Thought for the Week
Friday 9 November 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
This Shabbat, the LJS will combine the 100th commemoration of the signing of the Armistice in a railway carriage in Compiègne on 11 November 1918, with the 80th anniversary of the November Pogrom of 1938 – Kristallnacht.
A week after the end of the First World War, the first Rabbi of the LJS, Dr Israel Mattuck, breathed a sigh of relief that the war was over: ‘After more than four years of a war unequalled in the sacrifices it demanded, in the desolations it wrought, in the sufferings and sorrows it inflicted, we have come unto peace with the victory we yearned and prayed for,’ he said. There were times when ‘hope drooped and darkness threatened the soul,’ but now there is light and thank God, ‘there is Victory and Peace.’ Not the victory of mighty and military force, but the victory of righteousness, the triumph of democracy over autocracy, the conquest of the human spirit over arms and war, over violence and self-aggrandisement.
Germany, however, was broken – the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty outraged the population. The country was defeated and dishonoured and it was in the years that followed the end of the war that anti-Semitism ‘metastisized’, says David Cesarani in his magisterial volume ‘Final Solution.’ No longer on the margins of German society, it moved into the mainstream until the Jews were blamed for Germany’s defeat.
For German Jews – and particularly for the generation who had fought in the war – bewilderment and disbelief took hold as they were stripped of their assets and found it increasingly impossible and dangerous to leave the country. Their children were ostracised and forced to move to overcrowded Jewish schools to continue their education. Cesarani reports that Austrian Jews, ex-soldiers, put on their medals when they ventured into the streets in the belief that decorations for valour would offer a degree of protection from the anti-Semitic mobs, only to be mocked and abused. German citizens, whose families had resided in Germany for generations, who had gone to war to fight for the ‘Fatherland’, discovered their loyalty betrayed.
The brutality and violence unleashed against Jews on Kristallnacht was not unique. In Austria, the Anschluss in March 1938 had led to boycotts, the wrecking of Jewish shops and stores, and the humiliation of women and men, with ‘jeering storm troopers over them and taunting crowds around them on their hands and knees’ scrubbing signs off the sidewalks or forced to clean the conveniences of their synagogues in their tefillin. Many Jews took their own lives.
The news that Vom Rath had died – shot on November 7th in the German Embassy in Paris by seventeen year old Herschel Grynzpan, whose parents and sister were among the Polish Jews who had been abandoned by Germany at the Polish border, triggered disturbances in Dessau. Jewish shops were looted and the synagogue burned.
But what followed was neither the spontaneous ‘rage’ of the people, says Cesarani, ‘but nor was it a well-planned, centrally executed operation, either. Hitler and Goebbels triggered a nationwide pogrom without any clear goals and no thought for the methods that were to be employed’ (p. 183). It was a rushed and improvised affair, there was miscommunication and messiness and the result was ‘murder, rape, looting, destruction of property, and terror on an unprecedented scale.’
One thousand synagogues and prayer rooms were destroyed – gutted, burnt or smashed up. Approximately 7,500 shops were wrecked – windows shattered, shop fittings ripped out, stock looted or scattered in the streets outside. Over ninety Jews were killed and several women raped or abused.
After the November Pogrom, the Nazis would find new ways to deal with the Jews in Germany – not on the streets; instead, the violence would be removed to the east and hidden.
Less than two weeks later, Britain became the only country to change its immigration rules as a direct response to the unfolding tragedy. On 21 November, Sir Samuel Hoare, in the House of Commons, announced that Britain would admit 9,000 unaccompanied minors, under the age of seventeen on special chartered trains known as the Kindertransport. Between the first arrival at Liverpool Street on December 2, 1938 and the last train just before the outbreak of war in August 1939, around 10,000 children from Berlin, Vienna and Prague, were transported to the Netherlands, where they transferred on to ferries that were to bring them to the UK.
As we commemorate these significant anniversaries this coming weekend, we do so in profound sorrow, aware of the need to learn about the past and to remember. But with remembrance – the biblical command zachor – comes the obligation to re-organise the world, to be the architects of a world in which all human beings are valued and respected, where there is no incitement to hatred or discrimination. To remember means not to stand idly by when we see others who are persecuted or oppressed because of who they are. To remember means to nurture the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God, and to remember means actively to pursue the religious values of holiness and truth, justice, compassion and peace.
Thought for the Week
Friday 2 November 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
Jewish tradition denotes several periods of grief after a loss of people important to us.
The first one is called Aninut. It lasts from the moment a mourner has learned of a death until the end of the burial or cremation. During this time, one is exempt from all mitzvot so as to be free to arrange the funeral.
The second stage is called Shiva. It begins immediately following Aninut and lasts for seven days. Mourners are encouraged not to work during the Shiva period but rather to stay at home. It is also preferable not to participate in parties, concerts or other events that are celebratory in nature.
The next stage is called Shloshim and it lasts until the thirtieth day from the burial. During this time, the intensity of the mourning is reduced; however, some restrictions remain in effect. It is followed by a period of twelve months. During this period, most activities return to normal, although the mourners continue to recite the mourner’s kaddish as part of the synagogue services.
Aninut, Shiva, and Shloshim allow mourners to express their sorrow, discuss the loss of a loved one, and slowly begin to re-enter society. Over the most intense stages of mourning, not only are we allowed to express the grief and pain of a loss, but we are strongly discouraged from even trying to force ourselves out of that pain. The collective wisdom of our tradition suggests that it takes about one month for a person to begin the journey which will eventually lead the mourner to return to their normal life.
Over the past week, many of us have been shaken by the terrible attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. In the aftermath of the event, Ronald Linden, a Professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote an article entitled, ‘We Pittsburgh Jews Don’t Want Your ‘Thoughts and Prayers.’ In it, he expresses the need for rapid change in society and encourages us to go beyond expressing sentiments of hope and to fight for a better world where our communities will feel safe and protected.
Although I agree that it is important to act in the name of those who have been murdered, it is also important to allow ourselves to feel pain, sorrow, and grief. We must also acknowledge that mourners need to go through bereavement, and our extended community needs time to process the moment. Sometimes the best we can do for them, and for ourselves, is take some time when we do no action.
The wisdom of our tradition reminds us that we shouldn’t feel undue pressure to know how we want to act next when emotional impact is still too strong. Our Jewish world is still in the period of Shiva for those killed in Pittsburgh. However, according to the Jewish Law, Shiva is not observed on Sabbat, and there is something we can all take this week. The JLC has encouraged our community to join the worldwide campaign to #showupforshabbat . It is a chance for all of us to be there – for the community and with the community – to spend some time. Together.
Thought for the Week
Friday 26 October 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
Two stories of hospitality are set next to each other in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira. In the first, ninety-nine year old Abraham, recovering from his circumcision, is sitting at the entrance of his tent and sees three men passing by. Anxious to offer them some respite from their journey, he runs to meet them, brings out some water for them to rinse their feet and urges Sarah to prepare food for them.
In the second story, the visitors, accompanied by Abraham, make their way towards Sodom – the city that has already made a name for itself on account of its crime rate.
It is here that Abraham pleads on behalf of the innocent in the city, bargaining with God to save the remnant of those who are blameless: ‘Will you indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked…Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’ (Genesis 18:25)
As the men arrive in Sodom, they are greeted by Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who has made his home in what the midrash describes as a den of iniquity, rife with murder, fraud, sexual incontinence and deliberately created destitution. He offers an obsequious welcome to the visitors – ‘bowing all the way to the ground.’ He gives them water and a festive meal, but there the comparisons with Abraham cease. For scarcely have his guests digested their meal, than the men of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand that the visitors come out, ‘so that we can have them.’ The implication is sexual and Lot, in an attempt to protect the men, offers instead his virgin daughters – female rape being the lesser of two evils in his eyes.
What is it that distinguishes the hospitality offered by Abraham from that offered by Lot? In the former, there is an urgency in the way that Abraham sets about preparing for his unexpected guests: he runs to greet them, he hurries towards the tent to ask Sarah to prepare food and then runs to the herd to take a young calf, gives it to his servant who quickly prepares it. This elderly man, convalescing, is solicitous, respectful, generous and modest – he gives the men space to compose themselves, ‘Let me bring a bit of bread and you can restore yourselves…’ And after the hors d’oeuvres, there is a plentiful repast of meat.
By contrast, there is an unspoken indolence about Lot, he gets up, rather than runs to greet his guests, he pressures them to enter his house; we know only that he makes a ‘feast’ for them, no details are given of the preparation. The treatment of the guests by the townspeople is hostile and violent as they advance to break down Lot’s door and Lot responds to the brutality with a willingness to subject his own daughters to vicious abuse.
It is from the first story of Abraham and others in Tanakh, as well as the welcome and generosity to be shown to the ger – the ‘stranger’ who is to be treated with particular kindness, that the Rabbis derived the ethical principle of hakhnasat or’chim – literally ‘the bringing in of guests’ or hospitality. There is a singular pleasure in welcoming guests into one’s home and into our congregation, not only close friends and family, but those who are away from home and might otherwise face the celebration of Shabbat and festivals on their own, as well as those who are curious about Judaism.
Looking after guests and strangers – in our home, in our synagogue, in our cities – is so important that the Rabbis used to say that hospitality is even more important than prayer, even greater than receiving the divine presence.
And Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who did so much to break down barriers of suspicion and who challenged those who were hostile to difference, in one of the last things he wrote before he died, said that how we are with the stranger in our midst is a barometer of the kind of society we wish to create.
It is a far easier thing to mingle with those who are like ourselves, whose language, culture and customs are already familiar to us. Reaching out to those who are different, who are not like ourselves, requires us to leave aside self-interest, to cultivate an empathetic curiosity and desire for friendship, to care so deeply for someone that their circumstances and destiny matter to us as much as our own.
Can we imagine a world, without pressure, hostility or suspicion? A world which is governed by Abraham’s gentle invitation to his guests to eat a little food and so find restoration of soul? Perhaps, when we find that composure and peace in our own hearts, we will find it in ourselves to live according to the principle of hakhnasat or’chim – showing hospitality to others.
Thought for the Week
Friday 19 October 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
This past Shabbat we tried something new at Rimon, we invited the parents of our Rimon students to stay for 15 minutes after drop off to study text together. I arrived Shabbat morning and optimistically set the table for 15, I imagined we would have some extra chairs. What a pleasant surprise when 25 parents joined the conversation.
We began with a short D’var Torah around the importance of teaching our children and then went around the room to introduce ourselves to one another. I asked each parent to reflect on the one thing they most hope their child gains from having a Jewish education.
There were two words repeated over and over again by the parents of the room: community and identity. Many of the parents spoke about wanting their child to have a Jewish community, some parents reflected on what it meant for them to grow up in the midst of a Jewish community and their hope to create a similar community for their children. Many parents shared that they hope their child has a stronger sense of their own identity by attending Rimon, that they feel rooted in text and tradition and culture and are proud of their Jewish heritage. Others shared that they weren’t raised within formal Jewish education and they are learning alongside their children. Many parents shared that as an interfaith couple the Jewish partner felt significant pressure to provide their child with a Jewish education and that they joined Rimon in order to share and get support with this responsibility of educating their children.
Afterwards parents commented on how wonderfully diverse our Rimon community is, we had parents there from the USA, from Mexico, from France, from Austria and other countries as well. After the formal conversation had finished some of the parents stayed and schmoozed and developed relationships with one another.
Identity and Community, self and other, I was very moved to hear these words repeated by so many of our Rimon parents.
As I know from my own personal experience, it can be challenging being a parent in our fast paced modern world. Children have so many demands on their time with academic, athletic and social engagements. It truly is wonderful how many of our LJS families choose to take the time and invest the energy to bring their child to the LJS on Saturday to instill in their child a sense of community and identity.
There is a scheduled 15 minute break during Rimon for the children to have a snack and have some unstructured time with their classmates. After starting the morning with the parents of Rimon and hearing the desire for community and identity it was such a treat to see the children at break together. They fill the halls of the building, sitting and sharing food and conversation. Walking through the halls during break you hear a chorus of children telling stories and laughing. How lucky we are at The LJS to have Rimon, Dov and Debi lead the community with intention and commitment and the teachers gift the students by coming on Shabbat morning ready to lovingly share with the children the text, values and history of our faith.
We will be having Rimon parent gatherings once a month, I am greatly looking forward to our gathering in November as all of us continue to build our sense of community and identity.
There is a famous Midrash that shares the narrative of the Israelites at Sinai ready to receive the Torah. Before God was willing to give the Torah to the Israelites God requested guarantors to ensure that the Israelites would indeed commit themselves to Torah.
First the Israelites offered their elders, “Our forefathers will be our guarantors.” God would not accept the forefathers as the guarantors of the Torah.
Next the Israelites offered the prophets as the guarantors, again God would not give the Torah with the prophets as the identified guarantors.
Finally the Israelites said: “Our children will be our guarantors.” To which God replied: “In truth these are good guarantors. For their sake I will give it to you.” (Canticles Rabbah, 1:4)
Our children will be our future leaders, we are blessed at the LJS to have parents and teachers who take seriously the responsibility of building for our future.
Thought for the Week
Friday 12 October 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
After the Flood in this week’s parashah, comes the story of the Tower of Babel – a tale that explains why people were ‘condemned’ to speak different languages and prevented from understanding each other.
All this is told in a terse and concise nine verses in Chapter 11 of Genesis at the end of the sedra. Va-yehi chol-ha-aretz safah echat – “All the earth had the same language and the same words” is a story, not only about the diversity of the nations and language, but also about the origins of Babylon, the empire that will eventually oppress Israel.
The earth’s population wanders from the east and comes to a valley in the land of Shinar and settles there. But like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and those who corrupted the earth in the generation of Noah, the inhabitants of Shinar want to go a step too far. ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the earth’ (11:4).
In a rare ‘appearance’, God ‘comes down’ to look at the city and the tower built by the people and seeing that no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach, he confuses their speech so that no one is able to understand what the other is saying and then scatters them over all the earth. That is why, says the text, the name of the place was called Babel (Babylon) because from there, God ‘balal ‘– confused the speech of all the earth, God created a babel of sound among humanity.
In contemporary literature, William Golding’s 1964 novel, The Spire is a kind of contemporary midrash on the story of the Tower of Babel. The Dean of a cathedral directs the construction of a tall spire – said to be based on the spire of Salisbury Cathedral – against the advice of the master builder and many others. At great cost – physical, financial and spiritual – those who drive forward the ill-fated project, become corrupted and damaged, ambition and blind folly bringing about their downfall.
So too, in a rabbinic midrashic commentary on the Tower of Babel, the tower reaches to such height, that it takes a year to climb to the top. Said the rabbis: a brick was more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it, but if a brick dropped, they wept because it would take a year to replace it.
Yet, despite this over-reaching ambition, the punishment is ‘less’ than that of the Flood. Divine response mirrors human action very precisely. While the people want to make a name for themselves and prevent dispersion over all the earth, the very opposite happens. The name that is made for these people is ignominious, they are dispersed throughout the earth and their speech is confused.
The story is designed to reflect adversely on Babylon but this is a story about language and words – the language and words that lie at the heart of the Jewish chain of tradition, the words that flow through generations of parents and children, scholars, teachers and students, ordinary men and women. ‘Ours is not a bloodline but a textline,’ write Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, in their book Jews and Words; we belong to a ‘lineage of literacy’. We see the whole world and our own lives as a text to be passed on – laws, traditions, stories, blessings, prayers. – from one generation to another.
Does the story of the Tower of Babel, therefore, undercut this dependence for our survival on language? Not at all! It is only when we use language to ‘make a name for ourselves’, to distort, to self-aggrandise, to bend dishonestly to our will, that words fall opaque like stones on hard ground, without their resonance of truth and integrity.
But when our words fall as the rain, our speech ‘distils as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass’ (Deuteronomy 32:2), gently, irrevocably, soundlessly, with the transparency of crystalline quartz, then our words bear the truth and resonance of their telling.
Thought for the Week
Friday 5 October 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
After the reading of Bereshit on Monday at Simchat Torah, the congregation formed a large circle in the Sanctuary and slowly and carefully, our student Rabbi, Igor Zinkov, unrolled the scroll from the very end of Deuteronomy all the way back to Genesis and so prepared the scroll for the new cycle of readings which begin again this Shabbat.
It was moving to be able, as it were, to walk through the pages of the Torah – to connect individuals with where they were standing: one member visibly affected as she was holding the k’laf (parchment) on which the Shema was written; another moved by ‘her’ bit – the Priestly Blessing and the whole of the choir, together with Tim Farrell, the LJS’s long-serving organist, arranged behind Moses’ Song at the Sea and the reference to Miriam’s timbrels.
The opening chapter of Bereshit gives rise to a number of midrashim about the ambivalence of human creation. Mindful of humanity’s bent towards evil, the Rabbis – in an audacious and highly imaginative midrash – created this commentary on the phrase, ‘Na’aseh adam’ – ‘let us make humankind.’
‘Said Rabbi Shimon: When the Holy One came to create the first human being, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, ‘Let it be created,’ whilst others urged, ‘Let it not be created.’ For so it is written, ‘Love and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace combated each other’ (Psalm 85:11). Love said, ‘Let it be created, because it will dispense acts of love’; Truth said, ‘Let it not be created, because it is compounded of falsehood’; Righteousness said, ‘Let it be created, because it will perform righteous deeds’; Peace said, ‘Let it not be created, because it is full of strife.’ What did God do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground. The ministering angels said: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Why do you despise your seal of Truth? Let Truth arise from the earth!’ Hence it is written, ‘Let truth spring up from the earth’ (Psalm 85:12).
And while the ministering angels were thus arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One created the first human being and said to the angels: ‘There is nothing you can do to prevent the creation of the first human being. It has already been made!’
The midrash captures God’s commitment to humanity. However much the divine heart is aggrieved by the capacity for harm and evil in human beings – a grief and resentment against the world that culminates in the Flood later on in Genesis – there is divine recognition that if human beings did not exist, there would be no capacity for acts of loving kindness and no righteous deeds would ever be performed. And the strength of this aspect of human kind – the compassionate, wise, just, generous, hospitable, kind, loving qualities that are found in ordinary and exceptional beings, seems to outweigh, at least in God’s mind, the falsehood and strife of which we are also capable.
This idea of God, as it were, trumping the ministering angels, saying, ‘Too late. Here is one I have already made!’ suggests an optimistic view of human kind. God has given us free will; we can choose how to live our lives – truth or falsehood, kindness or cruelty, generosity or meanness, compassion or indifference. And even if through omission or commission, we err from the path of the good life, there is in Judaism, a remarkable mechanism, not for complete eradication evil and harm, for the consequences will always remain, but at least for re-setting our moral thermostat. Teshuvah – repentance is the process that is central to the festivals we have just celebrated, notably Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But it is not exclusive to them.
For even if we were to recite one blessing each day, then let us choose the blessing that helps us to overcome the harmful inclinations which the angels thought would overwhelm the human condition and eclipse our inclination towards good:
Help us, our Creator, to return to your Torah; draw us near, our Sovereign, to Your service; and bring us back into Your presence in perfect repentance. Baruch attah Adonai, ha-rotzeh bit’shuvah – We praise You, O God: You delight in repentance.
‘No one sets a true, great task for themselves,’ wrote Leo Baeck in This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence. ‘One can only accept and meet the demands of a day, for the noble task endures and remains.’
As we return to the beginning of the Torah, to the stories that have informed the lives and experiences of generations of our people, let us dedicate ourselves to ‘meeting the demands of a day’ and renewing our connection to our Jewish heritage and its teachings of goodness and hope.
Thought for the Week
Friday 28 September 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
It is something of a mystery to me how a people whose existence and history stretch back nearly four thousand years, have managed to pass on the sacred stories and laws of the Torah, from one generation to another, even until today.
If we were to pass on nothing else to our children – no other texts from the Talmud, nor the great mediaeval philosophers such as Maimonides, nor commentaries like that of Rashi – even if we neglected to pass on the observances of Shabbat, its home rituals of lighting candles and saying Kiddush, or the festivals, or the act of prayer at home or at synagogue – we must surely hand on this remarkable collection of books we call the Torah.
From the magnificent epic poem of creation at the very beginning of Genesis, to the poignant verses that relate the death of Moses, alone on Mount Nebo, and everything in between, this is our story, these are our laws and they represent what Isidore Epstein describes as ‘Israel’s intellectual and cultural heritage of millennia.’
This is revelation, not in the sense of a verbatim dictation from God to Moses on Mount Sinai, but in the sense that it discloses fundamental truths about the right way to build a good society. It reveals uneasy truths about humanity and family life, about nationhood and difference, about conflict and war, order and chaos, rebellion and respect – about the way of the world.
This is also a book about God. From the first moment of creation to the last words of Deuteronomy, we are aware of God’s Presence in the universe – in those opening words, ‘Let there be light’ that bring the earth into existence; in the closing chapter as God buries Moses in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor, like a parent burying a child.
How did these stories come down to us? Did parents tell them to their children as part of an oral tradition? Or were there perhaps poets and song leaders versed in traditional poetics and storytelling who sang or read these oral texts, re-telling and reinterpreting them in each generation?
At what point, did priests and sages write down these stories and laws? When did these texts cease to be an oral tradition and become written, canonised and enshrined for future generations? Perhaps that oral tradition has never faded, for the Torah is heard by listeners every week in synagogue, the stories are told to our children, to us, and as we retell them, so we reinterpret them for our own age and give them immediacy and meaning.
Simchat Torah – which we will celebrate on Sunday evening and Monday by taking all the scrolls out of the Ark, joyously processing and dancing with them as though our very life depended on them – reminds us that, as Jews, we must all become skilled listeners of Torah, for this is our life and the length of our days and without it how can we understand our responsibilities to each other and to this intricate, utterly beautiful world that has been entrusted to us to pass on to others?
Even if we were to observe nothing else of our Judaism, the Torah is addressed to each one of us and it is part of who we are as Jews. Even God – the magnificent author of creation, the Giver of promises, the Subject of dreams, the Law Enforcer, the Fountain of all wisdom, the Source of light and love, of compassion and justice – cannot be ignored. God – who breathes into us the yearning for goodness and morality, who exacts from us a concern for humanity and all creatures – this Spirit, the Spirit of the Jewish people, cannot be ignored or excised from our existence.
The Torah is our tree of life – may we take hold of it, quite literally, on this forthcoming festival and hold fast to it. For its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Thought for the Week
Friday 21 September 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
It is past midnight. In anticipation of Sukkot – and we haven’t yet constructed our tiny Sukkah yet – the rain is beating on the window and I can hear the wind stirring through the trees. Those last lingering moments of Yom Kippur are over for another year. Where has the day gone? Where the opportunities for expressions of remorse and regret, for confession and seeking forgiveness? They have slipped away and I wonder if I used those hours well – whether I found that consonance between the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart. I suspect – no, I know – that there is still much work to be done.
Suddenly, in the aftermath of this Day of Atonement, I realise how hard it is to eliminate the bad habits, to become the person I’d really like to be.
Perhaps that is why Sukkot comes so quickly after Yom Kippur – barely five days in which to recover from this extraordinary period of prayer, penitence and seeking pardon. Five days to turn from contemplation of ourselves, to gratitude for the blessings of the earth. Five days to turn from thoughts of sin and mortality, to goodness and life.
And five days to prepare for the three mitzvot, essential to our celebration of Sukkot and which define the underlying significance of the festival.
Firstly, is the command to build a Sukkah – a temporary structure of four walls, covered with a roof of green foliage and branches. Weather permitting, the custom is to eat in the Sukkah, if not for the whole week, then perhaps symbolically – a morning cup of tea, Kiddush on Friday evening. Not all of us can create a Sukkah, particularly if we have no outdoor space, but the synagogue’s Sukkah is spacious and by Erev Sukkot on Sunday, there will be hanging fruits and plenty of s’kach – greenery decorating the walls and roof. It is the temporary nature of the Sukkah that reminds us, not only of our history as wandering refugees in the desert, but of the impermanence of our lives.
The second mitzvah is to take the arba’ah minim – the four species. Of all the mitzvot in Jewish life, this is one of the most beautiful and most moving. Assembling the lulav (palm branch), together with the willow to its left and myrtle on the right into their little holders, and then taking them together with the etrog (in our left hand) is so very different from the other mitzvot we perform throughout the year. What does it mean to stand and wave these plants and fruit in six different directions? An ancient waving ritual and dance to bring the Autumn rain? A reminder of the ancient midrash that each of the species symbolises four different kinds of Jews; or that each of the species represents part of our anatomy, held together to express our desire to praise and serve God with each part of being?
And thirdly is the mitzvah to rejoice – to see in the Sukkah and the waving of the lulav a profound sense of joy in the blessings of the earth.
And so, even as the wind gathers force and the raindrops beat more fiercely against the window pane and the sounds of the night herald the changing season, each of these mitzvot discloses something of the mystery and beauty of the universe and calls us to live simply and in consonance with the rhythms of the seasons, with the cycle of the moon, with the unspoilt loveliness of the earth and all that grows and lives in it.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach.
Thought for the Week
Thursday 13 September 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
This Shabbat we celebrate Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat in the midst of our 10 days of self reflection. I want to share with you some thoughts that I have been focusing on during this sacred time.
Over the last 10 years Dr. Carol Dweck, faculty at Stanford has been running experiments on 400 fifth graders, aged 10-11, in New York City. These experiments have tried to determine whether praise for one’s intelligence boosts one’s confidence. The book, NurtureShock: New Thinking about Parenting explores Dweck’s experiments and subsequent conclusions.
These 400 students were taken out of their classrooms and given non-verbal IQ tests. First, they were given a puzzle easy enough that all students were expected to do well. Upon completing the test the children were given one line of praise only. Half of them received praise on their intelligence, they were told, “You must be smart at this.” The other half was praised for their effort, being told “You must have worked really hard.”
The students were then given a choice for the second set of tests. They could choose a test more difficult than the first or they could choose a test at the same difficulty level. The vast majority of those praised for their effort chose the harder puzzle set. Whereas a majority of those who were praised for their smarts chose the easier test.
All the fifth graders were then given a test beyond their capacity. Anecdotally those whose efforts had been praised seemed to enjoy the challenge more than those who were told they were smart. They were then, after this round of forced failure, given a final round of tests that were at the same level as the first easy round. The scores of those praised for their efforts increased by 30%, those who were told they were smart did 20% worse than they had originally performed.
Dweck comments on her research saying, “When we praise children for their intelligence we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes…” she continues “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control, they come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
This book argues that the more young people are encouraged to understand that effort leads to accomplishment rather than believing in their inherent smarts or skills the more successful they are and the less fearful they are of failure.
While this book is about children, the same can be true of adults. Those who believe they have an inherent gift at something may be less willing to take chances, not wanting their Achilles heel to be uncovered to themselves or to others. Additionally, the satisfaction that one receives from their actions may be diminished as the focus may not be on the task at hand but rather on upholding their image.
We are in the midst of a 10 day journey of bettering ourselves. These holy days emphasize the importance of seeing effort over inherent skill. Judaism argues that we are all born b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. In our morning prayer we recite Elohai n’shama shenatati bi, t’horah hi, My God, the soul you have given me is pure. Throughout our texts we have examples of the purity of the souls within each of us. However, it is a challenge, a sacred, beautiful and never ending challenge attempting to determine how these pure souls, these godly souls within each of us, within all of humanity, will find their way into this human world we inhabit together. None of us are born with the inherent knowledge of how to live, living righteously is learned, through mistakes and through risk taking. These 10 days acknowledge the divine spark, the inherent goodness and potential within all of us but the focus is on where we have missed the mark.
And we have missed the mark. All of us. All too often self reflection comes in the form of digging within oneself to find out who we really are. What are our inherent skills? What is our very nature? Perhaps, this year if we were to focus not on who we are but rather on what areas we want to try harder we will be able to accomplish more, we will be able to get closer to the mark than we have the previous year. We limit ourselves by overly defining our inherent skills and not believing in our potential for growth with effort.
What might this new year look like if we approach it unafraid of failure, if instead we are able to focus with pride on our efforts and be self-forgiving when the outcome isn’t what we had hoped for.
In Pirkei Avot we have the well known words of Ben Zoma, Who is wise? The one who learns from every person. Who is brave? The one who subdues his negative inclination. Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has. Who is honored? The one who gives honor to others. The wise person is the one who learns, the brave person is the one who can subdue himself, the rich person is appreciative and the honored person gives honor. Our actions not our inherent abilities define us. During this holy season may we recommit ourselves to learning, experimentation, and growth.
Thought for the Week
Thursday 6 September 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
The end of the summer seems to have come suddenly – no more the languid days of August, the sticky nights, the dry heat, burning the grass and turning prematurely to copper and gold the leaves on the trees. London is filled again with the bustle of people returning from holidays and there is a sense of anticipation for a new year, with all its excitement and an apprehension about what this time will bring.
Last Saturday night, members of the LJS were privileged to listen to the baritone, Simon Wallfisch, accompanied by Simon Haynes on the piano come together with a recital of songs before the Selichot service. Listening to both texts and music, I wondered how they could help me take those first and faltering steps into the terrain of the Days of Awe, the Yamim Nora’im. Could they remove the carapace of indifference and callousness, could they touch me in ways that would open me to greater empathy, kindness, tenderness to my fellow human beings and all living creatures?
Here were words by Erika Taube, set to music by her husband the Galician born composer, Carlo S. Taube. Both were murdered in Auschwitz, together with their child in 1944:
You are a child like all the many
All over the entire world
Like all the others, playing,
And yet, you are so different, child.
The song was written in in 1942 in Terezín, where Taube conducted the band and orchestra. Who is the child addressed in the poem? His own child, for whom freedom in the streets of Vienna or Prague was an unknown, a child ‘without a homeland’, in every place a stranger? Or a child of our own time, a child separated from its parents, unaccompanied, stranded somewhere on the continent, without a homeland or bed, a stranger in a strange place? Is your heart ‘untethered’ still? Is there hope that your youth is not entirely spent or wasted, is there time for you still to sit at the feet of your teachers, to know the warmth of family love, instead of this hostile environment? I think of a family at our monthly Drop-in – three beautiful little boys and their parents. The father has just been granted Leave to Remain – ‘I held my breath for twenty years’, he said.
Simon’s song recital was followed by an exquisitely lyrical song composed by Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, with words by Goethe:
Over every treetop is peace,
on every summit you hardly hear
The little birds are silent in the forest.
Just wait, soon, you too will be at peace.
How does the sound of music convey that peace and silence of which the poet speaks? A hushed breathlessness, the notes rising into nothing, the voice gliding over gentle arpeggios, slow, barely audible; the silence of forest of trees, the anticipation of our own mortality? The held breath of an asylum seeker?
And then, Ravel’s extraordinarily beautiful, mournful Hebrew Melody, written in 1914 with words from the Kaddish. How did Ravel know of this music and these words? And what inspired him to write his Hebrew Melodies? Had he visited a synagogue at Yom Kippur and heard the moving chant of this prayer? Or did someone show him the manuscripts of synagogue cantorial music? Ravel himself wrote of this discovery:
‘I was attracted to the strange and haunting beauty of Jewish music. I felt almost as though I had been brought into a new musical world when a few authentic Jewish melodies were brought to my notice. I was so bewitched by the mysterious colour and exotic charm of these melodies that for weeks I could not get this music out of my mind. Then my imagination was set aflame.’
The voice in this Hebrew Melody is isolated, wandering above a sparse, taut and austere piano accompaniment, that haunting line, as the composer describes, sustained, full of yearning, dark, against tense and discordant chords, until at last the piano and voice come together, the voice taking off again, daringly, a virtuoso of dazzling notes, the piano unyielding.
It is these songs and chants that stay with me in these last days of the old year. Music and texts draw my attention to the world and its precious beauty, the purity of the air, miles of moorland covered with heather, the dark silence of the forest where even the little birds are silent. How lovely is God’s world! And yet, still a child goes hungry and grows up without the opportunities of others. Can a man hold his breath for twenty years and not be hurt, or wander from continent to continent to find a place to rest his head? Is it not a person’s right to breathe in that pure air, to be free, to be able to work, to provide shelter and food for one’s family, to have dignity?
We enter the Days of Awe alone, like the voice of Ravel’s Hebrew Melody, isolated and wandering in an austere and difficult world, struggling to making sense of the uncertainties and enigmas that are before us. This is the world and its destiny – it changes, we change, we cannot foresee what will come upon us in the coming year, what challenges and triumphs. Therefore we hold on to the words of an ancient prayer, sung by generations – V’yamlich malchuteih b’chayyechon u’v’yomeychon… ‘May the Eternal One establish His sovereignty during the days of our life and the life of all…’ to remind us that although it is not our responsibility alone to complete the work of mending this fragmented world, we are not at liberty to hide ourselves and turn away from it.
May this season help us to know our true responsibilities, not only to ourselves and our dear ones, but to uphold a shared responsibility that reaches beyond our own immediate concerns.
Shabbat Shalom and l’shanah tovah tikkateivu – May you and your dear ones be inscribed for a healthy and peaceful New Year.
Thought for the Week
Thursday 30 August 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
It has been with much appreciation and respect that I have had the opportunity to get to know many of you over the last two months since I began my work as part-time Rabbi. In my short time here I have seen a glimpse of the depth and breadth of this community. The character of the LJS was shown in the varied experiences I have participated in over the last two months: in the commitment and intention of the volunteers at the last drop-in Centre, by the eagerness and joy of the young children participating in Rimon, by the compassion and energy of the 4C’s committee, by the commitment and wisdom of the council, by those who attend services with an open heart, by the tireless work of the amazing staff, and that is just naming a few of the examples. I deeply look forward to meeting more of you during High Holidays and getting to know you better as we learn and pray together over the coming months and years.
This Saturday evening we will be coming together at the LJS for Selichot. The service of selichot is an ancient ritual, in Sephardic communities Selichot happens at the beginning of the month of Elul, in Ashkenaz communities the service takes place the week before Rosh Hashanah. The first mention of the Selichot ritual is from the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon from the 9th century. With the liturgy and music of Selichot we get a glimpse of the liturgy that will lead us through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we feel the locked doors of our hearts begin to open as we reflect on what we need to do to enter into this holiday season ready for transformation.
During Selichot we begin the spiritual work of allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable to the experience of the Days of Awe. Our prayers become focused on teshuvah (repentence), on how we want to turn or shift our approach to ourselves, to those around us and to the divine in the coming year. In the Talmud Berakhot 34b:22 we are given this lesson on teshuva, “R. Abbahu teaches: The place where those who do teshuva stand, the perfectly righteous are unable to stand.” The person who sins and repents and adjusts their behaviour is holier than the one who does not sin.
Many believe that Elul is the month of the Hebrew calendar when we have the most intimate relationship with God. There is a commentary that the month’s name Elul (aleph, lamed, vuv, lamed) is actually an acronym for Ani l’dodi v’dod li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” This text from Song of Songs is often used at weddings and in Ketubot (the Jewish marriage contract). In the month of Elul God is our beloved, we enter into an intimate relationship of vulnerability and openness as we do the hard spiritual work of repentance and growth.
As I approach the Days of Awe this year I am very aware of all of the transitions in my life. We left our home and friends and family in America and are now slowly setting our roots here in London. This transition for us has involved saying “l’hitraot” (see you soon) to our community, it has involved setting up our children at a new school, my husband beginning a new job and my start here at the LJS. I am personally looking forward to the High Holy Days this year, to have the opportunity through prayer and study to focus not on the logistical transitions I am in the midst of but rather what is deeper within: How have I missed the mark this last year? Where should my focus be this coming year? How am I acting as God’s partner in this world? I imagine that you may find yourself in the same position, looking forward to the High Holy Days as an opportunity to step back from life’s logistics and to turn your focus inward.
My hope for all of us is that we spend the days before Rosh Hashanah preparing ourselves, whether by attending Selichot or engaging in our own personal preparations of the soul, so that we enter the Synagogue doors on Rosh Hashanah open to the potential of transformation and growth.
Thought for the Week
Thursday 23 August 2018
Dear Members and Friends,
Two weeks ago, when we held our Drop-in at the LJS, I met a young woman who had been trafficked from her native country to Western Europe and sold into prostitution by her ex-fiancé.
Mikela is not her real name. She is nineteen years old, had finished school in Albania where she had done well academically and was hoping to go to university. She spoke good English, which she said she had learnt at school. She trusted the man to whom she had become engaged and had the support of her parents who wanted her to marry. But the man she thought she knew and trusted, took her to Italy and sold her into prostitution. The details around her journey and escape are murky. Somehow she managed to escape her captors, hid in a lorry with other women and was brought to England where she applied for asylum.
There is no possibility of Mikela returning to Albania. She is scared that her ex-fiancé will find her, and her parents – her father, especially – from traditional Muslim backgrounds, have rejected her. It is not uncommon for families to blame their daughters for being trafficked into prostitution. They do not see them as victims, but as the cause of shame and dishonour on their families.
Sadly, these accounts of trafficked women are not isolated. The loss of hope, of aspirations, the exhaustion and profound fear that these women experience is palpable. I think of other young women I know of a similar age, pursuing university degrees or careers, living independent and fulfilling lives, with the support of a loving and accepting family. It is so difficult to put oneself in the shoes of this young woman, still a teenager, cut off from her parents and siblings, now in the interminable asylum queue as she must wait for the Home Office to decide whether she can be granted Leave to Remain.
In front of me lies open the Torah with this week’s parashah, Ki Tetzé. One might be forgiven for imagining that Deuteronomy has a preoccupation with sexual relations. There are laws that permit taking captive women who are prisoners of war, rules concerning sexual misconduct, false and true accusations of unchastity, penalties for adultery, rape, prostitution and laws prohibiting sexual intercourse among family members – what are known as prohibited degrees of consanguinity.
Not all of them make comfortable reading. An Israelite warrior is permitted to take captive and marry a ‘beautiful woman’ if he ‘desires’ her; a woman is stoned to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night, adulterous couples, similarly, are to be put to death; a virgin who is raped by a man must marry the rapist ‘because he has violated her’.
Of course, there is a way of reading some of these laws as protection for the women – a violated woman can never be divorced from the man who forced her to have sex, because her ‘dishonour’ would forbid her to other men. But the Torah also reminds us that the status of women was subordinate to their fathers and then their husbands, and that women like Dinah, Tamar, the daughter of David, the nameless concubine in the Book of Judges and others, women who were dishonoured and violated in terrible ways, were victims of male abuse of power. Just as Mikela is a victim of male abuse of power in the 21st century.
I return to the verses of Ki Tetzé and will read some of them this Shabbat, because they help to keep in mind the women like Mikela and millions of others who are today’s victims, whose stories must be told and brought into the open, so that their abusers can be brought to justice and the shocking and endless cycle of abuse and violation of women and children brought to an end.
There is no difference between being raped
and being pushed down a flight of cement steps
except that the wounds also bleed inside.
There is no difference between being raped
and being run over by a truck
except that afterward men ask if you enjoyed it…
There is no difference between being raped
and going head first through a windshield
except that afterward you are afraid
not of cars
but half the human race….
Fear of rape is a cold wind blowing
all of the time on a woman’s hunched back.
Never to stroll alone on a sand road through pine woods,
never to climb a trail across a bald
without that aluminum in the mouth
when I see a man climbing toward me….. (From ‘Rape Poem’ by Marge Piercy)
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
I was not one of the 68 Rabbis from across the different religious denominations, who signed a letter to the Guardian on 16 July, 2018, urging the Labour Party to ‘adopt the full and unamended International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism including its examples.’
Why not? What stopped me from putting my name to a letter, written with regret to acknowledge that ‘antisemitism within sections of the Labour party has become so severe and widespread’ that it is necessary to speak out with one Jewish voice?
What prevented me from accusing the Labour Party’s leadership of choosing to ignore ‘those who understand antisemitism the best, the Jewish community,’ and charging them for rewriting a definition of anti-Semitism, accepted by the ‘Crown Prosecution Service, College of Policing, the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the National Union of Students, and 124 local authorities, including scores of Labour-held councils…and accepted by the vast majority of Jewish people in Britain and globally.’
The IHRA, (formerly the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research), was initiated in 1998 by former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson. Today, there are 31 member countries of the IHRA, combating Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and focusing on accurate and sensitive remembrance of history with a view to informing contemporary policy making.
I am fully aware that, as well as the National Executive Committee (NEC), there are those – including some members of the Jewish academic world – who do not regard the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism as the final word on the matter. Some argue it is ‘deeply flawed’, ‘vague,’ and as a ‘working definition’ of antisemitism, say that it should be developed and refined.
I am also aware that the IHRA definition is, in fact, endorsed and identical in Labour’s code: ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’
So why is the leadership of the Jewish community and the Jewish press, who last week pulled off the stunt of publishing the same headline in all three Jewish newspapers, so vehemently angry that the NEC has now produced its own code on anti-Semitism?
Is it because the examples of one text are correct and in the other, incorrect? Is this really a quarrel about a codified definition of anti-Semitism and its examples? Or a political brawl that wants to see the ousting of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader? Or is it about the freedom of individuals to criticise Israel’s government policies and defend the rights of Palestinians?
I listened to the recording of Peter Willsman, a member of the NEC and an ally of Jeremy Corbyn as he attacked my 68 colleagues who had signed the letter to the Guardian. As he grew more and more agitated, ignoring a voice that tried to stop him, he accused members of the Jewish community of being ‘Trump supporters’ and making up allegations of anti-Semitism. Were the tone of his voice not so disturbing and so full of loathing, his comments would have been laughable.
He is just one of a number of individuals who have voiced quite despicable and blatantly racist remarks against Jews. It is hard to believe that scarcely seventy years after the Second World War, in living memory of those who lost family members in the death camps or arrived here as refugees, we have come to this.
So why did I not sign the letter? Why not simply join my colleagues to declare my disgust at the level of expressed anti-Semitic posts, twitter feeds and verbal assaults in certain sections of the Labour Party? Surely, after the way that Margaret Hodge, Ian Austin and others have been treated, each one of my colleagues’ signatures is a vindication of such a letter.
I wish I could say that I examined the letter carefully, thought about the issues over time and then decided not to sign. But that is not exactly the truth. The truth is that I find the whole issue confusing and disturbing; I asked myself, is this the letter I would write were I to put pen to paper? Did I really want to become part of a communal debate that seems to have lost its way and where no one listens to each other? Do we solve anything by shouting headlines at each other? I don’t believe we should dignify the racist slurs and anti-Semitic comments that are thoughtlessly, ignorantly and maliciously expressed on Twitter and other social media.
We need to take a step back and reflect on whether communal anger and tribal politics will get us anywhere in this bitter so-called debate. Anti-Semitism and racism of any kind should never be tolerated. But we need to be careful that we don’t become embroiled in a spiral of arguments that will get us nowhere other than in a deeply dark and unpopular place.
We have known what it means to be branded as victims of anti-Semitism; six million of our very own people were murdered in the Shoah because they were Jews and the object of Nazi hatred. We are, understandably, deeply sensitive and fragile when it comes to issues of anti-Semitism, but this does not mean we can act intemperately and with impunity. The more our populist Jewish newspapers rile the Labour Party, the more certain individuals will dig in their heels even further and cease to listen to what we have to say as Jews.
I did not sign the letter to the Guardian because I wanted to step back, to stop, reflect and listen to what is really going on behind these loud headlines on the one hand, and to understand what it is about the silence of Labour’s leadership that I find sinister and unmoving, on the other. I don’t know if there is a rabbinic response to this complex and difficult issue. There may be several different responses.
But I do know that the Torah, at its very heart, teaches us to listen (Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel). It teaches us the principles of reverence and humility, love and service. It teaches us that stiff-necked humanity is not the centre of all existence, but rather an Unseen Presence who upholds the cause of the needy and vulnerable and befriends the stranger. This should be our moral compass, for this is what the Jewish people have to contribute to society; to defend our own cause, yes, but also to defend the cause of all those who are oppressed or persecuted.
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
I was moved this week to read of a young Swedish student’s lone act of protest to prevent an asylum seeker being forcibly returned to Afghanistan. Elin Ersson bought a ticket from Gothenburg to Turkey, but refused to take her seat until an Afghan man, who was being removed by the Swedish authorities, was taken off the plane. Facing both applause and hostility from fellow passengers, she said: ‘I don’t want a man’s life to be taken away just because you don’t want to miss your flight…What is more important a life or your time?’
It is the courage and probity of this young woman’s act that moves me most – a declarative act that embodies sayings found in the Mishnah and in a similar form in the Qur’an, that whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.
On Monday, some of my progressive and Masorti colleagues set out to stand outside the Israeli Embassy in London to protest against the arrest of Rabbi Dov Haiyun, a Conservative Rabbi, who had officiated at a non-orthodox wedding in Israel. Unable to gain access to Palace Green and make their presence felt at the Embassy, they stood at the end of the road in High Street Kensington, holding a tallit as a chuppah and placards demanding pluralism and equality and an end to the orthodox monopoly on life-cycle ceremonies in Israel.
Last week, despite thousands protesting in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, the Prime Minister of Israel, Netanyahu, passed a Bill now known as the Nation State Law, a law, which is seen as a further erosion of democratic values in Israel. There is no mention of Israel’s Arab, Druze or Bedouin citizens; Arabic is no longer one of the official languages of Israel, but now has ‘special status.’ It makes no mention of preserving the cultural, historical and religious heritage of minority groups in Israel; nor of the state’s national value on any settlements other than Jewish ones. It does not promote coexistence or flexibility; it is a law that lacks humanity, respect and sensitivity. It is a law that emasculates and declares ‘other’ anyone who is not Jewish.
It subverts completely the Jewish value that cries out from the Torah: ‘Love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ What has happened to our Jewish values? Where is the voice of compassion? How have we lost our ability put ourselves in the shoes of those who are different from us?
I don’t know how we move away from the stridency and extremism of discourse. Where is diplomacy? Where is humility? What has happened to our capacity to listen or to change? What has happened to justice? Can we hear and see what we have become?
Of course, not everyone is pursuing a path towards extremism; not everyone is motivated by religious and ideological fanaticism. If that were the case, we would not have an Elin Ersson in Sweden, or colleagues in the USA and here in the UK promoting pluralism and tolerance, nor would we find Israelis in the streets of Tel Aviv defending the rights of minorities in Israel, whether Arabs, Druze and Bedouin, or LGBTQI people.
In this hot, dry summer, fields and heaths consumed by wildfires, with its shrivelled harvest, its cities choked by toxic effluence, we are becoming too heated and too irritable, too caught up in a language of confrontation and contempt.
We need to take a step back and think about the effect of our words and actions. Not all of us are comfortable in this binary place that pits the so-called ‘good’ against the so-called ‘evil’. That surely is the way of losing hope, of remaining entrenched in static positions, where there is no possibility of moving forward. We are stuck in an ever-recurring cycle of despair and hopelessness.
I hold on to that image of a weeping student in the aisle of a plane standing up for the life of one Afghan asylum seeker. And I hold on to the voices of my colleagues with their placards and tallitot pleading for pluralism and equality; and I listen to those voices of in Rabin Square, refusing to give up hope that Israel can be a home for all its citizens – Arab, Druze, Bedouin, Jews and others.
The world is not all bad; we are not all fanatics. But stand back and listen to the gentler voice of compassion and sensitivity, listen to those who have the capacity to change themselves and therefore change the tone and nuance of debate and listen to those who say, ‘ ’tis not too late to seek a newer world’ (Tennyson, Ulysses).
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
This weekend, in the cycle of our Torah readings, we begin a new book – the book of Deuteronomy. The name ‘Deuteronomy’ comes from the Greek translation of the phrase, Mishneh Torah (Deut. 17:18), meaning ‘second, or repeated, teaching’. The Hebrew name of the book, D’varim, means ‘words’. The Israelites now stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, and the book of Deuteronomy is cast as Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites. It is a most fitting reading this week, as The LJS opens a new chapter, too, in its rabbinic life.
Don’t worry, though, this farewell Shalom LJS message to you is much,
much shorter than Moses’! Words – d’varim – can be used to hurt, and they can be used to heal. The Midrash, D’varim Rabbah (1:6) says of the words of the Torah, ‘just as the honey of the bee is sweet and its sting sharp, so too are the words of Torah…’ They can hit hard, as many of Moses’ words do, in his final speech, reminding the people that their fate depends on their behaviour, and their response to God’s commands and promises.
With regard to words, there is a rabbinic story about Rabbi Shimon ben
Gamliel, who once told his servant, Tevi, to buy the best food in the market. The servant bought tongue. He then instructed his servant to buy the worst food in the market. Tevi again bought tongue. Rabbi Gamliel said to him, ‘What is this? When I asked you to get the best food, you bought me tongue. When I asked you to buy me the worst food, you also bought me tongue!’ Tevi replied, ‘Both good and bad come through the tongue. When the tongue is good, there is nothing better. When it’s bad, there is nothing worse.’ (Va-Yikra Rabbah 33:1)
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of the Vision. The name comes from the first word of the traditional Haftarah portion, Isaiah 1:1-27, describing the ‘vision of Isaiah’. This is the last of three special Haftarot read between Tammuz 17th, when the Babylonians breached the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and the Ninth of Av, Tish’ah B’Av, when they destroyed the Temple, in the year 586 BCE.
There is one word that links the Torah portion, the Haftarah portion, and the book of Lamentations, that is read on Tish’ah B’Av, and that is eikhah. Eikhah can mean both ‘how’, and ‘alas’ (isn’t Hebrew wonderful?). In the Torah portion, Moses, weighed down by the burden of the people, who have become so numerous, cries out, eikhah…’how shall I alone bear the burden of you…?’. In the Haftarah, Isaiah laments the iniquity of the people of Jerusalem, eikhah hay’tah l’zonah… ‘Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city’, and the book of Lamentations begins with these words: eikhah yashvah badad ha-ir, ‘how lonely sits the city once filled with people!’
This is a sobering weekend in the traditional Jewish calendar. Rabbi Elana Dellal will be leading a study session, and an Erev Tish’ah B’Av service on Saturday evening, July 21st, and this will be an opportunity for you to get to know her, and also to discuss with her how we, as Liberal Jews, respond to tragedy.
This time of year reminds us of the consequences of our actions, and enjoins us to engage in the work of Tikkun Olam, doing our part to repair the world. After Tish’ah B’Av, there are seven weeks of Haftarot of comfort and consolation, that then lead us up to Rosh Ha-Shanah, and the contemplation, reflection and introspection of the High Holy Day season.
Last Shabbat, we marked my final service as one of The LJS’ permanent Rabbis and this is my final Shalom LJS message to you. I said ‘Thank You’ to you all in the July/August newsletter, and during the service last weekend. I would like to finish this message with Moses’ words of blessing in this week’s Torah portion:
‘May the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousand fold, and bless you, as promised’ (Deut. 1:12)
Shabbat Shalom and L’hitra’ot (I’ll be seeing you!),
Rabbi Rachel Benjamin
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
This was a simple story of twelve children who entered to explore a cave with their young football coach. When the rains came, the cave flooded and they found themselves with no way of returning to the entrance and cut off from all contact with the outside world. How they existed, what they thought or felt during the nine days of their isolation from the outside world, we will, no doubt, learn as the boys return to health and are allowed to tell their story to the world.
Then, out of the water and darkness, there appeared two British divers. The rescue of the boys could not be undertaken immediately, it would be fraught with danger; the expectation of monsoon rains entering and raising the water level of the caves, the low levels of oxygen, the weak state of the boys, their inability to swim, the impassibility of parts of the underground passages, the prospect of spending perhaps months inside the cave until the waters had subsided. And in the midst of the preparation to bring the boys and their coach out of the caves, the loss of life of one of the divers – a sobering and tragic indication that the story could end badly.
This was the story of Noah and Jonah rolled into one – diluvian waters threatening to extinguish these young lives, a dark, dank, deep environment beneath the earth, with its undiscovered life forms and only the prospect of the waters rising, leaving these boys no way out.
‘The waters closed in over me,
The deep engulfed me.
Weeds twined around my head.
I sank to the base of the mountains;
The bars of the earth closed upon me forever.
Yet You brought my life up from the pit,
O Eternal One my God!
When my life was ebbing away….’ (Jonah 2:6-7)
As the divers from a host of different countries, many unable to communicate in one language, but bound together by a common and urgent task, undertook the rescue of the boys and their coach, families, friends and volunteers gathered at the entrance of the cave, to hear news, to pray, to grieve over the death of one diver but above all, to hope.
In Hebrew, the word for hope is ‘tikvah’ and it comes from a root which may probably have meant to ‘twist’ or ‘stretch’, then of ‘tension’, a sense of enduring and waiting. ‘Tikvah’ also means a ‘cord’ – the red cord that was hung out of the window of Rahab’s family in the Book of Joshua, that would preserve her life and the life of her family.
The diagrams that illustrated the rescue of the boys, show the static rope that guided the divers back to the entrance of the cave – a cord of tension, part of the complex system that would help to save the boys’ lives, but also a symbol of those days of waiting to see whether all the boys and their coach would survive.
‘Kiviti Adonai, kivtah nafshi, v’lid’varo hochalti’ – ‘I wait for the Eternal One; my soul waits, I put my hope in God’s word…’ (Psalm 130:5). It is this sense of longing for something inexpressible that gives us hope in the world – the hope that the boys’ lives would be saved; the hope that humanity can work together in a united, not a divisive way, to save other lives, other children in parts of the world, hidden from the public eye.
At the end of this week, we know that we have the resources, the capacity and the goodness to work together; we are different nationalities, different faiths, different cultures, we speak different languages, but our faith in One God reminds us that we are one humanity, descended from one common ancestor and united in our deep longing and hope to make the world a place of life, goodness and love.
Thought for the Week
After last weekend’s Liberal Judaism Biennial, with its sessions on the draft liturgy of the new prayer book and explorations of what Liberal Jews believe in (or not), I came home and looked on my shelves for a book I haven’t read for several decades. It is called ‘Mister God This is Anna’ and is written by someone who called himself ‘Fynn’. Published in 1976, it is both narrative and philosophy, telling the story of how the teenage Fynn encounters four year old Anna, a runaway from an abusive home, somewhere in the pre-war East End of London. In an age without child protection policies, he takes her home where she is embraced by his mother and becomes part of his family until her tragic death at the age of eight.
The philosophy is embedded in the dialogue between this diminutive child and her rescuer. Anna’s relationship with God is a deeply personal one:
‘Most people I knew used God as an excuse for their failure. ‘He should have done this’, or ‘Why has God done this to me?’, but with Mum and Anna difficulties and adversities were merely occasions for doing something. Ugliness was the chance to make beautiful. Sadness was the chance to make glad. Mister God was always available to them. A stranger would have been excused for believing that Mister God lived with us, but then Mum and Anna believed he did. Very rarely did any conversation exclude Mister God in some way or other.’
Anna is Fynn’s ‘vehicle,’ if one can so describe her, to express the inexpressible. We are a little like ‘Mister God’, says Anna, but God isn’t like us. The definitions of God, the words that we often use to describe God like ‘Goodness, Mercy, Love and Justice’ are refined; God lies beyond what you and I can express and see. ‘You see,’ she tells Fynn, ‘everybody has got a point of view, but Mister God hasn’t. Mister God has only points to view.’ Fynn is stumped for words: ‘It seemed to me that she had taken the whole of God outside the limitation of time and placed him firmly in the realm of eternity.’
If God is everywhere with his infinite number of viewing points, says Anna, he is also different because he ‘can know things and people from the inside too. We only know them from the outside, don’t we?’ she asks Flynn. ‘So you see, Fynn, people can’t talk about Mister God from the outside; you can only talk about Mister God from the inside of him.’
There is no piety in this child, only a kind of vulnerable, short-lived innocence that is able to perceive the limitations of humanity. It is sad about people, she muses; people ought to become wiser when they grow older, but they don’t. Their questions only fit the size of the box – the answers are the same size as the box. ‘You ask a question in two dimensions, then the answer is in two dimensions too. It’s like a box. You can’t get out.’
What she means by this is that we limit God; we are unable to let God simply be. ‘We put Mister God into little boxes…. Because we don’t really love him. We got to let Mister God be free. That’s what love is.’
Anna looks for evidence of her God in all the signs and wonders of the world, not simply from her own viewpoint, but from every other individual’s point of view – whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, whether a scientist or rationalist – to Anna, our different voices and the different names and sounds and symbols we give to God, are the same to ‘Mister God.’ ‘We’re all playing the same chord to Mister God but with different names.’ Even the ‘chord of atheism might be a discord but then discords were in Anna’s estimation ‘thrilly’, but definitely ‘thrilly.’’
Liberal Judaism today is struggling with this inclusiveness. We have pushed the boundaries to ensure that all can find a home in our movement, but at the same time, I wonder if we have lost our way theologically? Where is the personal God; where is the idea of a moral God who drives the individual towards doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God?
We do not need to become mystics, seeking a communion with a transcendent mysterious presence, but we do need to hold on to the idea of ethical monotheism. Should this be our theological limit? If what is important in our limited human lives are the encounters we have with each other and the imperative to listen and understand human needs, to bring goodness and compassion into the hostile environment of our world, do we not need, therefore, to go beyond ourselves, to go to the deepest part of ourselves and feel driven and nudged by something more personal, more intimate, more present to us? And can we not give that presence a name, our own Jewish name of Yod Heh Vav Heh, the Source of all Existence?
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
From Sunday onwards and for the following three weeks, my orthodox neighbours will be refraining from haircuts, listening to music and dancing, celebrating weddings and playing instruments for fun. The reason is a minor fast day in the Jewish calendar known simply by its date, the Seventeenth of Tammuz, or Shiva Asar b’Tammuz in Hebrew.
The Mishnah in tractate Ta’anit 4:6 lists five calamitous events that took place on the 17 Tammuz: the tablets of the law were broken by Moses on account of the golden calf; the daily sacrifice ceased as Jerusalem was sacked; Apostomus, a Greek general in the time of the Maccabees, set fire to a Torah scroll and the Romans placed an idol in the Temple.
This was but a prelude to five further catastrophic events that took place on the 9 Av, three weeks later in the Hebrew calendar, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples – and hence two fast days and a three week period in between, restricting joyous occasions and diminishing pleasures.
Actually, the 17 Tammuz occurs on Shabbat this year, but the custom is to postpone the fast to Sunday as mourning restrictions are always lifted in honour of Shabbat.
Liberal Judaism has held on to Tisha B’Av, recognising the significance of a date that became the focus for major tragedies throughout Jewish history – not only the destruction of the Temples, but the expulsion of the Jews from England and Spain, pogroms and massacres against Jews in Poland and Eastern Europe and as an opportunity, along with Yom Ha-Shoah, to commemorate those who died in the Shoah.
But the 17 Tammuz has disappeared completely from our calendar, so too the Three Weeks – a dark period in the cycle of our Jewish year. And as I bask in these warm and sunny days at the end of June and watch the blue-tits and thrushes, the jays and robins in the garden, constantly on the move, busy finding food, flying from one feeder to another, I find my spirits lifting; how does one connect to the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem two and a half thousand years ago and the continued observance of these two fasts of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av?
After the Six Day War, when Jerusalem was recaptured, there were those who abandoned these fasts – political exile had come to an end with the founding of the State, they said, and the fact that Jews could now worship at the Western Wall had turned their mourning into rejoicing. But for others, redemption was not a political event – the return of our people to our homeland, but metaphysical. In the words of our Marriage Service, we live in a world as yet unredeemed, ‘where joys and sorrows are commingled.’
These two fasts, particularly Tisha B’Av which begins on Saturday night 21 July with a service at 8.30 pm at the LJS, remind us forcibly of our obligations to each other. In the days when our people were confined to the ghetto and persecuted simply for the faith they had held on to for millennia, these fasts paradoxically gave us hope for better times – that out of destruction would come rebirth, as it did in each generation. Return to Zion after the Babylonian exile, the flourishing of Jewish life in the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple, the persistent resurgence of Jewish life throughout the Middle Ages in spite of expulsions and massacres, and the founding of the State of Israel and renaissance of Jewish life after the Shoah. These ‘resurrections’ of our people do not detract from the tragedies that preceded them, but they testify to something mysterious and enduring about our people and faith.
And so, these days should remain a focus in our thinking about the unredeemed elements of our world – three weeks in our own spiritual cycle to ask ourselves, what can we do to lessen prejudice, to counter hatred, to turn the tide in the affairs of the world against cruelty, dehumanisation and shameful words and actions from leaders who have lost their moral compass in the world?
It is easy in these summer months of relaxation and holidaying to lose sight of that moral compass that has always been the driving force of our people. If we are to be a ‘light to the nations’, then our role is to motivate ourselves and others to protest against hatred and bigotry and to vote only for integrity and honesty. Only then can we hope for the equality of all human beings and that dignity and respect can be restored as the foundation stones of the world we are building for future generations.
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
It is in this week’s parashah, Chukkat that Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, dies and in the aftermath of her death, the Israelites are without water. Yet again, they quarrel with Moses, resenting his leadership: ‘Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink?’ (Numbers 20:5)
God tells Moses to ‘order the rock to yield its water’, but in his frustration, and perhaps also his grief at the loss of his sister, he abuses the people: ‘Listen, you rebels…’ Then forgets that it is not his hand that will get water out of the rock, but God’s: ‘Shall we get water for you out of this rock?’ And instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it, not once, but twice with his staff. His punishment is death on the eastern bank of the Jordan, he will never set foot in the Promised Land.
The punishment is a harsh one and although Moses says nothing here in response to God, in Deuteronomy, as Moses recounts this episode to the people, he confesses that he pleaded with God at that time to let him cross over and see the ‘good land on the other side of the Jordan’. God remains angry and refuses to relent. Moses can see the land from the summit of Mount Pisgah, but will not be allowed to enter.
Many have debated the severity of the punishment. Hasn’t Moses been a good enough leader? Hasn’t he borne the quarrels and insurrections of the people for forty years? Has he not calmed and saved the face of an angry God who would have destroyed the people had it not been for Moses’ intercessions?
Why such an unfair punishment?
That is the question a friend asked me this week, but it was more personal: ‘Why am I being punished by God in this way?’ she asked me. ‘Why am I afflicted with a mental illness and cancer, preventing me from leading a normal life like my friends with jobs or who are having babies? Having just learnt that the cancer had spread further, she felt that God, in her eyes, must be a punitive God. ‘I must have done so many bad things in my life,’ she said.
How was I to respond to her? This was not the first time this conversation had taken place. If I said that I don’t see God as being so punitive, but rather as One who accompanies us on these painful journeys, to whom we can pray for strength and courage, how would that help her? In her eyes, God is all-powerful, the God of the Hebrew Bible, who performs miracles, but also metes out punishment for those who fail to live righteously.
We may be able to live with a God who gives us freewill – ‘Everything is foreseen, yet freewill is given,’ but can we believe in a God who is limited by the laws of nature and human moral freedom? A God who is not responsible for disease or accidents or natural disasters.
I am convinced that my friend does not suffer because she is a bad person. And yet, as she would argue, her not yet forty years have been years of trials because of her illnesses – chemotherapy and radiotherapy as well as surgery for her cancer; treatment for her bipolar disorder, the uncertainty of mood cycles that make her feel so unhappy.
Where did she learn that God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous? How can she think, in our own age, with six million dead in the Shoah, one and a half million of them children, that somehow her suffering is a punishment for deeds committed long ago?
I am silent. I cannot respond to this theology with another kind of theology. It won’t do. I needed perhaps to say to her that that what she has suffered is dreadfully unfair, that she suffers too much, that she is a good person, who employs her considerable writing skills in posting a blog every single day, drawing together a community of her readers who think of her and join her in the ups and downs of her journey.
God does not pick on individuals because He needs them more than anyone else; God does not single us out for suffering because He loves us more than someone else or has His special reasons for hurting us. And I don’t believe that God is somehow passively watching what is happening to humanity, uncaring, detached from us all.
I cannot tell her that God is with us, in our suffering, accompanying us, by our side, weeping with us, because that simply doesn’t hold water for her. She seems to need to believe in a punishing God who rewards and chastises. But later on, her daily blog pops into my inbox: ‘My Rabbi visits. It’s lovely to see her and to gain some spiritual succour. She encourages me to believe in a less punitive G-d when I ask “why has G-d chosen me for such cruel, unusual and severe suffering?”’
Life is unfair – particularly unfair in my friend’s case. Perhaps there is some miracle in that she hasn’t rejected God; she hasn’t said – because of my suffering I no longer believe in God. Perhaps this is her way of articulating despair and the exhaustion of fighting against her illnesses and yet, even as she does this, her writing and her daily regimen of exercise, transcending her physical and mental states, are inspiring – it is in her writing that she makes her readers smile, uplifting their hearts, speaking without a trace of self-pity. And perhaps her belief in this God who chastises is a way of allowing a belief that there is some order in her own uncertain world.
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
We are in the place where Avram moved his tent to settle by the oaks of Mamre and built an altar to God; the place where Sarah died and was buried and Jacob lived with his large family; the ancient seat of rulers, where David was anointed king over the tribes of Israel – Hebron.
The second largest city in the West Bank, Hebron or Al Khalil, in Arabic, is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians and around 800 Jews who are concentrated around the old quarter. Our guide is Eliyahu McLean, from Abraham Tours, who introduces himself as a Hasidic Jew, descended from a long line of Scottish pastors on his father’s side and a Jewish American mother. Born in California and raised in Hawaii, he is the founder of the Jerusalem Peacemakers. Here is how he describes his vision:
“I try to hold the whole picture, and that includes the experience of the hilltop
youth and the right-wing settlers, and the experience of the disenfranchised
refugee and the Palestinian who supports Hamas. That seems like an almost
impossible place to be politically– where does that leave you? But I think that’s
where my spiritual roots come in, to somehow be able to hold all of that and
then to organize meetings, events, projects that somehow connect to that.”
He leaves us with Mohammed, the young, highly articulate son of a Palestinian shopkeeper, whose wares spill out on to the now deserted street that runs from west to east in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The Herodian walls which surround the Cave of Machpelah, the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs, is reached by a set of wide stone steps. Mohammed takes us up into one half of the building, now a mosque where Isaac and Rebekah’s tomb rest in the centre; later on Eliyahu will lead us into the Jewish part of the Cave and we will see again how Abraham and Sarah’s tombs are divided – one half in the mosque, the other half in the synagogue.
From the mosque, Mohammed takes us through the market and into downtown Hebron – the administration of the city is confusing – the Hebron Protocol of 1997 divided the city into two sectors: H1 controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city administered by Israel. Through the narrow streets of the market, there are shops on either side and we stop in front a stall of souvenirs to meet the owner; Mohammed invites him to explain what it is like to live and work in this place. The street is covered with chicken wire and in some places rusted corrugated iron, because above the buildings on one side of the street, explains the shopkeeper, is a house that has been taken over by Israeli settlers who throw their rubbish out of the windows and allegedly harass the stall owners by pouring sewage and other trash into the street below. Later, on this dual narrative tour, Eliyahu will tell us that it is true that Israeli settlers harassed the Palestinians below and took over another house, forcing a Palestinian family to leave, but that the rubbish is old and the settlers have now left.
Downtown Hebron is chaotic, cars tearing their way through a busy main street, hooting those in their way, children begging for money, women and men doing their shopping to prepare meals for the breaking of the fast at the end of the day – we are a week away from the end of Ramadan.
Lunch is at the home of Mohammed, where he lives with his parents, wife and little daughters. Their hospitality is generous – huge plates of chicken and rice, hummus and warm pitta bread. The women make themselves scarce and we seek them out to thank them; they are quiet and modest, leaving the talking to their men-folk, but I feel grateful to have been welcomed into this Palestinian home, to have shared food with our group and listened to the Palestinian side of this narrative.
We are handed back to Eliyahu who leads us through the part of Hebron that is administered by Israel – up a narrow street and steps that lead to the tombs of Ruth and Jesse, a small synagogue where one man is praying and another larger place of study and prayer. An Israeli soldier stands guard over the shrine.
We enter the other half of the Cave of Machpelah, now a synagogue. It is strange to see these shrines inside a synagogue – cemeteries and tombs are places of tum’ah – impurity, they should not be places of worship, but the politics of this place is fiercely competitive and I am reminded of the mosaic at Hamat Teveriya – an ancient synagogue by the Kinneret – with a representation of Helios, the sun-god in front of the place where the Ark would have been – a Jewish re-interpretation of Greek and early Christian art that perhaps is an expression of the bitter rivalry that existed between the early Christians and Jews living in the Galilee.
Our final visit is to a museum in the Jewish Quarter of Hebron, Beit Hadassah. There are graphic photographs of survivors of the 1929 Hebron Massacre, when 67 Jews were murdered by Arabs and scores horribly mutilated. Tzippi Schlissel manages the museum and tells us that her grandmother was rescued by an Arab family during the pogrom. So why is it, we ask, Palestinians and Jews are unable to trust each other in this place; why not seek out your neighbours to speak to them, to work with them and live beside them. And then, unassuming, quietly, she tells us that her father was stabbed and killed by a Palestinian in 1998 and that afterwards she came to Hebron to live with her mother. ‘I have a psychological barrier still,’ she says. I cannot trust, you do not know what will happen.’ And we are silenced. ‘My mother,’ she adds, ‘was the grand-daughter of Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine.’
And I wonder what Rav Kook would have made of the religious nationalism today that makes this conflict so intractable on both sides. ‘Nationalist movements are temporary phenomena,’ he wrote, ‘which are due to be transcended as humanity responds to the more universal claims of human nature…Those who think that the new nationalist movement can supersede our concern with holiness are in grievous error.’ Only in the ‘dimension of holiness’ can we find ‘the source of abiding life.’
Can one find hope even here in Hebron where the memories of pogroms, stabbings and shootings are still so raw? The tragic irony of this city lies in its name: Al-Khalil in Arabic, Hebron in Hebrew, both words coming from Semitic roots that have something to do with ‘joining together’, ‘being bound together,’ ‘friend’ – a reference to Abraham in the Q’uran, who is described as Khalil al-Rahman – ‘Friend of God,’ echoing Isaiah’s Avraham ohavi – Abraham, My beloved’ or ‘My friend’.
Certainly, there are friendships across the divide, encounters and conversations. Surely the partnership between Mohammed and Eliyahu is one such conversation, where a little bit of distrust and prejudice is dissipated in the quest for peace. We came across many other examples of individuals in organisations working hard to close the wounds and allow healing to take place. And we were heartened, in spite of everything we read and uplifted by the courage of women and men seeking to build dialogue and understanding.
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
Thought for the Week
Dear Members and Friends,
I am enjoying working with one of our members towards her adult Bat Mitzvah later on this year and, last week, in discussing the Torah portion (B’Ha’a lot’kha), she commented on ‘Moses’ epic meltdown’, when he rails at the burden of ‘carrying’ the Israelite people. Well, in this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’kha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) it is God’s turn to have an epic meltdown.
At the beginning of the parashah, Moses sends twelve Israelites, one from each tribe, to spy out the land of Canaan. When they report back, on their return, ten of the spies tell of a beautiful and bountiful land, but with fortified cities and terrifying inhabitants, too powerful to take on in battle, and the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, assure the people that these inhabitants can be defeated.
The Israelites believe the ten spies, rather than the two, and rail against Moses and Aaron, demanding to return to Egypt. Joshua and Caleb are almost attacked with stones, when they try to reason with the people.
Everyone seems to have come to the end of their respective tethers in this section of the Torah. Moses, as I mentioned, despaired of leading this fractious, complaining people any further. The Israelites themselves go through a cycle of despairing of their situation, moaning and grumbling about the food, the water, Moses, Aaron and God, who has led them towards Canaan only for them ‘to fall by the sword’ (14:3).
God has finally had enough of the people’s lack of faith, and threatens to destroy them and start over with Moses, from whom God would make a far more numerous nation. Moses talks God down, saying that, if he destroys the people, the other nations will believe that God is powerless to fulfil the divine promise to the Israelites, to bring them to the land of Canaan. Moses then goes on to appeal to God’s attribute of mercy, reminding God of God’s own patience, forbearance and compassion, and finally pleading, in words familiar from our Yom Kippur service: s’lach na la-avon ha-am ha-zeh k’godel chas’dekha, ‘forgive, please, the iniquity of this people, according to Your great kindness’, to which God responds, salachti kid’varekha, ‘I have forgiven, according to your word’.
It’s a remarkably powerful text, and theologically quite challenging. Like Abraham, in Genesis chapter 18, trying to persuade God not to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and wipe out the innocent together with the guilty, Moses, to borrow a well-known phrase, ‘speaks truth to power’. ‘Shall the Judge of all the world not act justly?’ cries Abraham (Gen.18:25). Moses appeals to God’s vanity, and compassion, in persuading God against such a drastic course of action. God is at His most human in this passage.
This is part of what makes it, I think, the story of us all. We all have our limits. We all complain, argue, moan about our situation, from time to time. But then we pick ourselves up and move forward. Maureen Kendler, the pioneering and inspirational Jewish educator, who died earlier this year, wrote that ‘This is family. Total strangers do not complain about each other and argue as Israel and God do. God is their personal God still even though He is a volcanic, punitive God who destroys thousands in the book of B’midbar[Numbers]. Shelach Lekha marks a low point in our family history, but like families have to do, we patch it up, move on… together.’
Overcoming adversity is not easy, but the alternative is worse. We are continually facing challenges, on a daily basis – some more extreme than others – and our capability to conquer them needs willpower and strength of mind. In the last few weeks, there have been reminders of recent terrorist acts in Manchester and London, and the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry is in progress. These have reminded us that it is possible to recover from adversity and move forward, hard though it may be.
Rabbi Rachel Benjamin
Dear Members and Friends,
It is Monday afternoon and I am outside the North Kensington Library on Ladbroke Grove. A sizeable crowd of people of all ages are spilling into the road from the pavement, waiting to join a silent walk to Bramley Road, near to the burnt out shell of Grenfell Tower. Some stand with placards – ‘Justice for Grenfell’, others hold up photographs of missing residents – many of them children and their families.
Under the burning sun, the crowd swells – a few young men are jostling the organiser, Ishmahil, who is finding it difficult to maintain his calm. There is shouting, tempers are frayed, but eventually we begin walking slowly, silently, up Ladbroke Grove and then left into Cambridge Gardens.
I find myself, walking next to Ahmed. He is telling the story of his last conversation with his sister-in-law, trapped on the twenty-first floor of Grenfell Tower in her flat, with her husband and three children. ‘We have been told to stay in our flat,’ she tells Ahmed. These were the last words he heard from her. He still hopes that the family will be found alive.
The walk continues – everyone silent – down the leafy streets of North Kensington, pausing every few moments, as though we are making that solemn walk from the Ohel to the grave in a Jewish cemetery, to offer up prayers for the souls of the departed. And then, as we leave the spacious Victorian villas behind us, we are in Bramley Road, the traffic thundering over Westway that cuts through this residential neighbourhood. Beneath the concrete flyover and outside the community centre there are burnt out candles and hundreds of photographs pinned to walls and railings, flowers withered in the afternoon sun. ‘Missing’; ‘Have you seen Fawzia?’ or ‘Jessica’? Or the scores of others missing since the fire last week.
And nothing prepares me as I raise my eyes to a peerless blue sky, to see the terrible and shocking black shell of the tower, as though transplanted from hell’s own landscape. We stand transfixed on the pavement below – a man next to his bicycle, a woman standing on the balcony of a block of low-rise brick apartments, her head turned upwards to gaze on its unsightly and menacing frame. Next to me, a group of three young girls clap their hands to their mouths, their eyes wide open in incredulous astonishment. There are no words to describe this blind, burnt, blackened, towering box – its empty, glass-less windows a shocking indictment of negligence, of all that is morally ugly in our society.
It is enough. If we are tired, exhausted by the news – yet another atrocity outside Finsbury Park Mosque that night after my visit to the Tower – what of the victims and their families? What of the police and fire service, what of the hospital staff triaging those who most urgently need care and attention? What of those who must tell families – your loved one is missing; we cannot locate them, knowing in all certainty that what ‘missing’ means is something else altogether?
These days are frightening for all of us. They make us anxious and fearful – and that anxiety spills into our own families, into our own lives, for we cannot seal ourselves from the vulnerability of being an ordinary citizen crossing a bridge, walking along a pavement, of living in a high rise block of flats.
It was Ahmed – the man whose sister-in-law and family had been lost in the fire – who taught me the need for companionship and connection in the midst of tragedy. We stood as old friends, although I had met him just five minutes before. He introduced me to a Palestinian lawyer; he wanted me – a Jew and a Rabbi to connect with his friend. He wanted to reach out, to be reassured and to know there were friends, those who would accompany him on this walk and help him deal with the terrible aftermath of violent and tragic death.
I know our community tries to be that locus for companionship and connection. We need each other more than ever – to allay our fears and to find again some kind of faith in each other, in ourselves and in a compassionate God who weeps with all those who suffer.