2/27/2014

Shabbat Pekuday

Shabbat Shekalim
Shabbat Mevarchin Mahar Hodesh
Candles 5:26pm. Havdalah 6:22pm

As we come to the end of Exodus we complete the narrative and description of the Tabernacle. The language the Torah uses surprisingly resonates with the language of Creation. In both cases the Torah uses similar language “And He commanded and it was done” “And He saw that it was good” “And the work was completed” “And He blessed them.”

In the case of Creation these terms are used of God. In the case of the Tabernacle they are used of Moses. I understand this to mean that God in His way decided on the creative process and the sort of world we have, with all its gifts and natural resources. Our challenge is not to destroy it, to over use, to degrade the universe He has created. Similarly with the houses and structures we make, we design them to conform to good practice, to Gods laws. The trouble is we humans often tend to degrade and misuse our own gifts and religion too. Whether it is God’s house or our own we must take good care of it.

Shabbat Shekalim

We now enter into the Jewish period of giving. Shabbat Shekalim reminds us of the communal tax dating to Biblical times, to contribute to the upkeep of communal buildings and institutions the way we once did with the Tabernacle and the Temple. Then in two week’s time we have Purim when we give to the poor and to friends. Finally comes Pesach when we have an obligation to make sure poor people have enough to make the Seder and keep the festival. Caring for others, charity, is one of the core principles of our people, our survival and our continuity.

2/20/2014

Shabbat Vayakhel

Friday Candles 5:18pm
Shabbat Havdalah 6:15pm

On the face of it there is not much that is new in this week’s reading from the Torah. We have already been given a full description of how the Tabernacle was to be built. Now we are told how it actually was built.

What is new here is the idea of community. Moshe establishes the idea of Kehillah, a smaller unit within the broader one of the people. The Tabernacle was for the nation. The Kehilla, the community was for those with shared ideas within the wider unit.

It’s like today. Jews span the complete spectrum from religious to secular, rich to poor, capitalist to socialist. We come from different backgrounds and cultures. We are Jews but we are also Persian, Moroccan, American or a melange of several. We often have very little in common with each other.

Most of us Jews live in much smaller Jewish units. The kehilla, the congregation, is a mechanism for uniting smaller units of people. And what unites people more often than not is shared experiences less how they think and more what they do.

After mentioning Kehilla the Torah talks about keeping Shabbat. The work on the Mishkan, the National shrine, stopped for Shabbat. Shabbat, the family, the community coming together, took priority. In fact our place in the Kehilla is defined by Shabbat. Why do we or don’t we keep Shabbat? Is it an accident of birth, imposed on us, or is it a choice, freely embraced?

Shabbat in our world is a voluntary experience. Our particular community only comes together on a Shabbat or Festival. And even then only some of us do. Shabbat might not define us as a nation. But it does tell us how much Judaism is an integral or a peripheral part of our lives.

2/13/2014

Shabbat Ki Tissah


Candles 5:10pm

Havdalah 6:09pm


Why can’t we see God?

This week we read about the Golden Calf. Moses was up the mountain communicating with God and the people down below grew restless. Although they had experienced the great miracles of the plagues and the Exodus they seemed to think that it was Moses who was responsible for everything. In vain did he protest that he was merely the tool of a greater force.

So when he disappeared for almost month the ordinary people who needed strong leadership and had relied in Moses now looked for some other symbol of leadership and that was why they urged Aaron to make a Golden Calf just like the other symbols of kingship and power that the Egyptians, the Canaanites and the Mesopotamians all had.

When Moses returned he was furious that they had so misunderstood the nature of an unseen God. That was supposed to be their great contribution to civilization, that the energy of the universe, the power of God did not need physical symbols or images for representation. The ideas should have been enough.

After he purges the ringleaders Moses tries to re-establish a relationship with God that he feels had been broken. So he asked God to “show me your glory.” In other words even Moses wanted some physical sign that God was on his side.

God replied “no human can actually see God.” But he put Moses in a cleft in the rock, in the same way that we say today “you are in between a rock and a hard place.” When we are under pressure, suffering a crisis, that’s when we want to “see God.” But all Moses got was that God passing by so to speak. He got a sort of after image. He could not claim to have seen God but to have experienced the impact of God.

And that’s true for us. We cannot see God because God is not physical and we are physical beings. We can only experience electricity if we make the transistors or the connections that convert energy into light and power. All we do experience is the impact of spirituality, goodness and morality. And that was what God wanted, not focus on what He looked like but on how we can make the world better by following His direction. God does not represent an image of what is, but rather an idea and inspiration of what might be if we try to achieve it. That is what is meant by trying to imitate God, not to imitate an object that can be seen, but to imitate goodness that can be experienced.

2/06/2014

Shabbat Tetzaveh

Candles Friday 5:01pm
Havdalah Saturday 5:57pm

This week we read about the special garments the priests wore in Biblical times. The very idea of a hereditary priesthood strikes us nowadays as belonging to a previous era, not unlike the hereditary monarchy. Nowadays we believe in meritocracy. And indeed Judaism itself has moved way from being a priest based religion to one that elevates scholarship and is open to those who choose to study. It is the rabbinate that now replaces the priesthood in practical terms.

So why do we still have priests with their own rules and restrictions? Is it just nostalgia? A relic of the past? Or does it symbolize something more significant?

We notice the priest whenever we read from the Torah because he and the Levite get preferential treatment. We also notice the priest at services when they bless the community. In Israel and Sefardi communities it is daily. In some Western communities it is occasional. The blessing actually comes from God. The priest is merely the vehicle. As with life in general, we often misunderstand the real source of our good fortune.

It is a feature of Jewish life that even when a part of our ancient religion falls out of use, like sacrifices, or the Levirate marriage, we like to keep the idea alive in some way to retain the link with the past. We do not like to scrap old ideas. Instead we find ways to adapt or to get round them. This way we preserve the original idea eve if in practice it becomes unworkable.

We revere the past even as we adapt to modernity. We recognize the importance of tradition as well as progress. Sometimes the law may lag in attuning the two, but the process continues within Jewish Law, Halacha, through the very method, the dialectic, the constant debate that the rabbis introduced to supplement the Original text.