Shabbat Devarim

Begins July 27th at 7.55 pm. Ends July 28th at 8.55pm.
Fast of Av starts 28th 8.16 pm and ends Sunday at 8.17pm.
Chazzan Uriel will lead Maariv, Eicha, and Kinot 
at Park East on Saturday at 9pm

I am often asked why we should still keep the Fast of Av which records the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70CE. Surely now that we have our own land and Jerusalem is ours, why fast and read the Book of Lamentations or recite the prayers that talk about Jerusalem as ‘despised and destroyed’? After all the Prophet Zechariah (9.19) said “God has declared that the fast of the fourth month (Tammuz) and the fast of the fifth month (Av )the Seventh (Ellul) and the tenth month (Tevet) shall be for the House of Judah occasions of rejoicing and gladness, happy occasions of truth and peace.”

It is true we have much to be happy and grateful about. The rabbis of the Talmud gave us Purim and Chanukah to rejoice. They also gave us Tisha B’Av. They argued that we ourselves were responsible for the destruction of our Temples and City. We were corrupt and arrogant and failed to live up to our values of justice, honesty and peace. We fast now to remind us of our political and social failings (whereas Yom Kipur is more about our spiritual souls). Where is ‘truth and peace’?

The sad fact is that when we look around us in Israel and here we do see corruption and failure. Yes, we see success as well and Jerusalem is a thriving modern city and Israel has more to be proud of than most countries on earth. But when we look at our religious leadership and in our own homes and we see how there is a failure to cry out for justice for the oppressed, abused children, or suffering women. When we see how money controls Israeli politics, we see that the very things, social justice for all, the Prophets told us to put right then and we did not, are the very things that undermine our Jewish world today. That is reason enough to mourn and to determine to repair. There is no guarantee we will not lose Jerusalem again.

As for Jerusalem, the world, including the USA, refuses to accept it as our capital. The Olympic Committee refuses to acknowledge the Israeli athletes massacred at Munich. Our enemies surround us full of evil intentions and hatred. As the Book of Lamentations says (1.20) “Outside we are threatened by the sword and inside we face moral death.” Shall we NOT fast?


Shabbat Matot and Massey

Begins Friday July 20th at 8.03pm. 
Ends July 21st at 9.05 pm.
Friday 20th is Rosh Chodesh Av.
The Fast of Tisha B’Av starts next Saturday night 28th.

This week we have a double Sedra and with them we conclude the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar.

The Book of Bamidbar is a kind of metaphor for the Jewish people. Everything starts out well, full of optimism. Yet circumstances, divisions within and challenges from without pull us down and we fail to fulfill our potential. Yet whenever things look their blackest, the seeds are sown of revival and survival. That happens in this book of Bamidbar. Everything is planned in the second year of the Exodus for a triumphant march into Canaan. But then the divisions, the internal conflicts lead to a retreat and a delay of forty years. The Book is overwhelmingly about the build-up to invasion but then towards the end from Balak onwards it is concerned with the final assault forty years later all squeezed into a few chapters.

The two parts that end the book, we read this week, are called ‘Matot’ after the tribes who dominate the early history of the Israelites and ‘Massey,’ the journeys they made from Egypt before they reached home.

And these names too are also a metaphor. We travel. Sometimes we are exiled and sometimes we escape but our history is full of migrations. And what keeps us identified as Jews as we move from place to place? It is the determination of our tribes, those strong families amongst us that ensure that no matter where we travel, our religious tradition remains alive. That’s how we turn disaster into triumph.


Shabbat Pinchas

Begins Friday July 13th at 8.05pm. Ends July 14th at 9.05pm.
Rosh Chodesh Av - Friday July 20th

The story of Pinchas is a highly controversial one. After Bilaam realized that cursing the Israelites was not going to work, the advice he gave Balak was that the weakness of the Israelites was sex! Yes, amazing as it sounds, then it was the same as it is today. Sexual urges are so strong that they can totally destroy the lives of otherwise clever men and get them to behave like self-indulgent children. They abandon solid relationships to run after glitter and delusion and transient pleasure that soon loses its attraction. And so it was three thousand years ago. The Midianites sent in their sexy, half-naked women to seduce the Israelites and they succeeded. First it was sex and then it was idolatry and soon they lost the will to fight. It got so bad that some of leaders actually flaunted their sexual betrayal publicly, right in front of Moses. He was so shocked he didn’t know how to react.

His nephew, Pinchas decided extraordinary circumstances required extra judicial action. He took it upon himself to run through the Israelite Prince and Midianite princess in the act. What was the reaction? Some wanted to kill Pinchas for taking the law into his own hands. In fact we do not approve of extra judicial actions. Jewish law does not approve of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. It took Divine Intervention to say that this was an exception and Pinchas should not be punished but praised. Sometimes logic and common sense do not work. Unless one acts immediately and with force, one can find that it is too late and one has lost the battle altogether.


Shabbat Balak

Begins Friday July 6th at 8.10 pm
Ends July 7th at 9.10 pm
Fast of Tamuz begins Sunday morning at 4.05am, ends at 8.45pm

The story of Bilaam the sorcerer is the central theme of this week’s reading. The ancient world, indeed our world today, believed in magic, in curses in evil eyes. And Bilaam was the best of the magicians and was paid a lot of money to come and curse the Children of Israel, to stop them dead in their tracks and make them disappear. But he failed because God had other plans.

The message of Bilaam’s poetry is that the Jewish people is capable of withstanding whatever is thrown at them provided of course that it is united, morally upright and honest. And that remains true today. No one will harm us unless we fail ourselves. Every one of us has a direct line to God, regardless of how humble. If we are afraid, it is to God we must turn, not to magicians, peddlers of hocus pocus or instant solutions. We and God share control over our destinies. We must do our part if we ask of God to do what we want. Times have not changed in three thousand years. We still long for someone else to solve our problems for us.

The Fast we have on Sunday is not a long fast. It begins early on Sunday morning so if you get back from clubbing early on Sunday you can still have an early breakfast! And then we start a three week period of mourning for the terrible destruction that we as a people suffered first at the hands of the Babylonians and then the Romans which ends on Tisha B’Av on the 28th/29th of July. No amount of prayer or magic for that matter could help us any more than it could help Egypt or even Persia.

This period of mourning is to remind us that we are our own worst enemies. Either because we think our religion doesn’t matter, or because so many are incapable of behaving correctly towards each other or because we allow corruption to infect our system and our people. If we cannot correct others we can at least get our own acts together.