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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

30/31 July: Eikev : Shabbat comes in 8:38 pm, ends 9:47 pm 

Parashat Eikev: Not On Bread Alone

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Eikev, includes the description of our wanderings in the wilderness and dependence on manna with the statement ‘man cannot live on bread alone’ (Deuteronomy 8:3). The manna is an incredible symbol of resilience and recognition of life’s fragility. We were given this miraculous bread, but told only to gather enough for each day, and no more. There was no ‘backup’ manna. Anything extra that was taken would go bad. The people had to learn to live a day at a time.

I am stuck with this image this year about the uncertainty that we live with. Many of us are consumed with thoughts of tomorrow, and for good reason: we do not feel secure. This is also true of our ancestors in the wilderness. Without the luxury of land, without permanent homes, the future must have consumed their thoughts. However, with this act of relying on the manna on a day-to-day basis, the Holy One taught them that awareness of fragility does not have to result in fear. It can also result in gratitude. Being grateful for what we have today – the metaphorical manna in our hands – is a powerful religious act.

It’s also a difficult one. It takes practice. The manna symbol did not only happen once; it occurred daily. Each day, being grateful for the manna in their hands built up the practice of gratitude for our ancestors.

May we learn from the experiences of our ancestors, and learn to hold today’s manna with gratitude, resilience, and peace.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

16/17 July: V’etchanan : Shabbat comes in 8:48 pm, ends 10:00 pm 

Parashat V’etḥanan: Shamor v’Zakhor

This week’s Torah portion recalls the giving of the Ten Commandments. We see the Ten Sayings laid out again before us, harkening back to the revelatory experience at Mt Sinai. However, there are some small differences in this retelling of the story. Most famously, we are given two verbs for what we are supposed to do regarding Shabbat: according to the Exodus narrative, we are commanded to zakhor et-yom haShabbat (to remember the Sabbath day); here in Deuteronomy, we are told to shamor et-yom haShabbat (to observe the Sabbath day).

Interestingly, this isn’t the only difference. Each of the versions of the Shabbat commandment comes with an explanation. We must ‘remember Shabbat’ (zakhor) because the Divine created the world in six days and rested on the seventh; we must ‘observe Shabbat’ (shamor) because the Divine brought us out of slavery in Egypt. It occurs to me that these two explanations for the Shabbat day are about paradigms of power. Humans exert power over one another in a variety of ways. One of those ways is that we manipulate material around us. When we build and we burn, we are exerting the kind of power that God exerted over creation. The second mode of power is that we form societal structures in which we exert social power over one another. When we participate in trade, when we go to work and act as employers or employees, we are partaking in a stratification of society that, at its most extreme, is like Egypt.

These paradigms of power shed some light on the concept of rest. Shabbat is a freeing experience – it gives us a break from cooking and cleaning, from being glued to our email inboxes, from going to our workplaces, and so much more. But here, it seems that Shabbat is freeing from a different perspective. For one day every week, we pull back from exerting power over the world, and we pull back from exerting power over one another.

We live in a time in which we might not feel acutely the power that we possess. There are many unknowns. But perhaps Shabbat can remind us to do better with the areas of control that we do hold, and with the incredible potential of being human in this world.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

16/17 July: Devarim : Shabbat comes in 8:56 pm, ends 10:11 pm 

Parashat Devarim: The Stars and the Sand

In Sefer B’reishit (the Book of Genesis), when the Divine bestows blessings upon our father Avraham, God tells Avraham that his descendants will be ‘as numerous as the stars of the heavens and as the sands on the seashore’ (Gen. 22:17). Many commentators have wondered at these comparisons. Are they reiterations of the same great destiny? Or is there some difference between being like the stars of the heavens and being like the sands on the seashore?

Usually, when the two illustrations of our numerousness are compared, the stars are considered more positive than the sands. However, here at the beginning of Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy), Moshe uses the imagery of the stars to paint a less-than-positive picture (Deut. 1:9-10):

‘Thereupon I said to you: I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. The Eternal your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars of the heavens.’

What is the difference, here, between being like stars and like sands? The stars are powerful and beautiful, but also distant from one another. The job of our teacher Moses is to keep us together and guide us through the wilderness, and it has been a difficult job indeed. It would have been better, perhaps, if we had been like the sands – if we had stuck to one another and presented less of a challenge to our leader.

Perhaps we are like the stars of the heavens today. Numerous and beautiful, but distant from one another. Our great challenge today is to close that distance emotionally and spiritually, even when we are not ready to close the distance physically. It is on us to prove that we can be like the sands on the seashore.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

2/3 July: Pinhas : Shabbat comes in 9:03 pm, ends 10:19 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.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

2/3 July: Pinhas : Shabbat comes in 9:00 pm, ends 10:25 pm 

Parashat Pinḥas –     ‘The plea of Tzelafḥad’s daughters is just.’ – Numbers 27:7

This week’s parashah sees a change in Jewish history. Up until this point, the inheritance system is based on the legal status quo of the ancient Near East: men inherit land from fathers and pass on to sons. In this portion, an injustice is noticed by five women, daughters of a deceased man named Tzelafḥad. The Torah takes the time to name these women (and women in Torah are often only named when they are considered key players in a text, unlike men, whose names often live on in lists of genealogies): Maḥlah, Noa, Ḥoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah. These women have realised that, under the current laws of inheritance, their father’s land will go to distant relatives and their father’s name will not live on. They approach Moses and the Israelite leadership and make their case.

Moses’s response is astounding. Instead of pressing on the pre-existing law, he takes this case to the highest authority he can: God. And the Divine immediately relents; the case of the daughters is so strong that not only are they granted their father’s land, but the law is shifted to account for their circumstances. Daughters can inherit land. Admittedly, this admission is granted only in specific circumstances, but it is nonetheless a substantial alteration of the cultural understanding of inheritance.

I’m reflecting, this week, on what this must have meant for the generation of change. They had inherited a cultural system that made assumptions about inheritance. And then along came five women, who stood up when they perceived injustice, and suddenly daughters could inherit land.

It is the challenge of each generation to live within cultural evolution. We have inherited a world with a great many virtues and a great many faults. But the virtues don’t exist simply in spite of the flaws; they exist because our forefathers and foremothers identified and repaired blemishes in their own surroundings. It is our challenge, just as it was theirs, to decide which parts of the world we are going to improve so that the coming generations don’t have to. In the words of Modecai Kaplan: ‘It is true that we are thrust into a world we did not make. But who makes the world into which our children are thrust?’

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

 

25/26 June: Balak : Shabbat comes in 9:08 pm, ends 10:28 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’elhow 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 mountain top, 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.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

11/12 June: Korach : Shabbat comes in 9:03 pm, ends 10:23 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 Koracḥ’s dispute was decidedly not. When Hillel and Shammai argued, their primary purpose was to find truth. Koracḥ, 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.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

4/5 June: Shelach Lecha : Shabbat comes in 8:57 pm, ends 10:17 pm

Parashat Shelacḥ Lecha- Giants and Grasshoppers
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shelacḥ Lecha, we read about ten people experiencing this same 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, Sh’laḥ 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.
Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

28/29 May: Beha’alotecha : Shabbat comes in 8:49 pm, ends 10:07 pm

Parashat B’ha’alot’kha: El Na R’fa Na Lah (Please, God, Please Heal Her)

Parashat B’ha’alot’kha (‘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.
Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha  

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

21/22 May: Naso : Shabbat Comes in 8:40 pm, ends 9:56 pm

Parashat Naso – 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.   

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Natasha