Mosaic is a unique Jewish Community - in that we offer at least three weekly and festival services from the Liberal, Masorti and Reform traditions. After our services we get together for joint kiddushim, and offer study sessions before or after some of our services.
29/30 July: Matot-Masei : Shabbat comes in 8:39 pm, ends 9:49 pm
Parashat Matot-Masei – Ḥannah’s Son and Yiftaḥ’s Daughter
This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, opens with laws about vows. If a man makes a vow, says the Torah, he must stick to it; if a woman makes a vow, the portion tells us that there are various situations in which her father or husband might be able to annul it (because, in the biblical era, women were considered the property of men). When we revisit this subject in Sefer D’varim (the Book of Deuteronomy), a note will be added that there is nothing wrong with refraining from ever saying a vow. When this topic is continued in the classical rabbinic literature in Masekhet Nedarim, an entire tractate dedicated to the laws of vows, a large portion of the tractate is dedicated to how to annul someone’s vow. And in the midst of that tractate is a most extraordinary teaching by Rabbi Natan, who says (Nedarim 20b): ‘The one who makes a vow, it is like he built a bamah (a forbidden altar); and one who fulfills his vow, it is like he offered a sacrifice upon it.’
It seems that these perspectives on vows are not positive. Vows are dangerous and best avoided. In one of the most famous cases of vows in the biblical era (Judges 11), we come across the story of Yiftaḥ, a man whose foolish vow (and inability to recognise the invalidity of such a vow) leads to the sacrifice of his own daughter.
However, if vows are so powerful and so dangerous, why does the Torah not declare them forbidden? Why allow us access to something with which we are clearly not to be trusted? Well, it turns out that we also have positive narratives of vows. At the very beginning of the First Book of Samuel, Ḥannah – who has been unable to bear a child – vows to the Divine that, should she be granted a son, she will dedicate him to live as a Nazirite. This is a clear vow which results in the birth of the Prophet Samuel, a highly important character in Israelite religious and political history. It seems that vows are dangerous, and the risk is great, but it is possible that sometimes that risk is worth taking.
The apprehension around vowing in our tradition comes down to a belief that vows are real, and our words have real impact on the world. Words created the universe and destroyed the Temple. Words brought life to the son of Ḥannah and death to the daughter of Yiftaḥ. Words can bind us and free us. And yet we live so loosely with our tongues. May we all learn to harness the power of language to create instead of destroy.
15/16 July: Balak : Shabbat comes in 8:57 pm, ends 10:12 pm
Parashat Balak – Curses into Blessings
In this week’s parashah, we meet a most unusual prophet. Bilaam is the only prophet of the Torah whose story is not deeply connected with the line of Abraham. Bilaam’s fame extends beyond even the Torah; he is remembered in the Deir Alla Inscription (dated to 880-770 BCE). According to the medieval commentator Abravanel, Bilaam’s incredible fame might help us understand the Divine’s decision to switch Bilaam’s curses for blessings.
In our story, when the foreign king Balak asks the prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam opens his mouth and out fall blessings. This wonderful story gives us the prayer that is often said upon entering into a synagogue (Numbers 24:5): Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisra’el – how goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel. However, the motivations of the Almighty have presented an issue for our commentators: surely God could simply ignore Bilaam’s attempts, and Bilaam’s curses would be empty and ineffective. Are we to believe that Bilaam has the power to curse the Israelites independently of the Almighty? Why does God not simply ignore Bilaam?
It is precisely Bilaam’s renown as a prophet that provides Abravanel’s understanding of the divine motivation for interrupting Bilaam’s efforts: the psychological effect of a curse. Bilaam’s power does not rest solely with the Divine, because there is significant psychological power in words. Bilaam’s words cannot remain with him on the mountaintop, as the words of the famous travel far and wide. Had the story gone differently, according to Abravanel, Bilaam’s curse would have empowered our enemies to attack. It stands to reason, too, that had the Israelites heard of the curse, they might have been emotionally weakened in a time that called for great courage.
We too live in a time that calls for great courage. The story of Bilaam is one of Divine blessings and prophetic curses, but it is also a story of the human power afforded to us all: the power to influence one another. May we all use that great power to bring blessings into the world.
1/2 July: Korach : Shabbat comes in 9:07 pm, ends 10:26 pm
Parashat Koracḥ – For Heaven’s Sake!
This week, we are reading about a very dramatic political challenge – hopefully only in the Torah, and not also in the newspapers. Parashat Koracḥ begins with the challenge of Koracḥ and his company to the leadership of our teacher Moses. Koracḥ and his company approach Moses with a challenge rooted in Torah itself: if the whole congregation is holy, as we’ve learnt from the Holy Blessed One, who is Moses to put himself above the community?
Koracḥ might have a point here. There is an interesting conversation to be had about the nature of power and leadership. Nonetheless, the narrative does not move in the direction of addressing Koracḥ’s question – instead, we see Koracḥ and his company issued a test, which concludes by way of violent divine intervention.
If you never read another page of Torah, or never opened the founding books of rabbinic literature, you might come to think that any challenge to the law – or, perhaps, any challenge to the leadership of Moses – is off the table. However, this does not appear to be the problem at hand. We know that argument is part of the lifeblood of Judaism. If you open the complicated pages of the Talmud, you will be met with layers and layers of dispute and disagreement. If you roll through the Torah, you will even find people arguing with God – and sometimes winning those arguments. If it’s acceptable for a person to challenge even God, then kal va-ḥomer – all the more so – it must be acceptable for a person to challenge Moses.
There are two points of comparison that I think are helpful in understanding the nature of challenge. The first can be read if you roll forward just a little to Parashat Pinḥas: five women, the daughters of a man called Tzelafḥad, approach Moses and the Israelite leadership and point out a gap in the inheritance laws. The original Torah laws of inheritance don’t account for situations like theirs, in which there are no men to inherit without the name of the deceased man being lost to the clan. In this case, Moses realises that the five women have a point, and goes to seek clarification from God. God then alters the law so that in such cases, daughters can inherit. This is a public challenge to the justice of the law, and it is taken seriously first by Moses (who takes the question to God), and then by God (who shifts the law to account for their case).
The other potential point of comparison with Koracḥ is explicitly brought in Pirkei Avot 5:17, in which a comparison is made between the maḥloket (the disagreement) of Koracḥ and the maḥloket of Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai are early sages renowned for their disagreements, and whose schools of students continued that tradition of disagreement for generations. According to Pirkei Avot, the dispute of Hillel and Shammai was maḥloket l’shem shamayim, dispute for the sake of Heaven, which Koraḥ’s dispute was decidedly not. When Hillel and Shammai argued, their primary purpose was to find truth. Koraḥ, on the other hand, was not interested in truth; he was interested in power. The question about holiness and equality was a tool that he used – and ironically, it was a tool that he used in order to gain the very power to which he disputed Moses having access.
The problem here is not about argument; it is about why we argue, and what we are bringing to the table when we do it. If we argue with one another for power, no matter how prettily we dress it up, the Torah teaches us that it will end in destruction. But if our disagreements come from a place of truth-seeking (like Hillel and Shammai) or justice-seeking (like the daughters of Tzelafḥad), then we have the opportunity to build together instead of tearing one another, and ourselves, down.
24/25 June: Shelach Lecha : Shabbat comes in 9:08 pm, ends 10:28 pm
Parashat Shelach-Lecha- Giants and Grasshoppers
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shelach-Lecha, we read about ten people experiencing dissonance of self-image and outside view. Ten of the twelve spies who are sent to scout out the Promised Land come back to report on a rather dire situation.
The people in the land are giants, they say – and furthermore (Numbers 13:33): ‘We were in
our own eyes like grasshoppers, and thus we were in their eyes.’ The ten spies were certain that they looked like grasshoppers to the inhabitants of the Land – but they were actually wrong. When we enter the Promised Land in the Book of Joshua, as our Haftarah this week is selected from, we’ll learn that the inhabitants of the land were afraid of us. So much for giants versus grasshoppers.
This week’s parashah births one of my favourite midrashim (pieces of creative
rabbinic interpretation). In this midrash (Midrash Tanḥuma, Shelacḥ 7), God responds to the
statement of the spies. God says that there could be forgiveness for the spies seeing
themselves as grasshoppers, but takes offence to their assumption that they looked like
grasshoppers to the inhabitants of the land. The Holy One says: ‘Who’s to say that I didn’t
make them look like angels?’
It strikes me that these are all statements about power and perception. The spies imagine themselves as grasshoppers: small, weak, easily stepped upon. They imagine that this is how they look to the giants (who are strong and tall and ready to squash them). God, however, turns this power on its head: it doesn’t matter how small an angel is; an angel’s power comes from somewhere other than brute strength.
How do we see ourselves? In the grand scheme of the world, do we envision ourselves as small and powerless, or as giants able to throw our weight around? I think that the lesson of the midrash deliberately inserts a new paradigm for strength: that it is possible for our strength to come from somewhere deep and holy, and that it is possible for others to see it in us when we feel easily squashed.
May we each find great inner strength, and learn to use our strength well.
17/18 June: Beha’alotecha : Shabbat comes in 9:06 pm, ends 10:27 pm
Parashat B’ha’alotecha: El Na R’fa Na Lah (Please, God, Please Heal Her)
Parashat B’ha’alotecha (‘When You Arise’) includes the story of Miriam’s illness,
which is a result of her speaking ill regarding Moses’s wife (though the text does not tell us
what Miriam’s criticism was, or indeed, if she was criticising the wife or Moses himself). As a
result of this illness, Moses turns to the Divine and utters a five-word prayer, translating
roughly to: Please, God; please heal her. It’s heartfelt and powerful, perhaps even more so
in the Hebrew, in which the monosyllabism is unusual.
This theme of falling from leadership, healing, and returning also plays out in the
Haftarah. In this section of the Book of Zechariah, the Israelites are readying themselves to
return to service in the rebuilt Temple, after returning from the Babylonian Exile. The prophet
describes a vision of a heavenly courtroom, arguing about the place of Joshua, the man in
line to be the High Priest. Standing as an accuser against Joshua is Satan. Another angel
stands at Joshua’s defence, and Joshua is clothed in filthy garments.
The argument of Satan seems to be this: Joshua is unfit to serve as High Priest,
because he is covered in sin (represented by the filthy garments). In response to this
argument, the Divine says: ‘Is this one not a brand plucked from fire?’ Joshua, the Divine
seems to be arguing, was brought here out of Babylonian exile, a place of oppression and
abuse. The angels then help Joshua to change into clean clothing, and the Holy One tells
Joshua that if he follows in God’s ways, Joshua will be able to serve in the Temple.
This is a fascinating story in the middle of a series of strange visions. Like Miriam,
Joshua is defended and argued for, and is able to move on from the wrongdoings that had
previously trapped him. It turns out that who we were in the past, the wrongdoings of our
histories, can be moved on from. We do not need to remain trapped there. But it takes work.
It takes t’shuvah. And it also takes understanding, learning, and growing.
These times have only gotten stranger as of late. We are reckoning with a history that might be akin to filthy garments that we are clothed in: a history of slavery, oppression, and prejudice, which has resulted in a modern society that is not fair and equitable for all. It’s up to us to remove those garments together. But in order to do so, we must first acknowledge that we are wearing them. El na, r’fa na lah. Please, God, help us to heal our world.
10/11 June: Nasso : Shabbat comes in 9:02 pm, ends 10:23 pm
Parashat Nasso – The Holy Sinner
The question around asceticism has been long-debated in our tradition, and does not come with a simple answer. There is perhaps no figure who represents that tension better than the Nazirite, who is described in this week’s Torah portion. The Nazirite was any individual who made a specific vow to refrain from wine and grape products, and from cutting his or her hair; the Nazirite was also obligated to remain an appropriate distance from a dead body, a rule that is otherwise applied to the kohanim (the priestly caste). This vow would stay in place for the time that the individual allotted, though we have cases of biblical characters who were lifelong Nazirites (such as Samson and Samuel). Throughout the duration of the vow, the Nazirite is described as being ‘holy to God’ (Numbers 6:8). This might be read as a tick in the column for asceticism; there is an option to deprive ourselves from otherwise permitted bodily experiences in order to increase our holiness. However, the description of the Nazirite concludes with the obligation to bring a sin offering when the term of service has been completed. The sin in question is not described. This has led our sages to question whether the taking of the Nazirite vow was in itself a sinful act. How is it, then, that taking the Nazirite vow can be both a holy act and a sin ? Our sages have traditionally fallen into two camps: either the Nazirite vow is holy (in which case the sin offering must be explained away), or the Nazirite is a sinner (in which case the holiness must be explained away). This argument is replayed multiple times in the Talmud (e.g. Ta’anit 11a), and remains unresolved. The specificity of the vow to refrain from wine and grape products is fascinating to me. The Nazirite is not asked to avoid all pleasures, but rather to avoid this one in particular, and with a great deal of depth. But wine is not a good symbol for ‘all pleasures’ in our tradition, because it is also used in religious rituals. In order to turn away from the pleasures associated with wine, the Nazirite must also turn away from the potential for holiness. I don’t know whether the Nazirite is supposed to be a sinner or a saint, but I suspect that the answer is both. Perhaps the point that the Nazirite is missing – the point that is best exemplified by the kiddush cup on Friday night – is that our call is not to transcend the physical world, but rather to elevate it.
3/4 June: Emor : Shabbat comes in 8:56 pm, ends 10:15 pm
Parashat B’midbar – Who Serves Whom?
Sefer B’midbar, the book entitled ‘In [the] wilderness [of Sinai]’, is otherwise known in English as the Book of Numbers. It gains this title due to the numbering of the people that takes up a large portion of the book. This census can seem puzzling partly due to its depth. We do not simply receive an overview of the numbers of individuals in each tribe, but rather a deep dive into the sections of those tribes, including lists of names that are enough to make the eyes lose focus.
To the leyener (those who chant from Torah), those lists of names can be a touch bothersome. Names do not follow the same grammatical rules as other parts of language, and many of these names do not turn up elsewhere; the sounds must simply be memorised. And though some of the names turn up in narrative areas of the Torah or in midrashim (creative rabbinic storytelling), this is not true for most of them. So why did the Torah record these lists of names, of individuals long gone from this world, whose stories are not remembered in our sacred texts?
One response to the above question is that the Torah is reminding us of the balance between the community and the individual. We may think of the generation of the wilderness as a whole – the revelation they experienced, the rebellions they partook in – but these names remind us that this community was made up of individuals. So too, for the Jewish people. We are a part of something that is much greater than ourselves, something that spans the world and reaches out across millenia. And we are also a community made up of individuals.
Now is an interesting time to call to mind the question: do individuals serve the community, or does the community serve individuals? The Torah’s response here, I believe, is that it must be both. We must be both givers and takers in order to participate fully in Jewish life.
13/14 May: Emor : Shabbat comes in 8:29 pm, ends 9:42 pm
Parashat Emor – Harvesters and Gleaners
‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am the Eternal your God.’ – Leviticus 23:22
If this statement feels eerily familiar to you, it might be because we read this law last week. Parashat Emor gives us the second version of the command to leave the corners of our fields for the needy, in almost identical wording to Parashat K’doshim. In fact, the first version of the commandment has slightly more information about our obligation – so why state it again?
The major difference between the two cases of this law is the context in which it appears. Parashat K’doshim, last week’s Torah reading, is largely a blueprint for an ethical society. It is a parashah interested in interpersonal relations and our obligations toward one another. It is, in a sense, the natural place to find such a rule. The second appearance of the obligation to leave the corners of the field for the needy – the version from this week’s Torah portion – comes as an interlude in a long passage regarding holy days and their associated sacrifices. This is not the natural place to find such a ruling!
The major connection between this obligation and the holy days is that many of the festivals are harvest festivals. These are times of the year that we are especially interested in what is happening in the fields. Furthermore, they are periods of time that are specifically intended to be joyous occasions. The context of this repetition can, therefore, serve to remind us that when we are busy and joyous, we are at high risk of overlooking the needs of the poor and the stranger.
Perhaps, this strange text can serve to remind us that this capacity for kindness still exists when life is ‘normal’, and when being busy and joyous draws our time and attention. Perhaps there is a great deal to be learnt from feeling like a gleaner instead of a harvester.
8/9 Apr: Metzora + Hagadol : Shabbat comes in 7:31 pm, ends 8:36 pm
Metzora: The Long Road Back to Normal
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, is about plagues. As well as detailing the affliction of tz’ra’at – the biblical skin disease often mistranslated as ‘leprosy’ – our parashah also details the process of healing and returning to the community. We read about the priest visiting the afflicted person outside the camp, how to declare them no longer unwell, and the ritual for re-entering the camp. It is such a weird and wonderful ritual (including dipping a live bird in blood and then setting it free) that it is easy to overlook this comment at the end of Lev. 14:8: “And he will dwell outside of his tent for seven days.” The commentators are a little confused by this statement. Does this mean that when the previously-stricken individual is back in the camp he may not enter his own tent, because he must avoid marital relations (Rashi)? Or is it an oddly-placed statement about how long he must remain outside of the camp itself (Ibn Ezra)?
This mystery strikes me as particularly poignant this year. Coming back into the world is not simple. The person stricken with tz’ra’at cannot simply go from life outside the camp back to normality in one fell swoop.
And now here we are, experiencing the slow process of return. Perhaps we are like the man recovering from tz’ra’at. We are not outside the camp anymore, but we are not back to normal life, either. And this moment of transition might take a little time.
1/2 Apr: Tazria + Hachodesh : Shabbat comes in 7:19 pm, ends 8:23 pm
Parashat Tazria – Don’t Touch This!
There is a pervasive myth in Jewish tradition that menstruating women cannot touch the Torah scroll. This myth hasn’t appeared out of the blue – this week’s Torah portion is about the interaction between ritual purity/impurity and the ability of an individual to enter into the holy space of the Temple, handle ritual objects associated with the Temple, etc. There is even an obscure medieval text to back it up (though this text actually claims that – as a matter of custom – menstruating women did not enter the synagogue at all). However, it’s soundly rejected in Jewish law, by Yosef Karo (the Shulḥan Arukh), by Maimonides (the Mishneh Torah), and so on.
The main reason that there is no halakhic justification for claiming that menstruating women cannot touch the Torah scroll is that, in a world without the Temple, we are all considered ritually impure (or ‘tamei’). Therefore, any halakhic basis for the myth would naturally result in the inability of any person to interact with a Torah scroll. However, the halakhic truth is even weirder than that: the Torah scroll itself is specifically considered impure.
The below Mishnah describes a disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees regarding the status of the Torah scroll. It is worth noting that the Mishnah sides squarely with the Pharisees (and that rabbinic Judaism sprouted from seeds planted by the Pharisees).
Mishnah Yadayim 4:6:
‘The Sadducees say: “We complain against you, Pharisees, because you say that the Holy Scriptures defile the hands, but the books of Homer [meaning: non-holy books] do not defile the hands!”
Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said: “Have we nothing against the Pharisees but this? Behold they say that the bones of a donkey are pure, yet the bones of Yoḥanan the high priest are impure!”
They [the Saducees] said to him: “According to the affection for them, so is their impurity – so that nobody should make spoons out of the bones of his father or mother.”
He said to them: “So also are the Holy Scriptures according to the affection for them, so is their uncleanness. The books of Homer which are not precious do not defile the hands.”’
Rabban Yoḥanan’s sarcastic response to the Sadducees forces them to admit that the principle is not that impurity is bad, but rather that we deem things ‘impure’ in order to separate them from regular use, often as a matter of honouring them. The Torah scroll is to be honoured, and therefore should not be handled lightly. As we learn in this week’s Torah portion, the situations in which a person becomes tamei are based on interactions with mortality: birth, death, sickness, etc. It is easy to think of the English terms ‘impure’ and ‘defile’ as implying a certain revulsion, but indeed, the rabbis do not see revulsion in the Torah law. Instead, they see a necessity to separate, which is here based on honour.
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