Shabbat Shalom everyone. Welcome to the second streamed service from the sanctuary of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue. For those of you have the those of you have the Siddur booklet – or the PDF – I will be announcing pages, so please join in.

But first, a few words.

During the past week, individuals and communities have been doing everything we can to help and support one another through the coronavirus crisis. People have been creating WhatsApp groups for their street and sharing resources, and putting ‘Hello’ notes the letterboxes of neighbours, and offering to pick up shopping, get urgent supplies or post mail for those are self-isolating, and also to call them if they’d like a chat. These notes – you may have seen or used them yourself – include the name of the person making the offer, where they live locally, and their phone number.

Here at BHPS, several people have volunteered to make phone calls to our vulnerable members – and to go shopping for those in need. And with the Festival of Pesach just around the corner, one of our members, has offered to source matzah and deliver it. If more people volunteer, it will be possible to phone everyone who is a member or friend of the synagogue to see how they are.

Meanwhile, across the country, community groups have been gathering volunteers, and in response to the ‘Your NHS Needs You!’ call for volunteers to deliver medicines, drive patients to doctors’ appointments and make phone calls to check on people isolating on their own, as of yesterday, almost 700,000 people have responded.

How wonderful that as social distancing becomes the norm, we are finding all these ways to reach out and support each other. Last week, we finished the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus, which concludes with the setting up of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness.[1] The scroll is always raised after the Torah reading, and when a book is completed, as we are raising the scroll, we say the words: Chazak! Chazak! v’nitchazeik – ‘Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another.’ During the past week, all of us, whether or not we heard that challenge, have responded to it. As the coronavirus crisis has deepened, we have been strong and we have strengthened one another.

This week, a new book of the Torah has opened, the Book of Leviticus[2], so-called because the first few portions of the book focus on the sacrificial system conducted by the priests of the tribe of Levi in Temple times. The last Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman occupiers in 70 CE – just fifty years short of two thousand years ago – so we might wonder what we might learn from reading about the ancient sacrificial cult. Indeed, the sacrifices strike us as very alien, and even for those who are not vegetarians or vegans, the images they conjure up of animals slaughtered and blood splattered, quite repugnant.

But there is something we can learn from the account of the sacrifices offered in Temple times. Just think of those words ‘sacrifice’ and ‘offering’. Our ancient agricultural forebears made a real sacrifice as they brought their gifts from their herds and their flocks.

After the Temple was destroyed, the early rabbis replaced the Divine service of sacrifice – Avodah – with Avodat ha-Lev, Service of the heart, that is, prayer.[3] Prayer is a beautiful way of addressing and connecting with the Eternal and reaching into our spiritual depths. But however ardent and sincere our prayers, to offer words in place of livestock is so much easier, so less demanding and costly – indeed, words cost us nothing at all, except our time.

Which brings us back to this moment, this ongoing coronavirus crisis. Perhaps, people are doing a lot more praying at this time, more praying than usual – and, perhaps, those who are not used to uttering prayers, find themselves doing so. But during the past week, alongside private prayers and the billions of words buzzing across social media, there has been a proliferation of material offerings, as people do what they can to reach out to those in need, to support their isolated neighbours and to connect with each other.

Before we begin the service and turn in the midst of it to the first portion of the Book of Leviticus, I would like to remind you of the closing image with which the Book of Exodus concludes following the setting up of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle: an image of the Eternal One as a cloud dwelling upon it; a cloud that only moved on, when the people continued on their journey.[4] As we to endure through this coronavirus crisis, as we do what we can to help and support one another, the presence of the Eternal One is with us – and will remain with us when the crisis is over and we continue our journeys. In the meantime, let us take courage and say to each other: Chazak! Chazak! v’nitchazeik – ‘Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen one another.’

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

28 March 2020 – 3 Nisan 5780

  1. P’kudei, Exodus 40.

  2. The Hebrew name is taken from the first word: Va-yikra – ‘Then He called’ – referring to the Eternal One, and connecting the beginning of Leviticus to the concluding section of the Book of Exodus. As with the naming of the other books of the Torah, the Hebrew name of the book is also the name of the first portion of the book.

  3. Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 2a: ‘What is this service of the heart? [avodah shehi b’leiv] You must say: it is prayer [t’fillah].

  4. Ex. 40:34-38.