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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

19/20 July: Balak : Shabbat comes in 8:53 pm,  ends  10:06 pm

At the end of last week’s Parasha, the Israelites had arrived at the steppes of Moab, prepared to enter the land of Canaan. As we pick up the story this week, Balak, king of Moab, sees the defeat of his neighbouring kings.  Fearing a similar fate, he hires the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites.  However, Bilaam is a true prophet and can only say what God has commanded, so he utters blessings instead of curses.  Parashat Balak is probably best known for the comical episode of Bilaam’s confrontation with his talking donkey, but let us take a look at a verse from Bilaam’s first oracle.  Looking out over the Israelite camp, Bilaam says:

Who can count the dust of Jacob,

Number the dust-cloud of Israel,

May I die the death of the upright,

May my fate be like theirs.

Regarding the phrase “may I die the death of the upright,” Rashi comments that Bilaam means that he wants to die “among them.”

The Hafetz Hayyim, (Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen, Poland, early 20th century), explains:   Bilaam did not want to live as a believing Jew, but very much wanted to die as one.  Why?  Because the life of a God-fearing Jew is not an easy one: he has to restrain himself and keep away from many things.  There are many commandments he must perform.  Each day and every hour he has various obligations.  The Jew’s death is not like that. For the believing Jew, death is only a transition from a temporary life to a permanent one [the afterlife, which the Rabbis call the world to come] . . . and that is why Bilaam wanted to die as a believing Jew.  But it is no great feat to die a proper death.  The real feat is to live a proper life.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman




Shabbat Commentary

12/13 July: Chukat : Shabbat comes in 9:00 pm,  ends  10:16 pm

Parshah Chukat reports the deaths of Miriam and Aharon.   While the seven day period of impurity described in the Parashah is not itself the source for the practice of “sitting Shiva”, the thirty days in which the Israelites “cried for the loss of Aharon” is the source for the practice of sheloshim.

The thirty days that the Israelites cried for Aharon explicitly responds to the people’s need to articulate their grief. According to the Musaf Rashi commentary (additional writings by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, France 1040-1105, which were not included in his linear commentary), the Israelites grieved for Aharon because he “pursued peace and established peace between neighbours and spouses”. They felt the loss of this tangible element of his leadership, and the Torah reports that their emotional reaction was to cry for 30 days.  With Aharon’s death, the Torah indicates that the full emotional response to the loss of a person who was loved and admired can’t be contained within the confines of a purity ritual. Rather, such grief needs time.

It may be a cliché to say that time heals such wounds as are caused by the death of a loved one, but Chukat reminds us just how important it is to give ourselves time to grieve.   The message of Chukat is that at a time of loss, we need to be patient with ourselves and with others. While rituals provide us with an essential supportive framework in the earliest and darkest days, the Torah also recognizes that the emotional impact of our loss will be felt well beyond that first week. In honouring Aharon as a man who pursued peace in Israel during his lifetime, may the grief expressed by those he led be a model that brings us towards peace in remembering those who we dearly miss.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman




Shabbat Commentary

5/6 July: Korach : Shabbat comes in 9:05 pm,  ends  10:23 pm

Korach’s rebellion was deemed by the rabbis to have been destructive in large part because he refused any real dialogue with Moshe. (Numbers 16:12)  An essential principle of controversy ‘for the sake of Heaven’ is the recognition that no single person has the monopoly on truth. Although one may be committed to a particular position, he or she must be open and respectful of dissenting views.

Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, a 16th century commentator, notes that when Hillel and Shammai disagreed they still wanted the Halachic system to endure, hence, their controversy was ‘for the sake of Heaven’. Unlike Korach, whose purpose in disagreeing with Moshe was to destroy the system of the priesthood.

So, too, in Israeli politics. Rav Kook stated that the duly elected government of Israel has the status of malkhut, the biblical status of king.  Thus, an individual has the right to disagree with government policy, but can never regard those policies as null and void.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman




Shabbat Commentary

28/29 June: Shelach Lecha : Shabbat comes in 9:08 pm,  ends  10:27 pm

I have a question for God.   In Parshat Shelach, God instructs Moses to choose twelve chieftains, one from each tribe, to scout out the Land of Israel.  The twelve “spies” are asked to determine what kind of country it is:  “Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?  Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open or fortified?  Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?  And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land . . . ” (Numbers 13:18-20)

So they scout about, and upon returning from the land of Canaan the twelve spies presented their reports to the Jewish people concerning all they had seen in their future homeland.  The children of Israel chose to accept the negative report of the majority rather than the optimistic minority report.

Now it is clear that God commands Moses to send the spies to check out the land of Canaan.  Yet, when this plan backfires, God becomes so angry that He nearly destroys the entire Jewish people.   My question is, from the simple reading of the text, why were the Israelites guilty for doing what God had asked them to do?  Scout, report, react.  That is what God wanted!

In fact, it’s clear that God only wanted the spies to scout and report back good things about the Land.   It’s like a colleague who only wants you to read her work and say positive things.  Or a child who only wants you to like their drawing, not give constructive criticism.

If I cook dinner for my family, I really only want to hear good things — not, “nice, but it’s a bit oily*”   So, did I do the wrong thing by asking “How is the dinner?”

We all have to recognise that words only convey half of the meaning behind a question.  At his pivotal moment God only wanted to hear good things.   God had worked hard to take them out of Egypt and across the desert.  God was really just trying to give them some ownership over the decision — which can be a double edged sword.

The answer is we should take the other person’s investment and feelings into consideration; to balance negative and positive in our reports.  When asked, we should not just say what’s wrong with the land (scary giants) but to report on the fruits of the Land as well.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman




Shabbat Commentary

21/22 June: Behalotecha : Shabbat comes in 9:07 pm,  ends  10:28 pm

It’s not clear how the sacrifices brought by the chieftains at the end of last week’s portion, Naso, and this week’s subject — Aharon lighting the menorah in Behalotecha — are connected to one another.  The commentator Rashi (d.1105 France) answers that when Aharon heard about all of the sacrifices the chieftains were bringing he felt he was missing out on their experience. Therefore, God said to him “By your life, your contribution is greater than theirs!  You are the one that lights and prepares the lamps!”

Ramban (d. 1270 Eretz Yisrael) explains (by way of Midrash Rabbah) that Aharon’s problem was his inability to see the impact of his actions on the future.  Unlike the sacrifices, which are dependent upon the Temple’s existence,  Aharon’s contribution and his role with the menorah is eternal, since we still light the Chanukiah in our day. These lights are lit even after the destruction of the Temple and are the eternal connection that we have to Aharon lighting the menorah in the Mishkan.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman




Shabbat Commentary

14/15 June: Naso : Shabbat comes in 9:05 pm,  ends  10:25 pm

The subject matter of Parashat Naso seems scattered.  There are rules about ritual impurity and about theft of sacred property.  There is the ritual of the Sotah, the woman whose husband has become so jealous of her perceived misconduct with other men that he subjects her to a strange ritual of trial by “ordeal “.  There is the Nazirite vow to live life in an even stricter fashion than is expected of the Kohanim themselves.  Finally, there is the presentation of each tribe’s gifts at the dedication of the Mishkan.

What do all of these have in common?   Most show how to physically enact the holiness code that the Israelites received at Sinai — moving out of the camp so as not to transmit ritual impurity; confessing and returning stolen objects; drinking the sotah ritual’s bitter waters; the various abstentions and sacrifices of the Nazirite; the bringing of the dedication gifts.

The Israelites are beginning to act on the life they have so far only heard about.   And life is in the details.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman




Shabbat Commentary

7/8 June: Bamidbar : Shabbat comes in 9:00 pm,  ends  10:20 pm

In Parshat Bamidbar we read the verse  “This is the line of Aaron and Moses at the time that the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.  These were the names of Aaron’s sons:  Nadav, the first-born, and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar.“    This passage begins by saying that it will tell the line of Aaron and Moses, but supplies only the names of Aaron’s sons.

From this, the Talmud concluded,  “One who teaches the son of his neighbour Torah is considered as if he had begotten him,  since Aaron begot and Moses taught them; hence they are [also] called by Moses’s name” (Sanhedrin 19b).

We all have teachers and coaches who greatly add to our appreciation for our life and give it deeper meaning.   Judaism gives them proper recognition as actual givers of life.   Who has done that for you as you were growing up?

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman




Shabbat Commentary

24/25 May: Behar : Shabbat comes in 8:44 pm,  ends  10:01 pm

The idea of the shmita year — letting slaves go free and letting the land lay fallow in the seventh year — and the law of jubilee year — of returning land to original owners and cancelling debts — strikes me as radical socialism.  I understand that it served an important function of not allowing any person to become extremely rich while others lost their family’s inheritance.   However, Rabbi Hillel eventually did away with the jubilee cancellation of debts since it was preventing healthy commerce (who would lend money if the debt would be cancelled?)

However, in between the verses on shmita and the jubilee there is a strange sentence,  which seems out of place, it says:  “On the day of atonement shall you sound the shofar throughout the land.”

I want to suggest that the mention of Yom Kippur comes here for the important reason of building on the theme of things that do not entirely belong to us —    including our very selves.   Once a year we acknowledge that although we think we are entirely in control of our lives, we do not have total dominion over ourselves.

We are not allowed to intentionally harm our bodies (smoking, dangerous activity etc.) because our body is not entirely ours.   The idea is very powerful.   Sometimes the way to be completely “responsible”  — to take control for our land, our possessions or even ourselves, is to acknowledge that we share responsibility with God.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman




Shabbat Commentary

17/18 May: Emor : Shabbat comes in 8:35 pm,  ends  9:49 pm

In Parashat Emor (chapter 22, verses 29 through to 33) we read a series of requests from God in great poetic form: “You should slaughter a Thanksgiving offering to God so that it is acceptable to you. It should be eaten on that day; don’t leave it until the morning. I am God. You should keep my commandments and do them. I am God. You should not desecrate My holy name. I will be sanctified among the children of Israel. I am God who sanctified you, the one who took you out of Mitzrayim to be a God to you, I am God.”

Presumably, the Thanksgiving offering relies on the idea that we have things in our lives for which we are grateful, and we direct that gratitude to God.  However, the statement at the end of each of these verses is God’s version of “because I said so.”  Ideally, the mitzvot that we perform are meaningful in our own lives as well independent of our relationship with God.   But sometimes they are not, and this is sometimes difficult to accept.

At first glance, these requests, or demands, really, might turn one off when they are accompanied by God’s ‘because I said so’. There must be an understanding that God’s requests are not destructive or contrary to my own sense of morality.  I believe that the real request through these few verses is not (only) to do the specific acts God mentions, but the imperative is actually to create a relationship with God. Since the foundation of Ani Adoshem is that we have a relationship, I think this text is trying to compel us to reach to God and establish the relationship on which  these statements rely.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman




Shabbat Commentary

10/11 Apr : Kedoshim : Shabbat comes in 8:24 pm,  ends  9:36 pm

What is Kadosh/Holy? The Hebrew of “Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani” is ambivalent; cast in the future tense for ourselves (“you shall be holy”) and in the present for God (“for I am holy”). It is not actually clear whether God is describing, commanding or causing the holiness that will be ours.  It is a dynamic formulation, capable of any of these interpretations and more. Masorti-Conservative “Etz Hayim” Torah Commentary notes (to Lev. 19:2) that Samson Raphael Hirsch defined holiness as “occurring ‘when a morally free human being has complete dominion over one’s own energies and inclinations and the temptations associated with them, and places them at the service of God’s will’.”

Theologian Martin Buber felt that holiness consists not in rising above one’s neighbours, but in “recognizing the divinity in other people… as God recognizes the latent divinity in each of us.”  In South Asia and among yoga practitioners, the greeting Namaste is common – “I greet the Divine in you.”  It is a greeting that focuses on the other person, far more deeply than our normal “Hi! How are you doing?”   Recognizing and greeting the holy in others — whether an acquaintance on the street or a marriage partner — enhances the holy in us.

Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman