ten Commandments in last week’s Torah reading, the people now learn a whole set of seemingly ‘ordinary’ laws or more accurately ordinances (mishpatim). They concern, for example, the treatment and freeing of slaves, acts worthy of the death penalty such as striking someone causing death, or planning someone’s murder, or striking a parent, or kidnapping a person.

Then come the laws on compensation. They contain perhaps one of the most misinterpreted statements in the Torah, often used by non-Jews to accuse Jews of vengeful actions. ..nefesh tachat Nefesh, ayin tachat ayin, shayn tachat shayn, yad tachat yad, regel tachat regel. ..a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot. The Torah continues with the list: a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.

In the various rabbinic commentaries (which non-Jews rarely consult to obtain a true understanding of these statements) the common theme is that these stipulations were never meant literally. Instead, what the Torah is teaching us is that for every injury the injured person should receive compensation commensurate with that injury, nothing less, but equally, nothing more either. How a value was placed on a burn, a bruise, the loss of a hand and so on was up to the elders sitting in judgement (there were no rabbis at this time in the history of the people). The Torah then sets out various examples of how compensation should be estimated according to the circumstances.

The next set of laws have no apparent theme or connection. For example, the law concerning the seduction of a virgin is followed by the law forbidding allowing a sorceress to live, which in turn is followed by the law forbidding humans to lie carnally with animals, followed immediately by the law forbidding making sacrifices to any gods, only to God alone.

Laws of kindly treatment of strangers, widows and orphans are followed by rules about how money or other possessions should be lent fairly. These in turn are followed by laws on redeeming first born, on not bearing false witness, on respecting judges, on perverting justice, on bribery and corruption and so the list continues. Then we read a reminder to observe the festivals of unleavened bread, of Shavuot.

Then comes a complete break from law-giving as God warns the people that He will send a messenger, an angel, to guard them on their travels and to bring them to places that God ordains. In these travels the people will meet many different nations – Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites and the like – and shall defeat them all. God further warns the people not to be tempted to worship the gods of any of these nations, but instead to destroy all artefacts used to worship them.

The final verses in this week’s reading focus on God’s call to Moses to ascend the mountain. “Come up to me to the mountain and remain there, and I will give you stone tablets, the Law and the Commandments, which I have written to instruct them”. So Moses went up onto Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights.

Shabbat - 18 January 2014 - Parshah Yitro

After the events described on a grand scale in last week’s Torah reading, the Parsha this week opens on a more domestic and intimate scene that describes the visit to Moses by his father-in-law, Jethro. The latter watches Moses during a whole day when Moses is approached by people bringing all sorts of problems, questions, issues and concerns for Moses to resolve. Jethro tells Moses that such a process “..is not good. You will surely wear yourself out and these people with you”. Bearing in mind that there are over 600,000 people in the serried ranks, this is a significant understatement.

Jethro advises Moses to appoint leaders over 1000s, over 100s, over 50s and over 10s. Such leaders can deal with all minor problems, freeing Moses to deal with only those of major importance. Moses sees the wisdom in such advice and does as Jethro suggests. Jethro then departs and travels back to his own land.

The Torah next relates how, in the third month since leaving Egypt, the people arrive in the desert of Sinai and make camp opposite Mount Sinai. Moses ascends the mountain where God issues his direct covenantal promise and where the concept is mentioned for the first time in the Torah that the people will become a ‘Chosen Nation’ if they fulfil their side of the agreement. He tells Moses to instruct the people as follows: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and how I brought you to me. If you obey me and keep my commandments, you shall be to me a treasure among all peoples; you shall be to me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.”

Moses returns to the people, calls the elders and tells them everything God had said. The peoples’ response is: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” This is one of the core statements that shows how Judaism became more a religion of action than of simple faith and belief. Moses returns to God to explain that the people have accepted the agreement. God then instructs Moses to tell the people the he (God) will come to the people so that they may hear when he speaks to Moses. The people are to prepare for two days because on the third day God will descend onto the mountain in thick cloud and fire to the accompaniment of blasts on the shofar. And thus did it come to pass.

With all the people gathered at the foot of the mountain with strict instructions not to set foot on the mountain at pain of death, Moses ascends once more to God who is now atop the mountain. Here God gives Moses the 10 Commandments. In many communities it is customary to stand during the reciting of the 10 Commandments, but this was not always so. Many sages of the past banned this practice stating that detractors of Judaism would claim that we ascribed greater importance to the 10 Commandments than to the rest of the Torah. This view prevails less today, where the argument for standing is based on the reverence paid to such a central tenet of Judaism that has now passed into most other faiths and social orders.

The Torah reading ends with God’s warning to the people to make no graven images of God. The only thing people should do is make an altar of earth whenever there is a need upon which to place burnt offerings and peace offerings.

Shabbat - 11 January 2014 - Parshah Beshallach

The Torah portion this week starts with Moses leading the people out of Egypt, but God sends them a roundabout route via the Red Sea rather than directly through the land of the Philistines ‘lest the people see war and seek to return to Egypt’. To guide their path God provides a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Meanwhile, God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart once again and the Egyptians set off in pursuit with 600 chariots thinking that the people are trapped between the desert and the Red Sea. As the forces of Egypt advance on the people they cry out in anguish and utter the first of many accusations against Moses that he was leading them to a worse situation than they had had in Egypt and that they would rather have stayed as slaves. Moses tells them that God will save them, but they should remain silent and stop complaining.

God then tells Moses to stretch his hand out over the sea and it will become divided so that the people can pass through on dry land. He also causes cloud and darkness to persist between the Egyptians and the people so that the latter can make their escape. Bearing in mind that there were over 600,000 of them plus all their animals and possessions, this must have taken a very long time to complete.

As the Egyptians finally set off in pursuit, God further hinders their progress by making the wheels fall off the chariots and by making their progress very slow and laboured. God now orders Moses to raise his hand once again over the waters such that the sea engulfs all the Egyptian host and not one of them survives. The people see this great miracle and example of God’s power and intent to save them and they finally believe in God and in Moses, at least for now.

As a reaction to these events, the people sing a song of celebration and praise to God that became known as Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea. One of the verses we say every day in our prayer services: Mi Chamocha Ba’eylim Adonai, Mi Kamocha Nedar Bakodesh, Nora T’hilot Osey Feyley. Who is like you among the powerful, Oh Lord? Who is like you, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome for praises, performing wonders!

They next come a place where the water is brackish and the people complain yet again. God tells Moses to cast wood into the water whereupon it becomes sweet. Moses then tells the people to stop complaining and to trust in the deliverance of God.

As the journey through the desert towards Sinai continues, so the people complain yet again this time that there is insufficient food and that they will starve. God therefore brings down manna from heaven each day, commanding each person to take only as much as he can eat and no more. Those who try to save some for the next day found that it had turned putrid. God also commands that they gather a double portion on the 6th day because the next day would be a day of rest when no manna would be found and there would be no need to go and gather any. Unlike on other days when any left over the next day became inedible, on the 7th day, the day of rest, the extra portion would remain edible. In this manner (excuse the pun) the people are introduced to the concept of Shabbat even before the giving of the Ten Commandments.

They now reach Rephidim where again there is little water and where yet again the people complain. God orders Moses to take his staff and strike a rock from which water will come. Moses does this and calls the place Merivah because of the quarrelling of the people.

The final verses of this Parsha describe how the tribe of Amalek comes to fight the people. Moses orders Joshua to take armed men to do battle with the Amalekites while he, Aaron and Hur, a companion of Moses from the tribe of Judah, stand atop a nearby hill. While Moses’s hands are aloft Joshua will prevail; should his hands be lowered, Amalek will prevail. Aaron on one side and Hur on the other hold Moses’s hands aloft allowing Joshua to win the battle.

Shabbat - 4 January 2014 - Parshah Bo

This week we continue the story of the plagues visited by God upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian people and lands. Last week we read about seven of the plagues. We begin this week with the plague of locusts followed by the plague of utter darkness. After each of these God continues to harden Pharaoh's heart and he refuses to give the Jews their freedom. Equally, while every one of these nine plagues had affected the whole land and population of Egypt, none of them had affected the Jewish nation living in the land of Goshen.

Now came the final plague that of the slaying of the first born of both man and beast throughout the land. In this case, God instructs Moses to tell the Jews to take certain precautions. First, to prepare themselves for immediate departure by gathering their possessions, animals, riches and household goods, then by baking unleavened bread as here would not be time to make normal bread. Finally, the people should daub the lintels and door posts of their dwellings with the blood of a lamb because the Angel of Death would visit every home in the land, but would pass over the houses where the blood was daubed as the blood would be evidence of a Jewish home.

Faced with this disaster, Pharaoh finally relents and allows the people to leave. The Torah records that the people had dwelt in Egypt since the days of Joseph some 430 years. In Joseph's day the Torah records that the family of Jacob comprised 70 souls. Now Moses leads over 600,000 out of the land, they, their cattle and all that they possessed.

God also proclaims that the people should observe he commemoration of their departure from Egypt throughout their generations and here we read passages and phrases that are familiar from reading them in the Haggadah every year.

Shabbat - 28 December 2013 - Parshah Vaera

At the start of this week's reading God reminds Moses again of his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would bring the people out of Egypt to a land promised to them. Moses in turn explains this to the people but they are too burdened by their labours to hear or even understand what Moses was saying. God then tells Moses to go to Pharaoh, but again Moses expresses doubts as to his ability to make Pharaoh listen since he (Moses) is 'of closed lips', another implication of his speech impediment.

There now follows one of those puzzling breaks in the narrative as the reading switches to a listing of the families within the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Levi and their immediate descendants, but no mention is made of the other 9 tribes. In this section we learn how both Moses and Aaron are from the house of Levi since one of Levi's sons was Kehath, who in turn had a son, Amram, who was the father of Moses and Aaron. There is yet another repeat of God telling Moses to go to Pharaoh and Moses saying he would not be listened to because of his poor speech. God replies that he has made Moses a lord over Pharaoh and that Aaron will be the spokesman.

Finally, the two go to Pharaoh and we witness the first of the plagues as, following God's instructions, Moses orders Aaron to strike his staff upon the ground whereupon it is turned into a serpent. But Pharaoh's magicians do a similar trick such that Pharaoh is not impressed with the presumed power of God. Next Aaron strikes the waters of the Nile such that the river turns to blood. Indeed, all the waters in the land turn to blood. Again, Pharaoh's necromancers achieve a similar result with their magic and again Pharaoh's heart is hardened. Now comes the plague of frogs and again Pharaoh's tricksters perform a similar magical act.

Moses persuades God to remove the frogs, but Pharaoh hardens his heart once more. Once again Aaron does the business with his staff this time striking the ground to produce lice that swarm everywhere. When Pharaoh's magicians try to emulate this piece of magic they could not. Even so Pharaoh refuses to let the people go. Now comes the plague of 'noxious beasts' to quote the translation. By these the Torah means locusts and similar swarming beasts that destroyed crops and infested homes. Pharaoh at last relents and promises to let the people go three days journey from Egypt to sacrifice to God in the desert. Moses implores Pharaoh to stop teasing and honour his promise to let them go, but once again Pharaoh reneges on his promise.

Now we come to the plague that is a sickness that kills all the livestock of the Egyptians, their cattle, donkeys, sheep, horses and camels. However, all the animals owned by the Jews are not affected. Despite this, Pharaoh remains obdurate and refuses to release the people. This is followed by the plague of boils created when Moses, under God's direction, takes soot and throws it in the air. The soot turns into boils that affect all Egyptian people and animals, but not one of the Jews was affected. Pharaoh remains impassive to this disaster and the Jews are prevented once again from leaving.

Each successive plague has been more horrible to the individual and more destructive to the land and the livestock. Yet the next plague tops them all. God orders Moses to raise his staff towards the heavens whereupon hail of such destructive force falls upon the land killing every living thing it touches, both man, beast, trees, crops and vegetation, but, as the Torah puts it, none falls on the Land of Goshen where the Jews are living.

Despite all these calamities befalling the land, Pharaoh still hardens his heart and we leave this week's Torah reading with the people still waiting their release from slavery.

Shabbat - 21 December 2013 - Parshah Shemot

After reminding us of who went down into Egypt with Jacob, this week’s reading jumps a century or two and offers words filled with foreboding “And there arose a new king in Egypt who knew not Joseph”. Thus begins the long and tortuous story of our people suffering under Pharaoh and their eventual exodus from Egypt.

It all begins with the Egyptians fearing the size of the Jewish people and the concern that they might side with any enemy during a war. So, as we read in the Haggadah, they embittered their lives with hard labour forcing them to build store houses and all kinds of work in the fields. Even this does not stop the Jewish nation increasing in size, so Pharaoh issues an edict to midwives that any male child born to a Jewish mother should be killed, but any female may be allowed to live. Happily, the midwives tasked with this terrible order, have a greater fear of God and do not obey the order. So Pharaoh orders all the people to throw any Jewish male baby into the Nile, but allow any baby girl to live.

The story now moves to the birth of Moses, describing how his mother hides him in the bulrushes to avoid Pharaoh’s decree, how he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought up in Pharaoh’s household. As a young man, Moses is aware of his heritage and when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster striking a Hebrew salve, Moses kills the Egyptian. Initially, Moses is satisfied that no-one had seen this incident, but when he later tries to stop an argument between two Hebrews, one asks if he (Moses) intends to kill him as he had done the Egyptian. Moses now realises that his deed is generally known. Indeed, on hearing of it, Pharaoh wants to kill Moses, so the latter flees to the land of Midian.

In Midian, the chief, Reuel (also known as Jethro), has seven daughters who tend sheep. Moses helps them to water their animals and is invited into Reuel’s house. There he marries Zipporah and has a son, Gershon.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the Hebrews continue to suffer terribly under a new Pharaoh. God now hears their cry, remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and seeks to help them. Moses is pasturing sheep on Mount Horeb when God appears to him in the famous incident of the burning bush that is not consumed by the fire. God orders Moses to return to Egypt to plead with Pharaoh to release the captive Hebrew slaves. Moses initially questions his ability to undertake such a task using the excuse that no-one will believe him or afford him any credibility, but God assures him that the task is really his (God’s) and that Moses is merely the instrument through which he will achieve it. Moses then asks, who shall I say sent me, at which God gives the famous enigmatic answer “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” (I will be what I will be).

God tells Moses to say to the elders of the Jewish people that he has seen their suffering and that he will bring them out of Egypt to a promised land flowing with milk and honey. God warns Moses that Pharaoh will not agree to let the people go, but God will display his mighty power and eventually Pharaoh will agree.

Moses tries once more to avoid this huge responsibility by claiming that he is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue”, which rabbis interpret as meaning that he suffered from stammering. God’s reply is simple: “Who gave you the mouth? Is it not I?” God then assures him that he (God) will be his mouth and will instruct him what to say.

Moses therefore returns to Egypt, meets his brother Aaron, persuades the people to accept him as their leader and confronts Pharaoh for the first time.

Shabbat - 14 December 2013 - Parshah Vayechi

In this week’s Torah reading we come to the end of both Jacob and Joseph’s lives. As was typical at such a time, the dying elder seeks to give his blessing to the next generation. First , Joseph brings his two sons to see Jacob. Manasseh was the eldest and Ephraim the youngest yet Jacob deliberately places his right hand – normally honouring the first-born – on Ephraim’s head. Jacob turns aside Joseph’s attempt to correct this saying that the younger brother will become a greater nation than the elder brother.

Jacob then utters the words that every Jewish father by custom blesses his sons each Shabbat saying “Y’simcha elohim kefraim v’kim’nasseh” “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”. He raises the status of the two brothers to that of his own 12 sons in that they will become the progenitors of tribes of Israel. Jacob then asks that he be buried not in Egypt, but in the land of his forefathers, in the Cave of Machpeleh.

After this, Jacob calls all his sons to him to give them his blessing, to foretell what will become of them and how they will be judged and to assign to each his role as a tribe: Judah will produce leaders, legislators and kings; priests will come from Levi, scholars from Issachar, seafarers from Zebulun, schoolteachers from Simeon, soldiers from Gad, judges from Dan, olive-growers from Asher, and so on. Reuben is rebuked for “confusing his father’s marriage bed”; Simeon and Levi, for the massacre of Shechem and the plot against Joseph. Naphtali is granted the swiftness of a deer, Benjamin the ferociousness of a wolf, and Joseph is blessed with beauty and fertility.

After Jacob’s death at the age of 147, Joseph seeks Pharaoh’s permission to fulfil his father’s request and bury him in the Land of Canaan. Pharaoh readily agrees and even sends elders from Egypt to accompany them as the whole family of Jacob take their father to the Cave of Machpeleh to bury him there alongside Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca and Jacob’s first wife, Leah.

When they all return to Egypt, Joseph’s brother fear that Joseph will now take revenge for their evil wrongdoing so long ago when they first plotted to kill Joseph and then later sold him into slavery in Egypt. But Joseph reassures them that he wishes them no ill since it had been God’s design all along so that the people Israel could be saved and protected.

Now it is time for Joseph to die aged 110. Just before he passes away he reassures his family that God will remember them and not leave them in Egypt, but take them up to a land that he had sworn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Shabbat - 7 December 2013 - Parshah Vayigash

At the end of last week’s Torah reading, the ten sons of Jacob had returned to Egypt with the youngest brother, Benjamin, to seek more food because of the famine. Joseph had again not revealed his true identity and had played further tricks on the brothers. As they left for home with more grain, Joseph had arranged for a wine goblet to be hidden in Benjamin’s baggage. Shortly after their departure Joseph had then had the brothers pursued, the goblet found and the brothers and brought back to his presence to explain their actions.

This week’s reading begins with Judah as spokesman explaining to Joseph all the events that had led to the present situation stressing the fact that the father, Jacob, had been very reluctant for Benjamin to make the journey since his other brother (never named, but obviously Joseph) had been lost presumably devoured by wild animals. Judah pleads with Joseph to allow him (Judah) to remain in Egypt despite the goblet being found in Benjamin’s baggage as it would break his father’s heart if Benjamin failed to return.

Joseph could contain himself no longer. He sends all the household staff out of the room and then reveals his true identity to his brothers. He tells them not to be troubled by the fact that they had sold him into slavery “… for it had been God’s will to send me before you to preserve life”. He further explained that only two of the seven years of famine were over; God would make them a remnant in Egypt to preserve for them a great deliverance.

He therefore tells them to return to Canaan to bring his father and all their families to live in the land of Goshen (an area in northern Egypt with especially rich soil suitable for arable and cattle farming). When Pharaoh hears that Joseph’s kin were in Egypt, he orders that they be given the best of everything and that they would be welcome to live in Egypt. So the brothers return to Jacob, whose spirit is lifted by the news that Joseph is not only alive, but is now second only to Pharaoh in Egypt.

So Jacob and his whole family depart for Egypt. En route, they stop in Beer Sheva where God appears to Jacob in a vision to tell Jacob not to be afraid to go to Egypt for there he will become a great nation. There then follows the names of all the families of the sons of Jacob such that 66 souls descended into Egypt. Together with Joseph’s family there were altogether 70 souls in Jacob’s family in Egypt. The Torah reading ends with the simple statement “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly.”

Shabbat - 30 November 2013 - Parshah Mikeitz

We continue inn this week’s Torah reading with the story of Joseph’s life in Egypt. The opening verses describe two dreams that Pharaoh has. In the first he sees seven healthy cows being consumed by seven mean and ugly cows. The second dream is similar; he sees seven healthy ears of grain growing on a stalk. Nearby are seven weedy, thin ears of grain that swallow up the healthy ears.

Pharaoh is greatly troubled by these two dreams. The next morning he calls for all the sages, necromancers and other dealers in spirits to tell him the meaning of the dreams, but none of them is able to interpret them. At this point Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers meeting Joseph in prison when the latter had interpreted accurately the dream he had that foretold his release from prison. Joseph is immediately summoned.

Pharaoh demands that Joseph interpret his two dreams, but Joseph explains that God, not he, will give Pharaoh the answer. Pharaoh describes both dreams and Joseph immediately explains that the two dreams are in reality one dream with one message. The seven healthy cows and the seven healthy ears of corn represent seven years of plenty within the land. The seven thin cows and seven meagre ears of grain foretell seven years of famine in the land.

Joseph further advises Pharaoh that the two dreams telling the same message indicate God’s intention to hasten this prophesy. He advises Pharaoh that the land will be destroyed if he fails to appoint someone to oversee and make adequate preparation during the years of plenty to support the land during the years of famine. Pharaoh immediately appoints Joseph to this position making him second only to Pharaoh in the land.

During the seven years of plenty Joseph arranges for storehouses to be filled with grain and other produce to support the land during the coming years of famine. Also in this period he takes Asenath as his wife and she gives birth to two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

The famine, when it came, was not just in Egypt but in nearby lands as well. In Egypt Joseph was able to feed the people by careful issue of grain from the storehouses. The scene now switches to Canaan and to Jacob and his household. Jacob learns that he can get grain from Egypt and sends ten of his sons there to buy food. Benjamin he keeps with him because the latter, being his youngest born and the direct brother of Joseph (Rachel being the mother, who died in childbirth when Benjamin was born), Jacob could not bear the thought of losing Benjamin, too, should anything befall him on the journey.

On arrival in Egypt, Joseph immediately recognises his brothers, but ensures that they do not recognise him. He now engages in a series of tricks and deceitful actions to test the fortitude of his brothers. He accuses them of being spies despite their protestations to the contrary. They explain that they are ten of twelve brothers, one being at home and the other ‘lost’. Joseph demands that they bring the youngest to him and, as surety, insists that one of them remains as hostage while they return to fetch the youngest brother.

Leaving Simeon behind as hostage they return to Jacob bringing with them grain to feed their family. Without their knowing, however, Joseph also secreted in their baggage the money that they had used to buy the grain. Jacob is even more distressed. He has now lost Joseph and Simeon and the demand is that he sends Benjamin also to Egypt. The famine intensifies and there is need to return to Egypt for more food, but Reuben warns Jacob that they will not obtain any unless Benjamin goes with them. Jacob finally agrees and they return to Egypt with Benjamin. They also take double the money needed so that they can pay for the first grain collected as well as additional grain.

When Joseph learns that Benjamin is with them, he invites them to his house where the brothers are reunited with Simeon. He then orders his servants to load the donkeys of the brothers with food and to place their money once again in the sacks, but, in particular, he orders the servant to place a wine goblet in Benjamin’s sack.

The brothers set off again for home, but now Joseph orders them to be pursued, stopped and their baggage searched for a stolen wine goblet. The latter, of course, is found in Benjamin’s baggage and the brothers are all ordered back in fear and trepidation to Joseph’s presence. And in typical cliff-hanging tradition, the story ends here to be continued next week.

Shabbat - 23 November 2013 - Parshah Vayeshev

The Torah reading this week continues the rather sorry saga of Jacob and his dysfunctional family, this week focussing on Joseph. The story contains arrogance, cruelty, anger, deceit, plotting and intrigue, sexual temptation and prophesy.

At the start we learn of Joseph’s apparent arrogance in interpretingn two dreams he had that suggested that his brothers and even his parents would bow down to him. Much later of course this would prove to be the case, but at the time his attitude caused anger and resentment.

Initially the brothers plotted to kill Joseph, but Reuben persuaded them against this idea. Judah then saw a trader caravan en route to Egypt and suggested Joseph be sold into slavery instead for 20 pieces of silver.

To hide their cruelty from their father, Jacob, the brothers then played an even more cruel trick on their father. They took Joseph’s multi-coloured coat, stained it with animal blood and claimed that Joseph had been devoured by wild animals. Joseph had been Jacob’s particular favourite having been born in Jacob’s old age to Rachel, who had died during the birth. Jacob was thereby consumed with inconsolable grief.

The 4th Aliya digresses completely from Joseph’s story and concentrates instead on Judah and his family. Here again we read about rivalry, enmity, infertility, sexual deception and intrigue.

The tale then returns abruptly to Joseph who has been sold into the house of Potiphar, the Pharoah’s chamberlain. Joseph ‘found favour’ in God’s eyes and was successful in everything he did for the household. His success soon came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife. She pleaded with Joseph ‘to lie with her’, but Joseph refused to commit such a betrayal of his master, Potiphar. One day she and Joseph were alone in the house. She again propositioned him and again he refused, but this time as he fled from her presence, he left his coat behind. Angry at yet another rebuff, Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of attempted rape and Joseph was put in prison. Even here, he found favour in God’s eyes and prospered.

Also imprisoned with Joseph were Pharoah’s chief cupbearer and chief baker, both incarcerated for offenses they had committed against Pharoah. Each had a dream which Joseph interpreted. The cupbearer, Joseph prophesied, would be restored to his former position in Pharoah’s court, while the baker would be hanged. Both predictions came to pass. Joseph had asked the cupbearer to remember Joseph’s good deed and seek his release from prison, but the cupbearer forgot all about Joseph. The Torah portion ends with Joseph still languishing in prison.

Shabbat - 16 November 2013 - Parshah Vayishlach

The main story in this week’s Torah portion describes Jacob’s meeting with his brother Esau after 34 years apart. Messengers tell Jacob that Esau is approaching with 400 men. Jacob immediately suspects Esau as being violent and takes three different precautions. First, he prepares for conflict by dividing his camp into two in the hope that if Esau attacks one part of the camp, the other will escape. Secondly, he prays to God for deliverance and protection. Thirdly, he employs diplomacy by sending Esau gifts in advance of the meeting.

We then have the famous scene of the overnight struggle between Jacob and ‘a man’ who, so the commentators tell us, as an angel who was Esau’s guardian. Despite the long struggle, Jacob prevails and is told by the angel that God will change his name from Jacob to Israel. The root of the name Jacob is associated with the Hebrew word meaning trickery or deceit, a reference to how Jacob deceitfully acquired the birthright and blessing that Isaac should have bestowed on his first-born son, Esau. The name Israel, whose root implies a prince, denotes the acceptance of Jacob’s possession of these two gifts and a forgiveness on Esau’s part.

When the two brothers finally meet, there is no aggression, no war and no trouble. They agree that they should not unite as a family but each go separate ways in peace. This they do.

Later in the reading God formally bestows the name Israel on Jacob and repeats a promise made earlier in the Torah to be ‘be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a multitude of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall come forth from your loins’.

Shabbat - 9 November 2013 - Parshah Vayeitsei

The Torah portion this week continues the story of the development of Jacob’s family and, to be honest, it reads like one of the lower classes of soap opera. It contains jealousies, intrigues, double-crossing, dubious sexual relationships, infertility cures and deceit.

The first reading starts quietly enough with the well-known description of Jacob dreaming of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. In the dream God promises Jacob that the land where he is lying will be given to him and his seed, that his seed shall be as the dust of the earth and through him shall all the families on earth be blessed.

In the next section Jacob meets Rachel, the younger sister of Leah, and contracts with her father Lavan to work for 7 years for Rachel’s hand in marriage, but at the end of this period Lavan deceives Jacob by sending Leah to him instead. Jacob then has to work a further 7 years if he is to marry Rachel.

Now come the intrigue and dubious sexual relationships. God saw that Leah was disliked so he ‘opened her womb’. Leah becomes the mother of Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Judah. But Rachel remained barren. She was jealous of her sister and wanted her own children. Because she could not conceive, she gave her maidservant, Bilhah, to Jacob. Bilhah becomes the mother of Dan and Naftali. By now, Leah had stopped bearing children. Not to be outdone, she gives her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob and Zilpah becomes the mother of Gad and Asher.

The plot thickens further. Rachel, still barren, sees Reuben, Leah’s son, harvest dudaim (also called mandrakes) which were a fruit seen as a cure for infertility. She asks Leah for the dudaim and, as payment, Leah insists that she sleeps once again with Jacob. She becomes the mother of two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and the only daughter of the generation, Dinah. Finally, God remembers Rachel and opens her womb with the result that she gives birth to Joseph.

Thus far we have 11 of the 12 tribes of Israel. Only later in a future Torah reading we will learn how Rachel gives birth to Benjamin after Joseph has been sold into slavery in Egypt. Just a final thought: we refer in our liturgy to the Matriarchs Sarah (wife of Abraham), Rebecca (wife of Isaac), Rachel and Leah (wives of Jacob), yet Bilhah and Zilpah, both maidservants, became the matriarchs to 4 of the 12 tribes. Why do we not honour them, too?

Shabbat - 2 November 2013 - Parshah Toledot

The Torah portion this week focuses on the discord and disputes within Isaac’s family. At the start of the reading Rebecca is pregnant with twins. God tells her that she will give birth to two nations, but the older will eventually serve the younger. First to be born is Esau, red of hair who will grow up to be a hunter. Then came Jacob holding on to Esau’s heel. Jacob was not hirsute and was destined to be a ‘dweller in tents’.

The story then jumps several years to a scene when Esau returns from hunting so exhausted that he cries out for pottage to give him sustenance. Jacob first demands that Esau sell him his birthright. The latter feels at the point of death and sees no value in owning a birthright and so readily agrees. Thus, the enmity and rivalry between the two brothers is established.

In the next section there is a sense of déjà vu as Isaac and his family are forced by famine to move to Philistine where, just like Abraham in Egypt under similar circumstances, Isaac denies that Rebecca is his wife claiming instead that she is his sister for fear of his life. When the deceit is discovered he is banished from the land.

The spotlight next returns to the rivalry between Esau and Jacob, aided and abetted by Rebecca. Isaac is nearing the end of his life and wishes to bless his first-born son, Easu. He asks the latter to hunt for food so that he could have a final meal before bestowing his blessing on Esau. Rebecca hears of this and, while Esau is away, encourages Jacob to disguise himself as Esau by wearing hairy animal skins. Isaac, being by now almost blind, is fooled by the deception and bestows his blessing meant for Esau on Jacob. This blessing included the fact that nations would bow down to his seed and that he would be master over his brothers. “Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed”.

Quite understandably Esau is angry when he learns that Jacob has now deceitfully stolen his father’s blessing in addition to his taking his birthright by coercion. He vows to kill Jacob, so the Torah portion ends with Jacob running away back to Rebecca’s family to avoid Esau’s wrath.

Shabbat - 26 October 2013 - Parshah Chaye Sarah

Both the Torah and Haftara readings this week are about succession planning. The early verses describe how Avraham buys the cave of Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah, and subsequently other family members.

The bulk of the Torah reading describes how Avraham sends his servant, Eliezar, to find a bride for Isaac. Eliezar travels from Canaan to a region between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. There at a well, he assesses the attributes of the well visitors and identifies Rebecca as being the ideal wife for Isaac. Rebecca’s family agree to the proposal so Rebecca returns with Eliezar to Canaan and marries Isaac.

Towards the end of the reading, Avraham dies at the age of 175 and is buried by both his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, in the cave of Machpelah. Ishmael also dies aged 137 and is gathered to his people, but there is no mention of where he was buried.

In the Haftara reading, King David is coming to the end of his 40 year reign. Through the courage and foresight of Solomon’s mother, Batsheva, with the help of Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet, Solomon is ensured the succession and despite claims to the throne by Adoniahu.

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.



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