Shabbat Eykev

Candles Friday 26th August 7:17pm
Havdalah 27th 8:15pm
Rosh Hodesh Ellul next Shabbat and Sunday

“If you obey my commands…then I will send the rains in good time.” The Second Paragraph of the Shema implies a direct correlation between keeping God’s commandments and being rewarded with the world’s bounty and thriving. Conversely, betraying God brings about destruction and the failure of the physical world to produce food.

On a rational level this does not make sense, nor do we see any such strict correlation in real life. Quite the contrary. Bad people often do well and you could say that Israel has flourished when non-religious secular Jews applied themselves to improving its agricultural productivity. Success often relies on international trade and factors that have nothing to do with being a good, spiritual person.

One response is to say that this is all metaphorical. What the Torah is talking about is mental attitude, not reward and punishment. That when one feels closer to God, one looks at the world and one’s own life, more positively. One feels blessed, more content and at ease. Whereas anxiety, depression, and frustration are all the hallmarks of a materialist society.

Another is that this is not meant personally but nationally. As a people we thrive when we are united in our mission and our heritage. Otherwise we are divided and in a state of conflict.

But another way of looking at this text is historical and archaeological. All the declarations of ancient Mesopotamian and Persian kings included a very specific formula. It went like this. “If you obey me, your king, and keep my laws and treaties I will protect you. The rains will come in their time. The land will be fruitful and your wives. You will have plenty to eat and drink. You will be happy and content. But if you reject me as your king and disobey my rules, the rains will not come, the land will be destroyed and there will be no food and you will be killed and your children enslaved.”

In other words, the Torah is using language that would have been familiar in its day as the formulaic contract between a monarch and his people rather, a contract between God and Israel rather than a statement of theological truth.


Shabbat VaEthanan

Candles Friday 19th August 7:27pm
Havdalah 20th at 8:21pm

This week’s reading includes a repeat of the Ten Commandments and the Shema. Taken together, the first declaration of the Ten Commandments “I am the God who has taken you out of Egypt “and the Shema “Listen Israel, God is your God and there is only One God” we have the very core of Jewish ideas. We do not have complicated theologies telling us in detail how and what to believe, just these very basic general concepts.

In each statement there are two separate ideas. “I am God” is an existentialist statement. That there is such a thing as God. It is then up to us to find a way of making sense of this idea but more than that of trying to experience it. You can try to compel people to act. You can insist on behavior and then check to see if someone acts on it or not. But it is very hard to find out if someone really does believe in an idea even if they say they do. So “I Am” is like saying “I am your father or your mother.” That is the situation. The House of Israel has been associated with God one way or another for thousands of years. But it is up to you as an individual whether you want to have a relationship with your father or mother or not!

The Second part of the statement “I took you out of Egypt.” It is a reference to the past. God exists in history. Once again it is up to you whether you want to be part of that historical chain or not. The Torah can encourage but it cannot force.

And so with the Shema. God is connected to Israel, to the Jewish people. It is up to you whether you can or want to identify with them. And secondly there is only one God. God requires obedience to this single idea. You can’t be loyal to conflicting interests. Loyalty has to be unique. That means not worshipping other gods, other values, other ways of life.

Both of these are so hard and yet both are so rewarding. But they involve making positive decisions. They don’t happen accidentally or without effort. They invite you to commit. To be part of a great spiritual and physical project.


Shabbat Devarim

Candles 7:37pm
Havdalah 8:31pm
Fast of Tisha B’Av Starts Saturday 8pm. Ends Sunday 8:27pm
Maariv and Lamentations Saturday night at 9pm

The Ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av is the most important fast in our calendar after Yom Kipur. It commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and the loss of our land twice in our history. In 586 BCE at the hands of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. And in 70 CE by the Romans under Vespasian and Titus his son.

For Persian Jewry, exile to what was first Babylon and then became part of the Persian Empire, was the start of the history of the longest lasting community outside Israel. It had its ups and downs, periods of peace and periods of oppression. But it is a heritage we are justly very proud of.

There are many Persian traditions that other communities do not have. Particularly in respect of Mordechai and Esther. But one I had never heard of before I joined our community was that of Sarach Bat Asher. She is mentioned in the Torah as Jacob’s granddaughter. But whenever a woman is mentioned in the Bible it is always because she was a remarkable and impressive person in her own right even when new may have lost the specific details of her achievements.

The Midrash says she was the longest living female ever and that she was present when Joseph died. She was the only person three hundred years later who knew where he was buried so that his bones could be taken out of Egypt and buried in Israel. I don’t think we are meant to take this literally any more than another strictly Persian story.

Sarach it seems discovered an underground passage all the way to Babylon that enabled the exiles to travel to their new homes avoiding the scorching heat of the desert. The idea behind these stories is the importance of memory and tradition.

The Talmud tells that on both occasions when our temples and land were destroyed it was because we were let down both by our political and our religious leaders who made bad decisions and by the uncharitable and selfish attitude of our own people.

We will fast on Saturday night and Sunday and pray we learn from our mistakes.

Shabbat Shalom and fast well.