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This Shabbat

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.

Our services include Liberal, Masorti and Reform weekly and Festival services and children and family services such as Torah Tots and Shabbat Shira, and Alternative services such as our Friday night contemplative services, interfaith activities (such as our Shabbat at Wembley Central Mosque), and themed Shabbat services - Rock shabbat, anniversary of VE day, supporting social action projects such as Red Nose Day.

Shabbat Commentary

14/15 May: Bemidbar : Shabbat Comes in 8:30 pm, ends 9:44 pm

Parashat Bemidbar – Who Serves Whom?  

    Sefer Bemidbar, 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.  

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha  

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

30 Apr/1 May: Emor : Shabbat Comes in 8:08 pm, ends 9:17 pm

Leaving the Corners of our Fields… Again

‘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 LORD your God.’ (Leviticus 23:22)
Parashat Emor gives us the second version of the command to leave the corners of our fields for the needy. We read the same command last week, with almost identical wording; in fact, the first version of this command has slightly more information about our obligation. The most significant difference between the two verses is the context: instead of appearing alongside similar commandments, this week the mitzvah appears as a brief interlude in a list of
holy days alongside their sacrificial obligations. According to the classical rabbinic method of reading Torah, when information seems superfluous, it must come to teach us something new; therefore, the repetition of this mitzvah must exist for a purpose.
The tractate of the Mishnah concerned with this mitzvah is Mishnah Pe’ah (‘Corner’). Mishnah Pe’ah appears to begin with two contradictory statements: the first mishnah states that pe’ah (leaving the corners of the field) is among the obligations that have no measure, akin to acts of lovingkindness and Torah study; the second mishnah gives us a minimum measure of one sixtieth of the field. It is usually understood that the first version is referring to the biblical commandment to leave the corners of the field, and the second is a rabbinic failsafe. In other words, the first explanation in the Mishnah (that there is no required measurement for pe’ah) describes the ideal, and the second explanation (that we must leave at least one sixtieth of the field) is a realistic attempt to actualise the mitzvah. Ideally, we would require no minimum measure; in reality, we do require one.
The system presented to us in Mishnah Pe’ah can help us to understand why the commandment of pe’ah appears almost identically in two different contexts. In the first context, we were given the ideal law: alongside other rules, such as avoiding idol worship and theft, we are told that the corners of our fields are for the orphans and the poor. The second appearance
of the mitzvah, in Parashat Emor, comes as an interlude in a long passage regarding holy days and their associated sacrifices: within the biblical system, this is a time in which we are a) in our fields (during harvest festivals, gathering offerings for the Temple), and b) busy and joyful; we are therefore at high risk of ignoring the needs of those around us. The mitzvah appears here
again to remind us of our obligations in the moments that we are the most likely to forget them.
Sforno, the medieval biblical commentator, touches on this idea in his commentary on the end of the verse. ‘I am the LORD your God’ appears here, according to Sforno, to remind us of an important truth: our God is the God of the harvesters, and also the God of the gleaners.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha   


Shabbat Commentary

16/17 April: Tazria-Metzora : Shabbat comes in 7:44 pm, ends 8:51 pm 

Parashat Tazria-Metzora – 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  Mishnah below 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.

In these strange times, we are all becoming familiar with separation, and with being very careful with our hands. Perhaps we are more aware of the things we touch and avoid touching than we have ever been before. It would be easy to read this as revulsion – that we are so disgusted by the virus that we wish to shrink away from it. However, it can also be read as honour of one another: that we so care for one another that we are more careful with our hands than we have ever been before.
Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha   


Shabbat Commentary

9/10 April: Shemini : Shabbat comes in 7:33 pm, ends 8:38 pm 

Parashat Shemini – On the Eighth Day… 

I sometimes like to – entirely jokingly – call myself Musaf’s only fan. It’s not true, because plenty of people like Musaf, but I think it’s fair to suggest that it is a rare breed who consider Musaf their favourite service. I, however, adore Musaf. 

My love for Musaf comes from the same place in me that hugely enjoys the second day of festivals. Outside of Israel, Jewish tradition has been to double festival days (hence our two Seder nights in ḥutz la’aretz – ‘outside of the Land’ – and the single Seder night in Israel). Some rabbis, including rabbis in the Conservative Movement of the USA, argue that the second day of the festival should not be considered obligatory anymore. Though my disagreement with them is rooted in halakhah (Jewish law), it is also impacted by the same part of me that loves Musaf. 

I think that it is beautiful that sometimes we finish an obligation, and we decide to do it all over again. We finished Shaḥarit (the morning prayers), and then we say ‘well, it’s a special day, so why not do the Amidah all over again?’. We finish a festival day, but we don’t just let go of it and move back into the world – we decide to stick around and celebrate some more. We finish the Seder, and then we lay the table the next day and do it all over again. It’s an idea that is especially evident in Sukkot, which the Torah tells us is a seven-day festival, and then informs us of our obligations for the eighth day of that seven-day festival. 

Parashat Shemini is also about an eighth day. We are in a section of Torah dealing with the sanctification of the mishkan (the tabernacle – the moving Temple of the Wilderness). For seven days, Aaron and his sons have been engaging in ritual observances in order to inaugurate themselves to the priesthood. Our Torah portion opens up with what happens on the eighth day, which includes more sacrificial services, as they move from their inauguration into the active position of priesthood. 

The love of the extra moments felt especially strange for me in the strange, long days of the Covid pandemic. For many of us, it’s not as easy to feel joy during Shabbat and festivals when we’re unable to congregate. My love of Musaf and the doubling of festival days has certainly been harder to access. But the tradition remains here, providing structure for us, reminding us that days are not all the same. And when we are able to be together again – soon, please God – Musaf will feel all the sweeter.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha   


Shabbat Commentary

26/27 Mar: Tzav+Shabbat Hagadol + Erev Pesach : Shabbat comes in 6:09 pm, ends 7:13 pm 

Parashat Tzav – Building Holy Spaces

Parashat Tzav of 5779 (2019) was the Torah portion of my interview weekend, when I was interviewing for the role of Rabbi at Mosaic Masorti and New London Synagogue. By the time Parashat Tzav rolled around again in 2020, we had recently entered into the first lockdown of the Covid pandemic.

During my interview weekend, I taught about holy spaces. Parashat Tzav is, after all, a parashah about a holy space: the mishkan (tabernacle, which was later replaced with the Temple). I suggested that Parashat Tzav and the surrounding Torah portions are about the keva (fixedness, structure) of holy space, which exists in order to hold the kavanah (spiritual intention) of holiness. I compared this to the primary holy ‘space’ of Jewish life in a post-Temple world: prayer. The words on the pages are akin to the beams and posts of the Temple. They are the structures that hold something for us, something that is non-quantifiable, that cannot be pointed to. The keva is there to give us a space in which to work on that non-quantifiable sense of spiritual connection and intention. 

One year later, I learned entirely new lessons about holy space, as our concepts of holy space shifted. I was reminded that there is a keva (structure) in the building of the synagogue, too: the beams, the bimah, even the bodies of other people occupying the same room. That rug was pulled out from under us in a way that I could not have imagined just a year beforehand. We now know what it is like to be unable to congregate in the holy spaces of our synagogue buildings. We have been challenged to learn what it means to build the keva of holy spaces without the material that we are used to having at our disposal.

The good news is that the 21st Century has given us new materials for building holy spaces through technological developments. They are not the same. It’s okay to miss our buildings and miss being together. But looking back at that lockdown, I am filled with gratitude for the tools of technology, which allowed us to build new spaces to fill with intention, consciousness, and holiness. 

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha   


Shabbat Commentary

19/20 Mar: Vayikra : Shabbat comes in 5:57 pm, ends 7:00 pm

The Sacrifice of Freedom – Parashat Vayikra 

 We are about to enter Z’man Ḥeiruteinu – the Season of our Freedom. During Passover, we will reflect deeply on the concept of liberation. This week’s Torah portion is the beginning of the Book of Vayikra (‘And He Called’), otherwise known as Leviticus. Our parashah is filled with descriptions of sacrifices to be given to God in the tabernacle, and later in the Holy Temple. It is a system that no longer occurs on a physical basis, as we no longer have a Temple, and has been largely replaced with prayer and other symbolic substitutions.  

The Israelites are liberated from slavery in Egypt, but they choose to submit to a different power: the power of God. Freedom does not mean complete self-rule. The Israelites enter into a Covenant with a set of obligations; furthermore, the word for worship, avodah, is from the same root as the word ‘slave’ (eved). We have left the service of Pharaoh and entered into the service of God, which is best demonstrated by the sacrifices that God demands of us.  

It turns out that being free does not mean being self-governed, or not owing anyone anything – at least, it doesn’t mean that in the Jewish understanding. The Season of our Freedom means that we are able to submit ourselves to the Highest Power, without any Pharaohs standing in our way. And we submit ourselves to God through sacrifices – through giving up something that is precious to us. In the era of the Temple, these sacrifices were (for the most part) what sustained the Tribe of Levi. We were caught up in a system in which we submitted to God and looked after one another, all in one action of sacrifice. 

We have also been living in an age of sacrifice. We have each been called upon to sacrifice our time with those we love, and even human contact – all because we believe in looking after one another. We are still free. We are not being oppressed by a Pharaoh. Instead, we are making these choices as a larger whole, because we believe that we owe one another this sacrifice.  

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha   


Shabbat Commentary

12/13 March :Vayakhel-Pekudei + Shabbat Hachodesh: Shabbat comes in 5:45 pm, ends   6:48 pm

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei – Apart and Together 

This week’s double-parashah is entitled ‘Vayakhel-Pekudei’ – a term for gathering (from the root of the word kehillah, community), and a term for counting. Since the beginning of the Covid crises, we have been challenged with questions about how we count ourselves as a congregation when we are unable to congregate. What does it mean to come together in community, when we are not able to physically come together? 

One of our greatest aids through this last year has been the miracle of technology. When my grandparents emigrated from India, their only contact with family was through letters that would take weeks to arrive. Every piece of news they sent away or received was outdated by the time it was communicated. Their physical distance necessitated a gap in communication. We no longer live in that world. Our ability to wave at one another in Zoom rooms and pick up the phone to touch base has been a true blessing.  

And now that more of us are getting vaccinated and starting to walk out into the world again, it is time for new challenges. We are prompted to start counting the lessons we have learnt from a year at home. How can we honour the boundary of sacred space, in the synagogue and at home? How can we honour sacred time, now that we have seen what happens when the boundaries of time are minimised? What will it mean to come together as a community in person once again, and how can we ensure that we never take our ability to do so for granted? 

Wishing you all the best, 

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha   


Shabbat Commentary

5/6 March :Ki Tissa + Shabbat Parah: Shabbat comes in 5:33 pm, ends   6:36 pm

Parashat Ki Tissa – Holy (and Unholy) Cow  

This Shabbat could be called ‘A Tale of Two Cows’: It was the best of cows; it was the worst of cows. This Shabbat, we read Parashat Ki Tissa – the story of the golden calf – and we celebrate Shabbat Parah, the first of the Shabbatot leading up to Passover. Shabbat Parah is so named because the maftir (extra reading) describes the parah adumah (‘red heifer’), a ritual purification sacrifice of Temple times. This sacrifice is linked to Passover due to its connection with the Passover sacrifice (only those who had been purified could eat of it), and also to the Torah portion, as there is an understanding that the red heifer exists to counterbalance the sin of the golden calf.  

The red heifer has a special place in the Judaism of the post-Temple periods, due to the rarity with which a perfectly red heifer is born, and its necessity in establishing Temple worship. As Jews have longed through the ages for the establishment of the Third Temple, the red heifer has become a symbol of hope.  

So here we are, between two cows: one gold, and one red. The first cow, infant and formed from gold, represents the greatest sin of the wilderness – the urge toward the worship of idols. The second cow, a perfectly red heifer, represents hope for the restoration of Temple worship. They are two poles in religious urges. Do we need something physical to bow down to, like the Israelites in the Wilderness? Or can we make do with the intangible hope of a better future, without being able to grasp it in our hands?  

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha 


Shabbat Commentary

26/27 Feb :Tetzaveh : Shabbat comes in 5:20 pm, ends 6:24 pm

Parashat Tetzaveh: The Presence of the Divine 

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, we are in the midst of the preparations of the mishkan (the portable Temple of the wilderness). The aim of this endeavour is to bring the presence of God into the midst of the people. We turn this week to designing the beautiful, holy clothing of the people who dedicated their lives to serving in the mishkan. 

And it is also the Shabbat immediately after Purim. In an interesting contrast with the Torah portion, the Book of Esther is famous for being the only biblical book that does not mention God even once. God is not an active character in the story, and nobody talks about God. It is as Godless as possible, so to speak. Of course, there’s an assumption that God is present in the background of the story, pulling strings to ensure the survival of the Jewish people – however, the presence of the Divine remains subtle and unmentioned. 

One of my favourite verses in the Book of Esther calls to mind the ritualistic adornments of the priests in the mishkan. This verse occurs in the turning point in the story – the point at which Queen Esther decides to reveal herself as a Jew in an attempt to save her people. The verse states that Esther ‘clothed herself in malkhut’ (Esther 5:1). There appears to be a word missing in this verse – she’s clothing herself in sovereignty, rather than in bigdei-malkhut, in ‘clothing of sovereignty’. Many commentators claim that this is simply a scribal error. However, according to Rabbi anina (Talmud Megillah 5a), the wording of the text is deliberate: in preparation for risking her life to save her people, Esther pulls the divine presence around herself. Esther clothes herself in the sovereignty of God.  

Esther doesn’t have the ritual specificity of the Temple, and she doesn’t even appear to know how to call on God by name. But in this powerful scene, we see Esther decide that she’s not going in there alone. God will be there with her. Here, Esther acts as a model for faith – not that everything will be okay, but that we do not walk to our fate alone.  

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha 


Shabbat Commentary

19/20 Feb :Terumah : Shabbat comes in 5:07 pm, ends 6:12 pm

Parashat Terumah – Head and Heart  

This Torah portion marks the turn of the Book of Exodus from the narratives of exodus to the building of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary of the wilderness). The portion gets its name from the command (Ex. 25:2): ‘You must bring me terumah.’ Though terumah refers to the gifts that were given by the Children of Israel in order to build the sanctuary, many commentators read terumah as being linked intrinsically to tz’dakah (our obligations to give to those in need). In both cases, we give that which we might rather keep for our own benefit, in order to create a better society.  

Rabbi Alter picks up on the connections between this command to give terumah and the previous statement of the Children of Israel (Ex. 24:7): ‘We will do, and we will hear.’ Rabbi Alter understands that since the people began that statement with ‘we will do’, the Holy One immediately followed with the command for terumah. According to Rabbi Alter: ‘The commandment of tz’dakah requires action without excessive contemplation, without excessive consideration, but rather to “do” and afterwards to “listen”. This is because if one contemplates and considers beforehand, one will never arrive at “we will do”. 

We have a tendency to be a rather cerebral people. We like to study, and to think through multiple scenarios, and to debate. These are all wonderful aspects of the Jewish people. Nonetheless, there are some mitzvot that require acting from the heart, and letting the head catch up later. 

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha