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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

27/28 Aug: Ki Tavo : Shabbat comes in 7:44 pm, ends 8:46 pm

Parashat Ki Tavo – Seeing Miracles

The Children of Israel have seen ten plagues in their last days as slaves, walked through the split sea, experienced revelation at Mt Sinai, and seen miracles in the wilderness. And yet, according to Moses in this week’s parashah, it is only now, after forty years of wandering, that they have attained ‘a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear’ (Deuteronomy 29:3). This statement comes just after the Tokh’kha, the Rebuke, in which blessings are laid out for if we follow the Law of God, and curses for if we do not.

Why has it taken the Israelites so long to internalise what has happened to them? Why does Moses feel that they require this reward-and-punishment theology in order to access the importance of following God? One answer suggested by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan is that this experience was not unique to the wandering Israelites. It may seem absurd to us that the Israelites do not trust in God after everything God has done for them – but we, too, walk through each day ignoring miracles. From that mindset, the forty years of wandering that it took for the Israelites to process their relationship with the Omnipresent does not seem so absurd.

May we all be blessed to take note of the miracles around us.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

20/21 Aug: Ki Teitzei : Shabbat comes in 7:59 pm, ends 9:02 pm 

Enemies First: Learning Love From Hatred
Parashat Ki Teitzei brings the peculiar case of your fellow’s ox, a situation
presumably already covered in Parashat Mishpatim with the ox of your enemy. The rule in Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 23:4-5) reads as follows: ‘If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you must surely bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you must surely help him with it.’ Presumably we can interpret from this that we are all responsible for one another’s oxen; if we are obligated to help our enemy’s ox, kal v’chomer (‘all the moreso’) we are obligated to help the oxen of our
loved ones. However, this week’s Torah portion reads (Deuteronomy 22:1): ‘You must not see your brother’s ox or his sheep driven out and turn yourself away from them; you must surely return them to your brother.’ Why give us a rule for our enemy’s ox, and then reiterate with the ox of our fellow? From the perspective of animal welfare, this reiteration of the law seems superfluous.
The sages of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 32b) teach that this rule is given first
for the enemy and then for the fellow to teach us about prioritisation. In a
hypothetical dilemma between helping a friend’s ox and an enemy’s ox, say the sages, one must first help one’s enemy. Furthermore, they conclude that if helping the friend’s ox would fulfil the biblical mitzvah but the enemy requires help in loading his animal (which is not a biblical requirement), one must still prioritise the enemy.
This counterintuitive order of priority exists, according to the sages, to ‘conquer one’s (evil) inclination’. Thus we are urged to consider those we dislike as equal in humanity and need with those we love; moreover, we are taught to prioritise them in order to train ourselves out of the impulse to ignore them. As we are more likely to be acutely aware of the needs of those we love, prioritising our enemies allows us to
ensure that their needs do not go ignored.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

13/14 Aug: Shoftim : Shabbat comes in 8:13 pm, ends 9:18 pm 

Parashat Shoftim: Man is a Tree of the Field  

When my grandmother arrived in England in 1960, it was midwinter. She was faced for the first time with leafless trees, because the trees of her girlhood in Singapore were evergreens. The sight of these seemingly lifeless trees was frightening to my grandmother, who assumed that there had been a great fire. It’s a story that’s often told with a smile in my family.  

I’m thinking of this story this week, because Parashat Shoftim gives us an interesting and strange rule about trees: when we engage in war, we must not destroy fruit-bearing trees. The reasoning for this is given in this strange phrase: ki ha-adam eitz ha-sadeh. Depending on how we parse the sentence, this could be understood in two opposing ways. We could read it as: ‘Is the tree of the field a man?’ This would highlight our differences; wars are fought between people, not between men and trees. On the other hand, it could be translated as: ‘For man is a tree of the field.’ Instead of telling us how trees are not men, this could instead be reminding us of our similarities and interdependence.  

Rabbi Mordechai Greenberg suggests that it is no calendrical coincidence that we read Parashat Shoftim at the beginning of the month of Elul, the beginning of the season of repentance. The Torah reminds us that man is a tree of the field because of the same lesson that my grandmother learnt in the winter of 1960: trees, like people, go through a yearly cycle. We sometimes lose our spiritual leaves – for Rabbi Greenberg, this is the despair of Tisha B’Av – but we can burst forth with life again.  

May this prove to be a fruitful Elul.  

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

 

 

    

 

 


Shabbat Commentary

6/7 Aug: Re’eh : Shabbat comes in 8:26 pm, ends 9:33 pm 

Parashat Re’eh – See and Listen

Parashat Re’eh (the Torah portion entitled ‘See’) begins with a charge to take note of the ramifications of following the ways of the Torah. The opening verses read as follows:
‘See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you will not listen to the commandments of the Lord your God…’
The Sefat Emet (‘The Language of Truth’), the late 19th Century Ḥasidic commentary of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, points to an interesting oddity in this opening: the verse introduces the blessing with the words ‘that you listen’, and the curse with the words ‘if you will not listen’. The assumption of the Torah is that we will walk with God in the world; falling away from this is a possibility, but not the default.
Do we enter the world ultimately good, and learn evil, or vice versa? According to the Sefat Emet’s reading of the opening verses of Parashat Re’eh, goodness is in our nature. It is a perspective that may encourage us to listen more keenly to our instincts, our consciences, and the still small voice.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha 

 

 

 

    

 

 


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