By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
May 1, 2013
Today’s Bat Mitzvah is a delight to me for many reasons and not least because we welcome into this Sanctuary, into our Jewish Community for Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah many guests who are not Jewish. The opportunity to experience a different religious and cultural experience is a gift that we are honoured to share.
It gives me an occasion to explain one of the features particular to our Synagogue, rescued by this Community from the then Czechoslovakia the Kolin or Malin Arch, that this year celebrates its 150th birthday. On June 8th on our Czech and Slovak Jewry Shabbat, we will be having a whole community celebration and you do come and join us on that day.
The symbols apart from the familiar tablets of stone that depict the 10 Commandments, are from the Jerusalem Temple (destroyed in 70 C.E.). From left to right: the altar on which the offerings were made, the table with showbread, the censer or firepan that incense was laid upon, in the middle simply a decoration, and then the menorah (7 branched), the bowl for libations and the breastplate worn by the High Priest with 12 inset jewels – one for each of the Tribes of Israel.
There are a number of Torah portions that concentrate on these symbols but the item second from left, the table with showbread we rarely focus upon.
In the desert Sanctuary and later in the Jerusalem Temple, bread played a vital part in cult ritual. Each week, twelve special loaves, called lekhem panim – showbreads –literally, ‘bread of the face’ or ‘presence bread’ – were baked and displayed on a table in the Sanctuary on the Sabbath. Their ancient origin was probably of sharing a meal with the deity, perhaps attested to by the week-old breads not being burnt as other left-over offerings were but eaten by the priests in the holy space.
Babylonian and Assyrian texts show that the practice was widespread in the ancient Near East. Whilst we might attribute the number 12 to the Tribes of Israel, the same number were used by other peoples, possibly connected to the signs of the Zodiac. The everpresent nature of this ritual being located near the Ark of the Covenant was seen as the home of the deity, and the bread being an offering of food, ready for consumption whenever the deity chose to make an appearance.
There are many post-Biblical accounts of the showbread, mainly about the procedures of their production, their location and other priestly rules and regulations. They are tad boring but if you like you can easily find more online!
What Liberal Jews are interested in rather more is the symbolism of bread. Was the showbread merely ritually symbolic or was there ever an ethical dimension to this practice? I have to admit that in my reading, the former is probably the case but if we link it to the final and pivotal verse that Sarah read this morning, then we can certainly make more of it.
Does God delight in eating or in that all God’s creatures can eat? We might be keen to share a meal with God, I am sure we could think of a few incredible conversations we might have at that dinner party; but in reality our meals are shared with our own. Are our values absolute or conditional? If we are honest with ourselves, I think that we would say that they are absolute… ly conditional! Our human nature is that we very much think of feeding our family and ourselves first. They and are friends are who we eat with.
Therefore we find in our earliest traditions of the Torah contained within this verse a religious imperative combined with humanism: As Liberal Jews we feel drawn to such challenges as are stated in our sacred texts such as this, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest, you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger, I am the Eternal One your God(Lev 23:22).”
Contained within this verse is the foundations of what Jewish people throughout the centuries have aspired to, needing a prompt: for our inclination, our human condition is probably towards the absolutely conditional. Leket, to give tzedakah – charity - to take personal responsibility in feeding those in need and Peah that honours and affords all humanity the dignity, the means to farm for themselves.
At Passover as we read the story of our ancient ancestors escape from slavery, the key motif is freedom. Our Haggadah, the liturgy we read on Seder night at our Passover meal does not rest on its laurels – an appropriate term as much is based on a Roman-style banquet. Rather we are exhorted to “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Through Leket and Peah, we are shown how we can fulfil this statement – to physically nourish and also to offer spiritual nourishment, to show that purely by dint of being a human we are all afforded the right and ability to participate in creating bread out of the produce of the earth.
I am proud that Sarah is taking steps to fulfil these commandments. Our challot, the bread we will sanctify the Sabbath with after our service, are baked by our member, Simon Morris of Bakery 66 in Ruislip Manor, that you can also purchase from the Moor Park Deli. We will share this meal with each other and if we like to think so, ritually with God. Let its flavour linger through this week as we consider the ways in which we can turn ‘if we could feed everyone…’ into a reality. Our ancestors have always sought to do so from the nudge of the earliest commandments. Let us join in this chain of tradition.
This morning we have shared our ritual practice with each other and our many guests. May we never miss the opportunity to also share in the earth’ abundance, what we produce and consume with those around us. If you research online the showbread of the Jerusalem Temple, also research http://enoughfoodif.org/ Let us continue to try to feed as many as is possible through our charity and also consider how we can afford the human dignity to those in need to glean for themselves. Now that is a meal that I think God would be happy to share.